Friday, February 22, 2013

Looking Backwards

In the past days I've had a lot of occasions to think about what it was like to be gay in the 1970s.   To a lot of people, especially straight folk, that sentence will bring to mind Armistead Maupin's San Francisco based Tales of the City or something similarly themed purporting to celebrate gay life in New York City in the same decade.  Those, in the popular imagination, were the two poles of the gay world in the United States in the 1970s.  And both truly were magnets for gay men and Lesbians.  But any short consideration of numbers will reveal that for most of us, our gay 1970s was not like the carnival of gay sex that was, in fact, available in those cities.

Being a musician living in the suburbs of Portland, Maine for several of those years, my New York city based friends were constantly urging me to move there.   One told me he couldn't understand how I could pass up having a hand in participating in the building of "the emerging gay culture".   My several friends from San Francisco, all of them Maine boys who had gone west instead of to "the city" similarly encouraged me to go there.   One told me that it was like buying a coat, if you went to a bigger store you could try on a lot more coats before you found one that fit perfectly.  He didn't seem to have found that perfect one for himself.

I never did get to San Francisco but my trips to New York City quickly revealed that it wasn't for me.  The clubs, where most of the men I knew went most nights, were a lot like they are depicted, some of them far more so.  Lots of drinking and drugs, lots of anonymous and exotic sex, lots and lots of it.  Lots of attention getting behavior. Like all instances of attention seeking, the more extreme and the gaudier, the more likely it is  to be noticed.   It was a continual indoors Mardi gras, self consciously seeking decadence, then depravity.   And they wanted the real thing as provided at The Mineshaft and The Toilet.

Yes, the music was disco.   I can't say it was disco that decided the question that I wouldn't be going to the city but it helped in that decision.  I hated disco from the first time I heard the first bars of "Love's Theme".   I didn't get to the symphony or to hear new music concerts much on those visits.  I hadn't developed a taste for opera yet, which is too bad as one of my friends sang with the City Opera chorus.  How he did it while clubbing I will never understand.  He was one of my many  friends who died of AIDS, after burying his lover who died of AIDS as well as just about every single other of his New York friends, before he went home to his family to die.

It was in 1973 that someone I knew from New York made a remark about hepatitis being a rite of passage for gay men.  It was a moment that pulled together a lot of what I hadn't, as yet, concluded about what I was seeing.  I knew enough about hepatitis to already realize that it was an insane idea, an expression of the unreality of the spectacle.   And knowing it was spread by contact with feces, the statement was another way saying that anal sex was "the real gay sex".  That was explicitly asserted many times by the theoreticians of this allegedly emerging gay culture, that other forms of sex were, somehow, less authentically gay. Not having yet seen K.J. Dover's book about intercurral sex as depicted on Greek pottery or knowing that Oscar Wilde and a number of other famous gay writers had rejected anal sex, I didn't argue the issue on those grounds.   I'm sorry to say I didn't argue it at all.  I didn't happen to want anal sex, knowing about hepatitis and e-coli and some of the other, then known, risks of anal sex.   I certainly didn't like the increased chances of disease but I also refused to accept the theme of dominance that made traditional straight relationships something women had to fight against.   That is exactly what the emerging so called gay culture of the 1970s was doing, reveling in the very worst aspects of straight male identity masked with the gaudy trappings which were what most people seem to have seen.

Confronted with evidence of hard science during that crisis that was, literally, decimating gay men,  noting the health problems of anal sex or anonymous sex got a blast of soc-psy speak mixed with huge amounts of the current political theory that was, in fact, geared to shut down reasoning  and discussion.   The "theory" of gay sex current in the late 70s and 80s was anything but based in reality, it was a mound of crap based on preexisting mounds of such "theory" as, no doubt, could have gotten you a masters at a prestigious university.  You could have fertilized Central Park, all of the green spaces in New York City with the stream constantly being generated to enforce the current line of "liberation".  It would be exactly the same stuff , said by the same men, even as the AIDS deaths were mounting and a link to anonymous and anal sex was found.  The trips to New York City in the early 80s were more like a slow motion Masque of The Red Death in the world's biggest ball room.  After 1985, there wasn't a trip that didn't include one or more funerals for men in early-middle age or younger.  All of the ones I knew dead from the consequences of what had seemed so liberating to them only a few years before.  Temporarily, the unignorable fact of AIDS killing gay men influenced the discussion.

