April 12, 2016

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Roc-A-Jets

“Jo Kellum is one of the most audacious people I know. Not the look-at-me audacity of celebrity culture –those who wear meat dresses or overturn tables on TV to grab attention. Kellum is quietly and unapologetically herself.

“Our friendship is, in itself, audacious. Jo is a gay woman in her late 70s, staunchly conservative, a lifelong, blue-collar Baltimorean. I am in my 40s, married, deeply liberal, a first generation American from New Jersey’s upper-middle class suburbs.”

These paragraphs open my series on the Roc-A-Jets, a gay band that got its start in 1950s Baltimore and gave a start to the city’s lesbian scene – before civil rights.
Jo Kellum, Edie Lippincott, and Jan Morrison of the Roc-A-Jets.
I have been working on the series, which will appear at Little Patuxent Review’s editorial blog this month, for over sixth months. Before I started my own research, I heard about Jo and her band when they were profiled on a local public radio station. Their story stuck with me. In addition to the online series, I hope to write a play about the band and the discrimination they faced.

As I was finalizing the story today – tweaking the final paragraphs and going through spell check – I asked myself again, why do I care? What is it about the Roc-A-Jets that hits me in the gut? Why have I developed a friendship with Jo over the last six months?

I find the question impossible to answer. This weekend, my husband and I caught a documentary about the Stonewall Riots on PBS’s American Experience. Jo and her band-mate Carla Mandley old me stories of being targeted by Baltimore’s Vice Squad and beat up by men they refused to dance with, but I hadn’t really understood how deeply ingrained homophobia was in 1950s culture until seeing this documentary.

I was also reminded of one of my favorite students from my brief years teaching high school. He’d been in my English class as a freshman, worked on the school newspaper I advised and was again in my class as a junior – this time, for creative writing.

We were working on short stories. A mean-spirited senior suspected this young man was gay. The senior’s short story was a thinly veiled and mildly homophobic profile of his classmate. I was just twenty-six or twenty-seven years old. What could I do or say to the senior that wouldn’t put my junior at risk? How could I tell this kid to knock it off without confirming that I knew who the story was about – wouldn’t that be like outing a kid I really cared about?

I don’t have a clear memory of what I said. My critique and censure of the older student had to be carefully worded and generic. I could only tell him that homophobia had no place in my class or in a story for my class. He was unabashed, hiding under the label “creative writing.” And he’d been careful, not going so far in his story that it was blatantly cruel.

I guess it’s for kids like my long-ago student that I feel so passionate about the Roc-A-Jets. They stuck with their music and stuck together until Baltimore’s vice squad realized they were good people, not hurting anyone. Eventually, gays began to be seen as people, rather than mentally-ill predators. That process is on-going.

Part one of the series is up for LGBT Pride Month. 

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