Artist and Activist
September 12, 2018, 6pm (Michela’s loft, New York, NY)
Gwen Shockey: What was the first lesbian or predominantly queer-female space you were ever in and what did it feel like to be there?
Michela Griffo: The Sea Colony was the first bar I ever went to. I was sixteen years old and this woman came up to me and asked me to dance and DeeDee said, “You touch my baby and I’ll kill you!” I used to love it! The girls were great. They loved me and would fuss over me. I only went about two or three times on Sunday afternoons for the Tea Dances. DeeDee was like a mother to me, she WAS a mother to me. I was 14 years old when I ran away from home the first time. All I had was my babysitting money and some chocolate chip cookies that my friend Judy gave me. She was the one who initially said to me, “You’ve got to leave home, you’re going to end up dead if you don’t get out of there.” I came from a very dysfunctional home and was scared to death, but I knew she was right.
GS: Did your parents look for you?
MG: Are you kidding? My parents never looked for me. I was living with a bunch of kids in the East Village some of whom I still know. In those days the Village Voice would come out every Wednesday and we would see where there was an apartment for rent. Nobody locked their doors then so we would go and stay in the apartment! We would turn on the refrigerator and take showers and whatever until the landlord discovered us and then we’d just go to the next place! One Sunday I was sitting down by the old piers that used to line the West Side Highway where everybody used to go (they used to call it tar beach). It was August and I knew I needed to go back to finish my senior year of high school but I really didn’t want to. DeeDee was down there. She had her beach chair and was reading the New York Times and she struck up a conversation with me. We just started talking and she was so nice. Years later she told me I was the most interesting teenager she’d ever met. She asked me where I lived and I said, “I don’t have a home I just live in the street and in vacant apartments.” She said, “You’re coming home with me!” She took me to her apartment which was in the 70s off of Central Park West. DeeDee ran a very high-end Call Girl business for the mafia out of an apartment on the Upper East Side. I lived with DeeDee until I was 19 and moved to the West Village to live with what had been my high school sweetheart. He was then a Medical Student at NYU and I was at Pratt Institute getting my MFA. DeeDee was always an important person in my life because she taught me how to live as an independent woman. I would not have the life I have today if she had not taken me under her wing. She died of breast cancer in 1983. That’s how I ended up getting sober. The pain was just too much and I would have killed myself. That was probably the most difficult loss for me in my life. She died in 1983 and I got sober in 1984 after two failed rehabs.
GS: Prior to moving in with DeeDee did it feel dangerous to you to be living on the streets as you were?
MG: No! We were all around Saint Marks and Avenue A. It was all Ukrainian there in those days. In the ‘80s it started to get unsafe. Alphabet city was where’d you go to get heroin but when I was fourteen or fifteen years old it was all Ukrainian restaurants and Orthodox Jewish people and the old Second Avenue Theater was where they would have the Yiddish plays. There was nothing to be afraid of and nobody would lock their doors.
GS: The transitions this city has gone through are really remarkable.
MG: Oh yes! That was in the early ‘60s. I’m old. (Laughing)
GS: You’ve had so many incredible life experiences!
MG: I have! I’ve had an incredible life. I really have. I came out very late. My first female lover was Agneta Frieberg. She was one of Eileen Ford’s top models at the time. She was really kind and interesting woman. When we first met, I didn’t know she was cruising me – that was the best part! I had been living with my high-school sweetheart, Peter, who I was going to marry when I graduated from Pratt Institute. I met him when I was fourteen and I was going to the University of Rochester to take classes because I was so smart and they didn’t know what to do with me. There was a program for bright children at the University of Rochester where Peter was a freshman at the time. We started talking while I was waiting for the bus one day and it was like I’d known him for my whole life! He asked me to the movies on Saturday and I told him I couldn’t go on a date with him because I was fourteen. That went on for years and I went off to Michigan and he went to medical school here in New York and so when I came back to go to Pratt Institute he was already doing his internship.
