in his life before Buddhism, Issan Dorsey was a ‘bad drag queen’. But at the San Francisco Zen Centre he was a bodhisattva for a gay community blighted by AIDS. This excellent biography vividly evokes his extraordinary life.
What extraordinary lives we lead, we ordinary Buddhists. I have heard a good number of life stories recounting paths to the Dharma. For those of a certain age the paths can include hash-laden hikes through Afghanistan or explorations of paperback esoterica in drug-strewn squats. But I have come across few contemporary Buddhists whose biographies have the louche grandeur or the extravagant unlikelihood of Issan Dorsey’s progress from drag queen to roshi to death from AIDS: If the Buddhist press had tabloid supplements, Issan Dorsey would have made the front page.
He was born plain Tommy Dorsey in 1933 in Santa Barbara, California. His parents were God-fearing Irish Catholics and they were at a loss to know what to make of their ‘sissy’ son. It took Tommy himself a good sixteen years before he figured it out: ‘Oh, I’m a homosexual, there are other homosexuals in the world, they actually meet and have conversations and have friends.’
This was 1950 and the Korean War was being fought, so Tommy signed up for the navy and found himself in a thriving gay world until the authorities cottoned on. The navy discharged him, tipping him out into gay San Francisco where, cut off from social and family ties, the party began in earnest … From this point the story becomes every right-thinking parent’s nightmare of a descent into drink, drugs, and lots and lots of sex. There is sex in bars, at parties and in prison; sex with men, with women, with men dressed as women, with men while dressed as a woman; sex with prostitutes, as a prostitute… Anything. Anyone. When I first read On The Road as a teenager I was amazed that people had been living such a wild life back in the MacCarthyite, Doris Day 1950s. Well they were, and by the sound of it they were probably doing them with Tommy Dorsey. Street Zen should come with a dharmic health warning: ‘This book contains language and behaviour which may cause offence. Not for those who are trying to forget the kamaloka altogether.’
Tommy Dorsey transmuted into Tommy Dee, drag queen of San Francisco’s North Beach, working the bars, dealing drugs, doing cabaret, picking up tricks. He moved to Chicago which was ‘a bad queen city. They were BAD. Hustling, running with whores, working for the mafiosi.’ He moved in with a prostitute called Bang Bang Latour and pretty soon Tommy was as bad as the worst.
Tommy got back to San Francisco and found things were different. This was the sixties and barbiturates and heroin were giving way to LSD and cannabis. The air was thick with unsorted spirituality and one day Tommy walked into Suzuki roshi’s zendo. Something changed. The outrageous personality Tommy had constructed had been mellowing and now it cracked. Overnight Tommy quit hard drugs. Walking down Haight Street one day he stooped to pick up a sweet wrapper. ‘I bent down and picked it up and right as I did I said to myself “Does this mean I am responsible for everything I see?” I told myself it didn’t, but actually I knew that it did.’
Schneider says little to explain this transformation beyond mentioning Dorsey’s sense at this time that he was shaking off life-long shame and guilt at being a homosexual. A psychoanalyst might have based a book around this hint, but Schneider leaves it alone. He writes in a lively vernacular, full of short sentences and verbatim anecdotes. He is less a writer than a reporter, and less a reporter than a friend. He does not so much describe or explain Dorsey as introduce him to us.
Tommy had got the Dharma. He started to rise at 4.00am to practice zazen and he plunged into the project that was to become San Francisco Zen Centre which, with its affiliates – Green Gulch farm, Tassajara monastery, Greens restaurant – have had a central place in the recent history of American Buddhism. What emerges is Dorsey’s great humanity: his unassuming kindness, his generosity, his humour and – in this biographical perspective – the human depth of his involvement. Dharma became his life and the sangha his long-sought family.
A sense of these depths is necessary to understand the crisis that hit Zen Center when its Abbot, Suzuki’s heir, Richard Baker-roshi was found to be having an extra-marital affair. This scandal focused grievances against Baker-roshi’s style of leadership and provoked a profound sense of betrayal. ‘Baker-roshi’s real crime,’ says Schneider, ‘was that he seemed to have strayed from his deeper love affair with the body of students in the community.’
Dorsey stayed loyal to Baker throughout. Perhaps he had seen too much in his life to be caught up in such swirling emotions; his heart-felt devotion was simpler than the arguments which surrounded him. He just got on with his work and practice. In his final years Dorsey became something of a bodhisattva in the gay community blighted by AIDS. He established an AIDS hospice and then contracted HIV himself, suffering a long, painful illness before his death in 1990. Dorsey grows in stature throughout, but there is no cheap apotheosis in suffering – he ached and moaned his way towards death.
But Schneider is an honest writer and Dorsey’s seems to have been an honest death. By this book’s testimony he also seems to have lived an honest life and perhaps there is no greater tribute than that.
Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey
by David Schneider
Shambhala Publications 1994, pp.239, p/b