While working on Delinquent, a collaborative performance-confrontation with the juvenile justice system, I was asked to write a personal essay about becoming an artist.
At the age of 40 I wrote my first honest artist statement. “I am a political animal. My primary sense seems to be an attention to power, equality, justice, betrayal, cooperation, and consensus. I am passionate about the choreographies of protest and dissent, of uprising and resistance.”
Justice was a big issue in our house. We called it fairness. Fairness meant that all six kids got the same rules, resources, and treatment. Except that we didn’t. The rules of fairness were trumped by the hierarchies of both age and gender. From my perspective as child number five, and son number three, I developed an acute eye for equality, power, and its abuses.
I have rarely fit the images or behaviors that were expected of me. I have either felt limited or alienated. I almost consider this to be my natural state, either feeling constrained by external pressures or rejected entirely and living outside the walls. I’ve been ambivalently masculine since before I knew the word masculine. I felt drawn to dance and artistic expression long before I understood how foreign that was to my father, and to the majority of people in my hometown, especially as a profession.
I’m looking at a school photo from the mid-70’s. My bangs are overgrown. I’m wearing a red sweater. Underneath is a white, button-up shirt, with the large collars extending over the sweater’s neck. Around my neck, tucked between the collars and into the sweater, is an ascot made from a blue bandana, my attempt at dissident fashion. When all the other guys wore t-shirts and jeans I would wear a white shirt with tie or an improvised ascot and carry my books in a black brief case. A precocious queer with no actual identity yet to claim, neither aesthetic nor sexual. Not yet.
In our house we didn’t cry very often. The most common form of punishment was a thin bread board slapped hard onto our outstretched hands. Ten times. Five hits per hand. If we cried we were threatened with double the number of hits. Same threat if we retracted our hand. Mostly we did not express emotions around adults. And mostly they did not express emotions around us. Anger was the exception to the rule. The cultures of children and adults were pretty firmly divided, and our parents were infamous in our neighbourhood for being stricter than others.
It was all very Catholic and old school. Punishments included standing or kneeling in a corner, missing dinner, breadboard to the hands (mom), and in severe cases a belt to the bum (dad). Until Grade 8 we all went to Catholic school (which was public) where the nuns had similar standards and practices. Their corporal punishment including a short leather strap to the hands. A similar threat of further strapping if we pulled back our hand to avoid the hit. Excellent unintentional training to not respond to fear. None of this was very frequent because the threat of corporal punishment was enough to keep us “good” within eye and ear range of adults. It also helped us to develop a kind of subversive youth solidarity, which included elaborate lying, protecting each other, and giving misleading information. I don’t recall ever confessing these lies or subversions.
When upset I tended to disappear. My surface remained calm regardless of turbulence or confusion. I spent a lot of time alone, reading. And I spent a lot of time out of the house. After school projects, sports, drama, dancing, there was always a reason to not come home. Basically I separated emotionally from my parents before Grade 8. I didn’t ever speak to them about my feelings or thoughts, wishes or fears. I didn’t really have honest conversation with them until my late 20’s and even then there was always withheld information, skirting of issues and, when possible, avoiding conflict. Nonetheless there were plenty of arguments, willful attempts at independence, and tense battles for power. By my late teens these battles included political debate, an area where passion was expected but not encouraged.
By the age of 12, I was an accomplished shoplifter. Once with a few older boys that included my brother Neil, son number two, I won a contest to see who could steal the biggest object from a hardware store. I think I coiled a six-foot length of bicycle brake cable and hid it under my jacket. I was already identified as a performer and was praised for being able to lie under pressure. We called it acting. Neil couldn’t do it. He always felt guilty and thought that he would get caught no matter what. He said his face gave him away.
On the way home from elementary school we took a path through a small forest that linked two neighbourhoods. Neil and I, with John who lived next door, would light small fires and then stomp them out. Once the fire grew too fast, and we burned down an acre of grass and trees. From a distance some people saw us running from the fire. When the police arrived at our house, Neil and I agreed that he should hide in the basement and I should speak to the police. With my mom standing behind me, sternly demanding my obedience, I told them that indeed we had been at the fire, but only to try to put that darn fire out, and that we gave up only after our school books had been lost to the flames.
Somewhere around that time, I was caught shoplifting. While babysitting Bruce, brother number four, age six, I stole a few books for him from Woolworth’s. I really wanted him to enjoy reading as much as I. When we got home my mom asked him where he got the books. He innocently replied and the next thing I knew we were in the car driving back to Woolworth’s. My mom handed me off to the manager who took me to the back of the store near the freight elevator. It was an unfamiliar and scary location. He told me that I was lucky to have such good parents, and that he had the right to take me to the police where I would have to spend time in jail. Something in his mask cracked, and I knew he was bluffing, trying to scare me. The authority that he and my mom represented suddenly seemed fake and manipulative, a power that existed only to justify itself.
