[XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS INTRO]
NARRATOR: In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings...
TOBIN: What the hell is this?
KATHY: How dare you, Tobin? Why do you not recognize this music?
TOBIN: What is it?
KATHY: It's Xena Warrior Princess.
TOBIN: Ohh, Xena.
NARRATOR: She was Xena, [KATHY ECHOES] a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle.
TOBIN: Why are we listening to this? What's going on?
KATHY: Because Tobin, Tobin -- Xena Warrior Princess was my favorite show growing up.
TOBIN: What a gem.
KATHY: Lemme tell you why I love that show.
KATHY: We had two strong women fighting battles, killing bad guys, riding on horses ... sometimes they bathed together ... One dies over and over again, the other one revives her ...
KATHY: I should've known -- looking back now -- I should've known that me loving that show so much when I was a kid probably meant that I was gay.
KATHY: And -- here's the thing, I was a strong denier that they were a couple.
KATHY: I was anti-couple. I was like, they're two women with a great friendship, and I have great friendships with women. It's fine. They're fine.
TOBIN: Mhm. There's nothing to see here folks, move along!
KATHY: Yeah, but, you know why -- it's because I had no other gay role models in my life. Gay was a bad thing. So, whatever friendships I had with other girls, I saw with Xena, and I truly believed that they were friends until the end.
KATHY: And also, the creator said so!
TOBIN: You gotta believe the O.G.
KATHY: Yeah, yeah.
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy.
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
[CLIP 1 PLAYING IN BACKGROUND]
TOBIN: Alright, I think the first one we’re gonna watch is called, “Asian Persuasion.”
PATRICK: Yeah, the quality is really poor.
TOBIN: This is my boyfriend. He’s a white dude … but don’t worry, he’s been extreme vetted. And this is us sitting down to watch as many films as I could find of this guy named Brandon Lee.
PATRICK: So that’s Brandon Lee right there?
TOBIN: Yeah, to the left, that’s him.
PATRICK: OK, he’s got, like, a really cool sort of floral shirt...it looks like they walked into a place ... are they putting up sheetrock?
TOBIN: There’s definitely construction ... this is a remodeled home. That's happening here, I think. OK, getting into it …
PATRICK: Um, I like the music? It’s a little bit Nintendo-y
TOBIN: I think it’s of the era ... Here we go, let’s continue ... and play.
[RESTARTS CLIP 1]
TOBIN: There’s a dick!
TOBIN: Maybe you thought this was going to be a story about Brandon Lee, the actor and son of Bruce Lee. It’s not. The Brandon Lee I’m interested in...is a porn star.
[PORN MUSIC BED]
TOBIN: Or he was, anyway. Back in the late '90s, Brandon was as big a porn star as they come. Which is kind of amazing, because it was so rare to see an Asian performer in porn. It still is.
But that’s not the only reason Brandon became a sensation. He was known for having an even rarer distinction.
TOBIN: There he is. He’s topping.
PATRICK: He is. He definitely is.
TOBIN: Brandon Lee was known as the first Asian top.
[PORN MUSIC OUT]
TOBIN: If you’re not a gay Asian man like me, you might not know that the role we play in porn is often … glorified prop.
[PORN CLIP 2 PLAYS -- ASIAN GUY 1: "Well, I’ve never really done this before...kind of nervous…"]
TOBIN: We’re submissive...
[ASIAN GUY 1: "It’s a first time a guy ever touched me."]
TOBIN: … maybe we’ve got a cartoonish accent ...
[PORN CLIP 3 PLAYS -- ASIAN GUY 2: [THICK ACCENT] "I was young and confused."
THEN PORN CLIP 4 -- ASIAN GUY 3: "I’m looking through your taxes in this audit and you owe the government about $15,000." OTHER MAN: "What!?"]
TOBIN: Maybe we’re your nerdy accountant doing your taxes.
[PORN CLIP 4 -- ASIAN GUY 3: "Well, there is something you could do ..."]
TOBIN: And we’re generally bottoms. Which, if you don’t know what that means, first of all, where have you been? Bottoming means we’re the ones getting fucked.
Anyway, you might not realize the kind of damage all of this inflicts. For me, it started way back when I was a teenager. Time music, please.
[TIME MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: The first time I saw porn, I remember it felt like a miracle.
I was 12, gay, and completely clueless. While sex ed at school was providing detailed handouts on how men and women had sex, I was pretty much on my own to figure out what happened between gay men. I think I imagined something like two Ken dolls being smashed together.
But then I found gay porn. And for the first time, I could see in close-up detail how men had sex. It was horrifying ... and fascinating ... and fucking great.
TOBIN: But at the same time, porn was teaching me what gay men found desirable. Because if I saw anyone who remotely resembled me in porn, they were there to be the nerdy, timid, bottom. Was I supposed to be that kind of guy? Was something wrong with me if I wasn’t?
PATRICK: They got cute little tan lines on their butts.
TOBIN: Wow, they’re still going at it.
TOBIN: We watched a lot of porn this story. You know, because journalism. And as I watched Brandon, this sorta medium build Asian guy with a 90s center part and palpable sexual charisma, I found myself wishing that I could have seen someone like him back in the day. But then...
BRANDON: We’re removing this remaining furniture tomorrow.
TOBIN: This is Brandon in another scene from “Asian Persuasion.”
ASIAN GUY: I like it. The neighborhood great. And it’s large.
TOBIN: And that’s another Asian guy in the scene he’s about to top.
PATRICK: The small talk in the beginning was really weird.
TOBIN: It was bad, but, you know, the thing I immediately noticed was that Brandon Lee doesn’t have an accent, and the other guy does.
PATRICK: I thought that, too! Yeah, he’s exoticizing or fetishizing the other guy, even though they’re both Asian.
TOBIN: That’s very astute of you.
PATRICK: Yeah, no, I sorta felt like he was just playing the white dude.
TOBIN: Oh boy.
PATRICK: No, no, no, I know that’s super fucked up.
TOBIN: No, but I think you’re right. I think you’re absolutely right…
PATRICK: Oh, ok.
TOBIN: It was icky to watch. It felt kind of like a betrayal. Brandon broke so many barriers. But here he was … in a film called “Asian Persuasion” … othering the Asian dude.
I wanted him to Norma Rae this shit. To stand up on a box and say, “No! I will not allow my dick to participate in the negative stereotyping of Asian men!”
[SOUNDS OF CHEERING UNDERNEATH, AS IF FROM A LABOR RALLY]
TOBIN: A couple years later, Brandon dropped off the porn map. Stopped performing. Stopped communicating with his fans. And after watching his films, I wondered why. I mean, dude was a rock star. He had fan clubs!
CHICHI: We made a dildo of him. We molded his penis and he became one of the superstar cocks that we sell through Rascal Toys. And, you know, I think it was one of the top sellers.
TOBIN: This is ChiChi Larue.
CHICHI: And I’m an adult film director, DJ, drag queen extraordinaire.
TOBIN: And if anyone can get me closer to Brandon, it’s him. Because according to ChiChi, he’s the one who made Brandon Lee a star.
[UPBEAT MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: If you’ve ever seen ChiChi in drag, you know that he wears a big blonde wig that’s teased out in full Mae West glamour. That’s usually paired with a bright lipstick … and thick eye liner. Not to mention eyebrows that are drawn so arched, they look like they’re permanently skeptical.
CHICHI: Hi, Tobin!
TOBIN: I’m actually – I’m visiting home right now, so I’m talking to you from a makeshift studio in my parents’ closet.
CHICHI: [LAUGHS] Well, darling, come out of the closet.
[UPBEAT MUSIC OUT]
TOBIN: ChiChi says he’s been obsessed with porn since he was 16, growing up in a small town called Hibbing, Minnesota. He says he would drive to nearby Duluth to sneak into adult theaters.
