It was the biggest set ever built for a Hollywood film in the 1920s, and then it was buried in the sands of the California Coast. The real story begins when a young filmmaker embarks on a decades-long attempt to excavate it.
Thirty-three years ago, Peter Brosnan heard a story that seemed too crazy to be true: buried somewhere along California’s rugged Central Coast, beneath acres of sand dunes, lay the remains of a lost city. According to his friend at New York University’s film school, the remains of a massive Egyptian temple, a dozen plaster sphinxes, eight mammoth lions, and four 40-ton statues of Ramses II were all supposedly entombed in the sands 150 some-odd miles north of Los Angeles.
“It was an absolutely cockamamie story,” Brosnan says. “I thought he was nuts.” The ruins weren’t authentic Egyptian ones, of course. They were the 60-year-old remains of a massive Hollywood set—the biggest, most expensive one ever built at the time. The faux Egyptian scenery had played the role of the City of the Pharaoh in one of Hollywood’s first true epics, Cecil B DeMille’s 1923 filmThe Ten Commandments. The set had required more than 1,500 carpenters to build and used over 25,000 pounds of nails. The production nearly ruined DeMille and his studio. When the shoot wrapped, the tempestuous director supposedly strapped dynamite to the structures and razed the whole set, burying it in the sands near Guadalupe, California, to ensure no rival director could benefit from his vision.
“If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” the director teased, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”
Bullshit, Brosnan thought. But then his buddy pointed him to a line in DeMille’s posthumously published autobiography. “If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” the director teased, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”
By 1982, Brosnan had graduated from film school and was earning a living as a freelance journalist, but he couldn’t shake his friend’s story. The film student in him was enchanted by the idea of uncovering and preserving a forgotten bit of Hollywood’s history. That summer, Brosnan and his friend drove across the country, from New York City to a stretch of coast near Santa Barbara, to see the ruins for themselves. The whole affair, he thought, would make for a hell of a documentary.
“We were young, wannabe filmmakers, and I thought this was golden,” Brosnan says today. “We’ll find some archeologists, we’ll find the set, we’ll dig it up. The story writes itself.”
The City of the Pharaoh was not so much a movie set as it was a monument to the man who built it. DeMille was already a towering star in the early days of Hollywood, but in 1922 he was recovering from a streak of critical flops. He had gained a reputation for his sense of spectacle in films likeJoan the WomanandMale and Female, andThe Ten Commandmentswas to be his comeback.
Delivering DeMille’s blockbuster meant deploying a barrage of special effects, at least by the standards of the day. In 1923, set design was the only way to visually transport viewers to the Sinai in the time of Moses. The “desert” DeMille chose for his Israelites to wander, while certainly more convenient than filming on location in Egypt, presented a logistical nightmare. There were no nearby cities, no paved roads, and no place for his cast of thousands to stay. The 22,000 acres of sand dunes that separated the small farming town of Guadalupe from the Pacific Ocean was harsh and desolate. The sharp-grained sand that gives the wind there its added sting is devoid of nutrients, and, combined with constant salt sprays from the sea, makes life a rarity in the dunes. For DeMille, it was perfect.
“Your skin will be cooked raw,” DeMille told his army of 3,500 actors and extras, according to aLos Angeles Timesreporter on the scene. “You will miss the comforts of home. You will be asked to endure perhaps the most unpleasant location in cinema history. I expect of you your supreme efforts.”
The costs were mounting even before DeMille arrived in Guadalupe to begin shooting. Preproduction expenses were already approaching $700,000—an astronomical sum in the early days of Hollywood. More than a million pounds of statuary, concrete, and plaster were used to construct the 120-foot-tall, 800-foot-long temple and surrounding structures, and whole plaster sphinxes were sculpted and loaded onto trucks bound for the dunes. Every day on location meant feeding and housing the thousands of workers and animals. DeMille drove his construction team to work faster. Paramount Studios, the film’s backer, began sending DeMille increasingly desperate letters demanding that he cut costs. One receipt, for $3,000 spent on a “magnificent team of horses” for the pharaoh, pushed the studio over the edge, according to Sumiko Higashi, a professor emeritus at The College at Brockport, SUNY, and author ofCecil B. DeMille and American Culture: the Silent Era,a biography of DeMille.
“You have lost your mind,” telegraphed Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Pictures. “Stop filming and return to Los Angeles at once.” DeMille refused. He took out a personal loan and waived his guaranteed percentage of the movie’s gross to ensure the production continued. “I cannot and will not make pictures with a yardstick,” he wired back to the studio. “What do they want me to do?” he was rumored to have said, according to Higashi. “Stop now and release it asThe Five Commandments?”
Despite the warnings, DeMille pushed on. Bugles sounded every morning to 4:30 a.m. to wake the 5,000 workers and actors that populated the 24-square-mile tent city he’d built in the dunes. (It earned the nickname the City of DeMille.) His workers raised the 109-foot-tall Great Gate—an archway covered in intricate busts of rearing stallions—and buttressed it with two 35-foot-tall clay-and-plaster statues of the Pharaoh. They erected a “city wall”—built 750 feet long because DeMille refused to work with painted backgrounds or limit his cinematic choices. Five mammoth sphinxes, weighing over five tons each, lined the entrance to the ersatz Egyptian city.
Filming was done at a madcap pace and condensed into a mere three weeks, according to Scott Eyman’s biography,Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. But even with the Exodus in the can, one more problem loomed. According to a prior agreement with the landowners, DeMille’s monumental set had to be dismantled before he left. Production costs had already ballooned to over $1.4 million, more than any other film previously made. DeMille considered reneging on the deal, Brosnan says, but likely worried about another issue: If he left is city standing, rival directors from other studios could easily swoop into Guadalupe and produce an epic on the cheap. DeMille would not have that. Rather than pay workers to take the set down, he settled on a faster method. Dynamite was supposedly strapped to the great temple he had built, and the City of the Pharaoh was brought down. According to legend, he ordered bulldozers to mound sand over the scattered remains and quickly left town.
Sixty years later, in 1983, Brosnan arrived at the dunes like the Children of Israel before him—completely lost. He knew the set was buried somewhere, but the dunes stretched nearly 30 miles, across two counties. Looking for clues, he called the Air Force base that occupied much of the coastline. (“Sir,” he says the sergeant on the other end of the line told him, “There is no Egyptian city buried at Vandenberg Air Force Base.”) He haunted local libraries. He hounded municipal politicians. No one could provide hints about the set’s exact location.
Then he stumbled upon an old ranch hand at a local tavern who had run cattle through the dunes for decades. On a cold and dark morning, after a savage storm had rearranged the topography of the dunes, Brosnan and the rancher hiked the sea of hundred-foot-high peaks, making their way a mile toward the pounding surf of the Pacific. Eventually they spied what locals called “the dune that never moves”—the sandy tomb that covered DeMille’s set—and saw a chunk of Plaster of Paris statuary poking through.
The discovery made headlines around the world and Brosnan fielded calls fromThe New York Times,NBC Nightly News, andPeoplemagazine. His documentary idea, which had seemed pie-in-the-sky a few months earlier, looked promising. And his pitch—that the lost city is the oldest existing Hollywood set left; that props from more modern shoots have already been preserved for posterity; that early set design was, in a sense, an American art form—struck a chord in the industry. Brosnan tentatively called his documentary projectThe Lost City.
Charlton Heston, star of DeMille’s 1956 remake of the film, publicly wished the project well, and local archaeologists volunteered their time to help in the excavation. A curator at the Smithsonian expressed interest in acquiring some pieces, once the dig wrapped. Promises for funding came in from Paramount Pictures and Bank of America. Brosnan moved to Hollywood with the intention of pursuing a career in the ‘biz. But first, he had to start digging.
“This will be a scientific exploration by highly trained personnel,” said a Cambridge-educated archaeologist who signed on in 1983. “Not a case of simply digging up stuff like potatoes. And if we’re serious about documenting movie history, then let’s do it properly.”
The excavation and documentary progressed, but Brosnan constantly faced two problems: funding and permitting. When he had the money, the county wouldn’t let him touch the environmentally sensitive area. (The western snowy plover, a federally protected species that nests along california’s coast, keeps the dunes off limits to people for half the year during breeding season.) By the time he got permission to dig, seven years later, funding had dried up. In 1990, several organizations, including the Smithsonian and the DeMille Family Trust, agreed to partially fund the project, and Brosnan and an archeologist used ground-penetrating radar to show that much of the set remained intact. But he couldn’t raise enough money to excavate the actual ruins. He needed $175,000 for an archeological dig to recover 60-year-old fake relics. “We don’t see this as a fake Egypt,” Brosnan told a reporter at the time. “We see this as real cinema history.”
But by the mid-1990s, Brosnan had been scraping by in the movie business for a decade, writing scripts and directing small projects. Lacking the money, he gave up the dig.
That DeMille’s ruins have survived intact to this day, albeit buried in the sands, is a quirk of geography. The dunes, which cover some 35 square miles of the coast here, formed about 15,000 years ago, according to Doug Jenzen, executive director of the non-profit Dunes Center in Guadalupe. Jenzen and his team run a small museum out of a craftsman on the town’s main (and only) drag and head up conservation efforts for the Dunes preserve. It’s a charming little museum that seems out of place among the shuttered movie theater and boarded up buildings of Guadalupe, but the Dunes and DeMille are the only source of tourism dollars in this largely agricultural area, Jenzen says.
Thousands of years ago, rivers swept mineral-dense rocks and boulders from the nearby coastal range down to the sea, eventually pummeling the earth into fine grain sand. “One of the reasons the movie set is preserved so well is because of the minerals in the sand,” Jenzen says. “You know how when you order something mail order and it comes with the silica packets? The sand actually acted as a natural desiccant that preserved the plaster for the statues.”
For 15 years, the ruins were left undisturbed. Every few years a reporter or a researcher would call and Brosnan would humor him or her with details of his odyssey in the dunes. Each time, he hoped the new round of publicity would inject dollars into the effort, but nothing ever came through.
In 2010, though, after theLos Angeles Timesran yet another piece on his unfinished dig, a woman—who wishes to remain anonymous—contacted Brosnan and offered to put up the money needed to finish the film. But by then he was married with children and had been away from the project for two decades. “My first response was a moment of panic,” Brosnan says. “There’s no way I could do this.”
But Brosnan hired a producer and an editor, and last fall, with the help of a Santa Barbara County grant, a team of archeologists excavated most of a sphinx. Brosnan was on hand to film it. “We had always wanted to end with a shot of the sphinx being found. And we got it,” he says. Using his early footage shot in the 1980s, Brosnan has pulled together a rough cut and has an editor working on a final draft. He says he’s looking for distributors and considering the film festival circuit soon.
In the Dune Center, Jenzen and his team display parts of one of the large plaster sphinxes and smaller relics that have been successfully pulled from the sand. “All of the statues were made of plaster,” he says. “They were built to last two months—92 years ago. I don’t think this could have happened anywhere else on earth.”
However, Jenzen says the ruins may not survive another 92 years. Powerful storms in the last few years have shifted the sands of the dunes dramatically—more of the set is now exposed to the elements than ever before. The Dunes Center needs $100,000 to unearth another sphinx to add it to the display, Jenzen says, before it’s too late. “It’s disappearing so fast,” he says, “Archeologists originally thought it’d last until 2090—but every time we go out, more is gone.”
The dharma wheel, or dharmachakra in Sanskrit, is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe, it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. It is also one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. Similar symbols are found in Jainism and Hinduism, and it is likely the dharmachakra symbol in Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism.
