Araguz booking raises questions about Harris County jail’s treatment of transgender inmates

Judge Vanessa Valasquez

Judge Vanessa Valasquez

According to the Houston Chronicle, Nikki Araguz has been booked into the Harris County Jain after arriving 40 minutes late for a scheduled court appearance on Friday. The court date was to allow Araguz to plead guilty to charges that she stole a watch from an acquaintance last year. Under the proposed plea bargain Araguz would have paid $2,600 in restitution and served 15 days in county jail. State District Judge Vanessa Velasquez, a Republican first appointed to the bench by Gov. Rick Perry, responded to Araguz’ apologies for her tardiness with “It’s too late for sorry,” ordering bailiffs to escort her to a hold cell next to the courtroom.

Araguz is the widow of firefighter Capt. Thomas Araguz who died in the line of duty last year. Capt. Araguz’s ex-wife and mother have sued to claim the portion of his survivor’s benefits reserved for the spouses of slain firefighters, claiming that since Nikki Araguz was identified as male at birth the marriage was invalid under Texas’ laws prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriage. Mrs. Araguz’s birth certificate identifies her as female, as does her state issued identification.

Araguz’s booking has raised questions about the Harris County’s treatment of transgender detainees. The Sheriff Department’s Public Information Inquiry System listed Araguz using her male birth name on Friday. They have since removed the name from the site’s searchable database but have retained the record, listing it under the department’s “special person number” (SPN) filing system. The SPN record includes Araguz’s birth name. The Sheriff’s office has not returned calls from Houstini asking why the department is not using Araguz’s legal name and if this is common practice.

According to a friend who has visited Araguz at the jail her identity bracelet correctly identifies her gender as “F” – but reflects Araguz’s birth name, not her legal name. Araguz is segregated from the general jail population, but can receive visitors during regular visiting hours.

Araguz will remain in the Harris County Jail until Jan 25 when she is scheduled to appear again before Judge Velasquez.

—  admin

Kindred Spirits presents: The Judy Garland Christmas Show

Judy Garland Christmas ShowThere’s kitsch. There’s camp. Then there’s the Judy Garland Christmas Show, perhaps the single most absurdly divine thing to ever be produced by the 1960′s television industry. Kindred Spirits presents its 4th Annual Judy Garland Christmas Show & Sing-Along December 4th at Meteor (2306 Genesee St) at 5 pm.

In 1963 Garland found herself in trouble with the IRS for forgetting to pay taxes for a couple of years. Desperate for cash, she agreed to star in a weekly variety show for CBS, then proceeded to record 26 of the most gin-soaked hours in television history. Garland was remarkably cogent for the Christmas episode however, perhaps because her children were all on set as guest stars. Lorna Luft, Joey Luft and (almost unrecognizable with long hair) Liza Minnelli join fellow guests Jack Jones, Tracy Everitt, Mel Tormé and the true stars of the show, the chorus line of dancing Santas, for an hour of surreal delight.

With Nancy Ford emceeing, the Judy Garland Christmas Show & Sing-Along has become a Houston holiday tradition. In addition to the show and complimentary eats there’s also a raffle for a flat screen television. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door and can be purchased at kindredspiritshouston.org. Proceeds benefit AssistHers, the Lesbian Health Initiative Houston, and Expert Nutrition.

After the break watch the opening number from the Judy Garland Christmas Show.

—  admin

‘Perform or provide’

DADT repeal gives progressive chaplains a chance to counter evangelical clergy in the military

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CATCH-ALL CHAPLAIN | Chaplain Chris Antal (Lt.) attended the meeting of the Forum on Military Chaplaincy at Cathedral of Hope in October. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com
When a soldier recently came to Chaplain Chris Antal, a lieutenant in the Army National Guard in New York and a Unitarian Universalist minister, and asked if he’d pray with her even though she was a pagan, he said he replied, “Of course I will, but you’ll have to show me how.”

Several weeks later, when he saw her again, she told him that the day she had come to visit him, she had hit rock bottom. He had, she told him, saved her life that day.

But Antal said he was only doing his job — helping any soldier who comes to him.

“I’ve earned the nickname, the Catch-all Chaplain,” he said, explaining that it means he takes everyone the other chaplains don’t want to deal with.

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Capt. Tom Carpenter (ret.) and Col. Paul Dodd (ret.)

Being there to help a soldier in need is what it’s all about for a military chaplain, said Col. Paul Dodd, a retired chaplain who now lives in Austin.

