Monday, August 22, 2005

Saying Goodbye to the Fishers: A Memorial to Six Feet Under

Last night HBO aired the Six Feet Under series finale. For five seasons Six Feet Under, created by Alan Ball, and whose style and tone mirrored his subdued yet curiously energized Academy-award winning creation American Beauty, was engaging, infuriating, compelling, and, finally, undeniably satisfying.

The show followed the Fisher family and the friends, lovers, and relatives who inhabited the landscape of their strange lives in an anonymous section of Los Angeles, adding yet another mythic dimension to the city's reputation. The Fishers owned and operated a mortuary and funeral home above which several of the characters lived off-and-on during much of the show. Each episode began with a vignette of death—such as an unexpected and violent attack on a hiker by a mountain lion or self strangulation during a solo sex act—followed by a blank screen on which appeared the name of the deceased and his or her birth and death dates. The fact that death informed every episode didn't in itself make the show macabre or depressing.

Instead, the Fisher's day-to-day interaction with the dead only reinforced the notion that life and death are so tightly intertwined as to elicit no more than a shrug and a ho-hum. (It should be noted here that the amazing and brilliant Frances Conroy as Ruth Fisher, with her slumped shoulders and glum demeanor, redefined the resignation and indifference inherent in a shrug.) Six Feet Under's greatest achievement was in demonstrating how precipitous is the crest of the hill we navigate between death and life. And how in a split second we reach out to grasp the hand of somebody we trust to steady us lest we fall. And even were we to fall from life, certain of the show's characters, Richard Jenkins's Nathaniel Fisher—the show's patriarch, who died calamitously in the series' first episode—and Peter Krause's Nate Fisher, revealed that the boundary between death and life is, as was evidenced by the one-on-one dialogues carried on between each of them and their living counterparts, wondrously permeable.

The series’ first season was a revelation or sorts. For those of us who admired Ball's writing for the film American Beauty, it was a reunion with his nuanced approach to articulating a character’s personality. Those characters’ individual identities seemed fully formed, even in the early episodes. Nate was the prodigal son, bristling at the responsibility to family he felt compelled to embrace following his father's death. His brother David (Michael C. Hall), gay and closeted, was rigid and uptight. The contrast between David and Nate was startling, and it was hard not to be drawn to Nate's romantic and poetic nature. Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), Nate's on-again-off-again love interest throughout the series until they were married this season, was spontaneous and effervescent. The enamel smooth surface of serenity that Ruth, the Fisher matriarch, exuded was already beginning to show signs of fractures. One of the most rewarding experiences of each episode was witnessing Ruth's combustible eruptions. They were hilarious, frightening, unexpected, and unnerving all at once.

Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the youngest Fisher, was adrift in an adolescent haze. She had only a passing acquaintance with her older brother Nate, who had left home to live in Seattle when she was still very young, and felt alienated from Ruth and David. As a teenager she was uncertain of her own identity. It seemed overwhelming, and the writers never let the viewer forget it, that she should try to read and understand her wounded and defensive family.

Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), David's African-American lover, was a gay hero for many viewers. Tall and broad shouldered, he was also an openly and proudly gay officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. He challenged David's internal homophobia and encouraged him to tell his family about his sexual identity. Federico (Freddy Rodriguez), an Hispanic staff person at the funeral home, struggled for his place in the business following Nathaniel's death. Rico’s talent for restoring the most devastatingly wrecked corpse ensured he would prevail. All of this day-to-day emotional and mental intrigue was presented and exquisitely rendered by an accomplished crew under Alan Ball's direction.

By the second season, however, all bets were off. Suddenly the writers seemed to treat the characters as though they'd manifested schizophrenic tendencies. Emotionally, nobody even remotely resembled who he or she was in the previous season. It wasn't too long before I lost patience, and my regular viewing dwindled. It occurs to me now that the characters were displaying the annoying behaviors so familiar to me from my own life. Wasn't I too capricious, fickle, hypersensitive, difficult, intensely happy, and, at the same time, filled with unrelenting despair and irrational crippling fears? David, Nate, Ruth, Brenda, Keith, Federico, and, of course, as expected, Claire were each as human in their behavior and responses to highs and lows as the people writing the words that tumbled from the actors' mouths.