A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying numbers of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center, there may be three shapes swirling together, a yin-yang symbol, a second wheel, or an empty circle.
What the Dharma Wheel Represents
A dharma wheel has three basic parts: the hub, the rim, and the spokes. Over the centuries, various teachers and traditions have proposed diverse meanings for these parts. Here are some common understandings of the wheel’s symbolism:
The circle, the round shape of the wheel, represents the perfection of thedharma, the Buddha’s teaching.
When a wheel has 24 spokes, the spokes represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination plus the reversing of the Twelves Links and liberation fromsamsara. A 24-spoke dharma wheel is also called anAshoka Chakra.
When a wheel has 31 spokes, the spokes represent the 31 realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.
The wheel often has spokes protruding beyond the wheel, which we might imagine are spikes, although usually, they don’t look very sharp. The spikes represent various penetrating insights.
The Ashoka Chakra
Among the oldest existing examples of a dharma wheel are found on the pillars erected by theAshoka the Great(304–232 B.C.E.), an emperor who ruled much of what is now India and beyond. Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism and encouraged its spread, although he never forced it on his subjects.
Ashoka erected enormous stone pillars throughout his kingdom, many of which are still standing. The pillars contain edicts, some of which encouraged people to practice Buddhist morality and nonviolence. There is typically at least one lion on the top of each pillar, representing Ashoka’s rule. The pillars also are decorated with 24-spoke dharma wheels.
In 1947, the government of India adopted a new national flag, in the center of which is a navy blue Ashoka Chakra on a white background.
Other Symbols Related to the Dharma Wheel
Sometimes the dharma wheel is presented in a tableau, supported on a lotus flower pedestal with two deer, a buck, and a doe on either side. This recalls thefirst sermongiven by thehistorical Buddhaafter hisenlightenment. The sermon is said to have been given to five mendicants in Sarnath, a deer park in what is now Uttar Pradesh, India.
According to Buddhist legend, the park was home to a herd of ruru deer, and the deer gathered around to listen to the sermon. The deer depicted by the dharma wheel reminds us that the Buddha taught to save all beings, not just humans. In some versions of this story, the deer are emanations of bodhisattvas.
Typically, when the dharma wheel is represented with deer, the wheel must be twice the height of the deer. The deer are shown with legs folded under them, gazing serenely at the wheel with their noses lifted.
The first turning was the sermon in the deer park, after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Here, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths. The second turning was the introduction of the perfection of wisdom teachings on the nature of sunyata (emptiness). The third turning was the introduction of the doctrine of Buddha Nature.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra) Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-dharma-wheel-449956.
On New Year’s Eve in 1966, undercover officers atthe Black Cat Tavern inSilver Lakebegan to handcuff and beat the patrons and staff as everyone was exchanging celebratory midnight kisses. An estimated 14 people were arrested, many charged with lewd conduct and forced to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
Other Silver Lake gay bars, including New Faces, a few doors down, were targeted the same evening. Two years before the Stonewall uprising, more than 200 people came together outside the Black Cat for one of the earliest U.S. LGBTQ-rights demonstrations. Picketers gathered on February 11, 1967, to peacefully protest the police raids that had been conducted weeks before. Alexei Romanoff, a former owner of New Faces, describes the Black Cat demonstration as a turning point. During a time in which homosexuality was illegal in most states, LGBTQ people developed elaborate codes and survival strategies to avoid arrest. But that February night, Romanoff says, the community stood up and fought back.
Now 82, he is the last surviving organizer of Personal Rights in Defense and Education (P.R.I.D.E.), one of the groups that helped stage the 1967 stand. We traveled back to that monumental moment with Romanoff.
How were the protests organized?
We didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cell phones, but what we did have was called a phone tree. One person would immediately call another 10 people and tell them what had happened, and then each of them would call 10 more people. It took us about two weeks to organize the protest. The Hub Bar [in Alhambra] was the only place that allowed us to meet. We were cautious. We kept moving the demonstration up and down the block so we couldn’t be charged with loitering. We had flyers printed up. People would ask what was going on. We’d give them a flyer, and if they dropped it, we would rush over, grab it and pick it up so we wouldn’t be considered to be littering.
What was the protest like?
If you look at the pictures, none of the regular news media covered us. They were all from the Free Press at the time. They were the only ones that covered the demonstration. A couple of years ago, I met with [former] police chief [William J.] Bratton, and we were looking at the pictures, when I said, “Do you see anybody smiling there?” He said no. And I said, “That’s because [the protesters] were all terrified to do this, but they knew they had to.” It took place in the evening because they had jobs they would likely lose the next day.
What were the risks?
If the major news media would have covered that demonstration, their faces would have been in the newspapers, but the newspapers didn’t think it was very important because it was only those “unhappy homosexuals.” At that time, we could be put into a sanitarium for being gay. And our families could have us committed if they were embarrassed by us. There, you were subject to shock treatments and chemically castrated. We were afraid, but we couldn’t take it anymore. You couldn’t just come in, beat us up and take us to jail because we were who we were.
What was the aftermath of the protests?
Once you let the cat out of the bag, there’s no stopping it. I started an organization, Santa Monica Bay Coalition for Human Rights. In 1970, we were marching in the LA Pride parade, and we had this big banner. I was in the front, and there were mounted police officers. I was nervous, but one of them turned his horse away from all the rest and gave me a V-for-victory sign. I knew we were going to be okay.
And what was the legacy at the Black Cat?
We got the Black Cat designated as a historic landmark. There’s a plaque on the front of the building now. When I went back one time, there was a note that was attached to the plaque, and all it said was “thank you.” That was enough for everything.
Romanoff discussed the evening’s events with Time Out, and his account has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Woody Harrelson plays psychopaths brilliantly. It couldn’t be anything to do with his dad’s day job, could it? He talks about coming to terms with the terrible truth and his new film, Rampart
I’m not looking forward to meetingWoody Harrelson. I’m a bit scared, to be honest. I’ve just seenRampart, his new movie in which he plays a racist, psychopathic police officer. Harrelson is terrifying in it. Terrifying when he’s chasing villains, bullying juniors, beating the crap out of innocents, stalking the mothers of his children. He’s even terrifying when he’s making love. His body, specially slimmed-down and muscled-up for the part, pulses with a tension permanently on the cusp of violence.
It’s not as if this is a one-off – there’s his sickening Mickey Knox inNatural Born Killers(“At birth, I was cast into a flaming pit of scum”), deranged killer Tallahassee inZombieland, Charlie in the forthcomingSeven Psychopathswhose title says it all, and we’ve barely started. Even when he plays it nice, like he did inCheersall those years ago as dopey bartender Woody, there’s something in the goofy smile that makes you worry – for his sanity, and your safety. And it’s not as if the weird stuff is just confined to acting – there are numerous stories of him hitting photographers or police officers or taxi doors.
It’s Sunday afternoon and when I arrive at the London hotel, there’s no sign of Harrelson. His publicist apologises and says the bad news is he’s still in bed, but the good news is he’s woken up. A few minutes later he arrives, looking a little the worse for wear. He stretches, gulps from a hefty bottle of water, and drawls a lazy Texan apology. “I tied one on last night,” he says, “I drank too much.” Where did he go? “We went to a few places… but I’m waking up now and everything seems nice and, erm, Victorian in this room.” Harrelson takes another swig, and as he does, I’m again thinking of the crazed cop in Rampart
Doesn’t it take a lot out of him making a film like that – after all, he’s in virtually every scene, inflicting damage of one sort or another? “It was an intense time,” he says. “The problem was being seeped in paranoia because that was so much the attitude of the character. That really affected me because I don’t normally do paranoia.” He pauses. “Well, sometimes, of course. But it’s an emotion I try not to affect myself with. I had weird shit happening.” What weird shit? “Not stuff I’d care to talk about. But being aggressive and strange with friends who had not been offensive, but I took it as offensive. A couple of friends said, ‘I can’t wait till you’re done with this role because I know this ain’t you doing it.’ “
What messed with his head more, Rampart or Natural Born Killers? The latter film, directed byOliver Stone, was blamed for a series of copycat killings after it was released in 1994. “I’d say this, but then when I was doing Natural Born Killers I was doing some weird shit, too.” I tell him I can’t bear watching it; that it freaks me out. He smiles. “Really, it’s a misunderstood romantic comedy.” And now his smile is truly worrying. “It’s a dark comedy.” Pah. I tell him Ireckon Natural Born Killers features more Hollywood headcases than any film made – Harrelson,Robert Downey Jr,Tom Sizemore,Tommy Lee Jones,Juliette Lewis. “I know, it was a mad little time. After we’d been working on it for a while, I felt I was the sanest guy in it. I really did. This has never happened… I’m the sanest guy in the whole deal.” He whoops at the very idea. Who was the most insane? “Tom and Juliette went a little crazy. Yeah. I felt in a way Oliver encouraged madness. He needed to create that mayhem because that’s what was on the screen.”
He could, for instance, easily have ended up as a minister of the church. His mother is a religious presbyterian and so was he through his childhood. Did he see it as a calling? “I did a little bit.” He studied theology alongside drama at university, and it was only then that his belief system started to collapse. “I remember Dr Matthews; a great teacher teaching progressive ideas. I started seeing through the way the Bible got constructed. For example, there were two angels outside the tomb when Jesus rolled back the stone and rose from the dead. Why? Because in Jewish law there had to be two witnesses for it to be legal. But when it was first written it was one, so little things like that.”
Talk to Harrelson and you might think his reverse Damascene conversion was the first significant event in his life. But it wasn’t – by a long stretch. In the past, he’s been surprisingly private about his family life. He would talk about the love for his mother, his two brothers, growing up in Texas and Ohio, and it seemed a pretty regular childhood. I’ve read that Harrelson’s father was a contract killer but assume it’s an urban myth – one of those apocryphal stories actors come up with when bored. I ask him how he got on with his father. “Pretty good,” he says. “They separated young, he was not around too much.” Then nothing. He ended up in prison? “Yeaah,” he says slowly as if chewing on a tobacco leaf. “Yes. That explains his absence.” He laughs wryly, and waits for the subject to change.
You’re the first star I’ve interviewed whose dad was a professional killer, I say. No comment. I tell him I recently interviewed a woman whose son became a serial killer, and that she had been suicidal as a result. He looks interested. “Ah man, that must have been devastating for her. You never really think of that shit when you hear these stories,” he says quietly. He tells me a bit more about his father. “I think they separated when I was seven. But he was gone a lot before that, in prison. Away and back. Away and back. It wasn’t like he was there all the time prior to that.”
“They call him a contract killer in the cuttings,” I say. “Is that a glamorisation or simplification of what he did?” Harrelson chews some more on the imaginary tobacco. “Yeah, I mean that’s probably a fair, erm…” He stops. Fair job summary? “Yeah, job summary. I was 11 or 12 when I heard his name mentioned on a car radio. I was in the car waiting for a lady who was picking me up from school, helping my mum, and anyway I was listening to the radio and it was talking about Charles V Harrelson and his trial for murder and blah blah blah blah and I’m sitting there thinking there can’t be another Charles V Harrelson. I mean, that’s my dad! It was a wild realisation. Then the woman got in the car and saw my face and realised something was up. She was a very kind lady.”
