This interview was the third-place winner,
by Blase DiStefano
Original photo by Bernard Vidal, computer-colorized by Blase.
This interview ran in OutSmart magazine, January 1998.
In the '60s, she was part of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement; she helped start up both the women's movement and the Student Homophile League, the first gay group on any campus in the United States; and she participated in the Stonewall Riots ("one of two women, I expect," she says). In 1969, when the National Organization of Women (NOW) was still in its infancy and not open to the notion of lesbianism, Rita Mae Brown blurted out at one of the meetings, "I'm tired of hearing everyone moan about men. Say something good about women. I'll say something good. I love them. I'm a lesbian." When I comment that that was a very courageous remark, she says, "Yeah, well, I'm a bad liar, so I might as well tell the truth."
Ah, the truth. You can certainly depend on Rita Mae for the truth. When reporter Liz Smith asked her, "Why do you have to tell people you're gay? What purpose does it serve?" she answered that it was wrong to lie. Smith replied, "Keeping quiet isn't lying." Rita Mae: "It's lying by omission."
The only omissions in her recently released autobiography, Rita Will--Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser (Bantam Books), are legal ones: "[L]ibel laws are so strict that there's a great deal you can't say even if you witnessed it," she says in the introduction to the book.
Only four years after announcing her lesbianism to NOW, she was brought into the spotlight with the publication of her first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle (one of 16 novels written to this date). The book is about a young girl who is open and OK with her lesbianism, a novel idea at the time, and gay people couldn't get enough of it. Twenty-five years later, it's still selling. "Rubyfruit Jungle brought me notoriety," she says in Rita Will, "a ton of hate mail, numerous threats on my life including two bomb threats, increased outrage from the conservative wing of the feminist movement and scorn from the radical dykes. Straight people were mad because I was gay. The dykes were mad because I wasn't gay enough."
She was getting it from all sides, as usual. Being true to yourself can garner respect, but it can also be a pain in the ass.
When I tell Rita Mae about OutSmart columnist Dale Carpenter's article in which he stated that it was discriminatory to exclude men from The Texas Lesbian Conference, she says that she sees his point very clearly. "But what he isn't factoring in--and it's very difficult to factor this in--is that while he suffers or endures a certain kind of oppression because he's gay, he still has the privileges of being a man," she says, "and that it is important sometimes for people who are discriminated against to gather with one another if for no other reason than to reinforce the fact that they're worthwhile."
Though it shouldn't be that way, for certain people it is.
"I think the key words are 'for certain people,' " she continues. "Some people need more reinforcement than others."
On the related subject of OutSmart's letters to the editor, one in which a woman objected to Carpenter's "ignorance and insensitivity" in using the term "gay woman" rather than "lesbian," she says, "Poor guy, he's getting it from all sides. I think they're being real picky. I don't think he was being terribly insensitive by saying 'gay women,' I really don't. To me, it's a nonissue. I worry about jobs, money, will you be allowed to walk down the street. I don't give a damn what you call me."
She also doesn't give a damn about the Republican and Democratic parties. The difference between the two parties, she says, "is the difference between syphillis and gonorrhea. Neither one of them has a very compelling program for America. They don't question our whole economic base," she says, "and I'm not talking about being socialist or anything like that. What we need to look at is whether our economy is safe for the earth."
Simple stuff, right?
"Real simple stuff," she continues. "They don't understand that all of the issues that we're facing now often get back to how we use and allocate resources. So they accept the status quo, and in fact, they're owned by the big industries, etc. So they don't really represent the American people. I don't think either party does."
What about us? Who represents us? In her book, she writes, "Nobody cares about gay people. Black folks don't want their queers, white people can't stand theirs. Rich people send theirs to psychiatrists. Poor people kick theirs out on the street. Nobody wants us. I want us. We've got to stand up for one another."
She has stood up for us for decades, during which time she has endured the wrath and criticism of many, especially after her breakup with tennis star Martina Navratilova and her subsequent relationship with Martina's ex, Judy Nelson. She helped them through their breakup, which almost wound up in court. "The compelling reason for me to work so hard to keep this [lawsuit between Martina and Judy] out of court and off the public record," she says in her book, "was what it would do to other gay people. We'd worked so hard for our gains. All we needed was a messy, sleazy sex scandal."
By the time they settled out of court, "Judy had decided she was in love with me," she continues. "I knew she wasn't but she thought she was. . . . I began to enjoy the attention entirely too much."