"I just want to celebrate another day of living..." In the series’ final moments on Sunday, Nate appears as a music video performer, dressed in a white suit and suspenders and with Gucci shades, intoning Rare Earth's R&B classic. He's an apparition, of course, nudging Claire from her sleep, out of the Fisher home, and to a new start, as a photographer, perhaps, in New York City. "Thank you for giving me life," Claire tells her mother moments before leaving the house where she grew up. "You gave me life," Ruth replies. Celebrating life in all its awkward, painful, and exhilarating magnificence is what this show was all about.

The rest of the character's stories, if you're even remotely familiar with the show's trajectory during the past season, are tied up neatly and, mostly, without surprise. By the show's end they have cobbled together lives for themselves that reflect a transcendent hope. As Claire leaves the nurturing ghost of Nate in the distance, we see her enter onto a Los Angeles freeway that will take her east across the wide swath of desert that is southern California.

As she navigates the arid landscape to the plaintive strains of Australian singer Sia's "Breathe Me," significant events in the future lives of the principal characters emerge from Claire's reverie, punctuated by the familiar buff screen featuring the names, birth, and death dates of the characters as they, one-by-one, leave life. The encapsulating storyline device is not a new one, but it is profoundly moving.

Among other snapshots of the Fisher's lives, we see Nate's and Brenda's baby Willa—born only a few weeks after Nate's death—celebrate her first birthday, David's and Keith's wedding, the ghosts of Nathaniel and Nate ushering Ruth to her own death, Claire getting married to Ted (Chris Messina)—a well-meaning right-wing ultra-conservative lawyer with whom she became lovers this season, Keith's murder by armed robbers, David's death, then Brenda's, and, finally, at the age of 102, in 2085, Claire lying in bed immobile with ancient and opaque eyes remembering all of the lovely and complicated people who have preceded her in death. The camera pans the walls of her room and we look back across time at familiar faces in photographs. Claire's death, too, is near.

"Everything ends," the finale's promotions promised. On Six Feet Under everything ended exquisitely.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Making It Official: Gay Identity In The Histories of America's Places

Today, as part of an annual assembly of students, faculty, and staff at Goucher College, I made a presentation with information culled from a research paper I wrote for one of my historic preservation classes. The title of that paper was "Beyond the Symbols of Democracy: Through a Capital Looking Glass—Gay Identity and Its Places on Capitol Hill." The paper was honored with the 2005 Stephen K.F. and Katharine W. Lee Prize, an annual award that recognizes "the best paper or project addressing the preservation of America's diverse heritage, including cultural and ethnic groups, life-style diversity, and the cultural imprint of other defined groups on American Society." This was a great honor for me, and a huge vote of confidence from my professor, Antoinette Lee, who asked me to submit the paper for prize consideration.

Since the paper was not adequate alone for presentation, I refined the topic, which actually broadened the scope of the original subject. Here is the transcript from the presentation, which I titled, "Making It Official: Gay Identity In The Histories of America's Places." It was very challenging to create an original presentation from the earlier paper, but I found the subject interesting and intriguing, which made putting it together a satisfying experience. Much more thought and research could be applied to the information I shared in the presentation. If you're reading it here, please be advised that this is a new topic of research for me and as such reflects a still-developing sensibility and sensitivity.

Making It Official: Gay Identity In The Histories of America's Places

Good Morning.

I’d like to start with a couple of acknowledgments.

I want to thank Toni Lee for encouraging me to explore the topic of gay cultural heritage as the subject of my first paper for her section of Preservation Documentation last spring and for having confidence that others might be interested in learning about it in this kind of forum. Toni’s commitment to recognizing the contributions of diverse groups to a rich American cultural heritage, expressed in her thoughtful and insightful writings, has inspired me.

