Singing Our Hearts Out

In the 80s, when she was still drinking and cocaine was plentiful, Pat and I used to frequent piano bars in San Francisco. 

The Mint on Market Street near the Castro was our favorite, a magical showcase where every night was a surprise. The piano player was a bearded mustachioed man who nevertheless enunciated so clearly that I could watch his lips and learn the words as he sang. Pat already knew the words to the songs in the Great American Songbook. She was seven years older than I, a generational difference in her mind. I had come of age in the 60s listening to rock and roll. She had come of age in the 50s listening to what we now think of as the American standards–songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer.

Pat and me in the 80s

Prematurely gray, Pat was always seen as older and was often mistaken for my mother and I her son. More than once we were confronted by department store clerks telling her she could not bring her son into the women’s dressing rooms. At Macy’s Pat yelled through the door, “She’s not my son. She’s my lover.” That worked.

Cocaine allowed us to drink and still stay awake till late when singers from Broadway shows would often join us at the Mint. When a star or a known accomplished singer would come in, those of us around the piano would make way for them. The singer could choose any song (the piano player knew them all) and we would transition from a chorus to an audience.

Frank Banks photo BAR

The piano player stayed in a key fit for tenors, which made it hard for me to sing along. I’m not really a soprano and couldn’t quite reach the higher octave. But Pat, who sang tenor in a mixed gay and lesbian group, the Vocal Minority, was in her element. She has a lovely tenor voice—low for a woman. 

The Mint was a center of culture for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, formed in 1978. There were a lot of them—100 had shown up for the first gathering—and they frequented the Mint often, making our musical experience especially rich.

Cocaine also made me talkative and I enjoyed chatting up guys at the bar. Piano bars still held a vestige of the previous gay generation, men who had had to hide their sexuality to keep jobs and live in the straight world. They seemed less exuberant than their younger brothers, quieter and more formal. They still spoke in gay code. They might refer to themselves as “friends of Dorothy,” but the words gay and homosexual were never spoken. You might find working class guys–a painter or gardener–sitting at the bar. I loved learning their stories.

One night I struck up a conversation with one of the younger guys, a well-dressed man in his thirties. I began asking him about his life. What drew him here? He said his lover had been a singer with the chorus and that his lover had died the month before. I kept asking. He kept answering. I learned that not only had his lover died but his three best friends had all died recently. I asked for details and he delivered. Maybe he was grateful to have someone to tell this to. I hope so. But for me it was too much to take in. So much tragedy all at once! What does one do with this news? I put my arm around his shoulder and thought to myself that I would be a bit more cautious asking questions in the future. I needed to protect my own heart from this clutch of pain.

The Gay Men’s Chorus. photo Eric Luse

In San Francisco in the 80s and 90s the “wasting disease” framed our culture. One of the singers in Pat’s group, a young man in his twenties, had been diagnosed with AIDS and had died only two weeks later. Castro had become the street of sorrows. Fragile men walked with the aid of canes and were pushed in wheelchairs. The local gay newspaper, the BAR, published the names of the dying weekly. We anxiously scanned the pages for our friends’ names. I learned that our favorite piano player, the guy with facial hair from whom I had learned the words to so many songs, had died. His name was Frank Banks and he hailed from Albuquerque where, as a teenager he had become pianist at the First Baptist Church. He had moved to San Francisco in 1974.

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has over the years lost more than 300 members to AIDS. In 1993 they took a photo with the seven still living members dressed in white shirts and the others with their backs turned to the camera, representing those lost to AIDS. In the 80s and 90s the chorus became a place for gay men to grieve together the loss of their brothers. Today the chorus still lives and continues to entertain audiences in San Francisco and around the world.

The Mint was one of many gay bars in the city owned by lesbian businesswoman Charlotte Coleman, who opened her first gay bar in San Francisco in 1958. It evolved into a karaoke lounge in the 90s and it’s still there. But I never went back. I knew it just wouldn’t be the same without the piano and Frank Banks, the piano player.

We never returned to the Mint, but Pat has never stopped singing. The Vocal Minority folded after all the men in that chorus died. Since then Pat has sung in several community choruses and a lesbian quartet called Out On A Clef, but never in another mixed gay chorus.

We both feel lucky to have been part of the flowering of gay culture in San Francisco and particularly at the Mint. It was the best and also the worst of times.

