Rapturous and rollicking, Isle of Klezbos rolls into town
Joyful music just in time for Hanukkah
Infused with intersecting interests and individual tastes as compelling as the genre that’s been their calling card for two decades, the all-women’s sextet, Isle of Klezbos, is the kugel of klezmer — an appetizing casserole of traditional Ashkenazic Jewish influences, queer perspectives and exceptional musicianship.
Don’t know kugel? Google it.
As for klezmer, drummer and bandleader Eve Sicular gave us some insight, sure to prove useful when the Isle sets foot on three local venues, Dec. 1-3.
“Classic klezmer,” Sicular noted, is a fusion of influences, although, “It’s a misnomer to say klezmer is ‘Jewish Jazz.’” She noted it’s “the celebratory music of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews and their descendants. So that can go in a lot of different directions, in terms of which century one is talking about… There are melodies that are not identical, but are shared variations between, say, a particular set of Yiddish melodies and Greek melodies, Yiddish melodies and Turkish melodies, and certain dance forms named for regions of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.”
This was, Sicular clarified, prior to the 20th-century wave of immigration. Once part of the American melting pot, she recalled, “There was this wonderful way that people could meld whatever was the height of popular fashion, such as swing music, tango, beautiful modal melodies and syncopated dance rhythms… Klezmer music also has ties to liturgical music, but it’s a parallel. For instance, you would have things that would refer to the ornamentation, particularly the cantorial voice.”
It was “a real exchange,” she said, likening klezmer to Yiddish “language rhythms; ways people would communicate with irony, but also, a lot of thoughtful questioning… It’s very much an interactive music,” Sicular noted, referencing its presence at weddings. “There are processionals, there are big chair-lifting, rollicking, rambunctious pieces. There are meditative pieces, and pieces designed to evoke sadness and wistfulness… It’s about emotion, but also creating motion. So it’s really special to play music that elicits that.”
Every person in Isle of Klezbos, she said, has “their own way they came to know klezmer.” The daughter and granddaughter of classical pianists/physicians, Sicular “fell in love with the style when I heard it, but I did not grow up knowing it.” The NYC native had a youthful affinity for show tunes, and, later, zydeco, Balkan, and New Orleans Second Line music. “All those things were in klezmer,” she discovered, which (long story short) led her to form the Metropolitan Klezmer octet in 1994, then Isle of Klezbos, in 1998.
“I had, over the years, been in all-women’s bands,” Sicular recalled, “and I just thought it would be a really cool thing to do. Our trumpet player, Pam Fleming, was already in Metropolitan Klezmer… and through asking around, I met fantastic people… Debra Kreisberg [clarinet/sax] came in the year after we formed. She and Pam really bonded. They just have this sense, like a melding of the minds. Debra comes from a background with a lot of Latin jazz, and Pam has played many styles, particularly reggae. And they both have a drive to compose, a sense of groove… Saskia [Lane], our bass player, is from Julliard, and Shoko [Nagai], she’s this champion of the keyboard from Japan, then learned accordion when she got to Brooklyn. So it’s not just talented, but innovative, people. If a piece occurs to them, they write it with the band in mind… like a repertory theatre company, you know what’s going to be a role for them.”
Swinging, soaring, vocals by Melissa Fogarty give Klezbos its linguistic verve. Accurately assessing the veteran opera singer, who’s been with the band for 10 years, Sicular said Fogarty “has all the jazz chops and can [scat] improvise. She hits everything with clarity and precision, and yet has this wonderful dimension of being able to play with everything.”
As for the origin story of the band’s name, Sicular wanted “to have fun with it, definitely queering it in some way — but ‘klezbian’ was already very much in usage.” Then, caught in “that state where you’re either about to fall asleep, or just waking up, I went, ‘klezbian, klezbos… Isle of Klezbos!’ And we just went with it. This was 1998. We did have people say, ‘Are you sure? Will people book you?’ ”
Plenty of people did. The sextet has entertained at parties, colleges, festivals and weddings, collaborated with the Grammy-nominated Scissor Sisters, served as a house band with Jill Sobule, and was personally requested by Kiki Smith to play at the dedication of her stained glass window, at NYC’s Eldridge Street Synagogue. Still, 20 years later, Sicular noted, “the ‘question’ will come up.”
Jewish? Queer? Both? Sicular plays that question, well, playfully.
“Rather than say who they are,” she demurred, “I’ll say over that 20 years, we’ve had just as many people who are from a Jewish background as a queer life. But sometimes, it shifts.” (An early-era bass player, for example, joined before she knew her father’s side of the family was Jewish; and more than one member’s time in the group saw her with male and female partners.) For the rigid scorekeepers among us, Sicular revealed, “We have a small majority queer, and a small majority Jewish. They do overlap, like the Venn diagram.”
Connect your own diagram dots Dec. 1-3, when Sicular and associates play three area venues. The first gig, at the Museum of Making Music (5790 Armada Dr.) in Carlsbad, is “probably the most formal of the three,” and officially a Metropolitan Klezmer gig. On Dec. 2, at the Bowers Museum (2002 N Main St.) in Santa Ana, it’s a five-member Klezbos show, part of the museum’s multicultural Winter Solstice Festival. “We’re representing Jewish culture and heritage,” Sicular said, adding, “I’ll give a little demo of what a menorah is.”
Finally, on Dec. 3 in Los Angeles, the full Klezbos sextet performs two shows at Genghis Cohen (740 N Fairfax Ave.), which Sicular said is a kindred spirit. “The two wordplays [Cohen, Klezbos] jostle each other. It’s on Fairfax Ave., which is a little analogous to Second Ave., in Manhattan — and Genghis Cohen is an actual Chinese restaurant. So the Jews can nosh!”
For tickets to these shows, and more information about Isle of Klezbos, visit klezbos.com.
