Warhol, Stonewall, and Where LGBTQ Activism Went Wrong: Penny Arcade Takes Center Stage
The Daily Beast
November 29, 2016
In a rehearsal room at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the Brooklyn Bridge looming and lit in the encroaching darkness of a recent late afternoon, the performer Penny Arcade recalled the counsel of her close friend Quentin Crisp, the great British wit and “naked civil servant,” who famously made New York his home.
“Miss Arcade, not to worry,” Crisp told her in that wonderfully feathery, arch voice of his, which she perfectly impersonates. “Time is kind to the non-conformist.”
Arcade had been talking to Crisp, and today to me, about her lack of mainstream success, or “access,” as she calls it, despite performing for nearly 50 years, most famously in her ’90s show Bitch! Dyke Faghag! Whore!, a stirring polemic with backup dancers that covered everything from prostitution to the once-exalted mantle of “fag hag,” which she wore with pride.
The label given to women who gravitated to gay men meant so much more than those women being accessories or desperate, she said.
Arcade, who is performing her latest show, Longing Lasts Longer, at St. Ann’s from Dec. 1 to 11, may be known as “the queen of the underground,” but her renown on the downtown New York arts scene and on the international LGBTQ and fringe theater circuit has yet to translate to more lucrative and visible fame.
This is the most recurrent theme of our three-hour conversation: She seems angry and then not angry about it; happy with the pre-eminence of her fame and status such as it is, and frustrated not to have been granted the consideration, and approbation, of The New York Times. If she has made a peace with it, it seems an uneasy one: She knows her worth, and says so.
“I am a master improviser,” she said, this derived from her early participation in the Play-House of the Ridiculous, the underground theater group of the mid-1960s.
“I was queer before queer theory,” Arcade said. “That was queer theater that was not dealing with real political issues, not just gay issues. The radical queers I grew up with part of that scene were interested in women’s rights, reproductive rights, civil rights, everything.”
Arcade has performed and toured over 30 pieces since 1985, including La Miseria (1991), Sisi Sings the Blues (1996), New York Values (2002), and The Etiquette of Death (2012). She bemoans the lack of “connoisseurship” now. When she began performing in the late 1960s, there was a demand and expectation that you had to be good, intelligent, rigorous. But not now: For Arcade, the devastation wrought by AIDS took a generation of gay tastemakers and arbiters away, like photographer Peter Hujar and the actor, director, and playwright Charles Ludlam. About 300 people she knew died of the disease.
It’s not that she wants the fame of her friend Debbie Harry, either: “It’s not like she’s approached by the finest people on the street, she’s approached by creeps.”
Crisp’s quote comforts her, mostly because he was a beady-eyed realist, and no comforter. Arcade, who describes herself as a “bisexual fag hag,” is now 66, and thinks—despite pop culture’s consumption of all things new, young, and shiny—that its arbiters, the right casting directors and producers will soon be calling on her. “When they run out of everyone else, they will come. The shame is it will come in my 80s and 90s, when you can’t do much with the access.”
During our conversation, this and other topics break like thunderous waves, recede, then return, accompanied by the regular thumping of Arcade’s fist on the table between us to make a point. She is insistent, emphatic, a relentless storyteller who sometimes refers to herself in the third person, such as “As Penny Arcade says,” and who sometimes loses track of the point she wants to make. Questions are pretty irrelevant to Arcade. She talks candidly and passionately without any encouragement or much elicitation. Anecdotes collapse into other anecdotes and then collapse into bigger points to be made.
As she herself said near the end of our time together, “I can talk the leg off an iron pot.”
Arcade’s political bent toward coalition-building, of alliances and labels forged at a much harder time for LGBTQ people—Arcade was there, the second night of the Stonewall uprising; she prefers that word to “riots”—means that she despairs over contemporary controversies over pronoun usage.
She has been accused of being transphobic for using the word “tranny,” but says vociferously—thump, thump—“I’ve been using the word ‘tranny’ for 50 years. Fifty years. It is a word that comes out of the gay world. All these people who hate the word ‘tranny’ call themselves ‘queer.’ Guess what? ‘Queer’ is a slur that doesn’t come out of the gay world. ‘Queer’ comes out of hatemongers. We took back the word ‘queer’—I’m one of those that did—and we turned it ’round. Who did we turn it around against? Not heterosexuals, but against the gay and lesbian politically correct ’70s and ’80s people who were trying to control us, those people who took their time coming out of the closet who started telling the rest of us who had never been in the closet what we could and what we couldn’t say.
“They said we couldn’t say the words ‘queer,’ ‘fag,’ and ‘dyke,’ and we started using those words with impunity. It’s why I called that show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, against these gay community people who go on committees. Real people don’t go on committees. People who go on committees don’t have friends.”
That might be a good laugh line; the more inconvenient truth is that LGBTQ activism, as history has progressed, combines the stirring anger and commitment of demonstrating marchers and activists with those in suits lobbying and making connections in various corridors of power. The latter is not as sexy or as pictorially attractive as the former, but it’s proved just as vital.
