Lessons from a city 'King'
by Zak Szymanski
In a crowded auditorium last month, grandfathers in tweed coats sat next to men in leather chaps to watch "Call of the Wild Child," the annual performance featuring the kids of the Children's After School Arts program (CASA), directed by CASA teacher Leslie Einhorn.
On stage, dozens of Rooftop Elementary School students acted, sang, and danced while they learned lessons of self-acceptance and respect from the "animals" of the "urban jungle." In the audience, suit-clad parents beamed and clapped for their little ones' solo lines, while a motley crew of tattooed queers cheered loudly for the rock and roll guitar riffs.
It was the perfect picture of Einhorn's contrasting--and complementary--worlds.
Not more than two weeks later Einhorn stood in a roomful of professional women – many of them heterosexual – and instructed them, as part of a "drag king workshop," to walk as if their bulging zippers were the center of their existence.
"You should always have that pelvic lead. It should be the first thing to enter the room," she said in reference to the silicone pants-stuffers donated by Vixen Creations to the class.
"Mine's lopsided," one woman announced, and the presumably well-behaved adults broke out into guffaws.
Successfully nurturing these "only in San Francisco" moments is Einhorn's job. It's a balance that not many people could strike so appropriately or professionally, but Einhorn – a.k.a. "Arty Fishal," a San Francisco Drag King Contest titleholder – has for more than a decade been using her performance background and diverse community ties to build bridges, encourage self-expression, and ultimately, enhance others' self-esteem.
At CASA – the children's theater group she started working at in 1993 and took over in 1997 – Einhorn is responsible for helping her kindergarten through fifth grade students write, produce, and star in their own musical, with an emphasis on celebrating the people they are and are becoming.
"The CASA musicals always have some kind of message of respect, individuality, and expression, because I feel like that's so crucial to working with kids and especially doing art with kids," she said.
Einhorn also launched a new program for sixth graders this year, and she plans to open a commercial space for a middle school and high school arts drop-in center that will include a special outreach to queer students.
"There are really limited resources for middle and high school students," she said, noting that part of the problem is that the age group is no longer eligible for school-funded transportation and must instead rely on Muni to get to and from their activities. "It's a time when I feel like they really need social intervention."
At her drag king workshops for organizations like Women's Will, the all-female Shakespeare company, Einhorn teaches women not only how to play male characters but to tap into some of the fierce, unapologetically strong energy of their youth that many of them have gradually learned to let go.
The women, who often are not immersed in gender-savvy queer cultures, "say the best things," said Einhorn, pointing to a blackboard upon which her Women's Will students listed their early "masculine" experiences in childhood as feeling "fearless," "defiant," and "entitled."
Einhorn, 35, has always had the theater and performance bug. "I was one of those little girls who dreamed of being a movie star," she acknowledged of her Midwestern upbringing. Yet something just didn't click about the Hollywood roles in which she was supposed to imagine herself – a submissive female or someone unable to be sexy and respectable at once.
Similar conflicts existed around her sexuality; though she sensed she was a lesbian all through college, the androgynous role models at her very liberal campuses of Antioch (in Ohio) and Sarah Lawrence (in New York) did not reflect her strong feminine identity. Surrounded by lesbians she could not relate to, she wound up continuing to date men, eventually moving to San Francisco with her boyfriend in 1992.
"I really got myself as this sort of 'femme fatale' character with men," she said. "I just couldn't figure out how that would translate to women."
San Francisco, however, was teeming with models for her own desires.
"The very first butch woman that I met, I had a really uncomfortable crush on," she said.
Although Einhorn's boyfriend was supportive of her need to come out, she was still in a relationship and living with him when she began spending time with a lesbian she liked.
"It turns out, she thought we were dating. We would take long walks on the beach together. Then I would return home to my boyfriend," laughed Einhorn. "There was sand in the sheets."
As she was "on the edge of coming out" she decided to sublet an apartment on the East Coast one summer, where more things began to fall into place. At a softball game in Northampton, Massachusetts, a teammate commented on her long nails and remarked, "There needs to be more femmes around here." It was one of the first time Einhorn remembers hearing her own gender identity reflected back to her.
"For all the ways that labels can really be oppressive," said Einhorn, "it was so helpful for me to have words for how I felt."
Then, at a nightclub in New York, she befriended the famous drag king Mo B. Dick, who later initiated Einhorn into drag culture, and then, her first lesbian experience. Although it was not destined for the pair – Mo B. Dick, it turns out, was also a feminine woman and not Einhorn's type in real life – Einhorn was invigorated by the experience and returned to San Francisco to become actively involved in the drag performance scene and butch-femme dyke culture.
"I really found the community that I loved," she said.
This year's Pride parade theme of "Commemorate, Educate, Liberate, Celebrate" rings particularly true for Einhorn, who grew up as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and had to learn, through her own liberation, how to be open about who she is.
"My grandmother used to tell me stories about being on trains with Nazi soldiers and wearing a veil to hide her Jewish face. When her family came to America they changed their name and were used to hiding their identity. That's how she felt she had to be, in order to survive," Einhorn said. "She can accept that I'm gay but doesn't want to broadcast it ... and gets upset if she thinks that everyone will know."
By contrast, she said, her mother refused to hide her Jewish identity, and recognized the importance of Einhorn having visibility as the only Jewish student the public schools of her Indiana hometown.
"She called me last weekend to apologize because she couldn't go to Indianapolis Gay Pride. She really gets how important it is to be free and be proud," Einhorn said of her mother, adding, "That's something I take into my work with the kids, and it's woven into every play. I want each child to have freedom to express themselves, and I feel like they really get it."
Performing gender in an often-sexualized community has posed some interesting dilemmas as a person who works with children.
In 1999, a television show filmed a segment on a drag workshop she conducted at Good Vibrations, and she had to convene a meeting with her students' predominately heterosexual parents to disclose her "double life." At first the room was silent. Then one parent said, "I think it's great!" and the room began to applaud.
The entire staff at CASA has traditionally been queer, but Einhorn just hired a straight person "for diversity," she said. For the most part, teachers' sexualities are "a non-issue," and there are some gay parents, "but it's not like I'm super-out with the kids," she said, remembering how in her own childhood, it was "freaky" to imagine her teachers sexualized, yet fine for them to have husbands and wives.
Now that she is in a long-term relationship (with musician Jen Gandy of the band The Mighty Slim Pickins, formerly of Flatcracker), Einhorn said she believes she will start to share more about her life in the context of a committed relationship. The stability of that relationship also has enhanced her sense of gay Pride and liberation, she said.
"In the past it has been really fun and liberating to celebrate the gay high holidays single and cruising, and now it's amazing to celebrate with a girlfriend who makes me feel truly proud and free," said Einhorn. "We're entering a whole new gay era, as we start to let go of our rock-and-roll lifestyles and welcome something sweeter, slower and more intentional. I wake up every morning feeling happy and lucky to share a home and a life with her. I've never been happier to be queer!"