Turning pain into positive & using art as therapy – Carl Hopgood
He knew he wanted to embark on a path toward a “bold, exciting life” among other “creative people” while “doing amazing things and living”
LOS ANGELES – Like many people born with an inclination toward creative expression, Carl Hopgood has known from a very young age that he wanted to be an artist.
Growing up on a small farm in rural Wales, the Cardiff-born Hopgood spent his childhood surrounded by animals and nature, letting his imagination run wild and creating worlds he envisioned with baskets, fruit boxes, flowers, stones, tabloid clippings, and other items that struck his fancy. Then, at 7, he was invited to spend an afternoon with his best friend, whose cousin was visiting; that cousin happened to be Richard Burton, and he happened to be accompanied by his even more famous wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
Hopgood was not just star-struck, he was inspired.
“My world was never the same after that day,” he tells the Blade. “They told stories about Hollywood, London, glamorous parties, movies, photography… and Andy Warhol! Andy Warhol was my first artist crush. He was also born on a farm, so I felt an immediate connection.”
After that experience, he knew he wanted to embark on a path toward a “bold, exciting life” among other “creative people” while “doing amazing things and living.”
Four decades and one continental transplant later, it can safely be said that Hopgood has accomplished his goal.
A successfully established LA-based artist, he’s created a unique body of work that includes pieces in Neon, Sculpture, Film / Video Installation, and canvas painting; his collectors include Morgan Freeman, Eugiono Lopez, The Vinik Family Foundation, The Groucho Club and Rupert Everett; and recent exhibitions of his work – like his neon art installations ‘Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places’, ‘My Heart Is Open’, and ‘You Changed My Life’ at the Maddox Gallery in West Hollywood, and ‘Chair Therapy’ at United Talent Agency’s UTA Artspace LA – have garnered a flurry of enthusiasm and increasing national attention.
The latter installation created a particular stir with its inclusion of a controversial neon sculpture called “Just Say Gay”, Hopgood’s response to the draconian anti-LGBTQ legislation championed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; that work was acquired by prominent collector Beth Rudin DeWoody and will be on display from December 2023 at her Bunker Art Space in West Palm Beach, Florida.
When talking with the Blade, Hopgood is keen to focus the discussion on a new goal – the completion of a documentary about the creation of “Chair Therapy” – but he’s certainly willing to start the conversation by talking about the sense of queer defiance behind “Just Say Gay” and many of his other works, because the two subjects go hand in hand.
“Being a gay man of Welsh and Greek heritage,” he proudly proclaims, “the fight against bullying, repression, injustice and discrimination became central themes of my artistic expression.”
As he explains, that fight is rooted in a traumatic childhood experience. “I was bullied by classmates,” he remembers. “They would chase after me, push me to the ground and kick me in the groin. I managed to escape and found sanctuary under a stack of chairs in the school assembly hall. The school therapist helped me cope by using a technique called Empty Chair Therapy, where you would talk to an empty chair about your feelings.
“I decided turn this pain into something positive and use art as my therapy.”
Much later, the young Hopgood would be inspired by the confrontational aesthetic of Damien Hirst – after reading a scathing criticism of one of his works in the paper – and follow in the controversial artist’s footsteps to Goldsmiths College in London, eventually becoming part of a movement with fellow graduates like Steve McQueen, Jason Martin, Ceal Floyer, Angela De La Cruz and Alessandro Raho.
“It was an incredible moment to be a young artist in 1990s London.”
Nevertheless, after 20 years in the London art scene, he decided it was time for a change.
“I had just watched a documentary featuring David Hockney,” he explains. “The freedom and possibility of David’s work was clearly inspired by Southern California with its beautiful palette and open, sunny skies. It was a stark contrast to the gloomy weather of the UK, and the anxiety and depression that accumulated over the years. I had heard about the growing LA art scene –LACMA, MOCA and The Broad were beginning to attract an international audience – and I decided that moving to Los Angeles would be good for both my mental health and creativity.”
The choice was a fortuitous one for him – “It was the perfect time to go,” he says, “and I was ready to work in new mediums and expand my repertoire.” Then, like the rest of us, he had to put all his plans indefinitely up in the air.
“In early 2020, when the pandemic hit,” he tells us, “I would see all the bars and restaurants shuttered in West Hollywood. It was like a ghost town. Looking through the store front windows, all I could see were chairs stacked on top of each other – and that image took me straight back to my unhappy childhood.”
He decided to use it for inspiration and began work on the first sculpture in the “Chair Therapy” series (“My Heart is Open”) – which as he describes, addresses “toxic masculinity, oppression and queer identity, themes I’ve always championed.”
Those themes are doubtless also at least partly behind his desire to see the planned documentary – titled “Fragile World” – reach fruition. Filmed during the pandemic, it profiles Hopgood by charting his personal artistic journey, but centers on the development of “Chair Therapy”, in which he combined found and vintage wooden chairs with neon lights shaped into positive words to provide hope, love and support for a community who were hardest hit by Covid and the shutdowns it necessitated.
“Seeing those stacked chairs and tables, in those empty establishments, I knew some would be forced to close for good. I felt so helpless, but I knew there was something I could do.”
Now, with his own hard-hit community – alongside many others – facing aggressive legislative oppression from the extremist right, he’s determined to see the film finished, so that the same empowering message of optimism embodied in his work can be spread to a larger audience as a reminder not to let the bullies break their spirit. To that end, the documentary’s director and producer, LA-based British filmmaker Kate Rees Davies, has set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funding necessary to finish the project.
Another motivation, perhaps even more personal, might be found in Hopgood’s revelation of a hidden influence in another work from the “Empty Chairs” series: “Twelve Steps”, which explores the massive financial success of a California citrus industry made possible by the hard work of a segregated Mexican immigrant labor force. “I was also inspired in that piece by a line from Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos,” he says, “who was sidelined by the Greek literary community in the 1970s because he was gay. It’s a small but powerful couplet which was included in the collection ‘The Body and the Wormwood’ that reads, ‘What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.’”