“The duty of a military chaplain is to perform or provide,” said Dodd, adding that he once sponsored an Islamic conference.

Dodd said that no chaplain can perform every service needed by every member of the military. But if a chaplain can’t perform the service requested, he or she must provide that soldier with a referral to someone else who can.

Antal said that chaplains who enlisted knew what they were getting into — to some extent. But none of them really expected the repeal of the military’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And for many, that repeal was a game changer.

In October, a group of active and retired chaplains and military personnel and other people of faith, such as the Rev. Steve Sprinkle from Brite Divinity

School in Fort Worth, met at the Interfaith Peace Chapel at Cathedral of Hope to begin looking at ways of addressing the issues that arose for military chaplains around DADT repeal.

Dave Guy Gainer said The Forum on Military Chaplaincy is not exactly new. It formed in 2005 as a project of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and worked under the radar until DADT was repealed.

Sprinkle said people in the Pentagon, up through Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, knew about their work and considered their statements throughout the DADT repeal process.

And now, with repeal complete, the group met to “come out.” At their meeting in Dallas, forum members considered ways to become an independent organization helping to ensure newly out service members receive the pastoral care they need while serving in the military.

Susan Gore, principle of The Mentor Group and editor of the book Coming Out In Faith, moderated the Dallas conference. She said the group started with several retired military officers “who wanted to push back against the far-right skew.”

Sprinkle has been part of the forum for four years and said he was recruited to participate because of his work on hate crimes.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sprinkle said, more and more members of the Chaplain Corps have come from just one school — Liberty

University, founded by far-right evangelical Jerry Falwell. Today, Sprinkle estimated, one-third of military chaplains come from Liberty University.

“They instituted a program that barely meets minimum requirements,” he said of the evangelical school. “It’s an online course.”

And, Sprinkle said, Liberty University’s goal is to take control of the Chaplain Corps and use the military as a pool for religious recruits.

“This is fertile ground to bring people to Jesus at taxpayer expense,” said Tom Carpenter, a retired Marine captain and one of the forum’s founders.

“I’ve heard stories of them holding the hand of someone who’s dying and trying to bring them to Jesus.”

And although such actions contradict military policy, no one in the corps has been disciplined or dismissed for it.

“They give chaplains a lot of leeway,” Carpenter said.

Gainer said the military is looking for well-rounded ministers who bring experience with them to the military.

According to the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School in Fort Jackson, S.C., candidates must be endorsed by their denomination or faith group and be “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members and civilians who work for the Army.”

But Sprinkle said that Liberty University is transparent about its goals, and those goals do not line up.

“They’re not committed to pluralism or serving all the troops,” he said.

Gainer said that the greatest opposition to repealing DADT came from the Chaplain Corps because military chaplains answer to two groups — the military and their denomination. Those chaplains that didn’t adhere to a strict stance of maintaining the ban on gays and lesbians were threatened with losing their accreditation from their endorsing religious body — and with it their livelihood and their pensions.

But that contradicts the stated goals of the Chaplain Corps.

“Someone has to say, ‘Either you comply and serve all the troops all the time or get out,’” Sprinkle said.

Gore said that one of the goals of the newly public forum is to “rebalance the Chaplain Corps by bringing in more mainstream faiths.” She said that for many who come from more liberal traditions, questions of what’s a just war make it hard to serve in the military. Antal, for example, is one of just four Unitarian Universalists in the Chaplain Corps.

During its push for repeal of DADT, members
said, the forum had several successes working behind the scenes.

Despite the assumption of confidentiality between parishioner and clergy, that wasn’t always the case between gay soldier and chaplain. Dodd said that a number of discharges under DADT occurred after a soldier talked to a chaplain and the chaplain turned them in.

In fact, he wrote a white paper on the practice. After he submitted it, the military tightened up on chaplain confidentiality, Dodd said.

Carpenter, an attorney, wrote an amicus brief for the Log Cabin Republicans’ lawsuit against DADT. The court found in favor of declaring DADT unconstitutional, but Congress repealed the law before the decision could be enforced.

Carpenter said that the repeal allows gays and lesbians to serve with no protection. The legal decision, had it not been vacated upon repeal, would have allowed gays and lesbians to serve equally.

Now that DADT is gone, the forum is examining how to ensure LGB personnel receive the same services as other troops from chaplains.

Dodd said that right-wing chaplains charge that allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military will force them to act in ways that go against their beliefs. Some have said they would be required to perform same-sex weddings.

