Using Humor Through Bullying, Homophobia, and the AIDS Epidemic

by Thom Hansen

“I Wouldn’t Kiss You If You Were The Last Boy On Earth.”

Well it was 1969 just pre-Stonewall. And I was a Sophomore in high school. I went to St. Peter’s Preparatory School for Boys. And as I like to say it, it prepared me for boys. I knew I was gay, I was actively participating sexually with men and it was a challenge being in school. I was bullied a little bit, not all that much, but needless to say, I wasn’t a big jock. I was a little more on the nelly side back in those days. And I remember clearly in Biology class, I was a Sophomore, and we were dissecting frogs and it was like really gross, but we had to do it. I don’t remember the name of the teacher but I can just remember so clearly. And one of the guys, one of the jocks got up and he said, “Hansen, Hansen, give me a kiss!”

And my response was, I put my hand on my hip and I said, “I wouldn’t kiss you if you were the last boy on Earth.”

And everybody laughed at what I said and not at what he said. And that was a great lesson for me. It taught me that humor could be a great offense. Not a defense, an offense. Never be defensive. And it just, it colored the rest of my tenure in high school because now I outwardly didn’t come out and say I was gay but I certainly outwardly insinuated that, yes, I was gay.

I never wanted to be on the side of people punching me, or bullying me, or telling me I was a faggot. I wanted to be able to tell them I’m a faggot and let it be the other way around. And what happened, I mean I never actually went around saying things like that, but what happened as a result was that people really didn’t bully me. I think either they were afraid of me, or they had a sense that perhaps it was really true that I was doing all of these colorful things that they were accusing me of, and I was sort of left alone.

What I did and what I found that worked was that I owned who I was without saying anything. I never let them know that it bothered me, whether it did or not. I simply took their insults and responded back sort of like an adult. And never let them know how much it hurt.

“The Football Team Warned Him About Me.”

It was about 1970 or 1971 and I was a Senior at high school, at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. And by this point in my senior year, I think the entire school, including the faculty knew I was gay. There was this football player and he was so cute, his name is Anthony, that’s all I’ll say, his name was Anthony. And I remember Anthony was sort of, he would come and sit with me at lunch time and we would go out together and go out and have a cigarette together and do things together. And the football team warned him about me, he told me this. They told him that he should be careful that I was different. Now I’m sure they used other words to him, but he was very kind at how he expressed himself. And he said he just didn’t care. And we continued to hang out together. And then he asked me on a date. And I don’t remember how or where, it’s so long ago, but he took me to a Karen Carpenter concert and it was definitely a date, it wasn’t an innocent “let’s go hang out.” He paid for the tickets, he paid for everything, he was a real gentleman. And I remember going to the concert and sitting there and my tastes had changed. I was now listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Stones and so Karen Carpenter was very passe so I never dated him again. But it was a special time. I think it was an innocent time. I was, by this time in my life, I was a little more mature than I should have been. I had seen too much of the world for a 17-year-old, a 16-year-old. And he was still 16 and 17 so it was, he was, he was just too young.

I really went with him, he was adorable, he was very sweet, he was not my type at all, but I think it was an inward cry for, I really wish I had a little normalcy, and normalcy being dating someone my own age, staying in Jersey City, going to the diner for burgers instead of running to the nightclubs in New York. So it was a cry for, “Let me stay here, let me be young for a while.”

We grow up too quickly sometimes.

“The First Time I Did Drag Was Absolutely Frightening.”

Well the first time I ever did drag I was still in high school, I was still at St. Peter’s Preparatory School for Boys. I feel like I was there in perpetuity. And I was a senior. And I had a lover at the time. And my lover and his ex-fiance and his best friend’s ex-best friend who was my best friend — it’s all very complicated — decided to see Melba Moore at the Waldorf Astoria. And Melba Moore was a very famous Broadway performer at the time. She was in Pearly and everybody knew her at the time. She was performing at the Waldorf. And at that time if you went to a straight nightclub, a regular old place like the Waldorf Astoria or the Rainbow Room, if you were three men and a woman you’d be put in the back, if not the kitchen. So my friends decided that I was going to put on a dress so that we could get good seats to see Melba Moore because we really wanted to see her. So they convinced me to wear Joyce’s — her name was Joyce — to wear Joyce’s clothes. So she dressed me up in a cute little peach dress. I will never forget it, it had little bell-bottom sleeves and I had brown opaque stockings and clunky heels, a little pageboy wig. My name was Kim O’Hara. And we got dressed in Bayonne, New Jersey. We weren’t even sophisticated enough to take a limousine or car or anything, we took the 99S bus on Kennedy Boulevard to the Port Authority and then a taxicab to the Waldorf and this was my first experience in drag. It was absolutely frightening. They were having the time of their lives, I was absolutely terrified. But nobody knew that I was a guy. I guess when you’re 16 or 17 and that young and I looked like a little altar boy, nobody could even imagine that I was a man in a dress or a boy in a dress.

