Since enough copies of Stone Butch Blues haven’t come in yet at the local bookstores, I had to rearrange our reading in the Lesbian & Gay Lit class for the first few weeks. Since I didn’t think I could spring a reading on them at the last minute (more or less), today we watched the documentary on The Cockettes rather than read a text.

The documentary recounts the rise and demise of the Cockettes, a hippie/acid freak/queer theatrical troupe from the late 1960s and early 1970s in San Francisco. I didn’t show it in class last year, but I did show it a couple of times before that. What I like about it in relation to my class is its illustration that the Stonewall Riots, while incredibly important in queer history, were not in fact the only show in town in the late ’60s.

Hibiscus The Cockettes were led, at least for a time, by Hibiscus, shown here. They were known for their outrageous form of drag — outrageous in part because of their combination of male facial hair (in some cases), feminine clothing, and (arguably) excessive glitter. As one member of the group explains, whatever someone was doing the others would call for more. If you had one shirt on, why not five more? If you had some glitter, why not a lot of glitter. In many ways, this summarizes the whole Cockette lifestyle.

It’s a great documentary. It follows a relatively predictable narrative: formation of the group, the group’s zenith, its demise, and the aftermath. It intersplices interviews with the surviving members with images and footage from the group’s performances. It also focuses on a lot more than just sex or drugs. We see parts of some of the performances. The movie also explains who people in the late 1960s were able to survive in communes (welfare, in most cases). And it shows the effects of Ronald Reagan’s cutting of state programs that many artists used to subsist.

Whenever I watch it, I start to regret that this sort of queer community and action doesn’t seem possible today. While some aspects of the era’s culture are probably not quite as attractive today (promiscuous, unsafe sex and hard drug use, for example), one (I) can’t help but be a little jealous of the love, the excitement, and the energy created by this family/community. I suppose I see Shortbus as the fictional heir to this kind of queer community, one that includes everybody — gays, straights, transpeople, bisexuals, and anybody else that wants to come along.

And maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to dress as a Cockette for Halloween or something! It will be a pale imitation, but perhaps a liberating one nevertheless. In the meantime, I highly recommend The Cockettes. It’s a very entertaining documentary.

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