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Is Utopia a Dyke Bar in Tucson?

The question 'what is a community' or 'what is a community identity' is one that plagues me -- I would even suggest that it plagues us all.

Issue #19, March 1995

I just spent the weekend with the Grateful Dead — my chosen community for going on twenty years — and my connection to that community is drawing to a close; it has, in fact, been in the process of coming to a close for a couple of years now. The problem, of course, is that so much of my identity is tied up with being a 'Deadhead' (particularly being a Deadhead who shocks people by telling them that she is one) that my divorce from the Dead community causes me to feel out of touch with myself — I am in the process of transforming my identity so to speak — and the process of change is painful and uncertain. As with any divorce, I find myself wondering who gets to keep the friends.

Community starts with a common language and grows from there. There have been subsets (remember new math? all those circles that overlapped?) of my life that have meshed with the Grateful Dead experience for me: there are queer deadheads, for example, and sober ones known as Wharf Rats. It's nice when communities and identities overlap; my favorite times in the Dead community (or any other community for that matter) have been times that include discovering there were sober queer deadheads besides me that I could be in touch with, at least at shows. (We rarely got together outside of shows. Funny that, since all of my nature and hiking buddies are deadheads and we 'do Yosemite' and the Santa Cruz Mountains together, among other things.)

A few years back, I was a member of the wedding of a biker friend and had another such experience of communities overlapping: I was best man for another sober biker whom I had met in a drug rehabilitation facility. His bride was someone I had had a crush on for quite some time. The only request the two of them had for me was that my toast offend the bride's father, which seemed easy: he is a redneck rancher from eastern Oregon. I introduced myself as a clean and sober lesbian hippie deadhead intellectual who cared about the environment. (Had them heading for the hills immediately.) I suggested that all I had learned about unconditional love, community and family I had in fact learned from the couple getting married — believe me, by then the father had left the room — and was struck by the fact that there are so few places where I can be exactly who I am without apology. Perhaps that's why leaving the Grateful Dead scene has been so drawn out and painful for me.

This is a rather long-winded introduction to a simple, albeit to me, meandering subject: transformational identities and what makes a community. The question 'what is a community' or 'what is a community identity' is one that plagues me — I would even suggest that it plagues us all. That my grandparents found their community through the synagogue (and so did I ... for years I even wanted to be a rabbi!), my parents found their community through their work (academics), and now I find my community through 'Places of Interest to Women,' the Grateful Dead and an AA meeting directory, is an incredibly interesting trajectory to me. The question becomes, what exactly constitutes community? What is it about life that makes possible the transitions that my family (to use one microcosm) went through? And what is it that creates a situation where one person can see utopia in what another person does to find friends, and yet can't seem to see utopia in what they themselves do to find friends?

And all of this non-linear thinking has me wondering other things too. When I was a kid, Pope Paul (what was his number anyway?) absolved the Jews of killing Jesus and oversaw Vatican II. He's known as this really progressive guy — you know, the one who said nuns could wear short dresses and go to school without veils !! — but my memory of him will be forever tinged by the immortal words of my mother: 'He screwed up by allowing Vatican II to remove the Latin Mass from the liturgy.' Interesting words for a Jewish child of a holocaust family to share with her daughter; the man who finally absolved us of the greatest crime in the western world screwed up?

The difference between the reasons my mother gave for disliking Vatican II and the reasons others gave is simple. Most people thought that removing Latin removed the mystery and the wonder from the ritual, a diminishment which would somehow dilute the Church; my mother thought it removed the sense of community. And speaking as someone who grew up speaking Hebrew and hearing Yiddish, I can tell you that the foreignness of language only provides mystery as long as ignorance of the language is the rule; understanding of the language removes the mystery from the ritual (as soon as I knew the meaning of what I was saying in that prayer, for example, I got suspicious and skeptical: thank God for not making me a WHAT?). But the international community created by my knowledge of those two languages is one that I still have. I can go anywhere in the world and if there is a Jewish community to be found, I can find someone who speaks a language that I know; and a common language, whether Hebrew, Latin, music or sexual orientation, is the start of community.

