Fenton Johnson was born in Kentucky in 1953, the youngest of nine children in a bourbon-making family. His parents named him after a monk at the nearby Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, and from early childhood, Fenton was drawn to a life of the soul. He was also raised on the power of storytelling to captivate a room, and possibly change the world. 

After high school, Fenton landed a scholarship to attend Stanford University in faraway, exotic California. Fenton earned his BA in English at Stanford, and an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop. 

Much of Fenton’s writing grapples with the slow-motion cataclysm of the AIDS epidemic, especially during the 1980s.  His novel Scissors, Paper, Rock was among the first novels to present openly gay characters, and to deal with AIDS in rural America. For Fenton, the epidemic became more personal when his partner Larry Rose died of AIDS in 1990. Fenton explored his and Larry’s love in his award-winning memoir Geography of the Heart. Fenton’s prologue to that work was the first affirmative presentation of a gay relationship published in the New York Times Magazine. In Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks, Fenton described his experiences living in community at the Gethsemani Abbey and among Buddhists at various branches of the San Francisco Zen Center.  Fenton’s 2015 essay Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude (Harper’s) pondered the contemplative life, and what it means to be single and celibate in middle age. In 2018, Harper’s published Fenton’s essay The Future of Queer: A Manifesto, in which Fenton suggests that gay marriage has robbed gay culture it of its power to challenge cookie-cutter societal expectations and norms. Rather than assimilate through marriage, Fenton proposes friendship as a foundation for celebrating queerness and difference. 

The author of six books and numerous essays, short stories, articles, editorials, and radio commentaries, Fenton has been a professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson since 2000.  He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as fellowships in fiction and creative nonfiction from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to Harper’s, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, Tikkun, and many other publications, as well as on National Public Radio. 

OUTWORDS interviewed Fenton at his Tucson home on a cool morning in February 2018. His low-slung adobe cottage felt like a writer’s retreat. Books everywhere, lovingly and tidily organized. It was immediately apparent that a lot of silence happens there. For some 30 years, Fenton has helped keep our queer consciousness alive, asking the pointed questions we’ll need to stay alive into the future.
Michael Brewer: [00:00:00] [crosstalk] camera and just talking.
Mason Funk: Yeah, just talk to me. We'll go for about an hour and then we'll take a little break just because we have to swap out a camera card anyway.
Fenton Johnson: Yes, and if I have to use the bathroom at some point, I'll say I have to use the bathroom.
Mason Funk: Okay. [crosstalk]. Natalie, I noticed something just went off.
Michael Brewer: [00:00:30] The fridge.
Mason Funk: The fridge just went off.
Natalie Tsui: Oh, maybe we should turn it off probably.
Fenton Johnson: I don't know.
Natalie Tsui: Speed.
Mason Funk: Okay. This is like a moment for us because this is the first interview in 2018.
Fenton Johnson: Oh.
Mason Funk: I just want to recognize my team here. I'm stepping out of the role of interviewer, so Michael's along because after today, Michael and Natalie are going to carry on to New Mexico without me,
Mason Funk: [00:01:00] so this is kind of a moment. Welcome, guys. Thank you for being here and thank you for making time for us.
Fenton Johnson: Are you happening? Are we on? Are we live?
Natalie Tsui: We're speed. Yeah, we're speeding.
Fenton Johnson: One thing I wanted to say was first of all, thank you for doing this project. I've thought about doing some version of it in print, in writing, but this is really a much more appropriate, a much better medium for it. I have to think that you're the grandchild of Peter Adair and the Mariposa Film Projects,
Fenton Johnson: [00:01:30] Word Is Out, which is a transformative documentary in my life and that of every gay man and lesbian who was alive at that time. I interviewed Peter. Peter was the kind of guy that you could go to him on his deathbed and say, "Peter, I know in a month you're not going to be alive. Tell me what you want to say in your obituary."
Fenton Johnson: [00:02:00] I asked him about the making of Word Is Out, and he said that ... It was a Mariposa Film collective. It was all those people. Rob Epstein. I don't know if Jeffrey Friedman was involved, but Deborah Hoffmann, I think was involved. All those people who became the backbone of what then became the independent film and video community of Northern California, and thus, in that era, the [LGBT] world.
Fenton Johnson: [00:02:30] Peter was the chief among equals and none of them would disagree with that statement. I said, "Tell me about your idea for making Word Is Out. And he said, I set out to create the consciousness of the gay and lesbian community." That sounds like a grand statement, but Peter was so humble, and the fact of the matter is that in a certain way it was true.
Fenton Johnson: [00:03:00] Before that film, there wasn't a document that brought everything together in one place. Peter was the son of anthropologists, so he was groundbreaking in so many ways. He had had a lot of experience with interviewing people through his parents, interviewing people out in the field. The inclusion, the diversity of people in that film for 1975,
Fenton Johnson: [00:03:30] which is when they were first making those interviews, nobody was thinking much about ... The political scene in San Francisco was all white men and Ann Kronenberg. I want to do a little homage to that, but also to you all for doing this project. Then, one other thing I wanted to say that I think is really important, I look at the list of names, and I've given you some names,
Fenton Johnson: [00:04:00] and all of these are fantastic people to interview, but this story could not be complete without a forthright acknowledgment of all of the people whose names we will never know, who were people straight and gay, trans, bi, of all races who [were out] in some place where it took a lot of courage to do that, and I can think of many people whose stories that I have heard, said the right thing,
Fenton Johnson: [00:04:30] did the right thing. They pushed the wheel of change. More than the great individuals, all the great individuals are, of course, essential, [but] It's those people out there who have done the right thing in obscure places and times that are really ... They're the people that I think of when I think about the wheel of change moving forward.
Mason Funk: [00:05:00] Great. That's a fantastic intro. Thank you for that, and thank you for your supportive words for OUTWORDS also. To be thought of as a grandson of Peter Adair is a high role to ... Those words make me feel very proud so thank you for that. Yes, Natalie?
Natalie Tsui: One thing. Could you sit a little lower in your seat. You, Mason. Yeah, you're just a wee bit higher than him. That's a little bit better for eye line.
Mason Funk: [00:05:30] Okay. You don't want to raise the camera a few inches?
Natalie Tsui: The camera's pretty close to him. [crosstalk].
Mason Funk: Okay, so I'll scooch down.
Fenton Johnson: There are other chairs, more comfortable chairs.
Michael Brewer: You want a pillow?
Mason Funk: No, it's the opposite of a pillow I need. We'll see how this goes. I may not be comfortable for very long slouched down like this.
Natalie Tsui: You don't have to be super slouched, but before you were much higher.
Mason Funk: I see.
Fenton Johnson: You know, if you want to do a quick change that might help, there's another chair out there that has a pillow on it.
Mason Funk: Is it lower in general?
Fenton Johnson: [00:06:00] I think it'll raise you a little higher. Oh, you want to be lower. That's right.
Michael Brewer: Was there a tuft behind you at one point, like a little-
Mason Funk: A little duffel bag of some sort.
Fenton Johnson: No, but you know [crosstalk]
Michael Brewer: Are we still rolling?
Natalie Tsui: Still speeding, yeah.
Fenton Johnson: Yeah, if you want to try that. There's also a stool in the guest bedroom, which is lower than the chair.
Natalie Tsui: Oh, okay. Let me take a look at that.
Mason Funk: We're good?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:06:30] For the official start, if you wouldn't mind, tell me your name, spell it out, and tell me your birthdate and your place of birth.
Fenton Johnson: Don't lose the intro, though.
Mason Funk: Oh, I won't.
Fenton Johnson: Good. I'm Fenton Johnson. F-E-N-T-O-N J-O-H-N-S-O-N. I was born in New Haven, Kentucky in 1953.
Mason Funk: What date, please?
Fenton Johnson: Oh, October 25th.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Fenton Johnson: [00:07:00] 1953
Mason Funk: Okie dokie. Give us a little portrait of your family.
Fenton Johnson: Well, my mother was a Protestant who grew up in the Protestant county, which is right across the river. Her family arrived there in the 1780's. My father's family disappears into illegitimacy sometime around the early 1800's. Probably my great great-grandmother was a Cherokee.
Fenton Johnson: [00:07:30] That seems pretty well established. He was a Union soldier in the Civil War. He was injured, fortunately early on because if you were late in the war, you didn't make it through, as the technology for killing developed. He came back to this town and bought a tavern, which is still there, The Sherwood Inn on the National Register of Historic Places ...
Fenton Johnson: [00:08:00] Thomas Hardin Johnson ... He was my great-grandfather, and because of the way of generations, the way generations go in big family, I am the youngest son of the oldest son of the youngest son of the oldest son, which meant that when I was growing up, the memories that I was exposed to went very deep into history by human being standards, because of the ways of genealogy.
Natalie Tsui: [00:08:30] Oh wait. I'm sorry. This is slipping off somehow. I'm just going to double tape it. Apologies.
Fenton Johnson: [00:09:00] It's okay. That story's not going to go anywhere. Should I go?
Natalie Tsui: Maybe rewind just a little bit.
Fenton Johnson: You mean story wise?
Mason Funk: No, I would say just keep on going.
Fenton Johnson: [00:09:30] Anyway, I have about 50 first cousins on my father's side alone, and I'm pretty close to the bottom of that. I'm like the 45th or something. One of the first, not the first, to leave those hills, the knobs, in rural Kentucky and go elsewhere. My father was a maintenance worker for Seagram's. People made bourbon, that's what they did,
Fenton Johnson: [00:10:00] and moonshine through Prohibition. My family moonshined through Prohibition. Seagram's had a scholarship for a son or daughter of a Seagram's employee that paid everything anywhere you got into school. I got that scholarship, and my sister had told me about a really good junior college in Northern California that everybody was talking about. I don't want to go to a junior college, but I wrote Stanford ... Stanford had marketing down before anybody else ...
Fenton Johnson: [00:10:30] and they sent a catalog filled with pictures of hunky guys lounging in Speedo's under the palm trees by Lake Lagunita, and I thought that's where I want to go to school. I also was determined not to go to Vietnam, and I thought that if I got myself near San Francisco someone would help me avoid the war in Vietnam, which turned out not to be true. I fought that battle on my own
Fenton Johnson: [00:11:00] in front of the Nelson County Draft Board in rural Kentucky, but nonetheless, [the determination not to go to Vietnam] did get me to the bay area.
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt for a second. That's all great material. Tell me about how you got your name. Your first name.