CHICHI: I always looked older than I was, so I could get in. So I just – I became obsessed with it. I knew all the stars. I knew everything about it. And when I moved to Los Angeles, I applied for a job, and because of my knowledge I was hired instantly as a salesman. And that was not exciting, and I . . . I wanted to be where the action was. I wanted to see the naked people. And I think that has a lot to do with my insecurities from being not – from being someone who didn’t want to be naked, the freedom of other people that they were able to do this. And that’s why I think I was so obsessed with porn to begin with.
TOBIN: So, ballpark, how many films do you think you’ve directed at this point?
CHICHI: You know, with the combination of straight, gay, bisexual, transsexual, all the different types ... Oh, God, thousands.
TOBIN: Thousands? That’s amazing.
CHICHI: Yeah. I used to direct four movies a month.
TOBIN: ChiChi started directing for a company called Channel One in 1997. That’s when he discovered Brandon.
TOBIN: I was reading somewhere online that the legend is that he was a Chinese food delivery boy and he was delivering to a set and the director asked to see his eggroll.
CHICHI: Okay, well, that’s not the truth, but he was in a movie called “With Sex You Get Eggroll.” Kind of a racist title [LAUGHS] but it’s funny!
TOBIN: Actually, they met at a gay bathhouse in LA.
CHICHI: … and there was this cute Asian boy there and he was wandering around and people were following him. Old men in towels were following him. And I walked right up to him and said “My God, you’re so cute. And what are you doing here. And do you want to do movies?”
TOBIN: Did Brandon feel any kind of way about sort of those films that really focused on his race?
CHICHI: I don’t believe so. He never expressed any animosity or dislike to them. He thought it was funny. He thought it was funny. He got a kick out of a title called “Fortune Nookie.”
CHICHI: I mean, you know, it’s a clever title. So is “White on Rice.” So is “With Sex You Get Eggroll.” So I mean they’re fun titles. I mean I did a transsexual movie called “My Granny was a Tranny,” so it’s kind of like, did the transsexual get offended? You know, I don’t think so. I think they kind of know, you know? I think they kind of know what they’re in for, and what their market is, and what their audience is.
TOBIN: I mean, that’s an interesting thing. I think like sometimes the industry gets called out for affirming stereotypes or affirming racism.
CHICHI: Yeah, they do.
TOBIN: And, yeah, I wonder to what degree you think that’s fair and to what degree you think that's a space that it's kinda fun to play with that. Like, you were saying with the titles, it's just kinda silly and fun.
CHICHI: I think that everyone nowadays are so afraid of being politically correct and everyone’s always looking for something to jump on. I did a series called "Blackballed" for Channel One where it's one white performer and like 6 to 10 black tops. And they were some of our best sellers. Dean Monroe did "Blackballed 5" and that thing still sells. You know, it’s . . . you can’t please everybody, and everybody’s always looking for something to bitch about or to complain about or to call somebody out on. Especially me, you know? I mean they love to say “Oh, that ChiChi Larue is racist.” What am I going to do? I’ve got to get off my soapbox and just take care of myself and police myself and keep the people that work for me safe. That’s my job. I can’t worry about everybody else.
TOBIN: OK, maybe it's all in my head. After all, it's just porn.
TOBIN: I was just going to ask, I have been trying to get in touch with Brandon. To interview him, and I keep getting bum phone numbers.
CHICHI: Oh, I can try to find that for you.
[PHONE CALLING MONTAGE]
ANSWERING MACHINE: Please leave a message after the tone.
TOBIN: Hey, this is Tobin calling. I think ChiChi Larue gave you a heads-up that I was gonna give you a ring. Cool. I look forward to hearing from you. Bye.
MYSTERY GUEST 1: Hello?
TOBIN: Well, first I want to say that I am so excited to talk to you because you’re like a needle in a haystack for me.
