Every woman has a retribution fantasy, what she would do to her harasser or rapist. She probably won’t tell you what it is but she has one, maybe many.
My group of tradeswomen activists not only imagined retribution, we planned and executed it. Perhaps corrective justice is a better choice of words.
We were an organized group of women who were trying our damndest to break barriers to nontraditional blue collar work. Men wanted to keep those high-paid jobs for themselves. So when one of us finally landed a job, we were subject to harassment with the aim of getting us to quit. At that time in the late seventiessexual harassment was not yet illegal and the term was not yet in popular use. We tradeswomen used the term gender harassment.
We were working at integrating the construction trades, bus driving, firefighting, policing, printing, dock work—all the jobs women had been kept out of. One job classification we focused on was ferryboat deckhand. Women had won a discrimination lawsuit, a judge had signed a consent decree, and a handful of women had broken into the trade. As with construction, you had to jump both the barriers of bosses and the union.
One of our biggest challenges was isolation on the job. Once you got hired, you were usually the only female there. We tried to combat isolation by recruiting more women and by organizing support groups wherever we were.
Annie McCombs was our gal on the ferries, having made it through the union process. A militant lesbian feminist with a take no prisoners attitude, Annie was committed to increasing the number of women on the waterfront, to truly integrating the trade. After five years as a ferryboat deckhand she had gained a reputation as someone who did not tolerate abuse.
Fear of violence was based on reality. A common myth among fishers and sailors was that a woman on your boat was bad luck. We had met a woman who had been thrown off a boat into the water by coworkers who intended to kill her for supposedly bringing bad luck.
Annie worked occasionally with another young woman, Patricia. She was American Indian, a lesbian and only 18 with little work experience. One day Patricia approached Annie and told her about a guy on the job who harassed her mercilessly. The harassment had turned violent when they worked together on the night shift. He had locked them in to a bathroom they were assigned to clean and shoved her up against the wall. Only the night watchman knocking on the door saved her from being raped. He assaulted her again the next night but she fought back and was able to break free.
Annie helped Patricia meet with her boss and the union rep, going through all the required motions. They got nowhere. The next step would be litigation, but we activists did not recommend women file individual lawsuits. That got you blacklisted and unemployed.
We resorted to direct action. Annie called a meeting and 30 women showed up. She told us about the situation and we began to strategize. How could we get this guy to back off and stop harassing our sister? We had heard about a group of women stripping a rapist naked and tying him to a pole in the middle of town. That was a great fantasy, but none of us was willing to take the chance of being arrested for assault. Whatever we did would have to be hands off. We also wanted our action to be collective, something we could all participate in. We needed to make sure this guy knew that what he was doing was wrong and that it had to stop. It would be great if the woman he had targeted could confront him directly, if we could help her feel safe enough to do that.
Jan, a tradeswoman sister, spoke up. We needed to confront this guy on our own terms in a place of our choosing, not at work. She suggested that one of us should get him on a date. This seemed crazy to me. I was never any good at picking up men, but other women in the group assured me it wasn’t that hard. Hadn’t we been trained all our lives to do this? Jan volunteered to be the bait and we worked out an elaborate plan for her to pick him up.
We would lure him to a secluded location in Golden Gate Park, surround him and let his victim confront him. I, for one, did not see how this was possible. How would we get him to the park?
Jan planned to invite him to a party at the deYoung Museum and make some excuse to get him to the nearby rose garden. The rose garden is surrounded by tall hedges, perfect for hiding behind. And it’s relatively dark. Our action would take place at dusk.
Word of the action got around and our planning meetings expanded to 50. Everybody wanted to be involved with this action. What militant feminist wouldn’t?
We considered the possibility that the harasser might have a gun. Annie knew that some deckhands carried handguns in their seabags. Many of us practiced karate and self-defense and we engaged martial arts experts to take command in case our perp responded violently. A woman was assigned to each limb and his head in case he reached for a gun or bolted. But unless he attacked, we were not to touch him.
Women volunteered for specific tasks: lookouts, runners, watchers from park benches. We would not leave Jan alone with the man and risk his assaulting another woman.
In the meantime, Annie had drawn up a map of the park with our location and planned out the timing. We were to hide in the bushes near the trail and pop out as he and Jan came by.
I was dubious. Could we really pull this off? There were so many variables. What if he didn’t go with Jan? What if he saw us in the bushes? What if the timing were hours off?
Fifty women had assembled some blocks away at a staging area in the Haight Ashbury when a carload of country women from Mendocino showed up. They had heard about the action through the lesbian grapevine. Now numbering more than 50, we all made our way to the rose garden.
We hid behind hedges and trees, waiting silently for maybe 20 minutes. Everybody knew the plan. I couldn’t believe it when I saw Jan and the guy walking down the trail. Jan really did it! Our butch dyke sister had transformed into a fetching het woman. She wore a pink sweater wrapped casually around her shoulders.
Just as they crossed in front of us the spotter blew a whistle, the designated woman stepped out into the trail, and then all the women materialized and circled the guy. Jan melted into the crowd.
My only job was to stand in place with a mean look on my face. I can tell you this is not so easy when one feels exhilaration.
Our chosen spokeswoman stepped forward menacingly. She addressed the harasser. “Don’t talk, just nod if you understand.”
A woman was assigned to remind him to nod. He did not need to be reminded.
“We know you have been harassing women on your job. We know where you live. We know the car you drive. If you continue to harass women we will come and get you,” she said.
I could see his knees shaking. It looked to me like he had peed his pants.
Patricia stepped forward but she was not able to speak. Her partner spoke for her, naming the harassment.
Finally the crowd of angry women parted and let the man out. He was ordered to return to his car and not to look back.