Fenton Johnson: Well, both of my names ... My full name is actually John Fenton Johnson, and because I was the 9th of nine kids, the family had run out of names. I grew up a couple of miles from the Abbey of Gethsemani,
Fenton Johnson: [00:11:30] the Trappist abbey. The famous Trappist abbey where Thomas Merton wrote. Brother Fenton was an alcoholic, a good old Irish tradition, and he wanted to figure out a way to get bourbon into the monastery, so he invented a fruitcake recipe that had a lot of bourbon in it. My father was a maintenance worker at the local Seagram's distillery. My father said I would have been a monk except I can't stand religion, an attitude that I sympathize with,
Fenton Johnson: [00:12:00] so he became a conduit for the bourbon into the monastery. He would go over to the monastery and the monks would come to my house. They would sneak over the wall and come to my house and drink beer and smoke cigarettes and watch football on television. Brother Fenton was the origin of the fruitcake recipe, which still supports the place. Brother Clement, who his name before he became a monk was John Dorsey,
Fenton Johnson: [00:12:30] was the architect and chief financial officer of the monastery. I was named after those two monks.
Mason Funk: What became of Brother Fenton?
Fenton Johnson: Well, Brother Fenton, he would make me ... I've got a photograph around here somewhere ... these fantastically elaborate cakes ... Mickey Mouse head, this big ... for each of my birthdays.
Fenton Johnson: [00:13:00] Around five, it was the 60's, and the monks were ... The monastery was a place where men with PTSD went. We didn't recognize that at the time, but you want to trace the population of a monastery after wars, monastery populations go up as men seek places to recover from what they've seen and done. In the 60's they all began to leave. Fenton left. We didn't see him for a long time.
Fenton Johnson: [00:13:30] He came back when I was 16 with a handsome young man, and came back for New Year's. This is the story of how I realized that I was not the only gay person in the world. It falls into that category of stories. They came back, and some of the monks who were still there came over from the monastery,
Fenton Johnson: [00:14:00] and we had a big party. They'd always climb up on the table and dance on the tabletop. My mother, who was a convert to Catholicism, loved life. She was always full of life, and people sang and played instruments. Rural Kentucky. Afterwards, after Brother Fenton and the younger man left, there was this vast silence.
Fenton Johnson: [00:14:30] If Brother Fenton had brought a woman, there would have been a lot of chat. Edward Francis Dwyer to give him his given name. If he had brought a young woman, there would be like, "Oh, they're going to get married." If the guy had been just a friend, there would have been idle chatter, but the totality of the silence that surrounded that visit, I thought there's only one subject that invokes a silence that deep and profound and that is sex.
Fenton Johnson: [00:15:00] These guys have got to be having sex, and I thought, "Oh my God. There are other people in the world who do this." At 16, that was really the first revelation.
Mason Funk: What kind of kid were you?
Fenton Johnson: I was a bookworm. I'm the only male in the family who doesn't hunt. My brothers were the football players,
Fenton Johnson: [00:15:30] wrecking cars, getting girls pregnant. I understood pretty early on ... I mean, first of all, the French have a word for me. There are four sons. The first son inherits the property. The second son goes to the military. The third son goes to the government, and the fourth son is the donn, the one who is given [donn, in French] to the church. I was the one who was to be given to the church. That was my historical role.
Fenton Johnson: [00:16:00] I loved books. I would hide to read books, and I understood very early on that education was my ticket to elsewhere. In a way that's so commonplace, I devoted myself from zero to 17 to escaping, and [once I escaped,] the place has sat on my shoulders.
Fenton Johnson: [00:16:30] I'm grateful to say that it sat on my shoulders. My father was a 19th century man. How many people get to grow up with a 19th century man? I didn't have that perspective at 25 years old, of course, but looking back, I recognize that there was a knowledge of a way of life that is now entirely gone.
Fenton Johnson: [00:17:00] I'm grateful for that. It made me a writer, among other ... And I learned how to tell story. I learned how to tell story from my father. There were two ways to achieve power in that culture. One was through threat and violence, and the other was to be able to tell a good story. If you could command a room -- among men,
Fenton Johnson: [00:17:30] I'm saying. If you could tell a good story, you earned some respect. My father was a good storyteller.
Mason Funk: Great. I don't know at what age, but you came out to your mom. Can you tell us that story?
Fenton Johnson: Well, my father had died. He died at 74 of-
Mason Funk: [00:18:00] Give me a little bit of an age reference for yourself.
Fenton Johnson: My father died in 1984. I was 31. I had a story that was coming out. I had won a literary award, The Nelson Algren Fiction Award from the Chicago Tribune. It was going to be published. It was a somewhat autobiographical story, and I knew that even though there's-
Natalie Tsui: Wait. Mason, you're in the shot.
Mason Funk: [00:18:30] Sorry.
Fenton Johnson: I had a story that was about to be published that had won a literary award. I knew that -- even though, why would my mother ever read the Chicago Tribune -- that the fates would arrange, of course, to get that story into her hands, so I had to tell her.
Fenton Johnson: [00:19:00] My father had been dead about two years. It must have been around 85 or 86, I guess. I had brought guys back. You know, one guy after another. My grandmother said of me at one point, when my aunt said, "Fenton, when are you going to bring a girl back here?". My grandmother, who was semi-senile by that point but she perked up and said, "Celie, you know that boy's never going to bring a girl back here. He's just not the marrying kind."
Fenton Johnson: [00:19:30] I still don't know whether she meant, He's gay, in her language, or in fact if she was saying, He's not the marrying kind. I don't know the answer to that. Anyway, my father had built a cabin out in the woods. My father, who was a monk at heart, had this plan that all his friends were going to move to the woods and we're all going to build cabins, and they were all going to hunt and fish during the day and party at night and tell stories.
Fenton Johnson: [00:20:00] Called the Hermitage, I have the sign outside on the patio. I took my mother down to the cabin, and I told her that I had tried to be a straight man, but that I finally decided that wasn't going to work. I had to be myself. She interrupted me. She said, "You have got to be yourself." Just totally forceful.
Fenton Johnson: [00:20:30] She, of course, had already known. She said, "I kind of suspicioned as much." It was interesting to me at the time that even though she knew what I was going to tell her, that I shocked her into the vernacular of her childhood because she was big on perfect grammar. Grammar and charm, they didn't have any money to give us so [she gave us] grammar and charm. That was going to be our ticket to the big world.
Fenton Johnson: [00:21:00] She had to be brought along, of course. She was born in 1916 in rural Kentucky, but she was totally open to being brought along. She got the picture immediately. There's a genetic component, of course, as we know. She had brothers that I learned much later that my uncle Marion would show up wearing women's clothes at the dinner table in Louisville.
Fenton Johnson: [00:21:30] I was like, women's clothes in 1955? He comes to the dinner table? That side of the family, the Hubbard's, they're sort of in-grown and there's a real eccentricity. I have a trans first cousin once removed. There was interesting things going on with gender.
Mason Funk: [00:22:00] Great. Now, we're going to do a huge leap forward in time to '78. One of the things you talked about in your questionnaire, which I greatly appreciated, was the Briggs Initiative. [crosstalk] Also, a tremendously important event in our history, in the history of California, in the history of [inaudible] movement. Could you just start off by telling us what was the Briggs Initiative?
Fenton Johnson: Well, I'll go a little bit farther back just to say Anita Bryant had had her- [crosstalk].
Fenton Johnson: [00:22:30] Oh, okay. Really, it has to be said accurately because I did some research. Anita Bryant's husband, who was really the Svengali behind that movement-
Mason Funk: I'm going to interrupt. Tell us briefly who Anita Bryant even was as you begin to tell this story.
Fenton Johnson: Okay, thank you. Thank you, that is correct. Anita Bryant, who was a half- Cherokee from Oklahoma,
Fenton Johnson: [00:23:00] she was Ms. America. She was the poster woman for the orange juice campaign out of Florida. Miami-Dade county had passed an early gay rights protections legislation, and pushed by her husband ... She was really an innocent country girl, but pushed by husband,
Fenton Johnson: [00:23:30] she launched this campaign to have that initiative overturned. That campaign, which I'm going to say was 1977, was successful. It brought about just the darkest despair among the ... I was just coming out, but the level of anguish because we really thought we've made a little bit of progress
Fenton Johnson: [00:24:00] and now the door is slamming shut. Inspired by Bryant's success, a man named John Briggs, a state representative in California, proposed an initiative statewide in California that was even more draconian. Homosexuality could not be mentioned in the high school classroom. If there were any mention of homosexuality, the teacher could be fired. Forget about hiring anyone who was gay and lesbian, and [his initiative] had other provisions that were even more draconian.
Fenton Johnson: [00:24:30] I had just seen Peter Adair's Word Is Out, which really galvanized and radicalized me in the first place. Seeing one's self, ones stories, up on the screen, or in writing, there's no substitute for that. Then, the Briggs Initiative, we're talking now summer of 1978, was so draconian that it really left us no option. It was so clear.
Fenton Johnson: [00:25:00] It didn't matter whether we lost or not. If we lost, we lost, but for not to do anything was not an option because consequences on the other side were so dire. This statewide grassroots initiative rose up of gay and lesbian people, and people who love them, fighting that initiative. Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart made their names by traveling around
Fenton Johnson: [00:25:30] the state debating fundamentalists, debating anybody who would debate them on local television stations, on local radio stations. I got involved. I was living in Palo Alto at the time, and I got involved in the campaign in Santa Clara county, and in a local way, duplicating that role. I had been the boy's extemporaneous speaking champion of the commonwealth of Kentucky.
Fenton Johnson: [00:26:00] We would go and stage debates. We were spat upon. There was a very memorable incident with Bill Redican outside the bar in San Jose where guys came by and threw bricks at us as we were collecting signatures. We called the police. The police came. There was a high speed chase. The guys wrecked their car.
Fenton Johnson: [00:26:30] One of the guys was killed. The two other guys were ultimately sent to prison. It was a little victory of a very unhappy sort. In November of '78 ... At the beginning of the summer the polls were 68 to 32 in favor of the initiative, and we ultimately ended up winning by a pretty comfortable margin. I don't remember what it was, but it was pretty comfortable.
Fenton Johnson: [00:27:00] There was such joy and celebration, and then three weeks later, Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated. It was a wild and crazy time. Then, I moved up to San Francisco. I was still living in Palo Alto, as I say. On the first of January of 1979, I moved from Palo Alto up to the city.
Mason Funk: [00:27:30] I think it's worth mentioning because I've always thought this was an interesting footnote ... We're doing a lot of revisionist history these days needless to say, including about the presidency of Ronald Reagan, but he came out, of course, in opposition to the Briggs Initiative and was credited with helping to tilt the balance. Do you agree with that?
Fenton Johnson: I had forgotten that. That's interesting because of course he would have had-
Mason Funk: Mention who you're talking about.
