Part 45: Art, Religion, Politics, and Sex.
Zebra In A Herd of White Horses By Jan Svetlik. Oil on Canvas.
In 1984 I came up with an idea for a painting, and I told my mother about it: A zebra going the opposite way in a herd of white horses. Mom thought it was great, and began work on the concept right away. The painting sold before the paint was dry. I was quite pleased with this memory until my mother reminded me that I wanted her to put sunglasses on the zebra. Terrible idea! Oh, well. I was only 19. Our brains, or so I've heard, aren't fully developed until age 25.
By the time my mother finished this painting in 1984, we'd moved 13 times or so, if you don't count the couch surfing and hotels. That same year, my dad had abruptly left, and we had no idea where he went for 7 or 8 months. Even though I had made friends in Porterville, (people I'm still close to, including my friend Alissa who gifted me Zachary Quill's "Lesbianism Through the Ages” book) I still had this feeling we ended up in the wrong place, sort of a bad choice—which gave me the idea for the painting. I felt as though my high school friends had a plan and a trust fund, and they were all going in one direction--- to colleges far away, and I was stuck and confused. We didn’t choose Porterville, we simply ran out of money before we could get to northern California. Dad had convinced an elderly couple into letting us move into their rental property in Porterville. We lasted two months there.
I thought the painting would be good for this blog, where I give a sneak peak into Dad's Zachary Quill series on Lesbianism. As much as I felt sorry for myself being stuck in Porterville with no plan and no money, my plight was nothing compared to what LGBTQ kids went through. They must’ve really felt like the zebra. My friend Drew Boughton worked on a documentary film about migrant workers in Porterville, and he described the town as “having more churches than 7-Elevens”. The San Joaquin Valley is still the bible belt of California, and I know my gay friends went through hell and back being raised there.
Today is Sunday, September 27, 2020. The reality star who was elected president in 2016 has chosen a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and that person is Amy Coney Barrett. If confirmed, she will be the 115th justice. Barrett is a member of People of Praise, a majority-Catholic group that adopts many aspects of the Charismatic Catholic Renewal movement common among evangelical Christians. (This is a group my maternal grandmother was in. More on that, soon.) As the court tilts to the right, Roe V. Wade will be in jeopardy, as well as the Affordable Care Act, immigrant rights, consumer rights, and of course, LBGTQ rights.
From Forbes Magazine: “A social conservative, Coney Barrett signed a joint letter in 2015, prior to becoming a judge, affirming "the value of human life from conception to natural death” and asserting that marriage is "founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman” — which raised concerned among LGBTQ groups that she would oppose gay marriage.”
In a previous blog, I mentioned that my father made my mother promise she would never contact anyone she knew before she met him, and she agreed to that for nine years. Mom already considered her Catholic parents “religious fanatics" and was estranged from them before she made the promise. I have trouble calling my mother’s parents my grandparents, because I didn’t know them well, but I will for the sake of being clear. While in Hollywood, she broke her promise to “never contact anyone she knew”, and her parents came to visit us. I only have a vague memory of that time, I was around six years-old. Occasionally, relatives from my mother’s side would pop in and out of our lives, but I never felt close to them.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother changed from being a Catholic to a “Charismatic Catholic.” This is a group that's connected to Amy Coney Barrett's People of Praise. Whenever Grandma called from the Mid-west, Mom would put the phone down and multi-task until she was sure her mother was done “speaking in tongues” through the receiver, which would go on and on. My grandmother also decided that I was, at age 12, “possessed by the devil.” When she visited us in Porterville, she spent most of her time watching religious programs on our TV. So that’s my experience with Charismatic Catholics. I was raised to believe that these folks were nuts, much like the people I saw everywhere on the streets of Hollywood proclaiming that end times were coming.
Mom wanted me and my sister to be protected from what she considered to be a soul-crushing religion, especially for girls. I’m grateful that my parents never told me I couldn’t do something because I was born a girl. I knew from an early age that I didn’t want children, and my parents never tried to change my mind. We believed the world was over populated. The advice my pregnant mother got from her mother before her marriage to my sister's father was “let the man do whatever he wants". My grandmother didn't believe in birth control. My grandmother disowned her brother, because he married a divorced woman. She had seven children and eight pregnancies. My mother, on the other hand, talked openly about unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and birth control. My parents encouraged me to think for myself, and they would’ve been fine with it if I told them I was gay. I wish all gay children had that kind of acceptance.
I was contacted a few days ago by my friend Mary Ellen, who I've known for ten years. Mary Ellen texted me and wrote that she recognized one of the addresses in Dad’s journal in the last blog. She'd lived in our old neighborhood in Hollywood when she was working for a shelter in a Catholic church called Casa Rutillio Grande, a sanctuary for refugees from Central America. We lived at 6620 Selma Avenue, she lived in an old convent with the refugees at 6636 Selma Avenue, only a block away. She was there in 1985, fifteen years after we left. She was the co-director and house manager for the sanctuary. Back then, Ronald Regan's policy wasn't kind to those fleeing repression, poverty, and a long history of dictatorships, which, by the way, the United States had supported for many years.