Call Her by Her Name

Al and I first met when I walked into the open door at Summit pump station. He was kneeling on the concrete floor painting one of the pump motors that supply water to the city of San Francisco. When he saw my figure standing in the doorway he jumped back, like I was there to assault him. That gave me a little jolt of power—that a man might be startled by me. Yeah, I thought to myself, I’m a big strong woman and men flinch at the sight of my form. But there was a safety issue. The pump stations are situated in remote parts of the city. And I wasn’t supposed to be there. Or, in reality, no one knew where I was at any particular moment. As the one electrician responsible for all the stations, I kept my own schedule, responding sometimes to complaints or work orders and sometimes just checking to make sure the electrical equipment was working.

“Hey,” he said, squinting at me in the sun glaring through the open door. “Who are you?”

“I’m the electrician. Who are you?” I answered. But I knew he was a stationary engineer. Painting motors is part of their job.

The corps of engineers worked out of the Lake Merced pump station where they reported to the chief engineer, Joe. I thought I’d met all of them at one or another pump station. But Al was a retiree just filling in for a coworker who was in rehab. I figured he was about three decades older than me, a small redhead still with a good bit of hair left. He reminded me of a leprechaun—little and cute. We liked each other immediately and over the course of a few months we became friends. Not the kind of friends who see each other outside of work. But we would share personal information that we might not share with others.

There was one other engineer I was tight with, Jesus, and he would sometimes meet up with me and Al at lunch break. Jesus was transitioning from male to female and had been taking hormones for a few months. He had saved up enough money for the operation and was in the process of scheduling it. Al told me Jesus had announced to their fellow engineers that he now wanted to be called Rosa. 

“How did they react?” I asked, thinking that must have taken some courage.

“They looked at their hands and didn’t say anything,” he said. “Just some snickering.” Knowing that he was planning to transition, his coworkers had ignored Jesus and refused to talk to him. Now that he was Rosa, the treatment would be no different.

Jesus told me he had known he was really female from the time he was a child in Mexico. A generally happy person with a positive attitude, Rosa was positively delighted to finally be female, to be herself. I thought she radiated serenity.

I wish I could say the transition was seamless for me, that I found it easy to switch from Jesus to Rosa, but I found it difficult. I had gotten to know this person as Jesus and now it was like I was having to start all over again. The pronoun thing confounded me. Back in the day we feminists had pushed to rid the English language of male and female pronouns, but the idea never took hold. I dearly wished for those genderless pronouns whenever I screwed up, but Rosa was forgiving.

I was suspicious of most of the men at work. Let’s just say they didn’t welcome me, the lone female, into the fold. I tried to give them as little information about myself as possible, assuming it would be used against me. I knew that I could not be friends with these men. But I had begun to feel differently about Al and Jesus.

I learned that Al was married to a French woman, that they had no children. I learned that he had been around the world as a seaman. Like many of the engineers, Al had learned his trade in the Merchant Marines. I knew some things about the Merchant Marines—that the celebrated San Francisco Communist Bill Bailey had been one and that he was not the only commie. I knew that the mariners had performed a vital service in World War II, risking their lives to supply materiel to the fronts. I knew that, while they weren’t part of the military, the merchant navy had suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the military. Their boats were always being torpedoed. Then, after the war, they were attacked and denied any benefits because they were all branded as communists, which of course most of them were not. They were just civilian patriots willing to risk their lives to protect the lives of others. 

I knew enough to gain some trust with Al before asking but I had to ask, “Were you a Communist?”

All I got was a wry smile, enough to let me know I should stop asking questions.

But that was enough for me. I call myself a communist with a small c, more of a new leftist. I’m always delighted to meet up with the old commies, for whom I have great regard. They don’t always want to admit past affiliations. Most of the Reds were disheartened by knowledge of Stalin’s murderous legacy. Many were hounded for years by Hoover’s FBI. Jobs were lost and lives ruined. 

Now it was 1985, the depths of Reaganism, which made all of us minorities jumpy and skittish and gave our detractors permission to be openly hostile. The AIDS epidemic was ravaging San Francisco’s gay men’s community while Reagan refused to even acknowledge the disease. Women—feminists–had come under attack along with anyone who didn’t fit into the back-to-the-fifties scenario. Immigrants, transgender people and communists too. Maybe that’s why the three of us gathered, just to know we weren’t alone.

