Monday, July 18, 2016


2 BY TENNESSEE WILLIAMS at the St. Luke's Theatre

Many of Tennessee Williams' plays have cemented their status into American literary and pop culture.  Since they were first written, they've been performed on stages both large and small with some degree of regularly through the decades.  "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", "The Glass Menagerie", and "A Streetcar Named Desire" come to mind.  Williams, however, has over 40 lesser-known one-act plays to his credit, dating back to the 1930's.  Thanks to the many dedicated admirers and students of the troubled yet prolific playwright, these short plays are occasionally revitalized on stages across America and beyond.  This summer, the author who was born Thomas Lanier Williams III gets the spotlight at New York City's St. Luke's Theatre with two of those one act plays: "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" from 1946, and "Kingdom of Earth" (later renamed "The Seven Descents of Myrtle") from 1968.  They are presented together in the Write Act Repertory Theatre's "2 By Tennessee Williams", directed by Marilyn Fried.  While neither of these two under-seen plays may sound familiar to non-Williams fans, they both featured characters and stories memorable enough to have had filmmakers expand them for the big screen.  "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" was adapted into the controversial 1956 film "Baby Doll", and the 1970 movie "The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots" was based on "Kingdom of Earth".  While many of Williams' lines may have the audience giggling at their quaintness (One character declares, "Mr. Vicarro, you're getting awf'ly familiar!" during a protracted seduction scene; another recalls about having her "cherry popped"...), the raw, human emotions underneath are timeless.

"27 Wagons Full of Cotton" is set in 1946 Mississippi.  The audience meets Jake (played perfectly by Mike Keller), a boorish cotton gin owner, and his wife Flora (Kathryn Luce Garfunkel), a pretty but childlike blonde with tousled hair and a lazy Southern drawl.  Whether from her innate personality, her admitted affinity for the oft-mentioned "dope", or the mental domination by Jake ("A woman like you's not made to have ideas. Made to be hugged an' squeezed!), Flora is a vulnerable figure.  In an act of arson, the shady Jake burns down the mill of his neighbor Silva Vicarro (played with tantalizing restraint by Justin R G Holcomb), a rival in the cotton business.  He demands that his "baby doll" Flora provide his alibi. I doubt that I'd be giving too much away to future audiences by revealing that Jake indeed gets "busted".  That priceless moment when Vicarro learns what happened, by the way, is an exquisite piece of wordless acting by Holcomb.  It's also the turning point of the piece, when the audience knows that SOMETHING is going to happen next-- and that it's going to be quite dramatic.  That "something" turns out to be an unforeseeable twist which gives a darkly comedic meaning to the play's oft-repeated mention of "good neighbor policy"-- as well as a conclusion which proves that revenge is a dish best served, well... steamy.  "27 Wagons" is Ms. Garfunkel's show all the way.  Her Flora seems aware of her own naivete ("You have to excuse me from thinking.  I'm too lazy.") but leaves enough room for us to believe that her character just may be more complex than she lets on.

In "Kingdom of Earth", we meet another curious female character who finds herself something of a pawn between two men.  Judy Jerome plays Myrtle, a 30-year old chestnut-haired beauty with classic pin-up girl looks and a colorful past.  Her glamour contrasts sharply with her new "home": the depressing Mississippi farmhouse owned by her new husband, Lot (Holcomb).  Lot is an older man who's dying from tuberculosis.  The audience learns that the newlyweds had just met two days before.  Shortly after the play begins, however, Lot ascends the stairs and is not seen again-- although his aggressive cough is heard offstage to remind us of his presence.  Myrtle is not left alone, however.  The farmhouse is also home to "Chicken" (Keller), Lot's blunt-spoken, socially isolated, and seemingly dim-witted half-brother.  However, there's also a fourth, unseen character: an impending flood which threatens the property.  The three human characters, combined with the soon-to-come rising waters, create a searing power dynamic within the play's claustrophobic setting.  Savagely portrayed by Mike Keller, the character of Chicken simmers with magnified basic instincts of the animals he governs on his farm... and like Garfunkel's Flora of the first play, this character sends the audience home with a good amount of unresolved intrigue and curiosity (as well as an elevated heartrate...).

Located in one of the busiest and most popular neighborhoods of Manhattan, the St. Luke's Theater in 2016 is a long way (in every sense) from the Deep South of the past which inspired so many of Williams' writings.  However, thanks to the dedication of the actors and director of "2 By Tennessee Williams", the audience has no difficulty being transported back to the author's hot and humid plantation of troubled, complicated characters and those timeless, raw human emotions I mentioned earlier. We hope that the company will venture further into Mr. William's unique world in the future.

"2 By Tennessee Williams"
continues through September 4, 2016, on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8PM and Sundays at 7PM, at  The St. Luke's Theater, 308 West 46th Street, New York City. (between 8th and 9th Avenues).  Visit for more information.

Friday, July 15, 2016

WHY LIBERTARIAN IN 2016? An Interview With Thomas Simmons

An Interview With Thomas Simmons

June 2016 was a highly emotional time for LGBT Americans.  This year's annual New York City Pride Parade, held on June 26th, drew record numbers of participants and supporters.  However, the event was sadly marred by the still-open wound of the Orlando nightclub shooting two weeks prior.  It was widely speculated that the massacre in Florida would cause tensions between American Muslims and the LGBT community, two groups that were already used quite frequently as political pawns through the years.  In reaction to Orlando and other recent tragic events, a vigil was held in New York City's Times Square on the evening of the Pride parade.  The event, which featured speakers from both the Muslim and LGBT communities, was actually more than just a vigil; it was a rally to speak out against further violence, fear-mongering, and post-tragedy political opportunism.  One of the speakers was 56-year old Thomas Simmons of Shelbourne Falls in western Massachusetts.  A professor of business and economics at Greenfield Community College, the 56-year old, openly gay adoptive father of six children is running for Congress in Massachusetts' First District, on the Libertarian ticket.  He will go up against the incumbent Richard Neal, a Democrat.   Simmons grew up in Baldwin Harbor, Long Island, which just under 30 miles from New York City.   He is quick to point out to me, however, that his ancestors actually came to New York City in 1642.  They were Dutch sea captains.  Simmons moved to Massachusetts in 1991.

