I am heartsick about the passing of Christopher Lee. I was a generation behind him, a firebrand of visual activism. His a life was devoted to bringing images of trans men to light, on celluloid, on digital film, both transcendent and sexually aggressive, no holds barred and so unapologetic.
I don’t want to give you the impression that we were friends. We weren’t. We weren’t because I thought there would be time to get close, forget our common ties, if our paths ever crossed again, third time being the charm and all. I can only give you snapshots of where our lives touched in the last ten years, in Los Angeles mostly, and then San Francisco.
I met him the winter of 2003 through someone had begun dating who unbeknownst to me would bend, twist and break open my world for the better and apocalyptic worst. Let’s call her Sabrina. Christopher and Sabrina were friends—she would tell me, a young brown butch, that he would always try to “daddy” her. Well…what do you mean? I would ask though galaxies away from being ready to deal with the answer. He was older than me, had the San Francisco experience over my lesser Los Angeles sheltered life of La-la-latina lesbianism. It didn’t occur to me in my nascent gender exploratory (yet anchored in essentialism) phase that you could be a Daddy well beyond the bedroom and dungeons.
Christopher was a Virgo—he could Daddy you to throw out shit you weren’t using, like broken vintage lamps, black velvet paintings, gas station jackets and cat-scratched up furniture. At least that’s what he did for Sabrina, who was trying to purge a life with her ex to make room for the hit-and-run romance she was initiating with me. Although no one ever said as much—those days were spent mind-reading, baby butch sulking, and operating in the angriest of silences. She was one of those I-Hate-You-Don’t-Leave-Me macho femmes. I was threatened by Christopher Lee’s friendship because he probably knew her better than I ever could. I mean, how could he not? He’s walked the miles, put in the time, had had his fair share of angry silences. For fuck’s sake, he was a Daddy.
I know this is now a very San Francisco banal way to be, but now as I walk through the Mission, Christopher’s distinction is one of near extinction. Christopher’s passing reflects that shift here. He was one of the dangerous ones.
Throughout my relationship with Sabrina, I would see Christopher whenever he’d come to L.A., usually unannounced, sometimes knocking on her door while we were still in bed (she lived in a building that required being buzzed in) and I visibly annoyed. I was a young turk, Oedipal and Napoleon were my complexes de rigueur in those early to mid-oughts and I squandered the opportunities to get learned from a gender warrior ahead of his time. He was in town for Outfest, as one of the few visible trans filmmakers, he would make the identity political panel circuit impeccably dressed in beautiful hues of eggplant and lavender, exploding categories before our eyes. Even as a young punk, I had to give him that.
I never came correct with Christopher, but that had a lot to do with the social dynamics seemingly predetermined between us. In other words, I had fraught relationships with all of Sabrina’s trans- and butch-identified friends. I’m not proud of these moments enshrouded by my insecurities. But they’re there and I’m making peace with them.
My break-up with Sabrina sent me down a dangerous spiral where I encountered my darker, shadier side. I call the summer of 2009 Break-Up Summer. I was flying to San Francisco, then New York and back to San Francisco away for over three weeks for readings and trying desperately to maintain sobriety. I was doing thirty days in AA because I thought I was an alcoholic. I felt like Robert Downey Jr in Less Than Zero and all I wanted was not a drink but a shot of my ex. I was in withdrawal, a different kind of addict in need of serious soothing. I found an 8pm AA meeting in The Castro. It was after my share as a newcomer that Christopher put his hand on my arm as I sat back down. I turned my head and saw his familiar face. Instead of puffing my chest out, I exhaled a sigh of relief, smiled meekly and squeezed his hand. After the meeting, we went out for a slice of pizza and cans of soda.
Christopher was there for me when I needed someone who had been there before. He listened. Christopher was a good Daddy, after all. I needed him to tell me I was crazy while reassuring me that my crimes were not worth crucifying. It was good to make peace with him, to apologize for being such a baby. He was kind, shrugged it off. We left each other warmer than we’d ever been. But we left with a see ya around.
Sabrina was the break-up that sent me back home to mommy because I could never be a Daddy. Sure, I went home to lick my wounds, but I got closer with Yemaya, too. I thank her on the regular and you should, too. I got reacquainted with the divine maternal and make sure my butch armor isn’t shiny with toxic masculinity day in and day out. Now, I could be there, maybe, cavalierly, vulnerably, for all the Christophers that came before me, to ensure they stay around for the babies, pre-teens and adolescents. It’s hard to tell them apart these days.
In other words, I’m stronger now.
I regret little though wince that I didn’t stay in touch with Christopher. I could feel his pain over late night pizza, but knew I, shaky with my own traumas, couldn’t provide the salve. I hope he is at rest, wherever he may be.
Until we meet again, kind sir.