Patricia Nell Warren

LGBT History -- Theater Pioneer George Birimisa

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | October 07, 2010 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality
Tags: Beat Generation, gays in the military, George Birimisa, LGBT History Month, off-off-Broadway, Stonewall, World War II

Birimisa: Portraits, Plays, Perversions: The Work of George Birimisa, portraits-plays-perversions.jpgedited by Lanny Baugniet and Paul Sagan (Sweetheart Press, 2009).

Our annual history month always brings out the faction that believes our real history started in 1969 with Stonewall -- that anything pre-Stonewall was a mere warm-up. I'm here to say, "Not so." The oldest artists and activists who are alive today were shading the World War II era (1939-45) with their sexual self-discovery -- especially those men and women who served in uniform. Their wartime discoveries launched a survival-oriented activism that reached through the Fifties and Sixties. As they battled the monstrous anti-gay biases of those bygone times, they lived full-bodied lives of creativity, conflict, and social change.

Among our oldest living pioneers is playwright George Birimisa, one of the first to deal with explicitly homosexual themes in American theater. Now 86, he is still writing, and teaching writing in San Francisco. This anthology -- packed with plays, short works and tributes by associates -- is a good way to get to know his tumultuous life and times.

In the mid-Sixties, Birimisa's early plays -- along with works by Doric Wilson and others -- helped to fuel a history-making reaction against commercial Broadway theater. Even off-Broadway was getting too unadventurous for the avant-garde. One critic dubbed the new thing "off-off-Broadway" and the name stuck. Greenwich Village coffeehouses, churches, clubs, lofts became impromptu performance venues that seated fewer than 100 people (union rules). Growing numbers of Manhattanites crowded in to savor these angry rambunctious experimental plays that tackled forbidden subjects -- from the Vietnam War to homosexuality.

In turn, off-off-Broadway kicked into motion a nationwide gay-theater movement that is still running today.

Walter Winchell's Ice-Cream Cone

George didn't even start writing till he was 41. He was too busy trying to make a living.

Born in 1924, he had a rough Pittsburgh blue-collar childhood as the country plunged into the Great Depression. His father, a Yugoslavian immigrant, was a Communist labor organizer and died after being beaten by cops at a rally. Estranged from his mother after she remarried, George grew up in a Catholic orphanage where he experienced his first gay sex. His public-school education ended at 9th grade.

In 1942, now 17, he joined the Navy -- not to fight for his country but just to get some new clothes. The Navy put the young "gob" (ordinary seaman) aboard the destroyer USS Swanson. While the Swanson was supporting the Allied invasion of North Africa, sailors who fancied George's Slavic good looks were invading his bunk. It was the queer version of On the Town.

When his captain found out what was going on, Birimisa was booted out of the Navy.

After the war, George did what most closet cases of my generation did -- got married. But the marriage didn't last, and George spend the next decade drifting from job to job. His Wikipedia profile lists factory worker, bartender, disc jockey, health club manager, TV network page, even sex worker.

Then, as George tells it in one of his autobiographical stories, he got a life-changing job as soda jerk at a downtown Howard Johnson's.

Birimisa was in his late 30s then, hungry to express something about his secret sex life. Beat-generation figures Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg often ate at his restaurant. Ginsberg had dared to scream his gayness to the world in the notorious poem "Howl." Inspired by the sight of the two famous authors, George signed up for a writing course at the New School for Social Research. Then he started working a novel -- but it was a closet novel, about heterosexuals. He was afraid to write honestly and openly about who he was.

Late one night, 10 minutes after the restaurant closed, famed columnist Walter Winchell and his posse showed up at the locked door and demanded ice-cream cones. Knowing Winchell to be a conservative homophobe, Birimisa refused to open the door and serve them. Furious, Winchell left...and lambasted the restaurant in one of his next columns, calling it "vag-lewd" (newspaper code word for gay).

But Winchell's revenge backfired. The publicity he gave Howard Johnson's prompted the emerging demographic of downtown queer folk to start patronizing that restaurant in visible droves. Business was so brisk that the management apparently didn't object to drag queens, diesel dykes, leather guys. Birimisa's pocket was stuffed with tips. Soon the place was known as "Harriet Johnson's."

"As I watched the scene unfolding night after night," Birimisa wrote later, "I realized that I had created it. I felt so empowered that I abandoned my tedious heterosexual novel and began writing plays -- plays inspired by the real live people I met at the restaurant. Before long I was studying with Uta Hagen [noted actress and acting teacher]. My big break came when my (very gay) play Daddy Violet was produced at the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street."