Fenton Johnson: You know, the point is that Ronald Reagan
Fenton Johnson: [00:28:00] came out in opposition to the Briggs Initiative, and I had forgotten that. I assume that that is because he worked in Hollywood, and the second most closeted place in the world after Washington DC ... I was also a press secretary on Capitol Hill so I had firsthand experience with that, but of course he knew that many, many people were closeted gay people and he must at some level had had some kind of sensitivity to that.
Fenton Johnson: [00:28:30] I suppose that's the ... Or, he was pressured by that. To go back to that story, Anita Bryant's career was destroyed because her husband, who was her Svengali, did not realize that the entertainment business is dominated by Jews and homosexuals. Thank God.
Fenton Johnson: [00:29:00] She suddenly didn't get any engagements. Nobody was returning her phone calls. What's this all about? She didn't know that there were all these people who were in the business but who had always been in the closet. Ronald Reagan knew that. I'm sure that was an issue in his decision.
Mason Funk: Let's-
Fenton Johnson: I need to take a drink of water.
Mason Funk: [00:29:30] Sure. Before we move on from that period, needless to say the name Harvey Milk is going to come up, since you were there and you were working side by side with him fighting the Briggs Initiative and were there when he was assassinated, can you just give us your personal reflections on what you particularly think was essential or important about Harvey Milk?
Fenton Johnson: Well, I can't claim to be a friend of his. I was still living in Palo Alto. [crosstalk]. I met him maybe twice-
Mason Funk: [00:30:00] I'm sorry. Just mention who you're talking about.
Fenton Johnson: Oh yes. I only met Harvey Milk maybe a couple of times. I was working side by side with him in the sense that I was one of the people who was going out there and having these engagements at Santa Clara Valley Community College in which we would debate people, anybody who would debate us.
Fenton Johnson: [00:30:30] The time was a time of foment, of course. There was a kind of craziness that was going on behind it that really accelerated into the years of AIDS. It was still true that the political scene in San Francisco was dominated by, almost entirely controlled, white gay men. I don't know if Ann Kronenberg is still alive, but she's certainly somebody
Fenton Johnson: [00:31:00] that you would want to interview. She was Harvey's campaign manager, and one of the few women who was involved in the community. There was the beginning of a sense of outreach. What had happened that year, and that made Harvey Milk's election possible, San Francisco changed from a city wide election of the Board of Supervisors to district elections,
Fenton Johnson: [00:31:30] and that meant that you could have ... It was almost inevitable that there would be a gay supervisor elected from the Castro because of the concentration of gay people there. I'm trying to think of who were the candidates in those days. I ultimately worked for Harry Britt actually at one point. Harvey was dead by then so it wasn't against Harvey Milk, but I worked for Harry Britt in a later political campaign
Fenton Johnson: [00:32:00] for that seat to the Board of Supervisors. What dominated our consciousness at that time was that we were aware in San Francisco that what we did really mattered, that everybody was watching us. That's why Harvey was so important.
Fenton Johnson: [00:32:30] I'm sure he would be the first to say that if it hadn't been him it might have been somebody else, but it was him. His eloquence and his capacity to step up to the plate, that's what distinguished him but there was a sense, and it was true, that San Francisco was still at that point unique in the world. You know, there's ongoing discussion between the New Yorkers
Fenton Johnson: [00:33:00] and occasionally the Angelenos and the San Franciscans. My first job after college was as a press secretary on Capitol Hill. I was still very much in the closet. That was 1975 to 77. Maybe the peak experience of my life might have been being Daniel Boone on the Kentucky float in Jimmy Carter's inaugural parade.
Fenton Johnson: [00:33:30] I met a man. We fell in love. We would go into the city parks and make love in the poison ivy because we had nowhere to go. He was living with his mother, I was living with my roommates who were straight. We went to the first gay bar. We decided we needed to set foot in a gay bar.
Fenton Johnson: [00:34:00] This was a critical aspect of our lives. In the middle of the afternoon, we went down to the Lost and Found, a phrase that's from the bible actually I discovered much later, which was on South Capitol Street in a very bad neighborhood then of Washington. Even though it was broad daylight, the whole way down there I kept thinking, "You know, your mother's a good woman and she would not like for you to be going down here."
Fenton Johnson: [00:34:30] We got down there. There was almost no one in the bar, of course, at 4:00 in the afternoon. After a couple of beers, we started making out in the corner. The bartender came over to us and said, "You have to stop that or I'm going to have to throw you out." We left almost immediately, and I wept all the way home because I thought
Fenton Johnson: [00:35:00] there is no such thing as a safe space for people like us. Anyway, I left Washington because ... The point of this story is I left Washington because there was only one place where one could have a professional career in the world at that point ... That was San Francisco ... as an out gay man. That was certainly not true of Washington,
Fenton Johnson: [00:35:30] Hollywood, even to a great extent, New York. There were certain professions, of course, in which you could manage some semblance of being out but the only city in the world that you could really have a professional career as an openly gay man was San Francisco, so I went back to the bay area. That's why I returned there. In that especially 78, 79 period, there was very much a sense that anything you did [in San Francisco]
Fenton Johnson: [00:36:00] was in some ways maybe, likely to end up, possibly going to end up being seen by the farm kid in rural Kentucky or Kansas, or the kid in the Orthodox Jewish community of Bronx, or whatever. There was a sense of being a beacon. It was a privilege to be able to participate in that.
Mason Funk: [00:36:30] That's great. That's a great portrait. Wow, I didn't see that coming. I don't know where that came from, but anyway-
Fenton Johnson: [00:37:00] Well, what you didn't see coming I moved to the next logical ... I have to tell this story because the era wouldn't be complete without it, so I moved up to San Francisco on the first of January of 1979. A boyfriend helped me move into the apartment, and we were exhausted at the end of the day. My roommate ... All these people are dead ... My roommate, Salvador Franco,
Fenton Johnson: [00:37:30] I went into the kitchen, I was all dirty from moving and Sal says, "Open your mouth." I just did. He put his finger in his mouth. I said, "Sal, what did you put in my mouth?" He said, "Oh, a tab of acid." I said, "Sal. I got to work tomorrow." It's like what is going on here? He said, "Oh, welcome to San Francisco. When it's time to go to bed, I have something for that, too." We went out dancing because what was I going to do at that point.
Fenton Johnson: [00:38:00] That was welcome to San Francisco in 1979. The story would not be complete without it.
Mason Funk: I never quite caught that train. Oh well.
Fenton Johnson: You're alive. I'm alive because why am I alive? That's the question. Every gay man. Why am I alive?
Fenton Johnson: [00:38:30] If a demographer looked and saw, gay man, born 1953, moved to San Francisco in 1978 without knowing anything of my details, he would say, He's dead. But I wanted to be a writer, and I had a religious vocation to being a writer, and because I was a starving writer, I couldn't afford the drugs and I was too proud to mooch off of other people even though they were very willing to supply them.
Fenton Johnson: [00:39:00] I do my best writing in the morning, so I would always go home at midnight or earlier because I had to get up in the morning and write. That, and luck. I tended to be a serial monogamist and my boyfriends happened, coincidentally, all to be HIV negative, but it was really writing [that kept me from seroconverting].
Fenton Johnson: [00:39:30] I have even today this religious sense of the vocation because of the call to be a writer because I'm alive because of it, so I felt like at some point I have to keep doing this because the Angel of Death passed by, passed over my lentel. You were given a mission.
Mason Funk: [00:40:00] It's almost like that was the deal, that was the bargain, that was the choice that was given to you. You can stay alive if you write?
lFenton Johnson: Well, I didn't know that at the time, of course. I felt like I was being really dumb for not getting with the program and going to law school and making some serious money so I could buy Victorian in San Francisco and join the party. I underestimated my own bullheadedness, maybe my lack of originality.
lFenton Johnson: [00:40:30] I just once committed to a path. What else am I going to do? Nobody in my family had ever had [a career]. There were no role models. Everybody from my family until my generation made whiskey or farmed. I wasn't going to do those.
Mason Funk: Let's talk about Larry Rose, who he was.
Mason Funk: [00:41:00] It was fascinating reading about his parents, Holocaust survivors, and of course, eventually his death in Paris. I know it's a huge topic, but I wanted to just hear a bit about him.
Fenton Johnson: I have to start, of course, by saying that this is the subject of my memoir, Geography of the Heart, which is to say my meeting Larry Rose,
Fenton Johnson: [00:41:30] our having a profound relationship across the course of three years and his death in Paris in 1990 from AIDS. Then, also my memoir of the AIDS years, my history of that. It's not surprising that three HIV negative men came out with memoirs virtually simultaneously.
Fenton Johnson: [00:42:00] Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast, Bernard Cooper's Truth Serum, and my Geography of the Heart. I thought memoirs were something that you wrote when you were 75. Your last book if you were publishing books. But in the AIDS era, I felt compelled by a historical moment.
Fenton Johnson: [00:42:30] I thought I'm a writer, I'm a witness. I have to tell this story, and the story demanded to be told. I'm the ninth of nine children of a bourbon maker, moonshiner, Catholic convert, dancer on the tabletops from rural Kentucky. He was the only child of Holocaust survivors. That was like well, there's a story there.
Fenton Johnson: [00:43:00] We met at the memorial service of Salvador Franco, the man who put the tab of acid in my mouth on the first-
Natalie Tsui: [crosstalk] Okay, roll on. Go ahead.
Fenton Johnson: Now? I was the ninth of nine children of a family that had moonshined through Prohibition. My father was, as I said,
Fenton Johnson: [00:43:30] involved in making whiskey in what was a small craft distillery before there were small craft bourbon distilleries. Larry was the only child of Holocaust survivors. Clearly there was a story there. The time that we were together, I felt like I was living out an opera. I felt like I was living La traviata. I would love to see that book made into an opera.
Fenton Johnson: [00:44:00] I heard the music in the back of my head. He was HIV positive. I found that out early on. He was a lover of books. He was a lover of me. He had the impossible seduction that accompanies somebody who has nothing to lose.
Fenton Johnson: [00:44:30] He was all in from the beginning, and that's a tidal wave that is pretty had to resist, at least for me. Plus, he was really handsome and really smart, and he had many gifts to give me. I had gifts to give him, of course. I was homme sauvage, I was a wild man by his standards. I didn't know I was a wild man, but I was a wild man
Fenton Johnson: [00:45:00] coming out of the Kentucky Knobs to San Francisco. I had learned some French in college. I went to the Stanford program in France with the intention that if I was drafted, I would not return from Europe. I ultimately got a conscientious objectorship,
Fenton Johnson: [00:45:30] the only one granted in the history of the Nelson County, Kentucky Draft Board. I returned, but I hadn't done anything with my French, and Larry, who was trilingual ... German, French, English ... took me to Europe several times and taught me French, which turned out to be absolutely critical at the time of his dying and death
Fenton Johnson: [00:46:00] because we were in medical facilities and almost no one spoke any English. To give a continent to someone, to give a language to someone, that was a fantastic gift ... and, to give a story to someone. His parents, as I say, were Holocaust survivors.
