Tuesday, September 26, 2006

..."the unkempt hair, the mustaches, the clothes"...A Prequel

Summer of 1976.

The dark and sullen, aviator-wearing, facial-hair-experimenting gentleman is me. The ball capped, plaid-shirt-wearing man I'm about to attack is Robert.

I'm all of 21. He's just turned 36.

The scene? The automatic photo booth located at the long gone 59th Street entrance to Woolworth's, just across the street from the both Bloomingdale's and the D & D Building. These days it's the current location of the Bloomberg Building.

The store smelled of fried chicken and mothballs, as many Woolworth's did. Look how clever and even fashion forward I was then! I managed to turn Robert's cap backwards between the second and third pictures. Actually, I'm moving in for the kill. My technique is not more different, to this day. The errant arm around the neck, the unfocused, in this case cross-eyed, stare. And whamm-o! Mission accomplished.

Robert and I spent 19 years together; a few of them as wonderful as this looks, some that were pretty damned miserable.

But that's actually not what I want to talk about today.

For the past month or so, I've been stewing over this slight bit of writing that appeared in the New York Blade. I'm almost sorry to focus any more attention than it already has received.

The writer, who was three years old when this picture was taken, had viewed a DVD copy of "Gay Sex in the '70s", a documentary about the first years of gay freedom, and was much chagrined by what he saw. In fact, he found himself scornful of the men portrayed.

With blinding hindsight, he asks how men in the 70's could have been so stupid. How could they have danced on the edge of the precipice, so unmindful, nay, uninformed of the unknown consequences, and thereby ruining everything for all the generations yet come?

His scorn for a generation of men he never knew is palpable. He feels like he's watching a "foreign film", which makes him wildly xenophobic, if that's the case. He's clearly revolted by "the fashions: the unkempt hair, the mustaches, the clothes". And of course, he's completely horrified by the film's depiction of the many modes of anonymous sex that were available then, and amazingly enough continue to be available, albeit in mutated forms, to this day. He compares sex in trucks to the Holocaust, which is specious at best, and pretty damned insulting to all parties concerned. He asks himself "how those men in the 1970's could have been so stupid", and surmised that they didn't know any better. Good one, Sherlock.

Mostly, he just can't make the deductive leap and imagine what it might have been like to live in that era. There's no empathy here, no understanding of the cultural events that might have lead men to celebrate their sexuality as an intrinsic part of their identities. Seemingly no attempt has been made to actually research this subject, beyond the viewing of the film, and perhaps a bit of Googling.

The men today are "more clean-cut and better groomed than they were 30 years ago", and he acknowledges that many of them engage in the same risky behavior that doomed their forebearers. The question begs: Just who is more stupid here? The men who had no idea what was in store for them, or those that have been fully indoctrinated in the last 25 years of AIDS culture.

I'm thinking the major problem here is that so many people have no frame of reference regarding the men who lived and loved in the 70's and 80's. They never known any, and they're making no attempts to seek out the survivors. I've had twenty year olds tell me how it's all so much better now, how we're much closer, much more real, and we really don't need that gay thing anymore. This is one of the great tragedies of the plague years: the loss of an entire generation that has never had a real chance to tell it's story. A culture disappeared. The majority of those men? Long gone. The remaining few? Shell-shocked.

I've been skating around the edge of this subject for quite some time. I've been conflicted about consistently blogging stories of those years, and being labeled a memorist. I have a pretty great life right now, though it's a dual existence. I carry those years with me at all times. I walk through a freighted city, heavily populated with ghosts.

I hope you'll indulge me in further explorations of our mutual pasts. I was there, in the bars, the clubs and yes, the piers.

Let that picture up there show the men we were. Some of you know the man I am.

Apparently, I've survived to tell the tale.

Watch this space.


Blogger palochi said...

I'm probably gonna get bitched at by everyone under 35 for writing this, but...

I don't think it's just the case of a xenophobic writer. It's the issue of a vapid and xenophobic gay generation who scorns anything and anyone that's different from how they define their mainstream. Not every gay man falls into this category, of course.

However, in the case of the writer, he should take notice that good hair, skin regimens and feigning an arrogant pity for a "lost" generation of men "who didn't know any better" (take that as you will) does not magically instill some sort of precognition and wisdom in today's generation. It only masks the ugliness of ignorance and a complete lack of true empathy.

2:03 PM  
Blogger MEK the Bear said...