Arcade has a “huge problem with GLAAD and 26- and 27-year-old queers who are disrespectful to people 40 years older than them. I don’t know if the people who are out now would have had the guts to be out then, as we were. Who is valiant? The person who aligns themselves with the group that is at risk when it is trendy to do that, or when it is dangerous to do that?”
Identity politics have proved harmful, Arcade believes. “It is trendy now within the gay world to support trans people,” she sighed. “People say I was transphobic. I met my first transsexual when I was 15 and sneaked into a gay club in Hartford, Connecticut.” Her friend asked what she thought of “Natalie at the door.” She seemed really nice, she had let her in, Arcade said. What else had she thought about Natalie, her friend persisted. Arcade responded, “She’s a boy. She’s so beautiful she looks like Elizabeth Taylor.” Arcade turned to me, “I’m so queer that was never even a blip on my screen, ever.”
The trans people she knew in the ’60s and ’70s—well-known figures like Jackie Curtis and Marsha P. Johnson—“were fierce people.
They didn’t care about pronouns. Hate language is only hate language when it’s said in hate. If somebody slips and says the wrong pronoun… really, pronouns? That’s the most important thing going on?”
If it’s important for trans people to be addressed by the pronouns they wish to be addressed by, surely we should recognize that, I say. Doesn’t it come down to politeness and respect?
“Yes, but when you go into drugstore and a pimply 17-year-old person addresses you by the wrong pronoun that is not political persecution. We need to back up, and the whole point of coalitions is having discussions with people who don’t like you or agree with you.
“People traffic in theory, and they think their theory is equal to experience. Well, sorry if in the face of my experience your theory seems a little bit light.
“The whole thing we’ve been told in the last 10 years is that the biggest problem facing us is pronouns. Now people are finding out that by going on about one issue there were things we were losing sight of that we needed to be forming coalitions about. I support everybody. I’m an anarchist. I don’t pick and choose.”
In 1970, Arcade said she and her fellow activists had thought “this wouldn’t be an issue: Some people have blue eyes, some have brown eyes, some people are queer, some people are trans. It is still an issue because it’s being dealt with as something special.”
In the 1980s, Arcade observed some gay people backing away from those into leather and fetish “because they were perceived as sexually promiscuous,” and also backing away from drag queens and trans people. The message to the straight world was, she said, “We’re just like you.”
Then in the 1990s for Arcade, “younger people, who hadn’t really been in the trenches of the AIDS epidemic but who identified with what had happened, took on queerdom. But you can only be queer if you experience rejection, ostracism, and exclusion so profound that you could never exclude anybody. From the 2000s to 2010, we have had the language police and micromanagement.”
Arcade said she had received an email from a trans woman, noting that men on dating sites were referring to her as a “tranny” and “she-male.”
Arcade had replied that if the woman was telling people she was transgender she would attract people who had fetishes about transgender people and used terms like that as part of that fetish.
To me, blaming today’s generation of LGBTQ activists seems a little misplaced when it’s Republican politicians pushing for bathroom bans and the like: There is an increased emphasis on extending equality and respect to trans people because both are presently lacking. It seems like an equality campaign akin to the lesbian and gay campaigning prior to it.
“I’m not in agreement with bathroom bans,” said Arcade. “If you have a small junior high school, it becomes complicated.
Junior high schoolkids are super-nervous about their bodies and sexualities, and we’re supposed to let a trans person into their locker room? I think it’s complicated, and it won’t be complicated 10 to 15 years from now.
“But how can we say we should take care of the mental health of one party and not other parties? Where possible they [trans people] could have a separate area. But people say that makes them feel excluded. There’s no winning here.” (Some might say the “winning” would one day take place if these prejudices are challenged, and trans people accorded equality, bathrooms and all, and society evolves.)
One of the most personal and fruitful coalitions Arcade herself has built is with her longtime collaborator Steve Zehentner, a “straight guy who loved lesbian friends,” whom she began working with 25 years ago. “Steve is a straight guy with 60 percent gay genes,” she said, smiling. “After I met Steve in 1992 I came to the realization that there were heterosexual men who were OK. That was a big leap for me.”
At the heart of Longing Lasts Longer is a meditation on the changing nature of New York, and the hyper-gentrification of entire city, including the Lower East Side, where Arcade lives. “We’ve been colonized,” she said. “I first said, ‘It’s turning into a mall out there,’ in 1984. The massive gentrification here kicked in [around] 1993 and ’94. When we were doing street and housing activism in 1996, we couldn’t get anyone interested. We are now in full colonization. Gentrification has done its job.”
With Zehentner, Arcade also oversees the Lower East Side Biography Project, whose “biographies and archive work to ensure that future generations have access to the mad souls of invention that built this New York City neighborhood’s reputation as an incubator for authenticity, rebellion and iconoclasm,” according to the site. They are in negotiation to showcase the project at “a big international festival,” Arcade said.
