Artist and Activist Sharon Bridgforth




Photo credit: Daniel
Alexander Jones

How does a young, pretty
Catholic schoolgirl from a close-knit community of black Southerners go from being
married with a child to a well-known gender-bending butch artist? Ask Sharon
Bridgforth.

For the Lambda Award-winning
author, the hardest part of that journey was coming out to her mother.

"Once I came out, I
had to fight with her," she said. "And after that, there is nobody
that I feel concerned about around how they perceive me."

Growing up in the 1960s
and ’70s in South Central Los Angeles, Bridgforth said that words like gay, lesbian,
queer and feminist were not a part of her lexicon. Yet "those things
have always been in my world and a part of who I am."

The widely anthologized
Bridgforth is known as the author of two cutting-edge performance novels, the bull-jean stories and love
conjure/blues
, and is the founder of the now defunct award-winning root wy’mn
theatre company.

Her journey — from a being
a "buck-wild" girl running the streets of her beloved Los Angeles
with her mostly Latina homegirls to an artist who has received support from the
National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation — was a winding
road that included a wedding, giving birth, alcoholism, cancer and her fair
share of "pretty women."

Like many other black
Americans who landed in California
in the mid-20th century, her Southern roots "were very fresh and on the
surface." And as a child, she often visited her extended family back in Memphis, Tenn.
As the only daughter of a single mother, she learned to be self-sufficient in
the metropolis, yet was still under the protective eye of her "little
village."

"I felt very loved
and very protected," she recalled, "and very aware of the sacrifices
that had been made for generations past and by my own mother for me to be
there. I was always aware of that."

Even though the city was
beset with segregation, she relished the diversity of its population, riding
the city bus to school.

"I was a little city
rat," she said. "I could get anywhere in my city, and one of the
things that was great was that I was going from South Central L.A. to Echo Park,
so the cultural landscape of my bus ride was an education about the world."

Along the bus ride, "we
went in and out of so many ethnic neighborhoods, so the languages, the sounds,
the sensibilities, the people, the spaces changed a thousand times."

She was a "reading
son-of-gun" as a youngster and devoured many books on those long rides. During
her teenage years, she discovered Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes and James
Baldwin.

"Of course that just
changed my life," she said of discovering those writers. "I hadn’t
been exposed to them before, and it was like falling in love hard, like over
and over and over every time I found one of these young black writers. It made
living seem possible. It made my life seem valid, but it never occurred to me
that I could be a writer, an artist."

Her family encouraged her
to enter a more practical profession with security and benefits like teaching. "My
mother wanted to be a dancer when she was growing up and they squished that so
thoroughly," Bridgforth said, "and what I now understand is that they
were afraid for her."

Becoming an artist "was
never anything that was talked about or encouraged." Nevertheless, she
began writing when she was 15, tucking her creations away in a suitcase. "I
just kind of wrote ’cause it was a way of surviving, it was a way of breathing,
it was a way of making sense of my emotions."

It took the
self-described late bloomer several years — until she was around 30 — to even
show her work to others. In the meantime, she did the things good girls are
supposed to do: She went to college and got married. Shortly after her wedding
at 22, she became pregnant with her daughter, and that event changed her
perspective on life.

"I was like, I
really have to figure out what my life is about and who I am and what the heck
I’m here for," she said.

And she began coming out
to herself.

"That was when
without real language I realized that I loved women and wanted to be with a
woman, and got a divorce and ended up eventually going to the Catch." The
Catch is Jewel’s Catch One, a legendary black queer club that opened in Los Angeles in 1972.

"That was like
finding Jesus," said Bridgforth. "Everything changed after that."

At the Catch, she met "this
fine-ass poet named Michelle Clinton." So Bridgforth started going to
poetry readings: "I started going to poetry events, started calling myself
a poet, started asking her to help me with my poems."

But all the while, she
was battling alcoholism. She had started drinking at 10 years old, and the
fast-paced life of Los Angeles
was taking its toll.

"L.A. was just killing me and I was killing
myself in retrospect, and I just needed a change. I had a little girl and I
just felt like I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. And I didn’t know how to
do anything different."

Some of her friends had
moved to Austin, Texas,
and after hearing so many positive things about the city and seeing how her
friends had "chilled out completely" after moving there, she decided
to leave Los Angeles.

She had never been to Texas, but she just got
in the car with a friend and drove. "I don’t know what would’ve happened
if I would’ve stayed home," she admitted.

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