Fenton Johnson: [00:46:30] His grandfather had been a soldier in the Kaiser's Army in World War I, which was not unusual for assimilated Jews. They fought for Germany in World War I. His grandfather was a soldier. His father, who was very good with money, made three fortunes. At least three. The first fortune he lost in the inflation in Germany in the 20's.
Fenton Johnson: [00:47:00] The second fortune he lost at Kristallnacht when everything was taken away from [him]. They fled to Amsterdam. He had the perspicacity to conceal gold. This is Larry's father, Fred Rose. He was ... Fred ... beaten by Nazi's, had his back broken and they went immediately into hiding, into a little village on the German border. Fred was very smart.
Fenton Johnson: [00:47:30] He figured the last place they would look for somebody would be somebody going toward Germany rather than away from Germany so they went to a small town on the border and were in hiding for three years, liberated by the allies, and came not speaking a word of English to America where Fred, Larry's father, made a third fortune. Not fantastic money, but they were well off. Larry was their only child.
Fenton Johnson: [00:48:00] He died in the American Hospital, purely coincidentally. We would have gotten better treatment at a French hospital, I think, but it was what I could find. He didn't want to go to the hospital. Larry wanted to die in Europe, I know,
Fenton Johnson: [00:48:30] because he did not want to die in the presence of his parents. We went to Europe, not with that on the agenda at all. We had every intention of having what we knew would be our last trip to Europe, but he refused to go to a hospital, and he refused to go to a hospital and he refused to go to the hospital. Meanwhile, I was carrying him around to the grand monuments of France. Literally carrying him around in some cases.
Fenton Johnson: [00:49:00] October, autumn. Finally, it got too desperate and I drove him from a three-star hotel in Tours at breakneck speed to Paris to the American Hospital. At first, they didn't want to see him because he had AIDS. Then when he was checked in,
Fenton Johnson: [00:49:30] they wouldn't let me see him. I sneaked around, tried coming in through the emergency doors. He was trying to talk. [I told him to be quiet.] "Shut up. They don't know I'm here." They threw me out again. It was hard.
Fenton Johnson: [00:50:00] He died. I was alone in France with him being dead, and I certainly got a chance to use the French that he had taught me. I arranged for the cremation. He was cremated.
Fenton Johnson: [00:50:30] There was only one crematorium at the time in all of Paris. Amazing, but it's Catholic country. They weren't doing that much in those days. That crematorium is in Pere Lachaise, which is the cemetery where everybody whose anybody is buried. Jim Morrison. Is that where the Oscar Wilde tomb is? Yeah, the Oscar Wilde tomb. Is Gertrude Stein buried in Pere Lachaise?
Fenton Johnson: [00:51:00] I don't think so, but Collette is buried ... Everybody's whose anybody is buried in Pere Lachaise. It's where the Communards were shot, in the 1871 Revolution, was in Pere Lachaise. There was something really right and wonderful about taking him to the columbarium at Pere Lachaise.
Fenton Johnson: [00:51:30] I came back and had a memorial service. I'll segue to a different story because of course it's related, which is at the time, San Francisco was a foment of activity. Lee Nichols and the other name I'm not going to pull out of memory had founded
Fenton Johnson: [00:52:00] the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist Association. Larry died in 1990. I think the first conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist Association was -- NLGJA, so the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association -- in San Francisco probably in 1990 or maybe 1991. I don't think I went to the first, but I certainly went to the second. I was a pretty active member.
Fenton Johnson: [00:52:30] Armistead Maupin had been publishing Tales of the City in The Chronicle since the late 70's. Randy Shilts had been doing his journalism in San Francisco since the mid to late 70's. We were in the headlines everywhere. AIDS was ravaging not just the community, but now as we realized the world.
Fenton Johnson: [00:53:00] Yet, the New York Times would not ... It didn't put AIDS on the front page until -- I don't know the year exactly, you could find out -- notoriously late. Abe Rosenthal was the publisher there and the Editor in Chief -- I'm not sure of his title, but he was the person in charge. Abe Rosenthal would not allow the word gay to be used, even in direct quotation.
Fenton Johnson: [00:53:30] This is a family newspaper, he said, and the subject is not suitable for a family newspaper. We all had the Times in our targets. Of course, there were a lot of gay men and lesbians who were working at the Times. Not long afterwards, I think Jeffrey Schmalz collapsed on the floor of the Times, but the coverage was still objective
Fenton Johnson: [00:54:00] where it happened at all. There was some movement, but not much. We were all looking. Everybody who was a journalist had the Times as a barn door target. Who's going to break through? How are we going to make this happen? Larry Josephs, in November of 1990, he was dying of AIDS at the time. He was a staff writer for The Times. He wrote a memoir,
Fenton Johnson: [00:54:30] which is so painful to read because you feel the editor's hand all over it. He can mention that he has AIDS, but he's not allowed to mention Act Up. He's not allowed to mention the gay community. This is a disease which somehow came out of nowhere, but because he was a Times staff member, they allowed him to publish a memoir. That's where things were at the Times as late as November of 1990.
Fenton Johnson: [00:55:00] Larry died in October of 1990. I had told him throughout his life, our time together, he wanted me to promise to visit his parents, and I said, I got this huge family and you know, when I get down to LA I might get over there, but I don't make promises of things that I can't follow through on.
Fenton Johnson: [00:55:30] I was such an asshole. Anyway, I wouldn't promise him that, and it was a great disappointment for him. He died. I gave him many other things, but I wouldn't promise him that because I wasn't certain I would do it. Then, he died and, of course, after he died, all I wanted to do was to go be in the presence of someone
Fenton Johnson: [00:56:00] who loved him as much as I had, which meant going to visit his parents. I was, by that point, deeply attached to his parents. I went down to Santa Monica where they had a little bungalow in March of 19-
Mason Funk: [crosstalk] Jet.
Fenton Johnson: Want me to wait?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Fenton Johnson: I'll take a drink of water and then I'll start with-
Mason Funk: [00:56:30] As you start this story if you don't mind, mention driving down San Vicente with the coral trees. I grew up in Santa Monica. Just by way of passing, but hold for a minute longer.
Fenton Johnson: That's our military base doing that thing.
Mason Funk: I know it'll feel a little insertive but so be it.
Fenton Johnson: In March of 19-
Mason Funk: [00:57:00] Just one second. Are we okay?
Fenton Johnson: Is it still there?
Mason Funk: It takes a little longer to clear [crosstalk], I think.
Natalie Tsui: It's still there.
Fenton Johnson: No, it's still out there. I thought they'd gone away.
Mason Funk: There we go.
Fenton Johnson: In March of 1991, it was the first time that I had gone down there since the memorial service
Fenton Johnson: [00:57:30] in late October of 1990. I flew down and I rented a car. I drove along San Vicente Boulevard, west from Wilshire to the Pacific, which is the broad green median lined with coral trees there, scarlet blossoms pierced the thin-skinned sky ...
Fenton Johnson: [00:58:00] Something like that. I'll come back to that line. Everybody had the New York Times in our headlights, and I had been looking and looking. I'd been, by that point, a staff writer, was under contract for the magazine and I had been looking and looking for the story that they couldn't say no to.
Fenton Johnson: [00:58:30] I walked in to visit Larry's parents, the Holocaust survivors, and 30 seconds after I walked in, an angel came and sat on my shoulder ... I really felt that ... saying this is it. This is the story because who could say no to the story of the death -- of AIDS, in Paris --
Fenton Johnson: [00:59:00] of the only child of Holocaust survivors. That story opens Geography of the Heart. At the end of the evening ... No, I'll say a word about Fred. Fred all but asked Kathy to go to bed because we wanted to be men. We had to be men.
Fenton Johnson: [00:59:30] He couldn't weep, but he wanted to. He was 91 at that point. We started talking and he told this great story of Larry wanting to go fishing, and Fred, an urban Jew, had no notion of what, but it was his son so he bought fishing poles. They went down to the pier at Laguna Beach
Fenton Johnson: [01:00:00] and the hooks dangled above the ... They didn't even reach the water. Fred said, "Thank God. We might have caught something and I would have to deal with it." Somebody came by and laughed at them and said, 'What are you trying to catch?" And Fred said, "Flying fish." That was a great story, but then I started telling stories about Larry,
Fenton Johnson: [01:00:30] and I just got overwhelmed so then we had to go some place else so I said tell me stories about the war years. He started telling stories about their being in hiding and the freezing winters, and lying in bed for three years with his broken back. Then, he stopped and said, "I can't. I've tried to forget these stories." I said a clich because what else can you do?
Fenton Johnson: [01:01:00] I said, "It's only by remembering them that we can hope to avoid them in the future." Fred said, "They're happening all the time. You watch television, you see too much. You know this is all still going on." I tell that story because it's indicative of how big a heart he had that he understood that his experience,
Fenton Johnson: [01:01:30] however terrible, was not unique. That some version of these stories is happening all the time. Anyway, at the end of the evening, I went out to the rental car. I pulled the rental car agreement out of the glove compartment and wrote the story exactly as it ran in the Times.
Fenton Johnson: [01:02:00] Hardly a word changed. I sat there with the dome light on. You know when the gift is dropped in your lap and you have to take advantage of it at the moment of it being dropped there. I returned to San Francisco. I sent the story immediately to my editor. I was taking the cat to the vet, Larry's cat, in Larry's car.
Fenton Johnson: [01:02:30] The same angel is still sitting on my shoulder, I said, "Please don't let me wreck the car with the cat in it." I was worrying about whether to use the word grief or sorrow, which was better in the piece. I took the cat to the vet, dropped it off, went back to the car ... wrapped the car around a telephone pole.
Fenton Johnson: [01:03:00] I had been worrying about what to do with the car. How was I going to get rid of this car, which had so much memory associated with it? That was taken care of. I walked away without a scratch. Those were the times. That story epitomizes the historical moment. That's not in the book because you have to know when to back off. [crosstalk].
Fenton Johnson: [01:03:30] It ran in the Times June 20 something ... I don't know ... 22nd of 1991. [June 29, 1991]. I've done the research. I'd love to have someone contradict me but so far as I know that story is the first affirmative mention of a gay relationship in the Times. Six months later, Abe Rosenthal was booted upstairs with a column, which is what they do when they want to get rid of you at the Times.
