One National Gay & Lesbian
Archives honored John Rechy's writing, teaching and activism
by making him the first recipient of their ONE Culture
On October 28, 2006, One
celebrated John Rechy's talent, courage, and commitment:
"He has lived his life as an outlaw in many arenas–
being a Mexican-American, a gay man, a writer living in
and celebrating Los Angeles, a teacher of writing (always
noting, “Break the rules”), and an LGBT social
critic and activist. His writings, particularly his latest
work, "Beneath the Skin: The Collected Essays of
John Rechy" (2004), depict his unique stance from
all of these positions"
Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recognized the accomplishments
and achievements of John Rechy:
Mayor of the City of Los Angeles and on behalf of its
residents, it is my pleasure to congratulate you on being
honored with the "One Culture Hero Award" given
by the One National Gay & Lesbian Archives. This is
certainly a special occasion and I am pleased to join
with other members of the community in recognizing your
accomplishments and achievements throughout the years."
following is the text of the speech that evening by John
I think I
am safe in saying that those who know me would not describe
me as humble. Still, there is an unwritten rule that demands
that one claim humility while being honored. Being humbled
by an honor has always seemed odd to me. No honor should
humble one. It should elevate not only the one receiving
it but those who give it, and, emphatically, all others
who deserve it, often more so.
have never felt heroic. Nor have I considered myself an
activist--I have never marched in a demonstration; but
I do believe in the power of the word to goad action.
That, I have attempted to do with my writing.
accepting this wonderful honor, I share it with many others.
I include gay men and women, veterans, who survived on
the frontlines of repression, during a time not long ago
when a sexual act between members of the same sex, in
private, exposed one to being sent to prison for five
include those who survived the concentration camps. Identified
by a pink triangle, they were then again arrested as deviants
by the allies. They are heroes for enduring.
too, were the thousands of men who fought trumped-up sex
charges, easily made, even though they knew that judges
and juries would dutifully find them guilty. Convicted,
they faced prison, court-ordered aversion therapy, shock
therapy, registration as sex criminals.
their right to live their lives despite ubiquitous dangers,
men daily faced exposure to muggings, entrapment by vice
cops, routinely hurled insults. Being in a gay bar exposed
one to being summoned out by police bull horns: "All
queers come out now." Verbally and physically humiliated
as they walked into the glare of harsh lights, these men
knew that some of them in those condoned raids would be
plucked out of the line and arrested on whatever conjured
charge was chosen--being in a "known hangout for
perverts" or simply for loitering. Those held might
be jailed uncharged for 48 hours, released, and then held
again for as long.
were followed out of bars and to their homes by plain
clothes cops, who then broke in, without a warrant to
arrest them--and this was legal as recently as June 2003.
was illegal for members of the same sex to dance together,
but brave men and women did so, often having to resort
to cunning. When a hostile presence was detected, gay
men would shift partners, dancing with lesbians.
bashings, unreported murders--countless lives were invisibly
destroyed by such arrests, men and women lost their jobs,
were ostracized, mandated to stay away from any place
catering to their own. And still they endured.
the ranks of heroes are many of those now disdained as
stereotypes, daring outlaws whose very presentation challenged
concepts of acceptability, questioning, redefining. I
include noble flaming queens who vaunted their identity;
I include roaring bulldykes, doubly menacing. Viewed closely,
those courageous stereotypes become shock troops paving
the way for the more acceptably reputable fighters of
created more heroes. Bravely, men took care of their sick
companions even as they saw the reflection of their own
slow dying. Lesbians came unquestioningly to help, offering
gay men unlimited support and kindness, heroic sisters
indeed. Parents who learned their sons were gay only when
they were dying stood by them bravely; others marched
in dignified files at gay parades proclaiming their love
for their sons. Heterosexuals who ran alongside gay men
and lesbians in marathons to raise funds for research
into the illness, doctors who fought bureaucracy to find
new drugs--all are heroes.
history of homosexuals, men and women, is long. Its recorded
history is sadly short. The reasons are obvious: For centuries,
homosexual men and women were forced into invisibility
by the threat of violence. During the inquisition, cardinals
as corrupt as those of today, tortured and burnt at the
stake those suspected of "sexual deviation."