Here’s what Mary Ellen wrote as a follow up in an email:
“I lived for one year at 6636 Selma in Hollywood. I was 20 at the time, my husband at that time, Kevin, and I were managing a shelter/orientation/employment program for refugees from Central America. We ran it out of Blessed Sacrament church's former nun's residence. The building, which had a front door opening to Selma and its own address separate from the church grounds and school had been empty - and a priest we knew asked if a refugee program could happen out of the building. Why someone thought Kevin and I had the maturity to do such intense work, I don't know...all I know is that I definitely discovered for the first time what it meant to feel stress in the body thanks to the responsibilities that seemed to increase every day there.
I walked around the neighborhood a LOT. I was given a membership to the YMCA at the corner so I could swim since I was pregnant with Anna - wonder if the YMCA was there when you lived there? Anyway, I am sure I walked by your former home on Selma if it is still there. It was a very interesting neighborhood, but sometimes felt like it had a lot of desperate energy. That may have been my imagination— I was living with many people coming from desperate circumstances and that may have influenced my view.”
It's rare that I can talk to someone that knows these places where we lived, and it was enlightening to hear Mary Ellen describe our old neighborhood. I talked to my mother about this e-mail yesterday, and she agreed that towards the end of our time there the area did have a “desperate energy.” I have a memory of a Catholic church. As kids, we were allowed to "free range" in Hollywood, and I hung out with other stray kids. I was hanging out with this little boy, and he stopped to look up at a window. The boy bent down, gathered up some small rocks, and began throwing them at the stained-glass. I was shocked by the boy's behavior. I was a real pearl clutcher even at age five. Just then a priest came out and yelled at the boy, took his little arm, and they went inside. I ran home to my mother, my body shaking like a Mexican jumping bean, and told her what happened.
“Well, maybe that kid had a reason to throw rocks at that church,” she said, siding with my little friend. Then she added, “stay away from those priests. Some of them are child molesters.”
That was around 1970. It seems like this happened on Selma, but it may have happened after we moved to Homewood Street. Mary Ellen may call to say that the building didn't have stained-glass.
Mary Ellen was the first person to tell me about the other side of the Catholic church, the activist part. Back then, a group of Jesuits were engaged in helping refugees, and trying to bring progressive and radical change to East Los Angeles. Before I met Mary Ellen, I had no knowledge of this aspect of the church. I only knew the view my parents had of Catholics, the disturbing memories of my maternal grandmother, and that my mom seemed convinced that some priests were child molesters. I still have a hard time not thinking of child abuse when I see a priest. To be perfectly honest, it's the first thing I think of when I see a priest. I'm grateful for the education that Mary Ellen has given me. There are links at the end of this blog about the sanctuary work.
Enough with religion and politics. Let’s talk about sex. When I came across an online listing for “Lesbianism Through The Ages” by Zachary Quill, (my dad), I was left shaking my head in disbelief. The seller wanted $80.00 for this book. I wanted to write them a letter saying, “Hey, this book was written by my father. It was once only $3.00, so I think you should give me a family discount. Do you have any idea what I’ve been through with this man as my father?” Then I’d tell them the whole saga until I wore them down. I didn’t do that, though. I just sulked.
Here's another page of stage and pen names, publishers and agents from Riley's journal. It includes his pen name for this odd ball series of sex books. He took his ex-wife's name and his son Richard's name for who knows what.
A few weeks after I found the book online, my friend from high school came to visit from New York. She knew I was collecting these books, but I told her on a walk that I drew the line at eighty bucks.
A week after she left, I got a package in the mail. I opened it up and it was “Lesbianism Through The Ages” by Zachary Quill... illustrated, don’t forget those illustrations. The best hostess gift, ever. Thanks, Alissa.
Let’s take a look inside:
My father couldn't resist getting his real name in this book. Look what he did on the dedication page, below. I think John Nagy was a music business guy.
I love this foreword the best:
Below, my father implies that basically he slept with many doctor's wives, and that perhaps they shouldn't write about women's sexuality since they don't know what they are doing... "and males, even though doctors, do not know females very well. I have the word of several women married to doctors to substantiate that statement."
The next several pages he lists the laws against homosexuality in each and every state in the 1960s.
Next, the wacky illustrations. The old shower scene with two women. People love that. The lady doing the back scrubbing looks kind of grouchy, though. I wonder if this illustrator already tried to cash some of Dad's checks and they bounced...
Dad for sure wrote bad checks to this artist.
At the back of the book there's several pages of titles from other writers for this publisher. So gross. Again, I don't think Dad was a best seller for the "Wiz" publications.
One of the chapters in "Lesbianism Through the Ages" is filled with "testimonials" from lesbians, as if my father interviewed women and asked them to write about their experiences in their own words. This is the "Lesbians Talking" chapter. I wish I knew if he'd made that part up, or did these women really confide in him? My mother said that people would pour their hearts out to Dad, even strangers. No matter where they were, a public bus, in a diner, people were drawn to him. These total strangers would sit down near my dad, and tell him their darkest secrets, fears, and troubles. Maybe Dad really did get women to confide in him the intimate details of their sex life for that chapter.
The back cover, below.
If you want to know more about the work that Mary Ellen and the sanctuary movement was doing to give immigrants help and shelter in Los Angeles here are some links:
Thanks to Thomas Schworer for fixing up this digital image of Jan Svetlik's "Zebra" painting. The slides are somewhat rough, and we are still working our way through them.