"Go West - This is Our Destiny":
Arcadia, Gay Flight, and the Idea(l) of California
by Connell O'Donovan
California is described, prescribed, and proscribed as the Promised Land for Queer people (especially Gay white men) in American literature of the Victorian era, underground homosexual films of the 1940s-60s, Gay pornography of the 1970s, and popular music of the 1970s-90s. Yet these media also warn that this paradisiacal locus ironically carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. California has also long been the focus of the homosexual imagination - "this other Eden" as it were, a locus where the ideal of Arcadia could perhaps be finally and fully realized. Gay theorist, Byrne R.S. Fone has found a long and ancient literary and artistic tradition amongst homosexually-inclined men from Virgil to the present who have sought out "that secret Eden", most often referred to as Arcadia (a rural, bucolic, and mountainous region of ancient Greece often idealized and romanticized in opposition to the complexities and artifice of the urban polis). Fone believes that the homosexual imagination employs this Arcadian landscape as a place "where it is safe to be gay" and openly portray the presence of "gay love and sensibility in a text that otherwise makes no explicit statement about homosexuality". Arcadia then is a metaphor for "certain spiritual values and myths prevalent in homosexual literature and life" such as "the search for the Ideal Friend [that] is one of the major undertakings of the homosexual life."
Two American writers who describe this edenic Arcadia in homosocial terms and envision California as the fulfillment of that idea(l) are Bayard Taylor and Walt Whitman. Taylor's 1869 novel, Joseph and His Friend, described Arcadia as "a great valley, bounded by hundreds of miles of snowy peaks; lakes in its bed; enormous hillsides, dotted with groves of ilex [holly oak] and pine, orchards of orange and olive; a perfect climate, where it is bliss enough to breathe, and freedom from the distorted laws of men". It is this sense of classical Cynicism which permeates so much of the Anglo-centric dialogue on California: ignoring the presence of Native American tribes, white male sexual outlaws are told, "here is a tabula rasa, free from the taint of nomos; what will you do away from social restrictions and laws?" While California is not specifically named in Taylor's text, it is a fine description of California's Central Valley, the Sierras, and the "perfect climate" of central and southern California.
Of even greater import, the "solitary singer", Walt Whitman, offers California to his erotic democracy as a place where the Arcadian metaphor might become a reality. Fone points out that in Whitman's Arcadian poems (most notably "In Paths Untrodden" and "These I Singing in Spring") two important elements are present: "the world of the real life, which demands a certain conformity of appearance, and the world of the spirit, which is ill fed by the standards of that world." The physical and spiritual yearnings of Whitman call him to explore this other Eden, the "typical Arcadian paradigm" again firmly established as "the lonely retreat" to the Arcadian forest completed by homoerotic bathing or baptismal rituals at the side of the "miraculous pool" of water, (loosely patterned after the Ladon River, which flows through Arcadia in Greece).
Several of Whitman's poems envision California as this ideal site, especially the 1874 poem, "The Song of the Redwood-Tree", first published in Leaves of Grass in 1881. The first line of this poem declares it "A California song" sung by "a chorus of dryads", whose voice is "of a mighty dying tree in the redwood forest dense" (reminiscent of the Arcadian "greenwood", that "far, far forest"), which is heard only by Whitman; the lumberjacks and other people associated with the lumber industry "heard not" this song of the dryads, "But in my soul I plainly heard [it]". These dryads from the redwood forest sing a song of dedication of "these virgin lands, lands of the Western shore,/to the culminating man, to you, the empire new". It is a dedicatory prayer that "beneath all creeds, arts, statutes, literatures,/ Here build your homes for good, establish here, these areas entire". And like the "stalwart trunk and limbs" with its "foot-thick bark" and "lofty top rising two hundred feet high", the dryads pray that
"Here may he hardy, sweet, gigantic grow, here tower proportionate to Nature,
Here climb the vast pure spaces unconfined, uncheck'd, by wall or roof,
...Here heed himself, unfold himself, (not others' formulas heed,) here fill his time,
To duly fall, to aid, unreck'd at last,
To disappear, to serve.
