How marrying a woman made an honest gay man of me (draft), Part 4

8 Jan

Note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of excerpts from a draft of an essay that I originally intended for the Houston Chronicle, my former employer. It turned out to be too long to fit anywhere in the print edition, but my editors were willing to consider posting it on 29-95.com, the Chronicle’s entertainment website, with changes I was unwilling to make. The fact that I was unwilling to make those changes, however, does not mean I don’t think the essay could use some improvement, so I welcome feedback from readers. References to dates such as “last week” or “Friday” will make more sense if you consider the draft was filed shortly before Thanksgiving and the wedding was held on Friday, Nov. 18. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. The photos in this post were taken by Timothy Gonzalez for the Darbys. — Devon Britt-Darby

I even felt the love from people who couldn’t bring themselves to watch the ceremony but came to the reception. My friend Christian “Mrs. Britt” Miranda, who accompanies me so often to society events people think we’re a couple and accept us as such, stayed outside until the wedding was over, then made a grand entrance dressed to the nines. My wife and Mrs. Britt hit it off famously. (Mrs. Britt, it must be noted, does not approve of my current adventure. — DB-D)

No blood relatives were there, but my ex-partner, who will always, always, always be family, also came to congratulate me, an act of generosity and kindness I can never sufficiently repay.

I’ve never been the marrying kind. That’s probably what enabled me to participate in The Art Gay Marries a Woman in the first place. Though the difficulties I had realizing the piece soon made me realize I was caught up in something more powerful than expected, even they didn’t prepare me for the fact that the “our” in “our wedding” was both vaster and more intimate than anything I’ve ever experienced. I had stumbled into my vision of heaven on earth — a time and place when and where the world and the art world were utterly indistinguishable.

If they’re not, we’re all doomed.

Friday night, we were anything but doomed. We were blessed and blessed and blessed and blessed and blessed.

Can art really do that?

The next morning, as planned, my wife and I attended the Menil’s tree-dedication ceremony. Repeated references to the drought rang hollow. Moving one sapling from one location to another achieves nothing. If you care about the trees that Houston has lost, plant groves, not kisses on the backsides of Nina and Michael Zilkha — the latter is a Menil trustee — to whom the tree is dedicated.

The only moment of honesty came, typically, from James Surls, a father figure to The Art Guys along with much of the Houston art scene. He was there to support his former students, but he also brought what until then had been missing from their piece and the Menil’s reaction to the criticism: a heartfelt, public acknowledgement of the pain it had caused many in the gay community and the art community, which he rightly said were intertwined.

He connected his reading of the tree to his deep, mystical understanding of time and the earth and our place in it. He suggested those of us who had complained about the piece’s most obvious connection to the here and now were giving it too narrow a reading.

That’s where Surls got it wrong, for a reason he summarized succinctly, perhaps without realizing it: “A good thought today might not be a good thought tomorrow.”

There’s the rub. When it comes to social sculpture, which is what The Art Guys attempted with the tree piece, timing — along with social context — is everything. I never doubted their belief that the piece was about marriage between two abstract entities, but their and Kamps’ wilful obliviousness to what time it was in 2009 and what time it is in 2011 utterly thwarted their attempt to blur the line between art and life. They confused stubbornness with conviction, giving the piece a meanness that poisoned whatever mysticism Surls — and perhaps they — read into it.

But I don’t have to agree with everything Surls said to thank him for allowing the piece’s most immediate social resonance back into the work.

Of course, only the small group in attendance heard him do that. The tacky plaque in front of the tree doesn’t do it. Addressing the issue honestly and at length in panel discussions, on the Menil Collection website and in a visitor brochure would help, if moving the tree to an off-campus Menil property isn’t possible. (Note: The tree, which is innocent in this whole affair, has been vandalized since the writing of this draft. The Menil was repeatedly warned that threats had been made against the tree but chose not to protect it like it would any other artwork in its holdings, suggesting the museum never took The Art Guys’ piece seriously in the first place. — DB-D)

A museum worthy of the collection John and Dominique de Menil assembled would tackle the issue head on with serious public discussions, not private conversations, whispering campaigns, anonymous smears and — worst of all — stony silence.

The worst thing we could do now would be to put this behind us. The most shameful way the Menil could spend 2012 — its 25th anniversary — would be to wallow in another orgy of self-congratulation. Honest, rigorous self-criticism that leads to action is the only way to earn a celebration now.

Can art help prompt that? We’ll see.

While the vows Reese and I exchanged included a promise to divorce, they also included commitments that extend past the divorce and, hopefully, into the hearts of those who witnessed them. One of them — a promise to respect “the freaks, sluts and sex workers of all stripes who prefer not to conform to heteronormative conventions” — I take especially seriously.

My best man overlooks a packed house.

After all, I’m always a freak, sometimes a slut, and I’ve been a sex worker of at least three stripes. I’ve done a little porn; I’ve done a little go-go dancing; and I was an escort for several years. It was the best job I ever had, until it wasn’t.

Part 5 is here.

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