Felice Picano: On Remembering the Past, the AIDS Crisis, and Gay Activism
Author: Frank Pizzoli
March 11, 2015
“After seven decades the only wisdom I’ve arrived at is that life is really hard and that I’ve had major advantages being born male, white, and American. Also, most people really are trying to do what is best, so I should be as kind as I can to everyone, including myself.”
In his two recent memoirs True Stories Too: People and Places from My Past and Nights at Rizzoli’s, award-winning author Felice Picano expands his highly praised portraits and anecdotes to reveal the histories of his old New York City haunts, family, friends, and lovers.
These books follow True Stories: Portraits from My Past, which The New York Times called: “A tremendously entertaining collection of anecdotes and portraits that only a witness (and a good writer) could report.”Add the True volumes to The New York Years: Stories by Felice Picano and Art and Sex in Greenwich Village, and readers have essays that “harken back to a cloudless era when fun was freewheeling and the consequences of that fun were overcast at best,” wrote Jim Piechota of the Bay Area Reporter. He also called Picano’s memory “impeccable, and his ear for dialogue just as distinctive”.
The author of more than twenty-five books of poetry, fiction, memoirs, nonfiction and plays, some translated into many languages and several national and international bestsellers, Picano is one of seven original members of The Violet Quill.
Although Picano’s essays are about his life, there is an accessible interior to them. Readers can take a seat in his living room or bedroom without feeling like a voyeur. They will find themselves in his triumphs and defeats, his loves gained and lost. A larval iconoclast even as a preteen, Picano was a fiercely independent individual growing up, and he still is. “I was always felt like a fish out of water,” he said, recounting how he had vanished at age sixteen from his controlling father and put himself through college, an education that his father would have denied him. When we spoke on Memorial Day, he announced that he’d made a patriotic breakfast of “blueberry pancakes and strawberries!”
Some observer’s refer to him as the “original hippie.” His time in the freshly dug trenches of LGBT politics represents an era when men and women had first formed their consciousness through Vietnam War protests and bra burnings by the Women’s Movement. They brought a progressive bent to their gay activism, which has been largely lost in today’s assimilation approach to civil rights. Queers during Picano’s formative years stood out more from the mainstream culture. They didn’t want to get married and had fights to pick with militarism.
The late comedian Mitch Hedberg once joked, “One time, this guy handed me a picture of him, he said, ‘Here’s a picture of me when I was younger.’ Every picture is of you when you were younger.” After writing about your earlier years, what appears the same/different about yourself?
When I began writing memoirs in the early ‘80s, I was already aware that I was not the person I had been at eleven or fourteen or nineteen years old. As I get older, I’m coming to realize that I’ve had eight or nine lives already—like the cat whose name I share. The Felice Picano of the Jane Street years, or the one of the Violet Quill Club era, or of the Gay Presses of New York period, or even the first decade living in L.A., is only partly who I am now. I cannot truly know who that person was again since I’m no longer living his life. A friend recently sent me a video interview Vito Russo did with me in the mid-‘80s for his TV program then and I waited a long time before watching it out of fear that I would come off as a total jerk. But I was surprised when I watched how professional and together this younger version of me actually was. I am sufficiently distanced to appreciate that.
Speaking of distance, Aeschylus said, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” What wisdom has your impeccable memory taught you?
After seven decades the only wisdom I’ve arrived at is that life is really hard and that I’ve had major advantages being born male, white and American. Also, most people really are trying to do what is best, so I should be as kind as I can to everyone, including myself.
Gore Vidal used the word “palimpsest” to describe his memoir, meaning his memory of passages were scraped or washed off like the word’s origin so they could be retold. As you have written your own memories, have you used the same technique?
I have a lot of trouble forgetting anything. And in fact, many studies being done on people with “impeccable” memories are now showing that it is actually a physiological fault in the brain that inhibits forgetting. So my memories are definitely not scraped off. Sometimes, they are reordered and easier to live with once I’ve written about them. Sometimes, they are less of a problem. But they never seem to vanish. The AIDS years especially are filled with so many moments that I cannot ever get rid of. The sounds and odors of someone I deeply cared for in their last minutes alive, for example, are not things that I can ever put aside. But I try to balance all that with wonderful memories, of which I have many, too.
Thinking of memories, you opened the first True Stories with: “Look for a long time at what pleases you, even longer at what pains you.” What pleases you and what pains you?
The AIDS Crisis, of course. [Editor’s Note: Picano knew as housemates the first two gay men on the East Coast to die as the epidemic began.] Nothing else comes close by comparison. It was a period of fourteen years. I’d buried a partner and, as many of us did, asked, “Who’s next?” and moved through life caring for and burying friends until there was no one left. But I’m basically an optimistic person. After that stretch of time, I travelled to Japan, spent a year in Berlin (the subject of an essay), and then moved to the West Coast, which is where I’ve been for nineteen years.
You were friends with Vito Russo and have been critical of how his legacy is presented, especially in his biopic Vito. So far, our histories are about (mostly) white gay men of middle or upper class backgrounds. To be fair, these men were movers and shapers, but often to the exclusion of minority men and most women of any demographic. Martin Duberman‘s Hold Tight Gently is one exception. Do we have a responsibility when telling our history to mention who was excluded, and why, if we know why?