The summer of Stonewall we were living together on Horatio Street and that December I went to meet his family. We got all dressed up, and the door opens to this apartment in Sheepshead Bay and his mother, her sister and two grandmothers are all sitting on this couch, they look up and in unison they all say, “Ah Hah! Shiksa.” I had never heard that word and had no idea what it meant. Peter turned around and gave me money for a cab and told me to go home and that we’d talk about it later. I had never met his family because they were Orthodox. Anyway, we tried and in the end it was either going to be his family or me.
In August of 1969 Peter and I broke up and I had begun freelancing for Clairol. My friend Bob was an art director there. Bob had a Harley Davidson and he invited me to this small folk festival in upstate New York one weekend. We were driving and driving and I thought there must have been an accident because there were so many people, my god! The traffic was terrible! Well, the small folk festival of course turned out to be Woodstock. I was nineteen then.
Every Saturday I would go to Redstockings meetings at the Washington Square Methodist church, which was a hotbed for all of these political groups. I don’t remember how I found out about Redstockings. I think I must have seen them one day when I was walking down the street in the village. I decided to start going to meetings because a friend of mine almost died from getting an illegal abortion in Harlem. Having lived with DeeDee at the age of sixteen I knew where to go. I took my friend and she was bleeding all over. I couldn’t bring her to hospital because we both would have been charged with manslaughter. Luckily DeeDee had a friend who was a nurse who helped us. That was it for me. After that I found the Redstockings which was the first group to change the abortion laws in New York. We would stand on Sheridan Square and people would spit at us and call us names.
One Saturday as I was leaving a Redstockings meeting there was this attractive blonde woman standing there. She started asking me all about the Redstockings and asked me out for coffee. I was so naïve I had no idea, you know. She told me she had a loft and nobody had lofts in those days! She was in a group at the church for foreigners applying for citizenship. Much later I would find out of course that every week she would ask the woman at the desk what the Redstockings group was. (Laughing) So, she was cruising me for like two or three weeks! I went out for coffee with her and she asked me if I wanted to go with her to Andy Warhol’s party and I said, “Well yeah!” Her best friend was Viva. We started going to parties together! I would go with her and met Andy and the hangers-on and it was just great! I didn’t know we were dating! For six months! She was always going off to model in various parts of the world and then she’d come home to her beautiful loft on Great Jones Street. Actually, Kate Millet’s sister Mallory lived right down the street. I knew Kate from the National Organization for Women which I also joined. Agneta would come over when she was in town and we’d watch The Late Show and eat Chinese food and then she’d put on her coat and go home. I met her in August and it was now February and there was a big snow storm outside. She said to me, “Some night you come and stay with Agneta, yes?” I thought she meant like a pajama party but then she kissed me! I used to think I was going to have to be thirty before reached that zenith of my sexuality. At least that was what all the magazine articles said. I was having sex with Peter and it was enjoyable but it wasn’t like what you read about in the books and I thought it was because I wasn’t thirty. But the minute she kissed me I knew I was not going to have to wait until I was thirty. When Agneta kissed me for the first time that was it! I never even called myself bisexual after that. (Laughing) She said, “I want to make love to you!” I was so scared I made her sleep with her jeans on!
GS: Really? Oh my god!
MG: Oh yeah, I was terrified!
GS: What did it feel like? That first experience? If that’s not too personal a question…
MG: Not at all! It felt like the greatest firework show you’ve ever seen in your life! That’s what it felt like. It was like, “Wowwww. This is amazing!” I was in LOVE. Then, all my straight friends told me I’d get thrown out of my apartment and get fired from my job. I couldn’t believe it! I thought I’m the same person that six months ago was engaged to be married to my fiancé and now you’re telling me all these horrible things are going to happen to me? I couldn’t believe it! My only thought after that was “This is unacceptable” and I became an instant activist. In January of 1970 I hauled my ass to the GLF (Gay Liberation Front) and the rest is history.
GS: Did you consider yourself to be queer or a lesbian prior to her kissing you? Had you been aware of feelings for women or was it totally new?
