When I heard that Taylor Mac called this performance a “radical faerie realness ritual,” it made me smile with joy. I am no expert on the Radical Faerie movement, as some who read this no doubt will be, but even the phrase itself opens a little door into a beautiful garden I long to enter again and again. Even without being a Radical Faerie myself, they have transformed my life—and probably yours. (That glitter-beard mask on Snapchat…)
“Radical faerie” isn’t a Taylor Mac turn of phrase; it is a political, spiritual, cultural, whathaveyou-ical movement stretching back decades and spanning the globe (or perhaps the galaxy). Its influence touched me in many ways, not least in the form of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whom I encountered on the streets of the Castro back in the early 1990s (they are a parallel sisterhood to Radical Faeries, and share much in common). Seeing those beautiful creatures, faces painted white under elaborate habits covered in jewels and glitter, laughing on the sidewalk in a time that, for so many gay men, was filled with the terror of AIDS and intensely serious “masculine” codes of dressing, was—for a preppy college boy like me—as earth-shattering as when I first saw men kiss on the streets of New York. Even more recently, in the mid-2000s, when during a dust storm at Burning Man I fled my own camp to escape male rage and a truck that wouldn’t start, I found refuge in a Faerie’s costume tent, and was relieved, for a few hours, of all judgment about myself or others: how we looked, what gender we represented, what beauty itself was. And there was an evening spent camping at the Yuba River, doing mushrooms by a campfire, and with a dozen other men trying on every outfit we had with us until we had a photo album of our every possible self. I am going to get all of this wrong—I have never been to the retreats my friends attend, with Faerie rituals front and center—but what I can’t possibly get wrong is my gratitude to this movement for steadfastly providing a counter-narrative to the standard gay world, which more and more wants to vanish into the “normal” America that I never felt part of.
But let me give the history a try. It’s often hard to remember that the first queer activists came long before Stonewall, among them the Mattachine Society in 1950, founded by, among others, Harry Hay. Two decades later, as new groups formed in response to Stonewall, Hay and the anti-war activist Don Kilhefner helped to launch the Gay Liberation Front. In the years that followed, both men became disillusioned with the rise of “assimiliationism” in their organizations, with imitation of heterosexuals offered up as a price to pay for acceptance. Hay, his partner John Burnside, and the Jungian psychologist Mitch Walker—a proponent of free sexuality and spirituality among gay men—held the first Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries in Arizona in 1979; their hope was to define an alternative, gay-centered culture. From there, chapters began all over America, and then all over the world. The movement is thriving today; there is hardly a gay event in San Francisco that does not have a bearded, glittering, joyous aspect to it, and although the early gatherings centered on gay men, all genders (and non-genders) were embraced by the Faeries long before gender neutrality entered the cultural conversation. Also embraced: rural retreats, with ritual and spiritual elements, psychedelic awakenings, and a good helping of sex. Look online and you will find no one definition of a Faerie, but I think the word Radical is the important one to keep in mind: radical both in terms of being the root of the self, and the edge of society. Radical individuality, and sexuality, and spirituality. Radical politics and feminism and Marxism. A radical sense of humor. And, of course, radical ways of adorning oneself: a radical sense of beauty.
This is a far from complete account—I apologize to everybody. But when I start to look at my life, I see all the ways in which the Radical Faerie movement has touched and transformed it. I think of the beliefs my friends and I held so firmly in college—when there were only perhaps two dozen of us “out,” on a campus of thousands—for instance, the belief that drag broke gender apart, that sexuality (in a time of great fear) must be free and generous and without judgment, that bodies were perfect and beautiful as they were, that whatever pronoun anyone wanted to use was fine with us (Taylor Mac prefers “judy”). These beliefs came down to us from all the counter-culture movements of the sixties and seventies, with their most vivid form being the Radical Faeries. This was the eighties, a time when merely holding hands with someone of the same sex could still get you yelled at, even at Brown University. And here we were in glitter and dresses and wigs—men and women—trying our best to break down our own prejudices, throwing laughably tame “orgy” parties, celebrating ritual and “witchcraft” and marching against White House AIDS policies with a sense of humor we had learned from organizations like ACT UP and Queer Nation and Gran Fury and the Lesbian Avengers (bless you, Sarah Schulman), believing that if we were bolder and more colorful and funnier than the opposition that we would win. Did we “win”? It seems uncertain now. So many died, and the world feels even worse than before. I can claim only that we won ourselves. I am in touch with so many of my friends from those days, and everyone is just the same. Just as kinky and brightly colored and weird as we were then. If the San Francisco of the seventies was made by the hippies, then the San Francisco of the nineties was made by the Faeries. And it is still everywhere around us.
And in us, even in you. It’s not hard to imagine that, in another age or place, any one of us would be seen as alien, strange, weird and unbeautiful, somebody no one would sing about. So even if you despair that you’re merely “normal,” consider you’re “normal” only here and now. The time and place you are in. Somebody pushed the walls out before you got here. That’s what I realized twenty-five years ago, a preppy boy in San Francisco, seeing those Sisters for the first time. Somebody was out at the edge, making room for me! And who would that be? Some funky intergalactic goddess. So don’t despair; you can still be weird and queer and kinky as all hell. Raise a glass to those who push out those walls—or maybe push them out yourself! Just a little, every day.
I am simplifying every kind of history, but when I look at events like Drag Queen Story Hour and see my friend Black Benatar reading aloud to children, it makes me cry; I see a direct line from the Radical Faerie gatherings to that beautiful self-created being, reciting tales to the children’s delight. It makes me feel that what is lost in adulthood—the million compromises we make—can be briefly regained, and transmitted back to the young as a promise of possibility. It is a ritual; it is more than just delight. And when I see Black Benatar perform at City Hall during Gay Pride before images of the Civil Rights Movement, the projection ending with the names of all the African Americans murdered by police in the recent past, I see a direct line from the seriousness of the Radical Faerie movement, the political and spiritual root that those founders planted, to the furious tribute and ritual of that display. The Faeries knew—ritual was always important.
You are all participants in that ritual, now. As Taylor says, it may go on “longer than you want it to”; that push past the boundaries of entertainment brings this show into another realm, a much more pagan memory of theater. You will participate, rather than simply observe; you will be uncomfortable, and perhaps bored, and brought to tears, and you will most certainly laugh. This is as it should be. Because it is a ritual, born out of decades of radical thought and action, you will be part of it, and part of that history. Be beautiful tonight, because you are beautiful, every one of you. This song’s for you.
Taylor Mac brings A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC to the Curran for four performances only, starting Sept. 15. Buy tickets here.