The Leathermen, Seminary dropouts, Vietnam vets, and Signal Corps bohemians who came to our aid
The pseudo-feminist puritans did succeed in driving On Our Backs into the arms of charming pornographers— the very infidelity they accused us of.
All we did was answer the phone.
I picked up the office receiver one day, expecting a weary creditor— and instead it was this fellow who sounded like he had just arranged for a pumpkin coach to come pick us up with a glass slipper.
“My name is John Preston, I'm from Drummer magazine, and I think you are absolutely brilliant.”
Drummer was a gay men’s leather magazine. They were the first to publish Mapplethorpe, and stories by Steven Saylor. They were hardcore as hell and yet they had aesthetic standards like the Algonquin Room.
I waved my hands frantically at Nan and Debi. It was our first message from a peer, or someone we’d like to be a peer, who could see we weren’t just taking off our underwear for the hell of it.
Preston was pointed. “No one else is taking on the status quo like you. I thought the gay liberation movement was fucking dead. You make my secret leather feminist heart go pitter-patter. You are just the molotov cocktail we’ve all needed.”
In the sex trade, I met many businessmen, peddlers, film rats, who moved product up and down the street. The made guys with the gold chains and the cigars, and the New Age Carny versions of Hollywood also-rans. They weren’t looking for revolution or sexual transformation. They were looking for you to turn around and show them that fat ass or fatter profit. —Like On Our Backs was going to hand over either to them. Nope.
Like anyone you’d meet in the non-A-list side of the movie business, porn’s entrepreneurs often arrived on the set from “below the line.” These were people who’d made industrial films, spaghetti westerns, b-loops, or worked in the Army Signal Corps, like Russ Meyer.
Russ was one of the exceptions who loved us. Instead of a hooker with a heart of gold, he was like the Dirty Old Auteur with the same. He’d talk about his own work in great running monologues, and then interrupt one of his sagas to look me straight in the eye and say, “You’re really doing something; you know that?”
In his dotage, he’d take me out to steak dinners in Pasadena, where he insisted I drink whiskey and eat rare steaks— something I wouldn’t have ordered anywhere else, or with anyone else. He wanted to talk about the WWII, the beaches of Normandy— from him it sounded like the bloody mud of Normandy. He’d slam his drink down and say it over and over: “I’d get down on my knees with this son of a bitch— he’s bleeding out on the ground— I’m the last person he sees alive; he’s dying and I take his picture and he tells me to call his mother.”
“How could you take their picture at a time like that?”
“How could I not?” Russ waved his arms. “How do you expect them to die, no one seeing them, no one knowing their name? I was their only connection to the living!” And so it was a mitzvah for him. He cried. I’ve never cried so much over a meal with anyone besides a lover, as I did with Russ Meyer.
I told him my favorite film of his was UP! which includes a lengthy scene of Adolph Hitler being debased beyond recognition.
“All my movies are about the war,” he said.
The Mitchell Brothers, Artie and Jim, who created Behind the Green Door, reminded me of Russ, too— if at opposite sides of the political spectrum. Meyer would defend Reagan and Bush to the end. He defended their wars and their cocksmanship. He defended their mistresses.
Jimmie and Artie were the anti-war crusaders, the muckraking left, but with just as much spirit as the Allies. They were the kind of people you could call in the middle of the night and say, “Let’s DO something and get those bastards,” and they’d be right on it, a regular font of creative subversion. Underground comix? Fucking with Walt Disney? Lesbian radicals? AIDS? The Catholic Church? They were game.
One time they called me at an hour where I couldn’t make out the clock in the dark. “Come on down,” they said, “everyone’s here.”
“And, of course you can’t do it without me?” I said, rubbing the sand out of my eyes.
“Are you kidding?” Artie roared. He made his trademark “caw” like a crow, blasting through my receiver. Clearly the White House was doomed.
It’s no mistake that Jim and Art, along with Russ, were the most vociferous porn directors about establishing and protecting their American copyright. The reason you saw a little blurb on videocassettes and DVDs that said, “Back off, this is protected” is because of their decades-long fight in the highest courts to protect their work.
Jim and Art were the ones who said, “Just because you don’t respect what we do, doesn't mean you can violate our copyright. It doesn’t matter if it’s horse-shit, it’s our horse-shit, not yours.”
Not the Mob’s, not the government’s. A radical thing to insist in their era.
The pornographic minority— and really, I can count these people on my fingers— were a few bohemians from porn’s peep show origins, the Signal Corps stalwarts like Meyer and Radley Metzger, and most influentially, the queer intelligentsia, epitomized by John Preston, John Rowberry, David Hurles, Boyd McDonald, Jack Fritscher. They were On Our Backs daddies, our Oscar Wilde’s, our Genet’s with address books of printers and video duplicators who wouldn’t discriminate against us.