A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from Richard Wagner telling me my paper had been awarded this prize. It was followed by a phone conversation during which he asked something like, “So, what do you plan on saying?” Maybe some of you, my peers that is, can empathize with my experience at that moment. When Richard asks this kind of question in his strictly business mode, your vocabulary evaporates and you find yourself feeling as I did then—embarrassed as nothing but incoherent babbling tumbled over my lips and into the phone receiver. “Make it theoretical,” he advised. Since I’m still not sure I understand what “theoretical” is, it’s very likely I didn’t succeed. Instead my approach is much more impressionistic in nature. So, Richard, two things: “Thank you,” and, in advance, “I’m sorry.”

And, finally, I want to thank my friends Jeff and Paul for being here today. They didn’t mind getting up early this morning to sit in the audience with a bunch of strangers so I’d have moral support if this presentation falls to pieces. Old friends, as you know, don’t judge us based on our failures or value us more because of our successes. Right now the only question going through their minds is: “Where do you think we’re gonna to eat lunch?” Thanks, you guys.

Back in January, before the spring session started, I’d been thinking a lot about ephemeral cultural heritage and how it gets preserved. In the fourteen years I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve watched as large numbers of the gay population have migrated across the city from Dupont Circle—a place still considered by many the center of gay culture in Washington—to what was at one time referred to as “Dupont East,” now, with its own fully-developed identity, Logan Circle, and into neighborhoods stretching east around Howard University and still farther south and east to Capitol Hill at its border on the Anacostia River.

At this point, I should say that while there are instances in this presentation where the word “gay” refers specifically to the sexual identity of men, in general I use the word inclusively to describe the broad spectrum of sexual and gender diverse persons—gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered men and women. By this general use of the term, I do not mean to diminish individual identity; rather I wish only to be economical in speaking.

The scope of my first documentation paper was limited to my Capitol Hill neighborhood. I live on the southeastern border of the Capitol Hill Historic District and the paper dealt in part with the evolution of the commercial district in that area over the past forty years, and specifically places once gay-owned and which functioned as gay businesses. Gays created a vibrant social and literary heritage there. Many of the places where they congregated—nightclubs, piano bars and cocktail lounges, and bookstores—were safe environments to mingle and entertain freely and openly without the threat of persecution. But as population shifts have occurred, and the heterosexual population has demonstrated greater acceptance of gays, the gay scene has also changed. Many of those places no longer exist, thus my interest in an ephemeral gay heritage there.

How, I wondered, as we leave a place and move on, is our presence there remembered? When we no longer occupy the built environment, and it is transformed or raised in our absence, how is the record of our time and the history we created there, preserved? Not only observing a population on the move, but also what was left in its wake prompted some of this contemplation. Progressively, in Dupont Circle especially, gay-owned businesses and those that gays frequented have closed or have been displaced by banks and retail and apparel chains, such as the women’s clothing store Ann Taylor, which, by itself, speaks to the dramatic shift in the area’s demographics.

In revisiting my paper topic to prepare this presentation, however, I discovered something that should have been obvious to me all along: preserving memory and history by means of the built environment—and taking into consideration the vicissitudes of time and our own transient experience in those places—is not only a challenge for gays. It’s a challenge for all of us. Last summer, for example, Kim O’Connell presented a paper dealing with the theme of ephemeral cultural heritage within the context of Little Saigon in Clarendon, Virginia. Articulating our histories using the places we’ve inhabited or the environments we’ve passed through is part of what preservation is all about. This is not to say, however, that engrained attitudes about the cultural heritage of minority groups, including gays, haven’t sometimes conspired to make it more difficult for us to gain recognition of our histories.