Fenton Johnson: [01:04:00] He was replaced by Arthur Sulzberger, Jr and everything turned around overnight. I ran that column in March of 91, and they wouldn't let me use the word lover to refer to Larry. Companion, whatever, but Abe Rosenthal ... I so wish that I had been a fly on the wall for the conversations that happened around that column.
Fenton Johnson: [01:04:30] They wouldn't let me use the word lover so I don't know what I used; partner, companion, something. A year and a half later, I ran a column that opened with I was being a caregiver for a friend whose partner was dying of AIDS. I was holding his hand, metaphorically, for about a year at this point. It was his birthday, and I told him that I would make lunch for him. When he said yes,
Fenton Johnson: [01:05:00] I said, "I'll take you out to lunch or I'll make you lunch at my place." He said let's have lunch at your place. I thought, we're going to have sex. He came over, and we did. His lover was literally dying as that was happening. He ultimately died about six months later, but he was in the last stages.
Fenton Johnson: [01:05:30] The column opens with that story, and I got an avalanche of hate mail, of course. "I don't open the Times to read about fags having sex" and it's "Drop my subscription." All that kind of stuff. I used the word in that column partner or companion. You choose your battles. I thought they're never going to run this column in the first place, so I used whatever word they
Fenton Johnson: [01:06:00] let me use The only letter that the magazine published out of that avalanche of hate mail was a letter from a gay man in upstate New York who took me to task for not having the courage to refer to my lover as my lover, and instead using the word partner. Under Arthur Sulzberger, that's how rapidly things changed. They hired Adam Moss, the editor of the magazine. Everything changed.
Mason Funk: [01:06:30] Okay.
Fenton Johnson: That's a good place to take a break.
Mason Funk: Yeah, maybe even take a real break.
Fenton Johnson: That's what I mean.
Natalie Tsui: Before you get up, you're attached to the mic so I'm just going to detach you.
Fenton Johnson: Detachment has been my ... That's the good news.
Mason Funk: Pardon me?
Fenton Johnson: That's the good news. I'll start us off by telling two anecdotes.
Mason Funk: Hold that thought just one second. Are you good to go?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, rolling.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Fenton Johnson: [01:07:00] Part two. There's a moment in Peter Adair Mariposa Film Collective's Word is Out where Peter is interviewing Pat Bond, the lesbian comedian, Pat Bond. Pat, who died of breast cancer I think maybe 10 years later.
Fenton Johnson: [01:07:30] Pat has told all these funny stories about going to join the WACs in Dubuque, and going into the recruiting station and hearing somebody say, "Well, there comes another one." She's a comedian. She's hilarious, you know? Then, unexpectedly, Peter says from behind the camera ... She told stories about after the war how they all went to work
Fenton Johnson: [01:08:00] at Blum's Fruitcake Factory on Polk Street so they could go out and party all night at the bars and the community that she was a part of. Peter, from behind the camera, says, "Was it better then or now?" You think that she's going to say of course it's much better now, and she pauses for a long time. She says, " You know, it was better then ...
Fenton Johnson: [01:08:30] No, it's better now ... No, it was better ... No, it's better ..." Then finally she says, "No, its better now. It's better not to be afraid of the police. It's better not to have the bar raids." It's a really interesting moment because you think she's going to say it's so much better now, and instead what gets invoked is that sense of being a member of the secret decoder ring society,
Fenton Johnson: [01:09:00] where once you stepped across ... This was so clear in San Francisco. Once you came out, once you made that public statement, you understood that you were crossing a boundary. There was no going back, and that you had declared yourself to be a member of the sacred community of outlaws, of outliers. As a result in the AIDS years,
Fenton Johnson: [01:09:30] there was an intensity of caregiving that arose out of the fact that, whatever your political persuasions, beliefs or whatever, we were all in this together and we would take care of each other. It raises the question of how is it possible-
Mason Funk: [01:10:00] Sorry.
Natalie Tsui: Sorry. [crosstalk]
Fenton Johnson: Excuse me. Let me get a drink of water and then I'll start.
Mason Funk: You want to refill your water while we're at it?
Fenton Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Mason Funk: Yeah, great. You know what? I'm going to be [inaudible]. My consciousnesses has been raised.
Natalie Tsui: That's true.
Fenton Johnson: About?
Natalie Tsui: [01:10:30] It was very small. I only noticed it when you lifted your head up just slightly.
Fenton Johnson: It's okay. Thank you very much. Muchas Gracias.
Michael Brewer: Just take the glass yourself, not the whole deal. There you go.
Fenton Johnson: Ready to go?
Natalie Tsui: Yes.
Fenton Johnson: There's the eternal question, one of those questions that one lives out rather than answers of the baby in the bath water. Is it possible to retain
Fenton Johnson: [01:11:00] that sense of intense community in the presence of the institutionalization of marriage, which is an institution that while it can be resisted, and I know couples who do, that as it is conventionally perceived and practiced is what I would call a binary, and by definition establishes an inside and an outside.
Fenton Johnson: [01:11:30] I don't think that today were there are similar crisis to arise in the community as AIDS in the 1980's, I don't think there would be that kind of outpouring of community response because our community has been fragmented by many things. Economics, of course, being one of them. You could live in San Francisco cheaply, relatively cheaply, in 1980,
Fenton Johnson: [01:12:00] but also by the arrival of marriage. Let me be very clear about this. Of state sanctioned marriage. I would be happy to get married. Maybe I will get married someday under the redwood trees with Saraswati as my witness, and a spotted owl as a ring bearer. But I feel sometimes
Fenton Johnson: [01:12:30] that in our understandable enthusiasm to embrace this ritual of acceptance and assimilation that we did not and have not paid enough attention to the community bonding that happened prior to state sanctioned marriage. At the same time, I will quote something that Rob Epstein said to me,
Fenton Johnson: [01:13:00] the director of Times of Harvey Milk, member of the Mariposa Film Collectives ... said to me in an interview, which was that he felt very fortunate, as I feel very fortunate, to have seen the change, to have seen the span from the day when you walked into a gay bar in fear and trembling and didn't know ... The great phrase, fear and possibility were both epitomized there.
Fenton Johnson: [01:13:30] To see the change from that era to this era is a great privilege to be able to know the whole spectrum of movement.
Mason Funk: Do you have any thoughts on ... I just think the theme of assimilation is so important in our community, but needless to say other subcultures have also grappled with this.
Mason Funk: [01:14:00] I wonder if you've had thoughts on how for us that process, that journey, that tension is both similar to and different from that experience by other minority groups.
Fenton Johnson: Well, it's a profound question because-
Mason Funk: Do me a favor. Start by saying what is a profound question.
Fenton Johnson: [01:14:30] The question is what are the similarities and what are the differences between an LGBT experience, and of course, I've just named four radically different experiences of gender identity, and within LGBT, and within those identities, the spectrum is as broad as the spectrum. It's not like there's red, orange, yellow, green, blue. Everything merges into everything else
Fenton Johnson: [01:15:00] and people are fluid in a way that I would say, at least in the scholarly world, there's becoming a much better acknowledgement of the fact that categories are useful because we need names for things, but they are inevitably in some measure confining. How is the experience of discrimination, the experience of prejudice but also the experience of bonding and of unity of the secret decoder ring society
Fenton Johnson: [01:15:30] of the LGBT world similar to, and different from, that of other minority groups. Well, I would never presume to speak for the experience of other minority groups. The issue that first separated me from my father when I was young was certainly not homosexuality, which I didn't even know existed,
Fenton Johnson: [01:16:00] although of course that was probably ultimately the root.The visible issue that separated us was not even Vietnam, although that did separate us. It was racism. My father was an Anglo-patriarch. He would sacrifice his own income to take care of the black people in town that were his friends, but he had a very clear distinction
Fenton Johnson: [01:16:30] between those people and the black people in the cities. It was very ugly. We would sit and watch television, which was a new thing, and nobody understood the power of these images of riots and bombings in Vietnam coming into the living room. These days we censor them. In that sense,
Fenton Johnson: [01:17:00] I certainly experienced the wound of racism from the other side and it's a terrible, terrible wound. There must be, and I know that there is in the African American ... You don't know where to begin. Music is an obvious place ... that arises out of that shared sense of us against them in some way or another.
Fenton Johnson: [01:17:30] Of course, the aspect of the gay community, of the LGBT community, is that if one chooses to do so, many, perhaps most of us, can pass. At great sacrifice to ourselves, but we can pass. In that sense, there is an invisibility about the experience that is both a terrible thing ...
Fenton Johnson: [01:18:00] It defines the closet ... but also from a writer or an artist's point of view, an endlessly fascinating thing because, from before consciousness, one understands nuances of behavior. Certainly as a child, I was completely attuned to everything and anything
Fenton Johnson: [01:18:30] because I knew that my life was at stake at every passing moment. I didn't know but I did know that that was true. I was in fifth grade, the Fish and Game Department had a one week camp where they would take you and teach you how to shoot a gun and shoot a bow and arrow and that sort of thing. I made a friend there. I had no friends. Nobody read books. I had no friends. I didn't have a friend
Fenton Johnson: [01:19:00] really until I was 16 years old. I made a friend for the week of that camp. We were in the fifth grade, and we took each other's hands. I don't remember thinking about it. We just started holding hands. The sixth grade captain or whatever of my town cabin ...
Fenton Johnson: [01:19:30] You know, he was pretty nice about it, actually, but he came to me and said, "You know, you really have to understand that is not done. You're making us look bad." It was a lecture on how to be a man. I took it very deeply to heart. I got it immediately and I butched it up in a way that I never have entirely let go.
Fenton Johnson: [01:20:00] What I would say is that at this point what we are all under the gun. We are under the gun of unfettered capitalism. Everybody is. We know that it can't continue. We know that we're destroying the world. We know that we're destroying each other. I would like to think that there could be a unity that would come out of people
Fenton Johnson: [01:20:30] who know discrimination in the most intimate way, where we could join forces and rise up in defense of the fellow creatures who have no capacity to rise up to say this can not continue. We have to figure out another way to live on the planet. I've longed for that kind of unity. You know, my vision is not new. It's as old as writing,
Fenton Johnson: [01:21:00] but Whitman probably ... Walt Whitman ... articulated it best in his song to camaraderie and to unity and in his embrace of the whole of the human race in such eloquent terms. Though he did not have words for what he was, nonetheless
Fenton Johnson: [01:21:30] what he was was the wellspring of his perception of a world in which we understood ourselves as all on the same boat. I feel like I write to that vision because somebody's got to articulate it, even if it's an ideal. It's got to be held out there.
