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Alvin Orloff’s new memoir Disasterama!: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977-1997 (Three Rooms Press) opens with the author, a suburban teenager, stepping off a San Francisco city bus onto Polk Street. Orloff goes on to recount his introduction to the city’s infamous queer scene and his subsequent involvement in various art projects, including the musical group The Popstitutes and the queer cabaret Klubstitute. Following this scene through the ’80s and early ’90s, Disasterama! also documents a queer punk response to AIDS and the rise of AIDS activism. Orloff’s memoir constitutes a valuable work of cultural history, as well as a heartrending portrayal of his own lost friends. He answered several questions for Lambda Literary prior to the book’s publication.
Let me begin by asking about your background. Are you from San Francisco originally?
I grew up in the East Bay, but within a few weeks of graduating high school (in 1979) I relocated to a flat in the Lower Haight with a bunch of punk kids. The neighborhood was so rough one of my roommates was pistol-whipped by a mugger on the way home and a guy was murdered for ten bucks and a six-pack of beer a few yards from our front door. The danger of being assaulted or slaughtered seemed like a small price to pay for the privilege of not living in the suburbs, which I found unendurably boring.
What ideas about “gay culture” did you have before you that night in 1977 you took the bus to Polk Street?
From a handful of books and news reports I’d gotten the impression (not inaccurate for the 1970s) that gay men spent the bulk of their time relentlessly cruising for casual sex in bars, parks, and bathrooms. Other gay pursuits included disco dancing, dry wit, decadent parties, high fashion, and the erudite appreciation of old movies, Broadway, and Art Deco. All that sounded pretty fun to me, though I’d also heard about gays facing discrimination, getting beaten by bashers, and dying lonely and alone because they didn’t have families and were basically tragic-but-contemptible perverts.
Besides tracking your own adventures in the San Francisco queer underground, Disasterama! functions more generally subcultural history. Can you say more about your motivations for documenting this history? I’m thinking in particular of something you write in the introduction: “the heroic crusades of ACT UP and Queer Nation were well and justly remembered, but the swirling, whirling, faddy, and demented fringes of queer social life during the high AIDS era were all but forgotten.”
I decided to write Disasterama! about ten years ago when a young friend (you might know him, writer/dancer/rock star Brontez Purnell) asked me “What was it like when everyone started dying?” Amazingly, nobody had ever asked me that before! Stories about how ordinary nobodies weathered the plague were (and are) still few and far between, so I figured it was time I did my bit to fill in the historical record. I wanted to make the book a fun romp rather than a dry quasi-academic tome, both to honor the spirit of flippancy that got my friends and I through the crisis and also to lure unsuspecting pleasure readers into learning a bit of queer history. Being sociologically inclined (it was my major in college), I also did a half-dozen peer interviews and tried to describe the ambient social, political, economic, and cultural forces at play during the era.
Tell us about two projects you were involved in: The Popstitutes and Klubstitute. What was each trying to achieve?
The Popstitutes was either a band or a performance art troupe (depending on the day) concocted with the explicit intentions of promoting queer political activism, non-conformism, self-expression, and gender fabulosity. Well…that and turning my pals and I into stars, a goal we did not, alas, achieve. My friend Diet wrote most of our lyrics, while our friend Brad played live instruments in accompaniment with backup tapes made by Diet and a reclusive genius by the name of Mudhead X. I, and a bevy of dissolute youngsters, acted as backup dancers, writhing around on stage wearing little more than glitter, feathers, fun fur, and wigs. Some of the music was pretty ok, but we never got even as far as putting out a single due to a combination of music industry stodginess and our own excessive partying. We started in 1986, so we were concurrent with the queercore (or homocore) movement, but not exactly part of it thanks to our being arty and sort of silly. We definitely shared its punk-y, confrontational, D.I.Y. ethos, though.
Klubstitute was a once-a-week queer cabaret that grew out of a queer open-mic called Out of Order. Between 1990 and 1995 it operated out of a dozen different venues around San Francisco. The city’s cheap rent and tolerant attitudes had made it a magnet for creative misfits, so the place was swarming with talented queer artists and performers. Cross-pollination was a big part of our goal so the same bill might have any combination of poetry or spoken word readings, musical acts, drag queens and kings, performance art, underground films, and live theater. Forcing people from different scenes into proximity produced an atmosphere akin to that of a salon, and we were one of the only queer clubs in town where being creative gave you more cred than being cute.
Because Klubstitute’s heyday occurred during the height of the plague, the atmosphere could get emotionally super-charged. You’d see people who were ailing and not know if it would be for the last time. Also true, our youthful iconoclasm was amplified because queer-bashing, both physical and political, was constant.
At one point in the memoir, you discuss the rise of “the professional AIDS Activist.” What alienated you from this form of professional activism?
I greatly admired the AIDS activists, but their meetings were too rancorous for me. Differences of opinion resulted in personal attacks with frightening frequency. I feared someone who disagreed with me about something would question my good intentions, forcing me to defend my honor and good name by challenging them to pistols at dawn. Since dueling is illegal and dangerous, I decided to restrict my activism to joining the crowds at protest rallies and writing strongly worded letters-to-the-editor.
Much of Disasterama! doubles as a love letter to your friend Michael. Who was Michael, and what did you learn from him?
Michael was a human catalyst and my drug of choice from the moment we met till the moment he died. He could and would instantly alter the dynamics of any social situation by using his venomous anger, sparkling wit, and preternatural charm to dislodge people from their established roles and habits. He did this out of a sincere desire to destroy all hierarchy and convention with the ultimate goal of remaking the world as a less boring place. Unfortunately, he didn’t always care who got hurt in the process, though toward the end of his life, when he was dying of AIDS, he became decidedly nice. I acted as his Gal Friday while he started and ran the Popstitutes, Klubstitute, and any number of side projects. I still miss him so much it feels like a red-hot dagger in my heart and I dream of him constantly.
You describe your young aesthetic as “Glamorously Doomed”–meaning that you “could revel in [your] own disgrace, laugh in the face of failure, and wear society’s scorn like a feather boa.” What did this aesthetic look like, and how long did it last? Do you still consider yourself Glamorously Doomed?
Being glamorously doomed was my teenaged way of having fun with being a loser. I found lamenting my ugliness, unpopularity, and lack of money dull and depressing, so I created a personal mythos wherein I was the underdog/outsider/antihero protagonist of a comic drama. Re-envisioning my life that way saved me from despair, and I thank punk rock, Blanche DuBois, Quentin Crisp, A Confederacy of Dunces, and Jennifer Blowdryer for teaching me how to do it. As an adult my circumstances improved greatly, but I retained the glamorously doomed habit of ignoring consensus reality and living in a private fantasy world comprised of madcap schemes, jokes, cocktails, and delusion.
You have written several novels prior to Disasterama!. What made you want to try your hand at a memoir? How is the experience of writing a memoir different from that of writing a novel?
When writing fiction one can simply concoct a plot structure, fill it in with scenes and summary, then go back and draw out the characters and themes. Voilà, a novel! Memoir is harder because real human lives contain multiple overlapping and interacting stories, each with their own chronology. Forcing them all into a linear timeline is a heck of a lot of work. There are also the difficulties posed by fading memory, the complexity of actual humans as opposed to invented characters, and the need to explain historical context without sounding explain-y. For Disasterama! I also had to deal with the sadness of recalling lost youth and friends who died too young while writing what is (mostly, anyway) a comic romp.
You still live in San Francisco. How has the city changed between the late 1990s and the present?
All the rumors you’ve heard about the city losing its artists and eccentrics due to being hellaciously expensive are absolutely true. It’s still pretty queer, though.