Felice Picano

The Godfather of Gay Literature

Richard Burnett
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Felice Picano

I call literary icon Felice Picano the Godfather of Gay Lit because Felice revolutionized gay literature as the founder of SeaHorse Press and as one of the founders of Gay Presses of New York, which launched such writers as Harvey Fierstein, Dennis Cooper and Brad Gooch. In fact, when SeaHorse Press began in 1977, it was just the second gay publishing house in the world, after Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco.

Felice is also a world-class memoirist who has met everybody: Rudolf Nureyev once grabbed his bum, Felice had lunch in Fire Island one afternoon with Elizabeth Taylor, his cock was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, and when he outed the late Anthony Perkins years after their affair, critics screamed, “Picano is a name-dropping slut!” There is also bootleg film footage of Picano at New York City’s famed Continental Baths in 1971, where Bette Midler is performing with her pianist Barry Manilow and pulls Felice out of the crowd. “This was all set up beforehand,” Felice says. “Bette sort of sings to me, looks down at my crotch and says, ‘Oh, you’re disgusting!’ and pushes me back into the crowd because I had a hard-on at that point, but it wasn’t from her!”
 
I first met Felice at a Montreal brunch in either 2000 or 2001, and have written my annual Felice Picano column ever since. Once, when I wrote a column about my crush on Justin, a Tanzanian cook I became infatuated with when I hooked up with an overland truck in Kenya a lifetime ago, Felice – mindful of the criticism and threats I’d gotten from irate readers at the time – wrote me, “I always remember what my grandmother told me: ‘If everyone likes you, that means you’re mediocre.’ I’m not, and neither are you.”
Felice is the author of more than 30 books of poetry, fiction, memoirs, nonfiction and plays, including his must-read memoirs True Stories: Portraits From My Past, True Stories Too: People and Places From My Past and the award-winning Nights at Rizzoli.
 
I caught up with Felice recently, to preview his Nov. 15 appearance in Montreal headlining the Never Apart Centre’s Legend Series, whose past guests include Mink Stole, Bruce LaBruce, Joey Arias and Carole Pope. We talked about everything from Robert Mapplethorpe to queer politics in the age of Grindr. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
 
From the beginning of your career, was your objective to achieve fame and respect as a literary figure?
Fame was not my intention. In 1980 when I became quite famous, it was too much and I pulled back. I stopped publishing books for six years because I just didn’t like what fame was doing, not so much to me, but to the people around me. 
 
Are you telling me Felice Picano has not known anonymous sex in 40 years?
Well, not in America, at least!
 
Now people want to be famous just for the sake of being famous…
I know, and that was never my intention. All I wanted to do was write my books and get them published. That continues to be my intention. If people read them, great. If I can make a living that way, great. Over the years I have done just enough (events and publicity) so that when my books are published, I have enough going so people will know who I am and go out to buy them. 
 
What about Kim Kardashian?
Oh, (Paris) was just waiting to happen. 
 
There is a blockbuster Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts which runs until Jan. 22, 2017. Mapplethorpe photographed your cock. Was he a fame whore?
He was a hustler, yeah, he was after fame. He was more into money than fame. But I remember him telling me at one point, “If I do my job correctly I’ll be famous 50 years from now.” And I said, “Oh well, good for you.” He knew that very well at the time. 
 
How did Mapplethorpe photograph your cock?
He called me up in the middle of the night to come over to his studio. I said, “What for?” He replied, “We’ve done business before.” I recall that for Brad Gooch’s first book, a collection of short stories called Jailbait and Other Stories, Brad brought me a photo by Mapplethorpe. I put that on the front of the book, the first book cover Mapplethorpe ever had. So he called me up and said, “I want to do some business with you.” I went down to his studio and when I got there he started showing me all these photos of people’s dicks. I told him I had seen his dick photos of big black guys and said, “I’m nothing like that!” But I had dated his former intern Scott for a while and they would discuss dick all day and Scott said I  had a nice-looking one. So that’s how it happened.
 
So you just dropped your pants or what?
He was taking pictures as he was blowing me.  And I don’t know where those photos are today! 
 