I asked if Arcade still loves New York. “I do, because it has a lot to do with the length of time I’ve lived here and my roots here.”
Since 2011 she has spent a good deal of time in London, another city undergoing hyper-gentrification, with housing priced just as expensively. There she joined the fight to save the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, home of Duckie, the LGBTQ performance club presided over by Amy Lamé, who has just been appointed “Night Czar” for the city.
For Arcade, the difference between the two cities is that London has the “connoisseurship” she feels New York is missing.
“There’s no longer an intelligentsia here, it’s super dumbed-down. Every time I do a show here, I say, ‘Excuse me, people, they’re reading in London.’” But even there, she concedes, activists will say their screeds get ‘likes’ on Facebook, “but no one turns up to the demo.”
Arcade was in New York in the 1960s, making work with the Play-House of the Ridiculous’ John Vaccaro and Andy Warhol—who presided over the two very artistic camps of the time (she preferred Vaccaro’s). She “washed up on the shores of downtown” in 1967, moved to Amsterdam in 1971, and came back in 1975, moving to Maine.
The punk scene in New York didn’t appeal to her, as it wasn’t as political as it was in Britain. “Here it was a bunch of people trying to get a record deal.” (This analysis overlooks that punk’s great godfather in the U.K., Malcolm McLaren, was himself a master hype-merchant and controversy-courter.) At the end of the 1970s, Arcade became aware of college students moving to downtown, inspired by bands like Talking Heads, “going to art school,” moving into the East Village.
“Downtown New York City has always been about lineage: If you were a young artist, you came to New York to be an old artist. I am the youngest of an entire scene.
“Jonas Mekas [the poet, filmmaker, and artist] is 93. Others are in their 80s and 90s. I’ve just been around a long time and have a sense of responsibility to my community. I was the youngest. It was advantageous to me to learn from amazing people who put lot of energy into me. Then I was expected to put energy into others.
“All of us are tethered to the values of the generations we come up with. In ours, we had to earn the respect of others.
Today, it’s very hard for me to unilaterally approve of people’s work just because they’re there.”
There are very few artists of her age Arcade works with. “The scene I grew up with was pretty much decimated by AIDS.
Those standards were very high. You couldn’t go there and do tripe. You really worked hard. We’re living now in a cult of personality. Young people come to me, desperate about their careers. They’ve been taught that art is a profession but art is not a profession. It’s a vocation.”
Arcade said she is a person “of great equilibrium, but I have fire in my belly. I’m a passionate person, a ‘parrhesia,’ or truth-teller.” After reading Michel Foucault’s book Fearless Speech, she realized she accorded to the three defining characteristics of such a person: “I tell the truth from my own point of view”; “There has to be a loss to me personally for telling the truth”; and “To tell the truth out of a sense of duty and responsibility.”
Arcade laughed drily: There was no money in her Social Security account, but everyone in the offices of the arts spaces she appears in has 401(k)s, health insurance, and Social Security.
Crisp, whom Arcade also performed alongside, resented being marginalized, and so does she.
“I continued to stay with the downtown arts scene long after it stopped being what it was,” she said. “It’s my fate. I’m a hugely loyal person.”
“Everything is fate, everything is timing, everything is destiny,” Arcade said, which led to her mulling that had she been 30 in 1990 rather than 1980, she would have been able to forge a route in commercial TV and film.
“I didn’t look white. In 1990, you had Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Beals breaking through [Beals actually broke through in 1983, in Flashdance]. It’s all a matter of timing.”
Is there an element of understandable generational sour grapes—of not receiving the recognition she thinks she deserves, alongside seeing the kind of New York she knew, populated by those she loved, looked up to, and lost, become no more?
Maybe, but not totally. Arcade did not sound bitter when she said, “I’m still waiting for my break. A break is something that someone else affords you. I still wish for that. But if doesn’t happen it won’t kill me, or stop me, or change how I feel about myself. This is the beauty of having rigorous enquiry. Respect your authenticity: That is the thing Quentin and I had in common. Both of us wanted to know if we both became who we really were, what would that be?”
She had met Crisp when she was 32, and they became close around five years later. “I watched him like a hawk. He was so young. Youth has nothing to do with age. Why resent aging when so many didn’t get the opportunity?”
The closing chapters of one’s life are the most exciting, Arcade said, as they signal “the completion of character.” She smiled. “To be able to travel or dance around the stage for 75 minutes, to out-rock any 25-year-old. Bang, bang, bang. John Giorno [the poet and performance artist] is 14 years older than me, and still amazing. Jonas Mekas is 94.”
When Jean Rhys was interviewed when Wide Sargasso Sea was published, Arcade recalled, she was asked what it was like to finally get all the recognition it brought. “It’s too late,” Rhys, who had been writing for many years at that point, replied.
When the filmmaker Jack Smith was called a legend, Arcade recalled, he asked what “legend” meant—that he never had to pay his rent?