For Hopgood, perhaps, the documentary also represents a seed, one that he himself has planted in hope of spreading its positive power into the world – and he’s counting on the support of his patrons through Indiegogo for the water, light and nourishment it requires to grow.
Renowned historian Martin Duberman reflects on a full life in ‘Reaching Ninety’
New memoir looks back at Stonewall, efforts to ‘cure’ homosexuality
Renowned queer historian, playwright, author and LGBTQ activist Martin Duberman, 93, began writing stories when he was four. “They still exist,” Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at City University of New York (CUNY), told the Blade in a telephone interview. “They’re with my papers at the New York Public Library.”
Duberman doesn’t understand what drove him to create. “I’d write these moralistic tales,” he said, “hand-sewn inside covers. About how Alice learned to do what her mother told her to do.”
Duberman who has written some two dozen books as well as plays, hasn’t stopped writing.
Name most anything or anyone and he’s written about it: from the Stonewall Uprising to actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. His memoir “Cures” recounts how mental health professionals tried to “cure” him of his “homosexuality.”
When he was 70, he wrote “Haymarket,” a novel set in 1886 in Chicago during protests by labor activists.
His newest book “Reaching Ninety,” is a memoir. In it, Duberman recalls the people, events and work of his life – from coming out to his student years – to his relationships to his beloved puppy Emma (named after iconic feminist and anarchist icon Emma Goldman) to aging.
In “Reaching Ninety,” Duberman quotes the dictum “aging is not for sissies.” But, “The trouble is that I am one,” he adds, “It’s part of my cultural heritage.” There’s a thread running through his work, Duberman, who founded CLAGS: CUNY’s Center for LGBTQ Studies, the first university-based LGBTQ research center in the United States, said. “I’ve been trying to reinvent historical writing.”
It’s essential if you’re an historian and you’re presenting an account of past events, to remain true to the known evidence, Duberman said. “But you have to be clear,” he added, “the evidence that has come down to us is partial and skewed.”
At the beginning of his career as an historian, Duberman wrote with a more traditional view of history: that history could be known and chronicled objectively. As if the historian’s background had no impact on how they wrote history.
Duberman’s early work was well-received. His 1961 biography “Charles Francis Adams, 1807-1886″ won the prestigious Bancroft Prize.
But, as he matured personally and professionally, Duberman began to question the pretense of objectivity. He came to see that subjectivity is an essential part of writing history.
“The historian – with their own background – in their own time – is always present in the history they write,” said Duberman, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1957.
Historians must adhere to the evidence, Duberman emphasized. “But, they need to decide to come clean about who they are even, in part, to write in the first person. To explain their reaction to evidence.”Historians’ reactions to the evidence they uncover about the past could impact how they write history, he noted.
Historians don’t always know the full extent of how their backgrounds contribute to their interpretations of history. But they should take it for granted that at least some of their eras and views are present, Duberman said.
“To me, the choice comes down to how explicit I should be,” he said, “and how am I going to make it known.”
This was a new way of thinking and writing about history. Take Duberman’s 1972 book “Black Mountain: an Exploration in Community.” In the 20th century, Black Mountain College was a community for artists. But it was, as per the times, homophobic. A faculty member of Black Mountain was arrested for having sex in a car with a minor, Duberman writes in “Reaching Ninety.” He was let off with a suspended sentence. He became an “instant pariah,” resigned immediately and no one from the community at the college offered any help, Duberman writes.
When writing his Black Mountain book, Duberman felt compelled to come out as gay. To be, as an historian, transparent about how his biography impacted his view of history.
“It’s hard to think well of a place that could cooperate as fully as Black Mountain did in an individual’s self-destruction,” Duberman wrote in his Black Mountain book about how the college treated the gay teacher, “indeed to have assumed it as foreclosed.”
“But perhaps I exaggerate, a function of my own indignation as a homosexual, a potential victim,” he added.
In 1972, when the book was published, Duberman’s coming out in his reaction to an incident in the history of Black Mountain College received mixed reviews.
He was denounced in historical journals. “The New York Times reviewer dismissed my coming out as a vaguely unclean bit of business,” Duberman writes in “Reaching Ninety.”
“Other people were well-disposed toward the book,” Duberman said, “they were academics, not historians.”
Historians are a conservative group of people, Duberman said. “They devote their lives to preserving — underline it — the past,” he said, “They’re not likely to be interested in any combined format that merges the past with the present.”
Duberman doesn’t have a clue as to what got him hooked on history. “It was inescapably an unconscious decision,” he said. “I was torn between literature and wanting to be a writer. To find out more about the past and how come we’re at the point of time that we are.”
When Duberman was a freshman at Yale University, the man who taught his history class was only five years older than he. “At his very first class we took to each other,” Duberman said, “and became friendly. He became a role model for me.”
“He just died at 99,” Duberman added, “we never talked openly about homosexuality. But I got the strong impression that he, too, was gay.”
Duberman, who was born in New York, wasn’t out in college or graduate school. Though, he checked out the two gay bars in Boston when he was at Harvard.
Coming out wasn’t an option for people in Duberman’s generation who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s. You could be arrested, expelled from school, kicked out of your apartment or fired from your job if you were open about who you were. People warned him “against coming out to any degree,” Duberman said.
Duberman and his older sister were raised in a secular Jewish household. His father, as a young man, escaped from working in a beet plantation in Russia to Germany and then to New York. His mother went to high school at night while working as a secretary.
From childhood on, Duberman was bitten by a love of theater. He went to theater camp and performed in high school plays.
As a student at the (then) boys prep school Horace Mann, he played female as well as male roles. One night, his friend Bob’s girlfriend noticed that Duberman was the “actress” who portrayed a “stewardess” in a play that evening, Duberman recalls in “Reaching Ninety.” “‘But you can’t be,’ she gasped, ‘you have such beautiful legs!’” Duberman remembers her telling him.
Duberman, a polymath, would grow up to become a privileged insider while remaining an observant, critical outsider.
His many honors include: the Vernon Rice/Drama Desk Award, three Lambda Literary Awards, a special award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for his contributions to literature and the 2007 lifetime achievement award from the American Historical Association. He’s been a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist.
He and his life-partner, Eli, a psychoanalyst, have just celebrated their 35th anniversary. He’s revered for his pioneering work in queer history.
Yet, even though he’s white, cisgender, and privileged, Duberman hasn’t ever been complacent or content. He still remembers how horrified he was back in the 1960s when he taught at Princeton. “I taught about slavery,” Duberman said, “I was thunderstruck! The white, privileged undergrads were on the verge of defending slavery.”
“It shocked me,” he said, “I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was.”
The more he taught, the more discontented Duberman got with, what he saw, as the authoritarian system of education at universities. “I didn’t see the teacher as an authority figure,” he said, “but as a fellow learner.”
Though he had tenure, Duberman resigned from Princeton because of this. Also, he dared to move from Princeton to New York. “Then, people at Princeton thought: How could you leave the loveliest town in the world,” Duberman said.
Duberman deplores Trump and anti-queer right-wingers. But he also has been a long-term critic of the LGBTQ rights movement. Queers should be less concerned about marriage equality and more concerned about issues of race, class, and economic justice, he believes.
“There’s resistance to Trump’s lies,” Duberman said, “and it’s appearing in the mainstream – in The New Yorker – even The New York Times.”
The electorate is the greatest roadblock to social change, Duberman said. “The LGBTQ community, like a lot of the country, is conservative,” he added.
Duberman isn’t feeling terribly optimistic at this moment. But, “I keep hoping that one of the upcoming generations will turn out to be different,” he said.
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Corbett Joan O’Toole still fighting for self-determination, respect for disabled people
Author and activist on coming out, intersectionality, and a lifetime of advocacy
(Editor’s Note: One in four people in America has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Queer and disabled people have long been a vital part of the LGBTQ community. Take two of the many queer history icons who were disabled: Michelangelo is believed to have been autistic. Marsha P. Johnson, who played a heroic role in the Stonewall Uprising, had physical and psychiatric disabilities. Today, Deaf-Blind fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson, actor and bilateral amputee Eric Graise and Kathy Martinez, a blind, Latinx lesbian who was Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy for the Obama administration, are only a few of the numerous queer and disabled people in the LGBTQ community. Yet, the stories of this vital segment of the queer community have rarely been told. In its series “Queer, Crip and Here,” the Blade will tell some of these long unheard stories.)
Corbett Joan O’Toole, 71, a queer, disabled elder and a Ford Foundation 2022 Disability Futures Fellow, knew one thing for sure growing up in Boston: She didn’t want to be a nurse.
O’Toole has had a physical disability since she was 12 months old. “I sometimes joke that my becoming disabled was my birthday present when I turned one year old,” she said in a phone interview with the Blade.
O’Toole has used a wheelchair since she was 30. Before that, she walked with crutches and leg braces.
As a child, she’d had surgery, O’Toole said. “I saw what nurses did,” she added. “Men told them what to do. I knew nursing wasn’t for me.”
Even as a child, O’Toole could tell that male employers had the same attitude toward secretaries. “Sitting in an office all day didn’t seem like fun,” she said, “The only other thing a white woman in my generation could be when they grew up was to be a teacher.”
“I decided to be a teacher,” O’Toole added, “where I’d have my own classroom and no man would be telling me what to do.”
When she was young, O’Toole led, by her account, a sheltered life. She didn’t know then that she was queer. “I didn’t know if I met any queer people,” O’Toole said, “but I always knew that I liked strong women. I thought they were interesting.”
And, O’Toole, like many kids and teens with disabilities then (and, even often, now) knew that little was expected of disabled people. That disabled lives weren’t highly valued. “I was in school all the time with nondisabled kids,” O’Toole said.
Nearly everything was inaccessible then from libraries to courthouses to movie theaters. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) wouldn’t be passed until decades later. “You were expected to adapt even if things were inaccessible,” O’Toole said.
If you couldn’t make it in an inaccessible world, the attitude was “you don’t have to be here,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole didn’t meet other disabled people except during the summer, when she’d spend a month at a camp for disabled kids. The director and staff were nondisabled, O’Toole said. But at camp, she got to hang out with 90 other disabled kids. O’Toole got to interact with people like herself – disabled kids living vibrant lives. “We explored nature,” she said, “we collected blueberries. Made pancakes.”
There, O’Toole developed her life-long love of sports. As an adult, she has played competitive wheelchair basketball and power soccer. At her childhood summer camp, “We did archery,” O’Toole said, “and played baseball.”
At a time when sexism was the norm, O’Toole got to do things that girls usually couldn’t do at camp. “We went fishing,” she said, “We used power tools in a woodshop,” she said, “It was empowering!”
At camp, if the kids wanted to do something, they’d figure out a way to make it accessible – to make it work, O’Toole added.
O’Toole, author of “Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History,” a groundbreaking book that was a Lambda Literary Award finalist, graduated in 1973 from Fitchburg State University with a bachelor’s degree in education and her teaching credentials. The summer after graduation, she moved with a friend to Berkeley, Calif.
O’Toole was eager to go to California. It would get her out of the cold of New England, where getting around in ice and snow if you’re using crutches or a wheelchair is difficult. “It sounded like fun,” she said. “I’d be in a part of the country where it’s a Mediterranean climate – it’s spring or summer. No snow.”
