Last night I watched a fabulous documentary: The Cockettes, the story about a group of straight, gay, black, white, whatever group of hippies in San Francisco who put together a life celebrating peace, love and sequins. They were more than just a drag troupe: they were souls dedicated in expressing who they truly were inside. Though they’re best known for wearing jumbles of feathers and beads, dressing up in women’s clothes wasn’t the point–it was the celebration of the fact that they could dress up women’s clothes, or dust their beards with glitter, or run around naked with a hand-made geisha mask and be happy. And make others happy too. It was about true liberation, to be able to go beyond being gay or black or female–it was about being yourself.
Why does this movie strike such a cord?
After all, I was very, very young (practically embryonic) and lived a continent away during their reign, but their legacy lingered into the 1980s, when I was living and working in the Castro District. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was carrying on an honored tradition: that of a young, alienated twenty-something who chafed at labels and just plain didn’t fit in, running away to San Francisco. Before I bolted, I lived among people who spent a good deal of time plopping me in categories: I was white, not Japanese; I was an American, though I spend a good deal of my life living outside of America. I was a good girl, but entertained bad-girl thoughts. (Okay–maybe not real bad-girl thoughts, but I did like the idea of me as a bad girl–still do.) It’s too long to explain, but for the first time in my life, I was around people who didn’t try to put me in a box. It was okay that I wasn’t one race or the other. I could say odd things and not be regarded as a freak. It was even okay for me to be straight girl in a very gay universe. And I loved it.
Like most good things (including the Cockettes), that time didn’t last: I met a boy just about the same time AIDS began marching through swaths of beautiful and newly happy young men. I moved out of the Castro and into a decidedly more suburban part of San Francisco. Instead of selling movie tickets on Halloween night to men dressed up like Tippi Hedren from The Birds, I was now riding express busses filled with nice sensible women who worked downtown. It was over.
Now I’m a forty-something librarian working at an semi-urban university, working with students who think anything that happened before 1995 is ancient history. They also think that they are all unique individuals, as sold to them by Tommy Hilfiger and Abercrombie & Fitch. People today have a need for fierce identities: they’re gay, they’re Asian-American, they’re ambidextrous, etc. That’s great, but for a lot of people, that’s the only way they want to be perceived. The Cockettes wanted people to be themselves, but more than that, they wanted people to be human beings. That’s what I learned from their legacy.
To this very day, I still have dreams of living in the Castro….