Been there, still doing that. And using it all. I’ve been a uniformed schoolgirl, slouching activist, marathoner, benign druggie, solo traveler, novelist, psychologist, filmmaker, and gay when it wasn’t cool. Now I’m a tie-dye holdover trapped in the wardrobe of a woman of a “certain age.” And not taking it well at all.
I hang out in universities as a professor and a pupil. I developed a first-of-its-kind class for the Fashion Institute of Technology: The Psychology of the Expression and Perception of Gender in Fashion. That class won a grant that took me to the London College of Fashion. But in every class I teach, this one or others, I learn from students. And I give them me, a person whose life touches my teaching. An admission few others make.
I give them stories to stick onto academic content that makes it real.
Inspired by the Renaissance, there’s little I don’t try. I travel alone to learn what I can from whatever and whoever happens to be there. Africa, Europe—Rome, Amsterdam, London—are my latest targets for chasing more of everything. But my stories start from Detroit. The best place to be from because its gritty glamor taught me.
Read my essays on robertadegnore.substack.com
During the Vietnam war I smuggled drafted guys to freedom in Canada in the trunk of my father’s big Buick—impossible in my two-seater MGA. During Civil Rights marches I ran from baton-swinging Detroit cops on horses. In SDS I skulked to clandestine meetings, but never threw a Molotov.
I went to breakfast with Flo Kennedy at Chicago’s New Politics Convention. She yelled at my Cesar Chavez activist boyfriend, so I left him and stayed to learn from her. Later I worked with the Quakers, truest people on earth, in the American Friends Service Committee in DC.
In New York, there was graduate school and seaplanes to Fire Island. That was when we all pretended cocaine wasn’t addictive. And AIDS was only a whisper that hadn’t changed our world yet. ACT UP would come…and go, like too many of us. And now it’s Rise and Resist and before that, the Reclaim Pride Coalition. So, I’m back to the fights that never end.
I’ve been there, still do it, and use it all. Everything is in the writing. That’s why I do or die—and I have the scars to prove it. I chase life-altering experiences. Or, they find me. A car had sent me flying off my bicycle on Christopher Street. It was lucky, that month in a hospital. It forced me to write. But a friend said, “don’t just lie there.” He introduced me to an agent who promised, “If you can write romances instead of dark poetry, I can sell them.” An offer I couldn’t refuse.
[right] Photo: Ivy Arce, Roberta Degnore and Justin Vivian Bond
Photo: Ginny Award 2022 for Storytelling at The Generation Project NYC
I’ve been a New Yorker since I was 21. It was before SoHo artists lived in lofts with mice or worse and you knew everyone at openings. I hit Bonnie and Clyde’s, CBGB, The WaWa Hut, Mudd Club, Paradise Garage, the Palladium, the Clit Club and every spot that was hot, then burned out. I proved myself with the women who rode (and partied) before I helped name us The Sirens.
[left] Photo: Kat Sterck, Will Wegman Studio, East Village, 1990 for Sirens MC NYC
I wrote thirteen historical novels, under pseudonyms, and paid my way through graduate school. Then I walked away, used my degree to practice psychology. But I couldn’t let go of all that living. I ran away to UCLA’s screenwriting program. I turned some of my novels into screenplays. I won awards and placed in every competition, and I still have scripts being optioned.
From romance books, to a murder mystery, and then recreating the life of a real French Connection drug smuggler, to a science fiction book, now it’s a memoir, Me and the Man Who Made Mapplethorpe. I face my life not filtered into someone else’s story. It’s because the flare of AIDS has stayed with me. It stuns me with memories of friends who are gone, of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe. I’ve had to finally stop running from those images.
But this new exposure scares me. More than my detainment at the Russian border, or the Canadian one, more than my skiing over a cliff, or searching dark East Berlin streets for gay bars, or getting through airport security with a bullet of coke in my pocket… In the language of the Renaissance, it’s coraggio—living this exposure now.
For a historical timeline of Roberta’s life with references, please visit Wikipedia.