Arcade grew up, named Susana Ventura, in New Britain, Connecticut, an “immigrant Italian child tuned in to the deepest levels of New Englandism. As a displaced person, as a displaced child of displaced people, I am at home wherever I go. I always fit in. I have the ability, the survival skill, to talk about where I am.”
She said she knew she was bisexual at 4 years old. Her sexual fantasies were about girls and boys; one of her stage monologues features memories of her having sex with her Barbie dolls.
She discovered there was still a good deal of stigma about being bisexual, both from straight bigots and lesbians. “I never believed in 1970 I would grow up to watch gay people create the same institutions of oppression and judgment so many of us fought to break down. Nobody chooses their race, class, or sexual orientation.”
Her family story is, in her telling, an astonishing tempest of drama, color, and incident. Her father’s family was from Savona. His father was the captain of the port. Arcade’s mother grew up in the mountainous region of Basilicata in southern Italy, “where people were very superstitious—they believed in magic and the evil eye.”
At 56, Arcade said she had discovered her grandmother had had an affair and had a baby with her paramour. The baby had died under mysterious circumstances, and she and her lover were made to walk through the village holding the dead baby. She was later put in prison.
Arcade’s father, a mariner, met her mother after jumping ship in Panama. After being arrested and incarcerated on Ellis Island (“he spoke 12 languages and had all these women visiting him”), where he was beaten by the guards, he was deported and met Arcade’s mother, then a 32-year-old virgin, on a boat returning to Europe.
Arcade’s mother had grown up in an orphanage after her own mother had been jailed. She fell in love with Arcade’s father on the boat, married in 1947, and they returned to America to live.
When Arcade was 2 and a half, her father developed a blood clot on his brain. He was also bipolar. He was institutionalized, and Arcade was told he was criminally insane. One of her monologues is about a birdcage he gave her when she was 2. She was taken to see him when she was 4 and recalls “a very gothic mental hospital,” and freaked out, attacking some nurses.
Her father died of a heart attack when Arcade was 15, just as a psychiatrist she was then seeing was arranging for her to see him at the institution he was hospitalized in.
When Arcade was 53, two years after her mother died, going through her things, she found a chiaroscuro painting of the crucifixion. On its back was some writing: a letter from Arcade’s father to her in which he said that she and her siblings were all he knew that was “great and sublime in this world, like the memory of my mother who created me with body and soul, and full of faculties.”
He told Arcade to obey her mother, and if he died to contact three people whose names were scrawled out. He had written the letter days after being institutionalized in 1953. (The musician Chris Rael, Arcade’s third husband, said her father’s beautiful writing style showed where Arcade got her talent for writing.)
Later, on a trip to Italy, instinct and who knows what else led Arcade—without prior knowledge, and confirmed later in a trip to the Department of Public Works—to the location in Savona where her father lived.
Arcade’s upbringing with her mother has been described as abusive.
“Middle-class people would say it was,” she said. “It wasn’t if you were a working class peasant Italian. As I’ve discussed in my work, I was beaten with a stick. My mother once said I had scratched her. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I got tired of being beaten with a stick.’”
Her mother, who worked as a sweatshop seamstress, was beaten as a child herself. In Longing Lasts Longer, Arcade notes we live in such a child-centric world today: If in the past children couldn’t wait to get away from their parents, today’s parents want to be their children’s friends. “Today there are generations of people who have never been slapped. We were slapped by parents, grandparents, aunts. I was a very sensitive child and grew up in a secretive, very dark world. I’d open the door of our house and skip six centuries to medieval Italy, and I was a serf.”
After turning 11, Arcade said, she was “sensitive, smart,” and in advanced learning classes. “I had the highest reading comprehension in Connecticut for my age group at 12. I read for pleasure. Everything that made me such a successful person at school made me suspicious in a southern Italian immigrant peasant family.” Arcade was “considered the first bad person in our family in 3,000 years.”
The eldest of four children (she had two brothers and a sister), Arcade felt an incredible amount of internal pressure too, not least about her father. She lied to other children and said he had died. “I felt great guilt over saying he was dead.”
“I felt from when I was very small that I had to save my family,” she added. “I believed the way I would save them was by becoming an actress. It was one of my obsessions, it was the era of Shirley Temple movies. Every night, before I went to sleep, I had the fantasy that I was making a movie, and then I would have a panic attack with the thought I had to write the movie. I couldn’t go to sleep.”
As a teenager, she was briefly sent to a detention center. “I had been increasingly acting out since I was 11. There was a rift between me and my mother. She was under such pressure as the only breadwinner. She went to work at 7 o’clock in the morning and had four clamoring children. We had a very custodial upbringing by our grandparents.”
This had the upside of leaving Arcade a lot of time to indulge her imagination. But she failed eighth grade. She started going out late into the night. Her mother insisted her brothers keep an eye on her. “It was really problematic. She couldn’t handle it, I couldn’t handle it.”
In June 1964, aged 13, Arcade ran away to the beach at Old Saybrook, Connecticut, with a Polish girl she knew. The other girl “mortified” her by begging for money.