It's easy to forget that there are more than just two political parties in the United States.  The Libertarian Party, officially formed in 1971, is the third largest nationally organized political party.  The main platforms of the Party are the promotion of civil liberties, non-interventionism, laissez-faire ("hands off") economics, and the abolition of the welfare state.  Thomas Simmons is always happy to educate the masses on the benefits of less government in our private lives.  He is against government-mandated gun control, an issue that has occasionally put him at odds with some of his fellow liberal-minded peers, both gay and straight. However, he believes that the LGBT community has much more to gain in terms of civil rights with the Libertarian model:

"So often we run to the government as our savior.  Pull back a little bit.  With DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), who was the adversary to us exercising our right to marry?  It was Congress.  It was the government.  Right now, there's the whole transgender bathroom issue.  McSorley's Old Ale House in New York City has figured out how to have people in a bathroom without a problem for decades.  Target has figured it out.  Individual businesses have figured it out.  Who is the problem? It's the State of North Carolina, saying, 'You can't do this!  You have to do THIS instead.'  Look back to when blacks and whites couldn't marry.  Who was the problem?  The government.  We run to the government for the answer, when many times they are the problem.  They are always, sadly, behind the times.  At the rally, I wore my Stonewall Inn T-shirt.  Think back to those incidents that sparked the Stonewall riots in .  It was a reaction against the agents of the State who were sent there to harass gay people.  The State is almost always the problem because they have power and authority.  They can jail, fine, confront, or arrest you.  They have been the problem, not the savior."

Articulate and knowledgeable, yet always jovial in personality, Thomas Simmons spoke with me about the Libertarian Party and his political vision for both Massachusetts and the entire nation:

JR: Hello, Thomas! Thank you for speaking with me.  So, for starts: What was the goal behind the recent rally in Times Square?
TS: The goal behind the event was to bring a groups of people from different perspectives within the Libertarian party, to talk mostly about civil rights from our perspective.  We billed it as a vigil for dealing with people as individuals and not as members of groups.  What we've seen, especially in the wake of the Orlando shootings, is that politicians were really quick as to who the "bad guys" are: "Muslims are the bad guys".  "Gay people are the bad guys."  "Legal firearm owners are the bad guys."  It was very quick.  In this country, every time there's a crisis, there's a call for immediate, instant action... and every time that happens, there's an erosion of civil rights.  The examples we brought up were: World War II, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  Crisis!  So lets take Japanese-Americans out of their houses, out of their jobs, and put them in--let's call them what they were-- concentration camps. 
JR: Yes.  There was a recent musical on Broadway about that, "Allegiance".
TS: Yes!  Another example: September 11th happens, and the immediate reaction is The Patriot Act.  Now the government wants your library records, and they want limitless search and seizure, and they want a Secret FISA Court to get a warrant.  In 2016, after the Orlando shootings, it's like, "We gotta do something!  We gotta do it now!"  Whenever we act out of fear and crisis, we tend to do it in the name of national security, and we tend to be willing to give up civil rights.  The groups that were present at the Rally included Muslims for Liberty-- a group of Muslims mostly in the New York area, who actually believe in freedom and constitutional rights.  They are not terrorists, and they don't want their name on a "No Fly List" simply because it sounds Arabic.  Another group was Outright Libertarians, who I represented, which is the gay/lesbian/transgender caucus within the Party.  Pink Pistols did not show up because there was a scheduling conflict.  So, it was a number of groups who all believe in holding up the Constitution and not giving in to crisis mentality, hate, or the "Who are the bad guys?" kind of thinking.

JR: Congratulations on that event!  Now, it's safe to say that a lot of Americans see only two political parties in this country.  They only see Democrats and Republicans.  What would be the most important thing that you'd want the masses to know about the Libertarian party?
TS: We start from the perspective that the majority of Americans-- or at least the plurality if not the majority-- actually see themselves as Independents: Not as Democrats and not as Republicans, even though they may naturally gravitate towards those parties.  They are registered as, or consider themselves to be, Independents.  They have really rejected the Establishment politics of both, and the nonsense that both parties play.  A great example of that nonsense is the recent four votes on gun control in the House.  The difference in those four proposals was minute.  It was a hair.  Yet, the Democrats only voted for their proposals, and the Republicans only voted for theirs-- because to them, voting for their proposals was more important overall than actually doing anything.  So, if you start from the perspective that the majority of Americans are really Independent and are sick of both parties-- as evidenced by both the Sanders phenomenon and the Trump phenomenon-- then the Libertarians actually represent what most Americans are.  That means: Get the government out of my life.  If I'm not hurting anybody, let me live my life.  We represent Americans who are  fiscally responsible and socially tolerant.  It's just hard for us, as Libertarians, to get on the national stage.  We've done better this year than any year previously, because Gary Johnson and Bill Weld leading the ticket are credible candidates.  This year, there is a credible third choice.  I think that we are very used to "Democrat versus Republican", but Americans are very willing to go "Third Party".  Ross Perot got 18 percent of the vote.  John Anderson did much better against Reagan and Carter than anyone thought.  We simply need to get on the main stage... but there's such a fixation that it's only Democrat and Republican that it's hard to do that.  In my case, I am running for Congress and there's no Republican in the race.  It's still a two Party race.  It's me against the incumbent Democrat.

JR: I understand!  So, for people who have never been in your district in Massachusetts, what is unique and/or distinctive about where live and where you hope to represent?
TS: Western Massachusetts is very different from the rest of the State.  With the exception of the city Springfield-- which is kind of an anchor in the Southwest corner of my district-- my district is very rural.  It is very liberal.  These are "farmers with PhD's", as I like to describe them!  They are organic farmers.  They are people who believe in local economies, local networking, small business... They are this interesting dichotomy of both sportsmen and hunters, and Bernie Sanders supporters.  Our district voted for Bernie Sanders three to one in the Democratic primary.  And then there are the colleges!  We call it the "Pioneer Valley" along the Connecticut Valley-- that's where U Mass Amherst is.  We also have four community colleges, and the Five Sisters consortium of colleges-- all private.  The people in my district are very highly educated, very open, and very tolerant.  We have a town meeting form of government, and everyone participates.  It's very realistic. People are very bent on having conversation and on coming to a consensus to govern.  It's just very different from living in a big city like Boston or Bedford.

