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Tales of Times Square: Sessums on the City Pride Month reflections by celebrated author and journalist Kevin Sessums
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, we asked Kevin Sessums — former Executive Editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview, Contributing Editor at Tina Brown and Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair, theater critic at Towelroad.com, author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs Mississippi Sissy and I Left It On the Mountain, and current editor-in-chief of sessumsmagazine.com , an online magazine of culture, conversation and current events — to reflect on his intersections with Times Square, LGBT history, and the theater over the years, drawing on his life and work. We will share these installments, prepared throughout the month, during the week leading up to World Pride on June 30.
A TIMES SQUARE CHRISTMAS
by Kevin Sessums
Throughout this week, I have talked about the importance of mentorship. Nathan Lane remembered the mentorship of George C. Scott. The late Brian Bedford, in an interview I did with him back in 2011, talked about the special relationship he had with his gay mentor John Gielgud. My first gay mentor in New York after I arrived here in 1975 was Henry Geldzahler, who had left his job as Curator of 20th Century Art for the Metropolitan Museum to become Mayor Ed Koch’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. In fact, my first Christmas Eve I ever spent in New York was spent with Henry all around Times Square.
But first some background. When I was growing up in Mississippi and writing book reports on Valley of the Dolls (see June 28's post), I hated my lips. I was teased on the school bus mercilessly for having "n-word lips," although back in Mississippi in the 1960s the real term was used instead of "n-word." The nickname stuck and I was often called it when I wasn't being labeled a sissy. I remember sitting on that school bus as a seven-yearold sissy and wondering if there were a surgical procedure for making my lips smaller as I had heard on television that one could get a nose job.
It wasn't until I moved my sissy self to New York City when I was 19 that I realized that my lips were actually one of my best features. It had never dawned on me before. That first Christmas Eve ever spent away from home was spent with Henry Geldzahler in Times Square. He took me to Sardi's for a Christmas Eve dinner and then to see Harold Pinter's Betrayal on Broadway starring Blythe Danner and Raul Julia and Roy Scheider. After the play, we went to a dive gay bar on Eighth Avenue and as a bunch of drag queens burst into the place singing Christmas carols the bartender leaned over to me and asked, "What did you get for Christmas, honey? Lips?" That night all around Times Square was one of the best Christmas Eves ever.
That's what New York City means to me. That was the true gift the city gave me and was the reason it became my first true home as it still does for so many others as each new generation of gay kids arrives: It is the place where we learn that what we thought were the things we should be ashamed of about ourselves are actually the things that make us special and should be celebrated. Lips were the least of it, but they were a start.
So, as I end this week of posts as we end Pride Month, I remember Henry. And kindness.