Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Gay 70s?

Armistead Maupin linked to this appreciation of his first novel, Tales of the City, from the Advocate's website.  I hadn't heard of the writer, Kurt Niece, before, but that doesn't mean much.  I'm a big fan of the series, which I began reading when only two of the ultimately nine volumes had appeared.

It's odd, but although I enjoyed them Maupin's books never made me want to visit San Francisco very much, and I didn't go there until the late 1990s, when the series was in hiatus; so I don't remember the City of that era.  But I don't recognize gay life in the 70s from Niece's reminiscence at all, even if I make allowance for the "rose-colored glasses" he looks through.  He remembers
casual sex, cruising and bars. When I was very young, being gay was illegal. Homosexuality was viewed as a reprehensible and allegedly treatable psychiatric condition. But even so, being gay felt easier and far less complicated then.

I met my partners in person. The internet was science fiction and screen time was devoted to a handful of broadcast television stations and basic cable. There was a perception that since we were outlaws and criminals, and since most STDs could be treated with a big dose of antibiotics, then what the hell? Whoop it up! Go for it with the understanding that Auntie Mame is right – life is a banquet and most of those poor suckers are starving. 
Everyone has their own experience, and their own perspective.  But being gay was never illegal in the US: what was illegal was sex between males.  The line was blurred in practice, of course, and probably most straights as well as most gays were probably vague about the distinction.  I remember a bit in Martin Hoffman's important book The Gay World (Basic Books, 1968), which I read in 1969 or so: one of Hoffman's informants says "Maybe I'll move to San Francisco, gay kids are legal there."  Hoffman comments, as I just did, that it was sex, not being gay, that was illegal.  California's sodomy law wasn't repealed until 1975, so Hoffman's informant was wrong however you think about it.  As I remember, Hoffman also stressed that homosexuals were usually not charged with sodomy, but with lewd behavior, indecency, and other (probably unconstitutionally vague, but go figure) offenses, and those statutes weren't affected by the 1975 repeal.

San Francisco police had laid off to some extent by the time Tales of the City was written, but not entirely, so there was a very real sense in which gay men especially were criminals and outlaws in those days.  I don't believe Tales or its sequels had much to say about this aspect of gay life; a gay cop is an ongoing minor character later on, when the makeup of the police force was changing.  Antigay violence was an ongoing threat, including the gay ghettos, and there's a gay bashing in the third book of the series.  Then there was the assassination of City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by an antigay bigot in 1978, followed by the White Night Riots after the assassin was let off lightly by a jury.  I don't recall that Maupin ever touched on those events in the series.  "Less complicated"?  In the eye of the beholder, I guess, especially when the eye is hazed over by nostalgia.

As for meeting one's partners in person, that too is a slight oversimplification.  Gay men developed a number of ways to "meet" without getting too personal about it: the baths (with orgy rooms that let you "meet" in the dark in groups; bars also featured these), the public restrooms.  The Advocate's personal ads were notorious for their reduction of desired partners to a few fetishes; the Internet is just the evolution and fulfilment of that aspect of gay male life.  Niece reports a conversation with a much younger friend, presumably gay, and his uneasiness comparing the promiscuity of the 70s with what he assumes to be the wholesome domesticity of today:
I wondered what it would be like to have been settled and married and have had only one or two sex partners for the entirety of my life. What would it have been like to live life devoted to just one person? There was an unsettling regret that perhaps my life was not as well lived as I’d imagined.
This is baffling.  Young gay men are not, as far as I can tell, any less interested in promiscuity than their foreuncles were; what does he imagine they use the Internet for? That men can marry each other doesn't mean they're automatically going to be monogamous, any more than married heterosexuals are.  The male couples in Maupin's series aren't monogamous, certainly, but they remain devotedly together for years. Niece is viewing the past fifty years not through rose-colored glasses so much as through blinders that distort present and past alike in the service of stereotypes that are no tribute to Maupin's work.

Niece says his favorite passage in Tales is the one where Michael Tolliver and Brian Hawkins, gay and straight respectively, are sharing a joint and speculating about the future.  Michael says, “People like you and me…we’re gonna be 55-year-old Libertines in a world full of 20-year old Calvinists.”  Alas (or maybe not), it's a false prophecy.  If he weren't a fictional character, Michael would be 69 this year, and a good many of the real-life 20-year-olds are chasing each other on Grindr and other "dating" apps.  A lot of them are partnered, engaged, even married.  Things haven't changed that much. Even AIDS didn't bring about the utopia of terrified monogamy that so many Calvinists pretended to want, though I suspect like their nominally heterosexual counterparts, many of them violated their own strictures when they thought no one was looking.

My favorite scene from the series (well, one of them; I have several) involves the gay cop, Bill Rivera, who's visited by his brother's ex-lover's brother from somewhere out east.  The visitor has brought a bunch of fetish gear with him, and spends his entire vacation "trashing around."  Before he leaves, he tells his host: "You know, Bill, I could never live here - it's just too decadent!"  This perfectly sums up to me the ability of many people to dissociate their actual behavior from their pretenses about themselves.  No virus can eradicate that.