WHYY celebrates Black History Month with Philly.com by publishing essays for their series Black History Untold: Joy, culminating in a live event at WHYY on Tuesday, Feb. 28. Convening African American community leaders, the program features networking over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, live entertainment, and a panel discussion co-moderated by the Inquirer’s Sofiya Ballin and WHYY’s The Remix host Dr. James Peterson.
Writing has given me joy. It gave me an outlet for my emotions. It organized my thoughts and helped me find my way out of a very dark place. Getting published made me feel equal.
I wanted to study and write about art. I also wanted to write about transgender issues, particularly minority transgender issues. And I needed to get these articles into mainstream newspapers where people who wouldn’t normally be exposed to these issues could think about them.
Being a black transsexual woman, getting articles published was very difficult. Most editors were straight white men who could not care less, and some were openly hostile. Many gay white male editors weren’t much better and thought that a black transsexual writer was incongruous.
When Howie Shapiro was the arts editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I tried for a long time before he would finally let me write for his section. I called him six or seven times him with pitches (these were the days before email), and he kept rejecting them. The last time I called him, I had three pitches. He rejected the first two and then said, “If I’m going to publish something, it’s going to have to be something I haven’t heard of!” That’s where my third pitch came in.
“Have you heard of Killtime?” I asked.
I got him.
Killtime was an anarchist artist compound in a warehouse around 40th and Lancaster. The artists held performances in the space and lived there.
I went to see Killtime perform “The Transformation,” a revolutionary nature/environmental play. The cast and their surroundings reminded me of a hippie commune. The main male performer was acting strangely paranoid. He stole my tape recorder. I had to chase him to get it back. After the performance, when I was interviewing a couple of cast members, artist and activist Kathy Change came up to us with a tray of what I thought was candy. After I popped one in my mouth, I realized I had eaten a sugar cube, and an ancient reference occurred to me.
I asked her, “What was that?”
She smiled wickedly and replied, “Acid.”
I immediately got up to go home. A tall man in the cast apologized and walked me to Market Street. On the way to my old apartment on 15th Street, I got lost in Center City. I grew up in Center City. When I finally got to my apartment that night, I lay on my bed tripping until sometime the next afternoon.
I thought about whether Howie wanted to read that I got dosed with acid at Killtime. I decided it was one of those extraneous details editors are always deleting. I’d already said they reminded me of hippies. I was angry at Kathy Change. A year or two later, she poured gasoline on herself and set herself on fire on the Penn campus.
After I wrote my article, I went to the old Inquirer building to meet with Howie for an edit.
I got something else out of the visit, too. Years earlier I’d had an affair with someone who wrote for the Inquirer. For some reason, when I was young and bohemian, I often went out with conservative Ivy League men. We broke up when he told me he wanted to have sex with me but he was scared to be seen with me. That bothered me for a long time. He later apologized, and we went out one more time, but it didn’t work.
The writer was at his desk in the newsroom that day. He looked shocked when I walked in and sat at Howie’s desk. He covered his face with a newspaper, peeking around the edges at us. That moment made up for the hurt he had caused me.
The day my article was scheduled to run, it was bumped for a convention of Elvis impersonators.
On the day it ran, I went to the Inquirer building at 2 a.m. The presses were still in the same complex in those days, and you could get the paper as soon as it was printed. I walked to Rittenhouse Square and sat on the wall in the middle of the night reading my article.
Cei Bell is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. She is the recipient of the Leeway Foundation 2015 Transformation Award for Literature.