Mason Funk: [01:22:00] That's great. That's great stuff. I'm going to come back with one question about ... It's so much to talk about the question of could we as a community rise up again like we did in the 80's. Would we? And the question of marriage and what have we gained and all that stuff. But to the people, their narrative is that the marriage movement came out of the AIDS epidemic, prompted by the people
Mason Funk: [01:22:30] who were kicked out of the apartments that they shared with their lovers, by the people who couldn't even visit their lovers because they have no rights. You termed what we've gained as privileges, not rights, but to those people I feel like they might argue back and say, "Well, that's easy for you to say" but at the same time, you've earned the right to say that. I just wondered where you come down on calling them privileges as opposed to rights, and kind of dismissively.
Fenton Johnson: [01:23:00] Well, I think what I actually say, these privileges -- I hesitate to call them rights. What are those rights? Let's start there. In fact, at this point virtually every hospital in the developed world will allow anybody to visit someone who wants to, especially if the person who is ill or dying wants that person to visit.
Fenton Johnson: [01:23:30] That change came about because of the AIDS years. It wasn't connected to marriage. It is codified in marriage arrangements, but it arose out of the activism of the AIDS years and the hospice movement. I'll give the argument against and for because I want to end on the for note.
Fenton Johnson: [01:24:00] I want to end saying I get it, I understand. , I was having this conversation with two gay men who are married ... Painters, both very fine painters, who spend the winters in Tucson ... about a week ago. One of them was quite passionate about his getting married and he said, "This is about fairness. I want our relationship treated fairly." I said,
Fenton Johnson: [01:24:30] "It's not fair to me." He said, "No, it's about fairness." I said, "It's not fair to me." I think it was the first time that he realized that there is a whole host of privileges that one gets accessed to by marriage, and the reason that one gets access to them is because ... I try to tell this history in two sentences ... The church was not involved in the marriage business
Fenton Johnson: [01:25:00] until the 13th century when the church figured out that it could reinforce its power on the planet, its temporal power, by determining who was legitimate and who was not legitimate. Marriage became a sacrament in the then Christian church in 1215. That led to 400 years of kings and queens going to Rome on bended knee to say will you annul my marriage?
Fenton Johnson: [01:25:30] Will you declare my bastard son legitimate? Etc, etc. that arrangement has been foisted onto the state. The state now carries that directive straight from the church into our lives, and by the way, I go to church. I go to church. The state is now enforcing the will of the church.
Fenton Johnson: [01:26:00] Just to show you it's not a radical idea, at the time of the Hawaii decision that led to same-sex marriage ... 1992, I think ... where because Hawaii had an equal rights amendment, the Hawaii State Supreme Court ruled that the state had to give same-sex married couples the same rights as it gives to mixed gender married couples,
Fenton Johnson: [01:26:30] and that led ultimately to the federal recognition of marriage. At that time, the governor of Hawaii, Ben Cayetano, said the solution to this problem is for the state to get out of the marriage business altogether. I was just talking to an Episcopal priest about a month ago where he said the problems of the church began when it got involved with the marriage business. My point of view is why should a single mother have to get married in order to have healthcare benefits for a job?
Fenton Johnson: [01:27:00] Why should I, who earned my social security, have to get married in order to have it transferred to somebody upon my death? These are privileges that are granted by the state. Immigration. Why shouldn't I be able to bring my best friend over from Paris without having to get married to that person? That's the argument against marriage.
Fenton Johnson: [01:27:30] The argument for, which is very persuasive, is that somewhere out there in New Haven, Kentucky, there is some young person who knows that this privilege -- but nonetheless a privilege that is the defining aspect of belonging and participation and yes, conventionality -- is available.
Fenton Johnson: [01:28:00] Legal same-sex marriage makes it not possible for someone in New Haven, Kentucky, or for that matter in Calcutta to grow up in the kind of darkness and ignorance. It is a big step in that direction, and I recognize that. I understand that. I do wish that we would use the platform as a way
Fenton Johnson: [01:28:30] then to continue the struggle to broaden out access to rights, including healthcare, which is a real right, as opposed to saying, as has been said to me, as was said by the development director at the Horizons Foundation in San Francisco in 2008 when she got up and said, "If we're checking our phones nervously it's because we've heard a rumor that the Supreme Court is going to take up the marriage case." She said, "You know, I confess to a little bit of mixed feelings
Fenton Johnson: [01:29:00] because if we're granted marriage rights there's no battles left. We have nothing left to do." Especially the older people in the room were like, "Hm?". In the Q&A session that followed ... This is the Horizons Foundation, which is the community foundation for GLBT philanthropy in San Francisco ... In the Q&A session that followed the presentation,
Fenton Johnson: [01:29:30] the woman ... Marion Becker, maybe? Marion? ... who founded the organization for gay and lesbian elders in San Francisco, raised her hand and said, "I support marriage as much as anybody, but I'm the head of an organization for gay and lesbian seniors, and the profile of our community is that we are single, living on fixed incomes and aging. What sort of programs does the Horizons Foundation have for that community?"
Fenton Johnson: [01:30:00] Everybody on the board looks at each other, and there's a long silence, and finally the director said, "I'll get back to you about that question." That's what I'm talking about. There is a sense that, "Oh gee, we can go live in the wealthy parts of suburbia and everything is peachy keen." Then, another aspect of that which grows out of my knowing the Holocaust survivor parents,
Fenton Johnson: [01:30:30] they were assimilated. They were thoroughly assimilated. They hadn't set foot in a synagogue probably even at high holidays. That didn't save them from the camps. I think that we need to be aware of the fact that because we are in this place today does not necessarily mean that we are going to be in that place tomorrow, and we see evidence of that all around us right now.
Mason Funk: [01:31:00] What do you mean by that? Can you expand on that thought because I didn't catch your drift.
Fenton Johnson: You mean the evidence all around us?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Fenton Johnson: Well, I'm friends with Reverend Father Jim Martin, who is the Catholic Jesuit priest out of New York who has in his books made them ... He's just writing what is, at least officially, Catholic theology ... made the gentlest
Fenton Johnson: [01:31:30] implications of an openness to be a gay man or a lesbian is an opportunity for the church to practice charity if nothing else. Jim is not a screaming radical. The magnitude of the hate and the threats of violence that have been brought upon him is pretty frightening
Fenton Johnson: [01:32:00] and there is no question but that that is increasing in intensity because the people who feel violent toward someone whos a public friend of LGBT people, or who could feel that way, are being given permission to feel that way by the management. Obviously, Donald Trump, but not just Donald Trump. Unfettered capitalism has been since Ronald Reagan onward
Fenton Johnson: [01:32:30] and that's achieving pretty unhappy results, one of which of course, is the extreme division, the growing division, between the very rich and the very poor. When you have that kind of vastness of a gap, the people who are at the bottom look for somewhere to strike out, some target to strike out. This is Germany 1933.
Fenton Johnson: [01:33:00] We are re-creating those circumstances. We would like to believe, of course, in this country that nothing like that could ever happen here. History never repeats itself. It's variation on a theme, and what the theme is, is the theme of demonizing the other, violence against the other, the acting out of frustrations that know no other target to be acted out. Does that-
Mason Funk: [01:33:30] Yeah, that's great. Thank you. I'm going to pause, or not pause, but I'm going to ask Michael first. Do you have any questions you want to pose?
Michael Brewer: A couple of things-
Mason Funk: By the way, you'll answer directly to me as if it were my question.
Fenton Johnson: Sure.
Michael Brewer: Even though you've gone on to more thematic things, there were some things early on that I just wanted to know more about you as a person. I know that you have eight siblings.
Michael Brewer: [01:34:00] Did you talk about the relationship you had? I know that you were the youngest, but I'm just picturing in New Haven, Kentucky and the things that are going on there. What was your relationship with your eight brothers and sisters like?
Fenton Johnson: [01:34:30] Well, my mother said of me at one point, "You were the quiet one. I never knew that you were there, and then one day I turned around and you were gone." I was in hiding from very early on. I was maintaining a low profile.
Fenton Johnson: [01:35:00] That was my survival mechanism, and I think that could be said ... Any number of LGBT people would be very sympathetic with that point of view. The older brothers were gone from the household by the time I was growing up. My next oldest brother ... The fates were not kind to us.
Fenton Johnson: [01:35:30] Two more radically different people could not exist on the planet ... he wanted to be an athletic star. He was shorter and stocky. I had-
Mason Funk: Sorry, sorry. I'm being stopped.
Natalie Tsui: There's a plane.
Mason Funk: There's a jet. I would say in the interest of wrapping up on time, we should keep these answers a little shorter.
Michael Brewer: I have another couple.
Mason Funk: He has another couple and then I want to give Natalie a turn.
Fenton Johnson: [01:36:00] There is what I refer to as the southern circuitous narrative style. Sitting on the floor of my dorm in freshman year, people would trade stories in the way that they did. Everybody grew up in mostly the sort of background you'd expect that people grew up at Stanford. I would tell the stories of my childhood. The monks sneaking out of the monastery,
Fenton Johnson: [01:36:30] deer hunting, gutting deer, deer roast every Sunday, moon shining, all this kind of stuff. They were like huh? First of all, they didn't believe me. They said I was making this up. These stories would just kind of ramble on, of course, and finally I remember somebody saying "Would you get to the point?" I was genuinely puzzled.
Fenton Johnson: [01:37:00] I thought the point? The point is telling the story. The story doesn't have a point. It just rolls on and on and on. Anyway, back to the brothers. My next oldest brother was a jock. He wanted my build. I got straight A's. He was constantly being threatened by his teachers. He was getting girls pregnant. I was doing what I was doing, which was maintaining a low profile.
Fenton Johnson: [01:37:30] You know, I did have a wild childhood by the standards of people at Stanford. My father ... Great story ... I'm going to senior prom, and I didn't have enough money for a tuxedo so my mother borrowed a tux coat from the next door neighbor who had had a band called Paul and his Privates,
Fenton Johnson: [01:38:00] which was made up of World War I veterans. She got his coat, and she got a pair of black pants, and she put a strip of ribbon down the side and manufactured a tuxedo. I was really embarrassed by this, of course. I bought a bottle from a bootlegger of some cheap whiskey, and hid it under the seat in the car. My father never drove, but he drove that day and he heard the bottle sloshing around underneath the car. I came back,
Fenton Johnson: [01:38:30] standing in the heat in May, in this black thing my mother put together. My father comes out and he says, "I found that bottle of ..." It was Yellowstone. "I found that bottle of Yellowstone underneath the driver's seat." I was like God, what am I going to do? Stand here, he says, so he goes off to the shop, comes back with a bottle of Antique, which was the bourbon he made. He opens the Yellowstone, pours it out on the ground, hands me the bottle of Antique and he said,
Fenton Johnson: [01:39:00] "If you need good whiskey, you come to me. I don't want to ever see a son of P.D. Johnson drinking cheap ass whiskey." That was the world. That was the place.