But so we went to the Waldorf, we were 20 minutes late, half hour late, because it was very hard getting there. I was a nervous wreck. Apparently, they were holding up the show for somebody very famous because when we walked in, they must have said, “Next one in gets the table” because when we walked in, we were ushered to the front of the room, center table, right in front of the stage. It was ecstatic, we were thrilled to get good seating but needless to say, everybody in the room was like, “Who is she? Who are they? Who are they?” which mortified me because I was trying to be as quiet as I possibly could and here was the whole room staring at me.

Melba Moore performed and she realized it and she was singing, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” and pointed at me and smiles and we just screamed.

That was my first night in drag. And it was rather thrilling. I think the thrilling part was fooling everybody because nobody really knew so there was a certain excitement about fooling everybody. There was a certain excitement about being somebody else. It was this mystique of suddenly having to be this other person and it was just great. The stockings felt great too, so needless to say I went on to do it again. But that was my first night. Melba Moore at the Waldorf Astoria, I’ll never forget it. I’m sure she did, but I won’t.

Discovering “Homo Haven.”

One interesting thing I learned in life is that you never know when you’re going to have an impact on somebody. You can say something, something so simple, not even cross your mind that it’s anything and it can change someone’s life. And I say that because there was this kid in my old neighborhood on Clendenny Avenue in Jersey City. And one day when someone referred to Greenwich Village, he called it “Homo Haven.” And those two words stuck with me forever. “Homo Haven,” “Homo Haven.”

So when I was in high school, at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, I kept thinking about this Homo Haven. And I realized that the PATH train was 30 cents and 20 minutes away from Homo Haven. So of course as soon as I figured this out, I couldn’t wait to go to Homo Haven and went to the Grove Street station in Jersey City and put my 30 cents and went to Homo Haven, got off at 9th Street and walked around. And I met a man, as it turns out, Carlos, my first. And he took me through Greenwich Village and showed me something I never knew existed and that was friendship in the gay community. I only knew, I just didn’t know what it meant to be gay really.

So there was this one guy named Eddie, and we called him “Mom” and he decided that we should put on a drag show because that was like the new thing in New York. I guess this is, what, 1970? And so he created a group called “Mom’s Greenery.” And there were 5 of us. We all had flowers’ names. I was Daisy. And I don’t know why I agreed to do it, but I did. And my role was, I was Marilyn Monroe and Liza Minnelli and we all had personalities. There was Lauren Bacall, there was Gypsy Rose Lee, Doris Day, and I was Marilyn and Liza. I was the best, of course. I remember I was also one of the Andrews Sisters and that was a lot of fun. I love the Andrews Sisters. We performed at a club called the Gold Bug on 3rd Street and every Sunday night we had “Mom’s Greenery Show” and this one performance we were doing the Andrews Sisters and my friend Chris and I were the side girls. We were Maxine and the other one, Laverne. We were getting ready to perform and the one thing I remember is, we were told we had to wear three pairs of men’s clothing because to be in drag or dressed as a woman, you could be arrested for impersonating someone. So I always wore 3 pairs of underwear, tighty whities. We had long hair so we would pin the hair up and put little buns on top so that we looked, all looked the same. And just as we were getting to go on, we ran out of hairspray. I’ll never forget it, Mom was running around screaming and grabbed and found a can of glue, spray glue and sprayed our hair and glued it on.

The frightening thing was, I was still living with my parents in Jersey City and had to go home on the PATH train back to Mom and Dad with my hair glued up like the Andrews Sisters, so I just snuck in the door. I don’t know how I ever got it out, but I certainly did. But that was the fun days of Mom’s Greenery at the Gold Bug.

And years and years later, even now when I do drag, I always wear a pair of white men’s underwear. My own personal tightie whities. I know people have seen it and they’ve said, “Why aren’t you wearing panties?”

And I said, “No, this is what I wear.”

It’s my own personal memory, my own lucky charm back from the old days. It always brings me back to where I come from and who I am so I will forever wear my tighty whities. So if you ever see me in a dress, just know that under that dress is a nice pair of BVDs. Or Fruit of the Loom.

The First Invasion of the Fire Island Pines

Drama. We all love drama. And I remember in 1976, Cherry Grove, Fire Island, there was drama for days.

