After twenty-three years, I’m out of jail. Fortunes change, and I’ve been re-assigned to work in the crown jewel of San Francisco: City Hall. Built in 1913, it’s the tallest rotunda dome in the United States, 307 feet. The story goes that Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph sent someone down to DC to measure the nation’s capital building, and then went ahead with a building 42 feet higher. With a dome in 23.5 carat gold leaf, no less.
There’s a grand staircase of Tennessee pink marble. Harvey Milk used to walk up it every single day that he served on the Board of Supervisors, saying “when gay people walk into City Hall, they should walk right up those stairs to let people know they are here.”
Gay and straight, about thirty couples a day stroll down that escalade to get married.
One of the ways in which City Hall is different than jail is that here people are betrothing themselves every day. This is, after all, is where Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe, and, what the hey, even though the honeymoon only lasted 274 days, it was still a storybook wedding.
Brian and I also got married here, looking decidedly less glamorous than Marilyn. Our sons Zane and Aidan served as the ring bearers, so it looked a little less like a shotgun wedding and a lot more like a semi-automatic.
But each day, as I walk those stairs, I see hoop skirts, and empire cuts, in white, as each bride putting rings on their Prince Charming. It makes me smile to see people so dressed up, so full of hope.
Which brings me to last Wednesday night. Didn’t feel like cooking, so I called the husband and asked where he wanted to go to dinner, knowing that Brian only ever has four restaurants he will choose from, one of which must serve fortune cookies. He surprised me by saying that Hamburger Mary’s had re-opened, in the Castro, and that he would meet me after teaching at ODC. After a stopover at Cliff’s Variety Store (I walk in to buy a screwdriver and walk out with a Le Creuset Dutch Oven), the boys and I walked into the restaurant, and Loma greeted us at the door.
Loma is a drag queen. Just like those brides at City Hall, Loma was dressed up in her Sunday best, in her case a black bustier a la Madonna, all full of hope. As we ate our fried pickles, chocolate milkshakes and nachos, she sang “Express Yourself.” Zane’s eyes lit up. He grabbed a couple of bills to hold up, ecstatic. “Papa” he smiled at Brian. “This is just like Ru Paul. How come you never took us to a strip club before?”
Funny the things we gay dads miss. We’ve coached the boys in soccer and basketball, taken them to Giants games, gave them the birds and the bees speech, but we somehow never got around to explaining the difference between a strip club and a drag show.
This was, of course, more of Brian’s lane than it was mine. I’ve only done drag twice, the first time being October 31, 1963, when, much to my surprise, Nurse Vivian dressed Dennis McCormick and me as gypsy queens for Halloween. Even then I made an ugly drag queen, but I was surprised sixteen years later when she expressed shock that I had turned out gay. The bigger question in my mind was: how did Dennis McCormick turn out straight?
But my husband Brian is the drag impresario in the family, having been paid to put on a dress and tap shoes eight performances a week in the original production of La Cage Aux Folles.
Most gay history was suppressed so it was never written down. Thus there is considerable debate about where terms like drag queen arose. One apocryphal story was that it came from the stage direction, “DRessed As a Girl” but more likely it came from theater slang in the 1870’s because the performers had to dragaround huge skirts to pull off the effect. Thus, drag has always meant larger than life.
As Uncle Jon used to say, when he put on his silver lame shift, “You can’t be subtle and still be a drag queen.” And as Zane and Aidan danced around Hamburger Mary’s, chili French fries acting as faux cigarettes, I realized that was probably an aphorism that best describes the Fisher-Paulsons. We may not be as glamorous as Marilyn. Or Madonna. We’re loud. We’re inappropriate. We are NOT subtle.
But we arelarger than life.