Dyke porn pioneer Susie Bright opens up with Big Sex Little Death
SFBG When the feminist movement refused to support you, you found several surprising allies. Among them were John Preston, at the time the editor of the gay leather magazine Drummer; cult filmmaker Russ Meyer of Faster Pussycat fame; and even the Mitchell brothers of that legendary exploitative straight strip club on O'Farrell Street.
SB Well, those were strange bedfellows, eh? They were all mavericks, iconoclasts, outlaws, film buffs, and we shared that in common. Aside from public librarians and ACLU lead attorneys, these guys were probably the most eloquent defenders of the First Amendment you ever met.
SFBG On Our Backs was started by two strippers who worked at various clubs in the Tenderloin and North Beach. One of the most heartbreaking chapters in Big Sex Little Death is where you show us how so many strippers worked to support their lovers financially, male and female, and then ended up strung out on drugs, homeless, or dead after their lovers used and abused them.
SB "Legalize it," as Peter Tosh said. That is why these tragedies happen — because sex work is criminalized.
SFBG In your preface, you say, "I'm more preoccupied with people dying than with people coming." And so of course you want to prevent these unnecessary deaths. Toward the end of the book, you also mention the deaths of friends, lovers, and confidantes to AIDS — but only briefly. It's as if it's still too painful to talk about.
SB The main deaths I talk about are my parents', where I could fit more of the puzzle together; then John Preston, as a small example of what went on in early '80s plague life; and the dykes I first knew at On Our Backs, some of who died too young. I am angry and too ragged to write about it all yet — I don't have the distance from it. The last memorial I attended this past fall was [for] one of my greatest inspirations, a total ball-of-fire who ate a Fentanyl patch, choked to death on her vomit, and left a suicide note.
It was the exact one-year anniversary of the death of her father, a Southern fundamentalist preacher who beat and raped her as a child. She left him at 15 to come to California and made her way as one of the first generation of out dyke strippers and punk rockers. My redheaded friend was a leader of a local NA chapter by the time she was 20. What happened to her, all these years later, breaks the heart of everyone who knew her. She was a wonderful, wonderful, caring, radical feminist creative dyke who wanted to be a superhero who would vanquish all the abusers. It's not fair.
SFBG Fairness is one of the central issues of the book — who lives and who dies, which cultures disappear and which remain. At the end of the book, you talk about deciding to give birth to a child, Aretha, and raising her. I'll admit I got a bit worried that you would suddenly talk about this trajectory in a way that erased your sexual and political history, the histories of people like the friend you just mentioned.
SB My daughter has a trajectory of her own, now!
SFBG But somehow you're able to talk about your love for Aretha while making it clear that child rearing certainly isn't for everyone, and still articulating an anti-assimilationist queer world view focused on sexual liberation and radical politics.
SB I'm just drawn that way.
SFBG Why do you think gay assimilationists emphasize marriage, military inclusion, and child-rearing as the only choices for respectable queers, narrowing the options for everyone and rejecting sexual liberation as something dangerous from the past?