This queen, a good friend of mine, Terry Warren, went to the Blue Whale in the Pines in drag for dinner. The owner of the Blue Whale and just about everything else, sent his maitre d out to tell her that she could not eat dinner in the restaurant because it was a family establishment and refused to serve her dinner because she was in drag. Well, she came back to the Grove and certainly not that night but the next day the entire town was gossiping and the phones were ringing, “Did you hear??” So word spread and for a few weeks there was a lot of anger about it. Not that anybody planned for it to go anywhere, but we were pretty pissed off.

And then July 4th came. And it was the bicentennial of America and we were having a little cocktail party, there were 9 of us during the day. And everybody had their TV sets on because it really was a big event. So it was there, we were watching the Flotilla going up and down and we’re sitting there and drinking and carrying on and the subject came up about Terry and someone said, “Well isn’t that disgusting. Isn’t that disgraceful?” And people were getting angry, “Can you believe that?”

Having a few more drinks, “Can you believe that?? God damnit, well we should just go over there and give him a what for!”

Well, a couple of drinks later it was, “Yes, we’re going to go!”

And we decided we would all go in drag. So we gave everyone an hour, we get on the phone, there were 9 of us and we said, “Everyone go home and get in drag and we’ll meet back here.”

So we all went home and there were two women, the dykes got dressed up in full leather. We all got dressed up in dresses. I happened to be the Homecoming Queen of Cherry Grove that year so I had a beautiful pink ruffled cape that went right to the floor, a little tiara, and a pageboy wig. And I used to, I remember my thing was I used to walk with two fingers and purse my lips and bless everybody. So we were going to go over and bless the Pines.

So everyone got dressed. Most of them were not very pretty; I was. And the dykes looked beautiful. And we went down and we watered, ordered a water tax from Randy and Sally’s, it’s funny how you remember all these stupid little details, and we got on the water taxi and we went over to the Pines. I remember we were in the Harbor, we were laughing, we were carrying on, what are we going to do, and we got to the mouth of the harbor and all of a sudden, there was dead silence. Everybody just panicked. And I guess we started to realize, “Oh my God…what are we doing? Are we insane?”

I know that’s what was going on in my mind, but you could tell everybody else was kind of thinking it because we were all going from, “Yak, yak, yak, yak” to dead silence. And someone said, “What if they attack us?”

My lover said, “Surround the queen!”

And one of the dykes said, “Fuck the queen, I’m getting out of there!”

So then we laughed. And the owner of the water taxi put his hand on the horn and entered the harbor and just went “Honk!” The place was packed, it was mobbed, it was the thing to do to go to tea dance. So all of a sudden, everyone is turning around and they’re looking and going, “What’s going on?”

And here’s this little boat and I’m standing in the back waving, and all these people in drag, and the crowd went wild! And as I was getting ready to leave, of course the lesbians are helping us off the boat, and somebody said, “What is she doing here?”

And Amelia turned to me and said, “What are we doing here?”

And I said, “I’ve come to bless the harbor.”

And she turned around to the queen and said, “She’s come to bless the harbor!”

And he turns around and said, “She’s come to bless the harbor!”

And you could see it going through the crowd, “She’s come to bless the harbor! She’s come to bless the harbor!”

Well we were screaming. And we went in and we had a drink and we went to the hotel, it had 3 floors, if you’re ever in the Pines you know exactly what I mean. We climbed to the top floor and we all lined up and stood there and I blessed the harbor. We got down and we left. And we laughed and that was the first Invasion of the Pines.

So 1977 comes along. We were sitting there on July 4 and I said, “Well, why don’t we do it again?”

And somebody said, “Oh, it was fun last year, I mean, just let it be, you can’t repeat.”

I said, “Oh, let’s do it again. What’s the worst that can happen? We go in, have a drink, and we leave.”

So now we have 19 on the boat. And we did the same thing. We went into the harbor. And the place went wild this time. Even wilder than the year before because they remembered from the year before. So here we come again! And they let us in and we had cocktails and we danced and everybody wanted to stay and I said, “No, no, no, we made our point, that’s the whole thing. We come, we slap them, we have a drink, a free drink, and we leave.”

And we’ve been doing it ever since. We just had our 41st year and now we have 300.

Well the Invasion of the Pines now is a day of celebration and a day of pure camp and that’s what it is now. But we can’t forget why we started. We started out because of homophobia in the gay community. It started out as, now it’s a very trendy topic, the transgender community. It was discrimination against the transgender community is what it comes down to in 1976, before we had any of these terminologies or even knew what was happening. It existed and it was horrible and that’s what started the Invasion. So we remember where we come from, we remember where we are, and then we celebrate who we are. The Invasion is just a day of celebration and joy now.

