January 22nd - Gay & Straight Together

Gay and Straight Together - Various Artists, FW08580 / FS 8580, 1980

Editor's note: I'm extremely pleased this morning to introduce another guest post from our dear friend Lee.

This collection was released in 1980, during a time I'm fascinated by in queer activism. For context, that's a full decade after the Stonewall uprising and two years after the killing of Harvey Milk. Critically, around that time, mysterious illnesses were starting to be observed in gay communities, but it wasn't until the following summer that clinical and news reports on what would come to be known as AIDS would become widespread. 

As a queer who wasn't born until the mid-eighties, I think often about that time, when huge gains were being made in queer activism and culture, before our communities were decimated by AIDS and queer activism was fundamentally reshaped by the need to respond to the AIDS crisis.

Queer Music Heritage reports that this collection was originally released by singer Ginni Clemmens (1936 - 2003), who appears on the collection as well, on her own label, Open Door Records, before being re-released by Folkways that same year.

Googling around, I found some fascinating context for the album in Tracy Baim's
Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community. This collection was recorded at His 'n Hers, a lesbian-owned Chicago bar that opened in 1974 and was known as a place where gay men, lesbians, and even heterosexuals freely mingled and enjoyed the open-mic nights that inspired this collection, hence the opening track, "Song for His 'n Hers", where Jeffrey C. Jones recounts his first nervous forays into a queer bar and how welcome he felt there. 

For the most part, the songs are oblique, rather than in-your-face about queer topics, and centre more on a longing for assimilation and normalcy rather than queer rage. 

Did I enjoy listening to this record?  Well, um. Most of the songs are honestly in kind of a showtuney-folk register that I personally find kind of insufferable (sorry)

Lyrically, my favourite track was Judith Carsello's "Lezzie Queer", which playfully imagines a world where a badass lesbian athlete at the 1984 Olympics ushers in a fad for all things dykey.

Musically, my favourite was probably Kitty Barber's "The Pancake Blues", which extols the joys of butchness using breakfast metaphors that went a bit over my head.

I also enjoyed Merle Markland's "Dirty Old Woman", a joyful and deeply endearing ditty about "looking for a thrill", sung by a woman who would have been 78 in 1980.  Thankfully, there is a fascinating and deeply moving oral history of Merle Markland's life available (no, you're crying), or else I might have died of curiosity.

Many of the folks whose music is collected here seem to still be around now, and are around my dad's age. Paula Walowitz is a therapist, Dev SinghKristin Lems, and likely others are still recording music. John Salewski, whose vocals are included in the extremely weird "Weird", is included in a list of Chicagoans lost to AIDS.

I struggle, listening to this, with my feelings about cis queers of this generation. As a young trans queer who's passionate about queer history, I deeply want a connection with my queer elders and ancestors. But here I am, teary-eyed reading the saga of Merle Markland's life, and then I hit the part about how much it meant to her to perform at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, noted bastion of trans-woman exclusionary feminism, and my gay heart breaks about how much we hurt each other and how impossible it feels to bridge these generational and cultural divides among queers.

Even if the musical style isn't really my thing, I am grateful for artefacts like this album that give me a glimpse into other times and places in queerness.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways