The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture

Queer Intentions

Queer Intentions: A Course and a Project

H. N. Lukes
Associate Professor
Department of Critical Theory and Social Justice
Occidental College

1: In the Beginning: Cruising the Archive, January 2016

Women! Women of Los Angeles!
You can’t clean it up ‘til you make a mess!
-Tracy + The Plastics, “Save Me Claude” 

This course, “CTSJ 337: Queer LA: Cruising the Archive,” borrows its title from a 2012 ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive exhibition, “Cruising the Archive: Queer Art and Culture, 1945-1980.” Actually, I don’t borrow the title. I steal it. Because ONE is one of Oxy's community partners, I expect they will forgive me. Yet as the quotable Wilson Mizner, playwright, manager of LA’s famous Brown Derby, and native Angelino ne’er-do-well once said, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” While holding ourselves to a higher ethical standard of scholarship, CTSJ 337 intends to use this queer sense of reference, homage, and magpie research to create a mixed-media digital document that tells a unique story about LGBT* life in the greater LA area.

In a sense, LA has always been a site of layered plagiarisms with its film industry creating a cultural mise en abyme that has made it difficult to apprehend the city itself. Thom Andersen’s 2003 documentary video Los Angeles Plays Itself makes this point as it chastens “Hollywood” for its misrepresentation of the actual metropolis. Borrowing his title from a 1972 gay experimental pornographic film L.A. Plays Itself by Fred Halsted, Andersen nonetheless seems to miss his referent’s broader point that fantasy is central to LA’s ethos, and especially its queer communities (indeed, for better or worse, in a heteronormative world, porn still represents the largest archive of representations of gay men).[1] Even within the research paradigms of social science, LA is known as the United States’ urban anomaly with its sprawl, transnational diversity, and mixed economy. LA’s vaunted “72 suburbs in search of city” is itself an apocryphal quip typically, and falsely, attributed to Dorothy Parker.[2]

Mega-cultural fuzz tends to set this city, paradoxically, both off the radar and too-much on the screen. If Los Angeles as an American city has always seemed “queer,” in the antiquated sense of the term, so has its status as a belated and anomalous LGBT* city, ostensibly trailing behind landmark moments and movements in New York and San Francisco. Yet LA queered the narrative of gay life well before these more legible modern US cities yielded what standard historiography has framed as the 1960s origin points of contemporary homosexual identity. The list of LGBT* “firsts” is lengthy and dispersed in graphic form throughout this section.

LGBT* "Firsts" in LA, 1
 A flurry of academic and independent scholarship about queer LA inspired the first iteration of this course at Occidental College in 2009. It was a heady time, what with the recent publication of Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’ popular 2006 history Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians; the imminent integration of the ONE Archives into the USC library system; and local pop-up walking tours of queer LA’s historical geography (replete with Oxy students aghast that the Ronald Reagan State Building now sits where John Rechy used to cruise on Spring Street).[3] Why didn’t Los Angeles register as a wellspring of LGBT* activism, and what might reclaiming its legacy mean for contemporary social justice?

While acknowledging the crucial struggles and archives that must constitute any usable history of US queer life and LA, together or separately, we also resist a form of revisionist LGBT* historiography that jockeys for civic origin prestige. Following up from decades of scholarship questioning New York City’s Stonewall riot as a singularly historical font, Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Suzanna M. Crage have argued that “the myth of Stonewall” only congealed because activists, as well as local and national politicians, construed the event “as commemorable and had the mnemonic capacity to create a commemorative vehicle."[4]  Arguably, LA resists commemorability because it refuses to congeal as a city legible to traditional urban studies or as a real site separable from its imaginaries. Historic plaques about LGBT* history don’t really stand out in a city famous for the “Walk of Fame” and the looming “Hollywood Sign.” 

Certainly any form of queer historiography, especially in the face of the AIDS pandemic, needs to negotiate vibrancy and loss, but to think queer LA at all is to resist the very idea of commemoration, even and especially as civic leaders make such attempts. While queer havens like downtown’s long-dead Pershing Square cruising sites, 1970s Hollywood’s overlapping punk and hustler scenes, and LA’s waning gayborhood Silver Lake have inspired new historians, still thriving scenes like South LA’s Black/Latinx drag balls tend to be ignored yet may also produce organic forms of living historiography and invite new cartographers of queer meaning.[5]

But what to do with something as banal and lovely as Casita del Campo, a Silver Lake restaurant open since 1962 and known for its family-priced food, strong margaritas, and standard drag shows? Affectionately known by local queers as "The Little House of Camp," Casita need hardly be commemorated as either one of the older Mexican restaurants in LA or as Silver Lake's longest extant "gay bar." If the walls of Casita del Campo could speak, we imagine that they would say "I'm still here, damn it!" This ethos of melancholia turned inside-out is what this course pursues, or rather, listens for, ear to the wall. 
#The Digital Classroom

