Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Flamboyance: A Love Story

As you may or may not know, I grew up in San Francisco, perhaps the gayest place on Earth. When I was younger, it didn't make that much sense to me to feel pride and a connection to where you came from; after all, it wasn't any accomplishment of mine. But as I got older and lived in different places, I realized how much San Francisco has shaped who I am (and how the food is like a zillion times better than almost anywhere else), how valuable it is for me to have this connection, and how lucky I am to have lived here.

Of course, there are many aspects of the city I could opine about- the sudden views of the ocean or the bay when driving down a hill, the micro-climates, the patchworky Victorian houses, the completely unique look and feel of each neighborhood, the tacos...(see me and Simone's rarely updated other blog, Little San Francisco, for more!) but I think my favorite part of San Francisco is its history of flamboyance and weirdness and weirdo outsiders expressing that flamboyance in a unique and showy way.

In the 1800's, San Francisco was an outpost of the wild west and lawless Barbary Coast. More cosmopolitan than the typical West saloon town, it was inhabited by weirdos from an early start. Madames rose to prominence, often becoming important figures in politics and society and affecting change. Society as established in other places was not set in stone in San Francisco yet, and as a result women and other marginalized people often took on roles they wouldn't have been allowed to take in other places.*

But what I'm really talking about is San Franciso's history of flamboyance as agitation- particularly in gay culture, and my memories of the Castro from when I was a kid, before there was even a Diesel or a Pottery Barn there. Seeing leather daddies and drag queens and other flamboyant people walk proudly across the street, and the acceptance that comes with it, never has failed to warm my heart. The drag queens and drag queen shows, the flashy and gay but serious political activists like The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and so many others have impressed upon me that there is value in glamour, especially when you are subverting what everyone thinks is glamorous.

Looking back on it, I have always connected to this idea. I went to a large, public, magnet high school, and aside from my weirdo friends, it was a sea of Gap flares and gray oversized sweatshirts and grade-obsession. For instance, in a school of 2,600, in San Francisco, I knew virtually nobody who was "out" and/or even went to GSA besides my weirdo friends, who did things like perform choreographed dances in drag/dinosaur costumes (it's charming when you're 16!) to "Electric Barbarella" at school events even though the other acts were acapella versions of Backstreet Boys songs performed by students wearing all baggy white clothes from Aeropostale. Naturally, I totally hated everyone and everything, except for glam rock, the subject of many a fevered adolescent dream.

Before my senior year, my friend Emily and I made a pact- a Dress Crazy Pact, to dress crazy every day we could. And I spent the next year with hair dyed pink, blue, purple, etc., wearing clothing I often felt was glam rock- tons of rhinestones, tons of hot pink, big earrings, poofy skirts, torn 50's dresses, striped tights with ripped fishnets over them. (Looking back on it, I think, 'Why didn't I get a sequined 70's jumpsuit and paint my face or something cool like that?' But, you know, it was still practically the 90's, and I thought that holographic Tripp NYC vinyl mini skirt was so Iggy Pop.)

Looking back on it, I was not wandering around, pasting photos of David Bowie to my locker, thinking "The personal is political" or "I am defining myself as 'the other'," but, "Maybe these clothes will blow everyone's minds and make them freak out!" I thought of my clothes as agitation even then, that they were a bright spot in everyone else's Scan-Tron of a day.

Discovering David Bowie, with his intensely weird and glamorous image, was huge for me. Julia commented on my post about space funk by saying how its proponents, as marginalized people, consciously defined themselves as the other- so other they were out of this world, and glam rock did the same thing. David Bowie, who deserves a post of his own, was aggressively queer, aggressively weird, aggressively artsy, but he was never aggressive. While many forms of punk rock and so many other music styles always seem to be rooted in typically masculine aggression, David Bowie copied Lou Reed's bitchy queen persona, or Andy Warhol's glitter-covered Superstars. Even before he was glam rock, he wore a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World and the album was banned. I love the idea of glamorous weirdness as agitation (please see my YA book review post about this too) because so much activism and ways of separating yourself are conventionally aggressive, boring, or drab.

Watching Divine in Pink Flamingos walk down the street in the clip above was shockingly empowering for me as a teen, and now that I'm older it's all coming together, man. You don't have to wear a fair-trade Guatemalan hat and a polar fleece to make a political statement. When I got to college, I co-wrote an essay about the history of camp that really enlightened me- camping it up as a gay was a way to cope, an aggressive rejection of mass culture, and a performance all in one. After all, regular, straight culture was not open to gay people, and it still isn't.

Obviously, I don't want to be co-opting traditional gay male culture (and obviously it encompasses many things and there is no singular gay male culture), and it sucks how, in pop culture, gay men have become this obnoxious, makeover-giving, sassy, one-dimensional presence for straight women to rely on when the real men in their lives don't come through. But I do think, for women, there is a tendency to veer away from such things as flamboyance, and learning how to be flamboyant is important and powerful. I am always going on about how I'm tired of the lankness so popular in pop culture right now, and it's not just because I think it's ugly and love Kelly Bundy. It's because it's so easy to digest, to project oneself upon. I have spent many years feeling like a miniature drag queen compared to the greige indie girls, like I was not the one who boys were interested in, being too opinionated, too lively, and too active (as opposed to passive.)

And as I've written about before, I've always loved the ballsy, brassy, loud, cheap women in pop culture more than the meek, polite, pretty, appropriate ones. Similarly, I've always preferred people who are a little bitchy, mean and sarcastic instead of those who who are more pleasant and docile. It's taken me a while to realize why I like and connect to all this stuff, and in some ways, I'm still figuring it out.

In conclusion, I'm sure I could write a book on this, and apologize for this hastily written and unorganized post. As you can see, I don't go through a whole lot of edits, but if someone wants to pay me to write a book on this, I will do it.


midnight mass

*My brilliant SF public works thing is traditional, huge bronze figures like the statues of generals and presidents, done of drag queens, brothel owners, and other people who have made San Francisco what it is. Better than those meaningless, beyond fug heart statues that were placed allover the city!


Simone said...

Oh, this post made me even more excited about coming home tomorrow!

I feel like I could/should write an essay about how Peaches Christ and Midnight Mass were probably the most important thing that happened to me in high school... And the whole rest of my life has been informed by watching drag queens dance in gold lame mini dresses around a fake volcano on stage at the Bridge theater. I mean, thank god for Peaches Christ! I'm so upset I won't be in SF for the premier of her first feature film!!!!

Also I'm reading this fucking great book called "Turn the Beat Around: the secret history of disco" that you have to read. did you know that the guy who owned Moby Dick's in the 70s also co-owned a campy disco record label also called Moby Dick? AWESOME.

Cannot wait to get back there for a few days!!!

Zoe Roller said...

my mom is always asking me why i'm such a fag hag, and everything you wrote is what i always want to say to her!

one of my earliest memories is sitting on my front steps in the castro when a car full of drag queens in amazing shiny outfits pulled up. i was like "who are you guys?" and the head drag queen said "we're ladies!"

Zoe Roller said...

also, rupaul explains the power and philosophy of drag really well on drag race! seriously, it's the best show on tv

Holly said...

I just found your blog and have been reading through your archives, you are friggin hilarious. Not to mention, exactly my kind of feminist.