At the end of Pride Month, Debbie Harry, Penny Arcade, Barb Morrison, and others weigh in on trauma, growth, activism, 9/11, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
June 28 marks five decades since the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Years of rage erupted into a series of riots demanding equal rights, kicking off the global fight for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) liberation. Pride is a movement based on self-affirmation for the LGBTQ community; it came about to commemorate the Stonewall Riots and overthrow years of guilt and shame caused by discrimination and prejudice, and to “build community, and celebrate sexual diversity and gender variance.”
The first pride parade was in 1970 in New York City. Now, celebrating LGBTQ pride is worldwide.
Watching it brought up a mountain of memories for me. The much-loved extravaganza began late one night in 1984, when drunken drag queen Lady Bunny and her wasted entourage spilled out of a nightclub, then wobbled, lurched and landed in the local park. It was there they staged an impromptu drag show in the bandshell at 3 a.m. Their audience was a group of angry homeless peeps trying to sleep. That one unplanned performance launched a nearly 20-year drag (and drug) bacchanal.
My first Wigstock was in 1987. Had I known about it earlier, I would’ve gone. Since 1980 my modus operandi was to get stinkin’ drunk then hit the East or West Village afterhours clubs until the sun came up.
I have snippets of memories of meeting Hedda Lettuce (nee Steven Polito). I was a boundaryless touchy-feely drunk. He was wearing the cutest Minnie Mouse costume but with a bare chest. I remember coming eye-to-eye… er… eye-to-fringe-pasty. Without even introducing myself, I stuck out my pointer finger and gave that fringe a twirl.
The next day, I woke up at 5 p.m., still drunk, and called a friend.
“Can’t believe what I did this time,” I said, with each word triggering another hammer to my head. “I have to stop drinking. I’m so embarrassed. I twirled a stranger’s pasty.”
“Honey, isn’t that what fringe pasties are for?”
During my laugh she cut me off.
“You’re right about the drinking, though. You’re getting closer to wet brain. Not a pretty look.”
Man, her timing was right on. I’d just been side-swiped with a blow-up. My mild-mannered roommate and long-term bestie grabbed my upper arms with his long-fingered, graceful piano-player hands. He squeezed me so tightly it hurt. An enraged vein popped out near his temple as he shook me and yelled, “I’m not gonna watch you kill yourself anymore. Quit drinking or I’m leaving.”
That’s when I buckled.
He spotted my determination and supported my efforts but each failure led to another until it hit me hard: I could not stop. On a bug-eyed morning after a night of coke, I dialed my cousin and asked for help. I woke up in another state.
The 31 days turned me inside out and ripped off the protective skin but I managed to learn a few things. On the last day, the staff told me I needed a therapeutic community for a year.
“You won’t be able to stay sober because you started too young and New York City is full of temptations,” they said.
It pissed me off, so I went home treating it like a dare. Oh yeah? Watch me.
A Return to Wigstock, Sober
Staying sober out of spite drove me to keep schlepping to therapy and muddling through dark moods without offing myself. It took a year and a half before I would take a chance on being around the lucky bastards who can be high and happy. After dips into socializing I inched toward more outings. Shaky, but better, I ventured back to Wigstock in August of 1999. The riotous, flamboyant, fake hair and sequins up to there were exactly what I needed. That year was a blast and I wasn’t in a blackout so I remembered it.
Lady Bunny felt we needed a lift again so she brought Wigstock out of retirement last year and it was the inspiration for Wig. It reminded me of the impetus for Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro to co-found Tribeca Film Fest right after 9/11, when our grieving city needed a lift.
My favorite segment in Wig is Lady Bunny engaging Debbie Harry in titillating banter at 2018’s Wigstock revival. Then Harry launched into the Blondie hit “Atomic.” The punk powerhouse who blew the ceiling off of rock and roll’s patriarchy doesn’t need any backup, but taut and sexy artist-director Rob Roth dancing beside her dressed in a black bikini with sparkly top and smoky eye makeup added to the hot ambiance.