He says he went home, in shock, and tried to talk to his mother about it. But there was little to say – the truth was out there, on the radio and in the papers. Did your mum know what he did for a living? “Oh yeah, she was pretty hip to all that.” Did she love him? “Well, no, she was well out of love with him. You know, I’ve got to give her credit because she never really soured us on him, she didn’t talk negative about him, never, ever. And she could have – he wasn’t the greatest husband. Or father. But…”
Charles V Harrelsonwas jailed in 1973 for the murder of grain dealer Sam Degelia Jr. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released after five for good behaviour. In 1981 he was given two life sentences for the assassination of district judge John H Wood – the first murder of an American judge in the 20th century. At times, he also claimed to have assassinatedJohn F Kennedy.
It was in 1981, after he heard his father had been arrested for killing the judge, that Woody tried to get in touch with him, aged 20. Were they ever reconciled? “Oh yeah, oh yeah. I tried for years to get him out. To get him a new trial.” Why did you think he deserved a new trial? Harrelson stops, and thinks about it as if for the first time. “I don’t know he did deserve a new trial… just being a son trying to help his dad. Then I spent a couple of million beating my head against the wall.” A couple of million, I say, astonished. “Easily. Lawyers upon lawyers…”
Do you see much of your father in you? “Quite a bit… I was born on his birthday. They have a thing in Japan where they say if you’re born on your father’s birthday, you’re not like your father, you are your father, and it’s so weird when I would sit and talk with him. It was just mind-blowing to see all the things he did just like me.” Such as? “Idiosyncratic things. The way he laughed. The face, very similar.”
Did it scare you that you were so similar? “No, no.” He laughs, uncertainly.
Charles V Harrelson died in prison in 2007. Were they friends by then? “Yeah, we got along pretty good. When you can’t hang out and go to a pub, you know what I mean, it’s hard.”
It’s difficult to imagine that Harrelson’s character has not been shaped to some degree by his father – the early religion, the subsequent hell-raising, the campaigning (against environmental devastation, testing on monkeys, unethical energy, defence spending). He says if it were down to him, he’d scrap the defence budget and reallocate it. “The first thing I’d do is buy up every bit of rainforest or ancient forest – you could buy it all up with $2.5tn, no problem.”
It’s funny that you make such a convincing redneck, I say, when you are famous for your lefty-liberal views. He grins, and says it wasn’t always like that. “I was a freshman in college in 1980, the year thatReaganwas elected, and I went around badgering people to vote for him.”What? Why?“I was part of the Young Republicans and bought all the bullshit. I’m embarrassed to tell you this because I really think he’s one of the worst presidents in history. I was 18 when he went into office. Then almost immediately I noticed these cuts to the aid that I had to go to school – Reagan’s first thing was to cut all the social shit.”
By his early 20s, Harrelson had long given up on God and Reagan – he was starring in Cheers, had been introduced to environmental politics by fellow actor Ted Danson, and was having a wild time. He had a voracious appetite for pretty much everything. At one point, he was quoted as saying he slept with three women a day. Was that true? “No, no, no, no, not at all.” He realises he might be protesting slightly too much, and starts again. “There was definitely a time of, what would you call it… of Satyricon. A time of definite excess, but I like to think everybody in that situation is probably going to go through that. I’ve always believed the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” He goof-grins. “It’s been one of those thoughts that consoles me.”
One of the many surprising things about Harrelson is that he has been with the same woman for 22 years. You wouldn’t expect it, I say. “None of my friends did either. It is kind of shocking.” Then he shocks me even more by telling the lovely, soppy story of how he and his wife got together.Laurawas his assistant, and it was only over time he realised he was in love with her. “I went to Africa and I’m sitting around the fire out there, in Nairobi, thinking about her, fantasising about her.” He looks embarrassed. “She’s my assistant. It’s baaaad! I came back from Africa and I couldn’t even say I was in love with her because I was so nervous. I’d been sitting there with a guitar, so I wrote this song to her, and I sang it to her and at the end of it she goes, ‘Woody, I’ve been in love with you for the last two and a half years.’ Then I picked her up and carried her in.” He and Laura finally married in 2008.
Harrelson takes out his phone to show me photos of Laura and his three daughters. “They are the best thing going. The oldest has just gone off to college. It was one of the single most difficult experiences of my life when it was time to separate and she walked off to the dorm and we drove away. I bawled my eyes out.”
Twelve years ago the family moved to Hawaii. He’d been introduced to America’s 50th state by the country singerWillie Nelson. “I went to see Willie play and at the end up comes Annie his wife and she goes, ‘Willie wants to hang with you on the bus.’ We open the door, and I see through the fog this guy holding up a big fatty. So I go in and start hanging with the Willie and I don’t know this is going to become one of my best buddies in life.” Nelson invited him to his home in Hawaii, Harrelson and Laura discovered Maui, the remote part of the island, and that was that. For three years he didn’t make a movie – he just got on with remaking a life, hanging with the Willie on his porch, strumming guitar, smoking big fatties and writing (his play,Bullet For Adolf, co-written by Frankie Hyman, premiered in Toronto in 2003).
Are the hell-raising days over, then, or is he going to walk out of here and smack another photographer? “Oh yeah. I will never, ever even touch a cameraman. Never.” It’s funny how your sweet and scary sides happily coexist, I say. “Yeah. Heh! Heh! Heh! Heh!” And now he really does laugh like crazy. “Hey, man, the paparazzi, they will make you angry, that’s their whole thing. It’s a better picture. I’ve had a lot of expensive lessons on that score.” With anger or the paparazzi? “The combination.” Did something change in you? “No, I still have emotions bubble up, but I think I probably have a better rein on them. My whole thing now is I put my head down and keep walking.”
A man comes into the room carrying two huge green smoothies.
“Hey, buddy!” Harrelson says.
“Hey, buddy!” the man says.
“This is Simon,” Harrelson says. “This is Stan the man.” He tastes the smoothie. “That is just awesome, the best smoothie on earth. Lots of berries, kale, kiwi, plum, pineapple, cinnamon, hemp seed.” Harrelson eats mainly raw food. “There’s a spoon right there, have some.”
So I do, and it tastes wonderful.
“Wo, I can see you transforming in front of me,” Harrelson says.
“It’s good. Did you say that was kiwi in it?” I say.
“No,” says Stan the man. “Ki-weed!”
“I forgot to tell you, it’s spiked!” Harrelson says. And the pair of them fall about laughing.
As he finishes his smoothie, I say to Harrelson that he seems to have had a pretty amazing life. He nods and slurps. “It’s quite a dichotomy,” he says and he tells me one last story. “I was in a taxi the other night, and we started talking about life and the taxi driver goes, ‘Chaos and creativity go together. If you lose one per cent of your chaos, you lose your creativity.’ I said that’s the most brilliant thing I’ve heard. I needed to hear that years ago.”
The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.
A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”
Buddism integrates the word vajra into many of its legends and practices. Vajrasana is the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The vajra asana body posture is the lotus position. The highest concentrated mental state is vajra samadhi
Ritual Object in Tibetan Buddhism
Thevajra also is a literal ritual object associated withTibetan Buddhism, also called by its Tibetan name,Dorje. It is the symbol of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, which is the tantric branch that contains rituals said to allow a follower to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, in a thunderbolt flash of indestructible clarity.
The vajra objects usually are made of bronze, vary in size, and have three, five or nine spokes that usually close at each end in a lotus shape. The number of spokes and the way they meet at the ends have numerous symbolic meanings.
In Tibetan ritual, the vajra often is used together with a bell (ghanta). The vajra is held in the left hand and represents the male principle—upaya, referring to action or means. The bell is held in the right hand and represents the female principle—prajna, or wisdom.
A double Dorje, or vishvavajra, are two Dorjes connected to form a cross. A double Dorje represents the foundation of the physical world and is also associated with certain tantric deities.
Tantric Buddhist Iconography
Thevajraas symbol predates Buddhism and was found in ancient Hinduism. The Hindu rain god Indra, who later evolved into Buddhist Sakra figure, had the thunderbolt as his symbol. And the 8th-century tantric master, Padmasambhava, used thevajrato conquer the non-Buddhist gods of Tibet.
In tantric iconography, several figures often hold the vajra, including Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasttva is seen in a peaceful pose with the vajra held to his heart. Wrathful Vajrapani wields it as a weapon above his head. When used as a weapon, it is thrown to stun the opponent, and then bind him with a vajra lasso.
Symbolic Meaning of the Vajra Ritual Object
At the center of thevajrais a small flattened sphere which is said to represent the underlying nature of the universe. It is sealed by the syllablehum (hung), representing freedom from karma, conceptual thought, and the groundlessness of all dharmas. Outward from the sphere, there are three rings on each side, which symbolize the three-fold bliss of Buddha nature. The next symbol found on thevajraas we progress outward are two lotus flowers, representing Samsara (the endless cycle of suffering) and Nirvana (release from Samsara). The outer prongs emerge from symbols of Makaras, sea monsters.
The number of prongs and whether they have closed or open tines is variable, with different forms having different symbolic meanings. The most common form is the five-pronged vajra, with four outer prongs and one central prong. These may be considered to represent the five elements, the five poisons, and the five wisdoms. The tip of the central prong is often shaped like a tapering pyramid.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Vajra (Dorje) as a Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/vajra-or-dorje-449881.
“You’re not fat fat, but you are gay fat,” said the guy I was dating at the time when I expressed that I felt like I didn’t particularly fit into gay culture.
These words, which at the time were deeply hurtful, continued to bother me for years. They illustrate the ridiculous, restrictive, and unattainable body norms that govern gay male culture. I often ponder what exactly it means to be “gay fat.” “Fat” is a social construction, a term that often functions as a general category in which we place anyone who does not meet cultural standards of size and/or appearance. The notion of being “gay fat,” as opposed to simply “fat,” illustrates that gay male culture and Western culture have different body standards.
I call this ideal gay male type thenormate gay: the slim, toned, appropriately masculine, appropriately hairy, white, cisgender, and able-bodied gay man who embodies the collection of characteristics gay culture values most. The bodies of gay men who have less social and sexual capital because they are regarded as “deviant” — those who are of color, trans, disabled, fat, or fem — are defined in contrast to the body of the normate gay. The normate gay does not, in fact, exist, but is an idealized and unattainable cultural figure. Though some gay men may embody the normate gay to a large extent, appearance standards are set to create a constant state of lack that aligns with consumer capitalism in the form of diet culture. As sociologists Nathaniel C. Pyle and Noa Logan Klein observe:
“The prevalence of these media representations [the body promoted by mainstream gay media] creates an enormous pressure on gay men to conform to this narrow ideal body type, much like the beauty standards that are imposed on women and have been thoroughly analyzed by feminists. Rates of eating disorders and other body image disturbances are high among gay men, which may be taken as evidence that body image ideals exert pressures on gay men similar in strength to those faced by heterosexual women.”
Gay men clearly suffer from a host of body image issues, disordered eating, and full-blown eating disorders. Yet, despite existing similarities between appearance standards for women and gay men, there is no gay men’s body liberation movement to the extent that one exists within contemporary feminism. In gay men’s culture there is little discussion of diet culture, body positivity, the concept of “health at every size,” or feminism.
The absence of a sorely needed gay men’s body liberation movement is the product of cultural ideas of toxic masculinity — aspects of masculinity that produce socially harmful effects such as domination, misogyny, homophobia, and violence — andtoxic gay masculinity, a subcategory of toxic masculinity that describes aspects of masculinity within gay male culture that are similarly detrimental.
Toxic masculinity, as a set of cultural standards for what men should be or do, is not monolithic. Gay men can simultaneously be victimized by toxic masculinity, as expressed by straight men, and perpetuate toxic masculinity against other marginalized men.Toxic gay masculinity functions around the desire to embody the normate gay type and to police those who fall outside the parameters of this cultural ideal, thereby reinforcing structural forms of oppression such as sexism, cissexism, racism, lookism, sizeism, and ableism.