MYSTERY GUEST 1: Oh no, OK. [LAUGHS]
TOBIN: Psych! Not Brandon, I'm just trolling you. At this point, Brandon and I had texted back and forth...he said, “let’s talk tomorrow.” But then I follow up, and he’s gone again, It's a whole thing. He's a hard guy to nail down. But this guy --
HOANG (AKA MYSTERY GUEST 1): My name is Hoang Tan Nguyen. I am a professor of literature and cultural studies of University of California San Diego.
TOBIN: And he’s a major Brandon fan. It started back for him when he was in graduate school … one his friends was telling him about this porn star he’d just discovered.
HOANG: And the way my friend told me about him was, "Oh, there's this hot, young, gay porn actor who is a top, he's really handsome, really muscular and he got he's got a big dick." Which is, you know, a big departure in terms of representations of Asian-American men in gay pornography. So I looked up his, his work, you know, at my local video store. [LAUGHS]
HOANG: This is like a brick and mortar video store in the Castro. And that’s how I encountered Brandon Lee.
TOBIN: Hoang thinks a lot about Asian men in pornography ... he’s written several research papers, published a book called “A View from the Bottom”... and Brandon is a big factor. Because as much as he’s a fan, Hoang also thinks Brandon’s career ... is complicated.
HOANG: One might easily embrace him as this gay porn Asian-American hero that we've been waiting for. But, you know, based on my research, when we looked at what happens in his videos and in the way that he's packaged in the publicity material, we see that in fact he's posed against his Asian co-stars...who are considered to be bottoms, who are considered to be having small dicks, who are there to be, you know, FOBs, like "Fresh Off the Boat" immigrants. They can't speak English very well, you know? So, in order for Brandon Lee to be portrayed as, you know, this important intervention, it's business as usual for the other you know Asian co-stars who are occupying the same sort of abject position of, you know, the one who's fucked over.
TOBIN: OK, maybe it’s not in my head. Validation.
TOBIN: Have you ever talked to Brandon Lee or have you ever tried to talk with Brandon Lee?
HOANG: I have not talked to Brandon Lee.
HOANG: Yeah, I think to be honest, I really want to have distance between me and him because I think once I do talk to him, I feel like some of the magic would disappear.
TOBIN: Right. It's the “Never Meet Your Idols” thing.
HOANG: Right. Right, right, right. Yes. [LAUGHS]
HOANG: Especially, especially when it comes to, you know, pornographic fantasies.
TOBIN: Right. Right. [LAUGHS]
[PHONE TEXTING MONTAGE]
TOBIN: Hello, Tobin here. ChiChi Larue may have mentioned that I wanted to interview you. Love the opportunity to speak.
TOBIN: Hello, hope you're good. Apologies for bugging you again. Wanted to check in to see if you might be up for a conversation.
TOBIN: Hi again, Tobin here. Your radio reporter that ChiChi vouched for. Sorry to bug you again. Deadline's approaching. Wondering if we can set up a time for our interview. Will be very low-key. Can be done at your convenience.
TOBIN: So … I gotta admit something. Brandon totally ghosted on me … stopped responding, didn’t want to talk. I’m a modern gay man, I know how that goes. But I did manage to find this ...
BRANDON: Hi, my name’s Brandon Lee … Nice to meet everybody.
TOBIN: This is Brandon talking to a Filipino news show a couple years ago. It’s a pretty standard puff piece … he talks a little bit about the job.
BRANDON: The makeup artist, just goes through, and looks through my entire body, and sees if I need any -- have any blemishes or anything, and then just touches it up.
TOBIN: But then he starts talking about what he doesn’t like as much about being a porn star.
BRANDON: Some of the downfalls of the job were being just seen as an object sometimes, where I’ll go out to a club and someone thinks they can go and just grab my junk. And, no, no, no. I’m a human.
TOBIN: And then, towards the end:
BRANDON: I decided to become a chef and concentrate on a career outside of porn because my looks aren’t going to last forever, and I'm gonna be 40 one day, and I’m not going to look the same. So, might as well have a career to fall back on.
