Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Miss Mae West and Me

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Miss Mae West and Me

One of my earliest movie related memories – from the time I was six or seven – was of parading around the house, hips swishing and purring in my finest Mae West mimicry, “Why don’t ya come up and see me sometime?” I barely remember actually watching the B&W “My Little Chickadee” on the tube, so mesmerized was I by the platinum blonde goddess, a creature clad in ultra-femme garb but projecting an aggressively male body language and distinctly unfeminine voice – like no one I had ever seen on the screen. Years later I would realize it was my first encounter with a woman like me.

Miss West is my patron sinner/saint for many reasons, but mostly because today’s catchphrases like “genderqueer” and “boygirl” didn’t exist in her time – and she didn’t need them. She did what came naturally to her way down deep inside, no buzzwords required for self-knowledge. I intimately understand why she eschewed monogamy in favor of a fetish for bad boys, rough trade and Hercules musclemen – the ultimate physical embodiment of our 100% male insides, our souls made flesh-and-blood tangible. I know what it’s like to choose lovers you want both to be with and to be, to covertly use sex to sweep aside all awareness of the female form, to lose oneself in a tidal wave of testosterone. Miss West is my fellow undercover agent in the mainstream world, a gay man “passing” as a femme little chickadee, serving as my transgender guiding light.

Like many gay men who couldn’t quite put into words their childhood fascination with Sal Mineo or Monty Clift, whose true sexuality radiated right through their straight man roles, I understood on a subconscious level that Mae – born Mary Jane West 115 years ago this Sunday August 17th – and I were of the same tribe. We both resemble females on the outside but our inside––sexuality included––is distinctively male. I didn’t want to act like the boys any more than Miss West did – it’s simply a given when that’s the identity one’s born with. Subsequently, the way she viewed men sexually was, like me, through a man’s gaze.

And I know what it’s like to camp it up like Miss Mae. Upon escaping to NYC to pursue acting, I inexplicably found myself drawn––as if to a spiritual calling––to performing in the downtown cabaret scene, always lip-synching to the bad boy lead singers I wanted to be, from Andrew Eldritch to Adam Ant, while wearing over the top makeup, frou-frou skirts or androgynous leather pants. Since my teenage years all expressions of femaleness both onstage and off have been a a calculated, well planned-out affair. And like the many fabulous drag queens I looked up to and shared the Pyramid Club spotlight with, I profoundly understood what it’s like to playact being a girl.

With that hippy walk in those seven-inch platforms (rumored to have been influenced by famous drag queens she saw while still a stage actress), “diva” Mae and her “Baby Vamp” shtick came to fruition only after she’d given other identities a go, including that of male impersonator. Though her play “The Drag” concerned homosexuality (banned from Broadway, it ran in eventually gay-marriage-friendly Jersey) and she was a strong advocate of gay and transgender rights, her personal opinions on the subject have always been a bit controversial. Miss West pretty much believed that every gay guy had a female soul – an honest mistake that should be forgiven coming from someone who had a gay guy soul inside a female form. Her gender and sexuality simply went hand in hand, so she wrongly, though innocently (for once!), assumed the two to be one and the same.

And I would venture to guess that brave Miss Mae, were she alive today, would cast a disapproving smirk at the proliferation of hormone doses and sex change operations. Loudly and defiantly, Miss West forced society to play by her rules, proudly flaunted the fact that her insides and outsides were mismatched––and even used the discomfort her difference caused to her advantage, throwing her male sexuality onto the stage and screen through her buxom body, and letting the audience sort it all out. Miss West was hot for the same reason man’s man Clark Gable was sexy: frankly, she just didn’t give a damn. Unwaveringly, she laid claim to her rightful seat in the “men only” club, exercising control over her scripts and demanding equal pay (and thereby breaking ground for all 100% females, too). And why shouldn’t she have? Miss West knew that underneath that hourglass figure she was one of them in every way that mattered.

Even now I’m awestruck pondering her ten-day jail sentence on obscenity charges for staging her play “Sex” in 1927 –– a cannon blast in the sexuality and gender revolution fired over four decades before Stonewall! This, above all, is why I love Miss West: like a cross between classy Sinatra and rebellious Sid Vicious she did it her own (boygirl) way.

And a very happy birthday to you, Miss Mae.

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