And what inspires these people to come to "the flashing and golden pageant of California,/ the sudden and gorgeous drama, the sunny and ample lands", where "Asia's fetiches [sic]" meet "Europe's old dynastic slaughter-house"? Whitman sees "the genius of the modern, child of the real and ideal,/ Clearing the ground for broad humanity, the true America, heir of/ the past so grand, to build a grander future." Whitman seems painfully aware that the destruction of his metaphor, the redwood forest, must take place in order to fulfill the dream of Arcadia - "the century-lasting, unseen dryads, singing, withdrawing" from California to find refuge in "the Wasatch, or Idaho far, or Utah" - all ironically now within the theocratic domain of the Mormon Church.
While Whitman was writing about the potential of California from the safety of New York, later Gay men who actually lived in the "Golden State" had an even closer view of the state's potential for both utopia and dystopia. Like the Gay literary tradition, most of the California-made Gay underground films of the late 1940s through the 1960s were informed by the Arcadian ideal of California as Queer Paradise, while maintaining a profound if subtle acknowledgement that California (and in particular Los Angeles) is a double-edged sword of "sunshine and noir"; anonymity and isolation, freedom and powerlessness; as Mike Davis put it, Los Angeles is a "city of seduction and defeat", ultimately the incarnation of insanity. Gay filmmaker Kenneth Anger (who studied film at University of Southern California with two other Gay underground filmmakers: Curtis Harrington and Gregory Markopoulos), was a precocious child of Hollywood, obsessed with its seamier, more scandalous side of the California dream. His movies also show an obsession with the occult and "Magick" or more specifically what the Radical Faerie historian Randy Connor calls "the left-hand path" of "powers sometimes unfortunately referred to as 'dark'", a term he rejects because of its racist undertones. Theorist of Queer pornography Richard Dyer defines this as an "esoteric system of pagan belief and ritual" based on the beliefs and practices of the "ambisexual" Satanist, Aleister Crowley. Much of Anger's work dwells on "chaos and disruption, joyously celebrated". Although Anger moved to Europe in 1950, he often returned and filmed while in California or other places in the US. Some of these homoesoteric films were Fireworks (Los Angeles, 1947), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (Los Angeles, 1954), and his most famous, Scorpio Rising (New York, 1962). While only the first of these works specifically refers to California, they do represent Anger's experience of California as a dream and nightmare, a place of great power.
The central image of Fireworks is one of a sailor holding a young man prostrate in his arms: the image appears throughout the film in various media - especially multiple photographic copies of it being burned in a fireplace grating. The magical element being invoked by the film is fire, as a metaphor for desire. Dyer believes that this photo is a Queer version of the Pietá of Mary and Jesus, whose prostrate corpse represents "the supreme instance of a ritually significant sad young man in Western tradition". In Anger's film, the source of the sadness (and prostration) of the young man in the arms of the sailor is that he has gone out cruising in a Los Angeles park and been fag-bashed by a group of sailors, one of whom soon returns to the scene of the wounded young man and they make love, in a renewal or resurrection of life for the young man. The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is a magical invocation of an Arcadian forest; the film is "of jewel-like richness", and features a decadent and "queeny" Magus (title of a ritual, pagan magician), and a blond Pan, described as "gorgeous beyond words" by one reviewer. The effeminate Magus "signals the beginning of a bacchanalian rite by swallowing, jewel by jewel, a necklace".
Erotic diarist Anaïs Nin appears during the bacchanal in the role of the goddess Astarte, wearing a gilded birdcage as a headdress. At the culmination of Pleasure Dome, the Magus is transformed into Shiva, the Hindu god of reproduction and destruction, perhaps another of Anger's metaphors for California. Scorpio Rising is a disturbing yet meticulous film; while it details a magical approach to desire for the hyper-masculine (found by fetishizing "biker boys" and the erotic undercurrents of male bonding in the motorcycle world, set to a soundtrack of 60s hits, popularized by the surfing/beach craze of Southern California), it also contains disturbing Nazi imagery as a fulfillment of that desire. Anger has edited in segments of an older Hollywood film about Christ called The Road to Jerusalem, but Anger edits this film in such a way that it "draws Christ into the gay erotic circle"; for example, a man falls at the knees of Christ, and Anger cuts-in a close-up of an erect penis, suggesting that the man has fellated the Christ. The forces that are invoked by Anger in this film are enumerated by Dyer as "sadism, male sexuality, immaturity, [and] Nazism" - all which Dyer believes are "disapprovable" and therefore a "sign for their fitness for Magick invocation" as "wild, transcendent forces that convention represses". Mike Davis more critically refers to the "dominant vision" of Kenneth Anger as the "car-sex-death-fascism continuum" which lead Anger to explore the "Nietzschean porno-mythology of motorcycle gangs and hotrodders", the epitome of the hypermasculine (and hypermasculinist) in California at the time.
