Katie Gilmartin 2017-11-10T20:20:14+00:00
Katie Gilmartin
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All images are linocut prints, 9 ¾ by 7 inches.José Sarria performed opera and incendiary monologues at the historic Black Cat Café, and ended many an evening with a rousing chorus of “God Save Us Nelly Queens.” In Blackmail, My Love, a fictional character based on this legendary performer does a stand-up piece about Alfred Kinsey, whose research was making headlines at the time. The real José ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, the first openly gay candidate for public office in the U.S., and founded the Imperial Court System, which has grown into an international association of charitable organizations. José displayed extraordinary elegance and wit in his acts of resistance. For example: in San Francisco and cities throughout the U.S., Halloween was the one night when men wearing dresses were generally safe from arrest, but police cracked down at the stroke of midnight, routinely arresting wagonloads of people. José created felt pins in the shape of a black cat, inscribed with the words, “I am a boy.” Because California law prohibited men from wearing women’s clothing “with the intent to deceive,” the police backed off. José’s pins provided immunity for “crossdressing” revelers: protection from arrest by means of felt, glue, scissors, and safety pins.Black Pearl is a fictional character in Blackmail, My Love, who works at Finocchio’s, an actual North Beach nightclub that opened in 1929 as a small bohemian cafe and speakeasy. Its owner’s real last name was, coincidentally, Italian slang for “pouf” or “pansy.” The Book has yet to be written on the history of Finocchio’s, but the story goes that one night a male patron went on stage in a dress, the crowd enjoyed the performance, and the owner decided to create a nightclub with performances by what he called “female illusionists.” Those who performed there made it a world-renowned nightspot for decades. Hollywood stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis flew in to see themselves impersonated. Finocchio’s and other “female impersonation” venues frequently included multi-racial casts at a time when the stages of other entertainment venues were racially segregated. While they profited from their performer’s talents, the owners of Finocchio’s did their best to downplay their Queerness: in press reports they emphasized that it was all just “good clean fun” and that many of their performers were heterosexual men. Performers were discouraged from “mingling” with the customers. Moreover, Black Pearl would not have been allowed to leave work as she is here, in her preferred attire: the nightclub’s performers had to arrive and leave in male clothing.

 Blackmail, My Love’s main character, known as Josie and as Joe, presents as female, male, and gender queer over the course of the novel. This gender-flexibility enables them to move stealthily between the demimonde of the Queer underground and the upper crust of society, in a sense using society’s gender rigidity as shield and sword.

Artist’s StatementThese prints reflect on the importance of gender variance and gender nonconformity as critical organizing forces in Queer history.A pivotal piece of work that Queers accomplished in the 1950s United States was community formation: the claiming of public spaces such as cafes, bars, donut shops, and neighborhoods. In an era that, for the most part, understood homosexuality and gender variance as psychiatric illnesses afflicting isolated individuals, community formation was a significant step indeed. It also laid the groundwork for the political organizing of the 60s, 70s, and beyond.More visible members of Queer communities – many of whom today might identify as transgender or gender queer – were consistently at the forefront of claiming the public space in which Queer communities coalesced. Their presence announced to others: here is a meeting place. They frequently caught the brunt of harassment and violence as their visibility helped carve out social space for the larger community.

Their gender transgression, or perceived transgression, may have been self-expression, play or performance, a way to signal erotic desire, related to employment  (as sex workers or gender “illusionists”), or some complex combination of the above. They may have identified with a variety of terms available at the time, such as drag queen, butch, stud, transvestite, transsexual, dyke, punk, hustler, fairy, or female or male impersonator. These various groups frequently coexisted in community – sometimes expansively, sometimes uneasily. Their organizing was central to early Queer anti-police-brutality actions, including the 1959 Cooper’s Donuts uprising in Los Angeles and the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

These four prints are from my noir mystery novel, Blackmail, My Love, set in San Francisco in 1951. The illustrations reference both real and imagined individuals and locations. The novel’s narrative explores the ways gender, race, and class functioned as divisive forces in Queer history, while also exploring the historic forging of alliances across these lines.