[CLIP FADES OUT]
TOBIN: So, you know … seems like he got tired of it … wanted to cook for a living. I get that. Good for Brandon. Still, kind of a bummer he’s out of the business.
CHICHI: People ask about him all the time.
TOBIN: This is ChiChi again.
CHICHI: We talk...you know, to this day we talk … He actually has been talking about doing a comeback.
CHICHI: Yes. And uh … you know, he still wants to be a part of it a little bit. I think once you’re a part of it, it’s a little hard to let go of that little bit of limelight, you know? So … you heard it here first!
TOBIN: So maybe Brandon isn’t out of the game. Maybe he is. Can’t verify unless the dude calls me back.
TOBIN: But I have to say, a funny thing occurred to me while I was working so hard to get in touch with him. Aside from wanting to know why he quit … I kind of didn’t know what I wanted to say to the guy. I mean, what was there to say? “Congrats?” “How could you?” “Thanks for existing?” None of it felt right.
It’s true, porn taught me about desire. It also messed me up. But that’s my shit, not his. Nothing I could say to him would let me go back in time and not be a screwed-up gay kid figuring out his sexuality.
And you know, I got out into the real world, I realized that actual sex is much, much more complicated. And that in the end, it really just matters who you fuck in real life.
TOBIN: Or, you know, who you let fuck you.
KATHY: Growing up, were there any characters from TV or movies that you looked up to or identified with?
GUEST 1: For me, definitely, George Takei. You know -- that's somebody who represents Asian-Americans.
GUEST 2: You know, I'm a 1950s guy. So we're going back now. And Lone Ranger? Who doesn't wanna put on a white hat and save the world, you know?
GUEST 3: Uhh, Ms. Frizzle. From The Magic School Bus. Oh, yeah. Fuck yeah. In retrospect, it was 'cause she was kinda like a fierce dyke.
GUEST GROUP: This is Nancy. We'll be back after these messages.
KATHY: I wanna tell you a story about a girl named Sarah.
SARAH: Hi, my name is Sarah Lu, and I live in Chicago.
KATHY: She's a grown-up now, she's in her 30s, she's a radio producer.
TOBIN: Love it.
KATHY: But back when she was a kid she'd go on vacations with her parents to Wisconsin.
TOBIN: Love it less.
KATHY: [BOTH LAUGH] They'd stay on a lake where they'd fish and hike and all sorts of outdoorsy stuff.
SARAH: When my folks their fill of outdoorsy activities, they'd take me to a nearby town to goof around because there are interesting shops and restaurants there. To kinda switch it up a little bit.
KATHY: And their favorite spot to visit was called "Henry's General Store."
[ACOUSTIC GUITAR PLAYING]
SARAH: It had outdoor equipment, a canoe hanging from the ceiling ...
KATHY: And there were wool shirts.
SARAH: Like, Pendleton shirts, or Woolrich shirts.
KATHY: Mittens and hats.
SARAH: Whimsical wind-up toys.
KATHY: High-quality pens and pencil sharpeners, and notebooks. Leather-bound notebooks.
TOBIN: So, basically, this is like your dream store.
KATHY: Yes! Canoes and high-quality pens! What else do you need in this world? [BEAT] They'd go every year, and they talked to the woman who ran the store.
SARAH: Maura had blue eyes and short hair, and brown bangs that kinda, like, swoop in front of her forehead. And, just like, a really kind voice, and just a warm persona. She was probably wearing, like, dark jeans and boots and, like, a cool flannel. [LAUGHS] Or some kind of comfortable but classic outdoorsy look. I thought she was super cool and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And I wasn't usually like a shy kid. I was a pretty talkative, precocious kid, actually. But around Maura I kind of clammed up a little bit. There was just sort of -- for me, this sort of, like, charge in the air. Like, kind of like an electricity or something, that's just, like -- something was up.