Seeing what I did, hearing what I did, I learned it is immoral to censor what I say about the consequences of irresponsible and selfish sex, not to mention commercial sex and the constant coercion of the sex industry to either participate in that kind of dreary, boring, increasingly immoral sex or to accept if not approve or it for other people.  You are to accept what its lying and idiotic spokesmen said on behalf of the industry, many of them women, these days.   Which is unstylish to say in the 2000s, especially in the virtual 1970s recreated online, for those who actually recreate the milieu with their bodies, counting on being able to be sustained by a series of drug protocols that, eventually, lose their effectiveness as HIV mutates in response to them, and, even more so, the nonparticipating cynics who enjoy the spectacle, which must be constantly ramped up as they become bored with last season's show.

I am afraid for my nieces and nephews in the same way that I was for my gay friends in the late 70s and early 80s, only now I've seen what I'd only suspected was going to happen come true.  The equivalent of "sex pos" "feminism" and hooking up are things I've already seen and I know what the next act of the tragedy is.


I've come to think that anyone who wants to see how the left, in general, went seriously wrong could probably find some ideas in studying the political expression of the 1970s gay scenes in urban centers.  Three  statements from some of the ephemerally prominent spokesmen for gay men back then have stuck with me.

One was in a magazine ad, I think it was for some gay political group or other, in the form of those period Dewar's Vodka "profile" ads.   In correct 1970s theoretician speak, the now forgotten profilee said that we must stop thinking of gay men as individuals but think of gay men as a category.   Just the idea that we must think that way would be enough to get my back up, even at that age.  I wasn't interested in being liberated in order to be told how I was to think.   But even more so was the idiocy of thinking that liberation was all about coercion to conform to some concept dreamed up by some theoretician.  Most of the people who talked like that were either academics or they aspired to be mistaken for an academic.  For a lot of the more intellectually inclined of any gender preference, being a THEORETICIAN was the apex of achievement.  Being a theoretician might get you a faculty position.  Having suffered through a series of useless theory classes as a music major and, much worse, having read theory of the past decade, I was already far more impressed by doing rather than abstracting and expounding theories.

Another would be gay leader, whose name I wish I remembered,  said something much more sensible, that the gay movement needed a Martin Luther King and it wasn't going to have one.  I don't know if I realized at the time that it was a far more insightful statement about gay life in the 1970s but it's one of the few such statements from back then that was a sharp insight into reality.  We needed a unifying figure who could effectively force the kind of legal change that was made in the 1960s.   The conditions that produced that kind of leadership, especially black families and black churches, were entirely missing from gay life.  The lack of those entities meant that the real possibilities for change were always either aborted before development or constantly eroding into the very gay carnival scene that so many took as the entire point of the new freedoms.  There was nothing providing a center around which to organize, no agreed to goal.  The competing theorists of the "emerging gay culture" weren't a dialectic  that produced progress, it was a grinding machine that just produced a pile of junk.  The antagonism from and to religion left gay men without what religion provided the earlier civil rights struggle.  The attempts to provide that through The Metropolitan Community Church and other groups were good but no competition to the profane attractions and the atheistic world of academic theory.

While the emerging possibilities of being out, of fighting against the need to hide ourselves were an essential part of the movement to real equality, the decade was an unfortunate one for gay folks in many other ways.

