Part 1: Floppy blond hair and hot pants
We’re all adults, right? I can talk freely?
This is the speed-dating portion of the story, so let me just dump everything on you all at once and confess — and this may represent the “deal-breaker” — I’m gay.
You know. “That” way. Artistic. Theatrical. A flick off the old limp wrist. Wearer of white socks. Swishy, lispy, queer, camp. A poofter, a nancy boy, a ponce. A friend of Dorothy. Whoever that is, and should she need another.
And it’s Gay Pride, and I’m 60, all of which combine to create, I’m awfully pleased to note, the ultimate, full-bore all about me scenario.
So let’s get started!
What was it like to be gay back in the ’60s and ’70s, when I was growing up? Everything was just peachy until 1969, when, for the record, I was a precocious 14-year-old with floppy blond hair, early-adopter hot-pants and a 24-hour-a-day hard-on, attributes which, at 60, and usually minus the hot-pants, have approximately reversed themselves.
(And for those of you for whom history begins with the appearance of Lady Gaga, mentions of “Stonewall” refer to our gay watershed moment, in 1969, when patrons of an illegal, Mafia-run gay bar in New York City, tired of police harassment, fought back, precipitating a gorgeously dramatic full-blown riot and giving lie to the notion that the queer community can never agree on anything, because that was the night we did.
Weird coincidence: Judy Garland died the same day, adding a dollop of tragedy, not to mention her finest moment of theatrical one-upmanship, to the proceedings. And please don’t ask “Judy who?”, we’ll be here for hours.)
Well, then. Until 1969, you lived your life like anyone else did: Going to school, riding your bike, playing whatever sports were suitable to the season, except curling; taking out the garbage, raking leaves and shoveling snow; listening to Ethel Merman in “Gypsy” and watching new episodes of “I Love Lucy”. It was nice.
Of course, there was that little extra task—of keeping under wraps the shameful secret of your terminal faggotry, your vileness, your perversion, your queerness; of containing the malevolent genie of deviance who, should he escape, would — with one twitch of his nelly, Arabian Nights curly-toed slippers — compel your parents to throw you out, or possibly declare you dead, depending on what passed for god’s tough love in their chosen rite; force your friends to abandon you, utterly, in disgust (unless you’d already gotten drunk on “Baby Duck” and made a sloppy pass at the latest target of your free-floating man-crush, which meant you’d have to leave Dodge City anyway); and ensure your condemnation to an eternity of various fiery and hideously ironic tortures in the innermost circle of Homo Hell.
Otherwise, it was all pretty low-key.
Social life for gay men was similarly pared down. There were in fact two options.
To meet someone in the conventional manner, if you’d managed to work out that there was probably another one to meet, you went to a gay bar, often just a regular men’s tavern that either “tolerated” you or hadn’t clued in yet that there were cuckoos sashaying all over the nest.
If you were lucky enough to live in a big city, there would be a bona fide, dedicated gay bar, where you could butch it up or camp it up, drink cocktails instead of beer and tomato juice, and listen to your preferred music, even dance.
This was like attending gay university and getting your credentials for a lifetime of alcoholism and “Carpenters” albums, a surprisingly popular career track.
Or, second option, there was meeting someone in a public washroom — the microwave method, as it were. Quick and dirty, this made up in sheer outlaw terror, speed and quantity what it lacked in anything approaching your preferred candlelight-Champagne-Swan-Lake vibe or attentive quality, demonstrating once and for all that the genie in the bottle was actually that genial but unruly fellow between your legs; and that the nuns had been right after all for insisting on “hands above the covers” (though how on earth did they know?).
If you are aware of the tendency of gay men in those days to sit at home after dinner enduring the screech-issimo of Maria Callas; or getting all weepy on gin, acting out the entire party scene from “All About Eve” then deliberately botching a suicide attempt, these two options were why.
This, then, was pre-Stonewall, and our camouflage, developed over centuries, was chameleon-perfect. All we required was no rocking of our tiny, exquisitely decorated life rafts. After Stonewall and its rioting drag queens, as if there were any other kind, and the emergence of “Gay Lib”, came the abrupt loss of our protective coloring and underground status.
Now we needed to cope with our fabulous new problem: For with a sudden flare of police searchlights and a sounding of emergency sirens outside an obscure Greenwich Village bar, we had been rendered visible, like helpless specimens of exotic small game chased from their dens, easy pickings for the hunters’ clubs and nets.
Without rights, respect, dignity – without a flicker of understanding or compassion – our Pyrrhic victory had won for us a freedom that could only be endured, not yet lived.
At least now, with our new visibility, we could be certain of one thing: that the people who’d called us “vile” really did mean it, after all. They really, really did.