Our action had succeeded. We were jubilant. A cheer went up from the 50 women. Then we quickly decamped to an agreed-upon location for a post-mortem and to celebrate.
As for the harasser, he was not seen around the waterfront for several months. Later, when he took a part-time job with the company, he made sure to keep his head down when passing Annie or Patricia. Soon after that he disappeared altogether.
I worked for Plant Bros. of San Francisco in the early Seventies. After a probation period, they sent me to a jobsite that had just begun, in the shadow of Telegraph Hill, right by the waterfront. They had to completely overhaul an old grain warehouse and convert it into an upscale office building. The location was great – you could walk at lunch-break over to the wharves, or just sit in a vacant lot and look at the Bay. And the building was interesting, especially as we began to mine our way into it. It was a remnant of the industrial past of San Francisco’s waterfront, a brick five-story warehouse with rugged interiors. We had to earthquake-proof it, tear up flooring, destroy the old freight elevator shaft, and then frame up the new sets of offices. The flooring had been laid when mahogany was cheap, so we were cutting through two tongue-and-groove, inch-thick mahogany floor layers. We burned out blade after blade of our skilsaws and spent weeks with crowbars ripping out and dumpstering the wood. Then re-flooring it with heavy plywood.
This first month was not really carpentry, but I liked it. For one thing, I had an apprentice assigned to me – which was my first time having that responsibility. He was a young Chinese guy who I liked immediately. Eugene knew he was a token of integration for the union – there were less than ten Asian carpenters, and the local was under pressure from all minorities to open up. Eugene and I were attuned in the political culture of San Francisco in the early Seventies and we also both knew how to work with alacrity. Things got even more interesting when they hired a Mexican-American woman named Inez Garcia. She was only the second woman in the union’s history. I had worked with the other, at the General Hospital job. They had assigned her to simply push in all the snap-ties on all the forms, thus earning her the name “snap-tie Mary”. There was a quarrel in the union to get her boss to actually let her learn the trade.
Now Inez was in that position, but it was more promising. The foreman was civil to her and we formed-up a little team, with Eugene and I and Inez and an older Italian guy named Ron. I was given the lead responsibility of cutting a big trapezoidal hole through all five floors for the new open stairway in the center of the building. The foreman and I studied the blueprint, devising a way to place that trapezoid correctly in reference to the walls – then I explained it all and assigned us to different duties. It went ahead really well at first. The challenge of the cutting was apparent and the two young recruits felt that I was teaching them things. We had lively lunch breaks, and I started looking forward to coming in to work.
After the layout was agreed on, we built walls along those lines from the floor to ceiling, tightly wedged so that the weight of the floor above would be supported when we cut the shape out of it. We finished it late one day, and the next morning we were going to start the cut on the second floor. I woke up early with a clutch of anxiety. Something was wrong, I was sure of it. I got to work early and studied the blueprint, stared at the lines, the walls…and suddenly knew what it was. We had built one of the walls on the wrong side of our chalk line; it would be the width of the two-by-six too small! Oh shit, this will look bad. Good that I’d caught it before we cut through above, but… here we had this big twelve-foot-high wall we had to tear down. Luck was with me, as the foreman had to be at another job for the first hour. I told the others what we’d done, and they gravely considered it. I told them we had a slim chance to avoid detection if we all four went at this furiously; removing nails, sledge-hammering the walls over, adding some pieces to fill in, plumbing-and-lining it again…and re-nailing. So that’s what we did, everyone working twice as fast as usual… and just had the wall in place and nailed when the foreman came in. I was already upstairs laying out the cuts. He waved happily and we were home free.
Those cuts were not simple either. Once we had lines snapped and were dead certain of them, we had to Skil saw through the double layers of mahogany. Then we confronted the huge joists, rough 4 x 12 timbers, some of them doubled-up. The foreman got us a chainsaw, and after carefully extending the lines down over the angles of the joists, I started lopping them off, confident from my memory of doing the same thing on the roof at the Unitarian Church. This all went very well, and we progressed upward the remaining four landings, making the same cut each time. Inez and I became good friends, Eugene was becoming the job wit, and I was beginning to enjoy my own leadership. It was interesting to see the way what they wanted to have happen socially was allowing me to be more who I was. Not a leader with commanding certainty, but someone who would let others see my process, my confusions. I could ask for help, and even make things fun.
The new elevator was going to be hydraulic, and it needed a hole as deep as the building was tall – for the piston to recede down into it when the elevator was on the ground floor. So there was a big drilling rig at the building’s edge, boring a four-foot-wide hole…sixty feet deep. At thirty feet they hit some rubble. Pieces of the old waterfront fill. Then there was stone. The auger couldn’t penetrate it and they brought in a specialist.
Mario was a Latino guy who was like a deep-sea diver. He was to be lowered down the hole with a jackhammer so he could break up the layer of stone. We saw him getting ready early the first morning and Inez asked him what the hell he was going to do? It looked strange, the special winch they had for lowering him down, the cradle of canvas straps, the jackhammer hose, his oxygen mask. He explained the whole thing as if it were routine, then says he never feels claustrophobic because he smokes a joint first. I had trouble understanding that part. If I smoked a joint first, the last place in creation I’d want to be, would be thirty feet down a shaft too narrow to move around in. But he assured us it was the only way he could stay calm and focus on the simple task of it. I said, what if you space out and don’t realize you’re not getting enough air? He said he had a regular code of tugs on the rope and that they would frequently tug at him for response. Jesus. We watched him go down…and then felt the vibrations of the hammer. He worked about a half hour and then they pulled him up, covered with dust. He laughed at us, drank some water, and went back down again. We talked about it all day, how…bizarre it was. Mario was either a great hero …or a chump who would be dead tomorrow.
