A journey with my friends of Dorothy. Portraits by Tom Casalini
“You have some queer friends, Dorothy,” she said.
“The queerness doesn't matter, so long as they're friends,” was the answer.
~ L. Frank Baum, The Road to OZ, 1904
This book, The Queerness Doesn’t Matter, by photographer Tom Casalini was developed in collaboration with writer Marti Healy, creative director Barry Doss, and audio producer Jason Smith. It is a gallery-quality, lavishly produced 96-page coffee table edition, measuring 12 inches by 12 inches, featuring stunning black and white portrait photography.
The book is available for purchase directly from the photographer on their site for a cover price of $45.00 plus shipping and handling, and through select retail outlets.
Tom Casalini is also an acclaimed speaker and presenter, and welcomes opportunities to relate his often poignant journey on the road to developing this significant book.
On the Road to Understanding
“The queerness doesn’t matter ...”
It was a line of poignant simplicity and truth, and it was attributed to the character Dorothy in the fifth of the Oz books written by L. Frank Baum in the early 1900s.
The scene within that book involved another primary character, one named (perhaps ironically) Polychrome, who made the observation to Dorothy: “You have some queer friends, Dorothy.” To which Dorothy replied: “The queerness doesn’t matter, so long as they’re friends.”
Decades later, this phrase resonated uniquely within the gay community, particularly among the military that were serving in WWII.
Often far from home and in a strange culture, these soldiers, who could never acknowledge that they were gay in those times and circumstances, felt especially alienated, anxious, alone. And so they reached out to one another with a private phrase – an underground coded message – and “friends of Dorothy” were able to find each other.
In today’s culture and vernacular, the term “queer” is gaining popularity and propriety – being reclaimed, embraced, socially accepted – especially within the queer community itself. It is a term that includes a broad spectrum of all non-normative-gender persons: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer.
The purpose of this book is to pull back a long-overused curtain, and to lift up a part of our society that has been hidden behind it for far too long.
From my “friends of Dorothy” who brought their courage and their stories to this work, I was enlightened, informed, and moved to tears often. But we also laughed together over shared experiences and absurdities. I was frequently angered and just as frequently delighted. My heart was both warmed and broken. And in the end, I was overwhelmed with the sheer bravery of it all. The kindness and generosity of spirit. The determination. The forgiveness. The insight and understanding and hope for things to come.
I am incredibly humbled to be able to call the people in this book my friends – no longer defined as my “friends of Dorothy,” simply my friends.
I hope after you’ve seen their faces and become immersed in their stories, you will feel the same. Perhaps we can all embrace the truth: “The queerness doesn’t matter.”
Derek explained the term “queer” to me.
“It’s a weird cross between an academic term and a socially reclaimed term. It’s a very umbrella term – inclusive of all gender nonconforming people – everyone who’s not hetero-normative. I don’t really know how to describe it, to be honest – I like it though.”
That is Derek. Intelligent, articulate, comfortable with who he is, informed about who he is.
Derek loves science but can‘t cut the math part of it. He’s a musician, but is particularly passionate about the marching band because of the whole context of it – from choreography to presentation. It is his dichotomy that Derek points to when he talks about the human community – not queer, not hetero – just the human community. He likes to stress that sometimes it’s our likes and dislikes, our varied experiences, our many differences, that make us all really alike.
Involved in LGBTQ rights since high school (as a senior, he drafted and got implemented his school system’s compliance and discrimination policies to include sexual orientation, and helped shape the subsequent curriculum that came out of it), Derek has stayed active in policy and communication ever since. So setting Derek’s portrait in a surrounding of books was a natural choice. It speaks to his thoughtfulness, his education, his intellect.
But then his heart speaks for itself: “When you’re talking about a community of people, you need to remember they’re people, they’re human beings. They’ve made mistakes, they’ve made successes. Some have had an easy life, and some have really struggled. But ultimately, we’re all just people, and we need to be kind. We need to watch out for each other – take care of each other – regardless of our lives or backgrounds. Just be kind, that’s the important thing, being kind.”
“Well, the garage was Beverly’s domain. She’d go out there and do puzzles and listen to music, and mess around with a gazillion dollars worth of fishing equipment – that’s still there. But when her favorite song would come on the radio – and her ‘favorite’ was always changing – she’d come running into the house to get me, make me stop what I was doing, and come out to the garage and dance with her. And we’d dance to her latest favorite song ... and, together, we danced to her last favorite song.”
Beverly was Judi’s wife, whom she lost in 2017.