I'm under 35 palochi and I completely agree with you, but then again, I've never been one to be drawn to the mainstream scene, I loathe the pretty boys with their petty attitudes and found more love and acceptance in the bear and leather communities so I might be a bit of an oddball.

I too was downright offended by that idiots commentary. Here's a simple example of a person who can not empathize.

I, for one, can't wait to hear about who you are by means of who you were, that's the purpose of telling our stories isn't it? To get closer to each other, to connect, to understand and to learn?

Looking forward to the future writings of the past Mark!

3:26 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Mark -- this was sort of what I was getting at when I first started talking to you last Sunday at Dugout. I crave these stories. I always have. I've been lucky enough to have friends, here and there, throughout my queer-life who have been able to answer questions I have about what life was like pre-pandemic.. in its midst.. and now. I'm glad you are sharing your experiences as well. Thank you.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Nate The Great said...

Not that I don't appreciate other things you write, but your stories of how you have lived and how you do live are the reason I read your blog. I'm 28, and live in the midwest (Denver) so really, I don't have much of any connection with the past. The present, for the most part, seems full of materialistic self centered bitchyness, and not just on the 'mo side of things.

Anyway, I appreciate what you write, so, keep at it.

4:27 PM  
Blogger frank's wild lunch said...

I'm a lurker, and I'm loving everything about your posts lately.

As for that article, it is insensitive, but to me it seems as much a failure for starting something and not finishing it. If anything, I'd suggest he'd be the first to admit his lack of empathy; I would've been impressed if he went so far as to implicate himself along with our generation (I'm 30) for lacking the kind of historicism that would not only help us to make intelligent choices in the present tense, but would also allow us to understand and value more greatly the gay liberation era and the people who endured both it and the AIDS era that followed, so we might have the freedoms that we do have. This is a real sticking point with me, if we're talking about generational perspectives. I mean, has the guy really read AND THE BAND PLAYED ON? It's about more than poppers....

And not only is that Holocaust allusion specious, it's been done. Who does he think he is? Larry Kramer? Of course, the difference with Kramer is that he used it responsibly.

6:57 PM  
Blogger farmboyz said...

Dear Mark,
As you know, the author of that article was stunned by the negative reaction of many. He'll not understand, so when you write, write for us who are delighted to hear that you are about to let loose some stories from that wonderful time. You couldn't have promised anything better even if you had told me you were gonna send me Omaha Steaks or Indian River fruit every month.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Ralph said...

I'm the same age as you, Mark, and also a lifelong New Yorker. During the second half of the seventies, I was closeted, drunk, drugged and hanging out on the Max's, CBGB, Club 57 circuit. The only gay bar I went to was Mothers and that was to see the Ramones and Television. The closest I got to the baths was the Falafel place across the street from the St. Marks Baths at 3 am.

But there was a palpable energy on the streets that was absolutely due to the gay culture that had sprung up. I'm not sure I can explain it except that it was just there. The rock clubs were a riotous mix of everyone and everything (jeez, Max's), Lou Reed was still dating men, and the possibilities seemed limitless. WAs it just the times? Maybe. But the art, music, street vibe was totally influenced by the very outness (and outthereness) of gay people. It was about the sex, but it was also about something else.Community? Energy? Spirit? In my heart I knew I belonged, even if my dick didn't.

It was truly amazing and having guys like Lance Loud, Joe Fleury, PAul and Miki Zone and the Dolls (not gay, but, still) and Mr. Reed and Warhol out on the streets made it a wonderful world. It lived and breathed 24/7. It was gay NYC.

I'm rambling here, but, please , tell the stories you know, before you forget them. Maybe one day, I'll tell mine.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous snapperboy said...

I stand in awe, admiration and deep gratitude for the men of that era. They are the reason I found the courage to claim who I am. And like your other commenters, your reflection on that time is the reason that brought me to your blog and one of the reasons I keep coming back. I can't wait for whatever you choose to say next.

5:43 PM  
Blogger David said...

Write and write and write and I will link and link and link. We need these stories and your perspective.

Besides, why should JMG have the monopoly?

Oh, and you were so fucking cute!

5:44 PM  
Blogger Maddog said...

Your stories are wonderful. And you are wonderful for sharing them with us.

I am old enough to remember life before HIV and AIDS. I am also old enough to know that if it weren't for the brave men (and women) who stood up and claimed their sexuality publicly I don't think I'd being living the very open life that I lead today. I am not a trend setter and don't live that type of life but I saw enough people living life out of the closet and knew that I could embrace my sexual identity.