JR: On a larger level, what characteristics are in your district which also would apply to the proverbial "Anytown, USA"?
TS: What applies to "Anytown, USA" would be the emphasis on small business.  In this economy, small businesses have been creamed.  A lot of Congressional legislation is all geared towards helping large corporations.  Bailouts, for example, were geared towards keeping large corporations afloat.  The Import/Export Bank was geared towards helping military contractors in Washington stay afloat.  The "small guy" is actually getting wiped out.  the Berkshires, which are in my district, is a big vacation spot.  You can see motel after motel after motel boarded up.  Restaurants come and go.  They turn over after three or four months because they can't make it.  Being a small business person in this climate is really tough.  I think that is the case in "Smalltown, America" all across the country.  There's the whole idea that if you're big and wealthy and have connections in Washington, you can get bigger and wealthier and have more connections and more government support.  But if you're the little guy, that doesn't happen.
JR: Living in New York City, I have seen much of that through the years in many neighborhoods.  It can be depressing and discouraging to see so many small businesses close down.  So, as a political candidate, what issue or issues do you feel most strongly about?
TS: There are a couple of issues which really prompted my run against the incumbent. The first is Common Core.  It might not be a glitzy issue, but for teachers-- and I have been a teacher for 18 years-- it's a big issue, especially in Massachusetts.  The students and the teachers themselves have their hands tied.  It interferes with teaching students to think critically, to explore things, and to pull information from different disciplines together to come up with new ideas.  Instead, what they are told is, "Here is the curriculum package we bought from this big curriculum company.  Here are the A, B, C, and D multiple choice tests.  This is how you answer the test."  That's what they spend their time doing. As long as they get the right percentage of students to do well on the tests, then the federal government releases funding to the schools.  So, everything is incentivized to get good grades on a test, and not to teach students how to think critically.  They come to the college level after high school, and the ability to think critically and to integrate different disciplines is a lost art.  When we are dealing with complicated economic questions and having a discussion, a student will ask, "So what's the answer?"  In other words, "Don't make me think through it and say, 'Well, it's complicated.'  Is the answer A, B, C, or D?"  That's what they are being trained to do.  I watched this happen for 18 years.  That's coming out of the Federal Department of Education--which is, quite frankly, in league with curriculum textbook-publishing companies.  There are only four or five of them.  The gentleman I am running against has been one of the biggest promoters of this.  This actually launched my campaign.

There are other issues as well.  We are a very pro-choice district.  The man I am running against has voted to restrict women's medical choices on a number of occasions.  I am 100 percent pro-choice.  I don't believe the government should stand between person and their doctor.  That could be on the question of abortion, or the prescription of medical marijuana to veterans.  It crosses a whole bunch of different issues when you get the government involved; I want them out of medical decisions.  Here's my real radical stance: I am running as openly gay and openly HIV-positive, which puts me in a fairly unique and very narrow category of people running for Congress this year.  Just like the federal government ties transportation funding to having a 21-year drinking age, I actually would tie health care and Medicare funding to eliminating HIV transmission as a crime.  There are just too many places in America where that could send you to jail for 10 to 20 years.  State legislatures are free to tackle the issue because it's just not "politically safe" to do so.  So, I would definitely be on the side of that issue, as well as ending employment discrimination for other gay, lesbian, and transgender people.  Those are the three issues I am going to be hitting home in the campaign.

JR: On a national level, what do you believe is our most important issue?
TS: I'm going to make it a double issue: The national debt, and the erosion of civil liberties.  Those are the two things that I've been concerned about as an economics teacher for the last 18 years.  The national debt is now 20 trillion dollars.  So what?  So we owe 20 trillion bucks.  How does that affect me?  Obviously, in your personal life, it may not.  So what if the government owes it?  But when the government spends more than it takes in, it really borrows the money.  It just doesn't print more on a printing press.  It borrows the money from large institutions that have enormous sums of cash.  We borrow from Goldman Sachs, from Chase Manhattan, from Citibank, from the House of Saud, from the Chinese government -- and then we pay it back with interest.  That interest comes from the United States taxpayer through their federal income tax.  We now spend five times more in interest payments alone than we do on infrastructure-- roads, bridges, et cetera.  That's a lot of money coming from Joe and Jane Taxpayer.  And the money gets paid to these enormous financial institutions.  It's an institutional situation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Bringing revenues and expenses in line-- both the tax system and spending--must be a top priority.  Most people in Congress say that, yet they don't want to do it.  They'd rather come home to their district and say, "I brought you this and I brought you that!"  Never mind the fact that we had to borrow to pay for it.  It gets them re-elected in two years.  I've already told my district that I'm not going to come back and say that I'm bringing you all sorts of goodies if there's not a way to pay for them.

The second issue is the erosion of civil liberties.  I've always been a big supporter of the ACLU.  I get emotional talking about constitutional rights and civil liberties.  I fear the State.  It doesn't matter whether it's the Russian pogroms of Jews, the "internment" of Japanese-Americans, the jailing of draft resisters, the attack on the Waco compound...  The Bill of Rights to me is very special.  It says, "Government, stop!  You can't get involved in my life."  When you start saying, "Yes, they can read my e-mails, and they can tap my phone, and they can put me on a 'No Fly' list and not even tell me that they're doing it." then we have reached an Orwellian, authoritarian State.   We have, in essence, pretty much become-- and I hate to be so bold about this, but I will-- the Soviet Union that I learned about as a kid in elementary school, and that's scary.  I don't believe in government surveillance.

JR: A very hot issue right now is the concern for our country's safety with the influx of refugees from the Middle East coming into the United States.  We had spoken about that a while back.  You told me that some of our fears may be hyperbolized, because most of the refugees will likely assimilate into our culture over time.  However, some people dispute that-- and they use recent tragic events in France and other European countries as an example.  What would you say to them?

