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L.A.-based musical duo The Belle Brigade is a reporter's dream. Far from having just one angle to hook an article around, they come with four or five. For one, they are siblings. Members Barbara Gruska and Ethan Gruska are the son of songwriter Jay Gruska, who has written for Dusty Springfield and Michael Jackson, among others. They are the grandchildren of legendary Star Wars composer John Williams. They have toured with major acts like Jenny Lewis, and... oh, yeah, Barbara is queer.
They were recently granted a spot on the soundtrack for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part 1). This should be a huge source of exposure for the siblings, exposing an even greater crowd to the sunny hooks and crystal-clear production of their self-titled debut. The buzz single "Losers" (see the video above) is actually more inspirational than the "Hang in There" kitten overcoming dyslexia to get his law degree, and "Sweet Louise" will make you fall in love with a girl you've never met.
Below, the duo sound off on queer rights, Barbara's mystery fiancé and what, exactly, a lesbro is.
Zack Rosen: Let's say I was going to describe you without mentioning that you are a queer/straight brother-sister duo with a royal musical pedigree and a spot on the new Twilight soundtrack. How would I do it?
Ethan Gruska: We weren't even together [musically] growing up. We'd do a lot of stuff separately in our musical lives. Then three years ago we started to do it together. It was the best thing for both of us. People know that we have fun making the music we make. That's the purpose: have it sound fun, have the fun come through. That's what we hope people would know.
Barbara Gruska: And it was Ethan's birthday yesterday.
ZR: Is there any brother-sister tension that comes through the band? Have you ever gone after the same girl or anything like that?
BG: I am engaged; I have only have eyes for one person. I think that we have similar tastes. We're both very attracted to beautiful, smart girls, but we've never fought over a girl.
ZR: That's impressive, because anyone in the presence of Jenny Lewis tends to fall in love. And I think you guys sound like Jenny and Johnny, but without the sexual overtones. Do you have any less-explored influences?
BG: We were listening to stuff we grew up with -- Brazilian, classical, jazz -- we've always been into that. The stuff we've recently discovered is our friends. We have a buddy named Blake Mills who played all the guitars on our record. He's a crazy genius. We're inspired by him. Also the guy who plays bass, Bram Inscore. Hanging out with the people we play with has always been a big inspiration, musically.
ZR: Your music has strong classic rock influences and bright production -- which, like your tour mates Blitzen Trapper, is one of the sounds of indie music right now -- but has a wider appeal. Do you feel any tension between songcraft and accessibility?
BG: I don't think we smooshed our songwriting for that to be the result. It's just that that's something we would want. I think it comes through in our songwriting. It's not like it's an intentional thing. The songs on the record are the songs we wrote. It comes out naturally when we write music together. It's not like the mastermind intention behind.
ZR: Ethan, do you know what a "lesbro" is?
EG: I think that that's me.
ZR: So you've heard of it?
EG: I can guess, but I'd love a definition.
ZR: It's like a faghag, but without the codependent dynamics.
EG: I'd take it as a compliment. I hope I'm that.
BG: He's a lesbro in a literal term: brother of a lesbian.
ZR: Ethan, have you ever heard feedback from our community, anything like, "Thanks for being an ally"?
EG: No, never got a response like that, but I definitely am one. I've never gone out there publicly and made a statement, but I definitely am.
ZR: Barbara, who is your lucky lady?
BG: She is an incredible jazz singer. She plays in a bunch of bands in L.A. We've been friends and had mutual friends for almost 10 years. She's just the greatest person in the world.
ZR: Can I ask both of you who Louise is?
EG: Actually, that story is not a personal story of ours. When I was in college, a friend of mine went through what that song is about with a girl named Louise. The way it was told to me was kind of awesome; it was really funny and deep. Me and Barbara decided to write a song about it, so it's not our Louise but a friend's.
ZR: Is "Losers" a song about queer power? It functions really well as a queer or "It Gets Better" anthem.
EG: There's a lot of everything power. It's just supposed to be uplifting for anyone who feels like an outcast in any way. It's not directed at any group of people; it's not supposed to be any lesson for anyone else but us, a mantra for ourselves to stay strong.
ZR: Barbara, when I was 16, that song would've meant something really important to me. Did you have any intentions with it?
BG: My general philosophy is non-exclusive in terms of human and civil rights. I don't think about one factor of what I personally identify as. It's the whole thing. I feel like we're all the same. That's the goal: for everyone to truly understand that seriously obvious concept. Obviously it totally works for that, and I really hope that if somebody just came out and heard the song and it helps them -- I seriously hope something like that would happen, but it's really for...
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When I moved to D.C. from Chicago five years ago, I entered not just a radically different geographical zone -- hills were, and still are, both new and a nuisance for me -- but a cultural terrain that I'm still learning to navigate. I wasn't out in high school -- Wrigleyville only became Boystown to me over a Christmas holiday in my mid-20s -- and the so-called "queer scene" at my tiny Ohio college was so small as to provoke both depression and mandatory chastity. I began writing for the Washington Blade the day after I moved here and realized, quickly, that I knew nothing about being an adult or being gay. And I found help.