Birimisa gleefully credits Walter Winchell's ice-cream cone with changing his life. In 1969 he became the first openly gay playwright to receive a Rockefeller Foundation grant. The money funded a London production of his next play Mr. Jello. He was also acting and directing.

While the philistines among theater critics spluttered with outrage and panned his productions, he got raves from people who mattered. Like Tennessee Williams, who saw Birimisa's Georgie Porgie in 1968 and said, "A beautiful courageous play. I loved it!"

"Growing Spiritually"

For 40 years, Birimisa has kept up a steady fire of plays, scripts and short magazine pieces. His output is heavily and unabashedly autobiographical, spiked with the gritty dialogue that is his trademark. His themes run the gamut that is now classic with gay men -- from horny youth to sex addiction, from S & M erotica to bodybuilding. In 1990, at age 66, he was still fit and ripped, and winning bodybuilding competitions against younger men, including the one at the Vancouver Gay Games. Often he returns to the Navy experience to mine it further for literary gold.

I met George not long ago, and he gave me a copy of this book. As I read it, I was moved by how courageously he handles that one theme avoided by so many in our "community" -- old age. In a 2008 interview with White Crane Journal, Birimisa said:

"As a kid, I had no one to trust. I would have been nuts to trust anyone.... [But] I no longer walk around with a sneer on my face. For much of my life, people never talked to me because I looked so mean. A long process and a lot of pain, but I finally got in touch with my feeling and the real, loving George. I believe in a higher power that has order and incredible beauty. I am still growing spiritually at 84."

Of that aging nation whose uniform he once wore, Birimisa is less optimistic. "In the United States," he says, "we live at the edge of a civilization that is near the end of the line."

Now and then, some pundit will cry that "theater is dead." And it's true that Broadway is having a tough time. But today, while changes in reading habits dent the book business, and financing for indie films is hard to get, gay theater is still "growing spiritually" too -- hanging in there across the U.S., from New York to L.A.

Today George has his blog, like everybody else. Sporting that old-school black beret that used to identify a person as "bohemian artist," he helps and inspires younger writers at his Intergeneration Writing Workshops in San Francisco. In 2005 he won the Harry Hay Award as ". . . noted playwright, teacher and cherished inspiration across the generations of the LGBT community."

With his beloved cat Sweetheart superintending his desktop, he was recently working on his 25th play, Hackberry Tree, a Memoir.


Further reading:

This book at

Birimisa's blog

lengthy bio

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I've added George's blog to my RSS reader. Glad to find a new addition by a worthy voice.

I'm sure George will be pleased. Thanks.

Oh, Patricia, thank you so much! ... for bringing George Birimisa to our attention ... and from me, for including a photo of the cover of the book.

The statue of Hercules on the cover is a statue that I have been casually trying to identify for about 25 years. In the early 90's I was in a bookstore in West Hollywood and I found a pair of refrigerator magnets with photos of this statue. It is obviously magnificent and obviously homoerotic, with the vanquished foe down on his haunches and his face just inches from Herculian genitals. The second magnet shows the back side of the statue, and there is no doubt that Hercules has the male dorsal artistic equivalent of the Mona Lisa --- or what gay men sometimes call The Cosmic Ass of Death. This statue's Hercules figure might be the best sculpture of a male derrière in art history.

So ... I'll definitely hunt down a copy of Birimisa's book, so that I can get the cover credit info. And I'll even read a few of George's plays.


Artistic note: The cover photo has been photoshopped so that a red, white, and blue chain is in Hercules' right hand. On the actual sculpture, Hercules is holding a club in his right hand. The club is an iconic image that has been repeatedly associated with Hercules in art tradition.

I apologize if this post is considered by some to be off-topic.

A.J., your comment isn't off-topic as far as I'm concerned. Obviously the image has meaning for the book's publishers, in relation to Birimisa's work.

Good luck finding the book in a local GLBT bookstore, if there's still one near you. If not, there is always Amazon -- and I provide the link to Birimisa's Amazon page.

Wonderful article Patricia...just wonderful.

What a wonderful story. We (our community) is full of rich trailblazers.

I love the stories of those moments when people realize they have strength- and the Walter Winchell story is one of the best.
George's acceptance of reality and his place in it is powerful- and inspiring.
Thanks Patricia for sharing this. This book is now on my list...