Neither was upset when the relationship ended. "I'm grateful to her for allowing me to learn I can't be in a relationship where ethics differ," she says, "nor can I abide being controlled. As for Martina, she has never once thanked me for helping to keep her out of court, for going that extra mile."
Before the Martina debacle, Rita Mae had traveled to Hollywood, where she made a name for herself as a screenwriter. She was nominated for an Emmy in 1982, and she won the Writer's Guild award that same year for Best Variety Show, Television. The show was "I Love Liberty," produced by Norman Lear. She wrote five screenplays and two teleplays, including the one which received the awards.
For you trivia buffs, one of the screenplays was Slumber Party Massacre (originally titled Sleepless Nights), directed by B-movie-meister Roger Corman. And let's not forget her four-hour mini-series, The Long Hot Summer, starring Don Johnson ("He had a lot more inside him than the networks thought he did.") and Cybill Shepherd ("Everyone wrote off Cybill Shepherd, thinking she was there for her beauty. She fooled them.").
While in Hollywood, Rita Mae went to a party hosted by Marlo Thomas to support the Equal Rights Amendment. It was there she met Fannie Flagg, a '60s comedian and later the author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. She fell in love with her "at first sight." Sadly, it didn't work out, because Fannie's "just so homophobic," she says. "Well, you know, Fannie's almost 60, and it's just a different generation's outlook. They were already getting established in their careers when we were in our teens and struggling with the Viet Nam War and civil rights. There's a grand canyon between us," she continues. "It doesn't mean we don't love each other, [it just means] we will never see the world quite the same because of our tremendous losses and disillusionment and then the realization that 'Oh my god, we gotta fight back.'"
Between 1979 and 1987, Rita Mae lost Fannie (the love of her life), Martina, Baby Jesus (her cat and the other love of her life), her mother, and Jerry Pfeiffer and Herb May (lovers for 14 years, both died of AIDS). She had been close friends with Pfeiffer for 28 years. "They couldn't get anyone in the county to pick up [Jerry's] body since it was Saturday [when he died] and, more to the point," she says in her book, "he had died of AIDS [in 1985]. No funeral parlor wanted him either."
After considering burying him on her farm, an undertaker who would take the body was finally found. At Pfeiffer's service, of the "hundreds of acquaintances" and "twenty or twenty-five good friends" that he had, only two gay friends attended. "No other gay person wanted to go to Jerry's funeral because he died of AIDS," she says.
Because Jerry had died the week before, she had to cancel an engagement in Dallas. In a letter to those attending the fourth annual Black-Tie Dinner, she wrote, in part, "Grief is like a boomerang. You throw it away and it comes back and hits you. This is so fresh for me, plus I am so exhausted that I can't control my grief and I burst into tears. I don't think it would be a service to the community nor to myself for you to see me this way. Also, people are accustomed to me being entertaining and I just can't be funny for a time. Everyone heals. I will, too." Even in her grief, her words are truthful: "I ask you not to hate people who treat you badly. . . . This is easier to write than it is to live but there are ignorant people. Only a few are truly malicious. Hate is a poison. It can spread through your system. Forgive them if you can. Forget them if you must."
So how did she get through it all?
"I do have a lot of stamina," she says. "And I do have faith--if you read the book, you know I had a very strict God-fearing mother and father. I also think living in the country gives you faith. All you have to do is get up and look at the mountains and look at the other animals to realize that your problems are mostly made up or exacerbated by humans. But human life isn't necessarily life. There's so much more out there."
What's out there for Rita Mae, besides her writing, is her farm in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she has lived for 20 years. "I know this will bore everybody [reading this], but I do grasses experiments--I grow different combinations of grasses on different pastures. I just love doing this. When I'm 60, I wanna go to ag school." She turned 53 in November , so expect to see this determined woman to be in ag school in the year 2004.
I imagine that living and working on a farm and writing doesn't allow much time for extracurricular activities, so I ask the farmer Brown if she watches much TV. "Very little," she says, "but I will creep in for a football game."
Since my knowledge of football is geared more toward the uniforms rather than the game itself, I ask if she's ever seen the show Ellen. "[Ellen DeGeneres] called me before she did the coming-out show," Rita Mae says, "so I watched it, and I think it's a good show."
So, though it appears that Ellen DeGeneres may have taken over as this generation's out and outspoken gay icon, she has actually joined with our original truth-sayer--Rita Mae Brown.