Nice people visit their grandmas. Animal hoarders visit the pound. Pilgrims visit Mecca. The 99% visit expensive objects they covet but can’t afford. These objects live at the stores that sell them for too much money and women and gays are especially into visiting fine, overpriced things of the sartorial variety. We stand close to, have mental conversations with, and sometimes touch the designer clothes that the universe is keeping us from wearing but that we know are truly meant for us, and if Bergdorf Goodman had the same security as our public libraries, we would take the clothes into the bathroom, rip the magnetic strips out of their spines, shove the strips into the maxi-pad box that is either rusting or having its period, ball the garment up, and thrust it into an orifice meant for smuggling.
I thank time that I’m an adult woman, free to read as queerly as I want, but before I was an adult person, I visited books, books that were too taboo for me to bring home while I was high school. Angry Women was one of these books.
Angry Women hissed on the shelf at Phoenix Books in San Luis Obispo and stuffed between its reptilian covers was a veritable club sandwich of female creativity. Angry Women’s cobblers, Andrea Juno and V. Vale, interviewed photographers, writers, theorists, philosophers, poets, performance artists, musicians and sexperts who all had vaginas, thoughtful, active vaginas. Juno and Vale included pictures of these female creatives and on Phoenix’s floor, I sat, legs crossed, staring at a shot of Diamanda Galas coated in sangre. Turning pages, I paused to stare at bell hooks’ portrait. In it, she wasn’t trying to hide her large pores and pockmarks, and this unretouched document of her face gave me an epiphany: “A woman can be ugly and deeply respected.” Turning pages, I stopped to examine a photograph of a lingerie-clad Susie Bright. She posed beside graffiti that read: “Exotic, erotic George Bush.” Applying skills acquired in my Advanced Placement classes, I analyzed the photograph, attempting to touch its meaning.
Angry Women taught me about some feminist performance art. It chronicled the works and tribulations of Holly Hughes and Karen Finley. I’d heard about these provocateurs on TV. These two belonged to the celebrated NEA Four, a crew of artistic perverts that the right-wing argued were receiving American tax dollars in the form of federal grants. Conservatives claimed they were using this money to whip up a tidal wave of homosexual art that would crash across America and douse everybody in cooties.
Jesse Helms was their main accuser.
I figured that if what Helms and the rest of his gang said was true, I’d get to quit visiting this book soon. The tidal wave would crash upon me and I’d be the most enthusiastic sponge outside the sea. The right-wing claimed that performance artists primarily bled and peed on their audiences, and I would gladly absorb the bodily fluids of any artistic homosexual. What an anointing.
I waited, waited, and waited. No deliciously heinous art came to my podunk village. Jesse Helms, you lied! I wanted to drown in this art and yet I was stuck in a desert without any public art except for the bronze statue at city hall which Dad said was called Mother and Child Try to Catch the Bus.
It’s been a long ass time since I sat with Angry Women in my lap, long enough for me to miss my fifteen year high school reunion and for the NEA Four to come together for a twenty year reunion! Finally, an end to my dry spell! I bought a ticket for Tim Miller and Holly Hughes’ performances and drove to Cal State Long Beach. Quiet, eager, and sponge-like, I crept to the Carpenter Center, hit will call, and in the lobby, swooned at this sign.
Tim Miller opened and gave a series of queer dramatic monologue type-things that combined the funny, the familiar, the surreal, and the tragic with a call to arms. He described living inside of his father as a sperm (one of my favorite subjects!), wanting to marry Richard Nixon’s second cousin, choking on a large piece of meat (not a metaphor and yet a metaphor), and being gay bashed by a bottle in Montana.
During one piece, he entered the audience to show us his hands. He placed his palms in my face and I saw his lifeline.
What a strong fairy.
Occasionally, Miller mentioned his partner, Alistair McCartney, which was super weird because I’m rereading McCartney’s novel, The End of the World Book, which occasionally mentions Miller, so they’ve both been telling me about each other without actually telling me about each other. I know Miller and McCartney but I don’t know them and that’s the thing about art: it lets you know people without really knowing people.
Intermission cut into the evening and then, Holly Hughes minced onstage. Here was the lesbo from the book that I’d ogled as a little lesbo, and she was live, alive, in the flesh and wearing many, many layers, and I thought maybe she’d strip off her layers and writhe across an American flag, but instead she discussed how she came to be an accidental performance artist. She hadn’t intended for it to happen, it just happened, and it seems like so many of us become the thing we are because it happens.
Sometimes, people will ask me, “Why do you teach?”
I answer, “I needed the money.”
And teaching is the next best thing to performance art.
Hughes talked about one of her first performances, Shrimp in a Basket, and how grants came to fund her work and how she became famous when the federal government denied her funding for being homo and how this gave her much publicity. It made her a high-profile dyke artist. For some reason, my favorite part of her discussion was when she shared that the crazed bitches of Concerned Women For America published her home address in a newsletter and she got truckloads of grammatically-creative hate mail, one piece which read something like, “I have a rifle, I know where you live, and I’m coming to New York next summer to kill you. P.S. Jesus loves you.” I started laughing really hard because that’s how I deal with shit like that. I laugh at it because otherwise it makes me want to kill myself. And doesn’t that sum up the essence of the far right: Do as I say or I’ll kill you. Jesus loves you.
I wanted to find Hughes after the show and hug her and thank her for sprinkling me with her lesbian tsunami, but I remembered that I’m not much of a hugger and become more socially awkward than I already am in front of artists I love, so instead, I went home and ate an avocado. I was sated.