Following in both Whitman's and Anger's attempts to portray the idea of California as a Queer Arcadian dystopic utopia, in 1969, Gay pornographer Fred Halsted moved back to his native Los Angeles from San José, California, perhaps as part of Mike Davis's "migration of intellectuals, in constructing and deconstructing the mythography of Los Angeles". Halsted later related that upon arrival, he "just bought a camera and pieced together a Sunday cruise by a sadist", which turned out to be the first "hardcore" film ever screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. This film, narcissistically entitled LA Plays Itself, was finished and distributed in 1972 and was a favorite of viewers at the time. One San Francisco reviewer wrote that "there's a certain ingenuousness about Halsted that seems genuine rather than affected", and in viewing this film (especially as political criticism rather than pornography), I completely agree.
This film is actually divided into two seemingly unlinked stories (although their "moral" is basically the same: the Gay flight to Los Angeles is simultaneously building and destroying its own community). Both halves are narrated by Halsted and only feature two actors in each half (with Halsted himself appearing in the second story line). Throughout both segments, there is actually very little graphic sex shown - and the sex which is shown graphically is often purposely edited to be choppy, or it's shown in such extreme close-ups that details are lost and there is merely a suggestion of what the actors are doing, and the accompanying music is usually extremely discordant. Thus I find the film to be practically useless as pornography per se, yet extremely valuable as socio-political commentary on the California Dream.
The film seems to be set up to image what Whitman called "the child of the real and ideal" (expressed perfectly by Mike Davis's "sunshine and noir"). The first segment (which I believe was actually filmed last) seems to represent the Ideal of California: the action all takes place out in an idyllic nature; the two men are of the same race, the same age, and the same class (or perhaps classless); while one man is generally the top and the other the bottom, there are moments of role exchange; the subject and the object of desire are fluid, reconcile, merge, and part. The second segment is the real California that Halsted actually found in Los Angeles: a dark (in hair coloring and outlook) thirty-something sadist (played by the "butch-god" Halsted himself) picks up a teenage blond "SUPER TWINK" off the streets, who has a heavy southern drawl (and thus despite having the look of the quintessential California Golden Boy, is in fact a recent émigré from Houston, Texas, according to the film). The swarthy man is in complete control of the ensuing sex, bondage, and sadistic scenarios to follow (all filmed in murky, shadowy, and eerie interior spaces), and the young, tan blond is the categorical object. It is in this example of the valuing of the Aryan ideal in both segments of LA Plays Itself that I find disturbing ramifications.
The first half of LA Plays Itself appears to be an explicitly sexual retelling of the initial meeting of the "urbanite" Gilgamesh and the "wildman" of the forest, Enkidu, as found in the 4,000 year old Gilgamesh Epic. The film opens with about ten minutes of "nature footage" of the then undeveloped mountains above Los Angeles: fog rolling over the hills, rock outcroppings covered in lichen, fields of wild flowers, beetles, bees, hawks. And over this is a dialogue of two unseen men; the first man, whom I refer to as Gary, apparently lives in the city of Los Angeles; the other being the filmmaker Fred Halsted, who (at least in this scenario) apparently lives out in the "country", a rural area of Los Angeles County.
Gary: This, this is where it's happenin': Los Angeles - nowhere else.
Fred: Los Angeles STINKS. You know, parts of Los Angeles - if ya get out into Los Angeles County, out...out into the country, it's nice....There's a lot a things going on!
Gary: It's you and those animals and those flowers.
Fred: What's wrong with sniffin' flowers?
Gary: At least I ball humans.
Fred: Well, I do too...occasionally....You'd be surprised what happens out there....I found somethin' AWFUL nice out there...