I prefer the terms “body liberation” and “body justice,” as opposed to the more popular term “body positivity,” because body positivity is increasingly co-opted by the weight loss and diet industry. Some diets, for example, market themselves as involving “body positive weight loss.” Body positivity as a feminist concept stemming from the Fat Acceptance Movement, however, is about radically accepting and making peace with one’s bodyas is. “Body positive weight loss” is therefore at odds with the original intentions of body positivity.
The now widespread use of the term may also prevent us from seeing sizeism as a social justice issue. It is not enough to feel “positive” about one’s own body or the bodies of those one interacts with on a daily basis. The word “positivity” can prevent us from seeing body liberation as a civil and human rights issue and that body size should be a protected category similar to race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. The terms “liberation” and “justice,” which imply the need for systemic change where body size is concerned, are, by nature, more radical and less co-optable by diet culture.
There is no gay men’s body liberation movement because norms of masculinity prevent gay men from seeing and addressing the extent to which diet culture and gay male culture are enmeshed.
Because caring about one’s physical appearance, dieting, and weight loss/body manipulation are seen as feminine behaviors in our culture, gay men, who are already stigmatized for being too feminine and therefore not “real” men, are hesitant to discuss body issues openly. The social and sexual privileges conferred by normative gay masculine provides further incentive for gay men to leave the status quo unchallenged.
A Brief History of the Gay Male Body
Due to the fact that gay men were historically described as “inverts,” or improperly feminine in comparison to heterosexual men — a notion that persists to this day — they often seek to redress the shame associated with gay identity through appeals to normative masculinity. Gay men’s bodies have long been defined by standards of masculinity, though these standards have changed over time in response to larger social and cultural circumstances. Masculinity in Western culture is defined, in part, via the expression of sexual desire and power; therefore, in gay male culture there exists an intense focus on masculinity, sex, and desirability.
When the gay liberation movement emerged in the United States in the late 1960s, body standards for gay men were not the gym-toned aesthetic of today, but the thin, androgynous hippie style often adopted by New Left men of the period. As the Gay Rights Movement progressed, and gay people became more socially and culturally visible and enmeshed within emerging forms of consumer capitalism, body standards for gay men became more idealized, unattainable, and rigid. The expansion of gay gyms, bathhouses, sex clubs, and porno theaters represented the co-optation of the philosophy of gay liberation by capitalists.
The normative body type that emerged during the mid-to-late 1970s is what some have referred to as the “Castro clone,” or, the sexualized image of the ideal white, working-class gay man. This look grew out of the Castro district of San Francisco, which became a gay mecca as urban gay communities expanded during the post-Stonewall period. The “Castro clone” often sported masculine fabrics such as denim and leather and typically wore form-fitting plaid shirts or t-shirts and Levis jeans, worn tight to emphasize the crotch area. A mustache or facial hair often topped off the hyper-masculine look. Some have also likened the “Castro clone” to the image of the Marlboro Man, a character of a rugged, working-class man used to market Marlboro cigarettes, who first appeared in advertising in 1954.
Body norms for gay men shifted with the arrival of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s to an even further idealized slim, toned, white, and able-bodied aesthetic. The amplified masculinity of the rugged “Castro clone” was replaced by an imperative to be smooth, hairless, and clean shaven. Though scientifically inaccurate, AIDS was described by medical professionals and the media as an explicitly gay disease or “gay cancer” (the initial name used for the condition by the Centers for Disease Control was GRID, or, Gay Related Immune Deficiency). In contrast to prevailing notions that gay men were diseased, the ideal body aesthetic of the time was one that connoted health, cleanliness, and physical fitness in the form of muscularity.
Activist and journalist Michelangelo Signorile, in his 1997 bookLife Outside, argued that the muscular gym imperative heightened during the early years of the epidemic because doctors recommended steroids to HIV-positive gay men to combat wasting and other physical signs of illness. Signorile famously observed that, at this time, the most physically beautiful men were often those who were the most ill. Though doctors prescribed steroids with the intent to help patients combat the symptoms created by AIDS, steroid use in response to the epidemic further solidified gay culture’s masculine muscular ideal.
The anti-identity movements of the 1990s, such as third wave feminism and radical queer and transgender movements, which questioned the efficacy of the gender binary and other gender and sexual norms, led, in part, to the emergence of bear and twink subcultures, though the gay gym aesthetic still predominated in the mainstream. Gay culture and sexuality remain taboo and attaining an ideal physique is a way for gay men to visually demonstrate their morality, virtue, and control in the face of a society that regards non-heteronormative ways of being as deviant and shameful. Due to internalized homophobia, some gay men might regard their sexual desires and practices as “excessive” and seek to mitigate shame by disciplining and exerting control over their body size and shape.
Some historians trace the beginnings of contemporary diet culture to the work of the nineteenth-century social reformer Sylvester Graham. Graham argued that one’s appetite and morality were linked and that one could use food as a path to moral virtue. He prescribed a bland diet as a way for men to control their desires and exercise sexual restraint. It is therefore unsurprising that during the HIV/AIDS epidemic the ideal gay body type shifted from simply thin to a physique that was lean, sculpted, and hairless. The ideal gay male body type has developed over time to represent not just morality and virtue, but moral virtue on hyperdrive. Consumer capitalism, including gay media, further employs the precepts of diet culture to prey upon gay men’s desires to be socially and sexually worthy.
Dear Gay Men, You Are On a Diet
I define a diet as any change in eating and/or behavior with the intention of weight or body manipulation. The belief that we must engage in dieting in order to make our bodies conform to cultural ideals is supported by diet culture.Christy Harrison, an anti-diet dietitian and host of theFood Psychpodcast, describes “diet culture” as a system of beliefs that “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue… promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status… demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others… and oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health.’” “By and large,” Harrison explains, “Western culture is diet culture. This way of thinking about food and bodies is so embedded in the fabric of our society, in so many different forms, that it can be hard to recognize.” Diet culture contributes to systems of oppression such as sizeism — the belief that smaller bodies are inherently superior to larger bodies — and lookism.
Lookism, or the personal, institutional, and social privileges and benefits conferred upon persons whose physical appearances align with cultural preferences, is rampant in gay male culture. The term was first coined during the 1970s by activists within the Fat Acceptance Movement. Michelangelo Signorile defines this concept as follows:
“the setting of a rigid set of standards of physical beauty that pressures everyone within a particular group to conform to them. Any person who doesn’t meet those very specific standards is deemed physically unattractive and sexually undesirable. In a culture in which the physical body is held in such high esteem and given such power, body fascism then not only deems those who don’t or can’t conform to be sexually less desirable, but in extreme sometimes dubbed lookism also deems a person completely worthlessas a person, based solely on his exterior. In this sense it is not unlike racism or sexism, or homophobia itself.”
Lookism, then, does more than position someone as merely unattractive. It denies one’s very humanity on the basis of culturally-determined aesthetic standards. In gay male culture, it is not enough to be thin; rather, one must embody a set of idealized aesthetic characteristics in order to be considered desirable and worthy. Sizeism and lookism combine to create an ideal that is impossible for most to achieve.
Diet culture is hard to recognize within the context of gay male culture because it often appears dressed in a masculine guise to make its precepts more palatable to gay men. Gay men talk about “fitness journeys,” “gyming,” “gym goals,” and “meal prepping” — not dieting. But asHarrisonexplains, diet culture also “masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness.” This facet of diet culture is only amplified within the masculinized space of mainstream gay male culture.
Gay men may also engage in “clean eating” — another form of dieting under the guise of “health” — as a way to manage the stigma of being gay through appeals to bodily cleanliness and moral superiority. The assumption is that if we eat foods that are “clean,” we are, by extension, “clean,” and if we eat “unhealthy” foods we are therefore “contaminated” or “dirty.” I admit that for awhile I got into “clean eating,” in part, as a way to feel morally superior to other gay/queer men. My thought process was that if I didn’t have the ideal body aesthetic, I could at least feel better about myself because I was eating “cleaner” in comparison to others. In reality, food holds no moral value outside the value a culture — in this case Western diet culture — ascribes to it.
The invisibility of diet culture within gay male culture also results in some gay men seeing the end results of their personal “fitness journeys” as something all gay men can attain through discipline and hard work. The message is that anyone can achieve acceptance within gay culture if only they hit the gym and eat “healthy.” Such messages are diet culture dressed up as “fitness inspiration.” They may further be seen as anti-homophobic messages — not diet messages — because gay men may link their “fitness journeys” to overcoming bullying, harassment, and internalized shame.
The majority of these men, in the words of Harrison, “were born on third base but think they batted a triple.” Genetic privilege allows them to more easily conform to the normate gay ideal. Feminist activist and educator Warren Farrell refers to this phenomenon as “genetic celebrity,” or, the largely unearned adoration we bestow upon those whose physical appearances, based upon random combinations of genetic factors, fall within the parameters of what a particular culture deems “attractive” and thus desirable and worthy.
While thin or “fit” gay men may also suffer from body image issues that intersect with experiences of homophobia, they should simultaneously acknowledge their thin privilege and the fact that they do not have to face the pervasive stigma and stress experienced by those who live in larger bodies. Put differently, there is no system of oppression that marginalizes thin people in the ways sizeism and lookism oppress those who are larger.
Pointing out the extent diet culture and gay male culture are enmeshed is challenging because it unsettles notions gay men have long held as truths. It is difficult for some gay men to acknowledge and surrender the social and sexual privileges conferred by normate gay status and to work towards collective body liberation.
Riot, Not Diet
In the now classic feminist analysis of the beauty industry,The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf refers to diets as “political sedatives.” Wolf argues that if women’s focus is primarily directed to their physical appearance and the attainment of “beauty,” they cannot effectively create political and social change.Christy Harrisonfurther explains that dieting “keeps us from changing the status quo, from speaking out and rebelling against the things that don’t work for us, and from reshaping society in ways that align with our values.” Dieting, in essence, diminishes our political efficacy — our ability to meaningfully impact change. It keeps gay/queer men from challenging the status quo and living out our full potential as well.
The Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969 are often cited as the origin myth of modern gay liberation (though, in fact, the Gay Rights Movement began several decades prior and a liberationist mentality developed across the United States simultaneous to Stonewall). Our gay ancestors, nevertheless, rioted, fought, and died so we would have the right to exist proudly and without shame. This includes the liberation of our bodies — not just sexually — but in all ways.
The solution is not for women and fems to prioritize the inclusion of gay/queer men within ongoing body liberation movements. Gay men must do it themselves, must create their own movement informed by existing critiques, and must give up the hesitance to address diet culture and body liberation because dismantling long-held ideals means relinquishing the status and privilege that comes from normative masculinity. An essential first step is to recognize where and how diet culture operates within gay male culture. We must, as our gay predecessors did, and as a popular third-wave feminist slogan tell us:
WHEN Ivan was decked by a coward punch in Sydney he thought he might die. He prayed for a hero, and got three drag queens.
A MAN who was decked by a coward punch while on a night out in Sydney, and said he feared for his life, was rescued by a trio of unlikely saviours.
Ivan Flinn, 34, from Surry Hills, said that during the attack earlier this month he hoped someone would come to his rescue. Help did arrive but not in the form he expected.
“I am a bit religious and I really thought I was going to die, I was praying for a hero and I got three angels,” he told news.com.au.
Those “angels” were three drag queens by the names of Coco Jumbo, Ivy Leaguee and Vybe. They stepped in after a night performing on the stages in Sydney’s neighbourhood of Darlinghurst, known for its large gay population and venues.