In homage to LA’s inherent oddities, this course forwards the idea of “cruising the archive” by placing in conversation the “digital” and the “queer,” each as implicit critiques of traditional methodological practices and brick-and-mortar containments of culture and history. Cruising implies both looking for sex in public spaces (as well as improvised community, world-making, and identity) and looking for information in non-systematic ways. This irregular form of research has consistently informed queer theory’s interdisciplinary and often anti-disciplinary ethos since its inception in the early 1990s.[6] In contrast to reigning metaphors like “browsing” or “surfing” that implicitly mark the whiteness and heteronormativity of standard digital engagement, we offer the edgier trope of “cruising” to open onto the creative potentials of the digital humanities [DH] forms of research and presentation.

LGBT* "Firsts" in LA, 2
Caveat emptor, DH enthusiasts and multi-media pedagogues, Kim and Lukes together and separately scaffolded this 2016 course for over a year in advance of its actual offering. Following the ethos of “community-based learning,” we contacted a number of potential community organizations and local collectors to build relationships. We only sought out mutual connections where our students would augment local social justice activity while also gaining critical knowledge.[7] In fits and starts, we lost some potential community partners and gained others. By the time Kim had delivered his opening lecture on the current status of LGBT* archives and Michel Foucault’s immanent queering of archives as such, Lukes had located key collections at the ONE. Kim had confirmed a relationship with the community organization REACH LA to examine its huge unprocessed collections. Lukes and previously trained students co-conducted four oral histories for a potential chapter on the LA Silver Lake “gayborhood.”

When the class actually convened, we told our students that they would be critically examining the potentials and limits of “the digital revolution” through such questions as: Who has more or less access to information in the current sea change from analog to digital forms?[8] How does the vaunted “digital divide” shape-shift as technology becomes more affordable, hashtags inspire social movements, and a threat to “net neutrality” now challenges even global elite communities?[9]  Beyond access, whose information even gets archived in any form, be it in a temperature-controlled room or through a hashtag? How does the movement toward the digital cast a nostalgic light on analog formats and traditional humanities?[10] How does any shift in technology and media provoke, invite, repress, or ignore extant systems of information storage and access? Are these effects accidental, market-driven, community-oriented, conscious, or (dare I say) unconscious?

CTSJ 337 is framed as a team-driven and project-oriented course organized around building a hybrid archive/book in Scalar by the end of the semester. We designed CTSJ 337 as an interweaving seminar and lab structure (five units; three classroom hours led by me and one lab hour taught by Kim per week, over fifteen weeks). With the goal of organically balancing theory and practice, we did not write a conventional syllabus but rather have built an “archive” of potential primary and secondary source materials, which far exceeds what students could read in a semester. With a few required texts in the beginning and a scaffolded schedule, we intend to allow flexibility for how the students might select archival materials, assign readings, and teach sessions themselves as they hone their collective interests for the Scalar book overall and specific team interests for each chapter. It is unclear what final form this product will take, but we imagine linking text, audio, photography, video, mapping, and timeline formats to external sites of other community organizations and archives, perhaps constructing a kind of archive of and about queer LA archives.

I write this introductory essay to our speculative book/archive in three sections, predicting that the beginning, middle, and end of our course-driven process will, in fact, be unpredictable. While we hope that any number of readers will cruise our archive, our proposed audiences are the following (in no particular order): users of Scalar interested in what the format affords; students and teachers interested in exploring the capacities of digital humanities and collaborative pedagogy; queers and feminists looking for information that they can cut, paste, and reassemble as they will; and less finally than expansively, all those interested equally in cleaning up social messes and messing up pre-ordained taxonomies. We believe that queer theory and the digital humanities share this interest and capacity.

To think the queer through the digital and the analog begs deep questions about relationality: between people, between people and things (analog or digital), and between things and things that real people may never mediate. Here at the beginning, I want to imagine this project as a riff on the classic 1970s feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves, which provided crucial answers to questions that many could once not even think to ask.[11] Here we lead with a question: Our Archives, Ourselves?

I leave it to this talented and engaged collective of undergraduates to provide more nuanced questions about how to tell both the story of queer LA and their experience of trying to tell it.
2: Notes in Media Res: Ropes, Rigging, and Queer Mapping, March 2016

At this point in the semester, I suppose it is worth confessing my prior fears while not yet giving away my greatest hopes. Had things gone badly, I would have by mid-term abandoned both digital technology and democratic pedagogy. I would currently either be reverting to a version of traditional reading-assignment-grading undergraduate course structure or be panting on the shores of the digital humanities -- the equivalent of a shipwrecked captain, blaming only herself, while uselessly stuffing a hand-written note in an analog bottle: “Please. Send. Help. New World of Digital Humanities off map. Provisions running low.”

