Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
For author Richard Rodriguez, no one is talking about the real issues behind Proposition 8.
While conservative churches are busy trying to whip up another round of culture wars over same-sex marriage, Rodriguez says the real reason for their panic lies elsewhere: the breakdown of the traditional heterosexual family and the shifting role of women in society and the church itself. As the American family fractures and the majority of women choose to live without men, churches are losing their grip on power and scapegoating gays and lesbians for their failures.
Rodriguez, who is Mexican-American, gay and a practicing Catholic, refuses to let any single part of himself define the whole. Born in San Francisco in 1944 and raised by his Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant parents to embrace mainstream American culture and the English language, he went on to study literature and religion at Stanford and Columbia. His first book, “The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez,” explores his journey from working-class immigrant to a fully assimilated intellectual — angering many Latinos with his view that English fluency is essential. “Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father,” which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1993, continued his investigation into how family, culture, religion, race, sexuality and other strands of his life all contribute to the whole, a complex “brownness” of contradictions and ironies. “Brown: The Last Discovery of America” completes the trilogy — but not his insatiable intellectual curiosity, which he is now shining on monotheism.
Rodriguez’ stinging critiques of religious hypocrisy are all the richer for his passionate love of Catholicism and the Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco, where he and his partner of 28 years are devoted members. Today, Rodriguez is at work on a new book about the monotheistic “desert religions” — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Ever since Sept. 11, “when havoc descended in the name of the desert God,” Rodriguez said in one of his Peabody Award-winning radio commentaries for PBS’s News Hour, he has been trying to understand the strands of darkness that run through these religions.
Salon spoke to Richard Rodriguez by phone at his home in San Francisco.
What was your reaction to California voters’ going heavily for Obama and also passing Proposition 8, banning gay marriage?
I was like a lot of other Americans at the moment when the West Coast tipped the balance in favor of Obama. I didn’t so much think it represented the end of racism but the possibility of change. At the same time, I also knew that large numbers of Californians in religious communities were voting against gay marriage and that Latinos and blacks were continuing to take part in this terribly tragedy. We persecute each other. The very communities that get discriminated against discriminate against other Americans.
The Spanish language newspaper La Opinión called the results an “embarrassment,” saying “California still has two faces.” Do you agree?
La Opinión represents the opinion of a lot of Latinos who are more educated and — what should I say? — more cosmopolitan. But Latinos in both my family and the Catholic Church belong to a more traditional America. This is a troubling aspect of the way our country is formed right now. It is a time of great change but also a time when people are afraid of change.
You said recently the real issue behind the anti-gay marriage movement is the crisis in the family. What do you mean?
American families are under a great deal of stress. The divorce rate isn’t declining, it’s increasing. And the majority of American women are now living alone. We are raising children in America without fathers. I think of Michael Phelps at the Olympics with his mother in the stands. His father was completely absent. He was negligible; no one refers to him, no one noticed his absence.
The possibility that a whole new generation of American males is being raised by women without men is very challenging for the churches. I think they want to reassert some sort of male authority over the order of things. I think the pro-Proposition 8 movement was really galvanized by an insecurity that churches are feeling now with the rise of women.
Monotheistic religions feel threatened by the rise of feminism and the insistence, in many communities, that women take a bigger role in the church. At the same time that women are claiming more responsibility for their religious life, they are also moving out of traditional roles as wife and mother. This is why abortion is so threatening to many religious people — it represents some rejection of the traditional role of mother.
In such a world, we need to identify the relationship between feminism and homosexuality. These movements began, in some sense, to achieve visibility alongside one another. I know a lot of black churches take offense when gay activists say that the gay movement is somehow analogous to the black civil rights movement. And while there is some relationship between the persecution of gays and the anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, I think the true analogy is to the women’s movement. What we represent as gays in America is an alternative to the traditional male-structured society. The possibility that we can form ourselves sexually — even form our sense of what a sex is — sets us apart from the traditional roles we were given by our fathers.
I think Proposition 8 was also galvanized by insecurity around gay families.
I agree. But the real challenge to the family right now is male irresponsibility and misbehavior toward women. If the Hispanic Catholic and evangelical churches really wanted to protect the family, they should address the issue of wife beating in Hispanic families and the misbehaviors of the father against the mother. But no, they go after gay marriage. It doesn’t take any brilliance to notice that this is hypocrisy of such magnitude that you blame the gay couple living next door for the fact that you’ve just beaten your wife.
