So the other day, I saw this picture on Facebook, and noticed many drag queens I know tagged in it. Sure, we’ve all been there before. Whatever.
Not whatever. That night, from a couple of months ago, from however long ago — at this point, I can’t remember — was one of the more impressive nights I saw a drag performance. Violencia Exclamation Point, there on the far left, hosts a weekly show at the only gay club in town, the Club 313. And there, right there, in that picture is Anthony Privitera a.k.a. Local Honey, the one wearing the surgical glove.
When I first walked into the club, I noticed Local Honey sitting in her seat. She obviously just got back from the crack alley, or at least, she had that meth stare. I thought to myself, “What is this?” Is this meth-head, emaciated, scar-and-stitches made-up man-woman with ripped leggings over hairy legs, and a poor excuse of a bra over a full chest of hair doing a drag number tonight? What is this? At least he wore a nice wig and high heels. And a dress made of blue, transparent, plastic balls stringed together.
Only to be engrossed and amazed at what I was watching. I wish I could remember the song, but it was an incredible performance. Incredible. Local Honey broke down on that sad excuse of a “stage” Club 313 has to offer. I saw this meth-drag(ged)-down-in-the-gutter-looking man-woman fall apart on stage. Makeup smeared. Eye liner a mess. He had a desperation, sadness in his eyes while beating his hand on the wall mirror, lying his head against it. Taking off his wig and falling to his knees, only to have his entire dress fall apart, breaking into its pieces; hundreds of blue balls falling, bouncing, and scattering away from this broken person. It was incredible. I kept one of the blue balls as a memento. See.
I’ve been telling this story for a while now, not knowing that this performer’s name was either Local Honey or Anthony Privitera. But when I saw that picture on Facebook, I yelled, alone in the room by myself, pointing at the screen, “That’s him!” I went to his Facebook page to see what other photos and archives of other performances he has done — I facebook-stalked. Whatever. Scroll, scroll, scroll, only to discover him in a couple of these damn cool photos. He’s the guy wearing the light brown shirt with the green dots.
So these photos I found on Facebook, where were they taken? At a dance club called “Stay Gold” in San Francisco, a club that encourages lots of PDA, and is the “gayest, sparkliest, dirtiest dance part east of the Castro,” or so says the queerist. I skimmed through a bunch of Stay Gold’s albums on Facebook, taken by the artist Hannah Cairns. I immediately felt a sort of nostalgic, historic, iconic, yet “this is our time” kind of feel to these photographs. I have to admit most of the work is pretty average, but a few beautifully exuded a memory of parties past; they captured the spirit of seedy, ecstatsy-laden (both drug and feeling), human kettle-pot that is the history of partying.
Because there is a history of partying, most of it underground, and one that closely parallels a history of criminals and gangsters in US history. Even as early as the mid-1800′s, criminals and thieves ran concert saloons, the US equivalent to English music halls, but underground, seedier, and interracial mingling; hipsters of the day would have gone. Thaddeus Russell, author of “A Renegade History of the United States“ writes
From the colonial period through the early 20th century, the less “respectable” a saloon, brothel, or dance hall was, the more likely it was to allow the mixing of races. This was especially true of establishments owned by criminals.
In the mid-19th century, places called “concert saloons” gained popularity in cities across the U.S. Concert saloons — which by the end of the century were among the most popular sites of public socializing and entertainment in the country — offered liquor, music, dancing, and sex for sale. [emphasis mine] Many of the concert saloons in big cities were owned by criminals or African Americans or both, and most were known to host racially mixed clientele.
This kind of tradition continued during 1910′s and 1920′s. Below is Cornell Capa’s “The Savoy Ballroom.” The Savoy Ballroom was a music ballroom, opened in 1926, run by New York gangster Moe Paddon, and was known for its integration and Lindy Hoppers, swing dancers during the Depression. Thaddeus Russell continues
And then there were the dance halls that became all the rage in the 1910s and 1920s. Most were owned by Jewish or Italian immigrants, many of whom were affiliated with Jewish or Italian crime syndicates. The mixing of races in the dance halls was so prevalent that the Ku Klux Klan, which reached a membership of nearly 5 million by the middle of the 1920s, devoted much of its energy to destroying them. In hundreds of towns and cities where the Klan had organizations, it conducted campaigns against dance halls, which they called “vile places of amusement.” They lobbied local governments to regulate or shut down dance halls and often, when that wasn’t successful, they burned them down. [emphasis mine]
It’s fascinating to consider that crime syndicates, interested in the high profits of illegal activities, that part of that profit came from allowing what “respectable” society had considered to be immoral acts, from non-marital sex, interracial and homosexual socializing, dancing, drinking, you know … fun! And, in doing so, either directly or indirectly, were actually protecting minorities’ freedoms being trampled by hate groups and the government.
Even the secret, illegal lives of homosexuality from World War II to the 1950′s were protected by these criminal syndicates; gay bars were considered promising investments. Free markets try to fulfill a demand, a desire, that is not being met, even a hidden desire, even an “unrespectable,” maybe even an illegal demand. It’s the same reason cartels, today, exist to fulfill the demand for illicit drugs. When homosexuality was still in the closet, Russell explains
By the 1950s, most of the gay bars in New York were owned by the mob. Because of the mafia’s connections with the police department and willingness to bribe officers, patrons of mob-owned bars were often protected from the police raids that dominated gay life in the 1950s. [emphasis mine] The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village had been a straight restaurant and a straight nightclub for many years when it was purchased in 1966 by three associates of the Genovese family and converted into a gay bar.
Many of the Mafiosi who managed the Stonewall and other gay clubs were themselves gay. The Stonewall’s manager was a man named Ed “The Skull” Murphy, a lifelong hood and ex-convict who chose to work as a bouncer at many of New York’s first gay clubs because he found it an easy way to meet and have sex with men. Murphy was also known for his fondness for black and Latino men, which contributed to the Stonewall’s reputation as the most racially diverse bar – gay or straight – in New York City. [emphasis mine]
Then there’s Studio 54, though more of an upper class crowd, had its own history of crazy drugs, sex, partying, illegal activities, and its owners treated as criminals, raided for serving liquor with no license and imprisoned for tax evasion, skimming nearly $2.5 million from the club’s receipts. Owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, I guess, were just not as savvy as the professional crime syndicates. Even owner Steve Rubell is quoted as saying only the Mafia made more money than the club.
And now that such things have become mainstream, less hidden, actually legal, no crime syndicates necessary, these photographs taken at Stay Gold parties, for me, give an homage to this rich history of secret places where people could be open with others, make-out, and dance till the sun came up. These photos give a wonderful hat tip to history and a present statment that says “this is our time.”