Twelve years later I was still drawing inspiration from that experience. In handcuffs in the Berkeley jail, I stared down a cop as he yelled and threatened me. The more intense he became the more I knew that he was simply frustrated and had no real power over me. I was scared, in uncertain territory, being threatened with both violence and prison, and yet the whole scenario seemed like an exposé of power and its abuse. What the cop didn’t know was that I was an illegal alien using a false name. He also didn’t know that I was studying his performance and responding with a manipulation of my own. A few hours later, after he had sent my friends home, he dropped my charge from felony to misdemeanor. I was able to lie to a bail bondsman about both my name and where I worked and I got out. A number of years later I got a green card (now that was a performance!) and have been arrested several times since. Now it’s more of a civic duty than an anti-authoritarian thrill, as much a result of an early Jesuit influence as a later anarchist affinity.
We grew up politely Irish and Catholic in a mining town in Northern Ontario. As far as I knew, gay people did not exist. That included me. Decades after I left, my hometown still struggles with the closet. AIDS deaths were not publicly acknowledged until nearly 10 years into the epidemic and the first gay pride picnic occurred in 2000. In our family it wasn’t just queer sexuality that was ignored. No one talked about sex, let alone intimacy or love. There were no jokes, no acknowledgement, no questions, no shaming. My sexual life was an inarticulate interior experience with no public outlet. I remember practicing making out with girls on van rides to diving competitions when I was 13 or 14. We were serious athletes who trained every day. Why not practice kissing? Somehow we worked together to keep the driver, our coach, from ever seeing or knowing what was going on. Another case of solidarity, subversion, and secret.
I was called a fag on a regular basis for the entirety of high school. Often I ignored the comment. But sometimes, and especially if there was an audience, I would retort with some smart remark like, you’re just angry because I came in your hair last night. Then I would run. I don't think most guys who tried to hurt me with this label actually thought that I would grow up to love having sex with men. To be a fag was to be cursed as weak and unimportant. It took years to realize that my avoidance of gay community was caught up with a resistance to the negative traits that homophobic society projected onto us. I didn’t identify with the abject outcast that others called gay. A few weeks ago some young Latino guys in my neighborhood yelled faggot as I rode by on my bicycle. It must have been my silly pants. Too colorful, too gay. They weren’t expecting a response. I yelled back calling them cowards, sexually ashamed cowards.
In high school I was often in trouble. Fortunately I was also a good student and active in student affairs. Unfortunately I didn’t want to be there. I hung out with a small crew of alienated geeks and freaks. Visibly fat, invisibly queer, too smart or just too sensitive to assimilate into any of the other cliques, we ate lunch on the stairs. Despite, or maybe because of, our social disenfranchisement we felt entitled to confront authority at whim. I remember a ridiculous power struggle with a particular math teacher. After an argument I walked out of his class and then ran as fast as I could to the office. I tried to report him for delinquent teaching before he could report me for disruptive behaviour. I claimed that his teaching, or lack of it, did not justify our obligation to be in school. Thirty years later, in grad school, I refused to take a compulsory class and wrote a sharp letter detailing the inadequacies of a professor coasting on her tenure. She no longer teaches that class.
A sexual attraction to boys and men wasn’t the only unacknowledged latency in my life before leaving home. I danced all the time and never realized that I was a dancer. I remember two albums belonging to older siblings: the theatrical sound track to Jesus Christ Superstar, and Sly & The Family Stone’s Greatest Hits. I played them so often that I can still recall most songs in detail. I danced to Sly and sang along with JC Superstar and somehow no one noticed. In late high school I danced several days a week, at the bottom of ‘our’ stairs, with the girl I referred to as my dance partner. Marie-Hélène was French, from France, and therefore sophisticated and worldly. We entered numerous dance contests, both jitterbug and disco. We were underage, but I was the only one who couldn’t hide it so we would practice in the parking lot outside of a bar and then enter just before the contest began. Our little gang would try to hide me from bartenders and servers and somehow I never got thrown out. I danced with Marie-Hélène for three years. I barely mentioned it at home, and no one in my family every saw me dance. I lied about going to bars and couldn’t tell my parents about the contests, which we occasionally won. When I left the house I usually had my club clothes in a bag and would change in the car. My parents and I would sometimes argue about being out late. If I lost the argument, I had to crawl out of my bedroom window and meet my friends a block away. My first trip to New York was a disco dance contest prize that we won the year after high school. I saved the prize until I went to college and then went to NY without telling anyone. Dancing was underground activity, both disobedient and unconscious.
My current performance project is called Delinquent. I describe the work as a poetic intervention of juvenile justice, crime and punishment. I’m directing a diverse team of young artists aged 16-24: poets, dancers, circus artists. Some of the cast have been incarcerated and several of them have parents who have been in jail or prison. One of them hangs out and sells drugs a couple blocks from my house. It is likely that he is friends with the guys who called me faggot. We collect stories, make lists, watch West Side Story, and choreograph images with eight-foot high walls. I intend to stage not just their stories, but more importantly their struggle to speak.
I’m charmed to see so many parallels between my life as a kid and my career as a dissident artist. Confronting fear is a strategy in all of my artistic work, whether it’s embodying risk and trust or speaking the kind of truth that makes one sweat and lose breath. I still aim to unmask authority, including my own. I want things to be fair.