Luke Karakia, who performs under the name Ivy Leaguee, ended up getting injured scuffling in the middle of the road with one of the alleged attackers. Nevertheless, his frocked-up alter ego didn’t think twice before stepping in.
“Those boys sh*t themselves, they weren’t ready for some drag queens on top of them”.
Mr Flinn is so grateful to the three for racing in to his rescue he’s helped raise $1000 to help them pay for their wigs and high heels that were damaged in the fracas.
The IT project manager, originally from New Zealand, said he had left a local bar on the famous gay strip of Oxford Street after midnight on August 6 and had headed to a local kebab shop to get some sustenance for the trip home.
Almost immediately he noticed a group of rowdy people behind him. “There were heaps of homophobic slurs, ‘you f**king f*ggot, you queer c**t,” all the slurs you can possibly imagine.”
“I said ‘dude, don’t ever use the word f*ggot and specially not on Oxford Street of all places’”
The advice did not go down well. Mr Flinn alleges one of the man then attacked him, ripped his shirt and punched him, dislocating his jaw.
“He was really abusive, he had intent to assault.
“After the punch I was stunned but the next thing I knew Ivy went in and was scrapping with the guy who punched me. They’re in the middle of the road, cars swerving around them, tooting, and I saw the guy rip her wig off.
“They were bashing each other and she’s still wearing her high heels.”
Ivy told news.com.au she was with her fellow performers getting an after work kebab when she noticed “dick heads being dick heads” shouting homophobic slurs
One man turned to Ivy, she claims, and called her a freak. “I said, ‘I am a freak, I’m one of the freaks of Oxford Street, now get out of this shop’.
“And then little Ivan walked into the middle of it.”
Ivy said she saw Mr Flinn get attacked and she wasn’t having it. “I said, ‘you want to pick on little guys, you’ll need to fight the big freak. I’m a man underneath all of this, so let’s go.”
Luke Waqa, who performs as Coco Jumbo, also piled in.
“A guy pushed Ivy so I picked him up and threw him into the gutter.
“I don’t think they knew what they were getting themselves into. I used to play rugby league. Plus I have an older brother,” Coco said.
“He tried to run away and I chased him into the oncoming traffic. I’m surprised my wig didn’t come off.”
Ivy’s wig certainly did come off in the scuffle — it was destroyed — while she said she sustained injuries on her leg as the two of them grappled on the road.
She thought the attackers came off worse though. “These big burly guys couldn’t even throw a punch, all they could do was pull hair and run.”
Mr Flinn, the trio of performers and the alleged attackers all spoke to police at the scene.
A NSW Police spokeswoman confirmed to news.com.au officers broke up an attack in Darlinghurst earlier this month involving up to seven people.
“Police are continuing to investigate the incident, including a possible motivation of homophobic bias.
“NSW Police treats all matters of violence extremely seriously, including bias crimes motivated by sexuality or gender.”
Ivy said she wasn’t afraid of what she might be getting herself into.
“I don’t have a problem defending myself. Growing up gay, I’ve been picked on and bullied and there comes a time when you fight back and you don’t care if you’ll get hurt or what happens to your wig.
“I may be gay but I’m a man and if you’ll hit me I’ll hit you back,” she said.
Mr Flinn said he was amazed by the three of them.
“I really thought I was going to die that night if he had kept punching me.
“Everyone was silent but they reacted so quickly. The drag queens fought my fight for me, they are my heroes.”
He said he started theGoFundMe fundraising driveto try and replace some of the damaged clothes. He is due to hand over the proceeds this weekend.
“Drag queens are the strongest people in the LGBTI community. They stand there and say this is who I am and I’m proud.
“They saved my life, I wanted to thank them”.
Ivy said it was “disgusting” some people came to Oxford St to cause trouble. However, she said there had been very few incidents in her seven years on the scene and the community looked after its own.
“There are idiots everywhere but don’t come to our street and expect us to just take it.”
Coco said she had a simple message for the homophobes: “Don’t mess with gay people. Let alone two men dressed as women. Silly boys.”
She said they weren’t fazed by the damaged outfits and were touched by Mr Flinn’s fundraising.
“It’s all just materials at the end of the day, there’s no use crying over split lace.
WhenRobert Herbert and John Bramstonsailed home to England after six years in the new colony of Queensland, John’s younger brother remained. A ‘confirmed bachelor’, Henry Bramston played a prominent role in Brisbane life but was quickly forgotten after his death.
Robert Herbert, private secretary to Sir George Bowen, arrived in Brisbane in November 1859 to prepare the official welcome for Bowen in his role as Queensland’s first Governor. On his arrival, Bowen appointed Herbert to head the government of the new colony. John Bramston arrived next in January 1860. He had lived with Herbert since they met at university a few years before. Bramston took over as Bowen’s private secretary and later stood for election to parliament himself. Finally, Bramston’s younger brother Henry disembarked in Brisbane in February. Sailing from England to Australia took about three months at the time, indicating the threesome planned their staggered arrivals.
In 1864, Henry and a friend bought a property out in the bush near Roma with Robert Herbert and John Bramston as partners. The next year, the same year that his brother became Attorney-General, Henry received a very convenient government appointment as magistrate at Roma. Such blatant nepotism did not always provoke the same indignation then as now. Henry remained in the public service until the end of his life.
Despite various rural appointments, he mainly lived in Brisbane. He proved a more social animal than either his brother or Herbert. That pair preferred the splendid isolation of their 50-acre farm. However, they were rarely alone at Herston. Robert Herbert and John Bramston welcomed a constant stream of similarly upper-class Englishmen who like themselves favoured boating, fishing, hunting and camping over elegant soirées.
The local squattocracy generally laid on lavish social events in honour of unmarried British gentry resident in the colony. They seized on the opportunity to enhance their social standing by marrying their daughters to toffs. However, it seems the local nobs quickly discerned that Robert Herbert, John Bramston and younger brother Henry had little interest in vows of matrimony.
A busy man
Henry Bramston was a man about town and something of a dandy — an immaculate dresser and partial to fine jewellery.
He served on the Acclimatisation Society, Philharmonic Society, Hospital and Turf Club committees and on the board of the National Association which ran the annual exhibition. He also worked tirelessly to raise funds for the construction of Fortitude Valley’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church.
Henry owned a house opposite where the Normanby Hotel now stands. His gardens were much celebrated, particularly his potted plants and flowering ornamentals.
He was a busy man.
The BrisbaneCourierrecords him ‘donning the pink’ to act as Clerk of Course at the races and organising balls at the School of Arts. He both supervised the Horticultural competition at the Ekka and won many of the prizes in that same competition.
At the 1878 Ekka, he won 21 of the 39 awards for ornamental plants. Although he did not enter any pansies in the competition, he encouraged others to cultivate the large-flowered hybrid. He donated ten shillings for the best three pansies; the same for the best single pansy; and £1 for the best collection of five pansies.
Henry’s voluminous correspondence at times made the Letters column of the BrisbaneCourierseem like his personal Facebook page. He reached for his quill to compose comments on any and every topic. Among his favoured subjects — hospital rules. Henry enthralled readers with lengthy treatises seemingly designed to smother with micro-management any patients who survived their ailments.
Henry did not tolerate dissent. Only courageous souls dared propose concepts contrary to the Bramston Manifesto. First and foremost, he objected to charitable endowments that resulted in free treatment for the hoi-polloi. He abhorred benevolence toward a class of people he insisted ‘would never work for what they could get by begging’.
A bit rich coming from a bloke who owed his position in life to a family connection.
He took particular offence at a proposed children’s hospital, concerned that tending to sick children would encourage the lower classes to breed.
A frequent postscript epitomised his routine tone.
“I have written plainly… and if I have offended or hurt anyone’s feelings, I can only crave pardon for so doing.”
Crave pardon as he might, Henry tolerated neither dissension nor any slight against his esteemed self — nor his prized bay gelding.
When Henry entered the horse in the harness competition at the Ekka, Prince took second place. That bewildered a newspaper editor who thought the prize undeserved. He ridiculed Prince as using ‘his forelegs as though they were a pair of crutches’ and likened the horse to a cockroach.
How very dare he! Henry dashed off an outraged response.
“I must crave permission to take exception to your remarks.”
Henry Bramston eventually ran into financial difficulties. He overspent during the construction of a grand mansion on 20 acres at Ascot and was forced to sell everything, including his prize-winning pot plants.
He then moved to Newstead and died in 1891 in a private hospital on James St.
Following his death, the newspapers eulogised Henry Bramston as ‘a very old citizen of Brisbane’. But Henry was only 55 years of age. He merely seemed old because of his constant fussing and ‘fuddy-duddy’ nature.
Bitchy old New Farm Queen
In truth, Henry would fit easily into Brisbane’s inner-city suburbs today. We may loathe to admit it, but most Brisbanites have either said or heard the phrase, ‘bitchy old New Farm queen’.
Unlike the elder brother he followed to Queensland, there is no evidence beyond stereotype to indicate his sexuality.
Assuming Henry Bramston was gay because he fitted a stereotype would now arouse angry indignation. We insist emphatically — and correctly — that our communities are diverse. Not all gay men are effeminate, and not all lesbians are butch.
But stereotypes did not simply emerge from the ether. Something inspired them.
Stereotypes arose because of the commonalities manifested by people the general public became aware were same-sex attracted. The most obvious were generally effeminate men and butch women. While not representative, the individuals who refused to conform to heteronormativity were our public face.
Their visibility promoted tolerance of difference long before we dared advocate for law reform.
Likewise, many now disparage the mincing Mr Humphries fromAre You Being Served?as a derogatory stereotype. Yet, mainstream television audiences of the 1970s and early 80s loved the character. They laughed with him, not at him.
Here’s a little secret!
LGBTIQ+ people also loved him. He gave us visibility, and the show promoted acceptance. While amused by the camp eccentricities of Wilberforce Humphries, his co-workers never displayed the slightest intolerance towards his sexuality.
Lilian Cooper also warrants mention as Queensland’s pioneering female doctor and one half of a same-sex couple who lived together openly for half a century. Few accounts of Lilian fail to mention her butchness — both in dress and manner. YetLilian Cooper and Josephine Bedfordbecame revered Brisbane citizens for their considerable civic contributions.
In our commitment to repudiating stereotypes, we should not deny their role in advancing our cause. In an era of persecution and prosecution, likeable but stereotypical gay men and women bequeathed our communities visibility and increased acceptance.
Queensland’s arch-homophobe Phyllis Cilento clearly recognised their impact. She admonished her readers on the subject in 1953.
“The danger now is that after the first revulsion of feeling against homosexuality, people will become used to the idea, and take it for granted as ‘just one of those things’…
“They will look around… and find homosexuals among men they formerly admired for their intellectual and artistic achievements or liked for their friendly and gentle manner, and they will feel that really this cannot be so heinous a crime.”
Bachelors and spinsters
The generation of Brisbane bachelors who followed Henry came of age at a time of increased wealth and more frequent social opportunities. Newspapers documented the social lives of nattily dressed ‘eligible bachelors’. Admiring belles surrounded the elegantly attired young men at every garden party, picnic race or masquerade ball. Their ranks included Claude Musson, the stock and station agent who orchestrated the city’s ‘gayest’ balls. And also ‘pretty Willie Morse with his golden curls’, whose father owned the Orient Hotel. Joining their coterie was George Love Warry, scion of a wealthy storekeeping family.