Dodd called that ridiculous. Chaplains are never asked to perform duties that go against their religious beliefs, he said.

“I turned down weddings,” he said. “An officer came to me who wasn’t divorced.”

He said the officer tried to pull strings and force the issue, but Dodd wasn’t going to discuss marrying someone who was still married to someone else.

“But we’re insisting chaplains have the authority, if it’s in keeping with their faith, to marry same-sex couples,” he said.

Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the repeal provides no family benefits. For some issues, Dodd and Carpenter suggested work-arounds.

Issuing ID cards would be extremely helpful, especially to same-sex couples with children, Carpenter said, noting that “That way either parent could get on base to get a child to the hospital.”

In another example, joint assignments can be offered at the discretion of a commanding officer, and married couples are often assigned together when they both qualify for positions that are available at the same base. Same-sex couples could be given the same priority.

As the forum looks ahead, rebalancing the Chaplain Corps with members from a more diverse background to reflect the membership of the military is a priority.

“And we need to take care of our trans brothers and sisters,” Carpenter said.

The repeal of DADT did not address any transgender issues and does not allow transgender men or women to serve in the military.

Gainer believes representatives of the forum need to sit down with far-right members of the Chaplain Corps and agree to disagree. He said that before the repeal of DADT, they talked to people at Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. While both groups testified against the repeal, they met with some success.

“The president of the VFW in Pflugerville said it was the right thing to do,” Gainer said.

That dialogue, he believed, would help chaplains perform or at least provide a useful referral, rather than doing more damage to a soldier seeking help.

Gore thought that the focus of discussion should be with the majority of chaplains “who want to do a good job and are part of the moveable middle.”

“We have to convince administrators and educators in divinity schools to encourage some of their best and brightest to serve,” Sprinkle said. “So many schools dropped what they were doing during the Vietnam era.”

Antal thinks that gays and lesbians will gain more acceptance as they tell their stories in non-confrontational settings and others see “their identity as professional service members is primary.”

While the work of the forum will concentrate on helping LGB military personnel, creating a more diverse Chaplain Corps may help a majority of service members. Recent polls show that a majority of troops find the chaplaincy irrelevant.

Sprinkle called the work of the forum a gift from the LGBT community to the nation.

“You wouldn’t think we’d be the ones opening the doors so that all troops will be served with dignity, integrity and respect,” he said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

 

—  Kevin Thomas

WATCH: Occupy Dallas in 90 seconds

So Rich Lopez and I literally took a swing past the Occupy Dallas demonstration in front of the Federal Reserve Bank on Pearl Street during the lunch hour, and below is what we saw.

It starts off kinda slow, with us sitting at a red light on the Woodall Rodgers service road, and a lone Ron Paul supporter shouting through a megaphone in our direction. (Talk about getting co-opted!!!)

But hang in there because things get pretty intense as we make the turn onto Pearl and a Dallas police officer, noticing Rich with the Flip camera in the passenger seat, yells, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

As you can see, there was a fairly solid line of demonstrators behind the barricades facing Pearl for an entire block, and when we complied with their demands to blow the horn, there was quite a response.

Consider Dallas occupied.

—  John Wright

Overcoming fear and finding passion

Landon Starnes had to step outside his comfort zone to compete as Lotta Pink in the Miss LifeWalk Pageant

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Landon Starnes as Lotta Pink

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

Talk to Landon Starnes about his involvement with LifeWalk, the annual walkathon benefiting AIDS Arms and its partner agencies, and you’ll hear

Starnes repeat the words “passion” and “fear” a lot.

Starnes said he let fear rule him for too long. But in the end, there’s no doubt that “passion” wins out.

Starnes, who works as a hairdresser, said that he was diagnosed with HIV in October 1998. But he wasn’t prepared to deal with reality, and so for years, he said, “I ignored my diagnosis emotionally.”

But then some friends began to encourage him to confront his HIV status by getting involved in LifeWalk, specifically by joining the Guys and Dolls LifeWalk team.

Starnes said it took him awhile to get up to speed, and he was involved with LifeWalk just “off and on” for several years. But three years ago, he decided to really take the plunge and has been an active member of the Guys and Dolls team ever since.

This year, even that got ratcheted up a notch when Starnes finally gave in to his teammates’ cajoling and entered the Miss LifeWalk Pageant.

“My team had been asking me for two years to enter the pageant, but I declined every time. I was just scared to death to do drag,” Starnes explained. “But this year, I decided to accept the challenge, even though it scared me.”