MG: I had been aware of these women lovers at Pratt! I was never homophobic. I just never thought of what would attract two women to each other. It just wasn’t on my radar at the time. I knew about lesbians because DeeDee had all of these gorgeous women working for her and they used to love to go to the Sea Colony. I was sixteen years old when I first went with DeeDee to the Sea Colony. DeeDee was crazy about Maria who was the bartender there. She was a really nice-looking woman. I think she was some mafioso’s sister or whatever. Everybody who worked in these bars, like the bartenders, – they were all in the mafia. There was this one girl there who looked like that ‘50s movie star Jeff Chandler. She used to call herself Jeff! (Laughing) Everybody in those days was either butch or femme. Femmes didn’t go out with femmes and butches didn’t go out with butches. It was very regulated. I didn’t have this dichotomy in my life. I knew who I was! It didn’t appeal to me. The lifestyle didn’t appeal to me. These dark bars.
When I met Agneta I was still working with the Redstockings. There was a publication called The Rat on the Lower East Side. It was a radical publication. Martha Shelley and Karla Jay both worked as writers there. Some men worked there too, until the women took it over. They needed a paste-up artist and Jane Alpert who had been one of the editors had to go underground because she was wanted by the FBI. I knew how to do mechanicals and paste-up so I went and I was surrounded by a lot of women who were both gay and straight because some of them were from Redstockings and some of them were from the Women’s Movement. I was one of the first twelve members of the National Organization for Women!
GS: Was sexuality openly talked about in the Redstockings or at the Rat?
MG: There were a lot of women who were closeted but that’s where I heard talk of the Gay Liberation Front. Once I met Agneta I decided to start attending the meetings. I was very active in the GLF. We planned the first Pride March. Flavia [Rando] and I were both Italian and spoke the language and we would do actions like trying to move women out of Kooky’s (which was mafia-run) and into Alternate U which was where we had dances down the street. Flavia and I would stand out there handing out leaflets about the dances and these goons who sat in the front with guns would come out. I only went to Kooky’s once and I found it so repressive and so horrible. The drinks were so expensive and Kooky would put her finger in your drink and say, “It’s warm. You better get another one.” I really wasn’t a part of that bar scene, even though by now I was drinking heavily. I never felt that this was the only part of my life. I had a much bigger life! I had a lot of friends, I had a lot of interests, and so meeting gay women was not my only objective in doing things. And I was beginning to show my art and getting involved in the Lower East Side cultural world.
GS: It seems as though you had many different types of communities but it seems like you also found community primarily through politics.
MG: Oh definitely. Absolutely! Once I found GLF, that was it. The writer, Susan Brownmiller, was my neighbor, she lived on Jane Street, and she had talked me into going to a New York Radical Feminism consciousness-raising group when I was living with Peter. She would use all of this feminist language with me and say to me, “He’s oppressing you!“ I was like, “Well, wait a minute! He does all the cooking, he’s the one who fixes up the apartment, and he bought the linens!” I could have cared less! All I wanted to do was be an artist! He would take me to the opera and the ballet and he really gave me a whole cultural education that I didn’t have before. My friends would tell me they’d have to give their boyfriends valium to get them to go to the ballet.
GS: Did you end up going to one of the consciousness-raising groups?
MG: Oh yes! I was in a consciousness-raising group with Susan and about twelve other women. One of whom was a really interesting artist. I wanted to get to know her better because I wasn’t familiar with that many women-artists. I was in this group. I had resigned from The National Organization for Women and joined the GLF.
GS: Was seeking out the GLF a sort of personal safety reaction after your straight friends suggested you might be harassed?
MG: I was young, and as all young kids are, you feel you are invincible. I was filled with this energy and purpose. “This is unacceptable!” was all I could think of.
About a month ago I attended a combined meeting of Heritage of Pride and Reclaim Pride with five of my GLF alumni who were there to remind HOP what the word “Heritage” meant. I stood up and said, “We risked our lives for you!” We did! We had no protection at all in the first Gay Pride March! The mafia wanted to kill us and the police wouldn’t protect us because they were bought lock, stock and barrel by the mafia. In 1970 I was working with Yoruba Guzman and the Young Lords, the Black Panthers and other social justice programs. We weren’t just gay-focused we wanted liberation for all subjugated people. We were a very radical, revolutionary group. I went to Yoruba and said, “We have no protection! Can you get some of your guys to just stand along the March route down in the Village and just look to see if there is anybody with guns or weapons.” They showed up! All of these straight Puerto Rican guys and they stood along the sides of the March route and that was our protection! The Young Lords! Most people don’t know that story but that is the truth of what happened. Yoruba did it as a favor to us because many of us worked in their breakfast programs, all their different crisis centers, we marched with them in their marches and many of us went to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade.