He didn’t die, but he did share his joint with Inez, Gene & me the next morning. Two tokes was enough to make me want to go off wandering along the waterfront to study wave patterns and old fishermen. Gene and Inez were used to smoking more, and able to buoy me up those first few hours. The work we were doing was hilarious for a while. Gene started giggling at the stack of fresh plywood. He said there were flies on it, it was ridiculous somehow. I got a can of spray paint and wrote “ FLY WOOD” on it huge. We were hysterical. “Inez! Go get us a sheet of flywood!” She exploded when she saw it. What fun! But, but, … I was the lead man, I had to fight through this, I had to keep working and, like Mario, find somehow the even keel of bemusement yet purpose. It wasn’t easy and I decided next day to pass on the offered joint. In fact it was fifteen years before I ever tried that again, and then almost fell off a roof. Not all of us are as talented as Mario. At the end of the week we had decided that in truth he was a hero of the first order. He had broken through several feet of hard rock and the auger went back at it. Mario shook hands with a grin, and rode off into the fog.
Our foreman was transferred, and a new guy brought in. At first we liked him all right. He seemed comfortable with the two young minority apprentices, and came over to yak with us often. But after a week, he started being too comfortable…with Inez. He kept her after work one day with a contrived duty, and a few days later switched her to a solo task, which broke up our team. She was given the job of boring all the holes in the brick wall on every floor, that would allow the earthquake bolts to be set in from floor structure to exterior brick. There were hundreds of these to do, and one had to get down on knees or recline positions to hold the impact drill with any authority. It was…the worst job. Each of us had done it for a few hours on other days, and at first we thought, well, someone has to do it, apprentices often get this kind of grunge work. But then it went on the next day, and the next. Inez came up to me after work and said we had to talk. We went for coffee and she told me that Jim had propositioned her a couple of days back…and she had turned him down. He was pissed and told her he would make life miserable for her unless she ‘dated’ him.
So that explained the sentence of hard labor. Inez was furious, but she felt she had no grounds for saying she shouldn’t have to do the job. Inez was really a rugged, working-class woman. The last thing she wanted was to be perceived as whining about physical labor. In fact, she was as strong as me, a formidable person – who also was not a bit afraid of Jim physically. In fact, she was bigger than him. That made it even more disgusting. He was unable to force her or convince her or attract her. The raw power of the paycheck was what he had. When she had complained that he was treating her unfairly with the hole-drilling, he’d simply said, “Okay; then date me or you’re fired!”
I advised her to go to the union in the morning before work. Apprentices are supposed to be instructed, for one thing. And then of course there’s the sexual harassment, a legitimate and potentially scandalous thing for the company. I told her who to see, the most reliable of the business agents, and asked if she wanted me to come with her. She said no, she wanted to be able to carry herself as a stand-up member of the local, not dependent on anyone.
Next day she was gone. I called her that night and she said the union rep had taken her side with integrity and had called the company. They agreed to transfer her to another jobsite and make sure she was treated fairly if there was no threat of a lawsuit. Inez had agreed to this, but we both felt depressed. I felt I had to apologize for the whole backward mob of jerks that populate construction work. It was as if she had been a lantern in a cave, revealing our stupid scuttling ways. Ugh. She told me to drop that rhetorical bullshit, that the only thing that depressed her about it was that she would miss all of us. It was just one jerk, really… but one spoiled everything.
Jim was still foreman on that job for another two weeks – while we frosted him. Then, out of the blue, the union announced that contract negotiations had broken down and there would be a city-wide strike. When that all blew over, I found another job. Plant Bros. was tainted for me.
Eric Johnson is a printer who writes stories about his work as a carpenter in San Francisco.
“Gay Man Stabbed in Heart Survives,” read the front-page headline in the BAR, a gay newspaper I picked up while strolling on Castro Street.
Then I looked at the picture. It was my old college roommate Larry Johl. I recognized him immediately from his long very blond hair. As students at Washington State University we had lived together in the Rosa Luxemburg Collective in Pullman, Washington, a little town near the Idaho border. That was in 1973-74 before we had each decamped to the gay mecca of San Francisco. We had been in touch, and I had once been to his apartment on Broderick Street, furnished tastefully in deco style with castoff furniture and cheap (but not cheap-looking) window treatments.
Our get-together in San Francisco in the late ‘70s had revealed that Larry worked at a boring, low-paid office job in some bureaucracy. He described himself as a snow queen, meaning that he preferred to date black men. I later found out that snow queen was the term used to describe black men who prefer white men. The subculture’s term for white men like him was grunge queen, but I think he probably didn’t use it because of its racist overtones. He had a cute, angelic-looking boyfriend whose picture graced his bedroom chest of drawers.
I should note here that Rosa Luxemburg, whose giant portrait graced our dining room wall, was a Polish revolutionary socialist theoretician who was assassinated in 1919. Our hero. Margarethe von Trotta made a film about her https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLo4TuBRN6U.
When I thought back to our collective living arrangement at Rosa’s, in a huge house with 11 others, I remembered Larry had a thing for black men even then. It was Larry who introduced us to the music of the gay icon Sylvester. How did Larry discover him? How did Larry discover gay culture? It seemed like he had emerged a full-blown raging queen from his tiny desolate hometown of Soap Lake, in the eastern Washington desert, the middle of nowhere. He told me that as a kid he’d been a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor and had filled secret scrapbooks with her pictures cut from magazines. Perhaps he’d been a queen from birth, living testimony for the argument for nature over nurture.