The move to California was transformative for O’Toole.
There, people thought about disability accessibility. She met queer people and disabled people as well as many nondisabled and disabled lesbians.
“At 23, I came out,” O’Toole said, “I met a woman in a women’s workshop.”
She got to know Kitty Cone, an out disabled lesbian and disability rights movement leader. (Cone died in 2015.) She connected O’Toole to the burgeoning independent living movement. “She brought me to the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley and to the disabled lesbian community,” O’Toole said.
The independent living movement believes in self-determination and self-respect for disabled people. It fights disability-based discrimination and views disability from a cultural and social, rather than a medical perspective. Independent living centers are community-based, non-profit organizations, organized and controlled by disabled people. They provide advocacy, information and other services.
“The Berkeley CIL had a lot of lesbians who were nondisabled,” O’Toole said, “we are the wives of every movement.”
O’Toole came to California at a pivotal moment in disability history – at the beginning of the modern disability rights movement. She quickly became a vital part of that history.
O’Toole, along with Cone and Judith Heumann, the disability rights movement founder who died last month, was a leader in a 1977 nearly month-long occupation by disabled protesters and their allies of a San Francisco federal building known as the “504 sit-in.” As a result of the protest, the Carter administration signed the ‘504′ regulations, which prohibited schools, hospitals, and other entities receiving federal funds from discriminating against disabled people. These regulations were the precursor to the ADA.
“Berkeley became like Mecca,” O’Toole, who is featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp,” said. “Disabled people came to Berkeley from all over the world.”
In the years since the 1970s, O’Toole’s life has contained more multitudes than even Walt Whitman could have fathomed.
She is a single mom. Her daughter, whom she adopted, has a physical disability. O’Toole was a founder of the Axis Dance Company, an acclaimed ensemble of disabled and nondisabled performers. Currently, she’s working on a novel and traveling in a self-built camper van.
But things haven’t always been easy for O’Toole. Like many disabled parents, especially those who are disabled and queer, she’s encountered prejudice.
O’Toole’s daughter is now 30. Raising her daughter, O’Toole often feared that because she was a single mother, disabled and queer, she’d lose custody of her physically disabled child. It was fraught, O’Toole said, because of the bias against queer and disabled people being parents.
“The courts – the social service system – are all too happy to take your kids away,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole had to fight to get her daughter the services and education she needed.
“Because I was a lesbian, I had to constantly be in the closet,” she said, “our of fear that they’d take my child away if I was out.”
Her lovers, if they were around school system staff, would have to pretend to “just be my friends,” O’Toole said.
For decades, long before intersectionality was a fashionable buzzword, O’Toole, who is white, has thought about the intersection of class, queerness, race, and disability.
“I grew up in a working class neighborhood,” O’Toole said. “My Dad was a firefighter. I was taught a lot about class.”
“But there was a lot of racism embedded in my world,” she added.
It wasn’t until she went to Berkeley and became part of the lesbian community that she was “in rooms with lesbians of color,” O’Toole said.
White women need to listen better to women of color, she said. “We need to follow their lead.”
O’Toole couldn’t believe how much she didn’t know about what women of color experienced. Take just one thing: “I didn’t know that parking tickets could turn into jail sentences,” she said.
“I have to do the work,” O’Toole added, “it’s not their job to educate me. It’s my racism that’s blocking me from the truth.”
Despite all of the difficulties, O’Toole is hopeful. People are resilient. They love and care for each other, she said. “What are you doing to spread hope,” O’Toole asked.
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Queer representation did not sit quiet at Emmy Awards
This year- 50% of the best drama series, 25% of the best comedy, & 60% of the best limited series featured LGBTQ characters or plot lines
LOS ANGELES – The pandemic is over (in award show world anyway), and glitz and glamour have returned. That is the prevailing impression from this year’s 74th Annual Emmy Awards. The show was stunning and exciting from the outset, but even with the pomp and loud noise of celebration, a queer presence was not to be drowned out.
The tone of representation was launched immediately as announcer, queer comic, Sam Jay, looking sharp in her black tuxedo, took the mic. On camera even more than host Kenan Thompson, Jay was a presence and a personality and decidedly queer. If her gay power was not enough, the point was made when Thompson and out actor Boen Yang joked on stage. Thompson accused Yang of a comment being “a hate crime”, Yang retorted “Not if I do it. Then it’s representation.”
Representation was going to be made this evening. The visibility was significant considering, according to the GLAAD Where We Are on TV Report, out of 775 series regular characters only 92 are LGBTQ (less than 12 percent). That 11+ percent is a record high of LGBTQ characters in all of TV history. The record was set by an increase in lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, but a decrease in gay male characters from the previous year.
For the Emmy nominations, 50% of the best drama series nominees, 25% of the best comedy, and 60% of the best limited series featured LGBTQ characters or plot lines. As far as queer talent, that was more sporadic, heavily slanted towards “supporting categories” and often with queer talent all in the same category against each other.
Regardless, we showed up, as did other individuals who scored recognition for their identities. Some of the key LGBTQ representative moments included:
- Early in the show, Hannah Einbinder did a hard flirt from the stage for Zendaya, saying that she was not on the stage to present, but rather to stare at the beautiful actress.
- Gay actor Murray Bartlett won Best Supporting Actor for a Limited or Anthology Series for The White Lotus. He thanked his partner Matt, but strangely did not mention the famous “salad scene” (Google it…)
- The White Lotus also won the Best Limited or Anthology series category, and bisexual Mike White won Best Director for Limited Series as well. White is the son of gay clergyman, author, and activist Mel White. They appeared on the Amazing Race as a father and son team.
