And The World Holds Its Breath / Kat Owen

kat

When I describe The Bureau to others, I make a point to mention it is the only LGBTQ centered bookstore in New York City, and follow it up with, "Isn't that just astounding?" Though what might be more shocking is that up until a year ago, no New York LGBTQ bookstore even existed. Fortunately, Greg Newton and Donnie Jochum came to the city's rescue. Greg, a former Parson's professor, was at a career crossroads when it occurred to him and Donnie, his boyfriend of two and a half years, that New York lacked a cultural center for their Queer community; it was barely a few months later that plans for The Bureau of General Services, Queer Division came to fruition. By day they're a bookstore, offering the latest in queer literature and then some. This includes children's books (Bi-Curious George is a personal favorite), a variety of zines, and works by local writers and artists. By night they're an event space, hosting book signings, poetry nights, performance artists, and everything in between.

On November 16, The Bureau celebrated their first birthday. The kickoff was a signing with Tom Bianchi for the release of his photography book Fire Island Pines, a collection of personal Polaroids. There was a poetry reading later in the evening, which seamlessly transitioned into a dance party courtesy of DJ Dandelion. It was a trying year, tainted with moments of doubt about making it this far. Greg and Donnie encountered a lot of financial trouble - a harsh reality of building a non-profit from the ground up – and the donation vase with a sign that reads Help Keep The Dream Alive is a testament to the fact that they are still rely much on the support of their customers and the community.

In typical Bureau fashion, the crowd was perfectly intoxicating. But beyond that, most were delighted, even eager to donate, and it was clear every attendee was utterly grateful for how The Bureau has served them. Stephen Boyer—brilliantly scathing poet, Bureau volunteer, and friend of Greg and Donnie—publicly gifted the two one of his "shitty pieces of artwork." And as he bragged and ragged on them, the couple exchanged mischievous smiles that always seem to communicate that it will be okay. Somehow, you know you will be okay, too.

So we have Greg - an outspoken, not to mention pristinely dressed, anarchist with a most impressive beard. And we have Donnie—a writer who doesn't' care much for political conversation and still rocks a leather jacket from his high school years. (Oh, and the one in the middle? That's Donnie's ex-boyfriend Dennis.) Of course, descriptions this short cannot adequately capture their humanity. So when I sat down with the two the day after The Bureau's anniversary, that was exactly what I aimed to do.

D: Tell her where you lived!

G: Oh! This is exciting. I lived above La MaMa Theatre. Ellen Stewart founded La MaMa Experimental Theatre Company in 1961. It's a legendary theater; it still exists on E 4th Street, and now that block is named Ellen Stewart Way after her. So, I went to college for one year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. I knew it was well known as a gay school. Though I was closeted in high school, even to myself, it was the only school I applied to. I'm sure I chose it. And while I was there, Ellen Stewart was visiting to do a musical version of Romeo and Juliet. That was insane. The music and was composed on sight and recorded all over campus. Then, the night we were supposed to perform, it rained, and nobody had thought of that. So, we re-blocked the entire thing inside and did it that night. Anyway, the summer after my first year, my parents told me they couldn't afford to send me back and I thought: what am I going to do? So, I called Ellen Stewart thinking I could do an internship or something, and she said, "I don't really have an internship for you, but I have a place where you can stay." So I had my own room there, above the theatre. All I had to pay was $5 a week for household stuff. It was amazing.

K: And, how long were you there?

G: Four months. It was at the end of December '91 that I moved out and got my own apartment on Suffolk, between Rivington and Delancey. So, that was an auspicious beginning to my stay in New York. I was very lucky.

K: So you were "coming out" around then?