Larry didn’t come out to us at Rosa’s but we knew. He personified all the stereotypes—limp wrists, lilting voice, and the neatest room in the house. In the collective, Larry was the roommate most concerned with beauty and fashion. He bought hair products by the case, it seemed. His hair really was strawberry blond. But it did look bleached, so perhaps he bleached in secret and then tried to mask the consequences with product. One time when we were on a road trip, all piled into a VW bus, Larry got out to smoke a joint and lit his hair on fire. Which must prove something about product.
Our Welsh roommate Keith couldn’t believe Larry’s wealth of information about popular culture. “He never reads. How can he know so much?” It was true. We seldom saw Larry studying. How did he pass his exams? He seemed much more interested in music. One semester he spent his student loan money on a stereo. I guess after that he depended on the kindness of strangers, or the kindness of friends.
Larry was central to our countercultural and political activities. He excelled in tasks organizational. His specialty was the media blitz. With our dissident friends, we had formed the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism in response to a student Christian crusade. The Jesus freaks’ slogan was “One Way” and they’d proselytize holding up an index finger. It was annoying as hell. Our slogan became “No Way,” our sign a zero made with index finger and thumb. During registration week when students poured into the student union and all the organizations set up their wares at the entrance, Larry sat at our table and showed slides of all the churches in town, a tape of Elton John’s Burn Down the Mission playing continually in the background. Then, when we staged a debate about the existence of god, Larry took on media/outreach and managed to fill the auditorium to capacity.
We were desperate to change the direction of national politics, refusing to pay the federal phone tax that funded war and staging die-ins at ROTC functions. The FBI came knocking at the door after Larry sent a threatening letter to president Nixon. I don’t believe he was arrested. He had only put in writing what we were all thinking.
I think my brother Don would say Larry brought him out of the closet. Don didn’t live with us at Rosa’s but he visited frequently. In those days our sexual identities weren’t so clearly defined. We all experimented with gay as well as straight sex, although in retrospect the women seemed much freer than the men. The women swung like kids on a new play set, while the men tended to gravitate to one corner or the other of the sandbox. Neither Larry nor my brother Don was ever interested in women at the orgies we sponsored. They would carry on afterwards dishing male anatomical details, which I invariably missed.
After I saw his picture on the front page of the BAR, I called Larry. He was out of the hospital. He told me he had been cruising Buena Vista Park at 2 a.m. when he was attacked and stabbed. His attackers then tried to pull off his leather clothes. He was saved by a punk couple who got him to the hospital just in time. He had lost almost all the blood in his body. The gay bashers were never caught.
I asked Larry what he intended to do next. He said he was just going to live life as he had, maybe with more passion and vigor. “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” he told me cheerfully. He figured all the time in the future was free. He had been spared death, for the time being.
By that time in the early 80s we knew about AIDS but there was no test available yet and of course there was no treatment. Gay men were just dying. You would see your friend, a young man you sang with or worked out with, looking healthy and vibrant. Then he would get a diagnosis and two weeks later he would be dead.
When I asked my brother Don to tell me his memories of Larry, he remembered that they had seen each other in the late 80s. By that time Larry must have known he was HIV positive. He told Don that when he died he wished to be cremated and he wanted someone to distribute his ashes from a window of the 24 Divisadero, the bus that took Larry from his neighborhood in the Western Addition to the gay bars in the Castro. He said he wanted all the queens to prance behind the bus and stomp him into the pavement with their platform shoes.
I never saw Larry again, and when I tried to call, his number had been disconnected. I couldn’t find mention of him anywhere. I was pretty sure he had died of AIDS. The BAR had been printing obits for gay men since 1972, but it never published his. Did he, like many gay men, go back home to die? That was hard for me to imagine. Did he die alone or did he have a network of friends to care for him? Was he one of the ones who perished within weeks? Don and I felt negligent, that we had not come to his aid when he was dying. I sure hope someone did.
Eventually I found a notice of his death in the Ephrata, Washington paper, a slightly larger small town near Soap Lake. He had died in 1990. He was 39. But there were no details and so I just had to imagine his last years and days. Also in the Ephrata obits I found a Carl A. Johl, born 1914, who died in 2009 at the age of 94. I guess Carl was Larry’s father.
Some of the Rosa Luxemburg Collective roommates reunited again after 35 years. I had to come out to them as a lesbian. Then it fell to me to explain Larry’s fate to this assemblage of straight folks. I fear I failed.
Lesbians and gay men lived in different universes, different cultures, which we were continually inventing back in the 1970s and 80s. As a close student of lesbian feminist culture, I had no trouble discoursing on its development. But I was instantly aware that I didn’t really know the culture Larry lived in. How to explain his cruising escapades and his obvious sluttiness? The story seemed to suggest that he was responsible for his own demise, at least as I imagined my straight comrades might see it. We were a progressive bunch who believed in free love and revolution, rejecting nuclear war and the nuclear family. Still, I sensed disapproval in their shocked emailed responses.
Or was it something like envy? Larry had found himself in San Francisco and he was finally free to live an openly gay life. I think he was happy. Perhaps he and I were two collective members who succeeded in transcending the conventional lifestyle that we countercultural dissidents had all worked so hard to reject.
The 24 Divis is a crosstown route that goes from the rich white neighborhood of Pacific Heights clear down to the poor black neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point. It was the bus that for decades carried me from my neighborhood in Bernal Heights to the Castro to gay bookstores, bars, demonstrations, and film festivals at the Castro Theater. My wife and I often stop for a beer at Harvey’s just to cruise the crowd on the corner through its big windows.
The scene is still vibrant and colorful, but there are times, especially in winter, when walking in the Castro I see the ghosts of the young men who died of AIDS and then I’m overwhelmed with grief, so very aware of all that we have lost.