The way Judi described dancing with Beverly in the garage seemed to fit perfectly with other things I had come to know about this incredible woman – her spontaneity as well as her propriety, her empathy along with her vision, her generosity and genuine caring.
When Judi founded her town’s local Pride group, it began with a simple picnic in the park, where everybody made and brought their own food. But others beyond the LGBTQ community came, too (mostly those in need of free food), and so they were fed. And some simply needed befriending, and so they found that, too. Today, the attendance at this major annual event swells the size of the small town to 10 times its number of residence – and the food and affection it generates is still shared freely with the homeless and others in need.
Under Judi’s leadership, the Pride group bought its own building, nestled nicely right on the town square. Within it, space was created for selling local artist’s goods – a compelling way for the straight and LGBTQ communities to come together, sharing and intermingling their time and talents.
Not surprisingly, Judi gives homes to stray dogs (Dave chose to casually sit in on our photo session); she gives harbor to human homeless as well, and babies, and sick family members, and friends of every kind. Because, I suspect, Judi hears their music, their personal songs and heartbeats. And then – with Beverly’s memory as her muse – she invites them all to the dance.
Jared: Composer, Saxophonist, and Band Leader
Joshua: Classical Pianist, and Instructor of Piano and Trumpet
Musicians, well-educated, twenty-somethings, twins, black, gay. Raised to hard work and strong Christian-based morals, they are every mother’s sons, articulate thinkers, original, authentic.
Of all the portraits within this book, Jared and Joshua may have presented some of the most thought-provoking original viewpoints and observations that I was privileged to hear.
I had believed that I’d brought to this journey a completely open mind and a depth of understanding. But then they expanded my perspective beyond everything I had considered or understood as the truth to that point. They even re-drew what I had imagined was the path to the truth.
They intellectualized what is too often presented only in terms of emotion. They presented rational observations in place of traditional platitudes.
One point of wise observation they shared was that the LGBTQ community itself often harbors significant misconceptions and prejudices among its own members. The divides between race and gender and politics of expression can be just as challenging and hurtful and shadowy within this inclusive community as they are within the community of humanity at large.
In the end, Jared and Joshua emphasized how important it is for us to listen to each other. To accept that there will be things we never understand. Because not everyone is creative or young or black or gay or twins or all of the above. And so your perspective is always going to be different.
Together, they left me with one great overreaching principle: “We just need to walk among each other as human beings. That’s me you just passed ... trying to get to work on time, trying to pay my taxes, trying to support my family, trying to be a good person. That’s me walking right next to you. That’s you walking right next to me.”
She uses just one name – the feminine form of her family name. I find it highly symbolic.
In her living room, where I set her portrait, she is surrounded by other kinds of symbolism as well. There is a painting of a sleeping child, adrift on the ever-shifting currents of a river, anchored only by a rope leading to an unseen shore. There is a single-file row of living plants – some rooting in water, some in earth, yet none secured into the solidarity of the ground itself.
I suspect Valadezza purposely keeps herself reminded of how she felt most of her life – ungrounded, fluid between identities, tethered to something unseen and unknown.
Throughout her youth, she struggled against a myriad of currents that pulled at her and tossed her in every direction. From the futility of sports and bodybuilding and the idea of military service, to the cautionary vision of prostitution or pretense or onstage impersonation. Until one day when she reached into the medicine cabinet for all the pills she could find. And all the bottles were empty.
Valadezza found her true identity inside those empty bottles. And, because of that quirk of fate or chance or predestination or love note from the universe, she has been returning the favor ever since – filling her life space with gratitude and grace, with strength and courage and beauty.
Quietly, Valadezza invites me and others to remember with her: “This is not a hobby or a lifestyle or even a choice. This is who I was born. This is who I am. But it was up to me to cut the ropes ... to set myself free.”
Richard is all about labels. And style. Good and bad, wearing it and being it. But Richard has just one rule about labels and style: “You gotta own it.”
From an 1880s genuine beaver-pelt derby hat, to a Jean Paul Gaultier jacket that was used in Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, to a tomato-red Maserati, Richard has collected it all. He sits in front of Italian silk curtains, on a sofa surrounded by Versace cushions. Antique lamps and paintings. Vintage books. A Mardi Gras-style crown perched on a 1930s bust. Richard’s eclectic, label-filled environment is his tangible representation of life.
Less exuberant, perhaps, but no less an integral part of himself and his self-perception are his self-identified personal labels: poor, gay, faggot, fairy, trailer trash, homeless, abused, big ears, collector of the obscure, automotive genius-to-the-stars, clothes aficionado, survivor.
