Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Happy Endings for Homosexuals Club

More than any other single person, Jill Johnston inspired me to come out.

It was early 1971, and I was twenty, in the throes of my latest crush on a conflicted straight boy. I had heard about the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, but they were in New York City a thousand miles away, and I don't recall paying enough attention to the developments in the gay movement that ensued. I do remember some articles on Gay Liberation in The Seed, a Chicago underground newspaper I bought in a South Bend newsstand / head shop. That was also where I sometimes bought the Village Voice, though I mostly read it at the library. (Public libraries were the Internet of those days: a place where you could get information from all over the world. Compared to the net these days, even the best library was limited, but compared to the rural area where I grew up, even a small public library was an exciting portal to the world.)

I remember reading the March 4, 1971 issue of the Voice at IU-South Bend, either in the library or in the snack bar. The title "Lois Lane Is a Lesbian" jumped out at me, and I started reading the article. Of course I'd read other things about being gay, but nothing like this. I had no idea who Jill Johnston was, and I hadn't read the earlier article by the Voice's heterosexual film critic Andrew Sarris that she was replying to. I'd never read anyone who wrote the sort of things she'd written.
Now I suggest you go up to a black person and say White People Have Problems Too and see what kind of response you get. I'm going on record here to notify every heterosexual male and female that every lesbian and every homosexual is all too aware of the problems of heterosexuals since they permeate every aspect of our social political economic and cultural lives. That we were in fact educated on these problems. That we were brought up and spoon fed or pitch forked on the crucible of the problems of thousands of Romeos and Juliets radiating outward from all our sublimely miserable and broken families into the movies and the funnies and the histories and the psychologies and the novels and our great Western classics. ... I think all of us are authorities on the heterosexual problem. Knowledge on the subject is instantly available, in case you've missed out, in every daily newspaper with their front page accounts of the Wars. We are bored with the news from the heterosexual fronts. We want to hear from the lesbians and the homosexuals now. I want homosexual movies and novels and funnies and histories and songs and classics. Even problem stories. Certainly the songs. Let all those gay rock artists come out from behind their phony lyrics. But the movies! The big medium. I don't expect the next batch of gay ones to show us nothing but the doomed clandestine affair of Therese and Isabelle in boarding school, and the wrecked life of Sister George whose girlfriend leaves her for a great white witch of the west whose cold clawing sexual advances constitute the only sexual revelation in the film ... This film critic a few months ago wrote in the context of some review that "although I don't belong to the happy-endings-for-homosexuals club ..." which made me ask him when I saw him "why don't you belong to the happy-endings-for-homosexuals club?" Exactly. Can you imagine me saying, in any context, "although I don't belong to the happy-endings-for-heterosexuals club"? ...

Just a year ago I permitted Rosalyn Drexler at a small dinner party to convince me I'd been a dope for revealing myself at an artists' colony where I'd been I was not being self protective as Rosalyn pointed out "Oh Jill, can't you keep a secret" and I was not yet able to reply immediately "Do you keep your marriage to Sherman a secret?"
As I look at what I've typed here I see how much of what Johnston wrote has stayed with me, ventriloquized itself through me as a speaker and a writer about gay and lesbian issues. Those who've read much of this blog, for example, may recognize Johnston's ideas from things I've written. Of course it's also because the attitudes she railed against remained potent in heterosexual culture, and remain so to this day; it's still necessary to talk back to them, and Johnston's answers still work for me.

Anyway, not long after I read this article I read a notice in the Chicago Seed of the Chicago Gay Alliance's monthly meetings in their community center on West Addison. I took a couple of vacation days in April, and drove to Chicago -- the first time I'd ever gone there on my own, instead of with my family or on a school trip. I remember it being a clear, sunny, hot day. I found the CGA building, then explored Old Town, and killed time until the meeting. I sat toward the back of a half-finished room upstairs and watched and listened, and after the meeting ended I paid $5 for a membership. (I liked the idea of being a card-carrying homosexual.) I didn't talk much to anyone, being too overwhelmed by the experience of being in a room full of other people like me, though I wasn't sure how much like me they were. An hour later I was on the road back to South Bend, my head buzzing with excitement and confusion. I didn't go back to Chicago for several years; the following fall I moved to Bloomington and got involved in the gay community here.

Alison Bechdel has a new post on her blog which mentions that Jill Johnston died on September 18th at the age of 81. I hadn't known she was that old, thought she was maybe ten years my senior rather than twenty, almost as old as my mother in fact. She wrote many books after she inspired me to come out; I guess I need to read some of them.