This story originally aired on the MUNI Diaries podcast, hence the references to the 24 Divisadero bus. I had such a hard time reading that last paragraph without breaking down crying. I share this grief with an entire generation of people who lived through the AIDS years. We have not forgotten.
The Rosa Luxemburg Collective was the culmination of our years’ long experiments in collective living arrangements in Pullman, Washington.
Thirteen of us student activists rented an old fraternity house and split all the costs. As members of a hippie commune, we believed in locally grown, organic food. There were no local farmers’ markets so we started a food co-op and began looking into buying food in bulk from large producers. This opened our eyes to the nature of the food distribution system. It turned out that in the Northwest much of the growing and handling of food was controlled by a Mormon empire and the closest warehouses were across the state line in Idaho.
I was the bread maker and wished for whole grain flour made from a kind of wheat they used in Europe. You couldn’t get it then. Bread in the 1970s in the U.S. was mostly of the Wonder variety. Whole grains were just on the verge of popularily. In New York or Chicago you could find a local German bakery, but in our small town if you wanted whole grain bread, you had to bake it yourself.
Bread making requires the baker to be around for two risings, so twice a week on days when I wasn’t in class I’d bake all day. We ordered flour in 25 pound sacks, and stored it in the freezer to discourage bugs, so it was deliciously cold when I would first plunge my hands in. Making bread was my form of meditation. I used the Tassajara Bread Book method, making a spongey mass first so the yeast got a good start before growth-inhibiting oil and salt were added. The first batch of bread would be eaten immediately by lurkers lured to the kitchen by the yeasty smell. I knew to make enough so there would be loaves left for the next couple of days.
The irony was that Pullman is surrounded by wheat fields. One year there was a glut of wheat and the grain silos were completely filled, forcing farmers to leave mountains of the unhulled grain near the train tracks. I imagined jumping into the piles of grain as one would jump into raked leaves, falling in like quicksand. I imagined it stone ground by old-fashioned mills. I imagined it refined and baked into perfect loaves.
The wheat fields surrounding us seemed terribly romantic from afar, driving by them on Highway 2. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and begins to grow before being covered by snow, then peeks up through the melting snow in spring. By the end of the spring semester, tall spikes undulate along the rolling hills. The sight of those softly swaying hills in spring makes you want to run out into nature, strip off your clothes and commune with her. One day my friend Joe and I decided to do just that.
Joe was a fellow student who lived in a collective house farther out in the Palouse country, a century-old uninsulated wood-heated farmhouse, the kind with two storeys and a huge porch. Keeping the interior of that building warm in Palouse winters required the burning of much wood and continual fire stoking. Mostly the human residents were just cold. The fabulousness of spring, when it arrives in this northern climate, cannot be overstated. Spring fever, I believe, is more truly celebrated in places where winter grips with an icy hand.
That April day was a spring cliché. The sun shone warmly and fluffy clouds floated in a clear blue sky. It was the time in spring when various shades of green compete for attention: the delicate yellowish green of early spring leaves just beginning to bud, the dense dark forest green of firs. The wheat fields were a bright emerald green, sort of wizard-of-oz-ish. When I walked out of the farmhouse, I expected to see the yellow brick road shining in front of me.
In the sixties there was a TV ad for something. It involved a couple running toward each other through a wildflower meadow, embracing wildly and–I forget what happens next. I was very taken with the wildflower meadow and tried to reenact this running embrace when I could get a friend to play the other part. Through years of trial and error I found that wildflower meadows, any meadows really, were hard to run through, especially when one is looking up at one’s soon-to-be embracer and not at the ground. Rodent holes, depressions dug by hooves and unseen drainage ditches create truly hazardous conditions. Yet this image persisted in my brain. Meadows equal romance. OK, meadows equal sex. That’s what the TV was saying, right? Today it would be an ad for Cialis.
There was another factor at work here too, besides spring fever and the power of advertising. A subculture that encouraged sex in the outdoors had blossomed in the Palouse and we were part of it–cultural envoys in a way. By god, we took our envoyship seriously, feeling we owed it to the culture to have sex outdoors as much a possible. There was an entire day devoted to the worship of outdoor sex. “Hooray hooray for the eighth of May; it’s outside intercourse day,” had been a fraternity slogan long before I got to WSU. Our idea was to broaden the whole concept. Why focus only on one day a year?
The swaying wheat fields called to us and Joe and I ran through them with abandon, something, it seemed to us, young people were supposed to do. I was a country girl and so knew, as I said, that fields are not always our friends. I knew, too, that terrible chemicals were applied to agricultural lands. DDT, not yet banned, had been sprayed liberally everywhere during my childhood. We were admonished to keep our shoes on in the orchard and not to swim in the canals and creeks where farmers dumped pesticide residues.
All these things I knew but the TV ad image still had a hold on me. Joe and I loped up the hill behind the farmhouse. When we got to the top, we had a speclacular view of the Palouse, Kamiak Butte in the distance. Had we thought to bring a blanket? Possibly, but even with a blanket, the thick stalks of wheat resisted flattening. Up close, the wheat field was far less romantic than it had seemed far away. The cracked earth looked dead, sprouting nothing but wheat. There were no weeds. This worried me. If whatever had been used on this field could kill weeds, what would it do to our butts, or any part of us that touched the earth?
As much as we felt we owed the culture outdoor sex, the outdoors was feeling less and less sexy. We made a flat place to sit down, but then of course, wheat obscured the view. “Let’s get out of here,” one of us said.
My first close-up encounter with drag queens took place in a Tenderloin bar when I worked as an electrician for Wonder Woman Electric in the late 1970s.