With a wink and a nod, the papers wryly noted that as the years rolled by, some of the town’s most popular single men moved from the column of ‘eligible bachelor’ to that of ‘ineligible bachelor’.
So was the general public as unaware and intolerant of LGBTIQ+ people as commonly asserted?
Or was discussion of LGBTIQ+ people suppressed — and the hatred towards us directed — by the usual suspects? Were they the same people who cause us grief today — clerics insistent on universal submission to their personal god, politicians thirsting for notoriety and sensationalist media?
Let us not forget that those same people acted as arbiters of our history. ‘History is written by the victors.’ But only temporarily. As time goes by, locked archives are accessed and previously hidden memoirs published. However, to some degree, queer history remains hostage to the people who refused us any input into the chronicles of our existence. We were, after all, ‘unfit for publication’.
They told us, for example, how much ‘normal’ people despised homosexuals and illustrated their point with evidence such as the prosecution of Oscar Wilde.
But wait a moment!
Did the public actually despise Oscar Wilde? They continued to buy his books and attend his plays. Decades later, students continued to study Wilde’sThe Importance of Being Earnestas part of the Queensland high school English curriculum. That was despite Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen banning gay teachers in his quest to eradicate the scourge of homosexuality.
In recent years, as researchers gained access to previously ignored or hidden archives, we learned the stories of less famous LGBTIQ+ people.
We now know that Yorkshire’s Anne Lister, the notorious ‘Gentleman Jack’, managed to live an open, if not publicly discussed, life as a lesbian in the 1830s.
In Brisbane, Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford lived together as a couple, worked together as a couple and were invited to social events together which they then attended as a couple. Did no one ever think, “Hold on? I wonder if this couple is a couple?’
Likewise, did no one quietly ponder the living arrangements of Robert Herbert and John Bramston? Just a decade later, Queensland’s elite did not hesitate to employ homophobia against thefoppish Governor Cairns. But Herbert and Bramston supported policies which enriched the local nobs. Cairns, on the other hand, advocated for Aboriginal people to have the same legal rights as anyone else. He fought against their dispossession and murder and was aghast at the enslavement of South Sea Islanders. The local establishment attacked the Governor not because of his sexuality but because of his insistence on fair and proper governance which would impact their profits.
The Elephant in the Room
Were we actually the social pariahs we’ve always thought?
Certainly, members of our communities did risk prosecution even if surprisingly few actually faced it. Definitely, we suffered prejudice, as we still do. We were sometimes subjected to violence, as we still are.
But with increased access to secrets of the past, we learn of LGBTIQ+ people who did not lead furtive and sorrowful lives: people who benefitted from tolerance in their communities even if their difference remained unstated.
Perhaps we were just another elephant in the room.
Public discussion ignored plenty of other social phenomena in days gone by. Issues like domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and others remained taboo in polite society.
One night in the 1990s, I partook of a few drinks with my mother and grandmother. We reminisced about life in my small rural home town in the 1960s. Our memories travelled house to house as we discussed people we remembered. I mentioned an out of the way house which I knew nothing of except that a single man in his early thirties lived there alone — unusual in a small country town.
I once waited in the car while my father popped in there for some reason.
“Ah yes,” they told me, “The barman. That’s where men went when their wives weren’t putting out.”
I always assumed that only heterosexual sex ever occurred in our remote rural outpost — that even the cattle copulated exclusively in missionary position and with the lights off.
But no! In rural Queensland in the 1960s, gay sex occurred and the entire bloody town — except me apparently — knew about it and tolerated it.
Why it’s impossible to Sorkin-ize the great revolutionary clown.
At the end of his autobiography,Soon to be a Major Motion Picture,60s radical activist Abbie Hoffman includes a sarcastic epilogue retracting everything he has ever believed. At the time he wrote the book, Hoffman was living underground, on the run from the law on drug charges, and he offered to give the following “confession” in exchange for readmission into respectable society:
You know, I’m really sorry and I wanna come home. I love the flag, blue for truth. White for right. Red for blood our boys shed in war. I love my mother. I was wrong to tell kids to kill their parents… Spoiled, selfish brats made the sixties. Forgive me, Mother. I love Jesus, the smooth arch of his back, his long blond curls. Jesus died for all of us, even us Jews. Thank you, Lord. … I love Israel as protector of Western civilization. Most of my thinking was the result of brainwashing by KGB agents… I hate drugs. They are bad for you. Marijuana has a terrible effect on the brain. It makes you forget everything you learned in school… I only used it to lure young virgins into bed. I’m very ashamed of this. Cocaine is murderous. It makes you sex crazy and gets uneducated people all worked up. Friends are kidding themselves when they say it’s nonaddictive. The nose knows, and the nose says no… Once I burned money at the stock exchange. This was way out of line. People work hard to make money. Even stockbrokers work hard. No one works hard in Bangladesh—that’s why they are starving today and we are not. … Communism is evil incarnate. You can see it in Karl Marx’s beady eyes, long nose, and the sneering smile behind his beard….Our artists are all perverts except, of course, for the late Norman Rockwell. …Our system of democracy is the best in the world… Now can I come back?
Part of Hoffman’s life is now indeed a major motion picture, Netflix’sThe Trial of the Chicago 7,written and directed byTheWest Wingcreator Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is an unfortunate choice to bring Abbie Hoffman to the screen, since Sorkin’s basic worldview is one Hoffman completely rejected.TheWest Wingis known for showing a faith in good liberal technocrats to govern wisely, yet Hoffman was a “burn down the system” anarchistic radical. Sure enough, Sorkin’s Hoffman is almost the Jesus-loving patriot of the actual Hoffman’s biting satire.
The story of the Chicago 7 is one that needs to be remembered, so we can be glad that Netflix chose to bring it to the screen. After the 1968 Democratic convention, at which antiwar protesters clashed with Chicago police and were savagely beaten, shocking the country, the Nixon administration brought charges against a number of the event organizers.Nixon’s justice departmentwanted to teach the New Left a lesson in order to demonstrate it was serious about “restoring law and order,” and the charges against the defendants were flimsy. The trial itself was a farce, thanks in part to a biased judge who saw conviction as a foregone conclusion. But the defendants, instead of accepting their fate, decided to use the media attention being paid to the trial to publicize the cause of the antiwar movement, and called an array of celebrity witnesses (Dick Gregory, Allen Ginsberg, Jesse Jackson, Judy Collins, Norman Mailer, Arlo Guthrie, and even former attorney general Ramsey Clark) to “put the government on trial” and turn a political persecution into a media event that would keep the left’s message on the national agenda. Ultimately, while most of the defendants were convicted of conspiracy to riot, the convictions were overturned on appeal and the government dropped the case. The Chicago 7 trial’s historical significance is (1) as an example of the American government trying to criminalize dissent and intimidate the political left through selective prosecution and (2) as an example of how defendants can successfully fight back through turning a trial into a media spectacle and winning in the “court of public opinion.”
Abbie Hoffman, the most charismatic and media-savvy defendant, was one of the most colorful figures of the ‘60s left. Coming from a serious activist background as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Hoffman’s Youth International Party (Yippies) engaged in attention-grabbing stunts to publicize left causes. Infamously, Hoffman sneaked into the New York Stock Exchange and dumped dollar bills onto the trading floor, sending brokers scrambling for cash. In a giant antiwar march, he led a group trying to perform an “exorcism” of the Pentagon and send it off into space. At Woodstock, Hoffman scuffled with Pete Townshend of The Who when Hoffman stormed the stage to give a political speech. Hoffman’sSteal This Bookgives advice on how to shoplift, deal drugs, and live free through all manner of scams.
Hoffman was an attention-seeker and provocateur, but he was also serious in his moral commitment to ending the Vietnam War, and his often-ludicrous counterculture antics came from a hatred of selfishness, authoritarianism, racism, and militarism. He was a utopian and an absurdist, but by pushing the boundaries of what civilized society could tolerate, he helped to make it freer.
Sorkin’s film does portray Hoffman relatively positively—even though Sorkinadmittedhe couldn’t really relate to him and found him somewhat intolerable—and Sacha Baron Cohen gives a strong performance. In fact,The Trial of the Chicago 7presents Hoffman as charming, colorful, rebellious, and committed to using theatrics as a serious form of protest, a un-loving counterweight to fellow defendant Tom Hayden, who comes across as a humorless prig (though a somewhat unpleasant note at the end of the film mentions that Hayden went on to serve a number of terms in the California legislature while Hoffman ultimately “killed himself,” perhaps Sorkin’s way of suggesting that in the long run the ‘work within the system’ types will prevail). Sorkin’s Hoffman is not held up as a figure of ridicule, but rather as someone who has a different notion of how to help the antiwar movement.
Yet whileThe Trial of the Chicago 7is sympathetic to Hoffman, it also softens him in a way that ultimately amounts to historical fabrication. In the climax of Sorkin’s film, Hoffman takes to the stand and defends the protesters actions by invoking Lincoln and Jesus, and gives a tribute to democracy that could have come fromTheWest Wing.[Update: have since discovered Sorkin in factdirectly recycledWest Wingdialogue for theChicago 7movie.] “I think our institutions of democracy are a wonderful thing that right now are populated by some terrible people,” Hoffman tells the court. In the film, Hoffman is a relatively benign spokesman for the basic right of dissent.
In reality,Hoffman’s testimonywas far more radical. He even read out the Yippies’ list of demands, which included, among other things:
an immediate end to the war
“a restructuring of our foreign policy which totally eliminates aspects of military, economic and cultural imperialism
the withdrawal of all foreign based troops and the abolition of military draft”
“immediate freedom for Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and all other black people”
“the legalization of marijuana and all other psychedelic drugs;
the freeing of all prisoners currently imprisoned on narcotics charges,”
“the abolition of all laws related to crimes without victims,”
“the total disarmament of all the people beginning with the police,”
“the abolition of money, the abolition of pay housing, pay media, pay transportation, pay food, pay education. pay clothing, pay medical health, and pay toilets,”
“a program of ecological development that would provide incentives for the decentralization of crowded cities and encourage rural living,”
“a program which provides not only free birth control information and devices, but also abortions when desired.”
Hoffman was a revolutionary, not just a critic of the war, and he said so plainly. But Sorkin cuts the bits of Hoffman’s speech that would endear him far less to a mainstream audience. For instance, Sorkin keeps the part of Hoffman’ssentencing statementin which he suggested Lincoln would have been arrested if he had done what the defendants did. He removes the parts where Hoffman offers the judge LSD, says riots are fun, calls George Washington a pothead, and says that Alexander Hamilton probably deserved to be shot. This stuff is, yes, clownish, but it was part of Hoffman’s effort to turn the whole proceeding into an absurdity.
Sorkin takes other creative liberties with history that end up distorting it. Sometimes these are arbitrary, small, and relatively harmless (defendant Lee Weiner wasextremely hairy and hippie-ishbut is presented in the film as clean-cut and nerdy). Bobby Seale, the Black Panther defendant who was infamously bound and gagged in the courtroom when he continuously spoke out about the violation of his right to counsel, actually managed to repeatedly wriggle out of the physical restraints the government put on him; the film portrays the government as effective in silencing him. Worse are things like portraying the prosecutor (an anti-communist ideologue in real life) as an agonized, conflicted idealist who sticks up for civil rights. Or showing Quaker pacifist Dave Dellinger punching a cop. Or treating the Panthers, armed revolutionaries, as peaceniks who preferred words to guns.