Arcade left her and courted the Jewish families on the beach, “who took me in because Jews like smart kids. In a Jewish family a girl didn’t get automatically cracked across the face for opening her mouth, which you did in a working class Italian family, who saw it as back-talk. You weren’t supposed to have an opinion.”
The Polish girl was caught, “ratted on” Arcade, and a friendly policeman beckoned her toward a squad car with a detective from the youth juvenile department and her mother and one of her brothers in the back seat.
Arcade was put in a house of detention, and at juvenile court faced a “Jewish woman judge” who seemed to appreciate her eloquent spikiness.
“I’d love to know what my crime is,” said Arcade.
“Oh, you’re very well spoken,” the judge said.
“I love words. I sometimes read the dictionary,” Arcade replied, asking again what her crime was.
“Manifesting the danger of falling in the hands of vice,” the judge told her. “Do you know what means?”
“That I haven’t done anything really bad yet, but I probably will,” said Arcade.
The judge said it would be a miscarriage of justice to remand Arcade in a reformatory. Today she wonders if such an incarceration would have finished her or made her, “though most people are broken by it.”
Instead, Arcade was sent to the magisterially named Sisters of Good Shepherd Sacred Heart Academy for Wayward Girls.
“They don’t actually call it that, do they?” she asked the judge in disbelief.
One of the mothers saw an act she performed in the dining hall and asked Arcade to write a play. “‘I couldn’t possibly write a play,’ I said, but of course I was dying to write a play.” It turned out to be her first.
Arcade left the academy on her 16th birthday in 1966, and returned home, tried to fit in with school and family, but couldn’t. Instead, she fell in with “the kids smoking weed in town, it was a time when working-class intellectualism was diffusing politics. I was very involved in that.”
One night, she joined a gay friend in a midnight flit to Provincetown. He told her it was “the gay capital of America.” He stayed the weekend, Arcade stayed longer: “What a gay world! You kidding me? Why would I go back?” She briefly went to Boston but didn’t like it. Someone told her there were drag queens in New York and that she belonged there, so off she went.
“The Stonewall uprising happened because we were having demonstrations everywhere,” Arcade said. It wasn’t unusual to have groups of people fighting the cops every other week. What was unusual about it was that it happened at a gay bar. I wasn’t there the first night. I was there the second night and probably the third.
“I was with the [anarchist affinity group] Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. We were throwing bricks. Word spread. Everybody was there. If you lived downtown you went over there. All kinds of people were there. We believed in coalition. There wasn’t violence. There were Black Panthers, ecologists there.”
In the moment, Arcade didn’t see the uprising as culturally pivotal. “But this was era of liberation fronts. There was a magazine called Gay Power. I’ve been called disingenuous for not talking about racism in the gay world. Listen, dummy, you weren’t there. In the gay world I was in there wasn’t any racism. In the gay world I was in everybody was there. We were young. We didn’t have political analysis. We were clear-minded. Racism was wrong. There was tremendous idealism and optimism.”
Arcade worked with Andy Warhol between 1969 and 1971, after he had been shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968.
“I didn’t think Warhol was going to change my life,” Arcade said. “The underground scene was mostly made up of underclass people like Jackie Curtis, working-class people like me and [the actress] Candy Darling, and then upper-class people. Most of the people who I knew who were really aggressively self-liberating were upper-middle-class. They had the education and were able to see what was going on.
“The thing with Andy was a lot of people thought he was going to save them. I knew nobody was going to save me. He wanted people who could perform. Andy named most people, but I was already this entity, and he wanted me to work with him. I played Rent-a-Superstar. We went to rich people’s houses. It was interesting for a working-class girl to see that, but, as Fran Lebowitz said, you can say a lot of things about rich people but being interesting isn’t one of them. Andy had an obsession with rich people.”
The Factory denizens were “fully-fledged narcissists. Many of them were on mood-altering drugs. There was no script. People were fighting to say things.”
While, for Arcade, Vaccaro did great work, working with Warhol was “a crap shoot. He precipitated the lack of reality today. There was no ‘there’ there.”
Her critics might wonder if her embrace of the ideals and practices of the queer world of yore has left Arcade stuck in the past, bemoaning the evolution and sensitivities of the LGBTQ movement today.
“Longing Lasts Longer is a refutation of nostalgia,” Arcade said emphatically. “There’s a difference between nostalgia and longing. One of the things that is disconcerting, as someone who grew up among queers who had rigorous enquiry—I grew up around super-smart people who did not have lazy minds—is that many people have an inability to think about a period outside of the context of their own time. They want to look at the 1960s and ’70s as now, and they weren’t. I come from a radical queer background and I remain a radical queer.”
She has had to change, she insists. “I grew up in the ’60s, as a downtown person. I didn’t know anyone who was for the Vietnam War. Now I have met people in social milieus I pass through who thought it was OK to vote for Trump, or who think it is OK to overlook Hillary is a warmonger or that Obama is part of the one percent.”