TS: It's a different scenario in Europe.  What makes France, for example, unique is that they are French.  They have their French language and their French culture.  What makes Germany unique is their "Germanity".  What makes the Danes unique is that they speak Danish and have Danish culture.  America does not have that, to that extent.  We are this enormous "salad bowl" of so many cultures.  People still harken back to their ethnic backgrounds.  You can still see ethnic Germans doing schuhplattler dances.  You can  see Hispanic-Americans celebrating QuinceaƱera.  People bring with them the best of their culture.  But all you have to do is walk down the street here in New York City, and you'll see an Arab, a Jew, a German, an Albanian, a Latino, and a Brazilian all working at the same construction site together.  People remember who they are and they bring with them the good-- but they tend to begin much better here in the States rather than in Europe, which is so identified by their own language and their one culture.  This has been the history of America.

JR: How true!  Well, thank you for speaking with me.  Where can people learn more about the Libertarian Party?
TS: They can go to, which is the national Party's website.  Again, I will say that like any political party, there is a national platform and there are individual candidates.  That website gives a very general, "Here's our philosophy" approach.  My candidacy in general is

JR: Thanks again, Thomas!  I wish you the best of luck in your political endeavors!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

RAISING THE ROOF, LIFTING SPIRITS: An Interview With Genderqueer Singer-Songwriter and Interfaith Minister Reverend Yolanda

An Interview With Genderqueer Singer-Songwriter and Interfaith Minister Reverend Yolanda

Back in 2003,  the popular New York City newspaper "Gay City News" featured a cover story about the newly-named "Outmusician of the Year".  That musician was a unique singer-songwriter and downtown Manhattan scenester who went only by "Yolanda".  It would be one of the first prestigious awards for an artist and LGBT activist who was gaining attention and gaining many fans with her forcefully soulful voice and delivery, combined with an outrageously larger-than-life persona.  This was a performer, after all, who would appear in a wedding dress and full beard for a marriage rights benefit in 2005 (ten years before nationwide marriage equality), gear up in KISS-inspired rock 'n' roll drag for a Bear music festival in Nashville, and dress as a Christmas tree for a holiday-themed music event in New York's East Village.  Today, Yolanda more resembles the Southern church-going lady on her way to brunch-- complete with big hair, unapologetically loud colors, and the occasional funny hat.  Since 2003, however, Yolanda has started wearing some new "hats".  She still describes herself as a "genderqueer singer-songwriter"... but she's also found a new calling as an interfaith minister.

By now you may be expecting me to introduce the man underneath the wig and dress sets.  However, there's no alter ego sharing a body with Reverend Yolanda.  Although she takes no offense to the terms "drag queen" or "transgendered", the artist born as Roger Anthony Mapes prefers the term "genderqueer".  She clarifies that "drag" often implies playing a character, and "transgender" is more commonly used to describe people seeking to live as their identified rather than biological gender.  The singer tells me, "I don't call myself a drag queen.  Yolanda is not a character to me.  Yolanda is truly my authentic self, no matter how I'm dressed.  I don't consider myself male, but I don't consider myself female either.  But for convenience's sake: When I'm in a wig and heels, you can call me 'she'.  When I'm not, you can call me 'he'.  To me, it makes sense and it makes it easier for people.  I prefer the 'she' over the 'he' in general.  But I don't want to be confusing for people.  When they ask me, I try to explain it to them... but sometimes they still just don't get it!  What I have come to understand is that I am truly a  person who lives in the middle.  Call me 'Yolanda', regardless of how I am dressed!  I don't ever want to take away the binary male or binary female.  That's not my intention.  But there's a lot of range between the two.  When I lived in Vermont in the '90's, a group of people and I helped to change Vermont to make it safe for transgendered people to walk the streets.  Today, the kids there don't even know who I am... but when I first moved to Burlington, I'd walk the streets fully dressed.  I'd get catcalls, and people would come after me and all that kind of stuff.  Today, it's safe to walk the streets.  Transgender people move to Vermont because they know it's safe to live there.  And I was a part of that!  It's incredible.  I didn't know I was 'doing anything'.  I was just being myself, wrapping myself up with plastic and walking around Church Street in Burlington in glitter and makeup trying to look like Divine.  But because of those things that we did in Burlington in the '90's, it really shaped the LGBTQ movement there.  I'm just so proud to be a part of that history!"

Gender semantics, however necessary they may seem, go out the window when Yolanda performs.  Her powerful,  take-no-prisoners voice combine with equally powerful, homegrown lyrics  for no less than a delightful surge of emotion from her audience.  Approaching her 60th birthday, Reverend Yolanda is bringing her fiercely unique persona and talents to New York City's famous Metropolitan Room on August 6th with a new show, named "Peace, Love, and Yolanda: Celebrating the Reverend Yolanda Songbook".  The artist spoke with me about music, spirituality, gender, and her upcoming show-- which promises plenty of all three!

