Elliott Linwood

(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1993)

Pride Week came early in San Francisco this year to accommodate those with plans for Stonewall 25 and the Gay Games in New York. Shore to shore, there’s been a lot of activity. Take, for instance, last week’s queer cabaret at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts called The Difference is Divine. The line-up for the three-night cabaret included eleven performers who ran the gamut, from solo comedian Marilyn Pittman to odd but well-matched collaborations between artists such as Keith Hennessy and the 931 Cloggers.

Of particular interest, was a collaboration between Wayne Corbitt and Justin Chin. Serious in tone, their work spoke of personal experiences that described intimate features of the gay community, how it digests issues of racial differences within the context of an ongoing political struggle, and how cosmetic reflections are measured against the subculture’s broader potential.

The following discussion with Justin and Wayne reflects more contention than contentment about differences in San Francisco as a gay mecca, but does so in the form of each artist offering a picture of what the queer community could look like.

Elliott Linwood: What are your thoughts about collaborating with each other?

Wayne Corbitt: I like the idea of the physical contrast between us, the ethnic contrast, and that Justin wasn’t white. I liked the fact that they put two colored fags together.

Each of you use a performance style that appears autobiographical, which leads the audience to feel secure in thinking it knows who you are. But then you switch the details to alternate equally believable versions of yourself as a parallel configuration of who you might also be.

Justin Chin: I feel like I have to do that every time because of the horrible tendency toward a big flashing neon sign over my head that reads “authentic gay Asian experience.” My work cannot easily be explained, especially in terms of closure, since that would totally ignore the work by reducing it to the vision of the person who stands in front of the audience. Often the parameters of talking about this work or its meaning stops after people digest their idea of gay Asian. Many of these strategies are used more out of necessity than anything else. But of course, it is also fun to screw around with people’s minds and preconceptions.

WC: It’s important for me not to be invisible. Many prejudices come from people not knowing each other. If you don’t know anybody who is gay or has AIDS, then they can remain at a safe distance. 

This introduces the distinction between authorship and authority. In collaboration, you both close with the chant, “I am one,” not “we are one,” with the authority to speak only for yourself – for all the dynamic and conflicting qualities of yourself – presumably, since no one else has the authority to speak for you.

JC: Of course various people will always see different bits of themselves in this kind of work, either as supportive of themselves or as a negation of who they are. You can always tell when the material hits them. As a performer you can physically see when it occurs.

WC: And our combination has been very, very interesting.

Where do you see your reflection within the gay subculture?

WC: I’m not included in many ways. I don’t have the pecs of death, or the physical image of what is hot. I’m also excluded because of my race. I once said “It’s OK to be Black; but not OK to be too black,” and, in the Black community, “it’s Ok to be gay, just don’t say it out loud.” I do both out of rebellion.

JC: I’ve felt in the Castro most people can only tolerate Asians if they’re giving you your take-out or your laundry. Outside of that, I feel Asians in the Castro try very hard to blend in. So identities form around activities like shopping at Macy’s instead of any ethnic bonds.

Do you find multiculturalism sometimes to be a wind-up toy?

JC: I was a little hedgy that the two most visible persons of color were put together for the show. What did we call it at first?

WC: The divine angry colored fag thing. But I took it as an opportunity to spout off because the gay community in San Francisco is sooooo white, compared to Paris, where I’ve recently been.

JC: Part of my work is trying to find where I fit in, and the answers haven’t always been the greatest. I’ve always believed in alliances by affinity instead of identity or ethnicity. This, however, doesn’t always work either.

WC: I have an antagonism with the Black community because you can’t be an individual beyond a certain point, otherwise, you’re an outcast. The phrase “I am one” in our piece means, I don’t represent anything but me, and here’s list of some of the things I am.

JC: In the context of the month of Stonewall activities, many of us would like to believe in a huge Disneyland of queerness where we can hop from one magic kingdom to the next.

But you are embedded within this wall of activity nonetheless.

JC: Of course.

WC: I don’t want to “dis” the community so much. It’s a whole lot better here than it was where I grew up in Indianapolis. My first parade in San Francisco was like paradise. Even though I have problems with the community, there is no way you could do that [have a gay parade] at high noon on Sunday back there and not get arrested. Nonetheless, if you are a hyphenated or mixed anything, you’ve got a double whammy to cope with.

Do you think in San Francisco you may be preaching to the converted?

WC: No. I think some people are going to be frankly offended by our work. And they ought to be and think about why.

JC: It’s the old “Why can we all just get along” thing.

WC: We are merely claiming our right to be different without whining.

How exactly did your collaboration work?

JC: We began writing about who we were.

WC: As we got into it, I phoned Justin and said my piece was turning out to be about racism within the gay community. Then we arrived with two separate pieces related to this issue and got some scissors and a glue stick and put it together.

JC: It took about two good sessions together, maybe a week to finish. When you begin to understand each other’s differences, the process of working together becomes smooth, swift and powerful.

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Post Script: IN MEMORIAM

Justin Chin, 1969 – 2015

Wayne Corbitt, 1952 – 1997