At this point, the dialog stops, Japanese-style music plays quietly in the background, and we only see more nature shots for a few moments, but then a dark-haired man appears (apparently actor Jim Frost if the credits at the end are in the order of appearance), fully-clothed and vaguely butch-hippyish although his hair isn't very long, walking through a meadow of sage-brush where he begins climbing trees, quietly exploring nature. The Japanese-style music slowly changes into tribal drumming accompanied by a haunting flute melody. In the next scene, we see bare legs and feet walking on a boulder, and then we see this other nude man but only as a reflection in a shallow pool of water: a Blond Narcissus (like the Blond Pan of Anger's Pleasure Dome).
Narcissus is revealed finally as a "naturally beautiful" blond and tan man in his early 20s (apparently an actor named Rick Coates), and we see him first as he sprinkles water onto a group of ferns in a small grotto, carefully caressing their delicate leaves with his wet hands. Throughout the film the blond represents several things: a Child of Nature (a post-modern wood nymph perhaps); the quintessential California Golden Boy; an Aryan poster boy. For Halsted, the blond is the lure and the catalyst for the Gay flight to California, as the fulfillment of his own (and our?) desire.
The blond is a Child of Nature because he appears already nude and we never see any clothing belonging to him, his hair is long (and although he is clean shaven, he is quite naturally hairless on his upper-body and perhaps he is naturally beardless as well), he gives a baptismal benediction to the ferns in the grotto, and he is first spotted by the brunet sitting in a semi-lotus position on the edge of a pool (echoes of the Arcadian "miraculous pool").
The blond is the "ideal" Golden Boy (also exemplified by in that same era by Jan Michael Vincent and Vince Van Patten) with his natural tan (sans tan-line), naturally blond and straight hair, extremely white teeth, tall and lanky but muscular.
The blond man can also be read as a representation of the Aryan ideal of maleness and masculinity. As Thomas Waugh, a Queer historian of Gay eroticism, documents, beginning in 1902, the German "Community of the Self-Owned" began pushing "traditional models of masculinity and gender politics (if not male supremacy)" onto the German public through publishing manuals and magazines which featured values of homosociality and "love of friends". This movement coalesced with physique magazines in the 1920s which disseminated the (explicitly photographic) view of the blond, athletic free spirit, or the "Weimar erotic sensibility of the man-next-door". Waugh too notes that this Aryan brotherhood was closely associated with "the aura of bathing and water, the pantheistic Nature symbology of leaves and grass, forests and meadow, clouds and sunlight" (so reminiscent of the Arcadian paradigm). This "cult of the Aryan male hero" culminated when one of the main German physique photographers, the apparently Gay Gerhard Riebicke, became the official photographer for the German Army School for Physical Exercise, under the command of Major Hans Surén. Surén promoted nude athletics amongst German soldiers during at least five years of the Nazi regime. When he was finally dismissed from the Army by a homophobic Hitler, Surén wrote a hugely popular book called Der Mensch und die Sonne (Man and Sun), generously illustrated with Riebicke's photographs of "huge groups of nude soldiers running...across fields and streams, frolicking in rivers and lolling in mud", virtually everyone of them an athletic, tanned blond. This book, which in its 1936 reprinting gained the subtitle of "The Aryan Olympic Spirit", sold some 200,000 copies by 1940.
While Anger blatantly drew upon images of masculinist Nazis for his films, Halsted, in LA Plays Itself, is far more subtle and complex in his portrayal of Aryan masculinism. The nude blond man of Halsted's film seemingly belongs to this natural setting, while the brunet man is a "newer stranger" (in the words of fellow Los Angeleno and Halsted look-alike, Jim Morrison) who has recently arrived in California and this particular rural setting; we discover when he is finally unclothed by the blond, that he has a US Navy tattoo on his left arm and the implication is that he first came to California via the US Naval base in San Diego, and after his term of service (his hair is now slightly too long to be regulation) he has returned to "the flashing and golden pageant of California". Interestingly, throughout the film, we never clearly see the face of the brunet; the blond's alluring face is shown repeatedly while the brunet remains faceless and thus we (viewers outside of California) are more easily able to identify with him in his interaction with the blond "Other".
