By Scott Ross
Forty-seven years ago (and as unbelievably ancient as that figure sounds to a Millennial, trust me when I say that I can’t quite believe it either), on the morning of 22 June 1969, my family was living in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. It was a lovely summer day, pleasant and dry, although I seem to think it may have rained the night before. As we didn’t have a subscription to the Sunday Columbus Dispatch, someone had always on that day of the week to walk down to the little general store a few blocks away and pick up a copy of the paper. It was either my turn, or I volunteered, I no longer recall which, but after I paid for the newspaper, I walked back home, looking at the front page. The banner headline said that Judy Garland had died, at 47.
I was a very naïve child, in many ways. In part, I suspect, because I seldom voiced my inner thoughts, and therefore seldom had my misconceptions corrected. You get orally slapped down enough times, you learn to keep things to yourself. Example: For several years during early childhood I was convinced that the people we saw on television lived inside the box, and somehow magically sprang into action when we turned on the set. (I used occasionally to switch it off and then right back on, hoping to catch them loafing.) The only thing I knew of Judy Garland, at that time, was that she was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, which we watched every Easter. And while I no longer believed that people took up residence inside our black-and-white(!) Sylvania television console, I must still have maintained some notion either that film froze the people on it, or that movies were, somehow, live. So Judy Garland’s age really puzzled me. How could that young girl be 47 years old? She looked only a bit older than my sister. And 47 — why, that was 12 years older than my father!
I think of that walk back home every year at this time. Sheltered in the Ohio midlands, in a place that was something between a large town and a small city, I had little idea what was going on in the outside world. (Mt. Vernon is one of my lost Edens; and if it was a cocoon, it was a cocoon I had been happy to nestle inside.) And that summer, a great deal was going to go on, very soon, in America at least, just as an even greater deal had gone on here the year before. I certainly had only the vaguest notion, despite odd but measurable stirrings within my own self for years, what a homosexual was, and wouldn’t have understood what was about to occur in a place called Greenwich Village. Whether or not grief over Judy Garland’s death had anything at all to do with the furious reactions at Stonewall — the playwright Doric Wilson thought it hadn’t, and he was there — the almost umbilical connection between “Miss Show Business” and many of her gay male fans was very real, and something I would come to understand quite well, some six or seven years later.
When I shared the following dialogue from my play A Liberal Education on what is prettily called social media Doric, who has since died, gently set me straight (so to speak) on the tempting Garland connection. When I thanked him and said I would consider revising the scene, he replied, “Don’t change a word.” I loved him for that. We never met in the flesh, but I miss him. He was a wonderful writer (his play on Stonewall, Street Theatre, should be required reading for every gay boy and girl), a kind man, and a living link to that moment that helped alter so much, for so many.
Anyway, here’s the dialogue in question:
Nick: David, tell them your theory.
Jo: Oh, goodie — theorizing.
David: Well, we were talking — on the way over — about the differences in gay behavior.
Jo: There are differences?
David: Not for nothing, sweetie, but some men are gay and some are — (He stands and throws his arms up and out in a “v”) — gay!
Jo: Thanks for the clarification.
Nick: I mean, you take me. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to swish.
David: He tried once. At a New Year’s Eve party? Pathetic.
Jo: (Singing) I can’t camp — (Sheree joins in) — don’t ask me.
David: Whereas I might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign. Anyway. I was thinking, about Stonewall. And as far as I can gather, that little shin-dig was thrown by a whole lotta pissed-off drag queens and effeminate Hispanic boys and oh-so-butch ladies —
Nick: Drag queens and nellies and dykes —
Jo: Oh, my!
David: Exactly. Has anyone ever made the connection that, the week those girls said, “Get over it, Miss Cop,” Our Lady of the Rainbow had just doffed her ruby slippers for the last time?
Nick: Isn’t it funny to think that Judy Garland just might be the unofficial mother of the whole modern gay rights movement?
Sheree: Hysterical. Does that make Liza Minnelli the step-mother?
Nick: You have to admit, if you take anger, frustration and high temperatures and compound them with grief, you’ve got one very volatile combination.
David: So, the next time some slab of overfed gay beef gives me shit for the venal sin of camping, I’m just going to sing him a few bars of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.”
Text copyright 2016 by Scott Ross