Well, I am proud to say, that these fears of digital and democratic disaster have not come to fruition, due mostly to an amazing crew of students. Even as I instantly have a critique of my own colonial and adolescent boyish "sea adventure" discourse, I will nonetheless extend my metaphor in the name of our anti-hegemonic venture, at the very least to rally the deckhands. Our original intention was to construct four chapters: 1) Silver Lake as a once and now waning gay neighborhood, 2) the Black/Latinx House and Ballroom scene, 3) the queer LA punk scene, and 4) queer art in LA. The ship has changed course but with better destinations in mind, even as these lead us through queerer and more harrowing waters.

To get out of port, we read Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’s popular history book, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians.[12] Whereas such early studies of queer LA started with a booster ethos, offering that US gay history happened in LA first, scholarship has evolved into more nuanced analyses, suggesting that queer LA challenges what we think of as standard LGBT* historiography itself, unto questioning how queer social geography might revise urban studies. Where Moira Kenney and Karen Tongson complicate the idea of urban “gayborhoods” by revaluing LA’s inherently "queer" sprawl and the unique psychological locations of its immigrant communities, Daniel Hurewitz extends the reputation of Silver Lake (neé Edendale) as an urban queer enclave across time to connect it to a broader bohemian past.[13]

At this point we found ourselves at sea in multiple discourses that refused to align into a longitudinal/latitudinal matrix. We were equally dissatisfied with an identitarian approach that would chart single-axis subjectivity along the ever-expanding LGBTQIAA+ acronym and a strictly historical or geographic approach to the city. In addition to already charted territory, stretching from early Homophile societies to the Gay Liberation Movement to The L Word, we were swirling in eddies of keywords: suburbs, lipstick lesbians, transgression, cognitive mapping, bohemia, gentrification, the police, community organizations, HIV/AIDS, and subculture. Returning to queer and archival theories provided a different navigation system starting with objects and taxonomies of organization rather than the narrative tactics of social history.

LGBT* "Firsts" in LA, 3
To challenge the transhistorical nature of LGBT* studies that persists even after queer theory’s interventions, as well as what exactly we mean by “archive,” we read John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity” and Marlene Manoff’s “Theories of the Archive."[14]  To further address the problem of the historical opacity of queer experience in traditional archives, we delved into José Esteban Muñoz’s 1996 “Ephemera as Evidence,” written five years after Joan Scott’s essay “The Evidence of Experience.”Muñoz and Scott were not in direct conversation but shared the winds of three influences at their backs – earlier historical gay and lesbian studies’ “ancestor recovery”; newly minted “queer theory,” variously informed by Freud, Foucault, and all things “post-structural”; and activist responses to the devastations of HIV/AIDS. Whereas Scott claims that experience "is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted,” Muñoz asks whose experience is even recognizable for interpretation. Muñoz posits: “Instead of being clearly available as visible evidence, queerness has instead existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere – while evaporating at the touch of those who would eliminate queer possibility.”[15] Whereas Muñoz and Scott could be construed as disagreeing with each other, they together complicate the burden of the empirical in archiving queer experience and the queering of any archive.

With this theoretical framing, we ventured into actual archives. Starting in Occidental’s special collections, we looked for signs of gay life on campus in Oxy newspapers, yearbooks, and loose photographs from 1968-1971. With the interpretative skills gleaned here, we took on the ONE’s Christopher Street West collection, documenting LA's first gay "pride" parade (1970), meant to be an homage to the in 1969 queer uprising and police riot at Stonewall in 1969. In the course of trying to determine why the parade was cancelled after two years (and later renewed), we came upon materials from the Satyrs Motorcycle Club [MC], technically the oldest extant gay group in the world. When students gained access to a local collector, who agreed to share part of the Satyrs’s archive before its eventual donation to the ONE, we dropped a proposed chapter on queer art in LA to make a chapter on gay MC and leather culture from the 1950s to the present.

Our next field trip took us to the headquarters of REACH LA, which specializes in supporting youth of color at risk for HIV/AIDS. Our intention is to help REACH LA process some of their raw collections of ephemera and early format video ranging from their sponsored arts programming and raves in the 1990s to their current hosting of competitive drag "balls," a phenomenon popularized by the 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning and Madonna’s appropriation of the subculture’s dance styles in her song and video “Vogue.” At this point, we are just scanning what we can from REACH. Oral histories and visual materials from the ONE and private collections provide the archival basis of our Silver Lake section. The punk chapter is meant to draw on the increasing number of oral histories that have been published about the LA scene, as well as images found on the internet (at this point the UCLA punk archive is not yet accessible). This chapter intends to set analog technologies of fan culture, like wall postering and “zining,” in conversation with digital searches that the hypertextual capacities of Scalar afford. In fact, because the creative information displays of the digital humanities share much in common with zining, we invited UCLA archivist Kelley Besser to give a lecture on the history of queer zines and conduct a workshop. The MC chapter is new and exciting. We hardly know what to do with these beautiful images of 
At this mid-point in the semester, CTSJ 337's academic readings and archival research have narrowed our focus to a study of subculture, a now traditional subject of inquiry for Cultural Studies. Starting with Dick Hebdige’s classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style, then engaging texts by Judith “Jack” Halberstam, Tavia Nyong'o, and others, we took it upon ourselves to test the thesis of what counts as subculture.[16] So far, we have yielded one crucial question: Can older hermeneutics of subculture still inhere in the age of the digital? 

