by Chuck Colbert
Norm Kent, the publisher of South Florida Gay News (SFGN), went all out with the weekly newspaper’s coverage of the recent passing of Joan Rivers. Her picture ran the full page on the front cover of the newspaper’s Fall Arts and Entertainment Guide on September 10 under the tag line, “Can we talk?”
|SFGN’s front-page photo showcasing
Joan Rivers’ final LGBT media interview
SFGN also published her last LGBT interview, one that Rivers gave days before entering the hospital. And Kent’s editorial left no stone unturned in assessing Rivers’ iconic significance in the LGBT community.
“Joan Rivers was a female Liberace,” he wrote. “She exuded opulence and arrogance with an unrelenting flair and fancy.” ‘Can we talk’ was the Joan Rivers prelude to speaking the truth. She was saying, ‘Get ready, I am not holding back.’ It’s a trait you should have as a gay person. Be who you are. Don’t apologize for marrying who you want, even that ugly hairy frog holding your hand right now. Hey, he’s your frog.
“The gay community loved Joan Rivers, and she loved us back. She joked about all our common themes, from aging to sex, from glamor to glitz. If she had just passed away of cardiac arrest at the age of 81, we simply would have said she lived a great life. We are shocked at her passing because there is something ironic about a woman who seemingly went for extensive and painful plastic surgeries every six months dying during a routine 30-minute endoscopy. It was like hearing astronaut John Glenn slipped and cracked his head in a shower.
“A simple comedienne with the ability to make us laugh incessantly, she made our news section last month by joking that President Obama was gay and his wife Michele transgender. Friends with Prince Charles, she performed for our own queens in South Beach and real ones in London on the world stage.”
Here is a brief excerpt from SFGN staffer Michael Cook’s interview with Rivers, her last one with an LGBT media outlet.
Cook: There is just something about you and the gay men, who just absolutely adore you! What do you think makes the gay men love your shows so much?
Rivers: As long as I have at least six gay men in the front row, you’re gonna have a good show. They are the best audience in the world. I don’t know why really. I started with them in the Village [in New York City] and they’ve always been so much a part of my life, with my friends. The humor is right there and they are the ones that you can make the joke with. I find that fascinating.
Cook: I can’t speak for all of us, but most gay men I know love you for your honesty and your openness.
Rivers: Oh vice versa definitely. I always make sure I wear good shoes too. The audience looks up.
Sure enough, other LGBT media outlets covered Joan Rivers’ September 4 passing.
|A Frontiers front-page from 1984
In Southern California, Frontiers “covered Joan Rivers’ unexpected tragic death as breaking news with an obituary and followed up with reaction, the controversial reports about how she died, her funeral and various remembrances,” said news editor Karen Ocamb. “Rivers had a huge gay following in Los Angeles, from drag queens imitating her for years during West Hollywood’s huge Halloween party to people appreciating her early public support for people with HIV/AIDS, including a Frontiers cover in 1984 promoting an AIDS fundraiser.”
For Ocamb there was also a personal connection. “I met Joan Rivers and her husband Edgar Rosenberg in the mid-1980s through a close mutual friend. I was taken by how smart and what a voracious reader she was. It seemed to contradict her raunchy, simplistic comedy act. But I didn’t know just how complicated she was until after Edgar committed suicide. We were sitting shiva at her home in Bel Air when she quipped to her friends Vincent Price and Roddy McDowell about how angry she was at Edgar, then collapsed briefly into their arms, only to spring up a second later as if she had no time to be weak, especially with Melissa upstairs fuming, blaming her mother for her father’s death. Some of this would play out later in one of their reality shows — but in that moment it was an insight into how so many comics create humor out of pain. I remembered that every time I gagged at one of her over-the-top jokes.”
In Chicago, Windy City Times ran an opinion piece, by the Rev. Irene Monroe, noting that Rivers’ “style of humor and feminism made her an icon. Rivers’ time, energy, contribution, action and love for the LGBTQ community made her a hero. The self-proclaimed ‘Queen of the Gays’ thanked us every chance she got.”
Monroe also recalled Rivers’ support for same-sex marriage. “In the fight to legalize marriage equality in New York State, Rivers offered her celebrity endorsement, stating, ‘All New Yorkers believe in fairness, that’s why we should support marriage equality. For goodness sakes, come on guys.’ And when New York State legalized same-sex nuptials, Rivers, as an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, officiated a gay couple’s wedding atop the Empire State Building in 2013.”
In a piece for New York’s Gay City News, David Noh reminded readers of Rivers’ pioneering role for women in comedy.
“Offensive to some, adored by many, there is no denying that she broke ground in the stand-up comedy field, traditionally a boys’ club, where her indefatigable drive, professionalism and comic chops gained her the respect of everyone in the business,” he wrote. “In later years, she was looked up to as a true pioneer by younger funny women including Rosie O’Donnell, Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman.”
And in San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter, Victoria A. Brownworth provided more details of Rivers’ early support for people living with AIDS.
“In the 1980s, Rivers would be one of the first celebrities to speak out for people with AIDS, and to support efforts on their behalf,” Brownworth wrote. “She saved lives in the years when no one would touch a PWA, let alone help them, by supporting the founding of an agency that provided meals for people with AIDS in New York City, God’s Love We Deliver. Rivers volunteered for the agency for more than 25 years, and had been on the board since 1994. She brought her grandson Cooper every Thanksgiving when he visited to work in the kitchen with her.”
Writing for the Washington Blade, Kathi Wolfe noted that it was “not surprising that Rivers’ funeral was the gayest (in all senses of the word) ever: from the Gay Men’s Chorus singing ‘There’s Nothing Like a Dame’ to speakers telling ribald stories to Joan Rivers impersonators standing outside on the sidewalk.”
And yet, “While often controversial, she distributed her insults on an equal opportunity basis,” wrote Mallorie De Riggi for The Seattle Lesbian. “She was noted for being a strong ally for the LGBT community despite sometimes making offensive jokes in the process. In the end, it was all done for entertainment and laughs.”
For Seattle Lesbian publisher Sarah Toce, generosity stands out among Rivers’ enduring traits. “Despite her oftentimes brash, unapologetic, demeaning tone regarding the LGBT community, Joan Rivers was a beloved gay icon,” said Toce. “Part of her charm was her candor — her sensationalizing, her gravitas, vim and vigor. She was eccentric, loyal, outspoken and, above all, generous. She championed the effort to cure HIV/AIDS and was a staunch supporter of the arts, civil rights and humanitarian causes.”
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