Cairo Story: Flaubert Got There First
To the Editor:
To Raphael Cormack’s article “Sexual Diversity in Cairo in the 1920s” [May-June 2021 issue] might be included a letter from Gustave Flaubert that I discuss in my book Unruly Desires: American Sailors and Homosexualities in the Age of Sail. During an 1849 visit to Egypt, the French novelist wrote of his visit to a Cairo hammam: “It’s at the baths that such things take place. You reserve the bath for yourself (five francs including masseurs, pipe, coffee, sheet and towel) and you skewer your lad in one of the rooms. Be informed, furthermore, that all the bath-boys are berdaches. The final masseurs, the ones who come to rub you when all the rest is done, are usually quite nice young boys.”
Flaubert selected a likely kellaa, but when he mustered his courage to proceed, the boy was no longer available, and he was massaged instead by a “disgusting” man in his fifties. “[M]y kellaa was rubbing me gently, and when he came to the noble parts he lifted up my boules d’amours to clean them, then continuing to rub my chest with his left hand he began to pull with his right on my prick, and as he drew it up and down he leaned over my shoulder and said, ‘baksheesh, baksheesh.’” Flaubert pushed the hand away and the attendant feared he might have offended, but the author took it in his stride. “As for me, I laughed aloud like a dirty old man, and the shadowy vault of the bath echoed with the sound.”
William Benemann, San Francisco
Keith Haring at Work Was a Marvel
To the Editor:
Your article on Keith Haring [in the May-June 2021 issue]truly captured the essence of his importance. I recall that seven years after he died a vast, magnificent 1997 retrospective of his work was mounted at the Whitney Museum that reinforced not only his role in the LGBT world but in the anti-racist, anti-imperialist movement as well. It also brought to mind the one time I met him.
From 1986 to his death in 1993, I was the lover of Rick Barnett, who was the director of Hal Bromm Gallery. He knew and exhibited many of the cutting-edge artists on the East Village scene in those years, quite a few of whom were gay or lesbian. In 1989, his proposal was accepted by New York’s LGBT Center to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Stonewall by inviting both well-known and emerging artists to create site- specific works throughout the Center. One of the most memorable moments of my life was watching Keith Haring, whom Rick had represented for a time at his gallery, painting his famous mural in the men’s restroom at the Center. Rick invited me to observe the work in progress. Standing on a scaffold, Keith allowed his brush to flow across the prepared white walls, his erotic dream imagery exploding in an all-embracing orgasm of magical surrealism in a seamless exuberant stream of black paint. He was not working from a sketch or plan. It just came out of him spontaneously and miraculously, though of course he was employing the familiar tropes and gestures of his stylistic vocabulary.
After subsequent building renovations, some of that work is gone now, but other pieces remain, including the precious mural.
Eric A. Gordon, Los Angeles
Doubts on a Doubting Thomas Thesis
To the Editor:
As fervently as many want to uncover a homosexual under every bush, or an erotic subtext in every fresco, Roland Betancourt’s Byzantine Intersectionality [reviewed by Vernon Rosario in the May-June 2021 issue]is a bit off course on the Doubting Thomas issue. Granted, religious art often depicts Thomas plunging his hand into various areas of Jesus’ body. But rather than trying to uncover a gay subtext, perhaps we should just accept the Biblical tale as written. Jesus offers to be felt up, but instead the late-to-the-party Thomas does not touch the resurrected Christ but immediately proclaims him Lord.
Michael Carson, Palm Springs, CA
The Night Janis Joplin Touched Me
To the Editor:
In the September-October 2020 issue, I was surprised to see that yet another book about Janis Joplin’s life has been published. I bought and read Myra Friedman’s 1973 book about her when it was available that year and thought that was sufficient, but the new one, thanks to Jean Roberta’s review, has me inclined to buy and read that, too.
My interest stems from a bit of interaction with Janis as well as seeing her perform numerous times. The Arts Department director at Cal State Hayward (one mile from my parents’ house) lived a block from our house, and I knew one of his daughters as a friend. During one of my visits to their house, I noticed that the director had brought home The Pioneer, the college’s news publication, and on the cover there was a photo of Janis with her Big Brother & the Holding Company band members and an announcement that they would be performing at the college that night, on October 27, 1967. There were no concert-going age limits in those days, so I attended and saw another amazing performance by Janis Joplin. She repeatedly drank from a bottle of Southern Comfort while performing, as she always did.
At the end of the concert, with no security present, I followed her into the men’s locker room and thanked her deeply for an astonishing performance. I noticed, however, that tears were streaming from her eyes down her cheeks and I asked her what was bothering her. I vividly remember her response to this day: “I see my fans out there hugging and kissing their mates and tonight I go home and there is nobody to hug, kiss, and embrace. I’m so lonely!” I was only fourteen years old that night and, having the standard less-than-full development of the brain at that age, I could only reply: “I so much wish you much better luck because you are amazing!” Then her band members strolled in and interrupted us. In order to change the subject I handed them two matchbook covers and asked Janis and them to autograph the inside blank spaces, and they did. I still have these items!
Between 1966 and 1968, I saw Janis and Big Brother perform in San Francisco at the Avalon Ballroom, the Fillmore Auditorium, and Winterland around a dozen times. I always arrived early at those venues and consequently got floor space directly adjacent to the front of the stages. Before some of those concerts, I swallowed either LSD or mescaline and also smoked some grass. She was mesmerizing especially when she sang her trademark blues songs.
I always knew I was different, and that only males appealed to me. But I was an exception that night to Janis’ reference to hugging and kissing in the audience. My best male friend then, a blond with an amazing body that tanned readily during the summer months, had me craving sexual engagement with him, but he was too dysfunctional—even though he was bisexual—to follow through with it.
Already out of the closet, I left that city and my parents’ home five months before my twentieth birthday to get away from the drug and alcohol abuse all around me as well as my own dysfunctional family. Four years after moving to another city far away, I met a wonderful man that I’m still with (and married to) after all these years. I have to thank Janis Joplin for symbolically giving me a piece of her heart, for her musical style, force, and angst, which made getting through the tumultuous 1960s a lot easier.
Terry Maltby, Sherman Oaks, CA