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As an emerging gay teenager, I attended Cass Technical High School where I was fortunate to soon discover there were others like myself in the process of coming out. Although back then there was no such thing as coming out, there was, however signaling — by dropping verbal hairpins — and exhibiting tell-tale touches of creative flamboyance.
On the sixth floor of the Old CT building, razed about 10 years ago, there was much mingling of student art and music majors. Both categories of which were allowed eccentricities of behavior in conversation, dress and expression.
By the time of my senior year, I had made friends with six or seven emerging gay classmates with whom I was comfortable sharing my sexual inclination, discussing what movie stars might be gay, which art teachers just might be too, and having coffee at a nearby donut shop.
Among my black gay CT friends, two went on to make it big time in their illustrious careers: Harvi Alonzo Griffin (1936 – 2005) and Bernard Johnson (1937 – 1997). Harvi was a harpist music major; Johnson, a fashion fashion design student and dancer
Back in the late 1950s if you as a male played harp or designed high-fashion women’s clothes you were suspect of being “that way”: a queer, or a fairy. (I hated being called fruit, fag or fairy.) I myself played cello, and for one semester played in the CT string class.
Johnson, small of stature, once performed as a dancer for about 500 students assembled in the CT auditorium. He startled the audience by appearing in bathing trunks, his diminutive body enhanced in gold body paint.
He moved stage center, blue the bedazzled students a kiss and danced to Les Baxter’s “Le Sacre du Savage.” His performance brought the audience to its collective feet.
I was in a design class with Bernard a day or two later when some straight, no-talent guy who made the mistake of calling Bernard “miss thing” got his “beads read” — to use an expression of the time — by Bernard. Poor guy. He blushed the full color spectrum.
When Bernard Johnson died in 1997, the New York Times carried a quarter-page obituary listing his many costume designs for Broadway musicals, his friendships with Josephine Baker (he danced in her troupe a year or two), Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin and a command performance for Morocco’s King Hassan II.
Harvi from the start insisted his first hame ended in an “i” and not in a “y.” He wanted his musical talent, his mastery of the harp, to be signaled as something special.
“I am special,” he told his CT close acquaintances. “And you all better believe it. The harp is unique, and so am I.”
Harvi went on to play for the U.S. Army Band and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. His Arizona Times obituary praised “his skill at performing every type of music from classical to country and western.”
“Anyone who knew or studied with him soon learned that in his mind there was no excuse for anything other than your personal best,” it went on.
Harvi Griffin’s career include tours of the U.S., Asia and Europe. And, a PG readership round of applause: 25 White House appearances for presidents, statesmen and foreign dignitaries — none of whom I’m sure questioned the spelling of his name or the masculinity of his harp or performance.