One night the mafia came to our dance at Alternate U. I saw the guns first. To get to the second floor where our dance was being held you had to walk up this long staircase. I saw the Mafia guys at the bottom of the staircase with their guns flashing. As the began to climb the stairs I took the box that had the money in it, handed it off it to Donna Gottschalk and told her to stuff it in a garbage bag and get it downstairs as fast as she could. She threw the box in a garbage bag and started running down the stairs while the mafia guys were running up the stairs. This was all while the dance was going on! Everybody was there dancing and drinking beer and having a great time! The guys were holding their guns and asking me where the money was so I told them we didn’t charge anything and that these dances were free. We just stood up to them and finally they left!
GS: Were you scared?
MG: I was but you know we were such revolutionaries. They would run after Flavia and I and we would yell at them in Italian, “Don’t touch me! I’m blood!” I could have been Carlo Gambino’s daughter for all they knew! Flavia is Sicilian so we both knew the language and we were the only ones brave enough to do it! We handed out flyers at Gianni’s, at the Sea Colony – all the mafia bars – there was no Henrietta Hudson or anything like that in those days. It was the women, the lesbians, who closed those bars. We were not going to stop until we closed every single one of those mafia bars.
GS: I’m curious how you saw the butch/femme dynamic playing into all of this. It’s my understanding that your age-group didn’t feel comfortable with this dynamic and there was more emphasis on androgyny?
MG: There were a few women who did – there was Mark Giles who was a very attractive blonde woman and a stone butch – but most of us were hippy flower children!
GS: Were there still butch/femme couples in these bars?
MG: Oh yes! But they weren’t in the GLF. I think they were very threatened by the changes we wanted through the movement. If you look at the pictures of the people who marched in the first Pride March many of them looked almost androgynous. Certainly, if you were to come to the GLF dances you would not see any butch women there. It was mostly hippy shit going on. Girls were into wearing flowing outfits, lipstick and so on. I think that was the beginning of a big change that really came about in the ‘70s when the bars were closed and college girls were coming out and they didn’t look butch or femme necessarily, just like young women in college. My relationship with Agneta wasn’t this power dynamic, we were just two women who were very much in love. I didn’t find butch women attractive, although I fought just as hard for their protection and right to self-expression, and always will. Self-sufficiency was what was most important to my generation of lesbians. We didn’t necessarily want to look like guys or be butch but we wanted to know how to fix our own cars, do our own plumbing and electrical work, do carpentry as well as grow and cook organic food. We wanted our own safe spaces where we could pitch our tents and listen to music we had written and read books by women.
GS: It just seems like such a radical break I guess and it must have had so much to do with the times that all of this was taking place in, with Civil Rights and Feminism taking center stage alongside Gay Rights.
MG: Yes. Butch/femme was 1950s among women older than I am. In order to be in a relationship, you had to have a clear role. I would hear that in the bars all the time, women would ask me what I was and I would say, “I’m a woman! That’s what I am! What are you?” If you didn’t identify as butch or femme they didn’t know how to respond to you or interact with you. It didn’t make any sense to me then. I understand it more now.
GS: This might be a rhetorical question but the butch/femme dynamic wasn’t just about sex it was a lifestyle decision too for instance if you identified as femme you lived in that way and acted in that way and vice versa?
MG: Right! I’ve heard that actually in the 1950s butches stayed home because they couldn’t get jobs and the femmes were the ones that went out to work and supported the butches and it was a very oppressive situation. Femmes were treated the same way a straight woman would be treated by her husband, except she had to work.
GS: Can you tell me a little bit more about your social group in the GLF and later Lavender Menace?
MG: In the 1970s you knew everybody. It was like the art world. There were only a couple of galleries and that was the way it was. It was the same in the movement! Whether I went to Washington D.C., which was where I met Joan [E. Biren], or California or Boston or Chicago we all knew each other. Everybody knew who the players were. I often went to D.C. which is where I met Charlotte Bunch and the Off Our Backs collective [a radical feminist periodical that ran from 1970 to 2008].
