Excerpts from San Diego: 1st City of Empire, by Rocky Neptun, to be published in May, 2011 by the San Diego Renters Union
The suicide of the city’s most well-known publisher and the saga of the “Empress” of San Diego mirror the store-bought culture of San Diego’s LGBT ghetto. It is an urbanity based on image and wealth. The Oligarchy, its super-rich patrons and well-connected CEO’s, tolerate a LGBT presence in the political arena and business associations as long as they confine their organizational thrusts and community demonstrations to “sexual orientation” issues and never seriously challenge the forces of greed in this corporate owned city.
When Michael Portantino jumped from the seventh story of the Park Manor Suites Hotel in the Hillcrest neighborhood, the heart of the city’s LGBT community, on Dec. 8, 2010; his death reflected more than just his personal existential crisis with his recent fall from wealth and preeminence and its poverty and powerlessness. His solitary leap, without a spectator (he was found on the sidewalk by a person out for a walk) and on his second try (he was saved by his brother, a Pasadena state assembly member, in a previous overdose), symbolized, I think, the dominance of a new era in our LGBT community.
Once outsiders looking in, the urban LGBT community has now become political power brokers. By our numbers and economic clout, we have become insiders to power and wealth. We have gone from despised outcast to tolerated participant, selling our votes and buying our way into the mainstream. We have been moved into the corporate, neo-liberal, plantation house – but at what cost?
Where is that personal fire which was lit so many years ago? Where is the courage and, more importantly, the mutual support to confront our own individual existential questions in linkage to a straight world? What isolation and loneliness lurks behind that mask of feigned individualism hiding the ugly conformist? Do all those material things; new cars, shiny gadgets, fancy pads, trendy duds, over-priced meals, and their artificial ambiance, which Gay Culture has come to symbolize, give our lives sustenance or meaning?
For more than 20 years, Portantino’s newsmagazine, the Gay and Lesbian Times (G<), was the voice of the LGBT community. Its advertising, particularly real estate as the housing bubble grew, made him rich and a powerful force in the larger political and financial circles which dominate San Diego. He was feted by the local Democratic Party, even honored with a “special Portantino and G< day” by the San Diego City Council, which even the Republicans on the council cheered. Perhaps, they sensed the inevitable pull of wealth, and sure enough as he grew richer, he began to endorse more Republicans.
While his support for LGBT causes and aid for community organizations over the years, particularly the LGBT Center, were generous; he fought the “dragon” of store-bought personality, that fiery beast which melts away the authentic self for an artificial identity based on a puffed up importance to those of power and wealth. His own projection of the personal need for “assimilation” onto the wider LGBT community help create a perspective that if we serve the corporate state well, become supplicants to materialistic values and “out style” the dominant culture, we will be accepted as full participants in the neo-liberal plunder of the planet.
Now, most of us will never face the pathological effects of high status in the economic pecking order. For Portantino, whom I met on several occasions, his million dollar “English cottage” in Normal Heights became more than just a house. Like Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s throne, his dwelling matched his station, and became a center for the “assimilation wing” of the LGBT community. His adoption of two daughters, then an ugly custody battle with a former lover aside; he was a man wined and dined by the power elite because he held the power of media, like a diminutive Rupert Murdock.
It was afternoon in the fall of 2008, when the police cars raced up Hawley Boulevard toward the cul-de-sac of Cromwell Place, a reversed r-shaped street overlooking Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley. Several squad cars surrounded Portatino’s home, while a helicopter circled overhead, its swirling blades flipping the “Todd Gloria for City Council” lawn signs into the air and down the street. It was another brawl at “the Gay house” neighbors told me. Marge, the 80 year-old widow, who lived across the street got close enough to find out that Portatino had instructed his gardener to beat up a former lover who had arrived to retrieve his things. Neighbors told me there were regular “visits” by police and young men arrived on skateboards late at night, but they kept silent and did not complain “because he has powerful friends downtown.”
It was that very power, the sword of economic knighthood in San Diego’s kingdom of economic hooligans, which, ironically, turned against him and thrust him into the friendless, isolated world of privation and reticence common to most who are poor.
When a person’s character is determined by bank accounts, million dollar homes, notoriety and political power, we must look at the culture, or sub-culture, which creates such a venomous meaning to life. How much did Portatino contribute to his own cruel end by defining personhood based on social standing and power within the system? How much did the San Diego Gay & Lesbian Times contribute to the simulacra of LGBT culture today – its value, even its very reality, determined by entertainment moguls, dancers who train the stars, advertisers, pornographers, the hubris of social media and, above all, the corporate state?
The Empress of San Diego Wears No Clothes
The blubberous Nicole Murray-Ramirez still struts in regal fashion despite the puffiness and flab of his advancing years. Regarded as something of an icon in San Diego and known to many as simply “Nicole” from his gossip column in the Gay & Lesbian Times, the former Empress of the Royal Court of San Diego is as phony as the make-believe LGBT mini-culture she portends to represent.
Within the realm of what Baudrillard calls the “order of sorcery,” Nicole creates a copy of nothing which was once an original. He has created pure simulation, an identity, a character, based on what others think he is and what he represents within a fantasy world of make believe.
He has manipulated his imagine, took advantage of his Tijuana, Mexico drag antics to be proclaimed, “Queen Mother of the Americas,” and got enough dirt through his tittle-tattle column to raise in the San Diego LGBT community, first as a anomaly, then through his support of an elitism culture
It is no secret that Murray-Ramirez thinks of himself as a king-pin in local San Diego politics. He supports the move by the Republican Party to finance and elect LGBT candidates, supported Mayoral candidate Republican Steve Francis in his personal million dollar losing bid and continues to shake down would be candidates to finance his little empire of chimera.
It is no wonder that Nicole’s Wikipedia page begins with his coronation as Empress of San Diego and leaves out the earlier periods of his life. It is a reflection of the Imperial ethos of a corporate state that someone who has killed, like Murray-Ramirez, can serve as chair of the Police Chief’s Advisory Board. And, adding to the hypocrisy, that someone who used to terrorize the local, neighborhood Gay bars of San Bernardino, ordering his gang to beat and maim innocent Gay seniors, can sit on the City of San Diego’s Human Rights Commission.
The first time I ever saw Bobby Ramirez, aka Lolita, was at a drag contest in a small bar in Fontana, California. The owners were good friends of mine and occasionally when they were short of a bartender I would help out at their bar in Rubidoux, a suburb of Riverside (and Bobby Ramirez’s hometown). I knew his cousin and once in a while I would front him a drink, he had a crush on me.
It was the summer of 1974, the night was hot. I really didn’t enjoy drag shows but the person I was dating wanted to go and since I had many friends in the competition, I went. Now, anyone from small towns with just two or three bars can grasp how everyone pretty much knows everyone else. As a bartender at the most popular bar in San Bernardino, the Skylark, I rarely had to buy a drink and was enjoying myself winning at pool, when the competition had ended and the judges were making their decisions.
Now, I had seen this gorgeous young man, buff, handsome, beautiful eyes, earlier and he seemed so ill at ease that I thought he had wondered in from the Fontana Steel Mill up the road for a quick beer and found himself in alien territory. When Lolita, aka Bobby Ramirez, took third place he began yelling that the contest was fixed and this young man, who I later found out in court was named Michael Murray, began overturning tables and throwing beers against the wall.
I quickly began looking for my young friend who wasn’t in the bar. Finding him asleep in the car in the back parking lot, I returned to the bar, which by then was in a shambles. “Miss” Ramirez was on stage directing his boyfriend to attack the other contestants. He swung past me, chasing a short, effeminate friend of mine who wouldn’t have hurt a fly. As I walked into the parking lot Murray was bashing his head into the finder of a car. “You son-of-a-bitch, let him go,” I yelled. He lunged toward me. Now, he probably had close to 4 feet and 60 pounds on me and was obviously a street fighter, so (as someone who ran away from home at 16 and lived on the streets of New York City, there was not a show-off bone in my body – just survival instincts). As he advanced toward me, I backed up slowly until I was just inside the door and as he came through I reached behind me, picking up a steel folding chair and brought it down on his head.
Stunned, he dropped his arms which I grabbed and pushed him back out the door. Lolita, aka Bobby Ramirez, aka Nicole Murray-Ramirez grabbed one of my arms to pull me off, but his cousin pushed him off me and I pushed this gorgeous hunk to the point he fell backward over the curb and I kicked him in the head as hard as I could as he fell. They dragged him away.
It was some months later, when Lolita, Murray and a gang of street thugs invaded the Skylark. The minute they entered I sent my new lover for the police but Ramirez’s gang began beating everyone in sight before they arrived. I was trying to plead with Nicole-to-be, my hand on his inflated chest, to stop this madness, that those old guys who were being pummeled never hurt anyone, when Murray reached around her head and crushed a full beer bottle against my head. When I regained consciousness, the police had them in hand-cuffs and asked if I wanted to make a citizens arrest, making me probably the only non-officer to ever arrest San Diego’s top drag queen and her lover.
In the weeks that followed she called threats to the bar that her gang was going to get me and my lover. The owner hired a security guard but after my lover was followed one night, I quit. At the trial, Ramirez was convicted and given two months in jail while Murray got off because the back-up bartender fumbled his testimony.
It was a few months later, that his cousin told me Ramirez had stabbed Michael Murray to death and got away with on it on a self-defense plea, even though the young man was naked in the bathtub. When I first moved to San Diego in the early 90’s, I couldn’t believe that he had taken Michael’s name.
I have known so many courageous and vital persons in my lifetime, from the young students in Portugal who died and were tortured fighting Fascism to the abandoned youth of Mexico’s heartland after their immigrant parents perished in the harsh deserts of the American southwest, that these experiences with an arrogant, power crazed drag queen and his gang terrorizing a small LGBT community almost seem trite and unimportant.
Yet, here we are, in the twenty-first century, in an imperial city where human rights are an illusion, as the homeless are hammered, the immigrant brutalized, the poor are evicted and children starve and “Her Highness,” once brutal and deadly, sits on the city’s Human Rights Commission and advices the Police Chief.
The Torch of Our Movement
Most old timers in the LGBT movement, and far too many young ones, are still tethered to the archaic rhetoric of the 1960’s – the myopic circle-jerk activism of identity politics. Yet today, the dichotomy of the corporate state does to distinguish between Gay and straight, black or white, male or female but, rather, the utilitarian usefulness of the individual. If you have wealth, like Portatino, you are a member. If you have skills which will advance the war machine, you become a junior partner. All others, too fragile or too stubborn to participate in making investors rich, become superfluous.
Those of us old enough to remember Stonewall in 1969, ache with nostalgia over the shared consciousness lost. Those tough, gritty drag queens fought the New York police, refusing to suffer one more raid, one more hate-filled night of degradation, and created the first protected space for all of us.
Our feeble attempts today at assimilation into the sovereignty of wealth and privilege; profit over people, building fences rather than public commons, condoning guns, peddling fear and squealing to participate in unjust and illegal wars rips at our heritage.
From Stonewall, so long ago, pulsating beams of light went out, quivering into the darkness, like multi-colored strobe lights above a dark dance floor. And dance; we did! Free Gays, mostly freed from ourselves we imbibed liberation like good Scotch or Acapulco Gold. We lived on the cutting edge of social change. We had been at the bottom of the pit so long, through the fissures, watching shadows above us, in their pursuit of happiness. In our liberation movement, we became instant pioneers, taking human emancipation to new levels, away from the tyranny of the past, indulging our right to libido; creating art in outrageous, lascivious behavior.
But it was our shared mindfulness as “other” that created the scared bond. As long as one of us was not free, none of us were. That within our culture, from leather queens to tough lesbians, from make-up parlors to orgies; our life-style would stand for freedom from fear, for liberation, for spontaneity, for trusting our experience as rebels and deviants.
I once had a short relationship with that 60’s luminary Paul Goodman while he taught at the Center for Inter-Cultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Radical queer, anarchist and author of “Growing Up Absurd,” he once told me that he only had affairs with working-class youth because they had built-in “crap detectors” and were not afraid to ask tough questions and, more importantly, they were cushioned from any fall because they had already been there. He used to say quite often that “in every action, every moment, we must choose between tyranny and liberation.” Even then, so many years ago, he sensed that our Gay Liberation movement could be bought off, like the labor unions, and he urged every youth who would listen that it was their day-to-day decisions, the little things, which kept our movement alive for future generations.
As members of the LGBT community: if we cannot stand with the marginalized and the oppressed, if our movement stands for power, privilege and wealth, if our personhood and our culture is defined by what we have and not who we are, if we exist as mere pockets of economic queerdom in the corporate state, then, I believe, as Paul Goodman would, if he were alive, that we have sacrificed our beloved movement on the cross of hubris and greed.
Our wonderful contribution to humanity, the Gay Liberation Movement, has been high-jacked by those who value profit. We have been tripped up by our successes at inclusion. We must rediscover our roots as activists; aroused by the tension between being one of the herd and being a wild, nonconforming, free spirit. Damn it! We are different. It’s time we started acting like it.