-- Sir James Matthew Barrie
I have always taken great pleasure in Peter Pan and the gleeful vitality of his assertion, "Dying must be an awfully big adventure," but I have never reconciled with his creator's naive depiction of faeries. Tinkerbell was little more than a spiteful, petty nuisance -- the fruit of baby's laughter, indeed! -- while the faeries of my childhood fancies were at once dreadful and bedazzling, spawned by age-old fables and the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Brian Stroud. How Barrie, a native-born Scotsman, could have gotten it so wrong, I'll never know. Clearly, Tink was of the mythic fay genus Bluebells, a faerie flora referred to with deference by Barrie's countrymen as "Deadmen's Bells" (since the tinkling of tiny voices always promised certain and mysterious death). But, as she was written, Tinkerbell was without mystery, menace, or delight.
The record would be set straight by a Radical Faerie.
"Tinkerbell was just the wish-fulfillment of an insecure, Christian patriarchy," explains Nestor, a willowy young man with wild sprouts of colorful hair and a shimmering golden frock and scarlet harem pants. "Why else would the demure, sensible English girl with a floor-length nightgown be able to overcome faerie magic? C'mon ... it's completely unrealistic.
"Faeries should never, ever be underestimated. They manifest beauty and light, but they are not afraid to conjure shadows. They are at once a twinkling and a shuddering. You must prepare and rejoice."
The man drops a cloud of glitter over my head and glides through a mysterious gate obscured by an inelegant beer tent and a garish row of commercial vendors that augment the 32nd annual Pride Parade. Following the stream of gold dust trailing from his satchel, I step through the gate, into an arbor of cool green grass shaded by two rows of trees. I recognize this section of U.N. Plaza as the sometime backdrop of the farmers' market and the usual spongy cradle of Civic Center's homeless and addicted, but a remarkable transformation has taken place: Bright ribbons and hammocks hang from the trees, and artwork adorns the high wooden fences that seclude the spot from the rest of the world; small tents and canopies sit amidst colorful picnic blankets that are covered with piles of food and vibrant, feathery finery. And, everywhere, there are faeries (or faerielike humans), some with gossamer skirts and jewel-encrusted shoes, some with wings growing from their shoulders or horns from their heads, some with glitter sparkling across their breasts and sunlight dappling their buttocks. They lounge and eat and sleep and tumble in the grass, as their laughter rises through the tree boughs to mingle with the tentative strains of a harp.
"This is an oasis from that," says Spiraleena, waving a slender arm at the world beyond the fence and turning her attention back to the sparkly green eyebrows she is painting on a fellow faerie curled at her feet. "This is where you find the sparkle."
The Faerie Freedom Village is, indeed, an oasis. Arranged by Nomenus, one of many Radical Faerie tribes, it is, perhaps, the only commercial-free zone in the midst of the highly salable Pride Celebration. There is nothing to buy here; after all, the whole point of the village is to celebrate and nurture art, beauty, and the very faerie way, which is, of course, open to interpretation.
"What you bring to it is what it is," says Hitirus, a wiry, bare-chested man with a satyr's beard, brilliant blue eyebrows, and a long, flowing skirt. "If you ask 10 faeries for a definition, you're going to get 12 answers. But it's something like coming home."
This is the explanation often repeated and actually spelled out on a sign at the gate: "Ask five faeries, and you'll get six answers. You're a faerie if you say you are."
The first Radical Faerie gathering is said to have been called in the late 1970s, by Harry Hay, the unofficial faerie godmother of the modern gay liberation movement and founder of the Mattachine Society. It was an intimate mud bath shared in Arizona. Today, Nomenus collectively owns one of several pieces of land that serve as year-round faerie sanctuaries; there are thousands of faeries worldwide and dozens of faerie gatherings held throughout the country every year, but faerie commonality is as temporal as a will-o'-the-wisp.
"It's an ineffable quality we learn to recognize in each other," says ScooterPie, Nomenus' furry, green-legged, green-horned chief, "and, perhaps more importantly, in ourselves.
"For example, some people might look around the village and just see a bunch of tacky yellow ribbons hanging from the trees and a bunch of naked people rolling in the grass. That's the very nature of faeries. Not everyone can see us."
Beast Will I Am, a large, rosy wizard draped in a cherry-red kimono, saunters by twirling an enormous pink parasol; he tells me about a "reflection station" arranged on a forest path during a full-moon ritual.
"I stood there with mirrors reflecting moonlight and shiny things hanging in the trees. Some people said I was beautiful, others that I was terrifying. But it was just me. They saw what they brought," chuckles Will I Am.
Nearby, Hitirus flops down on his belly and begins to paint strands of ivy on another faerie's inner thigh; Spiraleena's daughter adorns herself with boas and silk scarves; and six sprites with wings the color of dragonflies form a faerie ring around a tree and begin to sing quietly.
"There is a respect for nature among the faeries," says Willow, a wizard-artist wrapped in blue Chinese pajamas and tiny mirrors, "and for ritual. You can choose any form of spirituality you want here. You can honor old cultures while creating your own mythology. It's entirely up to you."
Sandy, a 33-year-old Londoner with purple dreadlocks, silver glitter, leather shorts, and a pink balloon swaying across her bare breasts, leaves her hammock and rejoins the circle of Black Leather Wings, a tribe of faeries that participates in shamanistic body rites, S/M, and sex magic.
"The faeries changed my life," explains Sandy. "There's nothing like getting caned in a swimming pool, on top of a mountain, miles away from everything. And there's so much laughter, so much play, so much frivolity."
"For some faeries, the very process of getting dressed can be a form of ritual," explains Jack Davis (the faerie witch and Weaver of Men, not the dodgy political consultant) in a voluminous satin wedding dress. "Looking fabulous, revealing the inner aspects of your nature, not someone else's manufactured idea, is a very, very faerie thing."
"We are trying to draw power, energy, and money away from the culture of consumption," says Wolfie, a longtime Radical Faerie whose female form is the personification of a water spirit: forest-green dreadlocks, a shimmering blue shirt of fish scales, enormous eyelashes, and a sparkling blue and green beard, "so we can direct those resources into the emerging culture of beauty, balance, and delight. That is a faerie motto. One of them."
"Beauty, balance, and delight, and splendor," echoes Spiraleena as she offers water to a tiny tree frog she found near the portable toilets at sunrise. "I'm going to call it Tinklebell," she says as pink tutus and parasols twirl around her.