The first challenge was to come up with a character, so “I started brainstorming about a character, about who I would be,” Starnes said. “I started thinking about things I, as a person, am passionate about. And I am passionate about the singer Pink.

“Her music gets to me in a way that no one else’s does,” Starned continued. “Her lyrics inspire me. I think, if I had to pick just one, my favorite Pink song is ‘Glitter in the Air.’ It says, ‘Have you ever wished for an endless night?’ ‘Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air?’ It made me look into myself, literally. Last summer, while we were on a road trip, my friends and I stopped and actually threw a fistful of glitter in the air. It was silly and fun, and now it is a memory that will last forever.”

But there is one line in the song, Starnes said, that really touched him, one lyric that made him think and gave him the determination to set aside the fear that had held him back: “Have you ever looked fear in the face, and said, I just don’t care?”

It was, Starnes said, a spark that made his passion for LifeWalk and for doing something to help others blaze even brighter.

“I knew I wasn’t going to try to be Pink, but I love what she does. So I decided I would kind of pay tribute to her with my character,” Starnes said.

And so, Lotta Pink was born.

And lo and behold, Lotta Pink won the Miss LifeWalk title on her first try, helping Starnes bring in about $7,000 for LifeWalk this year, bringing his total over all his Guys and Dolls years to about $11,000.

Starnes said he and Lotta Pink obviously have a lot in common. “We share our passion for the cause, first of all, and second, we both want to step outside the box,” Starnes said. “I was afraid of doing drag. But my favorite quote is ‘Do it scared,’ so that’s what I did. I stepped outside the box and challenged myself, and in doing that, I learned that fears are just fears, nothing else.”

Starnes said that while his fears still remain to some degree, Lotta Pink “has no fear,” and she is helping him overcome his own.

“It’s easier when you can put on a wig and some makeup and kind of step outside yourself,” Starnes said. “Now, learning to step out without that disguise is what comes next!”

Knowing that what he does is all to help AIDS Arms and the clients the agency serves makes it even easier to put the fear aside, Starnes said.

“The Guys and Dolls team works all year, not just on the day of LifeWalk. And the people at AIDS Arms work all year trying to help other people. I love AIDS Arms, and I love what it stands for,” Starnes said. “The walk itself is symbolic, to me. It’s a short walk, yes, but just going through the movement of walking allows you to release your passion.

“Everybody who participates is there for their own reasons, but whatever the reason, they are passionate about it,” he continued. “That alone speaks volumes. The biggest thing that came out of all this for me was seeing how good people really are.”

Again, it all comes down to overcoming fear and fully realizing the passion.

“It’s so important for everyone to find their passion, whether it’s LifeWalk or something else,” Starnes said. “Finding my passion has lifted me to a whole new level of awareness, understanding and joy. It’s just such a positive energy when you are around all these people at LifeWalk who work so hard to make a difference in other people’s lives. It’s helped me find a happiness I have never known before.”

AIDS Arms LifeWalk will be held Sunday, Oct. 2, at Lee Park. Registration begins at 11:30 a.m., and the walk begins at 1 p.m. For more information, go online to LifeWalk.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Do you Peru?

Even as fans rallied to help Coco Peru get her next film off the ground, the drag goddess still likes her comedy live

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RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

Expect a lovefest when Coco Peru comes back to Dallas for Pride weekend. With memories of a responsive audience, shopping and beef jerky during her last go-round here nearly two years ago, the drag goddess is hoping for a repeat performance. Sort of. She’s back on the road with a new show, but that’s not all the legendary queen has going on.

“Well, we’ve filmed Girls Will Be Girls 2 already,” Peru (aka Clinton Leupp) says. “Right now the writer/director is busily editing. It’s just one of those things: You film it and hope for the best.”

Peru has garnered a significant amount of film work over the years, usually with notable cameos in films like as Trick, but occasionally as the star, as with Girls Will Be Girls. But she admits live performance is where she’s at her best.

“I like to think my show is like watching a theater piece,” she says. “I love film acting, but it’s exciting on a whole other level. There’s not that energy of a live audience and no feedback. So often, comic timing is how the audience is reacting to you. With acting, you mentally feel it out, try it and mostly trust the director. I find sometimes I rehearsed a line so much in my head, it takes me a few times to take direction on it.”

For Girls 2, Peru discovered just how much her fans appreciated her work. As a micro-mini indie, the film went on the website Kickstarter to raise funds. As word got out that the film was in production and that Peru was in it, the money rolled in.