An all-female collective of electricians, we did mostly residential work. But our regular commercial accounts included some of the multitude of San Francisco gay bars. Each of the bars catered to a particular subculture in the larger gay community. Lesbians had a few bars and coffee houses. But bars for gay men proliferated. There were bars geared toward disco queens, the leather crowd, the sweater gays, uniform wearers, beach bunnies, cross dressers, fairies, bathing beauties–really more than I could even imagine.
One day in the middle of the week I was called to a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Tenderloin. When I finally found a place to park the Wonder Woman van, it was blocks away and I had to lug heavy tool bags through streets lined with junkies and drunks. This was the bad part of town.
I found the address on Turk Street, a nondescript brick front building. The door was locked, but I saw a discreet push-button near it. I pushed it and after a moment a beautiful young man, far more femme than I, greeted me. He wore matching coral pedal pushers, cardigan and mules with little heels. He did not look pleased to see me.
“I’m the electrician,” I said hopefully. “Ok,” he said, looking me over. Then his perfectly lipsticked mouth curled into a little smile. “Come with me. We’ve been waiting for you.”
A small town girl who’d only lived in San Francisco for a year or so, I had just barely come out as a lesbian and had little experience with drag queens, transsexuals or transvestites, especially not the big city kind.
Stepping from the gray Tenderloin street into that little bar was like entering the Harry Potter toy store at Christmas. Lights and colored decorations hung from the low ceiling. Glitter littered the grungy floor.
I was surprised to see a good number of patrons at the bar in the early part of the day. Some sat at the bar, some at tables, but all looked fabulous. Most were men dressed in women’s clothing. Some dressed as over-the-top made-up drag queens, but most looked more like the gals from the office across the street, dressed in low heels and conservative skirts and blouses. I thought I overheard one of them say “fish” which was pretty funny considering I was the butchest thing in the room, wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots.
The bartender looked like a tough sailor just off the boat who’d thrown on a shoulder-length blonde wig and serious makeup—several shades of eye shadow and bright red lips outlined beyond their natural borders. He worked the bar in a tasteful tailored Donna Reed housedress, popped collar and pearls, and ran the joint with cutting sarcasm. I felt like I was encountering the Wizard of Oz and had to keep myself from jumping back like Dorothy did when she and her three cohorts first encountered him. A person could not help being intimidated.
“Here’s what we need,” he directed me. “I don’t want the patrons to use the bathroom without my permission. They get in there, lock the door and stay. And, honey, we all know what they do in there.” I could only speculate. Drugs? Sex? Probably both. Lesbians had been known to use the bathrooms in our bars for such purposes. Where else could a couple go? And if they were quick about it and others didn’t have to wait too long, we were usually forgiving.
The bartender continued, “I want to be able to push a button right here under the bar to unlock the bathroom door when someone wants to use it. Can you set that up?”
This drag queen was also a Control Queen! I looked around the room at the disapproving patrons. I was going to be responsible for limiting their bathroom privileges. I was already the villain and I hadn’t even done anything yet. But I was certainly capable of installing a push button and door lock. It would be all low voltage, so I’d just have to put in a transformer and run low voltage cable. I wouldn’t need to run pipe or install junction boxes. “I can do that,” I said.
I got to work, planning the job. Could I run the low voltage cable under the floor? Yes, said the bartender. There was a full basement. The beautiful young man ushered me down to the basement, a dank, spiderwebby space with a hundred years of grime on every surface. I had to figure out where to drill through the floor to run wires from the bar to the door lock. The job took me up and down the stairs and back to the van to retrieve materials. I focused on my work and I was relieved that the patrons went back to drinking and dishing.
Finally the job was finished. I emerged from the basement coated in its crud, looking more than ever like a construction worker.
“Let’s test it,” I said. I gave a nod to the bartender who pushed the button. The door buzzed open and, with a flourish, a patron entered the bathroom. It worked! Like electricians everywhere, I always got a thrill when I flipped the switch and my masterpiece (no matter how small) performed as intended. But I didn’t usually have an audience.
These patrons understood drama far better than I. The dramatic moment of the day was all mine. It was as if I were making my big entrance, walking down the runway, head held high. They had all been watching closely and when the door opened, they let out a big cheer. I bowed to the applause. The dyke and the drag queens. One big happy family.
“Jesus Christ, it’s 1979. Why do they need to get married? They’ve been living together for five years. No one in the family disapproves. Why do people feel compelled to have the state sanction their relationships?” Don let me rave. Neither of us could answer these rhetorical questions. He couldn’t have been any less enthusiastic about our brother Tim’s wedding than I was. We knew that neither of us would ever have a family wedding with all the attendant fussing, well-wishing, presents and cultural sanction, not that either of us would want one.
“You don’t suppose there’s any way we can get out of going,” he said in a resigned tone.
I considered this. Our attendance seemed like a small price to pay to avoid the disapprobation that surely would result from our absence. “We can stay in the background. At least we’re not being asked to be bridesmaids.”
I could hear my brother sigh on the other end of the phone. “To be a bridesmaid,” he said, “has always been a great fantasy of mine.”
“I see what you mean. If I could be best man, I could rent a tuxedo. Fuck! What will I wear?” Don was silent, and I knew he wasn’t worrying about what I’d be wearing.
“Don, if you’re thinking about wearing a dress, just forget it right now. This is not the big city or some trendy college community. This is cowboy country. You’ll get the shit kicked out of you.”
When we said goodbye, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d convinced him, and I wondered how my outrageous brother managed to stay alive without me as his constant bodyguard. He insistently challenged assumptions about dress and gender, which was a dangerous thing at a time when the moral majority felt its grasp on the reins of cultural definitions slipping.