The opening line in a Haaretz story about the August 2016 closing of Tel Aviv's last gay bar, Evita, reads, “Tel Aviv users of Grindr, the dating app for gays, repeatedly encountered a pop-up ad inviting them to celebrate the absolutely last week of Evita Bar, which closed its doors on Saturday after 12 years.” How do you feel about the wave of gay bars closing?
When I was in Tel Aviv 25 years ago there were four gay bars. There are three or four gay bars here in West Hollywood that have been going for years and years, but others have closed around the city. I don’t go to them anymore unless I’m with somebody from out of town and they want to go to Mickey’s, and I’ll take them. I don’t know how (young people) are socializing because for (my generation) gay bars were about socializing. Then you see what happened in Orlando and you wonder if that’s how you want to socialize. 
 
How did Orlando affect you?
It was horrible to see so many people killed, but it affected me little because I have seen this stuff for years. There have been (anti-gay) assassinations for years. I remember (outside the Ramrod and) Sneakers bar in New York in 1980, this guy (38-year-old former transit police officer Ronald K. Crumpley) shot up the place  and two people died and injured four others. So to me Orlando was nothing new. But Orlando really affected young people who were politicized (by the shooting). 
 
Did the murder of Harvey Milk affect you?
When it happened, yes. I knew him a little bit, had only met him a couple of times. I liked him. But what affected me more was when (Milk’s killer) Dan White got off, that was astounding to us. 
 
You are helping promote the new documentary film Stonewall: The Movement. Why is this film important?
Well, considering that most gay kids know zero (about queer history), if they can spend an hour watching this movie, they can find out what all the major steps were. It’s not specifically about Stonewall, it’s about movements from the 40s, 50s and 60s, a couple of which could have turned out to be Stonewall. It’s got a bunch of talking heads, of which I am one.
 
Have you seen Hollywood director Roland Emmerich’s feature film Stonewall, which was filmed in Montreal in 2014?
No, but I did read the script.
 
Activists hated the script because it rewrote history.
I was not asked to vet it, I was shown it just before the film opened here and I said the same thing: This does not look historically correct. 
 
What is the problem with capturing the truth of Stonewall?
The problem is there was the event, which on the surface looked very glamourous and a lot of people would like to take credit for. The reality is it was the next 10 days of street protests and people marching around getting signatures for the Gay Activists Alliance – the Gay Liberation Front, actually, that was the first one –  that’s what actually made history. There would be no gay movement now if that didn’t happen. But that’s not so glamourous. That’s just people walking around with signs at subway stops. That’s what actually got things done. 
 
The first Pride march was held in New York City in 1970 to commemorate the first anniversary of Stonewall.
I was there. There were more people on the sidelines than were marching. There was a lot of harassment and very few police. 
 
In addition to the official Stonewall 25 parade in New York to mark the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in 1994, there was also a renegade march organized by ACT UP where you were a parade marshal alongside Allen Ginsberg and Camille Paglia. 
Somebody from NAMBLA asked, “Would you march with us?” So I said sure. Although NAMBLA contacted me, they were not the main reason why I joined the parade, nor ACT UP, nor the others. I joined it because I was horrified there would be a 25th anniversary parade and certain LGBT groups were not invited. Camille Paglia, Allen Ginsberg – who was already quite ill – and I were asked to be the leaders of the (renegade) parade, the three of us said yes. We were marching completely illegally and we took the original route from 1970, which was not what (Stonewall 25) was doing. We were stopped (by the authorities), but by then we had accumulated about 4,000 to 5,000 people who had left the other march to come over to ours. They couldn’t stop us. Here we were, two Italians talking to somebody from (Mayor) Giuliani’s office. Camille told them to go to hell or something, did they want bloodshed on their hands? We were not going to stop and we kept on marching. 
 
You famously are one of the original seven members of the legendary Violet Quill Club which transformed gay lit in the 20th century.
There was none before us, and after there was. It’s that simple. There were homosexual books before that but there was no gay literature at all. 
 
So Gore Vidal did not write gay lit.
And he was not a gay person either. He was a good old-fashioned 1940s – 1950s homosexual. That’s what he was.
 
Did you like him?
Not much, no. We had some correspondence for a couple of years and I sort of unwittingly helped him to get something published.
 
Was he a bitter old queen?
He was a drunk old queen.
 
How excited are you about coming back to Montreal?
I always have a good time in Montreal, always feel like I get my due there as an author. But I want to see all the changes there. I first went to Montreal for Expo 67. The city was very different back then. The last time I was in Montreal I had a very good time with (male) strippers! What I really love is the way the strippers are announced in Montreal, and I thought there is nothing quite like this in the world! 
 
Felice Picano headlines the Legend Series, at the Never Apart 
centre on Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. For tickets and info, www.neverapart.com. 
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at bugsburnett.blogspot.com.