When the two men first meet there is only a brief, four line exchange of dialogue (during which the Japanese music fades out and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony begins - music appropriate to the Arcadian landscape); otherwise, there is no dialogue throughout the rest of the film. Thereafter follows a lengthy montage of them making love quite intimately and lovingly (lots of touching, kissing, holding, and laughter, and only a few moments of really graphic sex) in various places and positions (the blond generally but not exclusively being the bottom, both orally and anally), their "innocence" even more starkly pronounced nowadays because their anal sex is condomless (reminding us of those "nostalgic days" prior to AIDS) with the sex scenes interspersed with more nature footage of ferns, brooks, and pollinating bees, as well as animals sexually reproducing (or in pursuit of reproduction), like three salamanders, butterflies, fish, and water-skeeters, emphasizing that (all) sexuality is completely natural (for anything truly "unnatural" would, by definition, require no proscription against it). During one of the longer, uninterrupted scenarios of the film, the two naked men climb higher into the hills, to a large rock pool with a small water-fall, where they splash each other, innocently, child-like, joyfully, and true to the Arcadian paradigm, they ritually bathe each other, a Queer baptism under the waterfall.
After the brunet ejaculates (the blond does not), another extremely significant montage occurs: a bulldozer is shown plowing through a meadow, destroying the pristine landscape, as lizards, rabbits, and other animals flee, and others are destroyed. The montage ends, with a long view of a massive earthworks site, large equipment covering the hillsides, and above all on the highest hill, an American flag flying over the California State flag as if to say: America is California, and California is Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is this ripped up countryside. Here Halsted seems to be issuing the caveat that the result of the Gay flight and our attempts to find the Ideal Friend merely end in increased population on a fragile ecosystem, and its subsequent destruction in order to build more housing, more offices for the more jobs required, more bathhouses, more gyms, more discos, more coffee-shops, more Gap stores, and most ironically, more cruise parks, in a dizzying and vicious cycle.
The second segment is in fact a short film noir shot in grainy, murky, choppy style, which I find rather coy, chilling, and intense. It opens with a Los Angeles City Limits sign indicating that the population was then at 2,535,700 people. Then the viewer begins a disjointed tour of the daytime urban landscape, concentrating on billboards and other street signs that have sexual innuendo for Halsted, and almost spying on sites of male bonding and subtle homoerotics, all interspersed with footage of the sado-masochistic and bondage-discipline scenarios of Fred Halsted and Joseph Yale, whom Fred Halsted found one day in 1969 playing the part of the Jungle Boy in "Disney on Parade". Halsted apparently asked Yale if he'd like to be in an "'experimental film' about the birds and the bees and the flowers", which sounded "almost as wholesome as Disneyland itself". Yale agreed to act in the film, starring as the submissive boy. Yale then later married Halsted in 1975, as they had ironically found each other as that "Ideal Friend" of the Arcadian mythography.
Fred Halsted (left) and Joseph Yale
Fascinating and humorous collages of signs and billboards are used throughout LA Plays Itself as erotic, communal appropriations for Halsted, in his attempt "to invisibly appropriate elements" of a "mass-distributed commodity culture" for fantasy and erotic use. Signs and posters from restaurants like "Jack's Joint for Breakfast - Lunch", and Kentucky Fried Chicken ("chicken" being gay jargon for an under-aged young man pursued by an older "chicken hawk"): "So Tender, So Tasty", "Finger Lickin' Good", and "North America's Hospitality Dish"; and other food products such as "106 Chunks of Beef in Every Can of Dennison's Chili". Finally and quite significantly, these well-produced, commercial-based signs are juxtaposed with handscrawled graffiti reading "Gay Power" in huge letters on a cinderblock wall. These signs are intercut with footage of groups of male hippies drumming, playing Frisbee, and sunbathing in the local park (where Halsted is cruising the restrooms). More scenes of predation are edited in by Halsted, showing a wolf paused with tongue out, and an extensive insect collection, each insect carefully identified by a tag stuck to the pin piercing the insect.
