Saturday, July 29, 2017

* Oh lost ! And by the wind-grieved ghost, come back again. (Thomas Wolfe)

An Invitation That Opened (Some) Minds


·                            A 1989 photo of British actor and author QuentIn Crisp. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

For the Valley News

Saturday, July 29, 2017

That same year, I entered Yale Divinity School, and during that school year, the most famous transvestite in the world gave a one-man show nearby in New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. Quentin Crisp, 71, had turned his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant about his life as a cross-dresser in Britain into an hour and a half monologue of the same title.

It ran for weeks at Long Wharf Theater; I attended the production with another divinity student, Carol Brock (who later became a Unitarian minister), and we both were impressed by Crisp’s wit and articulateness.

We invited him to speak about transvestitism at the divinity school and to our surprise, he accepted. I later learned that one of his guiding principles was, “Never turn down an invitation.”

Brock and I put up posters around the school and on the Yale campus in downtown New Haven, and reserved the auditorium at the divinity school, which had at least 200 seats.

We had no idea if anyone would attend, especially since transvestitism wasn’t exactly a household word then.

The day arrived (I believe it was a 2 p.m. event), and about 30 people showed up.

Zero faculty from the divinity school attended, and most of the students were from other departments.

Surprisingly, to Brock and myself, several faculty from the Yale Department of Psychology attended, which made Crisps’ opening remark, spoken with his British accent, all the more notable.

Let me set the scene. Crisp had white hair dyed purple, as was the fashion of older American women at the time — by intention or through bad hair coloring. His fingernails were painted red and he wore lipsstick and makeup. He wore a black velvet fedora hat and spoke in impeccable, elegant sentences. He said he spoke in “Crisperanto.”

(Note: I have created a blog detailing his appearance at the divinity school and listing many of his quotes:

Here is the first sentence he uttered: “Are we all agreed, then: Psychology was a mistake?”

Like Oscar Wilde before him, he spoke epigrammatically, all the better to imprint his words on others’ minds. Like Wilde, too, he was heretical. When asked questions about God, he said he preferred to refer to him as “You know who,” fostering the impression that no one in truth exactly knows who God is or isn’t, anyway.

This was definitely not what divinity school folk wanted to hear.

Since they had mostly ignored the event and were not in attendance, they got their wish — they did not hear heresy. Their non-attendance was an Ivy-league way of putting their hands over their ears. As religious intellectuals and academics, they were much too polite to protest Crisp’s speech on their campus, but made their feelings clear by their absence.

The faculty from the Psychology Department, on the other hand, did exactly the opposite (despite his opening quip). They made their professional interest in transvestitism clear by their presence at what was certainly a controversial speech.

They were tactful but forthright in asking Crisp questions about what it was like to be a transvestite. They even invited him to participate in future interviews at their department to help them better understand the phenomenon. Adhering to his guiding principle, Crisp accepted their invitation. Forty years later, society is only just beginning to acknowledge the reality of gender fluidity.

Crisp performed his one-man play in New York, where he took up residence in the Hotel Chelsea in one of its famous one-room accommodations, for the next 20 years.

He wrote several books and was a columnist for the Village Voice and other publications. He was still accepting every invitation offered him until he died a month before his 91st birthday in 1999.

I am proud that I had the foresight to invite Crisp to Yale. He told Brock and me that he was surprised by the invitation. He did not think a divinity school would be interested in what he had to say.

It wasn’t.

But maybe psychology wasn’t such a mistake after all.


Paul Keane lives in Hartford.