We would not be who we are today if not for the the 70's. The history is not perfect. But what group has that? It was a different time. A different set of circumstances. No one could have known what was coming. Nor should we live our lives based on what might be around the corner. To be ashamed of or embarrassed by this is demeaning everyone who lived in that time. The men I know who were out and gay during the 70's are all beautiful human beings. They have celebrated in life and death and are stronger for it.

Please share the rest of your stories. I am proud of our history and it needs to be recorded for everyone to know and appreciate.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Rey D said...

In his article about "Gay Sex in the 70's", Jeff Slutzky language is insensitive portraying that gay generation; but most of what he writes is about images going through his head as a result of watching the film. He is not stating things to be facts, but he seems to just be putting in writing his own reactions or feelings, good or bad.

When he compares the movie to a foreign film, he is merely stating that this is unfamiliar territory for him, and the fact that some of the activities of those days are categorized as "scary" again, he is describing the feeling of seeing something whose reality has been distorted by the process of film editing and by the world-image of his generation. Twenty years from now, when newer generations see films of today gay crystal meth fueled sex parties will more likely have a similar reaction even though for many of us, these things are nothing more than the current state of things -- hopefully just a passing trend, like the crack epidemic of the 80’s.

Jeff's article is insensitive, mostly for lack of having a perspective of the time, but his writing does not strike me as being malicious. He is speaking the language of his generation, and he is merely exploring his reactions to a movie, an invitation, it seems to be, to a dialog. He is also being critical of today’s carelessness in the gay community, but his comparison of today’s generation with that of the seventies comes across as condescending to both generations.

I'm old enough to have witnessed some of the gay culture from the seventies in the early eighties in NYC (e.g.: clubs like the Mine Shaft, and sex in the derelict warehouses on the piers); but because I was able to see it, in my head, none of it looks bad, specially when compared to today’s meth-fueled sex parties which I have not witnessed in person, but read about all the time.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous stephen in montreal said...

for what it's worth: i'm 38, and grew up in the age of AIDS, but never experienced the devastation of your generation. but the stories of the pre and post gay liberation era have always fascinated me from the time i was coming out at the age of 19...they are part of my cultural history and identity. please do continue your testimonials...they bring back that era so vividly for thse of us who weren't there. and as for the young generation...i think we are selling them short..there are many young men i know that feel strong ties and respect to those who came before.

10:50 PM  
Blogger seymour said...

You were sexy then,
you're even hotter now.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Will said...

In 1980 I was just putting together who I was and coming out. AIDS was firing up and I knew that if my life was to have any meaning I had to get out there and begin to connect with men.

What I remember most, perhaps, was the Reagan administration's policy toward AIDS which might charitably be described as "Let the faggots die." It was a seminal moment in gay life and culture; it's close to a disaster for us that the complete lack of interest in history in this country is sweeping this moment out of the national consciouness. Particularly the national gay consciouness.

Mark, keep writing, keep telling what it was like.

7:28 AM  
Blogger BigAssBelle said...

well thank you for writing this. hell, i'm not gay, not even a guy, and i remember with tremendous fondness and nostalgia and poignancy those years. although y'all excelled on the fucking front, as in so many creative things ;-) , just in general everyone was fucking everyone else with abandon. it was a sexual revolution ~ y'all just did it with more enthusiasm than many of the straight folks.

why someone would critique hair and clothes from 30 years ago is beyond me. how ridiculous.

but to condemn that freedom and joy and excitement and enthusiasm from folks who had been constrained and condemned by an unaccepting society just pisses me off.

it is shocking to me still to think of the innocence of that era. all of my sweet boyfriends from those years are dead and yes, they had many, many, many sexual partners, but so did a lot of others. WE DIDN'T KNOW. no one could have predicted or anticipated or expected what would happen.

screw this little clown. what a twit. please write more . . . lynette

that's what just shocks the hell out of me now: people know and still do nothing to protect themselves.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please tell me the stories. I remember some of it, but not as a participant, rather, as a spectator. By the time I came out it was over.

People need to remember their own history.



5:26 PM  
Blogger circleinasquare said...