KATHY: The thing is, Sarah only ever talked to Maura for 10 minutes, total, over all those years.
SARAH: Even though our interactions were very brief, Maura still loomed large in my life.
KATHY: So, eventually, Sarah became an adult herself. She came out, she went to college, she got married, and over time she kind of forgot about Maura and the general store. Then one day she's at this concert, and the person performing sings a cover of the song called "Ring of Keys."
TOBIN: Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! I know "Ring of Keys," Kathy.
KATHY: [SARCASTICALLY] Do you?
TOBIN: It's from Fun Home. Is this a story about a musical?
KATHY: No, it's not a story about a musical becuase I don't like musicals. But you are the musical guy, so why don't you explain Fun Home?
TOBIN: With pleasure. So Fun Home is about the queer cartoonist Alison Bechdel. And the scene that this song, "Ring of Keys," is from is when Alison is a little girl, maybe like 10, and she sees this butch delivery woman with short hair and jeans and this ring of keys on her hip and she is completely entranced.
[CLIP FROM THE SONG "RING OF KEYS"]
Your swagger and your bearing
And the just right clothes you're wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots
And your keys, oh
Your ring of keys"
SARAH: When I heard it, I cried a lot. I was, like, just totally transported back to being 12, and being in this store, and looking up at this storekeeper, Maura, and thinking, like, "Oh my gosh." It was a very charged moment and I was, like, instantly taken back there.
KATHY: Sarah suddenly realizes that Maura was her "Ring of Keys" person. The adult that showed her who she could be someday.
SARAH: That triggered these memories of childhood and made me think about Maura and what she might be up to, and I wondered if I could, like, go back to Henry's, and what that would be like, to walk back in as an adult, and, like, to say hi to Maura. But I found out that Henry's was closed. And then I did a little Internet searching, found her email, I wrote her, and I said, "Hey, I don't know if you remember me, but ... I'd really like to talk to you." And ... she wrote back!
MAURA: Wow, look at you!
SARAH: What's up? I haven't seen you in, like, fifteen years.
MAURA: This is amazing. You're so grown up. [BOTH LAUGH] I can't believe it.
SARAH: Okay, well, do you wanna go to the studio?
MAURA: I would love it.
MAURA: The name of my store was Henry’s. And my name is Maura Koutoujian.
SARAH: The first memory I have of your store is you had like a bunch of back issues of Outside Magazine that like didn’t sell or something,
MAURA: [LAUGHS] Yes.
SARAH: But you were like, "But it’s a cool magazine!" And then you gave me a bunch of copies of it.
SARAH: And then I read it, and, like, I still subscribe to that magazine.
SARAH: And I’ve read every issue for the last 20 years. So ...
MAURA: I’m smiling ear to ear. [LAUGHS]
SARAH: So how would you describe the general store?
MAURA: Ahh... I think I had this idea in my head, grab your backpack, grab an amazing pen, grab a notebook that feels good to you, and go walk outside and write. And it just kind of started building from there.
SARAH: In my memory there’s this sort of like North Woods-Norman Rockwell almost nostalgia kind of thing going on.
MAURA: Oh, yes. It gave me an opportunity to kind of live in this alter ego of the North Woods, and snowshoeing, and skiing and wearing buffalo plaid. Kind of the fantasy of the forties and somebody being in the Adirondacks, although we were in Wisconsin at the time.
MAURA: I was always open, and I never hid being gay, but I never necessarily talked about it. It just wasn’t, unless it was part of the conversation, there was no reason to. Did I ever say ... ? I don’t remember ever saying anything about a partner.
SARAH: I don’t think you did.
MAURA: I can’t imagine I would have.
SARAH: Yeah. It’s not like you were like “Hi, I’m Maura.”
MAURA: “Hi, I’m gay.”
SARAH: “Welcome to Henry’s General Store. I’m a homosexual. The pens are over there.”