- Jerrod Carmichael won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing of a Variety Special for his heartfelt Rothaniel in which he comes out as gay as part of the show. Carmichael wowed in a brilliant white, flowing fur coat over his bare medallioned chest.
- Out actress Sarah Paulsen and Shonda Rhimes, who singlehandedly is responsible for 17% of all LGBTQ characters on TV, presented the Governors Award to Geena Davis for her organization Institute of Gender in Media. The mission of the organization is representation of women in media. Davis stood before a video featuring various women artists including transgender actress Laverne Cox. The organization is the only public data institute to consistently analyze representations of the six major marginalized identities on screen: women; people of color; LGBTQIA+ individuals; people with disabilities; older persons (50+); and large-bodied individuals in global Film, Television, Advertising and Gaming.
- Lizzo broke RuPaul’s streak to win Best Competition program. RuPaul showed up later in the show do present a major award anyway. Lizzo has not felt the need to label herself in the LGBTQ spectrum but has said, “When it comes to sexuality or gender, I personally don’t ascribe to just one thing. I cannot sit here right now and tell you I’m just one thing. That’s why the colors for LGBTQ+ are a rainbow! Because there’s a spectrum, and right now we try to keep it black and white. That’s just not working for me.”
Beyond the rainbow scope of queer representation, intersectional, iconic and historic representation was also on hand:
- LGBTQ icon Jennifer Coolidge won Best Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series for The White Lotus. It was her first award win ever. Squeals of delight could be heard in space from gay Emmy watch parties. OK. I don’t know that for a fact, but I would put money on it.
- LGBTQ icon Jean Smart won Best Actress in a Comedy Series for Hacks, a series of which its producer called about “women and queer people.”
- Lee Jung-jae became the first South Korean actor and first Asian actor to win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Squid Game.
- Zendaya became the youngest person ever to win in the leading acting categories two times as she won for the second season of “Euphoria”
- Hwang Dong-hyuk became the first South Korean to win Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for Squid Game
- Sheryl Lee Ralph won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Abbott Elementary becoming only the second black woman in history to win in this category after 35 years. Jacké Harry won for 227 in 1987. “I am an endangered species,” she sang as her acceptance. “But I sing no victim’s song.”
Yes, there was a day in the not long ago past where the mention of a single same sex spouse, or a renegade pro-lgbtq comment, made our queer hearts spill over. Those days are passed. We are getting a place at the table. Representation is starting to stand up and be heard.
For those who rightfully seek it, and seek more of it, the best advice came from Sheryl Lee Ralph: “To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream, and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true, I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like, this is what striving looks like, and don’t you ever, ever give up on you.”
Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie: 74th Emmy Awards:
Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’
Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following
Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan.
With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.
BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?
DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.
BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?
EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.
BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?
EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.
BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.
BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?
EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.
BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?
EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.
BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?
EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.
BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?
EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.
BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?
EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.
BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?
EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.
LA Blade Exclusive: L Morgan Lee, Broadway’s newest icon sings her truth
She is the first ever trans actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination & the first trans performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer
NEW YORK CITY – “I am just a girl,” L Morgan Lee tells me. That simple statement is her self-definition, a girl taking life one step at a time.
To the rest of us, L Morgan Lee is so much more. She is the award-winning actress starring on Broadway in the hit show of the season, A Strange Loop. Her singing talent matches that of any legendary diva, she is creating landmark theatrical projects on womanhood and New York Times articles are being written about her. She is the “girl” in the spotlight now.
She is also, the first ever transgender actor or actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination.
While she is not the first trans performer to be seen on a Broadway stage, she seems to have broken the glass (or some might say, cement) ceiling of being recognized in the upper echelon of talent. She is the first transgender performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer. While the Pulitzer recognizes the author, whom she was not, certainly her creative input was weaved into the final book of the play.
L Morgan has journeyed a complex path to self-awareness. “For me, even in terms of being trans, the idea of being anything outside of what I was assigned at birth was just laughable and crazy to me as a child,” she says. “It just, it made no sense. It was not something that I was comfortable saying out loud to anyone or voicing. How would I be looked at by my parents, by anyone else? So, I would sit and dream. The dreaming is, I think, what forms, much of so many queer people’s lives and experiences. Those dreams become our lifelines. I would dream and dream. I have a memory of when I was maybe six years old, in the middle of the night, looking up at my ceiling in my bedroom. Waking up soaked with tears. Saying, if I could wake up and be a girl, a girl, everything would be okay.” She adds. “That is why I am so excited to have gotten my first opportunity to be on Broadway, excited to have gotten a Tony nomination. Because I know that there is some kid somewhere, who is also looking up at the ceiling saying that same thing.”
L Morgan’s first adventure into performing was as a kid and ironically projected her future identity fluidity: she costumed up and performed “Karma Chameleon” in nursery school. She allowed herself to explore her true identity under the guise of a Halloween costume quite a few years later. She went in fully fashion glammed drag, and it changed her world forever. “The minute I did it, I felt a jolt of energy I had never felt before. I finally felt free in so many ways. It’s as if like it’s as if I finally got to breathe.”
When she started work on A Strange Loop, she had been cast under the assumption that she was a cisgender man playing female parts. As the years of work into the play went on, L Morgan’s transgender journey escalated, and she attempted to resign from the play as she realized she was no longer the person they thought they had hired. Not only were they aware, as many close loved ones can be, of her journey, but they embraced her and assured her that she belonged more than ever.
“The characters I played allowed me to, in some ways hide until I was able to be more public about who I am. And once I did that, it certainly brought another layer of depth to what I was doing. I have been that much more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve grown. Transition has settled in more. So, both my viewpoints about the show, the people I’m playing, and my lens of life in general, has evolved through the process. So, certainly the woman I am today, views the show and the script, and the characters I play in a very different way than I did when I first sat down to do it in 2015.”
