Monday, March 2, 2009

Today's Yesterday, Today

Left out of textbooks and any sense of educational history, I often feel as though Bookstore literature is the only window gay people have into our actual, cultural, factual history. It's also remarkably uncanny how certain threads of yesteryear's struggles are still so boldly woven within today's fabric.

The passage below is from Alan Helm's Young Man from the Provinces:

"...The summer after my junior year in 1958, I remained in New York doing test shots and putting together a modeling portfolio; otherwise, I spent my time exploring the gay world. It was such a different world, and now such a vanished one, that it's not easy to explain. Intensely secretive and hidden, it went on mostly at night behind the unmarked doors of the bars and in apartments where the shades were always drawn. The 415 Bar on Amsterdam Avenue was typical: you walked in, saw a few locals talking with the bartender, and figured you'd made a mistake. But through an unmarked door and in the back and down a flight of stairs, you entered a cavernous basement teeming with hundreds of gay men who were dancing and laughing and cruising and kissing and drinking and passing out in the johns. No wonder that during my two years with Dick I'd not had the slightest suspicion such a world existed. It was determined to remain as hidden as possible.

The men were too. Everyone I knew was more or less closeted and spent a lot of time in the workaday world passing for straight. Save for a few artists and hairdressers and decorators and dancers, we were all terrified of being found out. Gay men regularly married for the sake of appearances or inheritances and just as regularly committed suicide. If you heard that a gay man was seeing a shrink , it only meant one thing: he was trying desperately to "go straight," which sounded more like a road sign than a way of life. Parents routinely disowned and disinherited their gay sons or had them committed to mental hospitals where they were subjected to shock treatments and lobotomies and a popular therapy of the day called "aversion therapy": "by means of hypnotic suggestion and conditioning, the author has been able... to create deep aversions in the male homosexual to the male body." How do you do that? "Suggestions of filth associated with the male genitalia of their partners were implanted in their subconscious and reinforced periodically during the hypnotic trance." Psychiatrists published abominations like that with pride and impunity. In their view, which was mainstream America's view made professional and scientifically unassailable, homosexuality was an abnormality to be corrected at all costs; the most barbarous treatments were justified in the name of destroying such pernicious tendencies. There were gay men walking the streets of Manhattan in those days who had been rendered incapable of sex or had their memories obliterated by electricity. For some, it would take years to put their minds back together again; for others, the effort was hopeless. Of all the enemies we had, psychiatrists were among the most dangerous. And our parents, of course. I never met anyone who was out to his parents; you had to be crazy to do such a thing.

There was no place in public where it felt safe to be gay. Even inside the gay world you weren't secure, since bars and parties were raided all the time. You'd be having a beer and a chat with someone in a bar when suddenly the police would appear at the door screaming "Stay where you are, this is a raid!" Fear would sweep over the place, followed by a stampede for the back door, people falling over each other and jamming the exit in their panic to get out. During one of my own terrified escapes, I was fleeing out the back when I saw a fat man I knew wedged in the bathroom window leading to the alley. The next day, his name appeared in the papers along with the names of the other men arrested in the raid- a couple of dozen all told, an average take. He was fired of course and evicted from his apartment, and there was nothing he could do about it. There were no legal aid societies or political action groups for gays in those days, no gay weeklies or bimonthlies to publish his plight and raise money for his defense. What defense? Firings, evictions, arrests, entrapments, blackmail, muggings, murders- they happened all the time, they came with the territory.

At parties, you knew the instant the police had arrived. The room would fall silent and without even turning to look, you knew a couple of New York's finest were at the front door, "Fuckin' Faggots" scrawled all over their faces. Sometimes they told us to keep it down and they went away; other times they told us to break it up and then stood at the door as we filed out between them like guilty things caught in a shameful act. I never once heard anyone protest or ask why we had to break it up. We just did as we were told.

Except for the drag queens, bless their sassy, revolutionary hearts. But they always got beaten up and arrested and thrown in jail, over and over again. "Such masochists," we said. "They're really sick."

Whenever our world came into conflict with the straight world, group loyalties crumbled. Threatened with arrest or blackmail, thrown out of a party, chased down a midnight street by a gang of fagbashers, it was each gay man for himself, running for fear, lost in panic to save his own skin. We didn't have much political awareness, partly no doubt because our enemies were so often invisible: cultural opinion, legal precedent, psychiatric theory, social convention, religious stricture- nothing you could insult or demean or punch in the face in return. The most pernicious enemy of all, and the most invisible, was our own self-hatred.