GS: Could you talk a little bit about your involvement with the Lavender Menace?
MG: Very few people know the truth about what actually happened. We were having these dances and we’d gotten these women out of the bars and I had already resigned from the National Organization for Women because of their policies about lesbians not really being women. The straight feminists from NOW and the NY Radical Feminists had this huge action where they were going to take over the Ladies’ Home Journal. Susan Brownmiller had asked me to design the cover, which I did. The morning of the action I wasn’t there and nobody knew why. The action was on Monday and on Sunday Susan had written an article in the New York Times about the rise of feminism and when she got to the part about lesbians she wrote, “A lavender herring perhaps, but surely no clear and present danger.” I was incensed. I didn’t show up on Monday for the action. They had the cover that I had designed and no one called me. I considered Susan Brownmiller a friend.
That Friday night we had a dance and I had made a t-shirt that said “Lavender Herring”. Everybody loved it and then we started talking about how awful it was that Susan had written this and how oppressive Betty [Friedan] had been. We knew the Congress to Unite Women was coming up and decided to call ourselves the Lavender Menace instead of the Lavender Herrings. Jessica Falstein and I were the ones who scoped out the school and I had worked on a stage so I knew how to work the lights in the auditorium. The minute Betty got up on stage to welcome everybody to the conference BOOM the place goes pitch black and Martha Shelley grabbed that microphone and when the lights came back on the Lavender Menance were standing there. A lot of women left. They were afraid of lesbians – like they were going to catch some kind of flu or something – but a lot of women stayed. That was the beginning of an actual dialogue. It wasn’t until 1978, eight years later, in Houston that Betty finally relented because we were all there en masse saying how the women’s movement had just thrown us to the wolves. That was how the Lavender Menace started.
GS: What were the years like directly following the Stonewall Riots and the first Pride Parade? Did you feel there was a lull in activism or burn-out or a continuation of the movement?
MG: I marched in all the marches. The GLF kind of split apart because the GAA (Gay Activists Alliance) came in and they did not want anything to do with social justice. They wanted to fuck their brains out in bars, clubs and bath houses and they were for the most part all young, white college kids. To them, gay liberation meant they could have sex anywhere they wanted, as much as they wanted and that was it.
GS: What did gay liberation mean for you?
MG: Gay liberation to me meant that I could march for all the people that couldn’t march. Many of those people where people of color, they were Hispanic, they were people whose culture would have killed them. In 1973 we marched down to Washington Square Park instead of marching up to Central Park and Sylvia [Rivera] got on stage and the GAA boys were booing her. These white boys were all booing her and she said, “Your brothers and your sisters are in prison and are dying and you don’t care about them!” They had already booed Jean O’Leary off the stage – they didn’t want a woman – that’s the other thing that most people don’t know! After the first Gay Pride March when GAA came in, lesbians were not allowed to march – it was all about gay men. They fought us so hard. This was how dykes on bikes started! The women showed up on motorcycles and this is why it is now traditional that they start the march! But the gay men did not want us in the march, they did not want us in the organization and they made it very clear that their dances were not open to women. The boys and the girls did not play well together.
GS: So, there was a huge amount of segregation along gender lines and racial lines?
MG: Oh yes! Except in the GLF! We were a rainbow of colors and cultures. Some of the guys in the GLF were very receptive to our struggles as women and lesbians, others not so much. But as a group we were aware of how we were treated by society. We were a Revolutionary group that stood for Social Justice and worked with all other Revolutionary Groups including the Young Lords and the Black Panthers – I mean, we really were social justice warriors. We were actively against anything that was oppressing any minority. It was unified until the GAA came along and then it became a boy’s club only. By then the women had left the GLF and formed Radicalesbians.
GS: Do you feel like the AIDS crisis changed that?