So, after some recent discussion with Toni, I started to think about gay identity and how it is represented and included in, or as certain cases revealed, excluded from, the existing narratives and histories of some of America’s places. So far there is one designated gay historic site in the National Register, which I will discuss briefly in a moment, but there are many more historic places where gays have participated in or contributed to the significant history. The questions are how can gay histories be inserted into the official narratives of these places, and why is it important to give gay connections recognition at all.

Although gay histories and gay cultural heritage remain fairly illusive in the preserved built environment, gays, as a group, are not outsiders in the field of historic preservation. We are, as I was recently reminded, an “institutionalized” group. At the National Trust’s annual conference we are officially recognized in the agenda as “Gays, Lesbians, and Friends in Preservation,” our role as “culture-keepers,” as Will Fellows describes us, was explored last year in his book titled A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture, and one of the cornerstones of the gay rights movement, the Stonewall Inn, is listed in the National Register.

This final distinction is not inconsequential. It has parallels in the preservation movement’s earliest activities: first, the successful effort to save Independence Hall from demolition and, second, the early restoration of Mt. Vernon. Each of these successful rescue efforts preserved two fundamental components of our nation’s story as a democracy.

The Stonewall Inn, unremarkable architecturally in comparison with those distinguished sites in Philadelphia and Virginia, nevertheless is a place that embodies the same concept of an historical touchstone for a people’s beginnings—in this case gays and the genesis of the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn, is, therefore, freighted with some of the same cultural, historic, and symbolic significance as its iconic forbearers.

From June 28th through July 3rd, 1969, the Stonewall Inn was the site of a series of riots, known as the Stonewall Rebellion. Over the course of six nights, thousands of gays demonstrated and protested against police harassment. Gay history records this rebellion as the single most enduring event of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement. It is equaled in importance only by the political engagement of gays that coalesced around the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. Stonewall’s listing in the National Register, notable both for expanding the scope of diverse groups in the Register and for superseding the 50-year rule by successfully supplying evidence to support criterion A, was a watershed moment for gays. Kimberly Stahlman Kearns, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said at the time: “The listing of Stonewall in the National Register is a major milestone for the American Historic Preservation movement. It signals a commitment to a more inclusive approach to historic preservation that goes beyond recognizing architectural monuments to also honor the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the American population. For the first time this includes the heritage of gay and lesbian Americans.”

After I read the thorough and riveting 34-page National Register nomination form for the Stonewall Inn, I wondered if it was enough that the official preservation establishment has recognized the place marking one of the most significant events in gay history. Probably not, I concluded fairly quickly. It’s never enough, right? No matter what the gains we achieve in whatever we’ve accomplished as far as preserving any piece of our historic built environment or place of significant cultural heritage, it can never be enough. Added to that, I was reminded by somebody recently that achieving official recognition for the places where gay history happened and being given recognition in official histories are two very different things.

For instance, at about the same time I was researching my paper, Cultural Tourism DC inaugurated a new Heritage Trail on Capitol Hill. One of four such trails in the city, all somewhat thematic in approach, Tour of Duty: Barracks Row Heritage Trail uses the Marine Barracks and Navy Yard as the armature for telling the story of this vibrant precinct. Sixteen visually compelling poster-sized signs illustrate the neighborhood’s history. Again, the basic theme for the historical narrative is the influence the military presence had on the development of a commercial and social district. You can see from this sign that the theme, however, is merely a touchstone for the development of the surrounding neighborhood. The churches and businesses, of course, served a much broader and more diverse community. And, in fact, from the late 1940s to the 1980s, gay businesses thrived along the 8th Street corridor, effectively the main artery of this particular precinct. Nowhere on any of the 16 signs, however, is a gay presence in the area, at any time in the place’s history, described or even mentioned.

