A White Crane Conversation
The Caffe Cino
Steve Susoyev Speaks with the Pioneering
Gay Playwright George Birimisa about his Journey to Love.
George Birimisa turned 84 in February of this year. A Caffe Cino pioneer, he is recognized as one of the first American playwrights to write plays featuring Gay characters who were full-bodied people, not merely victims or villains. Still writing, and working as a writing teacher, editor and activist, George took time out from work on his memoir, Wildflowers, to talk with Steve Susoyev.
STEVE SUSOYEV: I had the honor of being present in 2006 when you won the Harry Hay award in San Francisco, for your work in Gay theater and as an “inspiration across the generations.” Among your students you’re known as a role model of Gay pride, but I understand your history is a bit more complex than that.
GEORGE BIRIMISA: When I got involved in theater in the late nineteen-forties, I went around trying to act like Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, in a leather jacket, always with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I was living a contradiction, out of the closet to only a few people. Some of my plays are full of homophobia. In the early sixties I wrote my first Gay play, Degrees, but it was very mild and didn’t reflect me or my life at all. Inching my way out of the closet. But then, in Georgie Porgie, in 1968, I put it all out there, so the world would know I was Gay.
SUSOYEV: Georgie Porgie was a breakthrough for Gay theater. Tennessee Williams wrote, “Bravo! A beautiful, courageous play. I loved it!”
BIRIMISA: Under the surface I was still ashamed and very guilty. I felt filthy, as if I should be exterminated. I didn’t know about Harry Hay, Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin. I think New York was very homophobic then, or maybe it was just me, looking at the world through the murk of my own self-hatred. And I had plenty of it.
SUSOYEV: You were in New York during the Stonewall riot, weren’t you?
BIRIMISA: I get a lot of mileage out of my image as a radical, a revolutionary. So it’s painful to admit this today, but I looked down on those brave queens at Stonewall. They were sissies and they embarrassed me. I think one of the pernicious things about homophobia is how it isolates us from the people we need most for support, and who most need our support.
I had been arrested and brutalized by cops. But when the queens were brutalized, I just wanted to distance myself from them. That was 1969. I was getting a reputation in the avant-garde Gay theater. But still in that leather jacket with the constant cigarette, still viewing the world through my self-hatred. I don’t know if I’m completely over it yet.
SUSOYEV: You’re describing a very complex process that we try to simplify. “Coming out” seems to have taken place in stages for you.
BIRIMISA: Baby steps.
SUSOYEV: Did you make an effort not to be Gay?
BIRIMISA: Oh, God, in 1951 I got married to a woman named Nancy, thinking that she would make me straight.
SUSOYEV: And how did that turn out?
BIRIMISA: Well, we had three-ways with straight guys, so in some ways our relationship deepened my homophobia — tough straight guys were my drug of choice. I remember many times, walking down the street with Nancy and feeling powerful and straight — at least hoping to fool people into thinking I was not a queer. Once a Gay man walked by and cruised me and Nancy said, “See, he figured out you were Gay.” “He did not,” I said angrily. “Anyway, most Gays are attracted to straight men. They don’t want another fuckin’ fag!”
But there were some hidden blessings. Nancy was the first “intellectual” I had ever known. My father had been a communist whose nickname was “Rough Rider.” When I was six, he gave a speech in the park in downtown Watsonville, California, where I was born. The fire department turned their hoses on him and threw him in jail. He gave his bunk to an old man, slept on the concrete, caught pneumonia and died. I had a love-hate relationship with him. He was nearly illiterate, and like so many things in my life, I was ashamed of him. But I have his fierce spirit inside me and I have been a rebel ever since. My mother ran off with a music teacher and I ended up in an orphanage at age seven. I was deeply ashamed of my poverty, and joined the Navy at 17 so I could have decent clothes to wear.
Nancy got me to read Das Kapital by Karl Marx and Anti-Dühring by Engels. Suddenly I had a language to explain how I felt in the world.
SUSOYEV: So your wife woke you up to politics?
BIRIMISA: Absolutely. She opened my eyes. I began to understand, slowly, that Gay people were oppressed just like blacks in the South and Jews during the Third Reich. And like poor people all over the world. And I wrote that anger at the unjust world into my plays.
SUSOYEV: So the political understanding moved you closer to self-acceptance?
BIRIMISA: Oh, God, it was a long, twisting road. It didn’t take me long to learn that the commies hated Gay people as much as the right-wingers hated us. For almost a year in New York I attended a group that was dedicated to turning guys like me into straight, God-fearing men. So painful to dredge this up today. When I quit the group I was disgusted. I told myself, “You're condemned to being a fucking fag for the rest of your life.”
SUSOYEV: You don’t look like a condemned man today. To anyone looking at you now, it’s obvious that at some moment light began to shine into your life. When was that?