Entrenched judgments extended for decades. The possibility
of a recorded history was denied, myriad acts of courage
and heroism left unacknowledged.
the early 1950's in a small room, with drapes drawn because
just the fact of such a gathering exposed them to being
arrested, five men met secretly to form the Mattachine
Society, a group dedicated to spreading the message to
those who felt they were alone in the world that they
were not. Out of that gathering, emerged the first issue
of One Magazine, a gay magazine that, though non-erotic,
was prosecuted by the post office. Those five men who
met secretly and those who fought the courts to continue
to be able to mail the supportive magazine are heroes.
The names of Harry Hays and Dorr Legg come easily to mind.
a humble storefront in Hollywood, a middle-aged man occupied
a small dusty room filled with fading newsclips, photographs.
Alone, intrepid, dedicated, piecing together the jumble
of gay history, that man, Jim Kepner, is a hero.
so out of humble beginnings began the attempt to restore
lost history, and it is continued here at One Institute
in this beautiful setting by volunteers who cull through
private collections, boxes and boxes, to restore at least
the recent decades of otherwise lost history.
through these archives and you'll sense the essence of
heroism, survival against great odds, lonely acts of defiance
asserting that pride and courage were not born, as some
now insist, during the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969.
were acts of equal significance in earlier, even more
dangerous times. In 1958 major civil disobedience occurred
in downtown Los Angeles outside a favorite gay after-hours
gathering place, Cooper's Donuts. In routine harassment,
two cops would walk along the aisles among seated gay
men. Randomly checking ID, they turned their harassment
into a game, walking out as if to leave. Marching back
in, they randomly chose men to take to jail, counting
derisively, "One, two, three, four, we'll come for
you later." Those four would be taken to "the
glass house," jail, finger-printed, kept for 48 hours
"for open investigation." That one night, after
they had chosen their four men and were cramming them
into a squad car, one of the men broke away. Those inside
the donut shop ran out. Helping the other three men to
escape, they flung debris, cups, spoons, trash at the
arrogant invaders. So powerful was the protest that the
police fled into their car, now rocked by defiant gay
men. The police radioed for backups, cop vehicles blockaded
the street into morning. Undaunted, gay people danced
about the squad cars, exulting in a feeling of justified
my books I've written about uncelebrated survivors, those
people I mingled among, those whom I used as models for
my characters. Characters in books are left frozen on
the page, forever there. But what about the actual living
person?--left, say, on the dead-end streets of the time?
When my first novel was published, sadness tinged with
guilt ambushed me when I recalled them, those people living
on the edge. As I became a writer, those I had written
about remained in a turbulent world then secret except
to them. Had I betrayed their lives by having lived among
them, with them, as one of them?--and then violently separating
from them, becoming a writer--escaping, as it were--a
life that I would then record as one having for most no
I wondered, and still do, happened to Chuck, the lazy
cowboy who lingered under the apathetic palm trees of
Pershing Square? A cowboy without a horse, no frontier
left to explore. In my novel he will always be basking
in the warm sun, certain that tonight will allow him another
tomorrow. In real life, did it? The world I shared with
him and others was only blocks from skid row, waiting.
Destiny, the fabulous Miss Destiny--she will continue
to exist in my work--and you may see her actual photograph,
in resplendent defiant drag, on the cover of an issue
of One Magazine on display upstairs. Did she have her
longed-for white wedding? Or did she, as she had begun
to do, drown in alcohol to still the painful knowledge
of the limited possibilities the times allowed to her
share this honor with all of them.
will end my talk with memories of heroism that inspired
me when I was a teenager in El Paso: There were two women
who ate regularly at Luby's Cafeteria. They wore their
hair smartly short, they wore suits. When they entered,
there were often sniggers. They walked in with squared
shoulders and a steady pace, undaunted.
remember two men, always together, slightly effeminate,
in the same popular cafeteria in El Paso. The two could
not have escaped the overt and covert looks of disdain,
the leering smiles, and, not infrequently, a not-too-whispered
reference to "queers." They never lost their
dignity as they invaded what must have seemed to them
a minefield of derision. Heroes, yes, those two men, those
two women--they proclaimed their difference silently,
courageously: "I am not what you want me to be."
share this honor with the many, many heroes whose history
of endurance is, finally, being asserted here, in these
splendid archives, the largest in the world.
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Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.