I’ve always tried to include men and women of color in all of my endeavors, simply because I grew up in a multi-colored city, went to a multi-colored high school, was on multi-colored teams, dated an African-American girl in 1960 and have continued to have a wide variety of friends throughout my life. So it’s more or less natural for me. This also was true during early Gay Liberation years. Isaac Jackson had a program on the New York City official radio station geared toward the black community, and for several years in a row after Stonewall, he would have me and others on the program the night before the Pride March, and we would urge people of color to show up. For many years, no one ever did. Writer friends of color have told me since that there was a huge disconnect in those years between being black and being gay. That’s a valid explanation. The Ferro-Grumleys and I were part of Black and White Men together at the NYC Gay and Lesbian Center, and out of that grew the Black Heart Collective of writers like Donald Woods, Essex Hemphill (the subject of Duberman’s book, along with Michael Callen), Assotto Saint, etc. Most of them are long dead and very much missed.
Despite all that, early Gay Liberation in America actually was a 98 percent white, male, college-educated, middle class movement. That was the group already radicalized and already trained in protest movements during the 1960s, and also the group that could afford to be arrested and fired from jobs if it came to that. Several gay minority people have subsequently told me that they would have liked to be involved but were just too scared and often too busy just getting by economically. That’s completely understandable. But denying what was really going on by saying that early Gay Liberation excluded people of color, or that contrarily it was a “Rainbow,” is historically a lie. We’re not children, and I believe that history should not be changed to make folks feel better.
You’re well-traveled, having visited Iceland, France, Ireland, Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Japan and Australia, and even Istanbul as an openly gay man. At one point in True Stories Too, a friend tells you how Japan at the time you were speaking was twenty years behind us on gay rights. How is the U.S. the same and different from other countries?
I’ve been so lucky to be able to travel as a writer and as a visiting author; I recommend it to everyone who can afford it to try to do so. In Germany, for example, there are gay bars that have full bars but are also coffee houses. So you can either go up to the bar, or you can sit at a table in a window area or a more private area. It cuts down the alcohol element and makes it easier to just sit there with a friend or even alone and not feel conspicuous or out of place. They’re so much friendlier than our colder stand-and-pose gay bars, which have sent so many guys to Grindr.com.
The dance clubs in Germany are more mixed, too. They have guys and girls, and straight people come in and feel welcome, too. I happened upon an outdoor gay club in Bavaria, too, a real beer-garden, filled with hot guys in lederhosen. I was surprised to find back rooms (i.e. sex rooms) in Reykjavik, Milan, Florence and Marseilles. They’re totally taboo in the U.S. these days. And the men in them aren’t shy. I was peering into one in Iceland and several arms reached out and pulled me in. Granted, I left before doing anything more than some smooching.
In Japan most of the bars are tiny—about as big as your living room. People buy tickets at the door for X amount of drinks, or if they are regulars, they have their own bottle or keg prepaid, and that’s what they drink. Scotch and beer are the staples in Japanese gay bars; forget sake. In all of these places, I found a great deal more mixing and openness than in our own gay bars—more of a party atmosphere, especially in the ones that cater to Gaijin, or foreigners. And the dance clubs—like the huge ones in London and Paris–can seem like American circuit parties one minute, and like a friendly get together the next. Bath houses also vary, from the Apollo Sauna in Berlin, which is a little bit of heaven on earth filled with beauties, to the family-friendly ones in Kyoto, or the “Turkish” baths in Eastern Europe, which have some furtive gay sex going on. In Yokohama, I ended up in a known Yakuza (Mafia) bath house, with hot guys in half-body tattoos and missing pinky fingers.
It seems as if the dead never leave us. In Another Berlin Story, you note that Germans no longer think about World War II’s destruction.
I was living in Berlin in the mid-‘90s, which were half-century commemorative years for the Nazi era and World War II, and some did try to remember and honor the bad past. Also, I was there when Schindler’s List came out as a movie, and it had a profound effect on German people, to the extent that there were arguments during the film showings leading to fisticuffs, and people in the audience were having strokes and heart attacks. They had to set up First Aid units and oxygen tents in some theater lobbies.
Like war’s decimation, the ravages of AIDS in the early years no longer resonate with young gay/bi men, yet rates of infection are astoundingly high within that age group. The fear of death is gone; fear of infection is not. The HIV infection rate among US men who have sex with men is 2.4%. That’s high. That means if nothing changes, 40% of gay men by the age of 40 will be infected. If current trends continue, 50% of African-American men who turned 18 in 2009 and who have sex with men will be HIV-positive by age 35.
Recently, the CDC said that all sexually active HIV-negative gay men should consider using Truvada in a prophylactic way (known as PrEP or pre-exposure prophylactic). If indeed Truvada or something similar works, then all of the intellectual and moral issues around the subject, which I’ve always felt were irrelevant anyway, will simply go away. Should guys then have wild sex as we did in the far past? I don’t know: it’s an individual decision. But people ought to have the right to make that decision.
True Stories Too: People and Places from My Past opens and closes with a family story. Has your family been your anchor all these years, in person and in memory?
By no means. My family has seldom been any kind of a support and has always been a terrific drain on me, emotionally, financially, and in every way you can imagine. I finally escaped their more hideous dysfunction early, at the age of sixteen, and have lived away from them ever since. I have many Jewish friends, and my partner was Jewish, and they were and are always horrified to hear that despite my high educational achievements, my parents refused to allow me to go to college. So I left home and I put myself through college and never looked back and have had as little as I could in dealing with them.
Have the many characters you’ve chronicled been based on your family?
It is the job of a writer to convey a world that is gone. There are so many different types of people, some well-known and some not known at all. All are good subjects, and all the people who have been around us define who we are. I find them fascinating. I’m the dullest of them.