The Rainbow Christ
Here in Vancouver I would have to be an ostrich (since I am Argentine make that a rhea or South American ostrich) not to know that June was chosen for LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969 in the United States.
The worst I could do would be to state here that I have many friends including family friends who are gay. That amounts to saying that I am not racist because I have black friends.
There has to be more to that understanding of the personal acceptance of people, regardless of their race, religion or gender of choice.
As a product of the 20th century (firmly in it since I am 77) my recollection or doubt about the immutability of sex as that of female or male happened as a boy of 8 on a bus with my mother on the fashionable Esmeralda Avenue in Buenos Aires. A little person with mother in tow boarded the colectivo. This person had very short hair but was wearing a skirt. It left me with a confusion that lasted for a long time even though I finally found out about mothers shearing little girl’s hairs with the idea that the new hair would be fuller. Until then skirts made a person a girl and pants (particularly short pants since that’s what I wore) a boy.
Things became more complicated when my mother took me to see a film with Katherine Hepburn. This mannish woman wore pants!
For years hence I would often listen to my Filipino grandmother tell me that my great aunt Pilar de Irureta Goyena who lived in Manila dressed like a man, rode horses and had been given a trophy for her riding skills by General Douglas MacArthur. I was not to know for many years that the expression “dressed like a man” was code that my great aunt was a lesbian.
When my mother and I were living in the Nueva Rosita, a mining town in Coahuila, Mexico I was 15, I suddenly developed breasts that were awfully sensitive and almost hurt. At night I though about this and felt confused about my sexuality. I finally told my mother who took me to the doctor. I was told that this was normal and the swelling would recede as my body became what it was supposed to be. I was much too young and too in that century to tell him that what he was telling me was politically incorrect. But he did tell me something else. “Not all men have sensitive nipples. Consider yourself lucky.”
In the late 50s in my Roman Catholic St. Edward’s boarding school in Austin the closest I ever got to hear about homosexuality was when my friends would insult each other with the epithet “homo”. We preferred the word pansy and we thought our classmate Buddy Lytton was that because he was a male cheerleader. It never occurred to us that Lytton was no such thing. In a claustrophobic boy’s school he was with girls from the St. Mary’s girl’s school across the city. He was smart.
In retrospect one of our dearest teacher brothers, Brother Dunstan, C.S.C. who taught us English and literature was effeminate but that did not faze us at all. Perhaps our ignorance of what Brother Dunstan was had to do a lot with just that, our ignorance.
I remember that whenever we went into the offices of the brothers who were our floor or dormitory monitors that their door was always left open. Only in retrospect have I figured out why that procedure was always followed.
If there were any shenanigans happening in those bunk beds between my classmates I must have been out of the loop because I never knew of any stories.
In my two years in the Argentine Navy I never met a flagrantly gay sailor, non-commissioned officer or officer. But then it is only in the later part of my life that I figured out that my father’s alcoholism was not the only kind of alcoholism. There were a few I discovered who drank only when they were home in the evening. The idea that to be gay is to be effeminate (in that 20th century meaning of the word) was something I did not consider while I was that navy conscript. Nor, of course that not all gay women are butch. And then there was Jane Rule.
It wasn’t until a year before I married my Rosemary in 1968, that in my confusion as to what I wanted to do with my life, our family friend Raúl Guerrero Montemayor took me under his wing. He invited me to live in his apartment and he taught me how to teach English and found me a job (where I met Rosemary!). A cousin of mine suggested I sleep at night with a book on my bum for protection. I was offended and never told anybody about it. Raúl was one of my best mentors, he was a witness at our wedding and he was my youngest daughter Hilary’s godfather.
I went to see him a few years ago when he was dying of prostate cancer. In tears in bed he told me, “The tragedy of my life is that I never lived the life of that what I was. I lived another one and it was a lie.”
I was shattered as I bid him goodbye and returned to Vancouver.
In 1977 my first photo job was working for a gay publication called Bi-Line. Writer Jack Moore and I were the only straight freelancers. By 1978 I had the need for a good studio flash system. There was one for sale by a Victoria photographer for $3200.
In my naiveté I went with a pile of Bi-Lines to my Bank of Montreal branch on Willingdon and Hastings. The loans officer was a white-haired and dour seeming Scottish woman. She asked me what my collateral was. I presented her with my pile of publications. She leafed through them. There were plenty of nude men photographed by one Strut McPherson which was my by-line.
I was given the money.
Here in Canada I had a first cousin who lived in Toronto who had a higher up job at the Royal Bank. When he was doing his stint in the Argentine Army (while I was the sailor) we had nothing in common. He would talk of Wagner operas. I knew nothing of them. By the time we had a long evening at his apartment in Toronto a few months before he died of AIDS we were good friends and I was a convert to opera and Wagner. His family in Buenos Aires invented some esoteric disease which was the one that had killed him.
During my work at Bi-Line it was generally discussed by all that one of our Prime Ministers had either been gay or bi-sexual. I got to know city Aldermen (as they were called then) who were gay and in the many times I photographed Raymond Burr the man who opened Burr’s hotel room door was his partner in full eye makeup. So loved was Burr by the media that there was never a peep about his sexual preference.
While working for Bi-Line I was assigned to photograph a real lesbian “Queen Bee”. She was beautiful and all her house work was done by “worker bees”. While sitting with her at a café before our photo session I felt this relief that I did not have to prove my masculinity in her presence and that she was not in the least interested in me as a man. Somehow this made me feel liberated and that I could just be myself. It is a lesson I have never forgotten.
Another woman of that persuasion, one likes to wear fake beards and loves bacon, told me once what nobody has ever told me about my career. She said, “Thank you Alex for never taking a bad photograph.”
In the many years that I have photographed my favourite Canadian guitarist, composer and rock star, Art Bergmann I began to understand that I had something that was female within me. I understood his electrical and erotic presence. I was attracted to it and I understood why young women were up there watching how he stood while playing his guitar. That finding of the female within me has helped me photograph men rather well. Thank you Bi-Line, thank you Ron Langen (he was the editor).
I have yet to completely ignore when two young men holding hands pass me by these days. For me it is no different from raising my head to the sky when I hear an airplane. It is the habit that comes from having lived in another century. I cannot yet take it all for granted.
In Mexico (to finish this long thing) I had a friend who was Cuban. He spoke perfect Castilian. We both taught in the same Mexico City high school. Somehow in some strange way I called him Jorge (his name) and he called me Jorge (my real first name) and we did this in formal Spanish. We used the word usted not tu for you.
He was secretive about his life. He was a very good chess player and partnering with him in bridge we never lost.
Only once did I come to suspect why he was so secretive. In the Zona Rosa I watched him leave his car with a young man. And I knew.
Not too long ago he visited us in Vancouver. Rosemary had a real affection for him. When in Mexico, Jorge would call me to find out if my mother (who was living with us) was deafer than usual. If that was the case then he would show up as my mother would tell him his fortune. Jorge said my mother was really good when she was deaf. InVancouver Jorge told me that with his special cocktail he would not die of the AIDS he had contracted.
And for the finish a small explanation of the photograph you see here. A few months ago Rosemary and I went to Venice and Florence. In a Florence church the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata I spotted this rainbow Christ. There was no explanation that I could find. But I think that it is a good way to illustrate this little essay of mine.