SARAH: I’ve always kinda wondered more about your life, can I ask you some personal questions?
SARAH: Can you tell me where you were born?
MAURA: So, born in Newton, Massachusetts and grew up in Waltham, right next door.
SARAH: How would you describe your childhood?
MAURA: It was awesome. I was incredibly lucky, and am incredibly lucky to have parents who always encouraged us to think outside of the box -- even when things like gender identity and sexuality were not part of that thinking outside of the box -- I was very fortunate. I went to Armenian school. I did Irish step-dancing. No wonder I’m so confused.
SARAH: [LAUGHS] Can you tell me more about your alter ego?
MAURA: Um... There’s always been a part of me, certainly since I was younger, that I liked guy's stuff. I liked guy's clothing. I thought it was much cooler. I thought, why, every time I want to buy something, does it have to be purple or pink? So I think there was that little alter ego, that other part of me, whether we want to call it androgynous ... Growing up, I feel very fortunate that I’ve had that. I get to see kind of both sides, and to sometimes be called “sir”, which still happens. I’m 53 , and I’m -- it still happens.
SARAH: Yeah, I get “sirred,” also. I look like a teenage boy.
SARAH: Right now, I’m wearing a flannel, I have very short hair and jeans.
MAURA: I sort of had the same thing. Up until I was probably in my mid forties, people still thought I was a young boy. Or, couldn’t quite figure out why I had such soft skin and gray hair. [LAUGHS] There were those moments when I was little where people would say, oh your sons are so handsome, and I would be like, “Ooh!” I loved that. It was empowering.
SARAH: Yeah. I feel like when I was misgendered as a kid, I thought it was awesome.
SARAH: And like it embarrassed other people. I wasn’t embarrassed, you know?
MAURA: Yes. Yeah. I would get embarrassed when other people would figure it out and then they would be embarrassed, or something. One of the worst is when I was wearing a shirt that had the Declaration of Independence on it. And somebody came along, and thinking I was a boy, put his hand on my chest and was reading it. It was one of the worst days of my life. To this day I still remember. It was a lot worse than just ooh, that’s uncomfortable. I’ve never really forgotten that moment. And so, yeah.
SARAH: What was the hard thing about that?
MAURA: I think the hard thing about that was laughing about it afterwards – that everybody found humor in it. “Ha, ha, isn’t that funny that he thought you were a boy, and you are actually a girl?” What am I? What can I do? What am I allowed to do? I think I always knew something was – there’s no doubt I knew from a very, very young age that something was different. But, I had no language for it. I had no visual language for it. Nothing.
SARAH: So, I used to come to your store with my parents, probably around 1996, 1997.
MAURA: Wow, just when I opened.
SARAH: What are your impressions of me then? How would you describe 12 year-old Sarah?
MAURA: 12 year-old Sarah was so ... gosh, you were so cute. I remember you and your parents would come in. I can still see it, you’d put your hands in your pocket and you’d dig them deep in. And you’d kind of tighten up your shoulders a little bit ... and everything became -- not stiff, but certainly regulated. Your head would be down but you’d kind of look up at me. It was so sweet. So sweet. And I used to think ... “Wow, I wonder if she’ll be gay.” And I do my best. This is not how – I don’t go around making assumptions, and I don’t think anybody should go around making assumptions and assessments. However, I was doing with you in that moment what you were doing with me. There was a connection.
SARAH: I think it’s just game-recognize-game. And there’s a certain skill or like art to being a genderfluid person in the world [MAURA BREATHES IN SHARPLY] and when you see that, someone else doing that, it’s like oh, hey.
MAURA: It looked familiar.
SARAH: So, like, in my girlhood, I think it was cool to be a tomboy, or encouraged. But like around 12 you sort of get the message, "That’s not cute anymore." Or like, "If you’re going to grow up, you have to change." And then going to your store where there’s this – it opened the possibility of like an adult tomboy life that was of personal significance. Both the store, but also you as an individual embodying that too.