“He Died With A Smile On His Face. So Many Of Our Friends Didn’t.”

The early 80s were a particularly frightening time because many of our friends were getting sick and nobody knew at that time what they were getting sick of, or sick from. And eventually, you know, we all learned it was AIDS. But it was a terrifying time. I mean, it was terrifying throughout the 80s and 90s with HIV and AIDS but certainly at the beginning, not knowing what was going on.

Pierre and I were friends for, oh, I don’t know, four years, five years. His lover was Patrick and Patrick was very close friends with my roommate Robin. So that was the connection. So we all sort of got to know each other. And Patrick was this Texan boy with a real swagger and Pierre was this little Puerto Rican queen that was nelly as can be. But Pierre got sick and got sicker and sicker and there was nothing to give him to make him better.

He was very fortunate in that he was in St. Vincent’s. He had a doctor and nurses and caregivers who understood and didn’t shun him like so many of our friends found that people wouldn’t even bring dinners in to them. Pierre was in a very loving environment. He had great people taking care of him and the one thing he wanted to do before he died was he wanted to dress up in a corset. And he had this beautiful set of red jewelry that Larry Vrba had made for him and he just wanted to dress up with long nails and the nurses dressed him up. I went up there and he was, you know, he was dying but he was so alive in the moment. It was hard to say it was beautiful knowing that he was going to die, but it was just a moment of…he was just so happy to be there and to be all dressed up as this grand queen. And to be honest, he was sort of a pathological liar type of a person where he always told stories that were never true. So we always just sat there and loved everything that he said so he just sat there and held court in his corset and his nails and his beautiful red jewelry. It was just beautiful.

It was sad that he died but it was beautiful in the sense that he died knowing that he was loved and well-cared for. And he died with a smile on his face. And so many of our friends didn’t. But that was my first encounter. Just one of those moments that you never forget in life. Grateful that he was able to die with dignity. So many people didn’t.

Even Facing AIDS, “We Were The Same Vicious Queens To Each Other.”

One of our greatest challenges that some of us ever faced in the 80s was being with our friends who had HIV and AIDS. Everybody treated them differently. Either they wouldn’t touch them, they wouldn’t come into the room, or they felt sorry for them, or they pitied them. The reality was, people just wanted to be treated normal.

So what we did, I don’t even know if it was conscious or not, but we treated our friends as if there was nothing wrong. Yes, they had an IV pole. Yes, they had kaposi sarcoma and scars on their face. But we never talked about that. We went to the movies, we went to dinner. My friend Patrick was dying to come to Fire Island and his challenge was he was on 24 hour IV at that time. So we took him to Fire Island. Packed up his pole and shoved it in a car and drove out to the beach. And I remember it so well. I lived in a house called Sanctuary in Cherry Grove. We had a hot tub and he was dying to go into the hot tub, but felt he couldn’t because his IV pole. So we said, you know, that’s ridiculous, we’ll all go in the hot tub. So we took his pole and we set it up outside of the hot tub. We got a special table to make sure it was secure, and we helped him in and we just sat there for an hour in the hot tub. His IV pole getting his medicine, we certainly made sure his arm was outside of the water. But it was just one of those beautiful moments I remember with Patrick.

As time went on, through the rest of the 80s and early 90s, more and more and more and more of us began to get sick. Yes, when the emergencies were there, when we had to take care of medical issues, we were certainly there, but day-to-day, we were the same vicious queens to each other that we were 10 years ago. That was support: normalcy.

I lived in a house called Strawberry Hill and over time, 7 members of the household died. So we were dealing with a lot of anger, a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, and a lot of love. Yes, people had HIV, yes people had AIDS, but we were the same, like I said, vicious queens that we always were.

I remember in particular, half of the house had HIV, half of us didn’t. And another friend was just diagnosed with HIV. It was a new diagnosis for him. So Friday night came along and we didn’t know, we didn’t, we kind of didn’t know what to expect. So we decided just to be our normal selves and treat him like we would normally. And when we got dinner ready, we had dinner, I remember we had five place settings. Four plates, and we made Sean eat off of a paper plate because he was infected. It was so mean and we laughed so hard.

You know, I can remember his face, it was, he had such an Irish face and he just laughed funny. Whenever he laughed, his head kind of turned, so at first he was appalled and then of course he just screamed, I can just remember his whole head shaking and laughing and we all laughed and screamed, but we still made him eat off the paper plate. Humor is very healing in all situations. And I think, again, it was about treating people like you always treat people. Let’s not be different, let’s just be real and love each other.

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