Sex, being the central issue in being identified as gay,  that fact meant gay people were also caught up in the increasingly screwed up ideas about sex that are common to the human species.   The third statement was that the great achievement of the alleged gay liberation movement was to separate sex from love, to free sex from love.  Well, I couldn't deny that there was a lot of sex removed from love or even acquaintance,  it was obviously one of the few things that was really happening in a big way.  But I'd always seen that kind of furtive sex as being a symptom of the necessity to not be seen as gay.  It was an emblem of oppression, not freedom.  You couldn't be seen as having a long term gay relationship without risking your job and, in many cases,  membership in your family, and in reality, your life.

Of course anonymous sex was dangerous as well.  Even aside from getting hepatitis or other forms of "VD," as we used to say back then, every gay man I knew either knew someone who had been brutally attacked and/or robbed during their pursuit of anonymous sex.   A lot of us knew the names of men who had been killed by the class of criminals who specialized in attacking gay men who were looking for sex.  The police response to crimes against gay men, especially those who had been attacked while looking for sex, made it useless to report those crimes.  On occasion it was the police who attacked gay men, if they weren't there in plain clothes to arrest men who approached them.

If there was one thing I was absolutely certain of, I didn't want sex divorced from love, I didn't want sex based on domination and submission or a simulation of rape or the psychotic, internalized hatred of sadomasochism, no matter how idiotically chic it was sold as being by idiots selling themselves as intellectuals.  I didn't want a series of ephemeral sexual encounters with men whose name I didn't know,   I didn't see anything sustainable or good in what was then developing as a  "gay culture" which I increasingly saw as a symptom of internalized oppression and self-hatred by wounded men who had been prevented from having an open, loving relationship with a man who was committed to them.  What, at first, seemed like frivolity aping the prescriptions provided to women to keep them from taking their lives seriously all the easier to dominate,  was quickly turning into something far worse.   It was looking to me like the early parts of Pasolini's movie Salo, in which a rising level of violent novelty in sex was necessary to maintain interest for those able to take a dominant role.

Then the AIDS crisis became a brief and solemn time out from all of that.   The self-destructive party was submerged in the health crisis only to reemerge as AIDS was declared over due to the powerful and far from consequence free drug cocktails, and, even more so, as more people went online.   Thinking about how it happened became passe.  The AIDS quilt was made of cloth, not of granite.

In the past ten years, being exposed to far more gay porn than I saw in the previous four decades,  the results of divorcing sex from love look, ever increasingly, like Salo.*   That is what sex divorced from love always will result in, that is what seeing people as objects treatable by theory leads to, it is the opposite of The Reverend Martin Luther King jr's conception of the beloved community.   And, as can be seen in the increasingly violent straight porn, of the lunancy of "sex pos" "feminism."   The hook up sex culture  of today offers to straight women what gay men had in urban centers of the 1970s,  including the inevitable results of ignoring the science generated by places like the CDC.  If nothing else, then the denial of reality as then will lead to only an alternative form of oppression by a new form of coercive denial of the humanity of individual people, turning people, not into people free to love and be loved but into interchangeable and fungible units of commerce in a market of commodities, with rich opportunities of cheating and theft.  With that inevitably comes a sacrifice of those units whose value is depleted.

It was my luck that I didn't want what I was told to take in the 1970s.  I didn't want sex without love, I didn't want superficial encounters with people I didn't know as a substitute for love.  I didn't want the deadened pain that the disco-drug-drunk-domination program really was.

I chose something else and I was lucky to find a man who wanted what I did.  The times and places we lived in made it impossible for us to have more of what we wanted but neither of us came to the kind of bad ends that so many of the men we knew did.  Both of us lost scores of friends to AIDS, to alcoholism and drug addiction, to violence and the literary-celluloid  prescription for being gay of suicide.   Neither of us had any desire for anal sex or sex with strangers or sex with themes of domination and submission.  The discussion about that was rather uncomfortable until we were both relieved to find we agreed on that point.  We didn't want sex that put either of us at risk We didn't want sex without love.  We didn't want sex without each other.   I'd have liked to have married him but that wasn't going to be.

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