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BH: We talked earlier about reversal in the expected order of things; how does that relate specifically to his being a queer in a straight world.
TA: He was very aware of the temporary nature of institutions, and also of their artificiality. For instance, his distrust of medicine. He always felt that if he went into the hospital he would come out sick. He said "I'm like a petri dish, you send me in and I'll come back full of bacteria." He would look at institutions with disinterest. He didn't trust them. In his body of work you see this reversal of power as a constant concern.
AK: I question the supposition that what we have is a straight society. Look at this society--it's built on gay history--the arts, literature. Huge influences...
TA: Look at Alan Turing, who saved the Allied forces, a homosexual who was castrated for having consensual sex. Here was the man who decoded the Enigma Box, Germany's code, supposedly unbreakable. And his team broke it. Without him, things might have turned out very differently in W.W.II. How did they--the British government--reward him? They destroyed him, chemically castrated him. He died two years later, a suicide. Jerome's work speaks of such reversals: the one who saves them was destroyed by those he saves. A cruel paradox in a culture which seems unaware of history. It invents, prevaricates...
AK: Even the notion of victimhood is full of problems, because when you look at the question of "am I as a queer person kept in bonds and shackles because of straight society" one can look at the incredible influence of gays on straight society. So there are always these reversals going on...he experienced violence as a child, and as an adult who'd been raped three times by the same attacker. But I don't think he would ever have declared himself a victim. Rape appears in his work again and again, and often the victims are smiling, but that doesn't mean he enjoyed it. He was very clear about that.
BH: So why are they smiling?
AK: He recognized it as an act of someone who was temporarily powerful in a particular situation. But only temporarily powerful. On a certain level he was unwilling to yield power for any greater duration of time. And he certainly lived without fear.
TA: Fear never prevented him from living fully.
BH: On a more general note, would you comment on the idea that the 20th century, particularly the postwar era, could be considered a golden age for queer art.
TA: As opposed to the Renaissance where many of the major artists were homosexual, but not queer of course. You mean self-identified, self-conscious art derived from the idea that we are homosexual?
TA: I think the danger is pack mentality. The notion that this is art by queers for queers --that really bothers me.
AK: You see that everywhere. In publishing for instance. The one thing I hate more than anything is to have "gay and lesbian studies" stamped on your book, so that you're shoved onto the "gay shelf." Literature is literature. Once you get that stamp it's consigned forever.
TA: Is the experience valid and important or not?
BH: That goes back to what we were discussing earlier about pornography. The idea of creating labels and definitions and categories--something Jerome seemed to abhor.
BH: Limiting his art to "queer art" per se is limiting what he has to tell all of us.
TA: The audience loses out. It has to do with marketing strategies, niche marketing. As Edmund White has said, "it is a disaster for the arts."
AK: How easy do we want it? I remember growing up and being able to read literature and if a gay character appeared in a book it was wonderful. I could resonate with that but I could resonate with a number of different characters. I didn't need somebody to point out to me that this book has a gay character. It is shockingly infantilizing and I resent it. Although, God knows all my work has been shoved on that shelf, so what can I do about it? Except to produce something with no queers in it. And even then you wonder. I'll be writing about vases next....Jerome never considered himself a transvestite, though people wanted to put that stamp on him. He was Jerome--that was his hair--whether he was in male drag or female drag. He'd wear makeup because it was fun, another way of painting.
TA: He didn't create a feminine persona. He created a mask, a priestess, a gorgon.
BH: There was no pretense that he was trying to pass as a woman.
AK: Please, that's a most ridiculous notion...although he did pass a few times. God knows the men that picked him up desperately wanted him to pass.
BH: Let's talk about the production of the book. Whose idea was it to write the book?
AK: Well, Thomas commissioned me to write a piece about Jerome for Life Sentences: Writers,Artists and AIDS, a book which won the American Book Award, and it's a great book. But we didn't feel it fully went into Jerome's work, exploring the work in the way that we wanted to. It was primarily about the paintings made from Charles Sexton's ashes which were shown at Southern Exposure. So we went to Jerome and talked to him about producing a monograph.
BH: Was he in favor of it?
AK: Very much so; he turned it over to me.
TA: It was a very long process. There are over two thousand images that had to be catalogued. My partner Bill Strong was involved, and Anna van der Meulen, the executor of the estate, continues to be involved in cataloging every image. We went through hundreds of images to come up with the 46 color plates that are reproduced in the book.
BH: Which Jerome approved of?
TA: Ninety percent of them. There were a few more that filtered in after his death, that we wanted to include like "The Last Hand Job," and the black and white madonnas.
AK: What we ran into in producing this book was incredible timidity by the granting organizations in the arts in general. And unbelievable expectations from people who thought they knew Jerome and knew what they wanted this book to represent. Every person who had a piece assumed that their piece should go in it, which I understand. But we're talking about people who work, versus those who sit and talk. It was incredibly exhausting to fight a tide of resistance in this city to actually producing something.
TA: We were fighting conservatism at the level of our institutions, and blindness as to the quality of this work. Individuals, collectors, friends of Jerome came forward to help us, but the very institutions you would expect to support the project at best paid lip service, at worst ignored it. Both Adam and I are at a loss that Jerome didn't live long enough to see this book. One thing is certain, appealing to institutions in SF cost us a great deal of energy and time. It's curious that we had to go outside the city for funding. Had any local institution come forward with some sort of funding we would have been able to move ahead earlier. And Jerome might have seen this book.
BH: It would have been a wonderful thing for him, because the book is an accomplishment which you should both be very proud of. As someone who only knew of Jerome, you've opened my eyes to his extraordinary talent, and I've become an enormous fan. Your book is a gift to us, and I thank you.
TA: Thank you.
Thomas Avena was the recipient of a 1995 American Book Award for editing and co-writing Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS. He was writer-in-residence and editor for "Project Face to Face," an AIDS oral-history and arts project, during its installation at the Smithsonian Institution's Experimental Gallery in 1991. He received the Humanitas Award for his work in AIDS education and the arts, and The Joseph Henry Jackson Award in Literature for Dream of Order (Mercury House, Spring 1997). Most recently his work appeared in Best American Poetry 1996 (Scribners) and The American Poetry Review.
Adam Klein is the author of a collection of stories, The Medicine Burns, and his novel, Tiny Ladies will be published by High Risk/Serpent's Tail in 1997. His stories have appeared in the anthologies Men on Men 5 and Best Gay Fiction '96, and elsewhere. He was the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Award. His performance work included the heavy metal drag outfit, Chastity. Jerome was a floating member of the band.