Hello Yolanda.  Thank you for speaking with me!  Back in 2003, you had been named Outmusician of the Year.  How have you evolved since then, both personally and professionally?
Boy, that's a big evolution!  Right after winning that award, I got involved with Fig Jam Records and a project called "Abbalicious", and I really thought that it was really going to take us somewhere, with a little more mainstream attention-- a real "ticket" for all of us.  That didn't happen.  It was very disappointing.  Right about that time, I met my future husband Glenn Ganaway.  At that moment in time, I was really disappointed in everything, and I decided to stop performing for a while and just focus on being with Glenn.  It wasn't until about 2006 or 2007 that I started performing again.  I've always been a person who has approached life from a spiritual perspective.  I was born down South and raised in Christian culture,  but it meant more than that to me.  It wasn't a fundamentalist thing, not a "You must be born again" message or anything like that.  It was a message of love, and always was.  During that hiatus, I began to read a book called "A Course in Miracles" which I had started to read in the '80's but never delved into.  Both Glenn and I became very interested in putting the principles of that book into practice.  That really changed both my life and Glenn's life.  I decided to go into seminary: One Spirit Interfaith Seminary.  When I graduated in 2011, I was Reverend Yolanda.  So, the transformation that happened during those years was my finding what I really considered my purpose or mission all along: being a "music minister".  Even in the early years, the message was always about being your true, authentic, beautiful self.  I always had that message in my music.  After I graduated from seminary, I created "Reverend Yolanda's Old Time Gospel Hour", the show that won two MAC Awards.  That created a platform for me to really speak to churches and people in the Christian community and beyond-- because I had an interfaith connection.  I toured all over the country and met with great spiritual groups and individuals.  I began to realize that there are more people in spiritual communities who are our allies rather than our haters.  Slowly but surely, I found places where LGBTQ people were coming out about their spirituality.  Since 2011, I have seen a real spiritual revolution within myself but also within the LGBTQ community.  When I first started going to the New York City Pride marches a few years ago, I'd see Dignity-- the Catholic group-- and the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).  Now,  I see that the message of embracing the LGBTQ community is reaching the more mainstream Churches, even the fundamentalist/evangelical Churches.  My purpose is to build bridges of love between diverse communities, through the power of inspirational music and entertainment.  It really put me on the right path as a person.  And of course, with Glenn I found a partner who I never thought I'd ever find!  I really feel powerful and confident in a way I never have before.  I have been asked to do really interesting things, such as going to people's homes and blessing their children-- both straight and LGBTQ.  It's really heartwarming and beautiful.

Wow!  Thank you for that!  So, you were born and raised in the Bible Belt, which has often had a reputation for being anti-LGBTQ.  I've never heard you speak negatively about your hometown or home state.  By contrast, you've written a song about Muscle Shoals, and you even were honored there when you came back for a visit years later.
Yes.  I have to really give kudos to my hometown, because after all these years they finally started a Pride festival in Muscle Shoals.  That was really hard for them to do.  They got death threats.  It's odd, because my hometown-- and this runs true all across the South--  is home to a lot of LGBTQ people.  Where I grew up was full of musicians and artists and intellectuals.  There was a University there and all that.  It was a pretty good place to grow up, because there was a certain type of openness for "sissy boys" and all that.  People would just say "He's artsy!"  (Laughs)  But when you come out as gay, there's a huge backlash that happens, because "that's what you're supposed to do".  It's like a strange custom.  If you come out publicly as gay or trans or whatever, people react because they feel they are SUPPOSED to.  So, it took a real lot of courage for them to create a Pride celebration.  This is their second year.  I'm really proud of that.  I travel a lot through the South.  I go to Tennessee, and North Carolina, where there is a music festival every year.  I've been to all kinds of little cities in North Carolina, and I have family living there now.  This whole thing with the bathroom law: You know, I just do what I gotta do.  I may be dressed up or not.  Honestly, by and large, most people are just pleasant and nice.  They didn't call the guards when I went to the bathroom.  On the ground, people are mostly like "No problem!"  There's a redneck every now and then, and then you just go your own way.  Sometimes I do have to get up in their face and be like, "Fuck you!" (Laughs)  However, this whole political climate of hate is really strange, because on the ground, the people I meet are loving.  They really don't care.  I go to my hometown, and I have had lifelong friends since fourth grade who are supportive of what I do.  I haven't had one hate message from anybody in Alabama or anywhere else.  And these are conservative Christian people!  Hate is manufactured somehow, and I don't figure out how.  It's some kind of political power that has to be held onto, and the processes of hate fuel that power somehow.  I don't know.  It's so mind-boggling to me. 

I agree.  When you figure it out, let me in on it too! (Laughs)  So, you've been out and proud for a long time, as well having been an independent artist for so long.  As independent artists, a lot of us do what we do strictly for our love of doing it.  It's certainly not for financial gain or success!  You have to have that desire to keep on creating.  Where do you get your drive and your strength from?
Thank you for that question!  I like to think that I popped out of my mother's womb an artist! (Laughs)  I have never wanted to do anything else.  I've tried to work nine-to-five jobs, and it's always been a failure.  I was a good waiter for a while, and I liked that because it was very social!  But I've always had some strength about staying true to myself, that my life wasn't worth living if I couldn't live intimately as the artist that I know I am.  It has been hard.  When I first started playing guitar and singing professionally, I was 17.  I learned how to write songs, and that was all in the confines of church and gospel music.  It was a new music called "Contemporary Christian" which was on the rise at that time.  I was a part of that scene when it first started.  I came out of the closet in fourth grade, but then I had to sort of "put it away" to participate in the Christian music scene.  But then I couldn't hold it back anymore, because I fell in love with one of the band members!  (Laughs) That was an end to that particular part of my life.  I finished college and moved to New York.  That's where I found the whole performance artist/drag queen/gay world in the East Village in the '80's.  I knew I wanted to be a part of it but I didn't know how.  I felt like an outsider.  Larry Flick really took me by the hand and helped me figure out what kind of music I wanted to do, how I wanted to sing, and how to present myself.  In those early years-- which I'm going to revisit in my new show-- I began to write songs that we couldn't really use as pop songs.  They wound up many years later on my album "Country Gospel Kirtan".  They always had some kind of spiritual message to them.  I knew I had to go down this path.  It's been very hard for my financially, but even that's been OK... because I know that this is what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. 

You wouldn't believe the amazing e-mails that people write to me, from our wonderful LGBTQ community.  Recently I got an e-mail from a woman who bought my CD.  She was a security guard who was standing outside the concert hall where I was performing.   She wrote me an e-mail a week later saying, "Even though I am an atheist, I love your music.  I keep playing the song 'Love and Light' over and over again.  Thank you for your gift to my life."  I was like, "No way!"  This woman, whom I had no connection to and who didn't even see the concert, heard something and felt some kind of vibration, and bought my CD.  And she's an atheist.  I love that.

That's pretty inspiring!
Just recently, the City Council Commissioner of Union City, New Jersey called me and asked me to do an invocation and a small concert at their vigil for the victims of the Orlando massacre.  They rose the LGBT flag for the first time in the history of Union City.  The Mayor was there, the City Council was there, all these people giving speeches... They were saying that, as a city, they welcome all people.  It was just really impressive, and they asked me to be a part of it.  It's those times that show me that what I'm doing is the right thing to do, regardless of money I make or whatever it is.

That's being a true artist! How do you identify in terms of religion?  Do you call yourself a Christian?
I believe that all spiritual paths are essentially the same.  My favorite spiritual teacher is Jesus.  That doesn't mean I'm a Christian.  It just means that He is my favorite spiritual teacher, because of the message of love.  Sadly, some people have perverted that message.  For me, even atheism is a spiritual path.  I find it fascinating.  I love to talk to atheists, because I also don't believe that there's this personality by the name of God who's sitting on a throne somewhere wagging "His" finger at you telling you what to do, and that if you don't do it then you're going to be punished.  Obviously that's ridiculous.  It's Stone Age mythology.  But I also know where that comes from.  I don't care if you believe that.  That doesn't bother me.  The Hindus have a whole range of gods and goddesses, and I think they're beautiful.  They represent different aspects of the life source energy.  At the heart of all spiritual paths is the understanding that we are all one... and that there is a divine life source energy that animates all life on Earth.  That energy needs to be respected-- not just in humans, but in animals and plants and in the Earth itself.  The way we treat the Earth is a spiritual process.  I do not subscribe to any one religion, but I do connect with that universality which is in all paths.  I love paganism and Wicca and goddess-based spirituality which really honors the Earth.  That, plus the teachings of Jesus, are really my favorite things about spirituality.  I also love Ganesha.  I do a lot of Ganesha chants!

In addition to a spiritual awakening, what surprises can we expect at your upcoming show at New York City's Metropolitan Room on August 6th?
This is my first show at the Metropolitan Room.  It's a very classy venue.  I really wanted to have a special event, because it's celebrating my 25 years of songwriting.  When I realized that I've been writing for 25 years, it really blew my mind.  I've been to other composers' and songwriters' tributes after they died, and I said, "No, I want to do it while I'm still here!"  So, we've gone back to the beginning, with Yolanda and the Plastic Family, all the way to my latest CD, "Country Gospel Kirtan, Volume 1".  What's unique about this show is that I'm having guest artists sing my songs.  I'm singing too, of course, but I'm having very special friends of mine who have helped me grow and develop along the way.  I've never done that before.  I've never heard anyone else do my music.  They're all really excited, and I'm excited to see and hear them.  It's gonna be full of incredible performers.  Kenneth Gartman, who directed my MAC-Award winning show, is going to be my musical director. 

That sounds absolutely divine!
It's exciting that I'm just able to keep going, and to keep doing all of this.  And, I still have so much more to do.  I have another new album coming out in the fall.  I even have songs for an album after that! (Laughs).  I have a lot to say and a lot to share, and I just wanna get it all out there.  Honestly, I have been HIV-positive since 1997, and I did not think I would even be here today.  I lived in New York in the '80's and I did all those things that you do when you're young-- I had so much sex, and hung out on the Piers, and just didn't give one thought to protection or anything like that... and here I am!  There are a lot of us who are still here, and of course we saw a lot of our friends pass.  But so many of us are still here too... and THAT'S a cause for celebration! I really want to celebrate that.  I mean, just realizing that I've known you for 13 years is amazing! (Laughs) It's incredible what one can do with their lives if they just follow their authentic path.

The feeling is mutual!  See you at the show!

"Peace, Love, and Yolanda: Celebrating the Reverend Yolanda Songbook" is Saturday, August 6, 3PM, at New York City's Metropolitan Room. Visit here for more info and tickets.  Visit Reverend Yolanda's website at

Friday, July 1, 2016

MAN ENOUGH TO BE A LEATHERMAN: An Interview With Mr. Leather 64Ten 2016 James Tyrcha


An Interview With Mr. Leather 64Ten 2016 James Tyrcha

For the GLBT's large and diverse Leather/Kink community, the annual International Mr. Leather (IML) weekend is widely considered to be the "Big Daddy" of all Leather events.  Held every Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, the so-called "Windy City" becomes the setting for thousands of out-and-proud Leathermen, Leatherwomen, and kinksters of all ages, ethnicities, and fetishes.  The extra-long, adrenaline-filled weekend is more than just one big party, however.  In addition to the many social events and activities, there is also an infinite amount of opportunity for Leather/Kink awareness, expression, and education.  And, of course, there's that climactic moment on Sunday evening when one lucky guy is selected to be the face of the diverse worldwide Leather community.  At this year's IML, 59 men competed for the Title of International Mr. Leather, with the ruggedly handsome Mr. New Jersey Leather 2016, David "Tigger" Bailey, taking the envied sash.  Although only one man can win, the event is widely regarded by all Contestants as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as well as a lifelong bonding experience between IML Classmates. 

Fifty-nine men.  Fifty-nine unique stories. Chicago native James Tyrcha is one of those men-- and he indeed has a unique story to tell.   Tyrcha competed with four other guys and won the Title of Mr. Leather 64 Ten 2016 in March of this year, which enabled him to compete at IML.  The 39-year old is an out and proud transmale.  While Tyrcha is certainly not the first transmale to own a Leather Title or to compete at IML, his newfound visibility has come at a time when it seems that the whole nation is talking about transgender issues.  Sadly, a lot of that talk has shown to based on emotional reaction and even blatant misinformation, rather than based on intelligent discourse or knowledge gained from actually knowing a transperson.  Tyrcha tells me that he found acceptance in the Leather community which, interestingly, idealizes many so-called "traditional" aspects of masculinity-- from facial and body hair to the unapologetic expression of open sexuality.  He tells me, "I wasn't really 'out' at the beginning of my transition.  I started hanging out a lot with the Leather community, and saw how accepting everybody was.  I was usually in the background, listening to conversations-- and I noticed that if somebody ever said something bad about another person, someone would jump in right away and call them out on it.  They wouldn't tolerate it.  It was heartwarming to see that happen.  I was scared about whether or not I should say something. Are these people going to accept me as a man?  Are they going to see me differently?  Then I started seeing other transmen coming to the leather bars, and they were very accepted.  Around that time, all these anti-trans bathroom laws and incidents of violence started happening.  Social media started blowing up with all these awful stories, like transwomen getting killed.  I became friends with Buck Angel.  He's a big pioneer in our community.  He shifted his entire career from doing adult movies to education and to creating acceptance through visibility and through talking about it.  I was thinking to myself, What a great opportunity to educate the world through men like Buck, and Mr. San Diego Eagle 2014 Paulo Batista, and me.  We are not visibly trans.  If we come out and say, 'Hey, we are trans!', then it's going to change what people think trans is.  People have this idea that transpeople are perverted men in heels trying to have sex with their daughters in bathrooms.   It's absolutely absurd.  That's never even happened.  If they see someone like myself, who's very masculine and completely male--100%-- then they are gonna go, 'Wow.  Well, maybe our idea of trans is wrong, and we need to learn about it and accept it.'  So, I came out to my Leather family.  They hugged me and said, 'You're one of us.  You're no different.  You're a pioneer, and a great person, you've got courage and heart, and it takes a lot to come out.'  They took me in, and they protect me.  If anyone ever gives me any hell or whatever, they would have my back 100%."