Cultural Tourism DC is already at work preparing a formal trail for Dupont Circle. Dupont Circle is as significant culturally for gay Washingtonians as is the West Village for New York City’s gays or the Castro District for San Francisco’s gay population. Astonishingly, in the materials available on Cultural Tourism DC’s Web site, sexual and gender diversity in the area is ignored. Instead, the heritage here is decidedly traditional in nature. Elegant Gilded Age mansions, statuary honoring Civil War heroes, the home of a former U.S. president, even a sculpture honoring Mahatma Gandhi, are among the selected heritage treasures honored here. The focal point of Dupont Circle, a majestic fountain surrounded by alternating rings of benches and tree-shaded grassy areas has been a gathering place for the city’s gays for decades. It is described in Cultural Tourism DC’s online tour as, and I quote, “a place where chess players, office workers, and dog walkers mingle with a diverse crowd of neighbors and urban adventurers.” What this particular example demonstrates is that even in the most obvious of contexts, gay history would appear to be incompatible with official history. Traditional architectural monuments are honored, while diverse cultural heritage is effectively ignored.

In the two examples of heritage trails in Washington, it’s perhaps obvious that addressing gay historic significance is somewhat problematic. The gay population’s involvement with specific sites is often relatively fleeting, and therefore difficult to quantify and qualify according to existing preservation standards. Since the architectural landmarks are often undistinguished, it becomes a matter of ferreting out a cogent history that can conform to local and state landmark standards and criteria not to mention those of the National Register, the standard-bearer for standards. There is little to guide investigations of the ephemeral nature of this particular population.

What I would propose, therefore, is that we begin to communicate the stories of gay history at existing historic places. This tact will alleviate, however temporarily, the difficult, albeit pressing, questions of how to fit this particular diverse cultural heritage into existing standards for preservation and whether expanding the scope of historic places to include the history of, in this case, gays diminishes for our society in general the meaning of what is historic.

What I’m really talking about is a reevaluation of the histories of our historic places and adding to the interpretative narratives of those places. Interpretation is, after all, a fundamental component of preservation. I think we might all agree that without interpretive value, a historic place is merely a place. In their introduction to the National Register Bulletin titled, Telling Stories: Planning Effective Interpretive Programs for the Properties Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Ron Thomson and Marilyn Harper write: “…Places do not speak to us directly. Their stories need to be interpreted before people can understand them.”

So, let’s take a quick look at where gay identity might be inserted into existing official historical narratives at a couple of historic places. We can start somewhat locally with the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Its historic function includes both recreation and American culture. It has been the site of massive demonstrations and protests, most notably those associated with African-American civil rights. In fact, the historic 1963 March on Washington is recognized in nearly every official history of the Mall and the Lincoln Memorial, as is Marian Anderson’s historic April 1939 recital on the steps of the Memorial.

In 1987, seven years into the AIDS crisis—one of the undisputed defining issues for the national gay community—the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed hundreds of quilt panels stretching nearly the entire length of the National Mall’s official boundaries. More than 500,000 people are estimated to have navigated the Mall to view the handcrafted panels commemorating the thousands of gay men and others who died from complications related to HIV. If the sheer magnitude of this remarkable art installation/commemoration were not enough, the historical significance of the event itself warrants official recognition. The President of the United States did not speak publicly about the AIDS epidemic for more than five years as it claimed large numbers of gays, before being widely detected in the general population. The National Park Service’s support of the quilt display effectively placed the devastating grasp of the disease in the nation’s collective consciousness. As thousands of people, gay and straight, young and old, visited the quilts—the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS was further undermined. In official materials, such as the National Register’s own online inventory designed specifically for a broad public audience, this momentous event goes unmentioned in discussions of the historical significance of this great public place.

Walt Whitman is the undisputed quintessential American poet. Best known for his collection of poems titled Leaves of Grass, Whitman was a tireless patriot, both in verse and in action. During the Civil War he lived in Washington and spent much of his time at the bedsides of wounded soldiers reading to them, transcribing letters for them, and comforting many of them as they died. He is commemorated at his birthplace in West Hills, New York, the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center, which was listed in the National Register in 1985.