To a fault, they were aesthetically deep. When I was pregnant and considering the pros and cons of circumcision— if I had a boy— John Rowberry would summon his foreskin arguments with quotations from the French. Then he’d make me the most incredible buerre blanc. Jack Fritscher went to seminary with disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law. These men were classically educated, like my father. They would have found each other great company.
My gay comrades from magazines like Drummer were very much seminarians, whereas the posse’s of the Mitchell family, and Russ’s one-man army were the autodidactic infantry.
The queer Jesuits of porn had expansive ideas about beauty, sex, death, and transformation. They had zero interest in trying to convince or uplift anyone who didn’t already get it. They didn’t want to reach out to “mainstream couples,” or convince “Cosmo readers,” or testify in Congress. Their battles were private cuts, not debates on the tabloid pages.
The men’s gay publishing and film world was designed as vertically as the rest of the porn empires . . . they ran and owned their own show from top to bottom. Their audience was devoted, much more discriminating than the straight world, and devoted to furthering their glory within their own parallel universe.
I was green with envy.
Debi, Nan, and I wouldn’t have been able to secure the practical means for physically producing our magazine and videos if our “daddies” hadn’t helped us. I was always curious why they made an exception about us, why they loved On Our Backs. They had no interest in us romantically, and no sight of making a dime off their generosity. Nor would their good works ever be advertised.
I think it was a case of mutual inspiration. We needed gods and they needed a few goddesses. It’s romantic in its own way. I was a True Believer in the gospel of sexual sacrifice. The 80s were a period of homosexual incandescence that was dying under the brutality of AIDS, “being normal,” getting married, joining the army, and being Just Like Everyone Else. The AIDS death march came like thunder, and then every other cut, the thousands of them, were insults that could barely be perceived at the time.
I think the daddies’ crazy “Harry” loved our unorthodox “Sally.” We both cared about beautiful photography and poetry and brutal sexual honesty. We were the last of the free love artists, in a nation dying of erotic illiteracy.
I published a few of John Preston’s short stories at the end of his life, when he was dying from complications of AIDS. He was expiring in his apartment in Boston; I was in San Francisco in the back of my kitchen, my toddler Aretha drawing furiously on the floor as I typed at my desk to line up all my author contributors. It was 1994, the second year I published The Best American Erotica series.
My stomach churned to dial John’s number. I spent most of the AIDS onslaught like a bowl of jello: “This isn’t happening, this isn't happening.” Everybody I looked up to? They were vanishing, and I could only keep repeating, like a child—”But I don’t want you to die.”
Preston had always signed and mailed his contracts to me in quick order; it was unprecedented for him to be late.
I let his phone ring five times, with no answering machine picking up. Sixth time, a dying man lifted the receiver. I could hear things falling to the floor. His death rattle cursed into the the speaker: “Fuck it!”
“John, it’s me; it’s Susie.”
“I know,” he croaked. I could hear him sigh and sink down.
“This is awful,” I said, “I'm just putting BAE to bed and I know you want to be in it but I don’t have your contract— this is ridiculous!— shall I hang up?” I didn’t want to cry in front of him. He must be so sick of people crying. “I love you, John, this is isn’t why I want to be calling you . . . ” I couldn’t stop blithering.
He didn’t interrupt me. His breathing was labored. All I could hear was his breath.
“Are you there, John, is anyone with you?” I started to think of who lived close to him and had the presence of mind to batter down the door.
“No, no, Mark’s coming later, it’s okay.” He hacked a bit. “I don’t want to wait, though. I want to fax the contract to you, but”— he paused again to hack— “if you saw all the tubes in me, and these cords— it just takes some time.”
I could hear him try to get up again. Everything was a bump or a small crash.
“John, STOP IT, this is messed up; it doesn’t matter, I’m not going to be the person who offed you getting your signature— I’ll forge it, we’ll do something; just forget it!”
John stopped his snail’s pace demolition and regained some of his deep voice. “No, this is the only thing that DOES matter, the only fucking thing.”
I heard his fax tone whirring on the other end. The one-page agreement was coming through my end. His signature — he had such beautiful handwriting, remember?— was a half of a scrawl.
“Is it alright?” he gasped. “Is it alright?”
“It’s perfect,” I said, “Your story is perfect, everyone is going to be blown away. You’re going to make grown straight men cry.”
I have Preston’s contracts with in my drawers and all his beautiful books on my shelves. His collections, Flesh and the Word, were my inspirations for Best American Erotica series. The truth was, gay writers, every year through the ‘90s, wrote “the best” erotic fiction in America, and the rest of the world was struggling in the back of the pack.
Why were they better?
Because their audience was not sitting around wondering whether it was okay to be sexual, to be a man, to have a sexual literate mind. They demanded it.
