Remembering All That We Have Lost

“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.

My portrait of Larry in 1973. Apparently he did study.

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.

Rosa Luxemberg Collective. Larry’s in the middle top row. I’m middle bottom row.

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.

Our button. I drew it backward. Duh!

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.

Memorials were posted at the corner of Castro and 18th. This one is for Dennis Peron, the marijuana activist.

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.

At the reunion Bob shows off a Rosa T-shirt

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.

The Castro was the scene of celebrations and demonstrations

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.

With my wife Holly at Harvey’s. The pics on the walls are from pre-AIDS times.

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.

Nuns Take the Castro

When sing-along movies became a big thing in the early 2000s they would sell out little-used movie houses. People dressed in theme costumes waited in long lines with their kids to get in at venues all over the country. In San Francisco the place to sing along with musicals was and still is the Castro Theater, the 1920s-era movie theater in the heart of the gay district. What could be better than flaunting your clever musical movie costume on Castro Street?

It helped if you knew all the words to all the songs. My girlfriend Barb, a survivor of Catholic schools whose first love had always been nuns, knew all the words to all the songs in “The Sound of Music” and when it came to the Castro she insisted we go as nuns. I was game but, having grown up Protestant, clueless.

My only experience with nun habits prior to our adventure had been the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters, a group of flamboyant gay men, formed in the 1970s partly as an antidote to the anti-gay misogynistic backward teachings of the Catholic church. They dress in outrageous nun costumes and worked hard to make the AIDS crisis visible when it was ignored by the powers that be. I love the Sisters, still a presence in San Francisco and especially the Castro. It was at a Sisters event in the early 80s called Holy Daze (including a mix of religious cults) where I learned about the plagues of Egypt and how to counteract the curses by declaring feh! and flipping wine at one another until you are covered with wine. Our plagues were things like union busting and Reaganomics. On the stage was set a long table with 12 “apostles” including The Cosmic Lady who we would see in the Mission handing out flyers with a picture of the Milky Way and an arrow with the slogan “You Are Here.”

Barb took charge of the costumes, which she announced would reflect the Catholic order of her hometown in southern Indiana, the nuns who were her teachers in Catholic schools. Her own aunt had taken the veil and so Barb knew exactly what the wimples, scapulars and associated habit parts looked like. No Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence influence here with elaborate headpieces and drag queen makeup. We would look like the real thing, authentic representatives of the Order of St. Benedict from the convent on the hill in Ferdinand, Indiana.

I was dispatched to second-hand stores in the Mission to pick up long-sleeved black dresses to serve as tunics or robes. That was the easy part. On a stormy Saturday we assembled material to create the wimples, veils and coifs. Barb, a crafty gal who was always good at making things, dove into the project with great zeal. Perhaps she was finally realizing a long-held dream: some part of her had always wanted to be a nun, or at least to be seduced by one. My own part in this play was becoming clearer.

We worked all day on the project and when it was finished we were delighted with the results. Modeling the habit put me in touch with its medieval origins. The wimple covered my ears and blocked my hearing, cloistering me from the world.

On the day of the sing-along we got dressed early so we could show our friend Pat (also an ex-Catholic) our new personas. The final touch—black leather combat boots, just visible below the long tunics. In the spirit of both the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Sisters of St. Benedict we chose our names as brides of Christ. I was Sister Mary Mollybolt (in reference to my tradeswoman background) and Barb was Sister Barbwire. As it turned out, we should have reversed our names, as I was to be the bad nun and she the good. An important part of my costume was the wooden ruler I carried, slapping it on my palm menacingly. Barb couldn’t stop laughing; she was so delighted to finally be a nun.

Bad nun good nun
Bad nun good nun

Pat took our picture before we tripped over to the Castro. We made a great team, and I wondered if nuns teamed up in pairs the way cops do to interrogate or dispense punishment. I was getting into my role as the bad nun.

The Castro District is a place where adults can show up in just about any costume and not cause so much as a second look. Even on days when nothing special is happening, the Castro can feel like Halloween. We felt right at home strolling the street as nuns, along with others dressed as characters in the “Sound of Music”—the children dressed in curtains, even a mountain range.

We had arrived with plenty of time to eat dinner and so dropped in to a local eatery. The other patrons seemed shocked by our presence. We thought it was obvious that we were fake nuns. After all, the combat boots were visible elements. And this was the Castro. But our nun costumes sent some of the Catholics at this place back to their trauma-filled childhoods. They were really disturbed by my ruler. As we stood waiting for a table, people began approaching us and telling us stories of their encounters with the nuns and the Catholic Church. One woman recalled being hit with such a ruler as a kid. We became a means for these people to talk about the trauma they’d suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church. They had to tell us their stories. A man recalled his abusive Catholic education in Germany. They couldn’t stop. I was fascinated. We had become conduits for their emotions.

The scandal of priests’ child abuse in the Catholic Church had been ongoing and the Boston Globe would break the big story about child sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese shortly after our foray into the Castro as nuns. But we got a sense of the underlying culture that night. Nuns are a powerful representation of the Catholic Church and abuse it dealt to its parishioners. Folks felt that they had to confess to us—dressed as nuns—their stories of abuse.

The sing-along was all that we’d imagined. We got to belt out How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and all the other songs. We didn’t enter the costume contest. Compared to all the other imaginative costumes, the abundant nuns were rather boring. The mountain range consisting of nine mountains won a prize. We had great fun, but the most memorable part of my night as a nun turned out to be our inadvertent unleashing of traumatic memories among the people we encountered.