Halsted went on to direct at least four other films (including Sex Tool, which met to poor reviews and negative audience screenings) and to star in several porn classics, including all three of the John Gage trilogy, when he was in his mid-30s. He also provided all the narration for a 1975 history of Gay male porn called Erotikus (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Eroticus) but later he panned it publicly. By 1976, Halsted was living a "private, even 'secretive' life in his jungle-camouflaged 'fort' about Sunset Strip, and he likes to spend a day totally alone, gardening, writing, reading, working out, talking to no one". At that time he lived with his husband, Joey Yale, his dog, his cat, and "Curtis", a man from Georgia who had produced Halsted's porno-film, Sex Tool. True to the promise and warning of California, despite their temporary domestic "bliss", Yale contracted AIDS and died on April 19, 1986. Fred Halsted also contracted AIDS and distraught over Joey's death and his deteriorating physical well-being, overdosed on sleeping drugs and Thorazine on May 9, 1989 in Orange County, California.
In 1979, the New York-based disco group, the Village People, came out with their hit single, "Go West". The song is a camp version of New Yorker Horace Greeley's famous admonition to the "young man" of the United States in the 1840s, as Greeley believed in the "virtues of country life and the value of the West as a sanctuary for the East's discontent masses" (who were mainly impoverished, uneducated, immigrant non-Anglo-Saxons). In 1859, Greeley visited California and was so impressed with what he called "the Queen of the Pacific", that he asserted that "no other state could compare". Just as Greeley's "discontent masses" flocked westward to "civilize" pristine wilderness, so too the discontent Gay masses followed the Village People's kitschy rallying anthem calling Gay people everywhere to "Go West". As with most of their songs, Gayness is not spoken but assumed; their songs give a great big, cheesy wink at "those with ears to hear". The lyrics to "Go West" are an overly romantic paean to Gay life in California (where "together we will learn and teach"), written at the peak of the so-called "Gay flight". Ironically, this Gay flight described and prescribed by the song brought thousands and thousands more Queer folks to urban, coastal areas, who then participated in the intense sexual freedom (particularly in the men's communities) which completely obscured the liberation movement that inspired them in the first place and was so conducive to the spread of HIV beginning in the late 1970s. In September of 1993, the British pop group the Pet Shop Boys made a cover of the song with an accompanying video (see Post Script) featuring thousands of cloned male couples, marching to the beat of the song up a staircase to heaven, the Emerald City in Oz. It was initially seen by critics as both a cynical but nostalgic commentary on the devastation of the Gay community by AIDS after "going West" in pursuit of Arcadia, as well as being a cynical but nostalgic commentary on the Eastern European flight to "the West" after the end of the Cold War (best symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall).
The media's coverage of AIDS in the 1980s merely confirmed all our (non-Californians) worst fears. It seemed to be a California disease (although remotely a New York one as well) brought on by selfish decadence and the abandonment of all social strictures and mores (at least according to religions, the media, the government, etc.)
California epitomizes the paradox of paradise; that the human search for Utopia leads us to destroy it when we find it. Living in California has taught me to embrace this fundamental paradox of the dystopic utopia; while the cosmos is ultimately amoral (viz. quantum physics), still, some decisions are better than others. There seem to be two challenges laid before the Queer men's community, (so sublimely, subliminally charted out by our Queer forefathers): first, how to value the masculine without being masculinist; and second, how to value similarities and symmetries of bodies without collapsing into the violent and flavorless mediocrity of sameness and hegemony, which so often and so easily congeal into fascism.
Saturday night, November 6, 1993, The Sun Tavern, Salt Lake City, Utah.
I have just returned to Salt Lake for a weekend visit after a year of living in the desert of southeastern Utah (three months of it alone in my tent, some 12 miles away from the closest town). After a year of desert erosion, the immense and immediate destruction of flash floods, sand-blasting winds, and the intensity of a high desert winter, I feel like layers and layers of myself have been stripped away to reveal just a hard, prickly, desiccated seed of me. And I am dancing in this crowded Gay bar, full of drunken ex- (or closeted) Mormons, all of us excruciatingly wounded by our years of survival in one of the most homophobic religious environments in the world. For a few moments we can forget that the outside world exists, let our hair down, and PARTY. I am intoxicated by the desire that circulates here, thick and cloudy, and all I feel is the rhythm of the Cosmic Fuck Beat pounding into my body from the huge speakers surrounding us. The Madonna song ends and then from the speakers comes the sound of a new song, old song, that I remember instantly from the disco craze of the late 1970s. It is the Pet Shop Boys doing a remake of the Village People's classic, "Go West"; and there is a video to accompany it, which I haven't seen before.
