Friday, June 22, 2007

Judy Garland and Homosexual Identity

When I Knew homosexuality Robert Trachtenberg gayAt the Green Valley Book Fair a few weeks ago, I picked up a darling coffee table book called When I Knew, edited by Robert Trachtenberg and illustrated by Tom Bachtell.

When I Knew is a compilation of memories from gay men and lesbians from all walks of life (though a disproportionate number of them, it seems, are somehow connected to the entertainment industry), with a specific reference to the identifiable moment of their discoveries of being gay. It's a quick read, with only a handful of entries longer than a page. Many of the authors are well-known as adults and their childhood memories are sweet, bittersweet, sometime campy, sometimes wry, and always illustrative of what it is like to grow up gay in a straight world.

My favorite entry -- perhaps because it emphasizes the value of words and how artifice affects one's reality -- comes from playwright Arthur Laurents, who writes on page 50 about growing up in the 1930s:

When I was twelve, I had sex with one of the kids on the block. We also went to the movies together and one day saw the picture called, Let Us Be Gay. Back then "gay" merely meant bright, lively, merry, but for some unfathomable reason, whenever one of us wanted sex, we used the code phrase "Let Us Be Gay." I think we may have pioneered the use of "gay" to mean homosexual sex. More meaningful than a Tony or Oscar, but not quite worthy of the Nobel.
Arthur Laurents -- librettist and neologist.

My reason for bringing up this two-year-old book now, however, lies in today's most remembered anniversary: On June 22, 1969, Judy Garland died in London. A few days later, shattered by her death and funeral, gay New Yorkers at the Stonewall Inn fought back against a police raid, sparking what would come to be known as the modern gay rights movement. (We should never forget, however, the pioneering efforts of those who came before Stonewall.)

The first entry in When I Knew is so brief, it borders on haiku. It comes from Andrew Freedman, now a marketing and public relations consultant:
My father was watching the
evening news. The announcer
said that Judy Garland had died.
I fainted. I was nine.
This evening in dining rooms and bars, nightclubs and restaurants, in front of our TV sets or in the lobbies of theaters, let us raise a glass to toast the memory of Miss Judy Garland.

(P.S.: Doesn't the title of this blogpost sound like that of a paper delivered at an MLA convention?)

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Donkey Breath said...

May favorite Judy album was "Mean to Me" which I played non-stop whenever those "perfect men" got away in my youth...thanks for the reminder.

And thanks to the Queens of NY!!

Anonymous said...


OK, since I'm straight, maybe this is a dumb question, but why would Judy Garland be somone of note to gay people? Her biography is quite sad:

She died of her own addiction to drugs - certainly she isn't someone whose life I would like to emulate.

But many do think she was a great actress. Being no expert in theatre, I really can't say; her type of productions would never have appealed to me anyways (that includes the Wizard of Oz - the CEO at my company passed out Wizard of OZ CDs last Christmas to all 14,000 employees; we nukes still can't figure out the significance of that action.)


Paul Primavera