“The movie was completely funded by fans,” she exclaims. “It was just incredible that they would want to pay money! And I must say, most of it came from my fans. I’m just putting that out there.”

Along with funds from Kickstarter, the crew itself was almost all-volunteer. People would just show up, willing to help out. It turned into an actual labor of love.

Along with donated help, the production even received a donated green screen. All the generosity reminded Peru that people are that genuinely kind and that it’s all right to ask for things, which usually embarrasses her. She saw this particular filmmaking experience as a good lesson on many levels.

“Let’s just hope the movie’s funny,” she laughs.

Dating back to the “early ‘90s” — that’s as specific as her website will get — Peru gives much credit to her fans along the way for the success of her career. Even if they come up to once again mention her role in the film Trick, Peru takes none of it for granted. Perhaps it’s cliché for any type of celebrity to appreciate their fans, but she  talks at length about how her fans have kept her driven.

“It’s so overwhelming, whether it’s a movie or my own shows, that they will take time to contact me to tell me whatever it is they are feeling,” she says. “I feel lucky and blessed when they reach out to me and I strive to answer every email. I remember those days that felt so lonely and sad. Growing up gay and feeling rejected doesn’t make a happy life. But when you get over 800 birthday messages on Facebook, it’s amazing!”

She’ll meet a new slew of fans on her current End of Summer Tour, as she’ll visit Tampa and Las Vegas for the first time as a performer. Even with her experience onstage, Peru is still daunted by a new audience, the same way she was before playing Dallas the first time early last year.

“The first time, I was nervous and I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalls. “I felt that audiences came wanting to have a great time. You go to certain cities and they have a bit of an edge, but in Texas, it was an immediate love fest on both ends.”

In her new show, There Comes a Time, Peru talks about getting older and reminiscing about her life. Fortunately, Dallas isn’t a punch line in her monologue. The city left a good impression on her and she only hopes to make another one of her own.

“Well, I’m happy to be coming back and they took such good care of me last time,” she says, “but I don’t wanna jinx myself. You never know.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 2, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Starvoice • 06.17.11

By Jack Fertig

CELEBRITY BIRTHDAY

Meredith Baxter turns 64 on Tuesday. For most of the ’80s, Baxter played Elyse Keaton on Family Ties. She’s mostly been seen in TV films and guest-starring roles. In an interview with Matt Lauer on Today back in 2009, she came out of the closet as lesbian. Her memoir Untied was released this past March.

THIS WEEK

For the next few months we get a taste of the Uranus-Pluto square that will dominate the next five years. Recent political turmoil has just been the set-up for major crises and changes ahead. Astrologically it looks a lot like 1848, 1939 and the ‘60s. Buckle your seatbelts; it’s gonna get bumpy.

………………….

GEMINI  May 21-Jun 20
As dystopian as the future looks, you’ll find a way to thrive. Trust your instincts and reconsider the most important lessons you learned from your mother. Talking with siblings can clarify that.

CANCER  Jun 21-Jul 22
Frustrations in love and career are too big to solve by yourself. Fortunately you have some very wise and resourceful friends. As odd as their ideas may seem, they will likely help.

LEO  Jul 23-Aug 22
It’s easy to worry yourself sick. Arguments make it worse. Focus on your career. Working through sexual issues is healing. Quiet time alone gives you space to think about what you need to do.

VIRGO  Aug 23-Sep 22
Sharing your innermost thoughts will open up ideas for creative fun. On the way, you open up some difficult childhood memories. Resolving an ugly past can clear the way for a better future.

LIBRA  Sep 23-Oct 22
Your home and partnership are heading for big changes. Be generous and comforting in bed. Family commitments need to change. Be clear on what those are. Be adaptive at work.

SCORPIO  Oct 23-Nov 21
Obsessing on details leads to accidents and misunderstandings. Don’t neglect the important details; just keep it all in perspective. Your partner’s advice and practical support will prove helpful.

SAGITTARIUS  Nov 22-Dec 20
Now’s the time to find a job you enjoy. Channeling your sexual charisma into the job search is helpful, but if you already like your work that charisma can go back to what it does best.

CAPRICORN  Dec 21-Jan 19
Trying to manage your family or community will backfire. Focus on having fun. If you’re looking for love, play at being moody, broody and intense; but remember, you’re playing.

AQUARIUS  Jan 20-Feb 18
Conversations open up deep psychological insights. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your family, no matter how odd. Releasing old tensions could have surprising health benefits.