This testing of subcultural theses has reorganized our chapters, expanding some, honing others, and further queering all. Given the legacy of Hebdige's classical study of punk as subculture and style, the student-researchers of the queer punk LA chapter have been both blessed and burdened: on the one hand, they are blessed with an ostensible punk "control group" for our study; on the other hand they are burdened as our leaders for the rest of the class in theories of subculture. Semiotic analogies between the subversive aspects of punk and queer, best analyzed by Tavia Nyong'o, blurred quickly in the imbricated social geographies of the early LA punk clubs, adjacent hustler scenes, and the 1970s music industry's marketing of androgyny and transgression. Focusing on subcultural rather than sociopolitical identity made us think differently about how Scalar "style" might match the form and content of the various subcultural styles we are studying.

In media res, I am so impressed by these students’ work toward researching, constituting, critiquing, and thinking through and with less recognized queer LA archives. As the chapters get more specific toward actually completing our archive/book, Kim has provided technical pedagogy, while also using the expansive organizational principles of Scalar to push students to think about how their archives and critical interventions might organically shape the structure of each chapter.

No matter how fair the winds and currents, all hands on a vessel mid-ocean are inevitably both vexed and invigorated by their exposure to the elements and a desire to find a happy port. As a captain, I am continually anxious about becoming a sort of Ahab. Yet given that we did not leave port hoping to find a white whale or a New World of digital humanities that would subsume analog ways, our journey by the end will have at least been interesting.

3: Deconstruction: Making Messes and Cleaning Up, February 2018 

One of the great, and often misunderstood, lessons of deconstruction is that far from undermining the grounds of inquiry, it is at most its most interesting when applied to concrete decisions.
--Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings

Writing here, nearly two years after CTSJ 337, I suppose I need to wrap up my extended maritime metaphor into a proper allegory. We shipwrecked but crawled onto the shores of a pretty interesting island. Or to return to my opening epigraph from the queer, post-riot grrrl band Tracy + The Plastics, we made a hot mess.

Cvetkovich’s thoughts on the “praxis” of academic deconstruction speak to the exciting and often frustrating negotiation between abstract ideas and concrete decisions that characterized this course. At some point, these students, most of whom were already trained to deconstruct ideas, were chastened to realize that building a legible archive is harder than queering extant ones. In this sense, the course became a meditation on the tensions always already at play in our department’s coupling of critical theory and social justice.

In many ways, our course fell into the whirlpools that Ryan Cordell warns about in his essay “How Not to Teach the Digital Humanities.”[17] We assigned too much. No one student took up the multitasking that our combination of DH, analog archival research, secondary source historical research, and critical theory engagement demanded. That said, each student contributed and excelled in some areas. We presumed that these “digital native” students would care about the form of DH, when in fact they became intoxicated with the content, as well as analog archives and archival practices. Had we planned fewer chapters and made teams larger than two students (what I now know to be a disastrous formation of student "team work"), the instructors would have generated more accountability and focused management.

We acknowledge all the various labors of our students in the "Acknowledgements" section of this Scalar project and offer separate recognition to Adrienne Adams and Daniel Calzadillas-Rodriquez, whose labor for Grit and Glamour continues, and whose personal reflection essays are featured in our two most complete Scalar chapters, “#Ovahness” and “The Swish Alps.” While only two of the teams constructed projects that resemble the structure of a Scalar “chapter,” the class did gather a great deal of material from the ONE, REACH LA, private collectors, and internet resources. We believe that undergraduate research –- be it through the DH, dusty analog archives, interviews, or walking tours -- is crucial in a time when both minority community knowledge production and academia are under duress. While the course did not produce a finished project in Scalar, it did instill in students a deep, and often personal, interest in queer LA history as well as DH capacities and analog archives. A number of students continued working on the topic of queer LA after the semester through senior thesis projects and in internships and volunteer positions with community partners. Some started their own zines. Others gained proficiency with Scalar and applied it to other projects. Even at its most frustrating moments, the class did have a lot of fun. It turns out that the grit and glamour of queer LA could happen in the classroom just as much as it could on the street, on silver screen, youtube, or in the backroom.

This page has paths:

This page references: