A conversation between allies

Labels can feel heavy. And for me “ally” is one of those. What does that exactly mean? In some ways it makes me feel like an outside supporter of the community to which I belong. Admittedly I am a heterosexual female, yet I identify with LGBTQI culture for more important reasons than whom I prefer in my bed.

In the chosen family I have been lucky to find I am one of many who have been ostracized for living my life in a way some people I wish loved me do not understand. And I have discovered the power of a tribe of brothers and sisters who share my interests, sense of humor, and need to live out my truth.

As a writer and a woman and a human being just doing my thing, I’ve been called a “fag hag,” a “tranny chaser,” and a “breeder.” I love words and believe they only carry the energy we allow them to, so those names don’t really bother me. But I don’t enjoy being questioned about my intentions or my sexuality by people in the community as though I am an interloper who does not belong. What is the point of all of these letters we keep adding on to the definition LGBT culture if not inclusiveness? Can I not fight this skirmish for equality from the inside? Aren’t acceptance and understanding all any of us are looking for?

Meeting Margaret Ellis was enlightening to me. Like me she is a straight female artist who found inspiration, deep friendships, and a sense of belonging when she stumbled into the world of drag queens and Nashville gay nightlife. It happened for both of us when we needed to remember we were fabulous, and were ready to insist upon being loved for being ourselves.

Margaret and I are both visual artists. Her medium is photography, and I am a making a film. We are equally fascinated by gender and sexuality and community and the nature of love, and that’s what propels our work. You can call me an ally and I am proud to own that. I’m sure Margaret will carry that mantle too. But to the people in our chosen families we are both just Holly and Margaret, and there’s nothing heavy about that at all.

Hollis Hollywood:  Why don't you start by telling me about your latest inspiration for the gorgeous photos of performers you've been taking

Margaret Ellis:  I have been doing some art photos of what I would describe as "gender shifts." A person having a relationship with their masculine and feminine sides. I met an amazingly beautiful young man, Dylan Stephens, who was modeling as a female at Nashville Fashion Week and photographed him many times early this summer. Androgyny fascinates me and I enjoy exploring the aesthetics of it. I did a similar series of photos with my friend, Andrew Pentecost, who loves to express his drag persona, Angel Electra. My next series will feature a female model. I also recently did a portrait of DeeDee Renner (performance artist Deception), who is recovering from chemo, and wanted a picture while she was still bald. I love that picture.

Hollis Hollywood:  I saw those you posted of DeeDee and her mom online, which are beautiful. Your photographs tell stories and pose questions, and it’s the individual stories of people in the community that draw me in as an artist as well. Looking at what outwardly seems like differences, whether it's gender or sexuality or a belief system or whatever, and finding the human sameness underneath.

Margaret Ellis:  I love the idea of people being so fluid in their identities. I think that's why I find drag so fascinating. I love makeup and the effect it has on people. The change that takes place on stage when someone impersonates another gender is different from the change that happens when someone becomes another gender. Both fascinate me. I enjoy taking photos of drag queens more than any other subject matter. I am humbled and honored to be allowed into that world.

Hollis Hollywood:  I agree and am also intrigued by the idea of chosen identity in ways other than sexuality or gender. It is connected to the concept of chosen families or communities and something you and I have both talked about discovering personally as we became involved as straight women in the gay community.

Margaret Ellis:  It is interesting that you bring up the subject of family. Last night at the Miss Gay TN America pageant I was distinguished as a "Lifetime Member of the Miss Gay Tennessee Family." In 1972 when I went to the first Miss Gay America pageant, I was suddenly embraced and accepted at a time when my life when I was lonelier than I had ever been. I don't know how I would have gotten through that time without my friends in the gay community, who were definitely my family. So, to receive than award last night for what I do for the community brought it all back full circle. It meant the world to me.

Hollis Hollywood:  One of the key elements of my documentary is how the AIDS epidemic in its earliest days of fear and the unknown were both devastating and transformational in the way the community banded together to get attention and answers and care. I was in high school when I remember reading an article in the Village Voice about the "gay cancer" or "gay plague" that was menacing otherwise healthy young men. How did that time affect you and your friends?

Margaret Ellis: Now we see that I am quite a bit older than you are, Hollis. I was about 35 and a regular reader of the Village Voice, which was mailed to my home in Nashville. That is how I first heard of it. I remember so well the first time I learned that someone I knew was affected. It was 1985. By the time I was in my early '40's, my friends were starting to become ill. I lost several friends to this horrible disease. It was just heartbreaking, as at that time there was no cure, and no drugs to slow down the disease. It was a death sentence, and a slow, slow one at that. We were watching men who were young and vital become like 90 years olds before our eyes. I still think of them. It concerns me that the young people of today, who have never really seen what this disease looks like, might be careless.

Hollis Hollywood:  I had a Village Voice subscription too, and it was the same 1985 article I read when I was a sixteen and had discovered the underground music scene in Nashville. It was parallel but also crossed over some with the gay nightclub scene, and had the same kind of outrageousness and promiscuity and drugs going on. The Warehouse 28 was the place I danced with my friends on Friday nights, then The Cabaret became our spot for seeing drag shows. It is interesting as I research that time to understand how AIDS prevention was addressed and marketed differently to the gay and straight communities and how ineffective in general the efforts were to change public habits.

I too know kids who are careless today, and too many who are HIV positive at incredibly young ages. It's a large part of what drives my need to be an ally or speak out by telling the stories of the history of the early days of the crisis in Nashville, with the faces of the people who were loved and lost, and also those who rallied the troops and got some shit done. I interviewed The Lady Bunny for this paper and she bemoaned the lack of activism in the young people of the greater LGBT community. There is a sense I get from the Stonewall Generation that they feel unappreciated and undervalued for the sacrifices they made, the losses they endured, and the incredible strides towards awareness, acceptance and equality they achieved.

Margaret Ellis:  I feel the same way about young women who take their liberties for granted. Activism is necessary until all equality is achieved. And necessary to keep the rights that are won. Look at what's happened to Roe vs Wade, for example. Or how a state can grant marriage rights, then take them away. Proposition 8’s defeat is an example of how activism can work.

I have marched for the original Civil Rights (racial equality), for women's rights, and against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. I am now involved in what has been called the "last great civil rights struggle of our lifetime," the movement for equal rights for LGBT citizens. It is urgently important that those of us who believe that no one is free unless everyone is free take part in this movement. While I would be defined as an ally to this community, I don't think of myself as someone on the outside looking in. I think being “gay” is about a lot more than whom you sleep with.

Hollis Hollywood:  I love that you brought up the topic of being called an "ally" in the gay community. It makes me feel uncomfortable to wear that label, as if I am some kind of helper from the "outside." I have loving relationships in my life that involve all kinds of people and I'm about equality, period. This isn't some kind of charitable cause I've taken up, it is an expression of what is important and of value in my life.

I could not care less what anyone else is doing in their bedroom, and what I'm doing there is none of your goddamn business. But if wearing that label makes people pay attention to the things we still need to change, then I'm ok with that.

Margaret Ellis:  You rock, Ms. Hollywood.

Hollis Hollywood:  Ditto, Ms. Ellis! You are totally my hero and I love you for doing this!

Photo credits: Hollis Hollywood (left) Ovvio Arte Margaret Ellis (right) self portrait



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