The rainbow flag billowing in the wind at the intersection of Market and Castro streets can be spotted from Daniel Redman's home in the Castro District. Facing toward the window, Redman closes his eyes, lifts his head, and erupts into song — his baritone voice wavering with the movements of the flag.
That baritone has earned Redman a fanbase: He memorizes the poetry of Walt Whitman, sets it to new melodies, and performs the resulting songs at queer gatherings around the city. He sings at synagogues, the San Francisco Library, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Lit Crawl festival, and he once performed at a Princeton English professor's home for her birthday. Once a year, Redman sings all of the poems in Leaves of Grass that he has memorized (he plans on hosting a performance over the summer).
A San Francisco-based elder law and LGBT rights attorney, Redman first read Whitman's Leaves of Grass during his winter break at University of California Berkeley's law school. He read the collection of over four hundred poems “on a lark,” but was instantly captivated by the symbolism and tales of friendship that permeated Whitman's work.
Whitman, often considered one of the most influential poets in America, had his work censored when it was first published to omit references to homosexuality. and the male pronouns describing his lovers were changed to “she.” Although his homosexuality was disregarded by many historians until the 1950s, Redman says that the poet's sexual preferences are so prevalent in his diaries, letters, and poems that, “when you deny Whitman's queerness, you're saying that his experience of the world isn't valuable or useful to understanding his poetry.” Instead, Redman says that Whitman's identity should be acknowledged and celebrated as a narrative of the queer community.
Whitman's work allows the community “to think that they have agency, power and a cultural tradition that is of value,” says Redman.
Redman, who identifies as a queer performer, wanted to find a way to sing the tale of queer community through the words of Whitman. He had grown up composing, so he was naturally inclined to set the poems to music. “Singing is another layer of explanation on top of the text itself,” Redman explains.
He experimented with various modes of composition, initially pairing the poems with voice and piano. For years, Redman struggled to find the right type of music to set the poems to, until he turned to his Jewish roots for inspiration. Though he didn't grow up as a singer, he was particularly interested in ecstatic Jewish music customarily sung in the context of prayer or Shabbat because he didn't need vocal training to join in. “It was about the power of community connecting to continuity,” says Redman.
As Whitman grew older, he felt less comfortable being forthright about his sexuality. He eventually began referring to his attraction to men as “adhesiveness” and he would sometimes give code names to his lovers in his diaries. Whitman was aware of his separateness from the rest of society, a void that is perceptible in his poems.
In the poem Songs of Myself, Whitman writes, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman's poems outline a desire to live in an inclusive nation where he and other marginalized people can find a sense of belonging.
“The queer republic that he envisioned of the United States was that it could be a welcoming place for everybody,” says Redman. But, he wonders, “to strip away Whitman's queerness, what's left?”
This message seems especially relevant in the neighborhood visible from Redman's window, which has a history of mobilizing for LGBT rights and that also experienced tragedy during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. From 1981 to the present day, nearly 20,000 people have died of AIDS in San Francisco, many of them homosexual or transgender residents of the Castro. Redman sees Whitman's vision of inclusiveness at play in the activism and research that was done throughout the city to save the lives of AIDS victims.
“This is a city full of ghosts,” Redman says.
Walking through the modern-day Castro, it's difficult to imagine that the neighborhood recently experienced tragedy. The towering rainbow flag is representative of the vivacity and pride in the neighborhood. In Whitman's time, pride and homosexuality couldn't coexist. Now, the song coming from a Castro window is proving that Whitman's dream of an inclusive society can become a reality.
Go to sfweekly.com for a video interview with Daniel Redman.