By happy coincidence, one month after the Wig premiere I found myself seated at a tiny table in a dark corner of Alan Cumming’s Club Cumming sandwiched between Roth on my right and Harry’s manager Manzi on my left. It struck me that here we were in the East Village only blocks from the park where Wigstock began.
We were there for the season finale of “Enclave Reading Series,” a monthly event featuring literati like Pulitzer-prize winner Michael Cunningham along with other established and emerging voices. That night, Debbie Harry was the surprise guest. She snuck in via the club’s dimly-lit entrance then slid into her waiting seat beside Roth. Enclave’s co-founder, co-curator, and emcee Jason Napoli Brooks built up the mystery guest before announcing, “The one and only, Debbie Harry!”
Debbie Harry Remembers 9/11
As the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer headed to the stage, the room burst into cheers. The club’s seductive red lighting and boudoir-ish velvet curtains served as the perfect backdrop. The disco ball always hanging over the piano seemed especially fitting that night. “Club Cumming” shone in red neon hanging above the singer’s head. Next to that was the sign that read, “I ❤️ New York Pride.”
Harry opened by saying she’d planned to read something “a bit more lighthearted” but instead took her manager Manzi’s advice.
“I just hope that all of you that take antidepressants have taken them,” she told the crowd. “And for those of you who don’t, I hope you’ve had a nice drink.”
Harry read about her night at a 2001 Marc Jacobs fashion show.
“There was a big party that he threw down on one of the piers in the West Village and it was wonderful.” She described it as a happening—an event. “And everybody was there.”
After going to bed happy, the next morning her friend called to say “Turn on the news.” Harry gave an eerie account of staring at the towers from her window. She saw smoke and recounted the “surreal feeling” of not knowing what she was seeing on the TV. After that, Harry read a poem about the days that followed.
I’m looking forward to reading Harry’s memoir Face It (HarperCollins), which comes out on October 1. It’s hard to believe she turns 74 in a few days.
During this month of Pride, I’ve been afraid we’re going backwards. Needing a reality check, I tracked down writer, cultural critic, comedian and theatre performer Penny Arcade. Her work exudes empathy and celebrates all of our differences.
We discussed activism in the LGBT community.
“Lady Bunny stands out because she has never relaxed her work standards over the past 30 years. She manages to have real politics in a world that is so much about fitting in,” she said.
She also credited RuPaul for making a strong contribution in the ’80s.
“The LBGT community was founded on having to band together against the illogical hatred of homosexuality,” said Arcade. “But 2019 is a long road from Stonewall to coming out to your mother as she is watching Will and Grace.”
Arcade said it’s just human nature to want to be accepted.
“But the LGBT community is no longer the issue it once was. RuPaul’s Drag Race has created drag contests for heterosexual boys all across America.”
Arcade also expressed what many people seem to be feeling these days.
“We are living in an era of emotional and social isolation that is greater than anything I have experienced in the past 50 years of my social consciousness.”
Inspiration and Responsibility for Pride
Next, I interviewed Harry’s music producer, Barb Morrison (pronoun they/them). They’re proud of 29 years clean.
“One of the things that was so cool about hearing Debbie [Harry] read at Club Cumming was that we got to witness her speaking from a vulnerable place. She took us on an emotional journey with her,” Morrison said.
We moved on to discussing today’s political climate with the emphasis on Pride Month.
“I feel a responsibility to push myself to be even more honest with my work,” said Morrison. “Being on the trans spectrum I also feel a responsibility to help other trans musicians tell their stories.”
They expressed that now it’s more important than ever to be visible and authentic.
“Not only for ourselves,” they said, “but to help others free themselves from stigma and shame. Watching Debbie read that night inspired me to be even more honest, to tell my truth, and to fully step into my own authenticity.”
Like Morrison, Steven Polito (aka Hedda Lettuce) finds deeper meaning in Pride.
“For those of us with traumatic experiences almost anything can be a trigger,” said Polito. “I have to be extra vigilant. Turning my tragedies into triumphs is my gay pride.”
Wig is now showing on HBO.
(Images: the author at Wigstock; Debbie Harry at Club Cumming. Both provided by Dorri Olds, all rights reserved)