Arcade feels that she has “a real sense of herself” now that she is in her 60s. “I am not a political artist, just a person who is political,” Arcade said. “I’m not a humanitarian, I’m an artist. People always talk of me of as an activist. I’m not an activist. I’m an icon of cultural resistance, because people know I’ve been kept artificially underground in America for years and years. In many places, like the U.K. and Australia, I have a mainstream presence.” She added, “People think I’m a floozy, but I’m very refined and prudish in some ways. I hate vulgarity,” she smiled, “except Lady Bunny.”
In Los Angeles in April, Arcade will perform Longing Lasts Longer at the Freud Playhouse and is being “curated alongside David Sedaris. This is proper. One Australian producer told me I had been mis-marketed. ‘You are not a fringe act.’ But no one marketed me as a fringe act. But theater is elitist, so many people have never seen my work. The gatekeepers have never seen my work. And the name ‘Penny Arcade’ isn’t helpful.”
Really? I like it.
It was born when she was 16, coming down off LSD, and staying with a gay buddy, Jamie Andrews, otherwise known as Tony Defries, “who helped turn David Bowie from a folk singer into a glam icon.” She was worried Andrews would throw her out of his apartment when he woke up. She lay awake, anxious, and recalled the character in a book she had just picked up named Penny Kincaid. When Andrews woke, she announced “Penny Arcade” was now her name.
Andrews’s response: “That’s fabulous. Do you want an egg?”
“That shows how the world has changed,” Arcade said. “Show me the 27-year-old gay guy taking the 16-year-old girl off the street, ensconcing her in his one-room studio apartment. I worked with Jamie for a year and ruined his social life. At that time there was a real feeling of solidarity. We had to take care of each other. That’s what’s so different in the gay world today: all these single-issue and identity politics that have fractured what would be the liberal left in America.”
Since the 2016 presidential election, people have written to her, she said, “begging” for her advocacy. “Almost everyone I know is having a complete breakdown. Once Trump was acknowledged as the candidate I knew a coup had taken place. I knew Brexit was going to pass. In London I kept asking every Pakistani, Turkish, and Polish cab driver, and they were all going to vote for Brexit. I have spent a lot of time in Britain since 1971, and I know the entire population thinks that England can go back to being England in 1970, and it can’t. And America isn’t going back, either. What happened in the U.S. was a combination of the culture of spectacle, where reality doesn’t count for anything, and that the working poor have been ignored.
“It’s pretty pathetic when the best piece of economic analysis was done in 1984 when Bruce Springsteen said [in ‘My Hometown’], ‘Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.’” Arcade had seen this happen in her Connecticut hometown. She would have voted for Clinton, she said, but did not receive her absentee ballot in time.
Arcade is single now. She has been married to three men: The first two she calls “adoptions” because she married “whoever moved into my apartment.”
Her first serious relationship in her 20s ended when her partner died, she without “every right,” as they had not married. Between 1979 and 1983 she had an open relationship with someone she married “monogamously” from 1984 to 1989. Her second marriage was between 1989 and 1991.
She is still married, though legally separated, from Rael (whom she wed in 1998), whom she fell in love with and is still close to (he sweetly calls her to check on their dining arrangements toward the end of our interview). She thought she wanted children when she was very young, but not as she grew older, though she is supportive of her friends’ offspring.
“I am not a lesbian, I am bisexual,” she said of her relationships with women. “But I have had long romantic friendships with women. I have never partnered with a woman. It could happen now.”
Has sex with men and women been different for her?
“I prefer sex with women, but emotionally I bond with men,” Arcade said. “My father was the beautiful element in my life, my mother was cold and unavailable. I know lesbians who have sexual fantasies about men. Sexuality is not cut-and-dried.
You can’t use it as an identity. People who identify through their sexuality [the banging of fists on the table gets more intense] scare the shit out of me. Talk to real people. I love French movies. I love Thai food. I love to travel. It’s not about what I do in bed.”
She was disappointed by marriage equality “because gays and lesbians had the extraordinary opportunity to save democracy by making a class-action suit of the separation of church and state.”
“I have put all of my energy into relationships all my life, but very little energy into my career,” Arcade said, somewhat implausibly, given her full-to-bursting résumé and cultural import.
“My relationships are the most important thing, including friendships. Since my late 50s I have been in menopause, which helps. Menopause distances you, no matter how boy- or love- or sex-crazy you have been. And I have been an extremely sexual person in my life, of course buoyed by my long relationship with gay men, who taught me that sex was free and I could have as much as I wanted. I might have been a lesbian, if you could have had sex with women in the 1970s.”
Oh, come on, I said to her—you could have had sex with women in the 1970s if you wanted. Other women did!
“You couldn’t,” Arcade shot back. “You had to have coffee for three months. There was a lot of coffee going on, a lot of” (she puts on a soft, coy voice), “‘What’s wrong with you?’
