On January 1, 1979, a Black queer fourteen-year-old committed to writing in his new diary every single day of the coming year and just about did. The teen lived in Simi Valley, a suburb north and west of Los Angeles, where Reagan would build his presidential library, where the police who beat Rodney King in 1991—on video—would be acquitted of all charges the following year. Simi Valley wasn’t just majority white; it was a Klan stronghold and home to so many (white) LAPD officers the locals called it “Copland.” 1979 was the year of the Iran hostage crisis, rising gas prices, peak disco, and the Sony Walkman.
DeLear would go on to animate the edges of LA’s queer and punk scenes, making music, art, performing, and getting up in drag.
Raised by Evangelical parents in a notoriously racist suburb, Sean DeLear (the street, drag, and eventually legal name of the diarist, born Tony Robertson) chronicled his days spent crushing on boys and men, longing for cock, cruising, dreaming of being a street hustler (until he gets to Hollywood and succeeds), scheming, and shoplifting. DeLear would go on to animate the edges of LA’s queer and punk scenes, making music, art, performing, and getting up in drag.
At concerts and parties in East LA, the looks DeLear served were punk glam: “Diana Ross, but dressed from the thrift store,” according to Cesar Padilla. DeLear had a lithe body with long limbs, a pretty, expressive face, and an eight-lane smile. After DeLear’s untimely death in Vienna in 2017, Padilla came upon this complete diary and a partial diary from 1980 (written as DeLear turned sixteen) among his effects.
[These diaries] are remarkable for their content as much as their survival.
I Could Not Believe it: The 1979 Teenage Diaries of Sean DeLear shares these artifacts with the reading public. They are remarkable for their content as much as their survival. With this publication, Los Angeles-based publisher Semiotext(e) expands its roster of works advancing an anti-bourgeois queer polemic; it rebuts the moralizing panic around adolescent sexuality, which would deny teens any agency. As did many of his friends, the co-editors, Michael Bullock and the above-mentioned Padilla, refer to the diarist as “Sean De” with gender-flipping affection.
DeLear named his 1979 diary “Ty” after Tyler, a “hunk” and “total babe” who worked at the bowling alley, one of his regular hangouts, who DeLear “crush(ed) on madly”—a crush that was consummated on 31 March through the glory hole of the bowling alley’s toilet, according to that day’s entry.
In several entries, DeLear writes of wanting to “bribe” one of his tricks (Jim, who has “the second best cum in Simi Valley”), then later describes his intent as “blackmail.” Aspiring to hustle adult men for sex and money, it’s an endearing flub from a teenager, which hints at DeLear’s tender spirit. Reading the year of entries—some repetitive, some revelatory—I was struck by DeLear’s ambition to satisfy all of his wants and needs—love, sex, music, art, glamour, money, lessons, gear—in a single “bitchen” day:
“We are going waterbed hunting tomorrow over the hill. I hope I find a good one that is cheap. I still want to be a hustler on the streets. I am going to go to Jim’s tomorrow morning to make love and then take pictures of me and him then bribe him for money.”
In adulthood, DeLear would go to cameo as “Sheena” in Tone Loc’s 1989 music video “Funky Cold Medina,” to stints as hostess of Johnny Depp’s notorious Viper Room, to front the queercore band Glue, to backup dance for Kembra Pfahler and her shock-rock band the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, to join the Viennese relational aesthetics collective Gelitin, to stage a solo cabaret show, “Sean DeLear on the Rocks,” and to sing on the 2011 track “It’’s a Bubble,” by Australian producer Beni. Throughout this peripatetic artistic career, one can discern the probing, boundless, promiscuous teen of the diaries.
Beloved Sean De is surrounded by friends in this volume. In his introduction, writer Brontez Purnell credits his living aura with a life-changing revelation: “I could be beautiful, Black, and punk forever….” In his forward, Bullock attests that “against great odds, Sean DeLear always saw his sexuality as a great gift to be enjoyed… ‘to the max.’” In his afterword, Padilla states his friend’s diary was “not written with any literary aspirations in mind, but rather a teen’s uncensored document of pre-AIDS gay punk Los Angeles.” Indeed, it rings from the cusp of the 80s, just before AIDS subsumed queer narratives in anger and grief. It maps the contours of analog-era longing and tribe-seeking so that the digital children will know.
Contemporaneous with DeLear’s shantay through the LA scene, Ballroom mothers were founding their houses, refuges for queer Black youth, in New York City.
Purnell also gives name to DeLear’s effect on queer culture: “the word for her is MOTHER…” Contemporaneous with DeLear’s shantay through the LA scene, Ballroom mothers were founding their houses, refuges for queer Black youth, in New York City.
For me—a fellow rebellious queer Gen Xer, having navigated a homophobic, white flight context—reading DeLear’s diaries had me reflecting upon my suppressed adolescent longings and marveling at DeLear’s self-assured, libidinous joy so intensely it summoned a braver teen self as if out of the metaverse, who has since replaced the one that was nearly flattened in suburban estrangement. So yes, Mother. Enter I Could Not Believe It and enter the House of DeLear.