- Evanescence:Three Tales of the Recent Queer Theatrical Past
Of late, I find I have been contemplating what I have come to think of as the peculiar evanescence of the recent queer past. It might be because I think I am now officially middle aged. It might be because I finally just published my first book. But I have been especially captivated by the proximity (by which I mean distance) of the then and there of my gay young adulthood in the 1990s with regard to the many queer futures proliferating in the world today.
To elaborate, I would like to share three stories drawn from my recent work. Each offers an angle on how I have become especially alert to just how fleeting and easily lost the recent queer past can be. One story tells of my own archival naiveté, or my misguided assumption that the familiar admonition “the internet is forever” applies fairly, equally, and predictably to queer digital content. Another reflects on the ways that my performance practice as an autobiographical storyteller (and a method I call “storywork”) has confirmed the perhaps unexpected utility of performance-making as a technique for excavating an archivally elusive episode in gay male erotic performance. My final story describes the quiet stirrings of a movement to protect and preserve the creative legacy of a radical queer elder and queer kinship networks amid normative “end-of-life” protocols inclined to recognize only patriarchal family structures, institutional networks, and legally fortified relationships. In sharing these three stories I hope to evince some tandem currents of continuity—around questions of archive, method, and advocacy—that have animated the work of our subfield of queer performance history from its beginnings and toward its futures.
My first story is about some dolls I began playing with in the 1990s.
In 1999, when Robin Bernstein and I undertook that transformative independent study together,1 I had just stepped away from a research project that had focused my critical attention during the completion of my master’s at the University of New Mexico into the first year of my PhD study at Yale. The project engaged the phenomenon of the Billy and Carlos dolls, a pair of “anatomically complete” novelty dolls that were widely marketed within and beyond LGBT retail networks as silly, sex-positive icons of gay visibility. Almost immediately upon the release of these dolls I scoured glossy national magazines, begged friends nationwide to send me any and all mentions of Billy in their local gay-community newspapers, hustled to videotape news segments when they appeared, and printed out webpages that mentioned or promoted the dolls. As a still-novice researcher I had amassed a substantial clipping file on the dolls. This material provided the basis for a master’s seminar paper, as well as several public presentations.
My presentation on the Billy and Carlos dolls was always a reliable hit, but the popularity of the topic also affirmed my determination to adopt the stance of a historian. I craved the “pastness” of the past. I lacked the necessary polemical passion and theoretical hunger to guide me through the dizzying uncertainties of what might happen next when commenting on a contemporary phenomenon. [End Page 47] For indeed, in 1999 Billy and Carlos were an ongoing contemporary phenomenon. New products (including a third doll named Tyson) and product tie-ins (like the pornographic feature film Billy 2000: Billy Goes to Hollywood) were announced every month. But as my emerging research interests drew me further back in time, so too did my Carlos project move to the back of my to-do list, where it stayed for the next decade or so.
But something astonishing happens when you take a while to finish your dissertation: once-contemporary topics can transform to become emphatically historical when it finally comes time to conceptualize your first book. That is how Carlos reentered this historian’s life as the centerpiece of the final chapter of my book, Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century US Popular Performance. Returning to the dolls as a historical phenomenon, I could see Billy and Carlos not only as ideologically fraught articulations of...