A Gay Chaldean Priest, a Chelsea Queen, and one Hot Daddy
Only in San Francisco’s Castro!
Gay men have a culture, or at least collections of cultures.
Ingroup dynamics. Ways of being. Accents, body languages. Speedos, Sunday brunch, Broadway musicals, opera, and cocktails are stereotypes, but they contain grains of truth. When I was young, our culture was more necessary than it is today. We used it to identify one another. To recognize one another in a hostile world.
But when we came together in our Meccas, or ghettos as we called them then? Things occasionally got out of hand, in a comic sort of way! Don’t know what I mean?
Take a trip back in time with me to San Francisco of the mid 1990s, when the Castro was perhaps the most famous queer haven in the world. Meet some of the colorful characters who inhabited a subculture that’s slowly fading away.
Our Meccas are disappearing because we don’t need them as much as we once did, and that’s all for the good. But we’re losing something special as they disappear. Here’s a memory I want to people to have, of the way things used to be.
Imagine the Castro then, at the time probably America’s most outrageously in-your-face, over-the-top gay ghetto.
Imagine my long-time partner Lenny and me visiting from Chelsea in Manhattan, squeezed into a city bus groaning its way up steep hills toward the house we’re watching and the cat we’re feeding for a friend while he jets to London to dance at Heaven Under the Arches.
Imagine the bus is full of leather daddies, denim queens, mincing twinks, and gay cowboys.
Weird? Hell, no. These are my peeps. Lenny and I are right at home.
Imagine this guy, instead.
OK, so not this guy, exactly, but pretty damn close.
Imagine him a little older, quite a bit more round, and way scruffier. His hair and beard flowed like a river, churning and frothy white.
A Chaldean priest in full regalia!
Now imagine him eyeing my Lenny up and down. Obviously. Hungrily. Dare I say crudely?
OK, check this.
I’m the one people cruise, damn it. I mean, Lenny’s a craggily handsome, big big buff daddy whom I adore and all, but what the frick? I’m the young, cute stud muffin here.
Let’s everyone try to keep our roles clear, please. Sheesh, girls!
But even that isn’t the weird part. The guy shuffles up to us with that shepherd’s crook thing tap tap tapping on the bus floor. A couple leather daddies grin familiar greetings at him. A cowboy tips his ten-gallon genuine Stetson. Mr. Gilded Robes pushes straight up to Lenny, sticks out a paw and introduces himself in oddly accented English.
Naturally Lenny’s all about knowing what’s up with the robes, staff, and miter. I can’t say I’m not mildly curious myself.
So all the way up the hill we get a lesson on Chaldean Catholicism.
How Chaldeans are Christians from Iraq who speak Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
Then… here we go.
The priest dude asks Lenny a question. “So, you two ever get high? You like to trip?”
And he winked!
Like one of those big parodies of a wink you see in cartoons. Please, scroll up and look at that picture again.
Imagine that wink.
“Little party at my pad tonight,” he leers. (My pad!)
“We got shrooms and peyote. Good Russian River wine. Can’t find it in stores, you gotta know somebody! Come on over. Terry’ll be there, huh Terry?”
He points out a bearded 40-something in chaps and a leather cap, who smiles and nods.
“We’ll have some young dudes around to keep your friend company, Lenny,” croons the priest as he points at me, “but I’d really love to get to know you better.”
Now I’m stunned. A priest in gilded robes just offered us peyote and hit on my husband right in front of me.
I start giggling like a school girl. Lenny slaps the back of my head, tells me to behave, and takes the guy’s card. (His card!)
You wanna know what’s really funny?
We got home, ate some food, and actually came within a cat’s whisker of going to the party. I wish we had!
Now, I sincerely doubt that dude was a genuine Chaldean priest, but he’s the coolest character I’ve ever encountered on a bus. If anybody can top this for public transit strangeness, I’m all ears!
The scene that afternoon is burned into my memory particularly because of how distinct and special it was. I remember it because of the Chaldean priest. The leather daddies, cowboys, twinks, and clones didn’t register with me, a jaded denizen of Chelsea and Greenwich Village.
But looking back, I realize I was home, even though I was thousands of miles from home. Those “normal” Castro characters are my real memories. Castro culture, so close to lower Manhattan gay culture, warmed and welcomed me.
I wonder what life will be like for future queer generations. The day must come, will surely come, when we LGBTQ people are just ordinary. We’ll fade into the background like everyone else.