MG: Oh definitely. That was the beginning of a huge change but after that march where the GAA didn’t want lesbians to join I disappeared from politics for a while and started doing my art. It wasn’t until 1977 when Anita Bryant opened her mouth (starting the Moral Majority and praying to save the children from queers) and I was really angry. That to me was as bad as my friend saying that I was going to lose my apartment and lose my job. Somehow we all found each other again – the Gay Liberation Front was reunited after five years. We hadn’t been meeting and everything had kind of fallen apart. I decided to march again but with gay Catholics that day. I hope I don’t start crying talking about this… We were marching up Fifth Avenue and we were about to reach the front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the steps were packed with people. Across the street were protestors with Sodom and Gomorrah signs and “God Hates Fags”, “Die Fags” signs. I’m with all the gay Catholics and I said to them, “Listen, I’ve been in these marches before. There’s going to be trouble. Everybody try to stay really close together and just march as fast as you can past the Cathedral because they’re probably going to start pelting us with oranges and God only knows what else. But there might be violence.” So, we were all fear and trepidation and we get in front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and all of the sudden the people on the steps unfurl all of these banners and they started singing this beautiful song about unity. It was Catholics from all over the country that had come to support us. Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston – not even all gays – just Catholics from all these cities. That’s why no one was ever allowed to stand on Saint Patrick’s Cathedral steps again. Now you know the story behind the Dykes on Bikes and why no one was ever allowed to stand on the cathedral steps again during the march.
GS: What were you feeling in that moment that you saw the banners and heard their singing?
MG: Oh, I was probably crying. I couldn’t believe it. I was just like, “Wowww.” That was another big turning point in 1977. After that a lot of things for gays changed! It wasn’t as frightening to go on a regular cruise for instance instead of a gay cruise with your boyfriend or girlfriend and the world started getting bigger for us and then by 1980 word was spreading that there was some sort of disease going around. I knew a guy in the East Village who died in 1980 from AIDS and nobody knew what it was. He went BOOM just like that and another guy died from pneumonia and I remember saying to a woman I was dating at the time, “There’s something going on…” I used to read The Advocate which was published in California and there were all of these obituaries and I’m reading the ages of the deceased as being twenty-two or twenty-four and thinking, “What the hell is going on here? These guys are all dying!” Something’s happening that nobody is paying attention to! Finally, in July of 1981 the New York Times published the story about a “gay cancer”.
So, from 1980 until probably ‘93 was when the men and the women came together. I went to ACT UP, supported Gran Fury and The Lesbian Avengers but was really invested in being a caregiver for so many of the men I got cleaned and sober with. Up until then I always felt like my activist life and my art life were separate but that my work was always going to be very political because I refused to hide who I was. I was starting to make work that felt dangerous. This was long before Robert Mapplethorpe. I was told I couldn’t do this kind of work and that nobody would show it. I think it was 1976 when they had the Lesbian Art Show and a very well-known gallerist who was my mentor told me I shouldn’t put my work in it because it would be the end of my art career. I just kept thinking that I wasn’t going to do abstract paintings which was what a lot of women who became well-known (bless them) were doing! My work was always political. And at the time I felt very strongly about being called a “lesbian artist”… hell no, I was an artist period. This conundrum was when my drinking and drugging really took a turn for the worse.
GS: And deeply personal. I think that is part of what makes your work so political is that you are unabashedly forward with your life and the trauma you’ve experienced and in all of your pieces there is no shame, it’s just there! I have this conversation a lot with friends of mine since the passing of marriage equality, that now we can be intimate with each other in public spaces without as much fear of harassment so maybe lesbian-specific spaces aren’t necessary anymore. Did you feel a similar feeling of almost being sucked into straight culture along with acceptance in 1977 or was it more like thank god we’re finally not being harassed all the time?