Richard is also, I found, a keen and observant bridge builder. He strives to build those bridges between straight and gay, youth and experience, the bleakness of poverty and the beauty of opulence.
Like most of us his age and with his life experience, Richard admits to carrying a bit of baggage. But then he begins to describe his baggage as “not Louis Vuitton or Gucci ... no, no. My brand’s rare, most people don’t know of it ... you can’t find it at Nordstrom.”
Richard is truly one of a kind, a private label, with extraordinary style.
“There’s a semicolon on my finger for a reason,” she said, referring to a tattoo on her ring finger, left hand. “It’s a punctuation mark where an author chooses to continue a sentence that they could have ended.”
I knew of this symbol. “Project Semicolon” was originated in 2013 by a woman to honor the father she lost to suicide. But this was the first time I’d encountered it inked on a friend. And with Rhiannon, it seemed to have an extended meaning.
Rhiannon was in combat in Iraq in 2003, fighting on the front lines with bravery, honor, fearlessness. But behind her actions was her desperate hope that she would come back in a flag-draped box so she would never have to reveal her true self, her “dirty little secret” as she thought of it at the time. Somehow, the truth of war brought her back from that edge, leaving her clinging to a different one.
But it wasn’t until Rhiannon saw her own fate in the face of another that she was really ready to continue her life story.
An older, obviously transgender woman at an airport was being taunted by a group of traveling youth; and yet, the woman was joyfully going her own way in spite of it all. Suddenly, Rhiannon understood that, like so many other life decisions, time and nature would make transitioning much more difficult with the coming years. And how much harder would it be for her daughter to understand and accept – as she, too, grew older?
I think that on one side of Rhiannon’s semicolon is an old woman; on the other is a little girl. And, in the end, her decision rested, literally, in her own hands – now symbolized on the ring finger of the left one.
The brilliance of butterflies filling the glass domes on the desk in front of David in his portrait are not simply beautiful, they are highly symbolic and fitting. David, himself, is constantly evolving and emerging.
David lives vividly in the present. It’s part of why everything stays so fresh for him, so new, why he can still be surprised by life.
And yet, David remembers the past with clarity and poignancy, too. Like about how captivated he always was by his grandmother – an actress and painter. “I am my grandmother’s child.”
David feels his innate creativity flowed directly from his father’s mother. And, he suspects, it was one of the reasons he and his father were close. “My father and I would sit in this very living room, and we’d look at Life Magazine together, and we’d mark out the name of the art director and write my name in, because I was going to be art director of Life Magazine.”
David realized their shared dream. He became art director of several significant publications – from Indianapolis to New York and back again (although Life Magazine no longer existed by then). But when David received the call that his father was dying, he immediately returned home.
“I was the golden child, the prefect son, the overachiever, the least maintenance. I was everything my father instilled in me. But when I came out as gay to him, he was never quite able to embrace that part of who I am. He never did. He just never did.”
Then David folded his hands together and they became the very shape of the folded wings of a resting butterfly. And it seemed as if I could see his father’s hands quietly intertwined there as well.
Sofia: Student, 7th grade
Shelly: High School Counselor
Victoria: Director of Hydrogeology and Superfund
Sofia is 13 years old in this portrait. She is Guatemalan by birth. She was adopted by Shelly and Victoria in her infancy. I hadn’t intended to profile this family from her point of view. But listening to her, it became evident that her truth was significant and integral to this project.
Sofia hyphenates both of her parents’ last names to use as her own. And she has as her life experience a sort of hyphenation of the good and the terrible – the acceptance and the discrimination, the reality and the perceptions – that they have all had to endure as well as celebrate as a family.
She’s known rejection from their church, witnessed the firing of her mother Shelly from her long-time job, experienced the loss of the security of her circle of friends and teachers and sense of community – all because her mothers chose to marry. But she’s also been at the heart of a grassroots swelling of support, of having her family’s voice heard literally all over the world, of seeing their influence in the national media and at the polls and at a corner store in the heart of their own hometown.
There was a time when Sofia questioned the world: “Why do people hate us? What did I do wrong?” But then, with genuine strength and insight beyond her age, she decided to say instead: “Well then, when you go to vote, we’re going to go all together, and we’re going to hold hands, and we’re going to show them what a family looks like.”
And so they did. And that became Sofia’s new reality. Perhaps, one day, it will be so for all our children.