And I'm dancing to the beat and feeling the heat of the men around me, and the energy is high, and I watch this incredible video on the huge monitors suspended from the ceiling; to the words, to the beat, I see the images of hundreds of thousands of (all white? I don't recall) male couples wearing Tron-like armor, marching in unison, heads erect and proud, marching intently and perfectly in unison up a huge staircase to "heaven", our own Queer Paradise - and this heaven they seek turns out to be the Emerald City in Oz. And I am overwhelmed with emotion, and the tears start to pour down my face; a lonely desert exile watching the symmetries of men-couples, marching to the beat, in unison, perfectly. And I am carried away, transported Elsewhere, and I find that somehow I am in the arms of the Goddess, who whispers into my ear, "GO WEST". Fear grips me; how to leave behind this Zion I once loved, for another, greener but darker garden? How to escape this torturous existence that has become so comfortable to me now? "GO WEST". But my friends, my family, my polity, my community!?! "GO WEST".
And I am back in the disco, surrounded by these men, all of them dancing to the beat, full of desire and its magick; I am standing still and I am sobbing, tears pouring down my face, and I know what I must do. I must go west, I must go find my own, queerest Promised Land, to "learn and teach".
And yet I hesitate...fearful for other reasons as well. I am somewhat horrified (and ironically lured) by the image of hundreds of thousands of men, all in sync, all in unison, all the same, marching perhaps to the sound of a different drum, but still marching with military precision (I know, as a former Sgt. in the US Army), with the hopeful countenance of those who have a mission (I know, as a former Mormon missionary); I crave community, a place where at last I can fully fit in, yet I also fear anonymity, annihilation, and loss of self, loss of difference, of identity. But deeply I know that I must go west to plant this crusty seed of me in the greenest soil to see what will grow in this frightening garden. Perhaps a dryad in the far, far redwood forest...
ENDNOTES (See Bibliography below as well)
1. The most famous poem of this literary tradition is perhaps Christopher Marlowe's, "The Passionate Shepherd", with Corydon's imploring of Alexis to "Come with me and be my love, and we shall all the pleasures prove".
2. Fone, p. 13.
3. Other Queer or Gay-identified writers who actually lived in California include W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard, and several of the Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg, who is often cited as the spiritual, sexual and political heir to the Whitman tradition.
4. Fone, p. 29.
5. Other Whitman poems that focus on the ideal of California are "Our Old Feuillage", "Facing West from California's Shores", "Drum Taps", and "A Promise to California"; many others merely mention California in passing.
6. Whitman, p. 176
7. I get the impression that Julia Butterfly, in her perch at the top of a tree in the Headwater's Redwood forest (the last major stand of "old growth" redwoods in the state) is the last of the dryads futilely singing the swan song of the redwoods.
8. Davis, p. 18.
9. Connor, p. 286
10. Aleister Crowley believed that Magick is "the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the Will"...but he fails to admit that it is the "Will" of the self (Dyer, p. 118).
11. Dyer, p. 118.
12. Dyer, p. 123.
13. Dyer, p. 119.
14. Connor, p. 280.
15. These songs include the Angel's singing "My Boyfriend's Back" and Elvis Presley with "Devil in Disguise", while the last film sequence features "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris.
16. Anger includes several sequences of cut-ins showing Nazis and almost at the end of the Magickal invocation, the young biker boy pees into a Nazi helmet while standing on an altar and offers it to Christ who is riding on a donkey, all to the soundtrack of Little Peggy March singing, "I Will Follow Him" (Dyer, p. 127).
17. Dyer, pp. 126-8.
18. Dyer, pp. 128-9.
19. Davis, p. 66.
20. Davis, p. 20.
21. San Francisco Sentinel, "Fred Halsted plays himself", March 13, 1973, p. 4, in the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California Archives (copy in my possession).