MG: I can’t remember exactly because I went to my first rehab in 1979. I was already part of the drug culture. I’m still friends with some of those people since we all got clean around the same time. A lot of filmmakers, poets and musicians… I knew all these people when we were all like half-smashed, drinking and drugging. Now I see them all in 12 Step meetings, it’s great! I think all of this was a response to losing our community. I know for me it was. I’ll tell you an interesting story. We had a reunion for the Gay Liberation Front in 2009 and we were all telling stories about the GLF and the New York Times sent a writer. The only thing he was interested in was what we thought about gay marriage! I said, “I’m going to be honest with you! One of the things I’m most proud of is that gays brought gender-parity into all marriages.” I think gay marriages mirrored that for straight people that, oh, the wife isn’t cooking, the husband isn’t having to take out the garbage, the woman isn’t the only one doing the childcare – that these amazing examples of gender parity work (whether it’s seen through the example of friends or relatives or neighbors). But as a lesbian woman I also told them that I am aware that there are people in Oklahoma that are having their houses burnt down because they’re gay. There are people being shot and beaten up in Alabama because they’re gay. I cannot rest until I know these people are free. The GLF slogan was “We are not free until everyone is free”. I said, “I prefer to be an outlaw!” What do you think they published under my name? “Michela Griffo prefers to be an outlaw.” Nothing else. Gay media I will talk to. It’s amazing because now I’m contacted by PhD students and people who finally woke up all over the country realizing there are only fourteen or so people left alive who marched in the first Pride March! So, now my phone’s ringing off the wall! There’s going to be a lot of media coverage and panel discussions. I can’t believe fifty years have gone by.
GS: Looking back from this point in time (now that the Pride Parade is exactly that, a parade) can you tell me a little bit about how you perceive the changes that have transpired in the movement over the decades since AIDS?
MG: I haven’t marched since it became a parade. That was it for me. I’m horrified that companies who probably would have fired our asses want our money now. At some point all of these companies (whether it was Coors Beer, Budweiser, or all of these “too big to fail” banks) realized, “Wow. Gays have money!” I was in Vietnam this summer during Pride Month and somebody sent me a video of the march and I was like, “What the fuck is this!” All you could see was Citibank, Wells Fargo, Chase… Where were the gays?! I heard that the gay groups were not allowed to march until later in the evening at five-fifteen. That’s when all the social services groups, all the political groups, and the resistance groups were allowed to join. That was it. I said to Karla [Jay], “That is it.” I went to the combined Heritage of Pride/Reclaim Pride meeting with five of the GLF members. Karla stood up and said, “We fought for you not for Citibank!” They just want the publicity. It has just broken my heart. I don’t understand who is allowing money to take precedent here. Nobody paid us to march! Everybody would make their floats and there would be a little card table at the end of the street so if people wanted to know about the community center or GMHC someone would be there answer your questions. We didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars for a table to sell mortgages to gay couples which is what’s happening now.
GS: What do you think the consequences of this will be for younger generations?
MG: I feel that because most younger women now never had to worry about getting an illegal abortion and most younger gay people never had to worry about getting the crap beat out of them walking down the street with their partner ever if they weren’t holding hands or anything that there is a removal from the activism. Granted there are parts of the country in which this is not the case and those are the people that I am concerned with. I’m a volunteer with Remote Area Medical. We go to the poorest parts of the country. I mean POOR. I’ve been with them for two years and we bring free dental care and vision care. Many of the people that come to us are lesbians or gay people and I may be the only gay person who they’ve ever talked to who asked them if they were receiving proper services and what their experiences were like, especially members of the trans community. I am the only social worker and these people really just need someone to talk to. You can tell they’re just so relieved to be able to talk to somebody who isn’t going to respond with homophobia. This is what they tell me their lives are like in these small towns in West Virginia and Kentucky. I know I’m privileged. I’m privileged just by the fact that I’m white. If I were black I think my life would be completely different.
I experienced the most prejudice as a lesbian in the art world. Gay guys could get anything they wanted. There were only a few galleries in the 1960s and 70s but the dealers and the people who chose the artists were mostly gay men. If you were a twink it didn’t matter what the fuck your art looked like. If you were a lesbian they didn’t want anything to do with you. It made me angry because I was marching for their lives and all most of them cared about was making it in the art world. Right after The Great American Lesbian Art show I had no money. I was so poor I was living in Chinatown. I applied for the New York State Council on the Arts grant and I knew that Dona Nelson and Louise Fishman were part of the panel of judges. Do you know that every single artist in the Lesbian Art Show got a grant but not me? I look back at the difficulty of being a woman artist and I understood that they must have thought I was some dismissive, arrogant lesbian… none of which was true on either side. I am very supportive of all women artists because I know just how difficult it has been to achieve parity with male artists.
