Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Theo Portraits I

"Really Albert, you can't go through
your whole life being a toad!"
 - Theo

After coming out as a gay man, I began to believe I was possessed by the spirit of a woman from the nineteen twenties.  I didn't take it very seriously and it mostly came on when I was inebriated with marijuana and beer.  But it persisted enough that I attempted to capture the notion in pictures and stories.  In a way, it was a psychosis brought on by a desire for attention and related directly to finding my identity as an adult gay man.

My friend Kathy would laugh and make a big fuss about it when I'd say things out of the blue, like the above statement.  She also encouraged me to dress up in drag, which I'd always skirted with my interest in theater but eschewed in my childhood because my mother always vetoed it as being "artificial" and "stereotypically effeminate".  But in my mind as a newly out gay man, it was less about falsehood or transgressing-my-gender than it was a combination of finding myself suddenly freed from otherwise invisible shackles of sexual, emotional and social repression that I'd grown up wearing in my childhood.

Imagining myself possessed was my way of healing and reconciling my memories of pains I developed socially when my gender and sexuality was questioned at school by other boys.  Possession was also a reflection of stories coming out of Hollywood, but it also gave me permission to be silly and effeminate in front of friends who encouraged me for the first time in my life; when growing up I'd always felt an outsider, even when I was praised for unique abilities. Because dressing up and playing at being sissified was an easy way to entertain, I could indulge again in the sort of play that previously I had controlled and commodified out of fear, a fear that I had no concrete idea what the consequences were outside of my own ongoing experience of isolation, separation and loneliness.

Both my parents had interests in theater and growing up I became involved and shared their interest.  One of the first times I saw a public performance, my mother took me away from a cub scouting event to see a performance at a local theater of "The Fantasticks!".  I was already familiar with the music, my mother loves to sing and taught me all sorts of tunes.  But it was the very idea that this adult storytelling could take precedent over an otherwise boring social event, that I soon realized my desire for acceptance didn't need to come at the price of my own identity.  Somehow I continue to persist, no matter how anyone else perceives me.

The above image (which I named "Theo" after my grandmother) directly references a photo-portrait of  New York heiress, Peggy Guggenheim.  I copied it from a magazine, perhaps Smithsonian magazine, but I really don't remember now.  I loved her odd turban-like hat and the imperious manner of her stance.  I can't remember if the cigarette holder was in the photograph (it is), but it became a signifier of Theo's character in a picture.  Like many gay men, I have always been attracted to strong, powerful women, some of them lesbian, almost always distinctly feminine; but most often they are self-possessed and in control of their situation and life.  It is something I see in my own mother although she remains heterosexually oriented.

The reference to "being a toad", I think, is related to the famous character in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, but here it is clearly directed at a male counterpart. In my mind, Albert is her brother, but I never did imagine what he looked like.  Perhaps he looks something like a toad.

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