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This (Lipstick) Color Doesn’t Run

By Brontez Purnell

Sylvia Rivera in New York City, 1969. Photograph by Kay Tobin Lahusen Courtesy the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Sylvia Rivera in New York City, 1969. Photograph by Kay Tobin Lahusen Courtesy the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Growing up as a little precocious baby gay in Triana, Alabama (population 496), I was pretty sure I was the only queer, anywhere. Then my mom got a cable box and I stumbled on the Independent Film Channel and all of a sudden, BOOM! I had people! Omg! There’s homos EVERYWHERE! (Well, everywhere, I thought, except Triana, Alabama.) And they make movies? Documentaries? HISTORICAL DRAMAS EVEN?! Keep in mind, this was 1996 or ’97, and you couldn’t just livestream a go-go boy somewhere. We were the younger siblings of Generation X and we were suffering. I had a film Rolodex of pirated videotapes of onscreen boys I liked to ogle at my leisure. Oh honey, it was quite a pantheon. There was Ewan McGregor who showed his wiener in virtually every movie he was in in the Nineties, and to this day, I thank him for it. There were the make-out scenes in Beautiful Thing, a movie that sparked my summer obsession with Mama Cass, and let us not forget that like three seconds when you could see the tip of Bruce Willis’s penis in Color of Night. These boys were great and all but at the top of my queer-boy-crush club was (drumroll, please), duh, Guillermo Díaz—the Nineties alternative Latino dreamboat I was certain would be my husband one day.

My teen crush on Mr. Díaz was so obsessive it bordered on unholy. At the tender age of fourteen (fifteen? Hell, who remembers), I saw this twink in Party Girl and knew I had to get to New York to marry him—wait—did he even live in New York? (This is pre-pre-Google, mind you.) I mean, it seemed like he lived in New York. Anyway, he had everything, he was a DJ, he had a badass attitude, a black go-go girlfriend, and best of all he lived with Parker Posey! I was SMITTEN! But there was nothing that could have prepared me for what I saw him in next.

Stonewall, the 1995 film, was kooky, there was a lot of lip-synching, my crush Mr. Díaz was, like, a really pretty girl in it, and also—I learned something! What I saw was that there was another world. This other realm. People like me had friends. I had to get there. Granted, the movie was depicting a scene from like twenty-seven years earlier, but I knew the energy was out there. I knew they would be waiting for me. I saw Guillermo Díaz’s character, La Miranda (who near as I can place was loosely based on Sylvia Rivera), do this thing that I never forgot. It made me cry. The cops raid the Stonewall (this is before the historical riot), and La Miranda refuses to wash off her makeup. The asshole cop sees La Miranda still in face and dunks her head into a bin of dirty bar water and tells her to wash it off. La Miranda’s face is wet and she is visibly shaking but looks forward, pulls out her pink lipstick, and reapplies it right in front of the cop—and he takes her to jail. It was that moment. That move where she reapplies. THAT . . . THAT IS WHO I WANT TO BE, I thought. This (lipstick) color doesn’t run, hunty. I knew if I got to a gay bar I would meet someone like her, I knew all I had to do was get there, but dear Goddess, how?

I was on tour with my band GRAVY TRAIN!!!! in the early 2000s when I saw the Stonewall Inn for the first time. I had left Triana at age nineteen, and eventually settled in Oakland, California. My band had a two-day stop in New York, and I and a group of homosexual gentlemen were stomping through the West Village, and a friend casually tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s the Stonewall Inn.” I, like, gagged. I don’t understand why I always thought it would be pink and covered in glitter or something. But ah, if you wanted to see glitter you had to go into the bar. The people, the people were what made it an institution—the people are the glitter! To be quite honest I don’t really remember who was there, or the demographic, what was playing on the jukebox, what I was wearing, or the name of the guy I gave a blow job to in the bathroom.

I just remember the lights flashing, people dancing around, and thinking that I was a long way from Triana and that being a homosexual was the wisest choice I had ever made.

Back in the Bay after the tour ended, I worked at a twenty-four-hour diner in the Castro where the waiters dealt cocaine. I met every 2:30 a.m. bar-ejected queer who came in wasted to buy greasy diner food or score blow. I lived at a punk rock warehouse, where everyone’s band played and also where everyone bought drugs. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday at the Lexington, a lesbian bar in the Mission; I hung out at Aunt Charlie’s in the Tenderloin, which is a few blocks away from Compton’s Cafeteria.

But in the years since I first arrived, people seem to have stopped partying quite as hard. The Lexington has closed. The Gangway has closed. Cabel’s Reef bar has closed. I don’t see many people out these days. Rising rents, online dating culture, more and more people I know moving into alcohol and drug recovery. The internet became the drug of the masses, and it seems people would rather connect there than make love in the streets. I also think queers getting the right to marry changed the whole social dynamic of where we hang out and why, like a societal pressure valve was released. We were granted some form of “normality” and didn’t necessarily have to hang out at dive bars as much. But the cost has been a loss of a certain type of community. I miss being reckless at clubs with all my friends. Sure, sometimes terrible things happened. Bad hookups, spending all my money on martinis, having the clap every other month of my life. And that time in 2011 I got gay-bashed in Oakland at what had been the old gay black club and I ended up in the hospital—a reminder that maybe not so much has changed. But at least it gave us a chance to fight back, together, even if we lost.

The most recent time I went to the Stonewall Inn was right after the Pulse nightclub shooting. I was frozen numb that something this fucked up could still happen. It felt like five steps forward followed by a huge leap back. Some people were silent, others were crying, lighting candles, holding one another. There were flowers and altars in front of the club. I thought about that famous night I saw dramatized on film so long ago and lamented that I couldn’t really think of a solid group of queers who would still get drunk and help me fight the police if we had to. I dunno, it just seemed like we still needed places to be—and we still needed to be ready to defend them.

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