James Tyrcha and I spoke more about his own journey in the Leather community, as well as his upcoming plans as an activist in both the Leather/Kink world and beyond:

JR: Hello James.  Thanks for speaking with me.  So, on your website, you are very open about your journey.  As a titleholder and as a visible representative of the Chicago Leather community, is transgender visibility and acceptance your chosen cause?
JT:  Yes.  But my greater cause is equality for our entire community, not just specifically transpeople.  I am trying to be a leader in the face of trans rights.  But altogether, it's about gay rights, and it's about BDSM rights, and about HIV-positive rights, and sexual freedom rights.  They are all important to me, because it all ties into one thing.  

JR: I agree.  People forget that we are all one community, and ultimately, we have to be united-- especially given the recent tragic events. 
JT: Exactly.  I've seen more "shaming" in our own community, which is really sad.  Boystown, in Chicago, is a very touristy destination.  You have these young kids who are just coming out.  They all wear the pretty Gucci shirts, and they are all very "uber-gay" (Laughs).  And then there are the Leathermen.  There's that segregation.  Some of these people-- even in our own gay community-- think that Leathermen are "sick" or "twisted" or "perverted".  It's bad to see that there's shaming going on in our own community.  My IML classmates and I have our own private space where we can all speak to each other, and I learned that some of the stuff that's been going on with our own brothers has just been awful.   Somebody posted on one of the guys' Facebook page, "Since you didn't win IML or place in the Top 20, now you can go kill yourself."  We were like, "What the fuck?!" This was some random person on Facebook.  With a Title, you gain something of a celebrity status and you get a social media "boost".  Everyone wants to be friends with you on Facebook, but you don't really know these people.  Still, you want to reach out to people and to get your message across.  But you don't really know who you're accepting as a "friend" until they post something crazy!

JR: How true!  So, you've used the term "masculine" quite a bit.  Do you think that the word "masculine" itself is something of a buzzword?  For example, some people-- including some transmales themselves-- believe that Leathermen promote a limited, so-called "exaggerated" idea of the traditional male stereotype: the facial hair, the body hair, the tattoos, the unapologetic sexuality...
JT: From my own personal experience in dealing with the transmale community, I have learned that some of these people identify as "non-binary".  There are people out there who strongly believe that they are not a "man" or a "woman".  They are in the middle.  Personally-- and this is me quoting Buck Angel-- "I don't get it!"  (Laughs)  You're either a man or a woman.  You can't be an "it"!  Some people want to identify as "non-binary", and I respect that.  I don't shame it.  But I don't understand why somebody would want to be in the middle.  How confusing is that?  Masculinity to me is just "being a guy"-- whether you like other guys or you like girls.  There's every different type of person out there: There are fat people, skinny people, black, white, Hispanic, muscular, not muscular, fit... Everything is out there, and that's what makes the community great: the variety.  But I just can't wrap my head around the "non-binary" part!   

I think that a lot of "masculinity" is mental, and how you feel, and how you portray yourself. You can be a tiny little person and feel like the most masculine guy in the world, or you can be a very large, six foot four, muscular guy and be the "twinkiest" man!  So, masculinity is not just about appearance.  It's really about your mental state, and how you feel.  I had to address these issues of Buck and the backlash you are talking about, when I brought him to Chicago in January: I reached out to the transmale community.  There are a lot of transmen who are getting ready to go on hormones and are looking for support to do that; and there are guys who are 100% transitioned and are about 15 years into it.  There are also a lot of non-binary guys in that group.  So, people were coming back to me and saying, "Well, I want to see Buck, but I don't want to hear him refer to his genitals as a pussy."  They were offended by it.  Well, you can't tell somebody what to call their genitals!  You can give them a nickname: Men call their penis "Harry", or "Tom", or "Snake" or whatever... and transmen can call their stuff whatever they want!  There are quite a few transguys out there who get really upset with Buck for doing that: They say, "You're a man.  You shouldn't be calling it that!"  But you can't be upset by the fact that he embraces his genitals.  He always goes by "Buck Angel: The Man with the Pussy" in his adult film work.  It's part of his platform.  I noticed in the beginning of my transition ten years ago that there's the male ego, and there's always a lot of jealousy.  Men are always very competitive.  Look at the gym: There are guys watching who's working out harder, or who's getting bigger and stronger... There's always been that with men.  That jealousy exists in the transmale community as well.  There could be the guy who starts hormones, and within three months he has a full beard.  And there's another guy who takes three years to grow a little mustache.   People get upset if they think someone has it better than them, and they want to talk about it!  But everyone's transition is different... and sometimes we have a hard time wrapping our mind around the acceptance of others.