Her growth within the show, and the growth of the show itself are intertwined. Certainly, some of the magic of the show is that it is not “performed” as much as it is lived out of the souls of the actors in it. L Morgan describes, “The experience of A Strange Loop has been beautiful, complex, layered and ever evolving, for me in particular. Every time I’ve come back to the rehearsal room with this project, my own lens has been slightly evolved or has moved forward in some ways.”
“The piece is as strong as it is because the lens itself, the lens through which the story is told, is very specific and very honest. Inside of that specificity, there are lots of complications and layers and messy stuff. There are things that you don’t ‘talk about out loud’ taboo to discuss. There are things that people see as problematic. There are so many things inside of all of that, but it’s honest and it’s human. It is a 25-year-old, who’s about to turn 26, sort of raging through life, feeling oppressed and unseen and shouting out to find how he fits into the world. It is how he can find his truest voice in a world that doesn’t really allow him to feel like he’s enough. Because it is so specific about those things the show touches so many different people.”
L Morgan demonstrated coming out as a confident transgender actress, with her vulnerabilities unhidden, on the opening night of the play and decisions she made as she stepped into the public spotlight. “I feel a responsibility. It feels like a dream, it feels wonderful. It feels exciting. It’s like everything I’ve ever asked for but the, the most poignant feeling for me is the responsibility. How could I show up for that person that needs to find me.”
“On my opening night on Broadway, we were trying to figure out what I was going to do with dress and hair and all these things. You only get a first time once. You get your debut one time. So how do I make the most of this moment? I felt raw and excited. I needed to show like the most honest and clear-cut version of me I could. I needed to show my shaved head because that’s something that’s important to me. It’s something, I almost never show. I stepped out revealed, exposed and vulnerable on the very public red carpet, speaking to cameras with my buzzed head. Our relationship with hair runs very deep, especially for trans people, and there was something about it, that just felt like, I needed to do it. That kid somewhere under the covers needs to see this trans woman who is in her Broadway debut and she’s in a pretty dress and she has a shaved head, and she seems like she’s comfortable. Then when you hear her talking about it, you hear about her vulnerability and hear that she felt nervous, and you hear that she was dealing with dysphoria and she was dealing with confidence and she was dealing with all these things that we attached to our hair and she reveals those things. Not only because they’re true but because when we reveal Our Truth, our humanness, there is universality there. There is connection inside of our vulnerability.”
While the Tony nomination escalates her Broadway experience, L Morgan does not lose sight of her mortal existence. “On the day that the Tony nominations happened, I fell apart, completely losing it in my bedroom. Then I realized, I still needed to get a couch, and clean up the apartment. I still feel regular. It’s been a wild dream and at the same time, your real life just keeps on going. I am just trying to put one foot in front of the other.”
On the night of the Tonys. L Morgan will be up against some heavy hitters. Not the least of these is Broadway Legend Patty LuPone. L Morgan is ok with that. Her dream has been to see her face in one of the camera boxes on television of the nominee hopefuls.
“The biggest reason I do, what I do is one because I love storytelling. My experience is black, my experience is trans, but I’m just, I’m just a woman. I am a woman who had a trans experience. That’s my story. I know that somewhere there’s s a kid, as I have said, who is just like I was. It is extremely important for me to make that kid proud and make that kid feel seen and make that kid know that it’s possible.”
“I want that kid to be able to know that most importantly, they already are who they are dreaming to be. The world is telling you something different, but you know who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you, there is nothing wrong with us. The world has never told us that we were an option.”
“That kid needs to find my story. They need to know that we exist. It is the reason it took me so long to be public about things and to start speaking, because I wasn’t seeing enough examples. There’s a quote, ‘she needed a hero, so that’s what she became.’ I really live by that.”
She needed to see a transwoman Tony Nominee. So that’s what she became.
When they call the winner on Tony Night, it will be between a Broadway legend and Broadway’s newest icon.
However it goes, another ceiling has been broken forever, and somewhere a trans girl in hiding will realize her dream too can come true.
For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again
The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress
HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.
When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.
There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.
Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.
Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces.
Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.
Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.
Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.
Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.
True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.
Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.
Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”
Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.
The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”
The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.
Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.
According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.
While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.
While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).
The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.
Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.
Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.
This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.
Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.
Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.
That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.
The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.
Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.
We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.
Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:
First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar
It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.
The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.
DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.
“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.
“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.
It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.
The Associated Press: Oscars Special, editor’s picks
For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Hollywood’s’ Dolby Theatre
NEW YORK – As the entertainment, motion picture and film communities gather in Los Angeles for the 94th annual Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday evening, the editors of the Associated Press have curated the news agency’s top six stories prior to this evening’s gala.
Oscars set for return to normal, except all the changes
LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a…Read More
The Oscars are tonight. Here’s how to watch or stream live
The 94th Academy Awards are right around the corner with just enough time to squeeze in watches of some of the 10 best picture nominees before the lights go down in the Dolby…Read More
Oscar Predictions: Will ‘Power of the Dog’ reign supreme?
Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, Associated Press Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle share their predictions for a ceremony with much still up in the…Read More
List of nominees for the 94th Academy Awards
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nominees for the 94th Academy Awards, which were announced Tuesday via a livestream. Winners will be announced on March 27 in Los Angeles. Best actor:…Read More
Oscars to celebrate ‘Godfather,’ ‘Bond’ anniversaries
LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Bond didn’t get an Oscar nomination this year, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be part of the ceremony. It’s the 60th anniversary of the first…Read More
Oscars celebrate May, Jackson, Ullmann and Glover
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elaine May was the last to arrive and the first to leave at the Governors Awards on Friday in Los Angeles. Her fellow honorees, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv…Read More
‘The End’ is the beginning: an interview with Wayne Hoffman
Gay author’s new book features a family mystery and coping with Alzheimer’s
Writer Wayne Hoffman’s name will be familiar to readers of gay fiction, including those who enjoy an erotic edge to what they’re reading. His novels include “Hard,” “Sweet Like Sugar,” and “An Older Man.” Hoffman’s journalism career has also earned him a following via publications such as The Nation, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Billboard, and The Forward, as Tablet Magazine, where he is presently editor. For his new book, the non-fiction work “The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder” (Heliotrope Books, 2022), he called on his skills as a journalist and storyteller, to unravel a family mystery, all the while coming to terms with his mother Susan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and subsequent decline. The result is a kind of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” crossed with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Hoffman was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book in a recent interview.