The pro-8 campaign calls itself the Protect Family Movement, even though the issue of family was the very reason gays needed to have marriage. There are partners in gay unions now who have children, and those children need to be protected. If my partner and I had children, either through a previous marriage or because we adopted them, I would need to be able to take them to the emergency room. I would need to be able to protect them with the parental rights that marriage would give me. It was for the benefit of the family that marriage was extended to homosexuals.
Religions have the capacity for being noble and ennobling but they are also the expression of some of the darkest impulses in us — to go after the “other.” For Christians, if the other isn’t the Muslim, it’s the homosexual. That is the most discouraging part.
Speaking of hypocrisy, churches have plenty of sexual skeletons in their closet.
Right. The Mormon Church has this incredible notoriety in America for polygamy and has been persecuted because of it. The very church that became notorious because of polygamy is now insisting that marriage is one man and one woman. That is, at least, an irony of history. But as a number of Mormon women friends of mine say, the same church that espouses the centrality of family in their lives is also the church that urges them to reject their gay children.
Then there is the Roman Catholic Church, my own church, which has just come off this extraordinary season of sexual scandal and misbehavior in the rectory against children. The church is barely out of the court and it’s trying to assume the role of governor of sexual behavior, having just proved to America its inability to govern its own sexual behavior.
Look at the evangelicals. In their insistence that people be born again, they know Americans are broken. In their circus-tent suburban churches, you find 10,000 people on a Sunday morning. You find people who have been divorced, people who have had drug experiences, people who have been in jail. These churches touch upon a dream that people can put our lives back together again.
Now these churches are going after homosexuals as a way of insisting on their own propriety. They are insisting that they have a role to play in the general society as moral guardians, when what we have seen in the recent past is just the opposite. I mean, it’s one thing for the churches to insist on their right to define the sacrament of marriage for their own members. But it’s quite another for them to insist that they have a right to define the relationships of people outside their communities. That’s really what’s most troubling about Proposition 8. It was a deliberate civic intrusion by the churches.
I wonder if these churches sense they’re losing some of the influence they’ve had for the past eight years.
To my knowledge, the churches have not accepted responsibility for the Bush catastrophe. Having claimed, in some cases, that Bush was divinely inspired and his election was the will of God, they have failed to explain why the last eight years have been so catastrophic for America.
Now I think evangelicals are falling back on issues that have been reliable for them in the past. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, who said that children of immigrants should be educated, was essentially frightened away from that position by Mitt Romney. The tentativeness of the evangelicals on immigration only allowed them to be more vociferous on the gay issue. That’s traditionally easy for them — to go after the sinner. But it doesn’t convince me of their ascendancy; it merely convinces me that they are retreating. They don’t know how to extend their agenda beyond gay marriage and abortion.
There’s going to be an ongoing legal battle over Proposition 8. How do you think gay activists should proceed?
I think gay activists should be very careful with this issue. We should not present ourselves as enemies of religion. I am not prepared to leave the Roman Catholic Church over this issue. The Catholic Church is my church. I was a little concerned about the recent protests outside the Los Angeles Mormon temple. I’ve seen this sort of demonstration escalate into a sort of deliberate exercise of blasphemy.
For example, in the most severe years of the AIDS epidemic, activists from ACT UP went into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, took the communion wafer and threw it on the ground. That is exactly the wrong thing to do. One should be respectful of the religious impulse in the world. If we decide to make ourselves anti-religious, we will only lose.
But religious communities must be challenged too. I was in Jerusalem a couple of years ago for Gay Pride. All the leaders of religious communities — Muslim, Jew and Christian — were brought together by their mutual animosity toward gay activism to protest the parade. There was the grand patriarch of the Eastern churches, the high rabbi of Jerusalem, the Roman Catholic archbishop, the mullahs, and they were all united in one cause. The police outnumbered the parade participants. One marcher was attacked and stabbed by an Orthodox Jew.
We have to be very clear about male violence within the monotheistic religions. This is a failure within churches and we can’t be casual about it. But we can’t be casual about the importance of religion either. We need to be both respectful of religion and critical of religion. Otherwise I suspect we won’t get very far at all.
What do you think about gay rights as universal rights? Many argue that it’s a cultural issue and that specific communities, such as Latinos and blacks, have their own understanding of homosexuality and shouldn’t be messed with.
In my own my family, and my parents were not well educated, it would have been impossible for them to have dealt with the words “gay” or “homosexual” in my relationship with them. But there was no way for them to reject me either. I was a member of the family and I couldn’t sin my way out of it.
