Monday, April 27, 2009

Bea, Thank You for Being a Friend

Picture it: Brooklyn, 1989. A wide-eyed Latino kid ignores the game of stickball unfolding on the street outside his brownstone to sit in front of the TV and laugh along to the salty adventures of four old ladies living in Miami. The references to Broadway and silver-screen legends fly over his head, yet, for some reason, he feels at home in a world of cheesecake and hot flahses.

Sigh. I'm mourning the passing of Bea Arthur today.

Growing up, I was the kind of kid who gravitated toward adults. Spending summers in Colombia with two over-protective and hyper-opinionated grandparents taught me to feel comfortable around older people - especially when my grandmother, to this day, dictates that one should sing or entertain her somehow for their supper. Leaving them behind after a month or two was always hard, but soon enough I'd find solace in the hijinks of Dorothy, Rose, Sophia and Blanche, otherwise known as The Golden Girls.

The show is my gay cultural touchstone. Much like queens of yore fondly recall singing along to the score of Funny Girl, it would be years before I would connect the dots between my own gayness and fondness for the Golden Girls. Little did I know that while I was sitting in front of the TV on Saturday night laughing along to Dorothy's acerbic retorts (e.g. Rose, played by Betty White, once asked Dorothy "why do people die?" to which Dorothy replies "I don't know Rose, I still haven't figured out why fools fall in love.") the boys across the river in Chelsea were watching the show at their favorite bars.

And why wouldn't they? At the height of the AIDS epidemic the show tackled the issue head on, and approached other gay and lesbian issues with frankness and compassion. In a time when the gay community felt especially marginalized, the Golden Girls provided relatable characters who also dealt with the malignment of youth-obsessed society with laughter, men, and food. The ladies were the moms we wished we had or loved to pieces, their heartaches and joys resonated at any age, and their camaraderie seemed genuine and powerful, much like the friendships gay men forge to bound against the world.

Today, years after my Saturday nights with The Golden Girls, I still stop by the lanai and prop a seat on the ladies' wicker sofa to listen to Rose's St.Olaf stories and watch Blanche's sexcapades. While I have a bit of Blanche streak, Dorothy's sharp-tongue and Brooklyn girl savvy always spoke to me.

Here's to you, Bea.