Whitman is also celebrated as a gay icon and hero. He had at least two long-time same-sex partners, one of whom was Peter Doyle. While the theme of same-sex love was integral to the spirit of Leaves of Grass, and the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication was the centerpiece of events at his birthplace this past spring, issues of sexual identity are conspicuously absent from Whitman’s official biography on his birthplace Web site and in printed materials the interpretive center makes available to the public.

At approximately the same time this year, however, in Washington, D.C., Whitman and the publication of Leaves of Grass were celebrated with a citywide festival. Historic Congressional Cemetery marked the occasion by offering a tour of the grounds and the graves where the remains of friends and soldiers Whitman had nursed are buried. Many people came to the cemetery to see Peter Doyle’s grave. “They asked specifically for ‘Whitman’s lover’s grave,’” says Linda Harper, chairperson of the Cemetery’s Board of Directors. “We consider Whitman’s and Doyle’s story an important part of the history here.”

At Congressional Cemetery, where presidents and first ladies were interred and members of congress, as well as notable musicians, writers, and statesmen are buried, gay people too are commemorated and their stories told as part of the place’s official history. While soldiers who were openly gay are not extended burial privileges at Arlington National Cemetery, Congressional Cemetery has a section popularly known as “Gay Corner.” Among other notable gay Americans buried here is gay rights hero and advocate, Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient Leonard Matlovich. His grave is a gathering place for gay activists and visitors from around the world.

Where official recognition of gay cultural heritage lags, gay advocacy groups pick up the slack. The Rainbow History Project in Washington, D.C. is committed to, and I quote from their materials, “preserving our community’s memories.” They have achieved this goal in part by organizing walking tours focusing on diversity in neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle, South Capitol Street SE, and Capitol Hill.

In San Francisco, The Friends of 1800, a grassroots organization, is advocating a comprehensive cultural resource survey that will, I quote, “lay the foundation for the preservation of sites important to Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgendered, or LBGT, history and culture, and will be an official recognition of the importance of LGBT history to the culture and history of San Francisco.” Remarkably, San Francisco’s Castro District, a cultural touchstone in the collective psyche of gays worldwide, has no historic designation on the local, state, or national level. Friends of 1800 has completed a statement of significance for a National Register nomination form. The statement, to which they’ve given the title ”Sexing the City: The Development of Sexual Identity Based Subcultures in San Francisco, 1933-1979,” underscores the significance of diverse sexual identities to the history of the Castro and other historically gay districts. According to persons working with Friends, this will be the first such nomination requesting recognition of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered cultural heritages.

In an incisive journal article titled, From Historic Architecture to Cultural Heritage: A Journey Through Diversity, Identity, and Community, Antoinette Lee identifies two reports instrumental in expanding the boundaries of the historic preservation movement: Cultural Conservation: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in the United States: A Study, published in 1983, and Keepers of the Treasures: Protecting Historic Properties and Cultural Traditions on Indian Lands, published in 1990. While neither report speaks directly about issues of sexuality and gender, what they underscore is the common ground shared by minority groups representing the breadth of our American citizenry.

Grassroots organizations, such as Friends of 1800 and the Rainbow History Project, will continue to reveal the significant contributions of gays and other persons of diverse sexual identity through their associations with the built environment. This kind of exploration of cultural heritage seems almost as remote from the earliest instances of historic preservation as one’s imagination can stretch.

As diverse cultural expressions proliferate, the question of what really is appropriate for historic designation in the National Register and in local and state listings will very likely test and challenge existing standards and criteria. In the meantime, everybody plays by the rules, honoring those established standards and criteria; we submit the places we see as invaluable to our histories to scrutiny and evaluation. Does recognizing gay history, or the histories of other emerging minority groups, in America’s places and acknowledging sites where those histories were made diminish the meaning of what is historic for the larger society? I would reply with two more questions: Isn’t there a place for everybody’s cultural heritage to be honored and valued in an ever-increasingly diverse nation? And can we afford to be exclusive because being too inclusive might dilute the meaning of what is historic?

Thank you.