“When you get into your late 50s, if you are still as romantically and sexually driven as you were in your 20s, 30s, and into your 40s. There’s pretty much something pathetic about that.”
The sex educator Betty Dodson once said to Arcade that if one gets involved with someone else in one’s 60s, it can be “cute, sexy, and kinky, but it’s not love… just because you love somebody doesn’t make the sex great. Sex doesn’t work that way.”
Had Arcade experienced both love and good sex together? “I have had both those things, but it doesn’t stay the same.”
People are amazed she travels all over the world on her own on tour, Arcade said. Most people do not want to be on their own when they’re older. “But I was afraid to be on my own when I was young. I’m ready to fall in love at any second. I still have that. I would truly prefer it to be a woman at this point… I am still in long-term relationships that are no longer sexual with women I was once sexual with.”
Arcade said she was super-supportive to other artists, although some have called her a “bitch.” Is she? “It’s more about who is called a bitch,” she said. “I say a lot of the same things [the performer and artist] Justin Vivian Bond says, but no one says Justin Vivian Bond is a bitch, because there is a huge hatred of women.”
Why does she think that is? “Because everyone had a mother, so as soon as people say, ‘Penny Arcade said something,’ people think it is their mother telling them what to do. Women who are outspoken and strong are just considered bitches. That’s what happened to Hillary, totally.”
Arcade “adores” aging. She always wanted to be older. “When I was 21 I wanted to be 37. That’s when women are so beautiful, poised, and powerful.” She had a mini-freakout when she turned 57—“it was not a good adjustment, but it didn’t last long”—but by the time she turned 58 she started telling everyone she had turned 60, “filled with glee” at the prospect.
“I lived to be 60. Do you know how many of my friends died of AIDS? And the audience too. Everybody I knew. If AIDS never happened, the gay world and the art world would have been different. It was like a cliff. Then all these younger people pushed in, and the whole value system changed.”
At 60, Arcade “started all over again. It’s like being raised by your own values. You are your own mother, your own father.
It’s a time of incredible excitement. I’m all about this. I don’t worry about mortality. I worry about mobility. We’re all going to die. That’s reality. I’ve always lived with my own death ever since I was young. I had my life threatened on the street.
People have put guns in my mouth. I have had a lot happen to me. Now I’m in my 60s, I’m in charge. I own my own life. That’s the message in Longing Lasts Longer. Live your own life. Protect your own authenticity.”
If elements of this sound very affirmation-manual, Arcade tempered it by asking rhetorically, “Would I like the career David Sedaris had? Uh-huh. Does my writing deserve it? Uh-huh. Would Woody Allen and [acclaimed British comedians] French and Saunders like my work? Do I wish they could see it? I really do. Is it going to drown me if it never happens? No. I know what the work is.
“I wanted access, more opportunities. I am a smart person. A smart person knows that fame is an unattractive thing. Anybody who ever happened to be wealthy before they were famous would not choose fame over wealth. One salient fact about me is that I refuse to be beaten down by the circumstances of life. If I became famous and doing shite I would not be a proud person. That’s not to say if someone wants me to be in a stupid sitcom I wouldn’t do it. But I won’t do anything against my values that is racist, homophobic, transphobic, or full of hate.”
Arcade has so far performed Longing Lasts Longer in 130 performances around the world, but feels the media would only be interested if she was 26, fresh, and new. “We live in a world dismissive of accomplishment.”
This doesn’t depress her, she insisted. She once found a stack of back issues of Vanity Fair from the 1920s, went through them, and didn’t find the name of anyone she had ever heard of.
“The reality of the fact is that most of the greatest artists are not acknowledged in their lifetime. My audience died. In 1988 I was in Vogue magazine: the first performance artist they wrote about. If AIDS hadn’t existed my audience would have swept me into greater visibility, but they died and I was putting way more energy into taking care of people than into my career.”
When, in 2009, someone posited Arcade had never grieved, “I went ballistic. ‘Grieved? And when would there have been time for that? We were traumatized. We had PTSD, all of us do.’” She bangs her hand down on the table. “When they first said ‘gay cancer’ we thought we were all going to get it. I had many lovers who were gay men—many of them didn’t have sex with another woman.”
Having sex with gay men wasn’t some jape or challenge. “No, no, ugh, what a concept. No, no, no, no. That is a real misunderstanding about what a fag hag is. A fag hag is a woman who emotionally bonds with gay men and the gay men bond with fag hags. It’s a two-way street.”
When Arcade was hanging around the gay bars of Hartford at 14 and 15, she could “dish,” gossip. People said she wasn’t a fag hag, “because fag hags are always falling in love with gay men. But I said I was a fag hag. All young people wanted an identity. Everything that made me wrong in the real world made me right in the gay world.
“Gay men encouraged me, demanded I had my own ideas, and express those ideas.” When she met other women and girls who said it was so hard to express themselves, Arcade “thought there was something wrong with them. I forgot my own history where I wasn’t allowed to speak.”
