Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
Here are some words that describe a few details from a Tom of Finland drawing: horse-hung, bubble butt, pencil-eraser nipples. Suffice it to say that the late artist Touko Laaksonen, Tom of Finland to the world, knew what he liked: hypermasculine gay men. Yet the Tom of Finland Foundation — created in Laaksonen’s honor to protect and promote erotic art — is open to erotic-art lovers of all sexual persuasions. Last year, the foundation gave its Lifetime Achievement Award to hypermasculine heterosexual man Hugh Hefner. And this year?
A black Bentley with “HUSTLR” license plates pulls up to the entryway of the old-school French restaurant Les Frères Taix in Echo Park. The door opens and out rolls Mr. Larry Flynt in his gold-plated wheelchair with red-velvet armrests, accompanied by his hunky bodyguard and wife, Liz.
The awards banquet honoring Flynt — along with Cultural Icon Award winner Rob Halford (former lead singer of Judas Priest) and Swiss artist H.R. Giger, the newest inductee into the Erotic Artist Hall of Fame — is the big-deal event of the seventh annual Tom of Finland Foundation Erotic Art Weekend, and an international array of artists of every sex, as well as a group of men hot enough to have stepped out of a Tom drawing, have come to celebrate. The dress code teeters between floral and kink. A crowd of leather daddies, grizzly bears, corseted mistresses, dungeons-and-dragons masters and half-naked horn-pigs parade though the lobby on their way to Taix’s Champagne Room. The only difference between this and a sexual-underground event is the number of dinner jackets worn over leather gear.
The banquet room fills, and I find myself seated directly next to the soft-spoken Mr. Flynt, who is looking sharp and slimmed down in a houndstooth jacket. “What do you think of erotic art?” he asks, then supplies his own answer. “Most of it’s crap, but every once in a while you see a piece, and it really stands out. You know it’s really something.”
Wine, salad and soup are served, and the noise level rises. Flynt finishes his chicken marsala, and his bodyguard rushes across the room with a toothpick.
“What was all that mess with the shit-painting business in the Brooklyn Museum about?” Flynt asks at one point. I tell him that the “Sensation” show was received very differently in London. “The problem,” he says sternly, “is that we’re living in a God culture.”
He passes on dessert, but sneaks one bite of sorbet before going to the microphone. The room goes wild with clapping, and everyone rises to their feet. “This standing ovation is going to my head,” he says, then moves on to his message: “The right to be left alone, that’s all that artists want. I’m concerned that our civil liberties and our rights have been placed in jeopardy with this conservative Supreme Court.” Flynt knows he has the room, and becomes more alive and passionate as he continues. “Apathy is the biggest enemy democracy has. Speak up. Push the envelope. Push the envelope every day that you get up.”
The statesman of subversion has to leave early, but he takes time for a photo session after his acceptance speech. “Take a picture of me with Larry!” say more than a few of his fans. An adult-film producer introduces himself, and Flynt tells him, “We’re all fighting the same battle.”
The night is still young when Flynt makes his exit — there are still artist awards to bestow. Porn actor and metal-head Joe Romero presents the Cultural Icon Award to “The King of Heavy Metal, Rob Halford!” Halford comes up to the stand and says in his droll English accent, “Actually, I’m the queen of heavy metal.” Then he gives the audience an overview of the evolution of Judas Priest’s look, admitting that in an early appearance on a BBC show, he wore one of his sister’s Barbra Streisand–style dresses. Fortunately for the success of the band, he was then inspired by Tom of Finland über-butch biker images. He closes with his own simple advice: “Keep it controversial.”
Dissent: Take That, Cokie
In 1968, while speaking at an Unbirthday Party for Lyndon Johnson held during the Democratic convention in Chicago, I revealed to the audience the true story of a reporter who had once interviewed LBJ. After the formal question-and-answer session, the president, referring to the Vietnam War, told him, “What the communists are really saying is ‘Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson,’ and nobody says, ‘Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson’ and gets away with it.” I paused. “Well,” I continued, “when I count three, we’re all gonna say it — and we’re gonna get away with it! Are you ready? One . . . two . . . three . . . ” And, from the Yippies and Mobilization Against the War and the Clean for Genes, it came at me like an audio tidal wave, thousands of voices shouting in unison, “FUCK YOU, LYNDON JOHNSON!!!” — a mass catharsis reverberating from the rafters.
And so, 33 years later, last Thursday, while emceeing a rally on Day 5 of the Retaliation, I had a strong sense of continuity. The rally, held at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, starred Ralph Nader, who was making a stop on his “People Have the Power” grassroots-organizing tour. The event was originally supposed to have been about corporate domination generally, and about the energy crisis specifically, but the international situation intervened: Nader has evolved into an antiwar leader.
As a political satirist, my role was to provide comic relief. Comedy might be tragedy plus time, but in the middle of an intensifying tragedy that showed no signs of dissipating, I was apprehensive — both Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and Time magazine contributor Roger Rosenblatt had already declared “the end of the age of irony,” and this rally marked the first time I’d performed since the attacks.
The audience, however, was enthusiastic. I introduced former stand-up comic and teacher Tom Ammiano, the openly gay president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Medea Benjamin, founder of the human-rights organization Global Exchange and Green Party candidate for U.S. senator from California in 2000. “What one word can sum up the real reason why we’re there?” she asked the audience. Three thousand voices shouted back in unison: “Oil!”
And then there was Nader, who noted that Bush’s campaign slogan, “I trust the â people, not the government,” reeks with irony. “Truth is the first casualty of a nation in crisis,” he said, stressing the importance of guarding our liberties. “Americans must be vigilant about attacks on civil liberties in the wake of the September 11 terrorism.”