SARAH: Being a little awkward twelve year old gay kid, and then seeing a very charming, confident gay adult, it allowed me to imagine an adult version of myself, which was huge. But also the layer of -- my parents thought you were cool. And so that made me think that they would approve of me being gay.
SARAH: So that’s a lot. Do you have any reaction?
MAURA: Let me get up off the floor. Thank you. That is the – well, I am getting choked up. Yeah. Thank you. Whew. I never knew ... that I could ... [CRYING]
SARAH: It’s okay.
MAURA: ... That I could actually be a role model for somebody. That’s pretty powerful. That’s really powerful, so thank you.
SARAH: Thank you for being that role model.
MAURA: [LAUGHS] Yeah, wow.
MAURA: It’s interesting that I may have appeared confident twenty years ago, that deep inside, not at all.
SARAH: What was going on?
MAURA: I just couldn’t seem to find a lot of happiness. I was happy on the one hand, and yet I can remember feeling unhappy on the other. I think I was depressed and didn’t really know it. Didn’t understand it. I think a lot of what was going on was still not sure who I was. I just didn’t have the confidence in me. I loved my store. I knew that the store represented me. That felt good. I knew how I fit when I rode my bike. I knew how I fit when I was in my canoe. But yeah, there was a part of me that didn’t know how I fit in the world. I was just trying to figure this out on my own.
SARAH: Were you the ... ? You were the age that I am now when I met you!
MAURA: I was 32 when I opened Henry’s!
SARAH: Yeah, yeah! And I’m 32 now.
MAURA: Wow….wow….yes, okay, Sarah, I think you already know this, or I hope you do, you are going to be okay. You are awesome.
MAURA: I look at you and go, gosh I wish I were that cool when I was 32. You have your parents who support you. You’re married -- congratulations, by the way.
SARAH: Thank you, you too.
MAURA: Yes! I just got married on New Year’s Eve. It was beautiful.
SARAH: That is beautiful.
SARAH: So I have one last question, how do you keep your keys? Like how do you carry your keys around?
MAURA: How do I carry my keys around? Oh! Here, I’m going to show you, hold on.
SARAH: Ha! Oh!
MAURA: Isn’t that awesome? It’s something I would’ve carried at Henry’s right?
MAURA: It’s awesome.
SARAH: Yeah, the outline . . .
MAURA: I can’t believe I love my keychain.
SARAH: Um, do you want to see my keys?
MAURA: Yes, I do.
SARAH: And of course I have a Crafty Beaver Hardware Store Customer Rewards tag on it. [BOTH LAUGH] Because I go in the hardware store a lot.
MAURA: Okay, can we just . . . you know, that’s like your lesbian ID card. I’m sorry. [BOTH LAUGH]
KATHY: That was Sarah Lu and Maura Catujien.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT]
[CREDIT MUSIC STARTS]
TOBIN: Okay, okay, that's our show. It's credits time!
KATHY: Credits! Let's go!
TOBIN: Our producer...
KATHY: Matt Collette!
TOBIN: Sound designer...
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom!
KATHY: Jenny Lawton!
TOBIN: Executive producer...
KATHY: Paula Szuchman!
TOBIN: And here is Caroline English -- she does our social media!
CAROLINE: We're on Facebook at http://facebook.com/nancypodcast/, Twitter at @NancyPodcast --
CAROLINE: -- Myspace at "Nancy Podcast"
TOBIN: … No, we're not on Myspace.
CAROLINE: No, we're not there. No one's there.
TOBIN: No one's on Myspace.
CAROLINE: Uh, yeah. Linkedin. If you wanna connect, Linkedin?
TOBIN: No. No.
CAROLINE: Will you join me on my professional network?
TOBIN: You can listen to Nancy on the Spotify mobile app. I'm Tobin Low.
KATHY: I'm Kathy Tu!
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: The first time I saw porn: “But what about racism?!” ... Oh my God ... Oh my God, okay.