Once my partner became part of my life, he became part of their life too. They didn’t want it said, they didn’t want it named or defined, but they assumed it and accepted it. At family events, when my partner wasn’t there, my mother would get on the phone and call him and insist he come over.
These communities have very intricate ways of dealing with these things and they are not necessarily the highly politicized tactics that you see in traditional middle-class society in America.
I have not been to a Mexican family without some suspicion of homosexuality in children or grandchildren. But people deal with it within the larger context of family. That’s why I suspect the revolution will come not from the male church but from how women treat their children, and whether or not women are willing to reject their children. I don’t think they are. I saw too many times during the AIDS epidemic that when death came and the disease took its toll, if one parent was there, it was almost always the mother and not the father. That bond is so powerful.
I also think about the role of gays as caregivers to the elderly parent while siblings are too busy with their children. At the Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco, which is the gay Roman Catholic parish, a number of old Irish women essentially adopted the gay parishioners, and were adopted by them, because their children had moved to the suburbs, or Pennsylvania, or Orlando, and were no longer in a position to care for them. That’s a bond that no one really talks about.
My partner has taken care of many elderly people over the years. They know who he is and they know who I am. But it’s unspoken. I don’t know how they voted on Tuesday, but I do think that it is their responsibility now to speak out.
Are you saying individual relationships will ultimately be more powerful than organized religion?
Well, I’m working right now in the Middle East on monotheistic religions because I’m very worried about the direction of religion. Ever since Sept. 11, when I heard that prayer being spoken at the moment the planes hit the World Trade Centers, I realized how much darkness there is in religion compared to how much light there is. I am very much concerned with whether or not these religions can be feminized.
The desert religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are male religions. Their perception is that God is a male god and Allah is a male god. If the male is allowed to hold onto the power of God, then I think we are in terrible shape. I think what’s coming out of Colorado Springs right now, with people like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, is either the last or continuing gasp of a male hierarchy in religion. That’s what’s at stake. And women have a determining role to play. Are they going to go along with this, or are they going to challenge the order?
Well, yes, but then we have the rise of someone like Sarah Palin, who is just one example of how complicated things get in this issue.
Yes, you have Sarah Palin. But you also have women deciding to leave marriages. When a woman decides to leave the kitchen and seek a career outside the family, when a woman decides not to take on the name of her husband, when a woman wants to be more than simply the mother of children, when she wants to have some place in the world that is not defined by her family or her husband, that seems to suggest something comparable to what gays experience when they come out of the closet. Notice that both those metaphors of getting out of the kitchen and getting out of the closet are domestic images.
But are you saying Palin represents this?
I’m not that kind of optimist!
It does seem she wants to have a career separate from the family, but in many ways she embodies the old conservative order.
Clearly, what you say is true. I don’t see women challenging the male order of things in every case. Wives tolerate all kinds of behavior of fathers toward their children. But I do think it’s important that some woman are starting to challenge that. The divorce rate suggests that women are not happy with the relationship they have with men. And whatever that unhappiness is, I would like people to know that, as a gay man, I’m not responsible for what’s wrong with heterosexual marriage. On the other hand, whatever is wrong with the heterosexual marriage does have some implication for the world I live in. Women are redefining sexuality in a way that’s going to make it easier for me to be a gay man.
The formal role of women is also undergoing change in some churches, right?
That’s right. The Episcopal Church in America is now under the leadership of a woman. Feminism is going to change a great deal. The most radical people in the Roman Catholic Church are women. They’re challenging everything from the priesthood to the male God to what it means to be married. I don’t expect to see gay marriage enter these conservative institutions in my lifetime. But I do see change.
I belong to a Catholic parish in San Francisco, where my partner and I are acknowledged by the other people in the parish as a couple. We take communion together, the priests know who we are, they’re supportive of who we are, and what we are, and they see us in various roles — giving eulogies to dead friends but also helping to baptize little babies. We’re very much a part of that community. That’s why I’m not prepared to lose it because some archbishop in Colorado or cardinal in Los Angeles is behind Proposition 8. It is not my church that they’re talking about, it’s not even my experience of love.
Jeanne Carstensen is a former managing editor at Salon.More Jeanne Carstensen.
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.
This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”
No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.
Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.
This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.
Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.
“The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.
Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.
Dictators, Bowery 1976
Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.
Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!
Bowery view, 1977
The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.
Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.
Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.
Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”
Legs McNeil, 1977
Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.
Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.
Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.
Tommy Ramone, 1977
Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.
Bowery 4am, 1977
End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.