Almost all of us bought into the straight notion that there was really something wrong with us, something abnormal and perverted and ultimately pathetic. It still astounds me to think how many derogatory names the straight world has invented to designate gay men: fags, faggots, pansies, perverts, inverts, aunties, flits, queers queens, cocksuckers, nellies, sickos, homos, sodomites, pederasts, sissies, swishes, fairies, fruits, and the list goes on. The reverberations of that lexicon sounded even in our dreams, inducing a kind of concentration camp mentality. We were disposable, the scum of the earth, living crimes against nature (thank you, Thomas Aquinas), and we knew that socially, religiously, legally, psychoanalytically, and in every other way that mattered, we were beyond the pale of what was considered acceptably human. I don't remember that we talked about the sense of shame the straight world bred in us, but it was pervasive in our lives, and I don't know anyone of my gay generation who's ever been able to shake it. I certainly haven't. You can still see it in the timid gestures toward self-exposure of a John Ashberry or Jasper Johns, and in the furtive, guilty cruising of gay men in their fifties and sixties.

With so much fear and danger hedging our lives it's no wonder we were a wildly romantic bunch. Mainstream America was too, of course. My parents had grown up in a world fed by Hollywood fantasies of romantic love, and the lyrics of popular songs urged a desperate, eternal monogamy: "Once you have found him/Never let him go," and then the repeat in case you weren't paying attention the first time. In 1957, 96 percent of adult Americans were married, if you can imagine such a statistic. Heterosexual marriage was the only model of adult life that existed at the time, so gay America was busy coupling in the imitation of its masters.

Since romance thrives on obstacles (Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Cupid and Psyche, Antony and Cleopatra), there was no more fertile ground for romance in those days than the gay world. I don't think I ever made love with a man without first convincing myself he was a potential long term lover, and if the first date went well, which invariably meant the first night of sex, I was ready next morning to shop for monogrammed towels. All the frenetic cruising and partying and sexing had as its goal the paragon lover, a gay knight on a charger who would sweep us off our feet and make everything all right, compensate us for the oppression we had to put up with and for the pervasive sense there was something lacking in us that only the right man could supply. We fell in love a lot and conducted our mostly brief affairs with operatic drama-passionate avowals of eternal devotion, fits of jealous rage, wrenching breakups replete with nervous breakdowns and threats of suicide. The few of us of sustained affection managed successful relationships, but most of us got "married" and settled down for a brief while, then broke up and broke down, then grieved and cruised until we met the next candidate for our troubled affections, and thus the same round all over again."

12 comments:

Frederick said...

powerful stuff, thanks for transcribing that passage.

Backspace said...

Yeah, thanks for typing it out, I quite enjoyed it.

Mark said...

Eric, our culture from 15 years ago doesn't really have much play anymore...it's no surprise that 50 year old tales seem like so much ancient history.

There's that old George Santayana saw: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

Unless we do as you are doing, uncovering and honoring our mutual past and our heroes, we, as a group, will be doomed as well.

mail said...

I think the most important passage was the one that implied that we are our own worst enemies. More personal would be to own the fact that I have been my own worst enemy at times in my tumultuous trials and tribulations. The acknowledgement of those out of the closet and considered on the fringe of society is who i have always preferred to be around myself exactly for the reason that i cannot and will not hide who i am. This had led to city dwelling and dare i say very very large closets so to speak. I once knew a man in the 1980s who was in his 80s and went to church. He would ultimately always come back to his gripping shame of himself when discussing orientation by referring to his homosexuality as his "problem." It annoyed me to no end and i would let him have it each and every time. I would look straight at him and say that being gay is who we are, it is not a PROBLEM and he would have no response for me except a little smile and a very warm eye meeting connection between us. The conversation always stopped right there because he was saying that i was correct. And when i think about that i have to stop myself from crying.

miamiglen said...

thx for the heads up, I just ordered the book and am looking forward to reading it

Jimbo said...

While I'm far too often a pessimist about today's state of the gay, it's pieces like the one you posted that are good occasional reminders of how far we've come.

Lacey said...

Like a very bad trip down memory lane...it reminds me of how much I've pushed down. It reminds me that I've lived far far too much of my life in fear. Yes and probably self-loathing. It's a hard habit to break. It becomes who you are...not ALL of who you are, but still. Well it speaks to the power of the writing. I'm fighting to hold back the tears and the emotions. Yeah, the good old fifties. How I miss them.

Father Tony of the Farmboyz said...

Until the end, I felt that he had "colorized" that era a bit, but when he says that romance thrives on obstacles and that we were all seeking the "paragon lover", he hits the homer. That was the driving energy behind all the dancing we did.

Eric said...

I loved that book. Definitely one worth reading again...

de subversief said...

Thank you for posting this.

Dray said...

You had to be there or grow up during that time to fully understand.

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