The film’s biggest problems come from the fact that Aaron Sorkin subscribes to an ideology I call Obamaism-Sorkinism (like Marxism-Leninism). The tenets of this ideology are that American institutions are fundamentally good, and that while we argue, ultimately our interests do not conflict, and nobody is evil or irredeemable. So of course the prosecutor is good. It could not be that Hoffman et al. want to destroy everything the prosecutor holds dear and create a society of sex, drugs, and rock & roll that would horrify him.
To me, the most disturbing way in which Obamaism-Sorkinism infiltrates the film is in the treatment of the Vietnam War. American liberalshave a tendency to think of the war as a noble mistake, and to focus on the deaths of American troops rather than Vietnamese civilians. In reality, antiwar radicals did not usually speak in the name of the troops against the government, but instead spoke up for the Vietnamese.The Trial of the Chicago 7shows protesters waving American flags; they would probably have been waving Viet Cong flags. (Hoffman got into a tussle with a court marshal when he tried to bring a Viet Cong flag into the courtroom, an incidentcaptured in the courtroom sketches.) The film ends with Tom Hayden upsetting the judge by reading out the names of the American war dead. This incident didn’t happen, but whatdidhappen at sentencing was David Dellinger making a plea on behalf of those oppressed by the United States:
[W]hatever happens to us, however unjustified, will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people, to the black people in this country, to the criminals with whom we are now spending our days in the Cook County jail. I must have already lived longer than the normal life expectancy of a black person born when I was born, or born now. I must have already lived longer, 20 years longer, than the normal life expectancy in the underdeveloped countries which this country is trying to profiteer from and keep under its domain and control… [S]ending us to prison, any punishment the Government can impose upon us, will not solve the problem of this country’s rampant racism, will not solve the problem of economic injustice, it will not solve the problem of the foreign policy and the attacks upon the underdeveloped people of the world. The Government has misread the times in which we live, just like there was a time when it was possible to keep young people, women, black people, Mexican-American, anti-war people, people who believe in truth and justice and really believe in democracy, which it is going to be possible to keep them quiet or suppress them.
Instead of choosing to end with a moment of tribute to American soldiers (as uncontroversial a statement as it is possible to make), Sorkin could have ended with the defendants’ real-life statements calling out the country for its hypocrisy and injustice. He decided not to.
There is something odd and troubling in the way that Sorkin has Abbie Hoffman cite the Book of Matthew on the stand, as if to suggest that every real American is a flag-waving patriot who loves Jesus and the troops. (Recall Hoffman’s epilogue.) In fact, one of the most interesting elements of the real Chicago 7 trial was an ongoing tussle between Abbie and the judge, Julius Hoffman, over the meaning of their shared Jewish identity (not to mention surname). Abbie Hoffman infamously threw Yiddish slang at Judge Hoffman, calling him a “schtunk” (stinker/vulgar person) and a “shanda fur die goyim” (a Jew who embarrasses other Jewish people by doing the dirty work of the gentiles). Abbie called the judge “Julie” and said he would have been a glad servant of the Nazi regime. Abbie Hoffman drew much of his approach to rebellion from Jewish culture—from Jewish anarchism and the prophetic tradition to the comedy records of Lenny Bruce—and he believed the judge was choosing to serve the WASP elite in its persecution of racial and religious minorities. (Interestingly, Judge Hoffman seemed to have a strange soft spot for Abbie; many of Abbie’s most savage criticisms were grounded in a moral appeal to their shared cultural ties.)
We see, inThe Trial of the Chicago 7, some of the ways that the defendants mocked the court (such as, for example, by coming in wearing judicial robes and talking out of turn). But the transcripts are rich with absurdity, and I think Sorkin left most of it out because it doesn’t really make for a good courtroomdrama, since it was a ridiculous courtroomcomedy. Below are a few of my favorite snippets from a transcript loaded with ludicrousness:
From Allen Ginsberg’s testimony
MR. WEINGLASS (DEFENSE ATTORNEY):
Let me ask this: Mr. Ginsberg, I show you an object marked 150 for identification, and I ask you to examine that object.
Yes. [Ginsberg is handed a harmonium and begins to play it.]
MR. FORAN (PROSECUTOR):
All right. Your Honor, that is enough. I object to it, your Honor. I think it is outrageous for counsel to—
You asked him to examine it, and instead of that he played a tune on it. I sustain the objection.
It adds spirituality to the case, sir.
Will you remain quiet, sir.
I am sorry.
Having examined that, could you identify it for the court and jury?
It is an instrument known as the harmonium, which I used at the press conference at the Americana Hotel. It is commonly used in India.
I object to that.
I sustain the objection.
Will you explain to the Court and to the jury what chant you were chanting at the press conference?
I was chanting a mantra called the “Mala Mantra,” the great mantra of preservation of that aspect of the Indian religion called Vishnu the Preserver. Every time human evil rises so high that the planet itself is threatened, and all of its inhabitants and their children are threatened, Vishnu will preserve a return.
Abbie Hoffman pipes up about the jailing of David Dellinger
Mr. Marshall, will you ask the defendant Hoffman to remain quiet?
You are a tyrant, you know that.
The judges in Nazi Germany ordered sterilization. Why don’t you do that, Judge Hoffman?
Just keep quiet.
We should have done this long ago when you chained and gagged Bobby Seale. Mafia-controlled pigs. We should have done it. It’s a shame this building wasn’t ripped down.
Mr. Marshal, order him to remain quiet.
Order us? Order us? You got to cut our tongues out to order us, Julie. You railroaded Seale so he wouldn’t get a jury trial either. Four years for contempt without a jury trial. No, I won’t shut up. I ain’t an automaton like you. Best friend the blacks ever had, huh? How many blacks are in the Drake Towers? How many are in the Standard Club? How many own stock in Brunswick Corporation? [references to the judge’s condo building andan exclusive club for local Jewish leaders]
Bring in the jury, please.
From the testimony of Timothy Leary
MR. KUNSTLER (DEFENSE ATTORNEY):
I call your attention to March of 1968, somewhere in the middle of March, and I ask you if you can recall being present at a press conference?
Prior to this press conference had you had any other meetings with Jerry and Abbie?
Yes, we had met two or three times during the spring.
Your Honor, I object to the constant use of the diminutives in the reference to the defendants.
Your Honor, sometimes it is hard because we work together in this case, we use first names constantly.
I know, but if I knew you that well, and I don’t, how would it seem for me to say, “Now, Billy—”
Your Honor, it is perfectly acceptable to me—if I could have the reverse privilege.
I don’t like it. I have disapproved of it before and I ask you now to refer to the defendants by their surnames.
I was just thinking I hadn’t been called “Billy” since my mother used that word the first time.
I haven’t called you that.
It evokes some memories.
I was trying to point out to you how absurd it sounds in a courtroom.
From the testimony of Judy Collins
Who was present at that press conference?
There were a number of people who were singers, entertainers. Jerry Rubin was there, Abbie Hoffman was there. Allen Ginsberg was there, and sang a mantra.
Now what did you do at that press conference?
Well—[sings] “Where have all the flowers…”
Just a minute, young lady.
[sings] “—where have all the flowers gone?”
DEPUTY MARSHAL JOHN J. GRACIOUS:
I’m sorry. The Judge would like to speak to you.
We don’t allow any singing in this Court. I’m sorry.
May I recite the words?
Well, your Honor, we have had films. I think it is as legitimate as a movie. It is the actual thing she did, she sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which is a well-known peace song, and she sang it, and the jury is not getting the flavor.
You asked her what she did, and she proceeded to sing.
That is what she did, your Honor.
That’s what I do.
And that has no place in a United States District Court. We are not here to be entertained, sir. We are trying a very important case.
This song is not an entertainment, your Honor. This is a song of peace, and what happens to young men and women during wartime.
I forbid her from singing during the trial. I will not permit singing in this Courtroom.
Why not, your Honor? What’s wrong with singing?
May I respond? This is about the fifth time this has occurred. Each time your Honor has directed Mr. Kunstler that it was improper in the courtroom. It is an old and stale joke in this Courtroom, your Honor. Now, there is no question that Miss Collins is a fine singer. In my family my six kids and I all agree that she is a fine singer, but that doesn’t have a thing to do with this lawsuit nor what my profession is, which is the practice of law in the Federal District Court, your Honor, and I protest Mr. Kunstler constantly failing to advise his witnesses of what proper decorum is, and I object to it on behalf of the Government.
I sustain the objection.
From the testimony of Abbie Hoffman
Did you intend that the people who surrounded the Pentagon should do anything of a violent nature whatever to cause the building to rise 300 feet in the air and be exorcised of evil spirits?
I sustain the objection.
Could you indicate to the Court and jury whether or not the Pentagon was, in fact, exorcised of its evil spirits?
Yes, I believe it was. . . .
The defendants and the witnesses sang, they shouted, they showed utter contempt for the entire process. Defense attorney William Kunstler says that that “defense table was strewn with dozens and dozens of books (plus clothing, papers, candywrappers, and other assorted debris)” because the defendants treated the courtroom like their living room. They read books throughout the trial. They undermined the authority of the court at every turn, calling the judge by his first name (when they weren’t calling him a fascist) and thumbing their noses at all of his rulings. “Our whole defense strategy was geared around trying to give the judge a heart attack,” Hoffmanjoked, “because we weren’t going to beat the charge.” Sorkin portrays little of this, and I’m not surprised: how can someone who believes in process and institutions accurately portray the total breakdown of process and institutions that occurred in the Chicago 7 trial?
I have had a feeling of spiritual kinship toward Abbie Hoffman since my undergraduate years at Brandeis University. He loomed large among leftists on campus when I was there, as one of the university’s most famous alums—although one never boasted about on the admissions brochures. (The Sorkin film does contain a wonderful exchange in which buttoned-up Tom Hayden says to “tell Abbie we’re going to Chicago to protest the war, not to fuck around,” and Abbie replies, “Tell Tom Hayden I went to Brandeis and I can do both.”) Abbie was an inspiration because he was joyous, funny, and never sold out. He did somersaults in front of the courthouse. His colleague Jerry Rubin may have entered the world of business, but Abbie spent much of his post-1960s life fleeing from the government on drug charges, and then as part of the environmental movement. In the years just before his death in 1989, hewas stilla proud warrior for the counterculture. Fellow defendant Lee Weiner, in his autobiographyConspiracy to Riot, describes Abbie as“vibrant, aglow with energy and political wit and satire in the service of changing America and ending the war,” with “long untamed hair and a joyful, full faced smile.” He says Abbie was “impossible not to like—at least most of the time.” Abbie was a revolutionary with a spirit of optimism and fun, the kind of person the left needs if it’s going to build mass support.
ABBIE HOFFMAN IN VARIOUS COURTROOM SKETCHES, 1970
Far from being a Jesus-loving patriot, Abbie Hoffman was a proud loudmouthed communist Jew who spat at everything pious and self-serious. (The epigraph of his autobiography is an anonymous hate letter he received that reads: “Dear Abbie: wait till Jesus gets his hands on you—you little bastard.”) Far from giving sermons on “the institutions of our democracy,” Hoffmandefendedthe true spirit of democracyagainstour institutions. “I believe in democracy with a passion,” he said, “but it’s more than something you believe in, it’s something you do. We are very complacent because we live in Canada or the United States, we live in ‘democracies’—democracy’s not a place you live in, it’s something you learn how to do and then you go out and do it. And if you don’t do it, you don’t have it.”
I like Abbie Hoffman because he knew how to, in his words, “make outrage contagious.” He pissed people off, but he did it in the name of values worth defending. When he wore his American flag shirt on the Merv Griffin show, the network censors were so horrified that they turned the entire screen blue for the duration of his appearance. In retrospect, it seems incredible that this could ever have been controversial, but the counterculture had not yet won. This was a time when people were roughed up and arrested for having long hair, before the right to abortion had been secured. America had to be liberated from the reactionaries and squares, and the hippies and yippies were a vital part of it.