Women, our intended audience, were only crawling out of their eggs. Was it okay to be a a mature woman? Was a woman’s libidinous integrity something to cherish? Did our education, our power, add up to something that wasn’t only maternal?
Straight men— or “ostensibly straight men,” as John would have said — they were guilty. Drowning in the muck of it. Loathing themselves, hiding, unable to see the beauty in themselves or any other man.
Most of the straight businessmen I met in the porn trade were like that— not okay about sex. Deluded with the material payoff. As sexist as . . . Archie Bunker. Their question to me was the same question as square America’s: “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
In the late 80s, I made a movie show-and-tell called “All Girl Action: The History of Lesbian Sex in Cinema.” I put all of my most thought-provoking film clips inside it. Russ let me have a print of Vixen, the first American feature to include a lesbian sex scene— and perhaps the most amusing such scene, produced to this day.
We premiered my show at the art deco Castro Theater in San Francisco at the annual gay film festival. One of the festival veterans, Bob Hawke, was instrumental in making sure I could show each clip in its original medium: 16mm, 35 mm, Betamax, anything. We had four different projectors set up in perfect timing.
After the festival, I wanted to settle in with Bob for a long pot-filled evening of queer film gossip, but I couldn't find him. His number was disconnected. A volunteer at the festival interrupted my search, grim-faced— “Bob’s gone, Susie,” she said. “He said he just couldn't live anymore.”
What? I didn’t know about his personal life. What happened? I couldn’t process the losses anymore.
Then in 1989, I was invited to come speak at a Los Angeles film conference. I walked into our panel’s auditorium and directly into the black-polo shirted chest of Bob. I was all decked out for the cameras but it was for naught— my mascara streamed down my cheeks in tears.
“I thought you were dead!” I said— the first time I’ve greeted anyone with those words. I hit his breast with my fists.
Bob held me tight but struggled with an explanation: “No, no,” he said, “I just, I just dropped out for a while. I should have told you, a lot of people, I should have . . . “
He asked me if I had seen a new movie he’d produced, Chasing Amy.
One of the event producers passed me a handful of Kleenex. “Uh-uh, I haven’t,” I said, “it’s supposed about lesbians, right? When did you start producing movies?”
This was the opposite of suicide, right?
Bob got a strange look on his face. “Well, lesbians, not really, it’s more about . . . you!” Then he flinched, as if I might collapse again. “Actually, you should see it. You really should.”
I came home, and wondered why Chasing Amy was about me. I had not been chased lately. Why had no one said anything to me? Were all my friends too snobby to see a Hollywood film about lesbians? Probably. I rented the video.
Chasing Amy turned out to be a story about a slacker boy who falls for a bisexual dyke. She’s femme, tough. He’s a square guy, not a dyke daddy— and not at all sure if it’s okay to be with someone as “open” as Amy.
Every word that comes out of the heroine’s mouth blows the young man’s puritanical mind. But he likes it. There’s a scene where Amy’s in a swing at a playground and she starts talking to him about sex:
'Fucking' is not limited to penetration...
Well where's the penetration in lesbian sex?
Alyssa holds up her hand.
A finger? Come on. I've had my finger in my ass but I wouldn't say I've had anal sex.
Did I hold up a finger?
(waves her hand)
(<Beat>; Then he gets it)
How . . . ?!?
Our bodies are built to pass a child, for Christ's sake.
It was so strange to hear a conversation of mine, coming out of the actor’s mouth on my television set.
The two characters proceed to have an affair. The boy finally. rejects Alyssa— not for being gay, but for the greater patriarchal crime of having slept around too much. She had been the high school “slut.”
Ah, that was too familiar, too.
I wrote to Bob that I had published a new book, a little farther afield than Amy. So much had happened that made the old days look askew.
It was called “Nothing But the Girl,” a book of lesbian erotic photography. The book had a dedication, a story, as much as anything, about comrades who survived and fell.
From the Dedication:
This book is dedicated to all the lesbian artists who would not, could not, and cannot imagine being in this collection:
because you fear for your job
because you fear abandonment
because your lover is a closet case
because your family is ashamed of you
because someone threatened to take your kids away
because the academy didn't like it
because the gallery disdained it
because your estate does not wish to cooperate
because it's politically incorrect
because it's politically inopportune
because you don't approve of the word "lesbian"
because you don't approve of the word "dyke"
because you don't approve of "porn"
because you think sex should really be private
because it was different when you grew up
because you don't see the point in bringing this out into the open
because you don't feel like living anymore
because you didn't mean it that way
because you're locked up
because you're doped up
because what did lesbians ever do for you, anyway
because it hurts to be criticized and cut down
because people are cruel
because you're not a hero
the first cut
is the deepest
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