One of the best things about being a higher primate is our penchant for self-expression — opposable thumbs and tool-making notwithstanding. To put a finer point on it, duckbill platypuses do not wear black eyeliner and Joy Division T-shirts. Snails do not attach flame decals to their shells. Three-toed sloths ain't hyphy.
There are probably fewer cities in the world that value individuality and self-expression more than San Francisco. Here we conform to nonconformity, meaning we all look somewhat “different,” yet alike: Same hip haircuts that would stand out in Danville; same cutoff pants that would look fashion-forward in Needles; same penchant for flaunting our undiscovered Brazilian garage band 45s from the '60s.
Of course not everyone here is trying to stand out. Even if you don't count yourself among the hip masses, you are still expressing yourself on a very basic level, through gender. You dress like a “girl” or a “boy.”
I am a firm believer in gender. You are born with it; it is not an environmental construction. Now, that is not to say that you can't be born with male parts and the deep-down gender of a female. What I am saying is that your gender, and however it will play itself out, is fixed at birth.
Which brings me to homosexuality, and to the place I visited this week, Truck on Folsom.
“It's a mixed crowd,” said my friend Brock of the bar, “both gay 'n' straight.” Juanita Moore from Trannyshack was going to be DJing and making hamburgers.
Truck has a great vibe, although I was hard pressed to find anyone who looked straight. It was dykes and homos as far as the eye could see, which suited me just fine. The place ain't fancy but it's clean and well-suited to conversation, with plenty of cocktail tables, a long bar, and a pool table in the back. The floor dips down as soon as you walk in, and I was reminded of the initial downward whoosh when you enter the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.
Brock is gay. He was born seconds after his twin sister, so his parents were no doubt excited to have one of each gender to nurture — she with dolls and Easy-Bake ovens, he with Legos and trucks … only to realize, of course, that Brock was the one who wanted to take dance lessons and watch Charlie's Angels reruns and listen to Cabaret, not his sister.
“I loooove this song,” he gushed to me, sipping his vodka martini. It was a Stevie Nicks number I had never heard before. I was relating to him a story about my childhood, when I first realized that people are born gay. I had a friend named Bill in third grade who would confide in me. We didn't have any concept of gay or straight at that point, let alone that gender was something debated and discussed in liberal arts colleges. Bill cried and said that he wished he were a girl. That he felt like a girl and not a boy. That he envied me for being born with a girl's body. I sure didn't wish I were a boy, so I felt bad for him for not liking what he had. We decided that he could act like a girl with me, wear my girl clothes, and play games that girls like to play. We even shared a crush on the same boy — a boy, it turned out, who was gay, and ended up making out with Bill in fifth grade. Yes, I learned a valuable lesson through Bill: that I would always be passed over for someone else.
Juanita Moore arrived, looking and smelling, like most drag queens, better than a “real” female ever could. She sashayed over to us and shook my hand. Behind her was Monique — aka “Phonique,” who was born a woman with ovaries and fallopian tubes, yet still managed to win the Trannyshack beauty pageant, something that was very disconcerting to me. “How in the hell can a real woman win that thing?” I asked Brock. “Having a biological pussy defeats the whole purpose!”
“It's an attitude, not a gender,” said Brock. I tried to wrap my head around the post-gender-bending idea of this; the idea that transgender expression could come full circle back to an actual vagina. It still doesn't sit right with me.
We sat for a bit and debated whether or not one of the bartenders was gay. He looked like a garden-variety skater boy with a twinge of indie rock and a dollop of T Rex. Compared to the other bartenders, one of whom was a big beefy bear type, another a willowy dandy, this guy seemed super-straight. I flat-out asked him if he was. “I'm gay,” he responded with a smile, not offended at the question, thankfully. He said he was a snowboarder, at least until he injured himself. Wow, said Brock and I, disappointed with our gaydar. Live and learn.
When we headed back to my car it became apparent that I was in no condition to drive. We decided to sit in it and listen to my '80s mixtape. No one but a gay man could appreciate my mélange of REO Speedwagon and the Motels, suffused with Pete Shelley and Air Supply. We were mid-sentence when the opening strains of Laura Branigan's “Gloria” began to tweet through the woofers. We both froze and stared excitedly at each other. Instinctively, I turned the stereo way up. “Gloria” is the kind of song they would play at the opening of the Olympics, or at a cooking school graduation, or at a celebration of getting insurance approval for a sex-change operation. It's bombastic and energizing.
“Oh, I gotta dance!” said Brock, jumping out of the passenger seat and striking a pose in front of a white garage door. I rolled the windows all the way down and blasted Branigan through the neighborhood. Brock moved his hands dramatically in time to the music, his feet joining in with kicks and toe-points, his face locked in the seriousness of le danse. 'Twas all very gay and very wonderful.
“You really dont remem-em-ba,” she sang, “all the voices in your head, was it something that they said, calling Glorrrriiiaaaaaa … ”
Somewhere, up the street, a kitchen light went on. A window to our left slammed shut. We didn't care.
“Go 'head!” I hollered to Brock with a whoop of laughter, “express yo' self!”