The truth was, just by being my natural self, people—both children and adults—were always confronting me about the nature of my gender. They would yell out of windows or from cars as I walked by, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Or I would be mistaken for a gay man. “Faggot!” they would yell, and speed off before I could correct them: “You idiot! I’m a dyke!”
I had learned that knowledge of gender is extremely important to people. They need this information before they know anything else about you. And once they get you pegged, to be surprised makes them inexplicably angry. All their assumptions are suddenly being challenged. It’s like you’ve called into question some intensely personal assumptions about who they are in the world.
I figured the problem wasn’t me, but how people expected women to look and act. To be feminine required performing unnatural acts—shaving one’s body hair, wearing sticky make-up and carefully coiffed hair, being quiet, wearing odd clothes and uncomfortable shoes, walking with short picky strides. I had practiced these ritual gestures at one time, but the feminist movement had released me. I was free and I was never going back now.
Unfortunately, my freedom from convention left me completely unprepared to dress for Tim’s wedding. I had no dress-up clothes. As a matter of principle I’d stopped wearing dresses in 1970. Since then the contents of my closet had been recycled from thrift stores. As a working electrician in those days of butch dykedom, I could just wash my flannel shirts and jeans and wear them to the bar. No one I knew ever got dressed up, and if they attended weddings, they never told me. So what does a nonconforming, revolutionary lesbian wear to a heterosexual wedding?
At the airport I searched the Nordic crowd of Seattleites for Don’s dark head. I never knew what to expect. He’d been a hippie with a thick ponytail and full beard last time I’d seen him, but personas changed from year to year. He was not at the gate and I wandered until I heard my name called from a waiting area.
Then I saw him, relaxing back into one of the lounge chairs like a queen, newly clean-shaven and wearing giant turquoise butterfly earrings, a flowing scarf wrapped around his shoulder-length hair, tied in back. “I thought it was time to relinquish my male privilege,” he smiled.
In the short 150 miles or so between Don’s home at the foot of the Olympic Peninsula to Yakima, the land cracks and dries up like the edges of those Janis Joplin posters you rehang in each new collective house. Snoqualmie Pass takes you from a rich, dripping, evergreen rain forest over the snow-capped Cascades, past ski resorts and the shorn heads of clear-cut hills in to the Kittitas Valley, flat pasture dotted with Black Angus cattle.
Up over the Manashtash Ridge, a new freeway replaced the winding two-lane road along the Yakima River. Beyond irrigation, only sagebrush–ubiquitous in the valley–flourishes. From the west side of the ridge you can see the town of Ellensburg surrounded by the patchwork of pastures, ground crops and brown earth, and above that the sharp white peaks of the Wenatchee Range. As you continue east, your nose dries up and your hair electrifies, the sky turns intense blue and if there are clouds they look like puffs of bleached cotton. Then, just before the Yakima Valley appears below, if you look to the south, you see the round, white tip of Mt. Adams peering over those dusty brown hills, incongruous.
On that March day the chill air cracked and the sagebrush cast bright shadows on patches of snow as Don drove the Subaru down into the valley past big cattle ranches and their animals with thick winter coats, then smaller farms, past apple and pear orchards just starting to bud.
Our mother, Flo, rushed out to meet us as we pulled into the gravel driveway. She was dressed in her usual polyester pantsuit in bright colors. We hugged her thin frame in turn. Then, as she stood back to look at him, she brushed my brother’s hair away from his face. “Don, I wish you would do something with your hair.” (He had diplomatically removed the scarf.)
Don frowned. “Oh, Mom.”
I thought Don’s hair was beautiful—thick and dark and curly. I’d always wished I had inherited that head of hair from our mother. I might be wearing mine in the same long style. Instead, I wore my straight brown hair short, lately in the shag style Jane Fonda popularized in the movie Klute.
“Ok, you guys, come on in,” she said, “I want you to see the new solar addition Tim put on the house.”
Flo was never much of a housekeeper, but she was a genius at making this century-old farmhouse feel like home. We had bought the run-down five-acre place when I was ten, and remodeled it ourselves. Flo had filled it with antiques she’d collected from junk stores before they were called antiques and priced to match. She always had to show us her new finds.
We visited for a while, then went out to say hello to our younger brothers Tim and Terry, whose four-wheel drive pickups were parked further up the driveway. My parents’ place, which sat down in a hollow, had several outbuildings, all painted Swedish red with white trim like the house. The big old barn had been converted to a garage. Next to it was the chicken house surrounded by its chicken-wire pen. On the other side of the garage was the three-stall horse barn on which I’d painted a stylized picture of a horse years ago. Between them was what we called the doghouse, a rectangular structure that was once a container crate. Someone had given it to my father years ago, and he set it on a slab and cut a door in it saying he’d have a place to go when he was in trouble with Flo. Over the years we’d fixed it up into a nice little apartment with electricity and running water and windows. All of us had used it at one time or another to get away from the house. I’d stayed there on summers home from college. For the past several years Tim and Diana had lived there together.
Tim answered the door, a tall, solid figure with a sparse beard and lanky brown hair. “Hey, how the fuck are you?” he said. We passed hugs around. “I’ve got some great pot this year. We’re just drying out a little.” He pointed to the toaster oven. “Smoke a joint?”
Don smiled. This was what he’d been waiting for. Yakima’s hot dry summers are perfect for growing pot. Tim and Terry grew fine pot when it didn’t get harvested prematurely in the middle of the night by one of their delinquent friends. One year they threw seeds around the farm indiscriminately and plants came up everywhere. One or two flourished in the middle of the gravel driveway.
We threw ourselves on the old foldout sofa. Terry passed out beers.
“So, what’s the plan,” I said to Diana. What family events are we signed up for?”