Jesus, now Rosa, had begun presenting as female, letting her hair grow and wearing women’s clothes. But she didn’t really look that different than before. We all wore work clothes. My work outfit consisted of boots, canvas work pants, a T-shirt with a flannel shirt over the top, and when it was cold a wool-lined vest or jean jacket. A hard hat was not required on this maintenance job and I didn’t have to wear a tool belt. I carried my hand tools in a leather tool bag. And I drove a truck painted Water Department colors, Kelly green and white, in which I carried wire, pipe, benders and all the other tools and material I might need. Rosa, when dressed in work clothes, looked like me.

Me in my San Francisco Water Department truck

Rosa was the first transgender person I got close to, but I was not completely naïve. Ire had been raised in the tradeswomen community when we learned of a transgender female carpenter in our midst. She had transitioned after working as an already skilled male carpenter. She was getting work while we were frozen out because we were women. The contractor got to count her as an affirmative action hire. It didn’t seem fair. Then there was a continuing dustup in the lesbian community about a transgender sound engineer who worked for Olivia Records, the women’s music company. She had been trained while still male. We women wanted to do everything ourselves, but we didn’t have the skills because we couldn’t access the training. It’s possible that when the engineer, Sandy Stone, was hired, there were no other female sound engineers. Some lesbians were quick to attack the individual, but most of us understood that our real enemy was the system that discriminated against women.

At lunch one day Al told us some war stories. He said he had survived a torpedo attack where some seamen had died. I tried to imagine his life on those ships. I’d heard the gay historian Allan Berube’s lecture and slide show about sailors and soldiers during the war. They were all having sex with each other, especially the sailors. I knew Al wasn’t gay but I suspected he’d participated in gay sex.

I had allowed myself to relax a little with Al and Jesus. I came out to them. We talked politics. We all hated Reagan. I had started to feel comfortable with these guys.

Then one day while Al and I worked together he confessed that his wife no longer wanted to have sex with him and he was super horny. Did I want to have sex with him? It wasn’t as if men at work had not come on to me before. This was the typical way they did it; they would complain about their wives and that would be the opening. But I was shocked to hear this from my friend Al. I’d been solidly in the friend category I thought. Suddenly I was in the gal toy category. Or was it the whore category? Weird.

I said, “Al you know I’m gay. I’m not attracted to men.” Which wasn’t entirely true. I’d lived much of my life as a practicing heterosexual.

“Well, maybe you have friends who might want to have sex with me,” he said. And for a moment I actually considered the question. I definitely had horny friends. But who might want to have sex with Al? What would his personal ad look like? “65-year-old leprechaun seeks sex with any female. Age not important. Nothing else important.”

Then I was grossed out thinking my friend Al wanted me to pimp out my women friends. Then I was disappointed that our friendship was not what I had thought it was.

“So you only have sex with women?” Al asked. 

“Well yeah. That’s what being a lesbian means. Maybe I’m not as sexually fluid as you. I know what y’all did on those ships.”

No response except that wry smile again.

That interaction changed my relationship with Al, but he may not have even noticed. Like many men he lacked a certain amount of sensitivity. On the other hand, his size and his politics—his minority status in the world of men—engendered more empathy than most.

So now I started thinking Al was like all the other guys. I stopped feeling so safe around him. Not that he might attack me. No, I was pretty sure I could take him in a fight. I was bigger and I practiced karate. It was more that he didn’t value me, didn’t see who I really was, and so might not understand the need for discretion. I did know that just because someone is or was a Communist does not mean they are not sexist as hell.

For a while I didn’t cross paths with Rosa. I still saw Al out in the field and he would fill me in on Rosa’s transition. The surgery had gone well and Rosa was back at work. She was happy, even as her coworkers continued to give her the cold shoulder.

“I’m having trouble re-learning Jesus’s name,” I confessed. “I’m just not good at it. I get all confused with the pronouns and I keep saying him instead of her.”

This time Al’s response was sharp and I realized he must be doing his best to protect Rosa from harassment by the other engineers.

“She is Rosa now,” he said, “and you’ve got to call her by her name.”

It was an admonishment and I took it seriously. Al was worldly wise and maybe had known other transgender people. He knew how to be an ally. Could I really be learning something from this old white guy? 

I guess everybody’s got something to teach.