While some would say the relationship of gay men and their female friends (whether they take on the “fag hag” label that Arcade proudly owns or not) isn’t sexual, Arcade said, “I say no, it’s sexual but you don’t act on it as sex. You dance. It’s comedy. There’s flirtation. If you try to sexualize it, it goes flat immediately. By the time I was 18, I stopped trying to have sex with gay men. I got it. I understood it. But with certain men it just happened.”
With one friend, a bisexual man who “became more and more gay in his 20s, we started to have sex together. After a while, 10 to 15 minutes, I think I said, ‘Richard, do we have to keep doing this? He said, ‘Oh, thank god.’ A lot of it was love.”
She banged on the table again, noting that she had sex with several gay men who died of AIDS. “Your denial is the longest-running show in New York,” a friend once said to her. “We were willing friends to live. We were in hospitals fighting. We were fighting with doctors and nurses. We knew as much as the doctors.”
Arcade didn’t have an HIV test until 1994.
“It started as a political thing. It was a terrifying experience. If I was HIV-positive it would just change everything.”
Arcade tested negative. In 2003, she contracted Hepatitis C. “The medicine almost killed me.”
After performing Longing Lasts Longer at St. Ann’s, Arcade will work on a 40-minute version for Irish broadcaster RTE; she hopes the BBC and Australian ABC network might also be interested. She hopes to get NPR interested in her writing.
The most significant thing Arcade shared with her mother, she said, was a love of storytelling. If she ever told her mother a good story it would offset the relentless criticism her mother leveled at her.
She saw her daughter perform in only one show. She didn’t offer Arcade approval, but instead beseeched her, “Lavati la faccia”: Wash your face.
Her mother died, aged 87, in 2001, and Arcade took care of her at the end of her life, “a really extraordinary experience, and I encourage everyone to do it. It doesn’t matter if you got along or didn’t. It keeps giving for the rest of your life.”
She smiled and recalled her mother criticizing some broccoli she had cooked. It didn’t have any salt, her mother said. It wasn’t supposed to, her daughter replied: medical orders.
“Being there with my mother over that period made me feel very guilty. I could see she was not able to support me. She got to die in her own bed. It was the only thing she ever asked for.”
One day, in a rocking chair, her mother was talking about Shirley Temple, stirring an old memory of Arcade’s. “Was I like Shirley Temple when I was little?” she asked.
“You, like Shirley Temple?” her mother said. “Please don’t make me laugh.”
“Whoa. That was hard to take at 51,” Arcade said. “At 5 it must have been horrible. Part of wanting to be an actress was wanting my mother’s approval. She was a fanatical Shirley Temple fan.” Her sister-in-law later told Arcade her mother had been proud of her, even if she had never directly conveyed that to her daughter.
Arcade said her mother had given her two compliments: “One was that I was a great reader, and the other was as a very small child if something was explained to me I could understand it.” Part of her problem with her mother, Arcade thinks, was that Arcade possessed a similar charisma and energy to her father.
Her mother had Alzheimer’s at the very end. Arcade was sleeping in a small bed next to her.
One day, her mother looked at Arcade. “She took my face in her hands, which she’d never done. We’re mountain Italians.
There are no shows of affection. She said, ‘You know, I have a daughter who looks a lot like you.’ In her face I saw her love for me. I said, ‘That’s me, Ma, I’m your daughter.’” Her mother didn’t recognize the name of her son, either.
“My mother was very secretive,” said Arcade. “She was the only person I ever met who didn’t want anything from anyone. I am not like that. I have to control my desire to have everyone save me. I don’t act on it, but I have that panic.”
Arcade is, she says in Longing, at “the youth of my old age,” and as yet without the recognition she feels she deserves from The New York Times or a review within that august organ to access a larger, more broad audience, “the most important thing is to have a good time, a good life. We live in a culture that doesn’t allow all the best work to be trumpeted. Luckily I’m not defined by worldly success. I’m defined by my interests.”
So she is equable and not so equable, frustrated and also fulfilled. She would like more recognition, much more, but her voluble self-belief in her art—and hope that this large future audience she imagines would like “wit, smart stuff, poetry, and poetic language,” if only they could see it—remains fierce and unshakeable. She believes her true recognition is long overdue. There is no self-doubt over her work, or its quality, or what it merits.
Before we head into the inky-skied evening, I asked Arcade what LGBTQ people and activists should do as they anticipate a Trump administration.
When marriage equality passed, Arcade said, she said, “Great, does this mean we don’t care about queers being killed in Uganda? People are unaware, especially people under the age of 55, that everything can be rolled back. Just as Trump is talking about abortion being made illegal, they can decommission gay marriage.
“Stop with the navel-gazing and the minutiae of pronouns. We need to form coalitions with those whom we are not comfortable with. We made a huge mistake in ignoring the loss of the working class’s ability to make a living. We have to go across all of these things, and it has to happen now.”
And yes, Arcade’s resolute table-tapping carried right on to that last, emphatic point.