Nader insisted that the “inhumane and criminal” terrorists be brought to justice, but advocated an end to the bombing. He posed a question to the audience: “How many of you, since September 11, have wanted to express an opinion that was something other than the thought-police stampede?” To all those who raised their hands, he advised, “If you feel yourself inhibited, that’s the moment to break out and make yourself known. Otherwise, your silence is allowing suppression of the Constitution.” The prolonged standing ovation Nader received was indicative of the burgeoning peace movement, with teach-ins at college campuses and, in effect, on the Internet.
A couple of hours before going on stage, I had watched George W. Bush’s press conference, and now, at the risk of committing comedic treason, I felt compelled to report my own version: “Bush explained that simultaneously dropping bombs and food on Afghanistan is just an example of compassionate conservatism,” I said. “He divulged that the ABM treaty had an expiration date in tiny print . . . and he pointed out that the United States gave $43 million to the Taliban because they’re a faith-based organization.”
I reminded the audience that ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts had been asked if there was any opposition to the war. “None that matters,” she replied. “Well,” I continued, “would you all care to join me in saying, ‘Fuck you, Cokie Roberts’ when I count three? Okay, one . . . two . . . three . . . ” And it came at me like an audio tidal wave — thousands of voices shouting in unison: “FUCK YOU, COKIE ROBERTS!!!” It was déjà vu supreme.
Goo and Gunk: A Toxic Tour
“Welcome to Asthma Town,” announces Gabriel, a 16-year-old with spiked hair and wispy sideburns. We’re in a bus on 57th Street, just off Pacific Boulevard, traversing the little nipple of Huntington Park that pokes north into the city of Vernon. “On your right,” Gabriel continues from his front-row seat, “you can see the school, Pacific Elementary. It’s a special-ed school that takes care of handicapped children from all of Southeast L.A. When we cross the street you’re going to see a factory: That’s Vernon. Huntington Park is where the houses are.”
Most of the 64 teens on the bus, almost all of them Latino, know exactly where they are. They live here. Here, or in the nearby cities of Bell, Maywood, Cudahy and South Gate (which recently won the dubious distinction of beating out Huntington Park’s Asthma Town in childhood asthma rates). They are spending a Saturday on the bus to learn about their other neighbors, the smokestack-sprouting, barbed-wire-wrapped factories that dot their communities more densely than backyard swimming pools do Beverly Hills. This is a “Toxic Tour” given by youth volunteers and organizers from Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental-justice group with offices a couple hundred yards away, above a liquor store in a grubby Huntington Park mini-mall.
The houses in front of us huddle together with their backs to Vernon, an endless landscape of cinder block and chainlink, truck yards and warehouses, bulbous chemical tanks and chimneys piercing the haze of the white morning sky. We drive down Slauson and into Maywood, where we pass children playing handball in the yard of Heliotrope Elementary School. At the end of the block, in a neighborhood of pale stucco homes, is a weed-strewn lot where a small square of green fencing hides an incinerator. It is, says Angelo Logan, a CBE youth organizer, busily transforming carcinogenic toluene — which, thanks to a roofing-tar plant that once occupied this site, fouls the ground water — into carcinogenic dioxins, which foul the air.
We cross through Bell and into Cudahy before the bus pulls over again. To our right is a schoolyard. “Park Avenue Elementary was built on top of a toxic-waste field,” Gabriel begins. “Did anyone go to this elementary school?” No one speaks up. “Well, I did,” he says, from second to fourth grade. In 1988, black, tarlike gunk — “a goo-ish substance,” Gabriel calls it — began to rise up out of the ground. The EPA was called in. “They said it wasn’t really dangerous. It was only dangerous if the children put it in their mouths.” The school was nonetheless closed for a year while its grounds were sealed with a plastic shield, which was then paved and painted green, as if it were enough to merely suggest the possibility of grass — not a blade of which grows anywhere on the yard.
“The goo-ish substance is coming out again,” Gabriel says. “When it’s real hot, the toxins evaporate. It creates bubbles on the field. The children jump on them and they pop. And it stinks.” Later, he tells me that a lot of myths and rumors flew around the school about the strange behavior of the playground. “The fifth-graders used to tell us that it used to be a graveyard. That’s what they got us to believe.”
We drive into Bell Gardens and pull up next to another school, Suva Elementary and Intermediate. Four of Angelo’s siblings went to Suva, he says. A chroming company next to the school used to spit highly toxic hexavalent chromium into the schoolyard. After several pregnant teachers miscarried deformed fetuses in the same year, the community began to organize, and eventually closed the plant.
In South Gate, behind a low wall, are stacked translucent plastic tanks filled with liquids in varying shades of red, yellow and brown. A sign warns that they contain “chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Predictably, right next door is yet another school, now closed, the old Tweedy Elementary. Seventeen-year-old Liz Ruiz tells the group about an accident that took place in 1986, when a burst pipe at a Purex plant next door released a cloud of chlorine gas over the schoolyard. Seventy-two people, she says, passed out on the playground. In the hospital, “Doctors found high levels of other toxins in their blood that weren’t even related to the chlorine cloud.” The district’s solution was to close the school and open a new one, also called Tweedy, just one block away.
A brightly painted mural leaps out from the institutional-brown façade of the new school. It depicts a cartoon Tweedy Bird teaching a class of eagerly grinning brown and white children, pointing excitedly to a blackboard, on which are chalked the less-than-encouraging words “Tweedy Elementary: A School for the New Millennium.”