This thought process all began for me following my initial and subsequent viewings of the recent joint venture film starring Mary Louise Parker (a personal favorite of mine) and Whoopi Goldberg (the movie upon which I loosely base the title of this piece).

When I left the movie theater after seeing Boys on the Sidefor the first time, I wasn't sure that I had just seen more than a movie that I liked; in other words, I had enjoyed the movie, but I wasn't sure it was a great film. (It's not.) It did, however, have a great soundtrack and was at least nominally about women; I was easily convinced to return and see it again.

After our second viewing, the friend with whom I saw it suggested that the movie had a utopian vision: Tucson as this place of incredible community and diversity. He (a straight man) said to me that he thought Tucson was represented as utopian. 'After all, they hadn't been in town very long and look at the community they had after only three months.' I thought the 'instant' community referred to the experience of Whoopi's character when she found the dyke bar; and while Tucson is, in fact, a city of amazing diversity, the gay community — there like anywhere else — is simple to find if you know where to look, and only a real community — like any other community is a real community — once you've been there a while.

Concurrent with my own recent identity crisis, I have been having fantasies about Montana, the kind of fantasies where if I could just move there, everything would be great. In recovery parlance, this kind of fantasy is called a 'geographic.' Geographics are, I think, a typically American response to troubled times, and I think they are related to community identity in interesting ways.

Why Montana? Well, because it's beautiful. There are lots of rivers there and rivers mean there is also lots of water, both to swim and fish in, and rivers also mean there are rapids to run; there are legitimate (Rocky) mountains to climb and ski and prairies to hike in and camp around; there are still grizzly bears to be found there in and around Glacier National Park, which is one of the most spectacularly gorgeous places on earth. It's the last American frontier (well, yes, there is Alaska, but that's up there, not down here). Finally, and most importantly for me right now, there are only 800,000 people there, which for someone who is currently residing in California (a state only slightly larger than Montana), with a population of 30 million people, the lack of human habitation alone is enough to create in me a sense of awe and wonder.

Perhaps I've been reading too many books by Jim Harrison and Norman Maclean, or studying too much American landscape painting; but Montana has become the place where I go inside my head to find Utopia. Never mind that I also know that most of Montana is also homophobic, anti-semitic and anti-feminist; part of the function of imagining utopia in my life is that the imagination is what wins out over the reality. And as long as part of what I imagine can be documented (there are, in fact, still grizzly bears in Montana), the power of the utopian vision remains intact.

The movie Boys on the Side uses Tucson the way my mind uses the natural facts of Montana. Tucson really is a place where a culturally diverse community is available. It is a city that has the feel of not quite having been tamed by western [white] civilization. Compared to Phoenix, which feels to me like a desert hell on earth, Tucson behaves as if the white man is merely an afterthought; if we'd just leave, she'd go back to being what she was in the first place.

Boys on the Side encourages us to see Tucson as utopian precisely because the community is just waiting there; it is a fantasy come to life. The most enticing part about this particular community is that it is not the one that our parents and grandparents encouraged us to find: no Church or school here, and while there are kids, there's no indication of a marriage. This community includes a gay bar, a psychic, and a band of merry musicians instead of a Priest, Rabbi or teacher. The cop is a good old boy and even the parental units we meet are atypical: Robin's mother is a single mother and her boyfriend is never clearly said to be her husband; Jane's friend from the bar has kids, but there is no father in sight.

Having this community based in Tucson lends it an air of authenticity that would simply feel made up in any other town. Just like my grizzly bears and rivers lend my fantasies about Montana authenticity.

The real trick, of course, is in realizing that community is only truly available if we work at it, which generally means staying put: as Jane says roughly half way through the movie: 'if you don't know where you're going, maybe you're better off staying where you are.'

Finding an oasis in the desert is what Boys on the Side offers; staying put and working at it is what creates the utopia we all sought when we headed for the oasis in the first place.

Cynthia Hoffman is a sometime graduate student in the English Department at U.C. Berkeley and even when she's going through an identity crisis, she can be counted on to answer her e-mail. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2001 by Cynthia Hoffman. All rights reserved.