Monday, November 2, 2009

Be my diva, sweetheart: 65 and counting

When I was young I wanted to be a gay icon. Maybe it was a plausible fantasy for a yet-to-be-tested bi-sexual. Maybe my heterosexual selfhood believed that offered the likeliest male attention I'd get. Maybe it was something I should have followed through on. The fellow I lived with for five years in my twenties scored (scored, not bought) front-row Bette Midler tickets, knowing I worshipped her. I often felt I should have been born gay and male, a thought that strikes me as silly now that I accept the mutable slinkiness of sexuality and gender.

My parents were not homophobic so I didn't have excessive attitudes about gay men, although my sisters' taunts about being a lesbian terrified me. Judee Sill, later one of the shining lights of music and a lesbian, was one of my sister's friends, someone I knew when I was nine-years-old, so even there, contact had been made. When things got beyond ugly at home (the divorce) (I was about eighteen), I was shipped up to San Francisco, where I had a sort of Margaret Cho experience.

Unlike Cho, whose parents managed a bookstore in S.F.'s Tenderloin, and who lived among the loving (or not), brave (or not) and sometimes self-hating flamboyance of gay San Francisco in the seventies, my dear friends were, um, cultured.

I stayed with Alois, who still owns a house in the Haight. He was German (Catholic), had been a gay boy in Hitler's Germany. I'm still not sure of the details, but he was escaped from a Russian prisoner-of-war camp in Yugoslavia when he was thirteen; he wasn't there because he was gay. Boys were being shot as he escaped. After the war, his uncle told him to get out of Germany, and he ended up in San Francisco where he opened a coffee house of the real food, real conversation sort only possible in the late fifites and early sixties.

It was the Coffee Cantata, named after Bach's cheery musical number. Alois gave me a bed in his apartment (he rented out the first floor of the house), fed me incredible and very European whole foods, and resounding music (my father's classical tropes didn't include the great church music).

Alois had sold the Coffee Cantata by the time I lived there - its new crass owners moved it to Union, made it the coffee house equivalent of a fern bar - but Alois was Alois. Cultured, brilliant with languages, European for crissakes - and gay. One of the household's many running jokes was "he invented it." "Leonard Bernstein? Sarah, he's so gay he invented it." And so on.

If Michale Montlack, editor of the newly released My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, were to ask Alois who his diva was, Alois might consider Elly Ameling, a pure soprano who interpreted leider purely though not exclusively. Or, hey, he might choose Suzy Ormand, the financial dyke wizard. (Who knows.) My intention is to suggest my sense of diva as a gay term, yes, and also as an accessible example of female power and vulnerability.

Who would I choose? Are Emily Dickinson or Helen Keller - two heroes - divable (diva-able?)? Laura Nyro is. Agnes Martin? Emily Carr? Dorothy Day (pictured)? Certainly Judee Sill. Unfortunate though her statements about Palestineans were, Golda Meir is a woman I find stunning. Among the divas in the My Diva anthology are Helen Reddy, Joan of Arc, Julia Child, Princess Leia, Liza, Grace Paley.

It's a nice, okay, poignant feeling, to sit here and think about women I admire, to consider who is a heroine, who is an icon (a word my friend, poet Patricia Spears Jones, wants retired), and who is a straight-ahead "diva." It's heart-expanding to think about women men admire. I want more women admired. I want more.


  1. Love this article. What an enjoyable read!

  2. I completely want women admired and hired.
    I sit there at the end of movies, trying to figure out how many (as in how few) women were hired ... the number is higher when you get to catering. Alas.
    I think, given my age and particular family life, I was raised to think like a man even though it was excruciatingly apparent that I wouldn't have those opportunities. Being a man was the power position, which is, of course, what you're saying.
    I think I'd like to come back as a straight man, but with my luck, I'd probably be a worm. But then, I could be cut in small pieces and regenerate.

  3. Flor: Thank you so much. Your comment offered instant gratification, something I almost never get.

    Melissa: You too, thank you. I don't know that I am "really saying" that being a man "was the power position," although it is true in various ways. Why anyone would WANT to be a straight male is beyond me; as many wonderful straight males as I have known, it's such a confined way of life.

  4. Sarah, you are right, of course, about a confined way of life. I think I'm still plagued by the idea of how much easier it would have been to be a man...that's undoubtedly my age, enough older to have been confined by stereotypes, literally as well as figuratively... I think you've had much more openness ....and I've viewed that in students, like an outsider...

  5. A few of my divas: Garcia Lorca, Billy Holiday off dope, Maria Callas. A gay man might choose these, right?

  6. PS: Bella Abzug! How could I forget the beloved big mouth?