When Hoffman spoke, he said, he “never tr[ied] to play on the audience’s guilt, and instead appeal to feelings of liberation, a sense of comradeship, and a call to make history. I played all authority as if it were a deranged lumbering bull and the daring matador.” This gleeful “fuck you” anarchist spirit is valuable. It is not people like the Abbie Hoffman ofThe Trial of the Chicago 7—those who dare to memorialize the troops and celebrate our institutions while critiquing them within reason—who are most essential to a thriving democracy. It is people like the actual Abbie Hoffman, who could never have been the subject of an Aaron Sorkin film, because Sorkin would never have been able to get a square liberal audience to like him. Abbie Hoffman was an American original, a great dissident clown who could never, and should never, be considered part of respectable society.
Steal This Archive? Abbie Hoffman’s Papers Become a College Collection
Thousands of letters and other artifacts from the life of the radical prankster of the counterculture are sold to the University of Texas at Austin.
There are notes and letters from other icons of the 1960s. Cards from John and Yoko. A letter from Allen Ginsberg, the poet, offering to help him raise defense money. A plea by Norman Mailer to the governor of New York, seeking executive leniency on his behalf.
The papers of Abbie Hoffman, the puckish activist who gained a national reputation as a radical hippie, make clear the extent to which the tumult of that era regularly swirled around him: the showering of the New York Stock Exchange with dollar bills, the nomination of a pig as a presidential candidate, the turbulent demonstrations that rattled the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Now the trove of letters, manuscripts, photographs, F.B.I. surveillance reports, Christmas cards and thousands of other papers that memorialize Mr. Hoffman and his contentious role in American history have been sold to the University of Texas at Austin by Johanna Hoffman Lawrenson, his third wife and companion for the last 15 years of his life.
They will be housed at the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History where some of the items are to go on display Tuesday after a ceremony to mark the acquisition. Later, after much sorting and cataloging, the rest of the collection will become available to scholars and students.
Abbie Hoffman has not gotten his proper due historically,” Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center, said. “He really was a pathbreaking guy in terms of the street theater approach to gain attention for the causes he advocated, particularly the anti-Vietnam War movement.”
Mr. Hoffman, whose infamously anarchic work, “Steal This Book,” included tips on how to shoplift, might be amused to have his papers end up in so solemn a setting as a university research library. He was arguably the most emblematic figure of the youthful protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, a man who helped coin the term “Yippie” and co-founded the group that took that name. But he was always more of a comic provocateur than an ideologue, specializing in thumbing his nose at institutions and formalities in zany ways.
In 1970, for example, when he and the other so-called Chicago Seven were being tried on charges of conspiring to disrupt the 1968 convention, he taunted the judge, Julius C. Hoffman, for having the same last name by calling him his “illegitimate father.”
The Briscoe Center, which has major collections of papers from figures in the civil rights and antiwar movements, paid Mr. Hoffman’s widow $300,000 for the collection. The payment was covered by a donor’
In an interview, Ms. Lawrenson, a photographer and former fashion model, said she had been living in a one-room Manhattan apartment with 75 boxes of Mr. Hoffman’s papers for 30 years, and felt it was time to give them a useful home.
“I’m hoping the archive will help keep his spirit and his radical legacy alive and serve as a great resource for scholars studying 20th-century activism and organizing,” she said. “Abbie dedicated his life to social change, to creating a more egalitarian, compassionate world.”
Another archive of Abbie Hoffman’s letters and family photographs was collected by his younger brother Jack, who donated it about 10 years ago to the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.
The trial of the Chicago Seven ended with Mr. Hoffman’s conviction for crossing state lines with intent to riot, but an appellate court overturned that decision in 1973. The same year, he was arrested on cocaine trafficking charges, later jumped bail and spent years as a fugitive, living with Ms. Lawrenson partly in Europe and partly in a remote hamlet in upstate New York, where, under the name Barry Freed, he campaigned to protect the St. Lawrence River.
He surfaced in 1980 with typical Hoffman panache, appearing for a Barbara Walters interview on national television. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in the cocaine case and served a four-month sentence. (Mr. Mailer later wrote Gov. Hugh Carey seeking a pardon for this offense.) Through most of the 1980s, he earned a living lecturing at colleges, focusing his activism on environmental issues. Mr. Hoffman, who had long experienced bouts of depression, was found dead at 52 in 1989 at his home in New Hope, Pa., an apparent suicide.
Some of the artifacts in the collection display other sides of Mr. Hoffman’s protean personality: a sober term paper he wrote at Brandeis University about “Internal Group Conflict in the Jewish Community of Worcester, Massachusetts,” for which he received an A grade; a stub of a $150 ticket to Madison Square Garden for the 1971 so- called Fight of the Century between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali; several letters defending his authorship of “Steal This Book” in the face of charges from an East Village buddy that he had stolen the text from him.
One note in the collection suggests that despite Mr. Hoffman’s reputation as an anti-establishment prankster, the seriousness of his intentions was apparent to a broader audience. Former President Jimmy Carter wrote him in 1988, two years after his daughter, Amy, had been arrested with Mr. Hoffman at a protest over campus recruiting by the C.I.A., and discussed the delays in securing the release of American hostages in Iran, who were notably held until the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. In the note, the former president absolved Mr. Hoffman of any responsibility for the arrest of his daughter, whom he referred to as a “strong and independent” woman. All the protesters were acquitted in 1987.
Robert H. Abzug, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Texas, said he was particularly intrigued by documents that outlined the changes in Mr. Hoffman during his years at Brandeis.
He came to the school as a relatively conventional student, wearing a jacket and tie, winning spots on the tennis and wrestling teams, even becoming the tennis team’s captain. But two unconventional professors, Dr. Abzug said, exerted significant influence: Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist who advocated social revolutions, and Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who argued that fostering human growth and self-actualization was more important than repairing neuroses.
Drawing on their ideas during rising ferment among the young, Mr. Hoffman felt liberated and was able to “unleash his personality” and lead “the theatrics ring of the New Left,” Dr. Abzug said. An example in the collection is a poster featured during the 1968 Democratic convention protests picturing Mr. Hoffman with an obscenity scrawled on his forehead and the caption: “The system is falling apart by itself. We’re just here to give it a little push.”
Mr. Hoffman’s style, Dr. Abzug said, entertained young people drawn to the movements of the 1960s and helped break down a stodgy culture as quickly as the ideas of more serious-minded radicals like Tom Hayden.
“It would have been a different era without the yeast of the Yippies and his making fun of a culture that was about to be challenged,” Dr. Abzug said.
Late June’s (2019) 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is making this Pride month a particularly reflective one.
But like a newly minted AARP member flipping through their high school yearbook, the modern gay rights movement’s “Big five-oh” moment brings, with its flood of memories, certain hard questions—not the least of which is: What possessed you to wear that?
“I have, fortunately, no photos publicly available of me during my ’70s platform shoes and glitter rock period,” says Joseph Hawkins, director of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives at the USC Libraries, who spoke with the Blade about how the things we put in our literal closet can liberate us from the figurative one (or keep us there).
“When I look at pictures of people back in the [pre-Stonewall] 1960s,” says the USC Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies, “there was an assimilationist viewpoint, where you wanted to look like a good citizen. I think of people marching in front of the White House, where they’re dressed in their Sunday best.”
“When the consequences of being an out homosexual were damaging to one’s life and career, there had to be codes to letting people know who you were,” observes registrar Branden Wallace, of NYC’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Fashion, Wallace notes, “is a way to express one’s identity, specifically, for the time after Stonewall, when you had this bursting, where queer culture could actually be visible. They took their cues from things that were going on socially, and the trends in fashion, and also developed their own.”
By the late ’60s, Hawkins recalls, “there was a lot of crossover [between the counterculture and gays]—ripped Hawaiian shirts, and ripped jeans. But later, that gave way that whole ‘clone’ thing, which came as a response to the term ‘sissy.’ Even within the gay community, a sissy would be ‘too’ effeminate. In the clone movement, the gay men were going to out-butch straight men.”
There was very little “humor, in these bastions of gay masculinity… seriousness and masculinity were the same thing. That opaque perspective on masculinity was also a mockery of drag queens and effeminate men. They weren’t really men,” recalled Gerald Busby, in a recent Blade article (“Of cowboy drag, cruising, and cocaine”) about the “cowboy” look he donned to make it past the doors of NYC’s Spike and Eagle’s Nest, during the early 1970s.
“It denoted seriousness of commitment to being gay and being masculine, as well as being decisive about what kind of sex you were after,” Busby noted, of the “alignment of costume and behavior… unmistakable symbols of sexual preference, such as blue or red handkerchiefs in left or right rear pockets of jeans, to indicate top or bottom.”
This exaggerated working class “clone” look, whether denim, lumberjack, or leather, Hawkins observes, was, in its own way, a “liberation ideology. Part of what allowed the sexual revolution to occur was this idea that masculinity could be a gay phenomenon. That’s what fed the ‘clone’ thing. It was a response to the idea that gay men couldn’t be masculine.”
Of his above-mentioned platform shoes ’70s look, Hawkins notes he paired it with skin-tight jeans, shoulder-length hair, and “an old saddle bag I carried. I don’t remember being ‘coded,’ though.” Working in an Office of Economic Opportunity program at the time, Hawkins recalls going on a field trip to Washington, D.C., when “a guy in my group turned to me and said, ‘Oh, girl, if you’re gonna sell that merchandize, you have to advertise.’ There were certain things you wanted to do to look gay, for people to know you were gay. You could walk down the street and catch someone’s glance. That was a different kind of coding.”
In the decades after Stonewall, Wallace notes, cloning reared a new head, and coding morphed with the mainstream, to the point of merger.
Sporting a well-groomed, muscled, manicured look and clingy shirts meant to showcase a sculpted gym body, the “Chelsea Boy” aesthetic ruled the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I called it the ‘A-Gays,’ a standard that is unobtainable” yet desirable and pursued, Wallace recalls, also noting the Chelsea Boy look shared its time in the sun with “grunge and goth, the alternative kids who, no matter how hard they tried, could not fit in. So it’s amazing that in gay culture [of that time], you have the perfectly coiffed, and this side that just didn’t care, and was for all genders.”
There was also in this era, Wallace notes, “a drastic change in the photographic artwork. With the advent of AIDS and HIV, the art tends to go toward a smooth body, clean appearances. There’s usually white linen and water around. So artists like Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber are using these models for their purity; a perfect-looking body that is not possible.”
Nowadays, “anything goes,” Wallace says. “Beards, which you never saw in a Chelsea Boy in the 1990s, bow ties and sweater vests, and everything… I’m probably raw denim, wearing a T-shirt, got a big keychain in my pocket and a hanky and a Mohawk. That’s usually paired with a suit jacket or a jacket of some sort. You really can do anything now.”
“I don’t know why these things happen,” Hawkins admits, of trends and styles and looks that sometimes seem to defy explanation (he’s still wrapping his head around flip-flops). “Sometimes, in the middle of them, they make no sense. On the other hand, you look back and there are all these political and cultural cues. Maybe there’s an economic downturn or a wave of conservatism based on some sort of military action”—or, an event like Stonewall, which steps over lines in the sand while drawing new ones of its own. “Those things,” Hawkins says, “begin to infiltrate the way people think about fashion, and what they are going to do.”