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An Icon of Flamboyance|
by Sky Gilbert
July 26, 2001
I was deeply saddened to learn of John Herbert’s death. He passed peacefully, in his sleep, on June 22. He was 74. I met him only a few times, but in each instance he utterly charmed me.
John’s work will always have an enormous influence on anyone who dares to write on queer subjects. Fortune and Men’s Eyes, his stark, moving, gay prison drama, was produced at the Actor’s Playhouse in New York City in 1967. That was two years before the 1969 Stonewall Riots and Matt Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Canadian director Bill Glassco called John Herbert “the single most important figure of the decade” in the creation of Toronto’s “alternate theatre” of the 1960s. John was an unbelievably courageous theatrical pioneer who — in one bold stroke — created the modern queer theatre movement. But, even more importantly, he was a pioneer who contributed significantly to the birth of gay liberation.
But I’m not going to pay tribute to his theatrical achievements here. Instead, I’m going to talk about the man himself. John was not only a playwright, he was an openly swishy faggot — a screaming queen. Until 1969, under Canadian criminal law, homosexual acts were punishable by up to 14 years in prison. By dressing as a girl in public at the tender age of 18, John flaunted the law and risked imprisonment.
Whenever I met him, I asked him about his drag experiences, and John was always eager to reminisce. “Oh, I made myself up to look just like Marlene Dietrich!” he would coo. “I was so glamorous. My friend Dene and I would go to the Devon for dinner. The prostitutes resented us, because they thought we would take their business. Oh, we were quite the twosome, I can tell you!”
John was one of those brave yet vulnerable gay men who could not hide his effeminacy or, consequently, his homosexuality. He was simply incapable of speaking or making a gesture without setting people to whispering, “He’s one of those!” So one night the Toronto police entrapped him on a trumped-up morals charge. John spent his 20th birthday in Guelph Reformatory. A resolute queer heroine, he continued to dress in drag in prison and even performed for the cheering inmates. These experiences inspired the characters in Fortune and Men’s Eyes, including Queenie, the tragic, defiant young queen.
I would like to be able to say that prejudice against effeminate men has disappeared. Unfortunately, it has not. For though queers have made enormous civil and legal advances since John was a teenager, negative attitudes still persist. Today more than ever, there is a cult of masculinity among gay men. Sure, we clap for the drag queens when they perform, but no nice, middle-class faggot wants one for a boyfriend. Men at gay circuit parties yearn to catch a straight-acting muscle guy, and AIDS drug advertisements never feature men in heels or boas. TV shows like Will and Grace or the American Queer as Folk relegate flamboyant gay men to minor comic roles.
Recently, a prominent member of Toronto’s queer community felt free to display her hatred for effeminate men in print, confident that no one would challenge her. In a letter to one of Toronto’s alternative weekly newspapers, Shona Swan (one of the organizers of “Jr. Gay Pride” 2001) railed against a “makeup-wearing, playwriting drag queen.” When I read her letter I thought for one brief moment she was referring to John Herbert. But no, she was talking about me.
It’s telling that someone in a position of power in the queer community would still blithely use the term “drag queen” as a form of abuse. John Herbert would have had an answer for Shona: “I do not believe that any community can learn to live with the many societies of the world unless it first learns to live with the many factions within itself.”
Tragically, we have not yet achieved his goal.
I salute you, John Herbert. You will be remembered as Canada’s first and foremost gay playwright. But that is a minor accomplishment. The fact that you celebrated 75 years as a flaming, beautiful, effeminate, proud, happy gay man, in the face of crippling intolerance — thatis a heroic achievement.
In the name of every baby boy who longs for pink booties instead of blue ones, in the name of every teenage girl who chooses army boots instead of spike heels, I salute you.
Sky Gilbert’s article first appeared in the July
26, 2001 edition of Toronto’s Eye Magazine.
It is reprinted here with permission.
Mr. Gilbert may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org