G: Yeah, it was gradual. I really was not able to even confront myself, say to myself that I was attracted to men, until after I graduated. It was right below my level of consciousness. I used to go to this Christian camp every summer. I went back that summer and the couple leading the talks every day talked some about the healing of the homosexual. It's sad, but it's funny now. But, that couple lived near me, so I got in touch with them and said I wanted to talk, even though I still was not admitting that was the issue I wanted to talk about. I thought it was just depression. But when I got there and we started talking, it all just came out. They reassured me that, you know, Jesus would heal me. They gave me these awful, pathetic books, which I still have just because they're a part of my history. The Healing of the Homosexual, The Broken Image, Leanne Payne and her pathetic, pop-Freudian bullshit with Jesus tossed in on the side. But, they offered me this path out, or the fantasy of a path out, and I was like, yes! After that summer I had two years – one as an exchange student in Switzerland, then one at Sarah Lawrence - where I was praying to Jesus to make it all go away and make me a happy straight person. That did not happen. It was in my face constantly at Sarah Lawrence. This was also like, '91, '92, ACT UP was really strong; Queer Nation was getting started; it was right around that time was when Jesse Helms made the huge deal about the Mapplethorpe exhibition. Coming Out Day that year was huge! These two women put these photographs of them in sexual positions all around campus. Like I said, Sarah Lawrence is gay central. Painful, but I think it helped me to get to a point where I was like: Okay. I see a variety of people here. And getting to know them helped to demystify things. So, I didn't really come out to my parents. You know, I came out to close friends that summer. One of my friends from high school went to Sarah Lawrence and she really helped me to come to terms with this and to gradually say: Okay, no. I don't believe this anymore. I don't believe it's wrong for me to be attracted to men. And I don't believe in Christianity. The two went together for me. It was a little over a year after I moved to New York that my mom called me and she had found out from a family friend. I mean I'm sure my parents knew on some level.

D: They knew.

G: But, if you don't want to see something, if you really don't want o see something, you can avoid it. Yeah, my mom calls very angry like, "Why didn't you tell me?" Well, look at how you're reacting. It was very difficult for several years. We'd fight a lot. I did tell them before I moved that I was no longer a Christian, and that was huge.

K: Which do you think was a bigger deal for them?

G: Oh, me being gay. Because you could always hope I would come back to Jesus. I'm sure my mother is still praying for that. Of course, she's wasting her time. She once said to me, "You gave your heart to Jesus, you can't take it back!" Fine.

D: I didn't have to officially come out. When I finally said it at 20-something, it was just a formality, you know? There were some growing pains; but I never at any point felt like in my family I would be put out or not accepted. But growing up in the South was a different story, and I kind of navigated it like a bull in a China shop. I walked around as a teenager and then into my twenties, like: Don't fuck with me. This is who I am and this is what I'm doing and you are no one to question what I'm doing. I just carried myself with a very full, forthright, very certain mannerism where I knew what I was doing, I knew who I was. I dressed how I wanted to, I listened to what I wanted to, and I said what I wanted to, sometimes to my detriment…

G: But did anyone ever call you "fag" or whatever?

D: The f word word only came up twice in my high school career. I did have one bully, though. It was a distance bully thing; and this is pre-internet. Well, we'd never socialized. But one day in high school he was walking across the courtyard, it was just the two of us and we were quite a distance from each other, and he felt the need to call me fag and then spit into the air in my direction. Okay. That left a scar for quite a few years. Then at our ten-year high school reunion he apologized for it, unsolicited. He told me I looked great and I thanked him for acknowledging. It was rough; I wasn't sure what to think. But, that was the only instance that sort of kept itself in my psyche in terms of a bullying.

K: Religion?

D: I grew you in a very different household than Greg did. Religion was not in my household. I got evolution first. Religion was only in funerals and weddings, and that was a rarity. So when it finally snuck in along the way, it was a Saturday catechism class. I was about eight or nine. I don't know why but my parents thought we should go to one. It didn't last. Two times was all it took. We went twice and it freaked me out. I distrusted all of it. I didn't believe a word that was being told to me and I knew right away that religion was not the way. Greg had a different experience.

G: Yes. My parents both come from Southern Baptist families. My mom's family was much more intense because her father was a Southern Baptist preacher. So, my mom grew up with her dad founding and leading different churches in Utah, saving the doomed Indians. Anyway, my family was very Christian. Every part of life was infused with that and I really didn't start doubting until around tenth grade. I remember reading the British romantic poets in my English class and I did a report on Percy Bysshe Shelly, and he was quite a radical. Didn't he drown?

D: Yes, he drowned off the coast of Italy.

G: Right, yes. Anyway, I started questioning a lot of things. That's also when I started listening to The Smiths and breaking away a bit from what I was raised with. But, it was kind of funny that I ended up going to this café – it wasn't really a café, it was a dance for teenagers sponsored by a Christian organization. They didn't serve coffee; they served Soho Sodas, which no longer exist. It was held in a really lovely, old, kind of gothic church, which was perfect for the time because we were all goth. Moby was the DJ there one night and he gave a talk on vegetarianism and that summer I became a vegetarian.

K: How long were you a vegetarian?

