Gay Writes

Take a lesson from Josephine Baker

By Doug Woodall

When we knew each other for about six months, my friend Brandon told me, “I’ve always needed to be desired.” My initial thought was, OK, that’s interesting. Now that I know Brandon better, I’ve come to the realization his “interesting” declaration is what drives him and gives him purpose. I don’t have the capacity to understand this. Then Brandon was given a gift in his teens. I didn’t get the same gift until I was in my late 20s.

Shortly after we met, Brandon sent me three photos of himself when he was in high school. He’s incredibly beautiful in all the shots, but the one that impresses me the most shows him standing in front of his shiny, 1957 Chev Bel Air. The year is 1977. Brandon is 17. I believe he’s reached his full height or just shy of six feet tall. His body is lean and his muscles are taut. His dishwater-blond hair touches his eyebrows and covers his ears. He’s dressed in a tight-fitting T-shirt and cutoff jeans. I’m sure he cut his jeans. No god-fearing mother would make the cut at the crotch line and leave the edge of the material crooked and ragged.

When I think about how I looked in high school, the first words that come to my mind are, “I was a twink’s twink.” At 17, I probably weighed 120 pounds, and I made sure my skin-and-bones body was fully dressed at all times.

Today Brandon is 54 and he’s still beautiful. He works out regularly and purposely keeps his weight under 160 pounds. His shoulders are broad and his waist is tight. But when he looks in the mirror, he sees wrinkles forming around his eyes and mouth. He knows they’re going to get worse, and he anticipates wrinkles will spread across his entire body until he’s so ugly no one will want him.

When Brandon cries to me about losing his looks, I want to shout, “REALLY! ARE YOU FULL OF SHIT, OR WHAT? YOU REALLY CAN’T COME UP WITH ANOTHER REASON TO LIVE!” I’ve never said these words to him, but I have told him to take a lesson from Josephine Baker.

Josephine was born June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Because she was black and her parents were dirt poor, she was destined to live in poverty her entire life. As a child, she started working by tending children and cleaning house for white women. She was always told, “Don’t kiss the baby.” When she turned 13, she left school and started living on the streets. That same year she got married for the first time. She was 15 when she got married for the second time.

Josephine loved to dance. When she was a girl, she made her friends watch her. When she lived on the streets, she danced at street corners for pocket change. When she was 15, she was recruited for a St. Louis vaudeville show. Four years later, October 2, 1925 to be exact, she stepped onto the Theatre des Champs-Elysees stage in Paris with her partner Joe Alex. No one in Europe had ever seen such a daring costume for a woman or such an exotic dance for a couple. Then Josephine had the most incredible skin. She was the color or rich toffee.

Josephine became a sensation throughout Europe, she made a modest fortune, fast, and she had wealthy admirers who gave her clothes, furs, jewels, cars and exotic pets. One of her admirers, and most likely one of her lovers, was the King of Sweden.

When Germany occupied France starting in 1940, Josephine was barred from the stage. Because this is what she lived for, she probably suffered her greatest loss. But she didn’t languish; she filled the void. First, she helped the French Resistance by carrying documents across the borders of Portugal and Spain in her music. Next she spent time in North Africa where she helped Jews who were trying to escape Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s, she joined the civil rights movement in the U.S. Around the same time, this was when she was in her 40s, she started adopting orphans from different countries around the world. She was mother to 12 children, and they were black and brown, yellow and white. They came from Christian and Muslim countries, Hindu and Buddhist countries. She called them The Rainbow Tribe.

When I think of Brandon’s need to be desired, I’m glad I was a twink’s twink in my teens and didn’t get the body Brandon had at 17 until I was 28. Brandon’s defining purpose in life is too narrow, and it was doomed to fail the day it took root in his mind. Then it’s based on a false premise: When he’s old, no one in the entire world will desire him. Here Brandon could take one more lesson from Josephine Baker. On April 8, 1975 at age 68, Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were there, and she received her best reviews, ever.

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