During the AIDS crisis it felt like men and women came together more. It was a really sad time. I can’t begin to tell you how many memorials I went to. I got clean in a 12 Step program. The first groups I went to were full of straight men who would say things that made me want to start using again. I don’t know how I found out about it but the gay community center had just opened in 1984 and there was a gay narcotics group every Tuesday night there. The group was crowded and almost all men. I was in the group for about two months and one day someone would come in saying they had a sore throat and the next week he would be dead. All of the sudden they were all dropping like flies around me because they were gay, they were IV drug users and most of them were not white. I got clean mostly with Hispanic men. By the time I was ten years sober my entire group was dead. All of them. I buried every single one of them. Once that was over and once the ‘90s hit that’s when I went to social work school. The impetus started with AIDS and having been a survivor of sexual abuse I wanted to work with victims so that became a big part of my life. I started painting again in 2002.
So, for those years in between 1994 and 2002 I didn’t make art and I worked in a hospital psychiatric emergency room. Lesbians were burned out by the time the AIDS crisis came to a slow down. All those men that didn’t want anything to do with us, they needed us and it was our community. That was when we all came together. A friend said to me that some of these people probably think they’ve got it made because they’re venture capitalists, chefs, lawyers or whatever but you know what, when people find out they’re queer that’s all they see! They just see a queer. They don’t see a lawyer or a doctor or whatever, they see a queer! That’s the way it’s always going to be. I feel like that’s true. The same way I think that’s true for black people in this country. Their fight is never going to end. Every single minority has come to this country and become citizens and gotten the full rights of citizenship but the only people who are never treated like citizens of this country are black people. I feel like there is going to be a backlash. This whole thing with Kavanaugh and Trump especially, I think we’re going to be in for a rough ride! I don’t think it’s over. I see it every day in the papers. There is not one guy that every single fucking day does not believe he has the right to rape his date, to get a blow job as the president of a company, it’s just rampant! Whether it was all underground I don’t know but now it’s all coming out and it’s terrifying to me! There is always backlash with progress. Trump is going to undo everything that Obama did including Obamacare because it was done by a black man. From 1969 to 1977: Gay Rights. Laws are passed, Gays get the right to marry blah, blah blah. What is happening now… THE EVANGELICAL BACKLASH. African countries are particularly affected. Small towns and big cities in the USA are making America great again by killing gays. I lived in Argentina for seven winters. The most gay-friendly city, Buenos Aires, was taken over by Evangelical churches and now the homophobic backlash has begun. In 2014 My partner of three years, a woman I loved deeply, became involved with an Evangelical group in Akron, Ohio. She was “relieved of her shame” (and me) by a Pastor who believed that “homosexuality was not a part of God’s plan”. This was a woman who had been in an eighteen-year relationship with an out actress but when she met these Evangelicals, all of this history was sept away.
Agneta was murdered by the way. We were together for two and half years and there was this photographer who used to follow us all the time and finally I noticed him. When I pointed it out to her she told me to just ignore him because he was in love with her and couldn’t accept that she wasn’t interested in him. He was a well-known photographer too! Her birthday was May 31st and this one May she went to Paris to model for the September issue of Vogue. Her body was brought back to the States and she’s buried in Solvang, California which was where her family lived. Eileen Ford paid a large sum in 1972 to keep Agneta’s sexuality out of the press. The modeling industry wanted people to believe she committed suicide but it was a lie. The photographer who was stalking her knocked on her door and she thought it was room service, he broke into the room and threw her out of an eleventh story window in a hotel in Paris. If you look it up on the internet it says she died under mysterious circumstances. That was when I really started drinking and drugging. People couldn’t even reach me. I was just nuts. I was showing my artwork but I was just…
GS: That’s absolutely devastating. I’m so sorry.
MG: In those days nobody cared if it was a lesbian. Agneta wasn’t out though because she would have been deported. That was the law in 1970’s. I’ve seen it all…
GS: Thank you for sharing these stories with me Michela. Thank you for all of the work you’ve done through activism, art and healthcare.
MG: And I thank all these young people coming up now. They are going to change the world the same way my generation did. These kids, like those kids from Parkland High… they are going to get it done and they are not going to take shit from Evangelicals or deadbeat politicians.