G: I was a vegetarian for about five years. I was very diligent. But that experience with the café, I was like: Oh. I like this kind of Christianity. We used to hold vegan bible studies at my house with Moby. I'm sure it made my mom happy. Like: He's dressing weird, it's kind of freaky, but they're doing Bible study! It's okay! I feel like there was a point where I really could have broken away…

K: Well, I think for a while you want to be able to believe.

G: Yeah. It would mean a massive rupture with my entire family, with everything I've known. But certainly not all my friends were Christian.

D: We all laughed at it, my friends and I. We ran around cemeteries at night. The similar thread here is the Romantics. All my friends worshipped the Romantics at some point. They might have believed in God, but there was no participation in it. I mean New Orleans is Roman Catholic. It permeates every aspect of your existence. It's such a masquerade ball kind of experience with the incense and the robes and it's all a show. It's a show. It's hard to take it seriously. It's a show.

K: Hmm, how'd it go with your parents?

G: It came to a head when I asked them for some money to help me pay for therapy. I thought my depression would go away right after I came out…it stayed like a leech. My mom said, "Well does the therapist say it's okay for you to be that way?" I was like, "Yes! For the thousandth time, I am not upset about being gay, I'm upset about being depressed!" That night turned very ugly because my mom said, "Well, I can't support that." Then she went there and said the most awful thing she's ever said. She said, "When you break God's laws, there's a price to be paid and AIDS is God's punishment for breaking his laws," and I just exploded. "I just said, "Fuck you! Fuck you!" I ran out of the house and to the train station, I was going to go back to the city. After that experience I wrote my mom a letter and I said, "If you want to have any kind of relationship with me, you need to keep your beliefs to yourself, because I know what you believe and I find it very offensive." I just laid it down. I was ready to cut them out because I was furious. They raised me to hate myself. They raised me to fear myself, to despise myself, to look at my most central urges, my deepest longings, and to hate them and to see them as an illness. Not just them, I mean the entire society. But, they helped a lot.

K: Do you have a relationship with your parents now?

G: Yeah. I'm not very close to them. We can't talk about anything of consequence. Their politics drive me insane. My sister-in-law once described my dad as a "Republican foot soldier." And my mom would get a newsletter from Concerned Women of America, this crazy, right wing organization, which still exists. Even when I was still a Christian I was like: Concerned Fascists of America! It's like: Do you honestly think Jesus would support the Republican Party? Really? Do you think he would? Or the Democratic Party? Or any of this?

D: Mine? I mean we've over the years gotten much closer and our conversations range all over the place and our political views aren't always on the same page. But, my sister's very much like Greg. She challenges -

G: Like me, several years ago.

D: Yeah. So, she and my dad have very healthy, robust political conversations.

G: I don't know how healthy they are, but okay.

D: I call them healthy because they are full on and passionate. My dad likes to prod my sister and she likes to prod back. Me, I have other things I'd like to talk about besides politics. It bores me, you know? Politics and religion just bore me to death. Everyone that I tend to come onto contact with has the opinion of, "This is my stake in the ground and I'm immobile!" If we can't have a dialogue and there can't be gray area, then you're not going to get anything from me. So, let's talk about art, let's talk about something else, and if those come into conversation, great. That makes the conversation more meaningful. But yeah, my relationship with my parents is good.

K: Can I ask about your first boyfriends?

D: Mine was actually here last night. You met Dennis last night.

K: I did. We had a lovely conversation about him getting drunk at the Magic Kingdom.

D: Yeah. He's a huge Disney fan. I met him the night of my high school graduation; we were introduced by mutual friends and dated for about two months. It fell apart as he was a little crazy on the sex and getting about. All of my friends knew and no one said a word to me, which then made me angry and hateful against all of my friends. I distrusted them all going forward.

K: How did you end up finding out?

D: One of them mentioned something accidentally at a party. Then, I started digging and asking Dennis what was going on and so he admitted it and we broke up for a short time. Then we got back together, but it was jot the same. We planned to move from New Orleans to Santa Fe so he could finish school. I agreed to that, and then he moved ahead of me; I was going to move like, a month or two later. Then, I realized exactly had happened for me. So I said to myself, without telling anybody else: This is not going to happen. I'm not moving to Santa Fe and I'm going to go out and I'm going to play around, and I didn't look back. He came back over the Christmas Holiday or Thanksgiving Holiday - this is in the span of like, 6 months – and I broke it to him. So, that was my first relationship experience and it left a huge mark on me because I was like: Oh, what's wrong with me? This guy cheated on me and that wasn't the relationship we're supposed to have. I was 18 years old. Come on.