BLADE: Wayne, you’re known as both a journalist and a novelist. When thinking about writing your new book, ‘The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder,’ did you always know that you would tell the story in a non-fiction format, or had you considered writing it as a novel?
WAYNE HOFFMAN: I knew it’d be non-fiction because my goal was to find out the facts about what really happened to my great-grandmother—was she really murdered, and if so, by whom? I could have made up a story and turned it into a novel. But that’s what other relatives had basically already done, with the outlandish legends about her that they’d passed down as family lore. I wanted to focus instead on uncovering the truth, as much as possible.
BLADE: After having written three novels, what impact did creating a work of nonfiction have on you as a journalist?
HOFFMAN: I’m used to daily and weekly journalism—reporting quickly, writing quickly, publishing quickly, and moving on quickly. And I’m used to writing novels—having years to write and revise. This was a new combination: I was reporting, but without any solid deadline. I could go back and rethink things, look for new sources, change conclusions, rewrite a thousand times. That’s a luxury journalists rarely get. If I hadn’t had that time—if I’d had to publish what I’d found after the first few weeks or months—I wouldn’t have understood what really happened.
BLADE: How much did your time as an editor at the Forward and Tablet come in handy in your research?
HOFFMAN: Being a newspaper and magazine editor allowed me to imagine what I’d say if a writer turned in what I’d written, and see what pieces were still missing. But working specifically in the Jewish press—the Forward and now Tablet—for the past 20 years also gave me a broader understanding of the larger context around my great-grandmother’s murder: the waves of Yiddish-speaking immigrants coming to North America from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, how they did and didn’t assimilate, how they tried to build not just families but larger communities, how they found new ways to make a living.
BLADE: I’m glad you mentioned immigration because ‘The End of Her’ is many things including an immigrant story, both American and Canadian, with an emphasis on Jews in Manitoba, a subject that may be new to many readers. What was it like exploring that, both on a personal and professional level?
HOFFMAN: It was fascinating because so much of the story was both unknown to me and unexpected. I knew there were plenty of Jews who immigrated to Manitoba—Winnipeg in particular, which is where my family settled, and where my great-grandmother was murdered. But I couldn’t have imagined what their lives were like. My great-grandfather was basically a cowboy, riding horses and buying cattle on the prairies of Saskatchewan; his brothers were almost certainly bootleggers. Who knew? When I went to the tiny town of Canora, Saskatchewan, to dig into that slice of my family’s history, I had never imagined I’d end up there. But then I thought, I bet my great-grandfather, who grew up in Russia, thought the same thing when he arrived a hundred years ago!
BLADE: Religion and religious traditions also figure prominently. What makes it unique is that they are written about from a gay perspective. In what ways do you think religion has made you the person you are today?
HOFFMAN: I grew up in a traditional Jewish home—I kept kosher, went to synagogue every week, went to Jewish summer camps, attended Hebrew school, took classes at the Jewish Community Center. So, it certainly had a huge influence on who I am today. Coming out as a teenager—as gay and atheist—complicated all of that. Some things fell by the wayside: I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue anymore. My brother is a rabbi, and he goes to synagogue enough for both of us [laughs]. But I’m still strongly culturally identified, and working in the Jewish press, I spend every day steeped in Jewish culture and the Jewish community—all of it as a very public, very open gay man. Yeesh! Look at my novels—there’s no way to pretend I’m not super-gay [laughs].
BLADE: As you said earlier, ‘The End of Her’ is about family lore and learning as much as possible about it while your mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, can both provide details, and benefit from the solving of your great grandmother Sarah’s murder. Do you think with this book you may inspire others to clarify longstanding family myths?
HOFFMAN: I hope so. We have so many tools now to help us understand our personal histories in terms of genetics and DNA. Those are things you can discover from a drop of blood, or a swab. But what about the parts of our history that aren’t stored in our blood or our genes, but in our memories? You can find out a lot from documents—whether they’re official documents like birth certificates or personal documents like letters. But some things you can only find out from relatives and friends who remember things. The more of those people you can contact—before it’s too late—the richer picture you can create of your family’s history, and your own. That might clear up mysteries and scandals, or it might reveal mysteries and scandals you didn’t know existed, which might even be more interesting.
BLADE: In writing about your own, and your immediate family’s, experiences in dealing with your mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, you share heartbreaking and devastating details. For example, the frustration with physicians unable to comprehend the intricacies of treating an Alzheimer’s patient as in chapter 29. Was it your intention for the book to be a tool for others going through a version of something similar?
HOFFMAN: Definitely. There are a lot of resources for people trying to understand what someone with Alzheimer’s is going through—or will go through. But there aren’t enough stories for those same people trying to understand how the disease will affect them, too, as family members or friends, or caregivers. We have our own journey, and I hope that people who read what I went through, and how my family dealt with things—the parts we got right and wrong, and the choices we made—will understand a bit more about what they’re really facing.
BLADE: Have you started thinking about or working on your next book project?
HOFFMAN: I have a few projects sketched out, and even begun. At some point, I’ll sit down and spread them out on my desk, and one of them will (I hope) call out to me, “Me, me! I’m next [laughs]!”
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