I have been reading two books at the same time. The first is a biography of Little Richard, the flamboyant rocker who electrified 1950s America, and who died this year from cancer. The other is an American classic, The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850 by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
It is the story of Hester Prynne. She commits adultery in Puritan New England, has a baby and is tried for her crime. Her sentence is to wear the scarlet letter "A" as a sign of her shame. Through her embroidery, though, she turns it into a badge of honor.
Hester Prynne and Little Richard. She turned sexual shame into a glorious revolt against Puritanical theocracy. Little Richard, raised in the churches of Macon, Ga., turned his scorned gay identity into unabashed expressions of fabulousness: his pompadour reaching to the sky, his eyes rimmed with makeup, his costumes sparkling like starlight.
Hawthorne’s novel opens with a critique of Puritan culture, symbolized by the artifacts of punishment and humiliation: a heavy prison door leading to a scaffold where malefactors were hanged or pilloried. Hester Prynne would walk out that door, babe in arms, and up onto that scaffold. But not before passing another symbol, a bush growing wild, lit up with rosebuds.
Hester was that rosebush. And so was Little Richard.
The first record I purchased with my own money was a 78 rpm version of Keep a' Knockin', one of the fastest rock and roll records of all time, filled with Richard’s crying, howling and whooping. I played it over and over, sometimes as I sat at the piano, trying to imagine how I might make those black and white keys sound like that.
It took more than 40 years for me to learn what I was listening to: a veiled statement of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a young, gay Black man from the Jim Crow South. Despised because of his sexual identity, because of his race and because of a determination not to live within the boundaries imposed upon him. The lyrics go, “keep a' knockin' but you can’t come in” repeated over and over. And how many doors were closed to Richard that he would bust open? “Come back tomorrow night and try it again.”
The jailhouse door, the scaffold, and the wild rosebush.
Little Richard’s first big record was a party rave he had written called Tutti Frutti. That silly rhyme, those sound-effect nonsense lyrics suggested nothing more than there was a party going on in the house and it was time to dance on the furniture. It took a long time for me to realize that it was a celebration of sex. “Fruit” was mildly derogatory slang for an effeminate man. But the original lyrics were down and dirty and wildly funny: “Tutti Frutti, good booty.”
If you are shocked, you might want to stop reading right here. Or just tell yourself that Richard was referring to a pirate’s treasure.
Little Richard was not America’s first gay hero, but he may have been the nation’s first authentic one. In the 1940s and early 50s, a straight married professional wrestler turned himself into Gorgeous George, a gimmick that won him worldwide acclaim. He dolled himself up — as Richard would. He had his hair processed into a hairdo called a Marcel — as Richard would. He wore outrageous costumes — as Richard would. Many women seemed to love him, even as their menfolk ridiculed him. After all, they thought, Gorgeous George (the Toast of the Coast, the World’s Largest Living Orchid) was no threat to them.
What worked as a gimmick for George became a kind of safety net for Richard. In 1956, a Black man in the South could be in mortal danger if found cavorting with the wrong white woman, and here was a small army of young women throwing their underwear at Richard and his bandmates, called, and rightly so, the Upsetters. That pompadour, that eye makeup, those puffy sleeves were messages that their daughters and girlfriends were safe — even if they weren’t.
Richard and his entourage describe sex parties that seem almost unimaginable for the repressed 1950s. Richard, who once described himself as “omnisexual,” got to try out whatever he wanted to try. In his own words, his sexual appetite was voracious, but always accompanied by guilt and feelings of self-loathing.
He was made to feel that way by the white South, the Black South, the churched South, the unchurched South, message upon message going back millennia that his desires were deviant and unnatural. When he would return to the church on hiatus from the rock and roll life, he would express the deep conflict within him. In middle age, his feelings were more optimistic, expressing the idea that God was a God of love and would love Richard as he was. But in his final years, his gorgeous hair gone like Samson’s, his eyes facing eternity, he returned to the belief that God created men and women and that was the connection that love should go.
If there is hatred toward gay people — and there is — the Puritans in every religion are to blame. The ones who condemned Hester Prynne are to blame. I know a gay man who studied to become a minister to convince his mother that he wasn’t damned. I know another who agreed to an exorcism. I know of another whose response to therapy to rid him of his gayness resulted in a leap off the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
My daughter Alison came out at the age of 33. She is legally married to a transgender person. She describes herself as “queer” and says it with pride, even though I taught myself to stop using that term and all the others I had learned growing up.
I spent the first 40 years of my life as a trained homophobe. How could I not? It was imprinted on my psyche from the time I was a boy: that I must learn what it means to be a “real” man, that real men don’t cry, that I must avoid any sign of weakness, that the worst insult I could receive is one that questioned my masculinity.
At least that is the way I observed the narrative of my life for a long time. Then Little Richard died this year. And memories swept over me that made me understand how attached I had been to gay culture since I was a little boy.
One memory stands out. I am about 11 years old. It’s the night of the talent show for Cub Scout Troop 345 in Searingtown, Long Island, N.Y. I am a pretty darn good piano player, and my very theatrical mom, our den mother, hatches an idea. I will dress up as flamboyant musical star Liberace and play the piano just like him. I had taken classical lessons for years from the nice Italian lady around the corner and was ready to bang out memorized sonatas from Mozart or Beethoven. I chose the very dramatic opening of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.
What my mom didn’t realize was that in secret I was teaching myself to play a little rock and roll. I watched Dick Clark’s American Bandstand after school each day, and was ignited by the wild piano energy of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.
Liberace and Richard had much in common: the outrageous costumes, the ultra-styled hair, the jewelry, the forbidden displays of gayness years before we used the word “gay” that way. Men liked them, but women LOVED them. They were sexy and dangerous and yet stylized and safe at the same time.
I needed something to wear over my blue Cub Scout uniform. My mom went in her closet and pulled out a gorgeous sequined vest, something that either Liberace or Little Richard might have admired. It fit!
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the announcer at the talent show. “We are proud to present that international superstar — Liberace.” To great laughter, I stepped to the baby grand piano on the stage. Suddenly, I break into the dramatic concerto.
What followed felt miraculous. I stopped the music. Shot to my feet. Kicked back the stool. Broke into one of the wild rock anthems of the day, maybe Great Balls of Fire or Tutti Frutti. Whichever one it was, the crowd of Cubs, moms and dads went crazy.
I have written about my belief that the fabulousness of being gay is not just an expression of sexual orientation. It is a profound expression of creative energy, a licensed way to be oneself, a declaration of independence from the inhibitions and repressions of the culture.
For that epiphany, I can thank the king of rock and roll — and the queen. Little Richard.