Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Gay playwright George Birimisa dies


George Birimisa, seen here in 2010, performed in Kirk Read's Sex Workers Art Show. (Photo: Steve Susoyev)
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George Birimisa, a beloved San Francisco playwright, teacher, and firebrand, died on May 10. He was 88.

Mr. Birimisa died at California Pacific Medical Center of cumulative complications related to emphysema, said his friend Steve Susoyev.

Mr. Birimisa was the first openly gay playwright to receive a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Friends said that the award was a mixed blessing for Mr. Birimisa, who had grown up in dire poverty and for whom the name "Rockefeller" was synonymous with the worst of capitalism.

Mr. Birimisa began writing stories at age 8, just after his father died in jail and his mother placed him in an orphanage. Insecure about his lack of education beyond the 10th grade, in writing for the stage during the 1960s, he discovered an art form in which he didn't have to worry about his grammar.

With enthusiastic reviews for his early work in the Village Voice, the New York Times and the Advocate , a world of creativity opened up to him. Tennessee Williams wrote of the wildly controversial Georgie Porgie : "Bravo! A beautiful, courageous play. I loved it."

During his early theater career, friends said that Mr. Birimisa alienated many people through backbiting behavior that, he later acknowledged, was motivated by envy.

"Other playwrights were a threat to my self-esteem," he admitted in a 2009 interview. "I couldn't see anything worthwhile in anyone else's work."

He demonstrated introspective insight in other ways as well. At age 67, after a near-fatal encounter with a street hustler whom he had paid to rough him up, Mr. Birimisa entered 12-step recovery for sex addiction. During the next 20 years, he sponsored dozens of people who had found themselves on the same path. A former sex worker himself, he was a favorite performer in Kirk Read's Sex Worker Art Show. Abstinence from his sexually compulsive behaviors never made him shy about discussing his past in the most colorful terms possible.

Mr. Birimisa moved to San Francisco in 1980, where he facilitated an intergenerational writing workshop at the old LGBT center, a group that included an 18-year-old lesbian and two transgenders in their 70s.

His plays Pogey Bait and The Man With Straight Hair premiered at Theater Rhinoceros in San Francisco, and he starred in Looking for Mr. America, which premiered at Josie's Cabaret in San Francisco and later moved to La Mama E.T.C. in Greenwich Village.

Never content to pursue only one passion, in 1986 Mr. Birimisa founded the gay and lesbian Arcadia Bodybuilding Society. He participated in five Gay Games as a bodybuilder, and won one gold medal, two silver and one bronze.

Throughout his life, Mr. Birimisa was a tireless advocate for oppressed people. He won the Harry Hay Award in 2005 for his decades of inspiration to gay activists and writers.

He received numerous literary and theatrical awards as well, including a 2007 Lambda Literary Foundation book award for co-editing Return to the Caffe Cino, published by Moving Finger Press. In 2010 he released Birimisa: Portraits, Plays, Perversions – a collection of his plays, short stories, and profiles by his friends, colleagues, and rivals.

A celebration of Mr. Birimisa's life will take place in early July. Updates on preparations for the event can be found on his blog site,


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