Mason Funk: Great, okay. One more. I'm sorry, only one more and then we're going to go to Natalie.
Michael Brewer: Okay. Well this is a combination, but you said that segue, your father was a good storyteller and that's the way he would command a room.
Michael Brewer: [01:39:30] You, as a writer, is there a connection there from the way that you command the attention of people?
Fenton Johnson: Huh. My brother, my next oldest brother, I hate to say but he bullied me all the way through. That was a trauma that was constantly there. I was hiding from him the whole time
Fenton Johnson: [01:40:00] I was hiding a lot. We made a little bit of peace with each other. When I go back, they all think of me as the quiet guy in the corner because I go back to the family gatherings and I revert immediately to being the youngest son who's the quiet guy in the corner. Nobody there thinks that I know how to tell a story because there's never any space made for me to tell a story.
Fenton Johnson: [01:40:30] I could assert myself a bit, but a writer's job is to listen. That's the best training that you can get as a writer. That's why so many wounded people become writers. We listen. We spent a lot of time listening when we were kids. It is one of the ironies of genealogy and of history that probably everybody in the room has some version of in her or his own life,
Fenton Johnson: [01:41:00] which is that I, who fought so bitterly with my father in the years of Vietnam and the race riots, I'm becoming him as I grow older. His face emerges in mine. He had this big jaw, and the big mouth, and whatever. That's all my father's genes. It's a little humbling to be reminded of that. We have a half an hour at least.
Mason Funk: [01:41:30] Yeah, yeah. I know. Okay, okay.
Fenton Johnson: I mean, I can end whenever you want to but we have at least a half an hour.
Mason Funk: Okay, good. Well, we'll go to Natalie for a couple questions. Thank you for those. We might even double back.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, I have two. I have two. They might merit length, but I would like to ask the second one so I would keep it short. The first one is there's a period of time after the loss of your lover that I don't feel like we really covered,
Natalie Tsui: [01:42:00] so I was wondering if you could just delve in on that and also ... I don't know. I feel like grief and loss are things that would be nice for people to hear about and how to recover from that and how to move on from that. I don't know if that's an appropriate way to frame a question, but if you can-
Fenton Johnson: Sure. Well, I went the other day to see the French movie infelicitously titled BPM.
Fenton Johnson: [01:42:30] I would have called it Heartbeat, which would have been a better translation of what they were trying to say. There were nine people in the audience. Four couples and me. Three mixed gender couples, one two men and then me. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, one of the women in one of the mixed gender couples had a psychotic break.
Fenton Johnson: [01:43:00] She jumped up and ran out of the theater. I was treated to the pretty surreal experience of seeing the flashing red lights of the medic's ambulance treating her in the lobby as the film was coming to its foreordained end. The film is a docudrama history of Act Up-Paris in 1993. I walked out into the parking lot and I said out loud ...
Fenton Johnson: [01:43:30] I stayed through the credits, not because I always do that but because I knew that everybody else would leave and I wanted to sit there alone. The resonances for me, having had a partner who died in Paris, having been, I thought, on the first AIDS march in Paris. I was there in 1994. I have a little Keith Haring pin from that march. I thought that was the first AIDS march, but that film is set in 93 so I don't know if there was a march earlier than that or not.
Fenton Johnson: [01:44:00] I wanted to sit in the theater alone because I just wanted to be alone. I did everything alone. Larry's death, there was certainly no solitude that was greater than standing there when the same nurse who had just kicked me out of the room earlier that day came out to tell me that he was dead. Then, I went out into the parking lot and I said out loud, "I've been living with untreated PTSD for 20 years, or going on 30 years."
Fenton Johnson: [01:44:30] That's what the 90's were like. You hear this in some of the documentaries, United in Anger, and some of the documentaries that are coming out now, History of Act Up. Around 93 there was a big falling off that was largely because people were dying, or people were just burned out from the just ceaseless ...
Fenton Johnson: [01:45:00] Every week bringing somebody else who was in some terrible situation. That this woman had a psychotic break at witnessing ... I mean, granted that when things are up on the screen they're bigger than life and the narrative compression of film. Nonetheless, this woman had a psychotic break in response to what was just essentially my life for 13 years.
Fenton Johnson: [01:45:30] That was unnerving for me to realize that. I think anyone who survived those years has some sense of that, has a feeling of that. Having said that, grief and loss. I wrote a letter to my sister, that's reproduced in Geography of the Heart, about six months after Larry died in which I said ... My sister had a partner who died.
Fenton Johnson: [01:46:00] She married him literally on his deathbed. He died of leukemia at 29. I wrote my next oldest sister and said, "Tell me, oh older and wiser sister, when will this grief end?" She, older and wiser, wrote me back, "It never ends. You'll come to a place
Fenton Johnson: [01:46:30] where you can control the memories and visit them when you choose to, but it, and Larry, are a part of your life and that's how it should be." That is true. To broaden the subject out, I like to do that. In dealing with the ravages of unfettered capitalism, we have got to learn how to incorporate grief in our lives. We can't just say, "Oh gee, we're going to leave all that behind."
Fenton Johnson: [01:47:00] There's too much suffering out there in the world. We have to figure out a way to embrace that suffering and weave it into the fabric of who we are. I think a big part of our problem as a society is that, worse now than ever, we have no good way of dealing with grief and loss and death. We don't acknowledge death. We hide it. Whatever. I mean, that's worse now than it ever was. I think one thing that the people of my generation certainly,
Fenton Johnson: [01:47:30] and those who know the history of and studied the history of those years, the AIDS years, have to offer is a way of incorporating grief into the tapestry of who we are. Yeah, we're all richer for it. We have such a debt to the complex emotional fabric of our lives to all those dead people.
Fenton Johnson: [01:48:00] Every time I give a reading now, every time public appearance, I start it out by saying "Let's all stop for a moment and have a moment of silence to bring somebody into the room who helped make you who you are. Somebody who is really important." I sit for a minute and then I start into whatever the reading is, but I always say,
Fenton Johnson: [01:48:30] "All right, now we have twice as many people in the room as we had before." I'm not making that up. I really believe that to be true.
Mason Funk: How's that Natalie? Did you have a followup?
Natalie Tsui: That was good. Yeah, I think that was interesting. I don't know if you want to touch on life stuff, but my second question is a bit of a different direction. It's quite a jump. When you were talking about rights versus privilege,
Natalie Tsui: [01:49:00] the word privilege for me evokes like, white privilege, male privilege. How do you see accepting these privileges as the queer community buying into that? Can you elaborate on that a little bit because I feel like there's a connection there?
Fenton Johnson: Yeah, I owe-
Mason Funk: Talk to me.
Fenton Johnson: Yes. I like the use of the word queer. That's the point of this piece I did in Harper's. It's called The Future of Queer in which I end by saying,
Fenton Johnson: [01:49:30] "Let us all become queers." I think that that's what we need to do in the face of the ravages of unfettered capitalism is all to embrace our outsider-ness to this dominant mode that tells us our collective greed is somehow going to magically transform us into a better world.
Fenton Johnson: [01:50:00] I traced the idea back in its deepest roots to growing up with the monks at the Abbey at Gethsemani. I would go over there with my father and sit with him bored out of my mind as they drank bourbon in the cow barn until 4 o'clock in the morning and swapped stories. Nonetheless, I saw a community of men. I saw a community of people who had come together to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of beauty.
Fenton Johnson: [01:50:30] Whatever you saw about the monastery, and whatever you say about that being an ideal and my discovery of the cases of sexual abuse that happened there, and the writing of one of my books and etc, etc. Nonetheless, the notion of a community of people who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of beauty is something that is probably the dominant thread, the red thread, of my life. Later, in reading Louis Hyde's wonderful book called The Gift,
Fenton Johnson: [01:51:00] in which he talks about the process of giving. It's an anthropological study of giving. Early on in that book, he says a marriage can be either a closing in or an opening out. If it becomes a twosome, it is hoarding the gift to oneself and nothing comes of a gift that is ... In fact, it will petrify if it is clutched to one's self.
Fenton Johnson: [01:51:30] A marriage needs to be a platform for opening out rather than closing off. The 1996 Harper's cover piece that I did had a terrible title, but my title, which I use in the anthology is Reinventing Marriage. If we can do that, we will have successfully reinvented marriage to make it something that is a platform for opening out rather than closing down.
Fenton Johnson: [01:52:00] How much do I see that? The institution is so powerful, and the perks that come with it are both so powerful and so donn, so given. Like all privilege, it's so easy, the default mode to inhabit the privilege. It requires an effort on the part
Fenton Johnson: [01:52:30] of the person to step outside of that and use the privilege as a way of opening up to the world rather than a way of saying I've got mine and you go screw yourself. I know marriages, as I'm careful to say in that piece of writing, that I admire, respect, to some degree envy, would like to emulate. I know those marriages and those are people who have used marriage as a way of opening up to the world rather than
Fenton Johnson: [01:53:00] the fortress marriage, which is what I call I think the more common model.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, cool. That's all I have.
Mason Funk: Great. Michael, you want me buzz back to you for one more?
Michael Brewer: Well, you've covered a lot. Back to what Natalie was asking about deaths and grief, I was just wondering.
Michael Brewer: [01:53:30] You've had a lot of people in your life, and you said that they're no longer here, and you mentioned before that you are alive. I hear you talking, I feel that you're very spiritually connected from the angel that had you write at that time to the fact that you're involved with the church now. Why do you think you're alive?
Fenton Johnson: [01:54:00] A combination of-
Mason Funk: I'm sorry. Just incorporate his question.
Fenton Johnson: Yeah. Why am I alive? That's the question, right, at this particular moment? Well, in terms of having survived the AIDS epidemic, a combination of just luck but also ...
Fenton Johnson: [01:54:30] It's a tough question because it brings back 1979 and those years. I went to the bath houses a few times because I felt like this is what a gay man was supposed to do. I'm venturing into some dangerous territory.