22. As Dyer notes, the Halsted film follows closely on the heels of (and related to) the 1970 gay soft-porn film, The Song of the Loon, which offers a lengthy "vision" sequence about a young pioneer man named Ephraim who leaves behind the "repressed, restrictive mores of the white man" by coming in contact with Native Americans and Whitmanesque frontiersmen, which "all root the film firmly in beat/hippy culture" (Dyer, p. 171). While this film does not specify California as the Promised Land of Arcadian desire, it is about resituating gay men into an often denied historical past of "the West". The 1981 gay porn film, The Gold Rush Boys, attempts this historical revision as well but placed specifically in California during the gold rush. I have not seen this film and have been unable to find much more of a description than this (Burger, pp. 34-5).
23. For modern interpretations of the Gilgamesh Epic as homosexual, see Greenberg, pp. 112-3 and Connor, pp. 72-5.
24. Waugh, pp. 199-201.
25. Waugh, pp. 203-4.
26. For a lengthier discussion of the "sacramental associations of bathing" in the history of Gay film and photography, see Waugh, p. 101, 192, 200, 342-3, etc.
27. San Francisco Sentinel, March 13, 1973, p. 4.
28. See announcement that "Erotic filmmaker Fred Halsted and Joseph Young" sent out a press release informing the Gay community that the two men were now in "the married state of 'Halsted co-persons'", San Francisco Sentinel, May 22, 1975, p. 1.
29. One reviewer for this "documentary and personal statement" on fistfucking noted claustrophobia, bestial ("almost sickening"] tension, intensity, schizophrenia, superficialities, fear, repulsion, and nausea; yet while the audience was "generally outraged" as "many people find fistfucking repulsive", in fact the reviewer note how very few "walked out before the end of the film...a fact that indicates there was more than met the eye" (Robert Hopkins in San Francisco Sentinel, "From the Silver Screen", April 10, 1975, p. 3)
30. Kansas City Trucking Co. (1976), El Paso Wrecking Corp. (1977), and LA Tool and Die (1979). Halsted also starred in Fast Friends and Three Day Pass (dates unknown).
31. Halsted reportedly said to Roger Austen in a 1976 interview, that "It could have been a really outstanding movie, but it was blown in execution - I would like to have made the film myself" (San Francisco Sentinel, "Fred Halsted plays himself", March 13, 1976, p. 4).
32. Op. Cit.
33. Copies of death certificates for Yale and Halsted in my possession.
34. The 1979 Album cover (also titled "Go West") features all of the Village People in their archetypal Gay drag plus Hawaiian shirts, while they joyfully hold tropical drinks in a tropical beach paradise, surrounded by coconut trees.
35. Even in Clearfield, Utah, where I graduated from high school in 1979, it was such a well-known song that we used it for a skit during our Senior Assembly; we also danced to it at the local "underage" discotheque, and on several occasions we discussed its homotextuality and the Gay flight to California that all of us were aware of.
36. In a recent interview the Radical Faerie philosopher, Arthur Evans (one of the original "Stonewallers" in New York City in June, 1969), spoke disappointedly about the majority of those who fled to California: "Many middle-American gay men flocked to the Castro district in San Francisco who had no understanding of the [Gay Liberation] movement. And they didn't want to know about it either. Their lives revolved around pumping up their muscles, going to discos, doing drugs, and getting laid." (Nichols, n.p.)
Burger, John R. One Handed Histories: The Eroto-Politics of Gay Male Video Pornography. New York: Haworth Press, 1995.
Connor, Randy P. Blossom of Bone: Reclaiming the Connections Between Homoeroticism and the Sacred. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
Cross, Coy F. Horace Greeley's Vision for America: Go West, Young Man. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Dyer, Richard. Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film. London: Routledge Press, 1990.
Fone, Byrne R.S. "This Other Eden: Arcadia and the Homosexual Imagination", Literary Visions of Homosexuality. New York: Haworth Press, 1983.
Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Halsted, Fred. LA Plays Itself, Los Angeles: HIS Films, 1972.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Poems and Translations, edited by Stephen Orgel. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1971.
Morali, Jacques, Henri Belolo & Victor Willis. "Go West". Casablanca Records, 1979.
Nichols, Jack [interviewer]. "Arthur Evans & the 'Critique of Patriarchal Reason'",Gay Today: A Global Site for Daily Gay News. <http:// www.gaytoday.com/interview.htm> [site now defunct]
San Francisco Sentinel. Located in the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California (San Francisco).
Waugh, Thomas. Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass, [Inclusive Edition, edited by Emory Holloway. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1926.