If you’re going to San Francisco….

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….

8 Responses

  1. Sulkbrarian
    Sulkbrarian August 20, 2003 at 1:10 am | | Reply

    It sounds like the strangest kind of heaven, especially if you’ve never had a chance to live somewhere truly open before. I’ve had tastes of that kind of openmindedness and all it does is make you want more, yes! I watched “Wigstock” again the other night after a couple of particularly good episodes of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”. Hanging out with gay friends also provides the same kind of warm fuzzy acceptance feelings. We all want to be loved and accepted for whatever it is we are, or do, or believe or think. Isn’t it sad that folks can’t have that every day, wherever they are?

  2. Original Cyn
    Original Cyn August 20, 2003 at 9:28 pm | | Reply

    I think I understand why it evoked such strong feelings. I’m in Texas, but I have the same kind of dreams. At the end of the year (right after my 44th birthday), I’m leaving the security of life in Dallas to move to Austin, with no “real” job (other than my ongoing consulting gigs) in sight. (People who live there say that it’s as if a piece of Northern California somehow landed in the middle of Texas–perhaps because it was so sorely needed there.) Yes, I realize it’s insane by any normal standards; it’s also something I feel I have to do. Seems a little trite to call it a mid-life crisis–more like wisdom, come upon suddenly.

    (And BTW, I lovelovelove the Bad Girls books!)

  3. Sulkbrarian
    Sulkbrarian August 21, 2003 at 3:46 am | | Reply

    Oh, Cyn, you are going to love it. Best of everything!! Yes–I used to have several friends who decided to make Austin their home (still have the friends but they moved from there a while back, sadly for them, they LOVED it there!!). I used to go visit them and when I worked in radio, I would go to SXSW every chance I got. If you like music. ANY music. Austin is the place for you! One of my friends moved there to sort of revive the band he was in, because Austin audiences are open to tons of different kinds of music. It worked great and now he’s in NY because of the help he got in the Austin scene. The people are colorful and diverse and most of them could not be nicer. I’m excited for you!! Have a great time! (Oh–and if you’ve never seen “Slacker”, just for fun, rent it! Most folks there aren’t really on the crazy train like the people in the movie, but there are some doozies! heehee)

  4. Original Cyn
    Original Cyn August 21, 2003 at 7:55 am | | Reply

    Thanks for the encouragement, Sulky! I love music and the whole Austin scene, and I can’t wait! I’m a little concerned because UT has a really good library school, so there are lots of library types there, and of course, nobody wants to leave Austin, but we’ll see. Four months to go!

  5. Sulkbrarian
    Sulkbrarian August 22, 2003 at 12:29 am | | Reply

    Fantastic! Mmm, yes, I see what you mean about UT-Austin (which has always been outlined to me as the incredible hulk of liberry skools, although two of my professors disagree with a lot of the hype). I bet there will be room enough for everyone though because surely some of those people are looking to relocate out of necessity…and then we think about how not all of them will be in your particular branch of librarianship, whatever that may be…it oughta be okay! 😀 But I also know what you mean because in my college town, where I went to liberry skool, it is clogged with librarians. You can’t stir ’em with a stick and no one wants to leave. But we are forced to leave because there just aren’t enough jobs. However, Austin is several times the size of my town, ditto UT much bigger than my university. I got all my fingers and toes crossed for you! You will kick everyone’s ass, I’m sure! 😛

  6. gl.
    gl. August 22, 2003 at 12:37 pm | | Reply

    linda! a serious post! i had just gotten used to all snark, all the time. 😉

    i’ve usually been disillusioned by “counter culture” folks because they have thier own norms and i find they’re just as likely to be judgmental and place labels on you as anyone else. i think it’s a function of that need to have a “fierce identity,” as you put it (i like that phrase!).

    i have to take everyone on an individual basis, but if the cockettes were into treating people like human beings, it sounds like i would have liked them.

  7. Sulkbrarian
    Sulkbrarian August 22, 2003 at 8:52 pm | | Reply

    yeah. some folks, no matter their persuasion, are more into being exclusive and catty and bitchy and evil than just living their lives…so i hear you there gl…if we are so fortunate to know some people who are just tryin’ to do their thang without crapping all over the rest of society, we are fortunate indeed. 🙂

  8. bonnie
    bonnie September 28, 2003 at 11:49 am | | Reply

    I can relate. I lived in the Castro for about 5 years and then fell in love with some lad in Santa Cruz and decided to give up my RENT-CONTROLLED fab bachelorette pad to move in with him.

    Biggest mistake I’ve ever made, but hey — when you’re in love, gotta take a risk, right?

    The relationship fizzled after 8 months, and I found myself back in San Fran trying to find a new home. I ended up in Cole Valley (not recommended) and will hopefully soon move into a cheaper abode in the Mission. (Castro is just still too pricey right now — even in a recession!)

    But I do empathize with you big time. I miss my old life going to JOhn Waters’ Day at the Castro Theater, or having a 3am omlette at Orphane Andy’s, or watching the Drag Queen softball tournie every Spring, or the Easter Hat parade.

    *sigh*

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