Fenton Johnson: [01:55:00] I have to be careful here. I never found it sexy. For various reasons, I didn't find it sexy. Certainly, I knew what sexy was for me, and I knew what eroticism was for me, and I didn't find that baths to be an erotic space. That's just my thing. I'm not projecting that on anybody else. I was such a country boy. It was the third time that I went,
Fenton Johnson: [01:55:30] and I liked to get up early in the morning, but I just figured out how to stay awake till 2 o'clock in the morning. I looked around and I thought these guys don't have a different sleep cycle than I am. These guys are all on speed or some combination of whatever drugs. That's why they're here. I thought you know, there's a dehumanization that happens here that you have to be on ... I didn't know many men that went to the baths without doing drugs. Hey, I've done my share of drugs.
Fenton Johnson: [01:56:00] I understand the longing for the transcendent experience. Other people might call it a longing for God. Whatever. What does the word matter? It's the longing for unity. It's the longing for what Whitman was describing. A longing to embrace the fact that we're all in the same boat. I had been given the gift, by my mother, of self-respect.
Fenton Johnson: [01:56:30] I don't know where it came from, but it was always like "You're Fenton Johnson. You are a special person in this world and therefore you don't want to just go out and let anybody fuck you and fuck with anybody. You got a precious thing there and you really need to husband it, and to treat it with respect."
Fenton Johnson: [01:57:00] It was the luck of getting myself to San Francisco, and my mother said when I came out, she said, "I'm really glad you got yourself to San Francisco." It was that gift that she had ... Her mother died when she was 11. A very painful death. She was bedridden for the last three years or so. My mother converted to Catholicism because it was the most romantic gesture that a woman from bible belt Protestantism could undertake,
Fenton Johnson: [01:57:30] but she moved into this little town that was 100% Catholic, and she was the convert. She knew real prejudice. She knew real disdain and contempt for that. She got that, and she conveyed to me. Her first thing that she said was you got to be yourself. Fuck those guys. That's an intensely personal answer to the question,
Fenton Johnson: [01:58:00] but there was some level at which I didn't go to the baths. I'm not making judgment on anybody else. I hope that's clear, but for me, I just felt like it wasn't a way of treating my body with respect and that that was important. I should say further back to an earlier question, I was a gay boy. I always had great relations with my sisters.
Fenton Johnson: [01:58:30] The guys were out in the driveway talking about guns and cars. What did I care about guns and cars? I sat in the room next to my mother's bridge club and listened to them talk about human nature. I loved to hear them talk about psychology, which is what they talked about, the women. That was what I was interested in. In terms of my relationships with my siblings, at least then,
Fenton Johnson: [01:59:00] I always had a close relationship with my sisters and I think that part of my difficulty in my relationship with my brothers, and particularly with my sisters' husbands, is that they are jealous of the relationship that I have with them.
Michael Brewer: You ready [crosstalk]?
Mason Funk: I think I've got [crosstalk]. Yeah, I think we have to go to the final four so to speak. We got four questions we ask at the end, and then I think we just need to ... You've given us amazing, and of course I wish we could go longer or do an entire session but-
Fenton Johnson: [01:59:30] No, no. Every party should come to an end at the appropriate moment.
Mason Funk: We always finish with four questions, and they're intended to be simple and hopefully short answers. The first is if somebody comes to you today, this afternoon at class, and says I'm thinking about coming out, whatever that means to that person, what pearl of wisdom or what small piece of advice or guidance do you offer that person?
Fenton Johnson: [02:00:00] Well, I took the jaded choice of staying in New York, and I took the job ... I was living in New York at the time. I took the job here and one of the significant reasons was that I felt that I should go a place where I could make a difference. I could do that more here, that I would have students who would come to me for whom I could be a role model. You know, I would say how lucky you are.
Fenton Johnson: [02:00:30] How fortunate you are to be given this e-ticket. As Diotima, the voice of wisdom says in the Symposium to Socrates and the assembled guys, Diotima says we build statues
Fenton Johnson: [02:01:00] in the public squares to people who pursue and celebrate beauty. We don't build statues to people who get married and have kids. That's a loose translation, but that's pretty much what she says, which is not to diss people who marry and have kids. It is to say that there's a place for everybody, but to be gay is to have a special calling. We've been touched by some kind of wonderful gift. That's what I would say. Something like that.
Mason Funk: [02:01:30] Great. Secondly, I'm not asking it the way I normally ask because you talked about imagine the absurd. The question I normally ask right now is what's your hope for the future, but instead I'm going to ask you what's your vision of the absurd? What's your vision of the absurd? Your hopeful vision of the absurd maybe?
Fenton Johnson: [02:02:00] Well, I want to say that the absurd of today can become, with enough labor ... Chop wood, carry water ... the accepted of tomorrow. Who would have thought that same sex marriage would be legal in these 50 states? For the moment, at least. Or, whatever. Fill in the blank. My students throw around words like mindfulness and sustainability. Thanks to Wendell Berry,
Fenton Johnson: [02:02:30] I don't have to define those words. Those words are a part of their vocabulary. They were not a part of my vocabulary in 1975. There is the penetration to our national consciousness of that kind of understanding of the interrelatedness of all being. There's a race going on between the achievement
Fenton Johnson: [02:03:00] of that penetration and the powerful forces that want us just to continue to rape and murder and pillage the planet and anybody that we can. It behooves us all to step up to the plate, but my vision is we're already people who are articulating it in every race, gender, where we understood that there's no separation,
Fenton Johnson: [02:03:30] there's no duality between you and me. That is literally physically true. We have a little chunk of our brain that creates dualities, probably as some evolutionary survival thing, but in fact, the skin that we perceive as ending is constantly shedding and permeable to the world that is around it. We are all sentient bundles of energy moving through the universe. It is of us as we are of it.
Fenton Johnson: [02:04:00] George Eliot, the great Victorian novelist, writes of the growing good of the world. I think George Eliott was certainly a much smarter man, person, woman than I am if she can write of the growing good in the world. My challenge is to figure out a way to envision that. It's not to be a cynic. It is to say how could she say that and what role can I play in making it happen.
Mason Funk: [02:04:30] Great. Why is it important to tell your story?
Fenton Johnson: Well, it's important to all of us to tell our stories because we're storytelling creatures. That's what we do. That's what really distinguishes us, I think, from just about ... Excuse me ... We're storytelling creatures. That's what we do.
Fenton Johnson: [02:05:00] That's what distinguishes us from other creatures, although I am careful in saying that, that we don't know what other creatures do. We tend to, in our arrogance, assume that plants don't have wisdom or plants don't have sentient capacities, and then of course now we're discovering they sort of do. It means a redefinition of the Thomas Aquinas model of the Pyramid of Existence with us at the top. We need to think about the world in a different way. What was your question?
Mason Funk: [02:05:30] Why is it important {crosstalk]?
Fenton Johnson: Oh, and the means that we use to that end is storytelling. I was saved by stories. I was saved both by listening to them, and also because somebody at some point said something in a story that I heard in a way that expanded my understanding of the world.
Fenton Johnson: [02:06:00] I read Frederick Douglass and was like, "Oh, that's what it was really like." That medium is so much more powerful than the media of rational debate. Not that those aren't necessary as well, but the story has a heart to it and touches the heart.
Fenton Johnson: [02:06:30] As we discovered in the Briggs campaign, and have learned over and over the way that you get to people is that you touch their hearts. If you touch their hearts, that is ... When I was writing Geography of the Heart, every day I was like I want to talk about how much I hate Ronald Reagan and how he's destroying my people, and how it's all the fault of the federal government.
Fenton Johnson: [02:07:00] I would say you can not do that. You just tell the damn story. It's the only other time I've done this. I typed out, "Just tell the damn story" and taped it above my desk so that I would let ... The story has a power of its own. My job was to be the transparent window through which the story was conveyed to those people who wanted to hear it. My goal, my self-articulated,
Fenton Johnson: [02:07:30] self-described goal, was to write the story. I didn't go to the Golden Gate bridge and lie down on the bridge because I said to myself your job is to make a stone weep. If you can make a stone weep, then you can achieve change.
Mason Funk: Great. Lastly, you opened very generously with an acknowledgment in your mind of the importance of this project, but I'm wondering if to wrap up again, you can tell us what is the importance of this project OUTWORDS. If you could mention OUTWORDS in your answer.
Fenton Johnson: [02:08:00] Sure. Well, OUTWORDS is gathering the stories of people, some of whom have told their stories many times, some of whom have never had the chance to tell their stories, and putting them together in a way that takes advantage of the contemporary technology to make those stories available literally worldwide.
Fenton Johnson: [02:08:30] Wendell Berry's a good friend of mine, and I grew up in the rural south. I'm no friend of technology, but what we need to do is we need to figure out how to use technology in a way that advances the cause of the growing good of the world. OUTWORDS is advancing the cause of the growing good in the world in the best possible way because
Fenton Johnson: [02:09:00] it's accessible to everybody. I've already watched some of the stuff online, and that is so fantastic. Do you want me to make a pitch for money? I'll make a pitch for money. I'm good at making a pitch for money.
Mason Funk: Keep going.
Fenton Johnson: The main things that makes these things ... I just did this benefit, gave this speech for the progressive candidate for my congressional district. The main thing that turns these wheels, the wheels of change, is labor, is people working,
Fenton Johnson: [02:09:30] is the heart of people working. Somebody's got to put a roof over their heads. Somebody's got to pay the cost of renting the car. Those of us who have been privileged, who have been given the capacity to act have to act. Somebody asked Wendell Berry ... I asked Wendell Berry. Who was that person? Oh, it was me. This was back in 1984,
Fenton Johnson: [02:10:00] the first time I interviewed him. "Are you saying that the single black housewife with four kids in east Oakland has to go buy organic vegetables, which cost three times as much as the conventionally produced vegetables?" He said, "I'm not saying that anyone should do what it is that I do. What I'm saying is that those of us who have been given the capacity to make decisions have to make responsible decisions
Fenton Johnson: [02:10:30] within the place and time that history has put us." You do what you can in the place and time that history has put us. For a lot of people who have privilege, that means you can write a check. Write a check.
Mason Funk: Fantastic. We're going to do room tone and Natalie, you want to announce it, and then we'll be done. I still have to take a few photographs of you but that will be quick.
Fenton Johnson: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: Before that, did you want to ask about solitude or ...?
Mason Funk: [02:11:00] No, unfortunately I just don't have time.
Natalie Tsui: Okay.
Fenton Johnson: That's fine. I'm writing that book. That's the next book.
Natalie Tsui: [crosstalk] We just have to be quiet for 30 seconds so-
Fenton Johnson: I can do that.
[02:11:30] [Silence for Room Tone]
Natalie Tsui: [02:12:00] Just try not to make any sounds. Okay, that's great. Thanks.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Natalie Tsui
Date: February 06, 2018
Location: Home of Fenton Johnson, Tucson, AZ