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Janis Ian Advocate Cover

Saving Joan Baez
From Drowning

Originally published in The Advocate
Issue #657, June 1994

I fell in love with Joan Baez when I was barely eleven years old.

She was the perfect girl for me: sincere, unattached (in that era anyone visibly unmarried meant I still had a chance), and already of mythic proportions as a singer. I learned guitar by slowing down her records. I set my curly hair (too unpredictable and free) in huge rollers, hoping it would fall languorously around my shoulders. I sang her songs, in a voice as close to hers as I could get. I longed to be like her. I longed to be with her. I longed.

In the life of the tragically unhip, Baez was the epitome of cool.

Stuck in the world of a small New Jersey town, swimming was the only thing I did as well as playing the piano, and -- since classical piano was equated with geekdom -- I concentrated on the water. I was a great swimmer, the youngest ever certified junior life guard. I'd been swimming in the deep end since I was three. My life goal was to be a life guard during the summer. I dreamed of myself, suavely standing on the deck with white zinc on my nose, gloriously bronzed. I dreamed of myself tall, thin, beautiful, with everyone looking up to me as I buffed my certified life-saver patch. Occasionally, I'd perform CPR on a grateful drownee, but I'd humbly refuse any news coverage, saying it was just the job, thanks.

When Joan came along, all that changed.

My new dreams were simple: I would save Joan Baez from drowning, she would be forever grateful, and we would sing together on stages throughout the world.

I had no sexual thoughts about her. Like most young children, my fantasies ended at the neck. A long kiss was all I asked. And asked. I didn't know if Joan swam, but I was quite willing to push her in to accomplish my objective.

In retrospect, I see that I was the one drowning. My serious fourth-grade crush on a female teacher had led me to the library in search of books about people like me. I located HOMOSEXUALITY cross-referenced with DEVIANCY and ORIENTATION: CHANGING SEXUAL. Through the mysterious Gaydar Grapevine (how my ears perked up when people smoke sotto voce about those forbidden topics), I heard about Radclyffe Hall's book The Well of Loneliness. I found it in a used bookstore and snuck it home, then read with fascination the story of a young woman who wants only to be male. That decided me - I couldn't possibly be a lesbian, I didn't want to be a man. So what was I?

All this reading left me more adrift than ever, desperate for role models at the beginning of a precarious adolescence.

Hungry for healthy, independent female artists to pattern myself after, I stumbled upon Joan -- a woman who was also a leader, who could be articulate and funny, who marched bravely next to Martin Luther King. So what if she didn't seem gay? I didn't need her to be gay. I just needed her to be available for my beach parties.

Some years passed, and I attended the Newport Folk Festival as a 16-year-old wunderkind. I was in the throes of teenage angst, dressed completely in black and terrified to speak with anyone. My early success with "Society's Child" had offended many of the performers there, who resented my youth and the apparent ease of my rise to fame.

When I entered the performer's dining room for the first time, all the singers there deliberately turned their backs and continued eating, effectively freezing me out. For someone who had always dreamed of being "cool", I was about to be shunned publicly by those I admired most. To this day, I can feel the cold sweat that broke out across my body. To this day, I remember the tears threatening to fill my eyes, and I whirled toward the cafeteria counter so no one could see them. I quickly formulated a plan; I'd fill my tray, then go back to my room. No one would ever know how much it bothered me. By the time I reached for a plate, my hands had almost stopped shaking.

Then Joan spied me, and flew across the crowded room. She introduced herself and led me back to her family's table, where she rescued me from abject humiliation. I don't know whether she saw what was happening and felt pity for me, or whether she really liked my work and didn't care about my age. She sat me at her table, the table everyone else was wishing they were at. She sat me with her family, the family everybody else wished they knew. Her mother, "Big Joan", must have noticed the tears, but she winked at me and grinned nonetheless. And though Joan doesn't even remember the incident today, she gave me the "queen's stamp of approval", making me loyal to her for life.

A few years ago, when Baez was in search of songs for her next album, she came to Nashville and planned to stay with me. Never having discussed my sexuality with her (and not having had the chance to drag her limp and lifeless body to shore and declare my eternal love), I worried that she might not know I was gay. Since I wanted Joan to be comfortable, I casually mentioned on the phone that I lived with a woman. Joan's only comment was "Great. What's her name?"

This past April I was asked by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to do a benefit, and Joan called to see if she could become involved and show her support for me and the cause. When we took the stage, it was the first time we'd ever performed together. In introducing her I said laughingly that I'd dreamed of saving her from drowning numerous times in my youth. Joan then came on, clutching her throat, crying "Help! Help! I'm drowning!" Fortunately my partner was glaring from the wings, saving me the embarrassment of publicly grabbing Joan in a lifesaving grip and dragging her to safety -- or at least to privacy.

I'm grown now, and happily married to the woman of my adult dreams, but those childhood fantasies remain precious. I was right to choose Joan as a role model. As gay people, we are accustomed to moving in a straight world, but that April night Joan Baez willingly moved into our world, embracing us and our cause as she's embraced so many others: with dignity and laughter. And beauty! Let me tell you, Joan Baez is a serious babe.

Or, as Mr. Lesbian puts it, "You drag her out of the water, honey. I'll take care of the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation." And that about sums it up.

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