I had history on my side, and I had Frank Kameny. I can't give any details about his career or legacy that haven't already been covered on this site, but I have been lucky enough to meet him.
On a rainy Friday in 2006 -- exactly five years and five days before he passed away -- I was given the task of photographing the occasion where Kameny's extensive collection of papers and gay rights memorabilia was inducted into the Library of Congress. I had recently read an excellent, decade-by-decade gay history book called The Other Side of Silence (humorously abbreviated in my syllabus as "TOSS"), and the effect of seeing its de facto star, my own personal Moses, introducing his life work to the archives was... well, I'd say seminal, but I don't think Kameny himself would appreciate my efforts to use that particular term without giggling.
I got to shake his hand that day -- I consider it my first act as an acting, urban homosexual -- and learned quickly that he was anything but inaccessible. Frank Kameny was sewn into the fabric of gay D.C., the same way that Harvey Milk is considered the mayor of Castro Street or Michael Musto the king of New York. He was a fixture at Connecticut Avenue's dearly departed Lambda Rising bookstore, the recent namesake for a stretch of gay 17th street and a reporter's or a grad student's dream for his perpetual willingness to share information with those who wished to seek it.
I've always found information about the gay past to be at a premium. The only way I've learned how to be gay now is by researching how I could've been gay in that unreachable then. Prior to meeting Frank Kameny, my guides had been David Leavitt, Larry Kramer, Dale Peck and all the others who bound up a particular time and place and left it on the shelves. These interactions are one-way, which made living in Frank's shadow so much of a privilege for those who had him at the periphery of their ordinary lives.
He always made himself available to D.C. There was a certain expression of joy you'd see on the faces of his admirers and friends when he came up. So many people I know have a story about him, a moment of humor or insight or concern they have shared together. That's what made Frank Kameny so special.
He was living proof that you spend your life fighting and still live to talk about it. It's easy to think that the people who create change are older, younger or hotter than you, have better media skills than you, only live in New York or L.A., or spend their nights as talking heads on the evening news. The mere existence of Frank Kameny in our nation's capitol was a testament to what happens when everyday people decide to show their teeth.
Unfortunately, to live in this city was also to watch the father of the gay rights movement wither. Like mold in the Library of Alexandria, the fortunes of our living legend precipitously, and publicly, declined. The D.C. organization Helping Our Brothers and Sisters released a statement earlier this year advertising its "Buy Frank a Drink" fundraising event that explained "Mr. Kameny ... lives very simply at his modest home in Washington DC, he has struggled to make ends meet on his slim pension. Also, while his mind is sharp he has difficulty managing his finances. To be brief, one of our greatest heroes needs help."
It's rare to see one of our best fade into the past, because in gay culture there is no past. We hold on to our mustaches, our genetic knowledge of the hanky code, venerate our icons today as we did when they first launched careers. In my relatively short experience I have never seen a gay icon make a comeback, because they've never undergone a drought of our communal adoration in the first place. Cher, Liza, Barbra, Poppers: they are important now because they were important then. They never went away.
The video above, shot on Dec. 30, 2008, is of Frank Kameny saying goodbye to his beloved gay bookstore before it closed. A man pulled me aside as I was filming to say that I should clean him up before I presented him to the public, as if we can airbrush the history off of those who we no longer want to fuck. Bookstores aren't entirely sexy, either -- the gay ones in this country are shuttering with the speed and sadness of a power-walking skeleton -- because their charm, their power, can't be accessed through a photo spread or a Google search.
I could say a lot about Frank here -- how he never lost the mischief in his eye that allowed him to take on the U.S. government or browse the skin rags with public impunity, how he never denigrated the choices and efforts of his fellow activists, or was -- barring the zeitgeist-defined normalizing he required of his earliest accolytes -- ashamed to flaunt the "sex" in "homosexuality." But it's all evident in the video. Kameny himself can show you better than I or anyone else in the world could tell.
Both he and Lambda Rising are lost to us now. That is a major blow to anyone like me who regrets never standing in the light of of The Moon and Spoon at Studio 54 but are constantly aware that we will always stand under its resulting nosebleed. It's sad to think how much we've lost without these resources, and how long I've been emotionally preparing myself to write this article. It's sad that we lost such a powerhouse yesterday, and I don't know how many more of his ilk we still have among us.
But the outpouring of sentiment at Frank's passing has been a relief, because to me that means we have not forgotten him. As long as that is the case, we will never have to worry that his fight, his legacy, end with him.
D.C. residents should consider checking out the Rainbow History Project's panel discussion of Frank Kameny at tonight's 50th-anniverary commemoration of the Mattachine Society. If folks in other cities are aware of similar events, I would ask you to post the details in the comments....