JR: Through the years, we have learned about such transgendered individuals who have "come out" and become advocates for equality in one way or another.  Granted, some of them-- like Candis Cayne or Caitlyn Jenner-- have always been in the spotlight, so privacy was never a choice.  But there are also an unknown number of transgendered men and women living anonymously in this country.  Do you think that there's a conflict between those who choose to live anonymously, versus such people as yourself who are open about it?
JT: Nobody wants to feel alone.  Myself, and Buck, and Paolo, and Shane Ortega, and Chaz Bono-- and a lot of the transmen who are speaking out-- are helping others come out as well.  The community is growing.  Here in Chicago, the transmale community is huge and very well known.  It's only been in the last year or two that it's really grown.  People know that we are here, and are understanding of what transmen are.  At the beginning of my transition, people only knew about transwomen-- including a lot of people in the gay community.  Now, there's a lot of information about it and a lot more coverage about it.  I've thrown events throughout Chicago that have gotten a lot of press.  I had Buck on the cover of "GRAB" magazine, which is a major gay publication which is in thousands of locations.  People are going "Wow!"-- and they are learning about it.  We have new members constantly reaching out to our group in Chicago: They start talking about their feelings about transitioning.  We have Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago which specializes in GLBT healthcare. The resources are huge.   It's just growing and growing.  People are not feeling alone about it anymore.  Three years ago it was not like that.  At that time, I was trying to accept my own self-- and to believe that it was OK, and that I'd be safe, and that nobody was going to hurt me.  Things like the Brandon Teena story really stick in your head when you have to make the choice of who you are going to surround yourself with.  I know people who have daily trans-bashing experiences, and it's because of their demographics and the people around them.  

JR: I understand.  Living in New York City, it's sometimes difficult to understand the situation in other parts of the country.  Now... Some people have speculated that transmen have an "easier" time in society than transwomen: meaning, they are more likely to find employment, more likely to find partners, are subject to less overt discrimination, etc.  Some have offered the theory that the reason for this is that it's just easier to be a male than it is to be a female in our society-- largely due to "male privilege".  How do you feel about that, based upon your experience?
JT: I think that in terms of visibility, then yes it is easier to be a transmale.  When you transition and take testosterone, you completely masculinize.  You get an Adam's apple, you get body hair, your shoulders get wider... You get to the point that you're not visibly trans anymore.  You can walk around in the public eye and no one will know that you are transgendered.  It's a lot harder for transwomen.  You have to have a lot of surgery, with the Adam's apple shaving or with surgery to feminize the face.  There's also the larger hands and the more muscular physique.  That just makes it more difficult because when they walk through the public eye, everyone knows that they are trans.  It would be like someone who's heavier being called a "fatty" in public by some jerk; When someone sees a transwoman, they might give her a hard time.  That's changing now with greater acceptance, and with some parents and doctors putting their children on hormone blockers.  That's great, because it doesn't allow the puberty process to happen until they are 16 or so, and then they can go on estrogen or testosterone.  In the future, transwomen should have it so much easier, because their body won't be able to masculinize in the first place-- combined with the greater acceptance in society.  Remember that everyone's body starts out female, and we either become male or we stay female.  The transition process will be so much better as we move forward.  There are so many stories and documentaries about greater acceptance, by both parents and by doctors and other healthcare workers as well.  

JR: What was your experience at IML like?  As the event grows and grows each year, it must have been overwhelming for at least some of the Contestants.
JT: After IML is all said and done, our Class brothers-- there are 59 of us-- are extremely close.  We all came down from the emotions and all stuck together-- and through all the drama, we are here for each other twenty-four seven.  No one has really fallen out of "the realm".  It is devastating to not make the Top 20.  I felt that way too.  But in the end, we all came to believe that those placement numbers are all just mathematics, and don't mean anything to us.  Some of our brothers just don't even want to know how they placed.  It doesn't matter to any of us.  We all believe that we are all winners, and we are all Number One, and we have Tigger representing us as our Class President.  We are all just one.  After that first hour at IML, there was a lot to take in-- because everyone wanted that opportunity to be in that Top 20.  It hurts when you don't get there.  But we stuck together as a group, as brothers.  We all hugged each other, and cried together, and talked about our feelings... and in the end, it didn't matter.  I came out of IML feeling amazing.  It's a life-changing experience for the better.  There are 1804 men in this world who wear the IML medal.  When you wear that medal, which is around my neck right now, you feel every one of your brothers with you.  When you don't have it on, you feel lost.  

JR: That's great to hear.  Now, on to a subject that it seems is on everyone's mind: the transgender bathroom law in North Carolina.  This law aroused so much misinformation and smearing of trans people.  I ask "Why?"  For the transpeople I know, it would be ridiculous for them to use the bathroom of the sex they were born with.  I honestly believe that the religious and political right created this as a way of bullying the most vulnerable segment of the GLBT community: "OK, if we can't stop society's acceptance of gays, and we can't stop gay marriage, and we can't stop gay rights, then we are going to target transpeople."  What can all of us-- including our straight allies-- do to make things better for the trans community?
JT: Again, it's about people standing up and being visible.  It is absolutely absurd.  If I were to walk into a women's restroom, I would get a purse thrown at me or someone calling the cops, thinking I was some kind of pervert coming in there to mess with women.  People who are trying to make these laws do not understand what "transgender" means.  A lot of legislators, or governors, or other people are not educated about it, and don't even want to know more about it.  They just make laws about things that they don't know about.  Again, they just think it's about is a man putting on makeup and heels and going into women's restrooms.  That's all they think being transgender is.  So, trans leaders and our allies must stand up and help them understand.  Whether they listen or not, it's their choice.  Send them your stories, and photos... and keep sending them until they figure it out.

JR: I agree!  So, on a lighter note: What do you do for fun?
JT: I love going to the beach.  I love barbecues.  Dogs rule!  I love dogs more than human beings. (Laughs)  I love to play with everybody's dog!   I lost my dog two years ago.  She was an "old lady".  Now I just don't have the time to commit to a new dog... but I hope to have another one of my own some day.  In the meantime I thought about getting some fish.  I can take care of fish!
JR: Well, fish are cool pets.  People who have them say that they are much more intelligent than we give them credit for.  Which is what I like to think of the human race! (Laughs)  Thanks for speaking with me!

Visit James Tyrcha's website here
Learn more about the "Man Cave" in Chicago here
(Photos of James, James with Tyler McCormick, James with Buck Angel, James with Billy Lane, and James with Paolo Batista courtesy of James Tyrcha.)