-- Han Suyin
On Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 1953, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon laced their hearts together and prayed their fates would follow. It didn't seem likely. Beyond facing the common ordeals of a young couple with predictably human shortfalls, Martin and Lyon had to overcome the foibles of an era. In the early 1950s, homophobia didn't exist yet, at least not in language, but its consequence was rife: People like Martin and Lyon, choosing to love and cherish one another, were considered mentally unstable and criminal. And yet, here they are 50 years later, still together, sitting at the Castro Theatre with fingers intertwined, watching their story unfold at the premiere of No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. This scene is strange and delightful to me, not because Martin and Lyon founded Daughters of Bilitis, the first public organization for lesbians in America, back in 1955; not because they witnessed the decriminalization of their devotion and the nationwide advancement of civil rights as a direct result of their activism; not even because they remember when their Noe Valley home was so far off the beaten path that the sound of an automobile was reason enough to leap up from the breakfast table. No, their presence is strange and delightful because they are the physical embodiment of true love, something I had once dismissed as a myth propagated by the U.S. Treasury to create an emptiness and stimulate spending.
Now, I am not a cynic by nature, but neither am I a fool, and having been spared the rigmarole of major media in early life, I was given an opportunity to draw my own conclusions about romantic love -- conclusions that, for better or worse, were informed by observations and, later, verified by an unhealthy appreciation for Russian literature. By the time I was old enough to ask questions, my great-great-grandmother was a feathery wisp of the woman who once left her family to smoke tobacco and dance in the local speak-easies; my great-grandmother had forsworn romantic love and built a house on an inhospitable mountaintop circled by buzzards; my grandmother was on husband No. 3 and marriage No. 4; and my mother was finding herself. In my own family, as in Russian novels, I quickly realized that beauty, art, adventure, and merriment were best realized when those seeking it were thwarted by love or resigned to solitude. It would have all been so much easier if we had known about the quirkyalone.
According to To-Do List -- the local magazine that, along with Utne Reader, published an article by List Editor Sasha Cagen proposing the nomenclature -- the quirkyalone are a rare breed that resists "the tyranny of coupledom in favor of independent self-expression." Such a person usually displays a talent for self-reflection, creates and maintains chosen families of friends, and recognizes the failings of an approach to life that prescribes happiness through romance, all the while remaining willing-hearted for great love (which most quirkyalones have experienced at least once in their lives). Of course, Cagen knew she would not be all by herself.
Squeezing through the door of the Atlas Cafe, a longtime haven for the sort of idiosyncratic character who might be drawn to International Quirkyalone Day, I am greeted by a very small dog in a neck warmer. According to the multiple-choice name tag/questionnaire adorning his collar, Shorty is warm and fuzzy behind his mask; he believes in living free and wild; and chooses, for his write-in answer, "Barking and Shitting" as the title of his own reality show. Scanning the name tags affixed to the fronts of all in the standing-room crowd, I am not surprised to find the belief in living free outranks the belief in God and the belief in booze, combined. I am somewhat surprised, however, to find the whole gang laughing and mingling amiably, that is until I read the "movement propaganda" Cagen has prepared for the evening. On the back cover of the pamphlet, under a picture of Emily Dickinson, To-Do List explains that, while the poet was quirky and alone, she was not quirkyalone. "We are sociable people," states the program. This is a distinction that will be made tonight at quirkyalone gatherings elsewhere in the world.
There's no denying their sociability. Folks move about the room, sharing seats, sharing laps, making valentines for themselves, doodling in notebooks, reading over each other's shoulders, offering each other peer counseling at the "advice table," reading name tags, and asking questions of strangers to determine if the famous person on the back of their shirt is, or is not, quirkyalone. Katharine Hepburn (yes) pushes past Morrissey (yes) on the way to the bathroom, and pauses to read a quote from bell hooks written on the wall about people who deny true love and cling to that assumption because, if faced with the truth of its absence, they will be engulfed by despair. This is a sentiment believed but made beautiful by the patron saint of quirkyalone, Rainer Maria Rilke. As Rilke's quotes on solitude are recited over the microphone, Virginia Woolf (no), William S. Burroughs (no), and Pee-wee Herman (probably) flounce over to Sarah Bernhardt (most definitely), who sits at the "Alone-Time Table." Interestingly, they are not rebuked.
""One can acquire everything in solitude -- except character,'" says 28-year old Josef Garrett, quoting a French novelist. According to Garrett's label, he is a "quirkyslut," defined as one who maintains an elevated standard for romantic relationships, but becomes more flexible for Saturday night encounters. He is not, he maintains, cruising.
"This is a celebration of independence," says Garrett. "I don't need to hook up to have fun. But if I were with someone, I'd still be quirkyalone." This state is described by Cagen as "quirkytogether."
"I would like to have a monogamous love affair with another single, quirky person," explains 32-year-old Natalie Simpson, a yoga instructor from Hawaii with a wild, braying laugh and a penchant for "cutting stuff up and putting it back together again."
In this town, it shouldn't be too tall a request.
Nancy Brunn and Donna Atkins, the 24th pair to register as domestic partners at the Our Family Coalition and SF LGBT Community Center's annual Valentine's Night Out, exit the "Love Chapel" carrying binding legal documents, a "wedding" Polaroid, and a rose.
"Here comes the happy couple," says Our Family co-chair Andrew Eldritch.
"That will be short-lived," chortles Jon Logan. "It's been 18 years," he confides, "18 long, lonely, pathetic years."
"It's been 18 wonderful, blissful years," corrects Logan's partner, Kevin Woodward. "Don't listen to him."
"To think we couldn't imagine our lives getting any better, then we decided to have children," continues Logan, proudly pulling pictures of their children from his wallet. "Now we don't have any time to talk to each other. It's perfect."
Nine-and-a-half-year-old Lily Woodward-Logan and 8 1/2-year-old Edward Woodward-Logan share no blood, but are unmistakably siblings.
"We wanted them to look alike," says Logan. "You know, like buying art to match the sofa."
Woodward rolls his eyes and shakes his head. "Don't listen to him."
"No, really," says Logan, becoming suddenly serious, looking at the photos as he slips them back in his wallet. "We were in the room when Lily was born. Watching those kids grow up. ... There's nothing like it in the world. I don't have the words. ...
"I'm a soccer coach," finishes Logan quietly, slipping his arm around Woodward.
"I'd be a soccer mom," says Woodward, "but Jon sold my minivan."
Woodward and Logan smile as the rest of the newly partnered couples head downstairs to the "Love Lounge" for wedding cake and a kiss-in.
"If we were having a kiss-in in Kansas City, the participants would be a guy and his dog," says hostess Donna Sachet. "Here in this city, we are not only free to do this, we are celebrated and recognized for the love and caring we offer each other. C'mon, kiss your partners."
Comedian RJ Pupkin, dressed in leather chaps and a tuxedo shirt topped by a red bow tie, heads to the dance floor, followed by his very pretty partner, Juan Perez Ventura, dressed in a micromini schoolgirl's skirt, long black braids, and a red beret. They waste no time. Slowly, timidly, the other couples -- some together for a decade, some for a single school semester -- rise and embrace, all of them hoping their fate will follow their hearts as it did for Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. You just never can tell. Looking at them, I wonder who will wind up quirkytogether like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and who will sink into a mire of coupledom like, say, Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie. Taking a bite of wedding cake, I count my blessings and wish them well.