G: And you expected a monogamous gay man.

D: You know what? I didn't expect. It was what was discussed. But, we're friends to this day. We got over that.

G: Donnie's my first. Well, kind of. I mean, I moved to the city, I came out and all of that, and I thought: Yay! My life is going to be great. But, that depression did not go away. It got quite strong. So, I dated depression for several years. Everyone tells me how easy it is for gay men to have sex; I couldn't even do that. I did have a boyfriend, Eric, for like, two months when I was 27. We met in line for the bathroom at a bar and we were talking and I was like, "Oh, he's really cute." Then I saw him leaving the bar and I was telling one of my friends, "Oh, that guy's leaving." He's like, "Go up to him!" And I'm like, "No, I'm scared." So, my friend went over, grabbed him and pulled him back and we exchanged numbers. We dated for a couple months and that was great! And then, we parted amicably. It was fine for a while, and then the depression came back with a vengeance. So, I dealt with that. I attempted suicide about a year after that experience, and that was obviously a low. It took a while and years of therapy and going on medication, which helped. Then, I guess by around 2004/2005 is when I finally was like: I think I can try Manhunt. I think I'm ready to try the Internet. And it worked! I mean at least for sex, which was a huge deal for me. Then we met in the spring of 2011 through one of those websites. Thank god for the Internet. It was kind of funny because we exchanged emails for quite some time before we actually met and I was like: Whatever, this guy's a flake. He had to keep traveling for work.

D: I was coming out of a long-term relationship, as well. We were together for sixteen/seventeen years.

G: He dated a Republican.

D: So, I would say that I was working through some things of my own for quite a few years. Then, by the time we started emailing/messaging, I was also traveling for work a lot. We were like: Okay, I can't meet. Okay, I can't meet. Yeah, let's meet. But, I can't meet. Eventually the work schedule loosened up and I said, "Okay. Well, let's meet. When and where?" So, we finally did.

G: Then by that fall, we had basically moved in together.

D: I still had my own apartment, until March of the following year.

G: But he was staying with me.

K: So, how long is that?

D: Two and a half years.

G: Yeah. What's funny is we met that June and it was in September that the fantasy of The Bureau began. So, we got pregnant really quickly.

D: The Bureau was still a fantasy then. We were just playing around, there was nothing committed there. By December it was really an idea.

G: Yeah. And we got it going in January 2012. Also, that summer 2011 when we met is when I found out I was not reappointed at Parsons as an instructor. Donnie came and comforted me that afternoon. I had been there five years as a full time, seven years all together and they had instituted this new review process. I really should not have been surprised given how I had pissed off the wrong people. But it was like a punch in the gut. I was like, what should I do? I was thinking about becoming a high school teacher. Glad people talked me out of that one.

D: When you're desperate you consider all kinds of things.

G: Then I just thought: I hate this whole world of academia and the bullshit.

D: Then it sort of became a conversation of what could you do that you could still teach and educate and provide a service? Then we were like: Oh, well there's no gay bookstore to go to.

G: But we had thought, originally, that you were going to quit your job at and we were going to start this business.

G&D: Yeah.

D: That quickly became a—

G: —no fucking way. We've got health insurance and a salary. Nike, thankfully, has a liberal health insurance policy, so I'm on the plan.

D: Yeah, they're very good. And after we tallied up all the financials and realized: Oh. We will barely even have enough money to pay for the business, much less a salary for someone? Oh, I guess I'm not going to quit. But, here we are! One year old after we opened at Strange Loop down the street.

G: I'm so happy to be doing this instead of being in the academic world. It was just so old and got increasingly depressing. It just felt like everyone there was so cynical. What's worse is there's this façade of the noble mission of educating people. But so many of them I just felt like: Yuck. You're so, so gross.

D: And, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in a book. Like, researching is not exciting to me. I don't want to spend my days in a library. I don't want to be 50 years old looking though source material and writing a paper. That, to me, is not life.

G: It took me until I wrote my first chapter of my dissertation to say, "No more." But, I'm glad I did what I did, you know? I learned from it and everything.

D: Still. No one needs another paper on the value of Lord Byron's Don Juan.

G: And "The History of the Emergence of Monochrome Painting in 1950's New York"

is just going to have to wait … and, the world holds its breath.


Kat Owen is an aspiring journalist, studying Communications and Feminist Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.