It’s very exciting to hear that the University of East Anglia in Norwich are hosting a screening of the wonderful 2002 documentary ‘The Cockettes’ alongside an introduction and Q&A with it’s co-director David Weissman. The film uses historic material alongside contemporary interviews with the surviving Cockettes to tell the story, and legacy, of this outrageous and idiosyncratic troupe of revolutionary transvestite performers and activists.
Their late night performances in San Francisco midnight movie theatres were drug-fuelled drag pantomimes of Hollywood Serials, B-Movies and Musicals, which prefigured (and out-did) the Rocky Horror Show; their films mobilised drag as a tool for political subversion, in a manner that was embraced and absorbed by the east coast ‘Dreamlanders’ Divine and John Waters whom the Cockettes gave both inspiration and support; the Kailflower commune they grew out of and the Free Press which operated alongside and to promote the Cockettes (and allied groups such as the Angels of Light) ran Free Food and social activist agendas comparable to the Black Panthers’ community programmes only with a healthy dose of LSD tinged neo-Situationism. If that sounds like a heady 60s/70s brew, you’re beginning to get the idea.
All the key players in the Cockettes – Hibiscus, Sylvester, Pam Tent, John Rothermel, Link Martin, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Irving Rosenthal, Rumi Missabu, Divine, Bambi Lake, Tomata du Plenty, Miss Harlow, Pristine Condition and others too numerous to mention, pop up as key footnotes in multiple countercultural movements over the following 50 years from hippies through Disco, Punk and Electro, the gay-rights and trans-rights movements, to Neo-burlesque and the new cabaret, while everyone who was anyone in the late 60s and early 70s wanted to be associated – or to distance themselves from – these lynch pins of the SF Haight Ashberry scene.