PISCES  Feb 19-Mar 19
Reality is challenging your values and your plans, but that’s life. Adaptability and a sense of humor will help you stay true to your core while everything else goes crazy.

ARIES  Mar 20-Apr 19
Be very sure that your career is in line with your ambitions. Being unhappy on your job track will get you derailed. Contempt for authority is well-deserved but pick your battles strategically.

TAURUS  Apr 20-May 20
“Bad religion” is a subjective experience. Focus on your own personal beliefs; know where you find clarity, support and reassurance. Respect others’ paths while finding your own.

Jack Fertig can be reached at 415-864-8302 or Starjack.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

QUEER CLIPS: USAFF Short Film Showcase

Hello Caller: A suicidal woman calls a help line only to find the man on the opposite end (gay filmmaker Tom Lenk, pictured, who produced and wrote the script) seems not to understand the situation. A gem of a comedy with very dark undertones and a great twist.

Clara’s Carma: A psychiatrist (Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky of Glee) deals with a flaky patient and unexpected expenses on his new car.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Short Film Showcase plays April 29 at 9:15 p.m. with short film awards presented May 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

—  John Wright

Snap shots: ‘Bill Cunningham New York’ turns the camera on fashion’s most influential paparazzo

LENS ME A SHOE | The Times photographer documents foot fashion in ‘Bill Cunningham New York.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Maybe Project Runway’s to blame, maybe The Devil Wears Prada, but for the past few years there has been a surplus of documentaries about the fashion industry, with profiles of designers like Valentino (Valentino: The Last Emperor), Yves Saint-Laurent (several in fact), even young designers (Seamless) and Vogue magazine’s editor (The September Issue). (By contrast, I can only recall one fashion doc from the 1990s: Unzipped, about a young designer named Isaac Mizrahi.) Is there really that much to say about dressmaking?

Maybe not, but while Bill Cunningham New York fits broadly within the category of fashion documentaries, its subject is unusual because he eschews the trappings of haute couture even as he’s inextricably a part of it — a huge part, really.

If you don’t read the New York Times, you might not recognize Cunningham’s name, and even if you do read it, it may not have registered with you. For about, well, maybe 1,000 years, Cunningham has chronicled New York society with his candid photos of the glitterati on the Evening Hours page. At the same time, however, he has documented real fashion — how New Yorkers dress in their daily lives — with his page On the Street, where he teases out trends (from hats to men in skirts to hip-hoppers allowing their jeans to dangle around their knees). Anna Wintour may tell us what we should wear; Cunningham shows us what we do.

“We all get dressed for Bill,” Wintour observes.

What makes Cunningham such an interesting character is how impervious he seems to the responsibility he effortlessly wields. He loves fashion, yes, but he’s not a slave to it himself. He scurries around Manhattan (even in his 80s) on his bicycle (he’s had dozens; they are frequently stolen), sometimes in a nondescript tux but mostly in jeans, a ratty blue smock and duck shoes, looking more like a homeless shoeshiner than the arbiter of great fashion. He flits through the city like a pixie with his 35mm camera (film-loaded, not digital), a vacant, toothy smile peaking out behind the lens, snapping the denizens of Babylon whether they want it or not.

One of the funniest moments is when strangers shoo him away as some lunatic paparazzo, unaware how all the well-heeled doyens on the Upper East would trade a nut to have Cunningham photograph them for inclusion in the Times. Patrick McDonald, the weirdly superficial modern dandy (he competed as a wannabe designer on the flop reality series Launch My Line a few seasons back), seems to exist with the hope that Cunningham will shoot him. And shoot him he does.

Many artists are idiosyncratic, even eccentric, but Cunningham is supremely odd by any standards. He lives in a tiny studio near Carnegie Hall filled with filing cabinets cluttered with decades of film negatives on the same floor as a crazy old woman, a kind of urban variation on Grey Gardens. He knows tons of people but most of them seem to know very little about him. By the time near the end when the filmmaker, director Richard Press, finally comes out and ask him outright whether he’s gay, Cunningham arches in that prickly New England way, never really answering outright, though he says he’s never — never — had a romantic relationship. Things like that were simply not discussed by men of his generation.

In some ways, we never really know any more about Cunningham at the end than any of his friends do, and perhaps even him. Cunningham comes across as defiantly non-self-reflective. He lets his work do all the talking for him. And that work has a lot to say on its own.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 8, 2011.

—  John Wright