My girlfriends are giving me a shower tomorrow,” she said. “The wedding’s on Saturday. It will be fun, you guys. We’ll have dinner at the grange hall afterward, and Tim’s friend Duane plays in a band. We can all dance. Tim’s been taking dancing lessons.” Diana was a dancer and a ballet teacher. I don’t believe Tim had ever danced in his life or wanted to.
“What are you wearing,” I asked.
Diana waltzed over to the closet and pulled out a plain white dress that was made interesting by the triangular pieces of green hanging like stalactites from the hem. It reminded me of a costume I’d seen in a performance of Peter Pan. “I made it myself,” she beamed.
“It’s beautiful,” Don and I exclaimed in unison. We looked at Tim.
“Bought a suit,” he shrugged.
“It’s very handsome,” said Diana, replacing the dress in the closet and pulling out a blue suit. “We had trouble getting it to fit in the shoulders. He’s so wide.”
Tim sucked at the joint and then smiled sheepishly.
“Now don’t worry,” Diana said, “You’re going to look great.”
“I have to go shopping,” I said.
The next day my mother and I set out to find me a wedding outfit. Together we slogged through the department stores of my hometown, reliving painful memories of past shopping trips. I had never liked girls’ clothes, and could only be induced to wear a style my mother called “tailored.” Absolutely no frills or puckers. She’d understood. She’d never liked frilly clothes either. But she was five three and slender. I was five eight, and until my twenties, decidedly plump. More often than not, when I found the rare piece of clothing that suited me, it didn’t come in my size. This had always mystified me. I knew there were plenty of other big-boned gals like me, but the people who designed clothes hadn’t discovered us yet.
Sears was filled with nothing but polyester. Pants with no pockets and elastic waistbands. Over the years I’d developed a clothing checklist. I preferred natural fibers, and I wouldn’t wear pants if they had no back pockets. “Don’t be silly,” my mother said.
I was indignant. “I intend to wear these pants more than one time,” I reasoned. “Where will I put my wallet?”
At Montgomery Wards I insisted on starting in the men’s department. I liked the color of a greenish suit on the display and convinced the clerk to let me try it on in the men’s dressing room even though I knew what would happen. Those seventies-style men’s pants were not made for my body. In the size that fit comfortably on my thighs, the waist was inches too big. These were not the kind of pants you could cinch up with a wide belt. They were the kind with the self-belt made of the fabric to fit a man’s waist exactly. When I emerged from the dressing room my mother was not impressed. “Oh, Molly,” was all she said. I knew she was right. I felt like a used car salesman.
We arrived at the Bon Marche irritated and frustrated. The Bon Marche is the Macy’s of Yakima, WA—clothes to aspire to. My attention span for shopping had always been short. And we had never shopped at the Bon when I was a kid. It was out of our price range.
I began to sift through racks of Misses slacks while Flo checked to see whether all the suits had skirts. Suddenly there it was. A rack of pants with back pockets. I was so happy it took me a minute to discover that the pockets were only half-pockets, not really big enough for a wallet. Why they do that I’ll never understand. “Fuck, do they think putting regular-sized pockets in would cause us to grow penises?” I asked my mother.
“Why must you use that word,” she scowled. “Try them on.”
The pants did fit me better than the men’s. I actually liked how they looked, even though I was still pissed about the pockets. “I hate giving money to a clothing industry that refuses to meet my needs,” I said. But I was ready to compromise. I knew I’d never find anything better.
My mother returned with a navy polyester jacket, size 12. Women’s jackets are always too tight in the shoulders or too loose around my waist, but this one wasn’t bad. Before I could complain, she said, “I’ll buy you the jacket.”
Later she asked what shoes I’d be wearing. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I brought my Frye boots.”
Flo insisted I come to the shower, even though the boys didn’t have to. It was just as inane as I’d imagined. Diana was obliged to ooh and aah politely over every gift, no matter how useless. My mother had anticipated that I’d come to this heterosexual event empty-handed and resentful, so she’d bought a present from me. I was as surprised as Diana to discover I’d given her a set of wine glasses with their own rack. Flo never said a word about it.
The day of the wedding I was still searching for an appropriate shirt to wear with my new outfit. My father’s closet had always served me well in the past. We’re about the same size and he has short arms for a man. Whenever I’d visit, he’d send me away with several of his old shirts, which I’d wear with tails out over jeans until they began to fray right at the spots where my ample breasts stuck out the farthest. I found a tasteful light blue number with a faint check. I was looking for a tie when Don breezed into the bedroom. He was wearing bright pink pants and a purple jacket, a pink polo shirt and platform shoes. He sashayed over to the dresser, pulled back his flowing hair and began putting dangly earrings in his pierced ears.
Flo was right on his heels, and she closed the door behind her. “Don,” she wheedled, “I don’t ask you for many things, but I’m asking you not to wear those earrings.”
“Flo, stop making such a big deal out of it,” he said in that artificially low voice he uses when he’s annoyed. “I’m wearing the earrings.”
My mother looked like she might cry. I wished I could make her feel better but I was sworn to defend my brother. “I don’t understand why you must make things so hard for me,” she said. She threw up her hands and walked out.
Before the end of the evening when I felt compelled to admonish my drunken father to stop copping feels off the female guests, he had said to me that he thought I looked “sharp” in his shirt and tie.
Later, when we were dancing, I felt the only wardrobe mistake I’d made was not to wear a bra. I hadn’t thought pointy breasts would really go with my outfit, so I wore an undershirt and let the breasts seek their natural level, about halfway to my waist. But jumping around with no support was painful. Don and I were especially popular on the dance floor, in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed by the wedding guests. I never lacked a partner. All the women loved me.