The anticipation is killing me.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in my early forties Mark. I grew into my sexuality just as the sexual 70's were changing into the cautious 80's. I had had some great anonymous liasons, and was feeling on top of the world with my hot young body in a world of eager attentive men, when the first cases of gay cancer started making the news. I had about 1 year of fun before the aids epidemic started to ravage the community, the early years of being unsure what was safe and what was not, who was safe and who was not. Not knowing if I had sentenced myself to death so early in my life. A friend in high school who had experienced the same scenes as I, was diagnosed with aids within three years of those early reports. We were 19 or 20 at the time. Sadly, he passed within the year. Alone, and rejected by his family. I was away at college when I heard the news. I have never really felt a part of either generation; pre or post apocolypse. I never got to experience the full flowering of my sexuality without menace or fear. I long to hear the stories of your time, to feel more a part of that time. I have had ample time to assimilate with the younger generation, but feel no real part of it. I have lost those that may have been a mentor to me, to this hateful illness.

6:03 PM  
Anonymous Teddy Pig said...

I find it sad that there is actually a group of gay men out there like that comentator who can look in disgust at the celebrations shown in that film.

I think in some ways that the younger folks feel left out and maybe jealous since in some ways we are telling them "you missed it" or "those carefree radical times are gone". The more I see the old neighborhoods change I tend to think that way myself.

That is the only reason I can think of in that we have not seen more movies like this one.

I loved every minute of it even though I only got to hang out in San Francisco starting around 79-80 and the movie is all about New York.

Maybe we will get more detailed works like it.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Thanks for this excellent story. I was -4 when that picture was taken but I find the Blade article ridiculous.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous John T said...

I was born in 1975 and grew up in a small town, so I only have the fuzziest earth-toned memories of the 70s. But I've been on a bit of a nostalgia kick for 70s gay culture, recently watching both Gay Sex in the 70s and The Times of Harvey Milk. I really appreciate you writing this and look forward to more stories. I don't have any gay friends from your generation, but I have begun to seek them out more -- it seems that there aren't many left of the original sexual revolutionaries who survived the AIDS era. I will have to rely on the stories of bloggers like you.

9:09 PM  
Anonymous otherobject said...

Thank you for your post. I'm 33 and while I don't pretend to completely understand that time, I think everything you wrote is true. The gay culture now is something more akin to any other corporatized culture with it's sanitized view of sexuality and obsession with simplified nostalgia. It's obsessed with being accepted by the "straights" and in that quest, it's willing to let others who are more vulnerable to slide through the cracks. The writer of the review only illustrates the willingness of many in my generation to see the past as something to ignore rather than learn from. Keep up the great writing!

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Huntington said...

I remember being as taken aback the first time I read Jeff's piece as most of the people posting here. However, I think it's important to point out the discussion around it that's taken place since it first went up; some of that discussion can be found on the blogs of some of the commenters here. Jeff has expressed some regret at the way his thoughts were taken, and has admitted that he could've worded some of his ideas differently. (Check out his blog, http://www.tinmanic.com/, to see what a thoughtful and erudite writer he is 99% of the time.)

The article in question reads more like an initial-impression blog entry rather than a seriously thought-out and edited piece of commentary. In my opinion, the editors of the Blade bear a lot of the responsibility for the controversy surrounding the piece.

3:42 PM  
Blogger xiaomi said...

I've read your blog for quite a while now, having been directed this way from JOEMYGOD. I've enjoyed your posts on all different subjects and although I've never commented before, I really appreaciate your writing. I'm a young gay kid (born in 85') and being so far removed from the places and times you often write about, your stories do seem very foreign to me. I guess the difference between the writer of that article and myself is that I am enthralled by what I hear of life was like before AIDS. From reading a large number of stories like your own (many on the blogs of men you link to and many in books), and watching documentaries like the one you mention, I feel I've gained a small (but very valuable) impression of what gay culture used to be like. Although I know I am extraordinarily lucky to have the advantages that previous generation of queer people have built for my own generation, I can't help but feel somewhat envious after reading your reflections on the world that existed before AIDS. Because of my location, I don't know many out queer people so the writing you and other writers put up on the web is crucial to my understanding of gay culture. Being surrounded by straight people almost everywhere I go, I have little connection with contemporary "gay society". The reading I can do online is a really important way for me to feel connected to other gay people (even if that connection is only in my mind). I just wanted to let you know how much your writing is a priceless gift to people like me. I hope you will keep sharing your experiences because our generation has a lot to learn and a long way to go. Thanks you so much.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous mark said...

I can't wait to read your stories from that time. Whenever I get the chance I love to sit and listen. We wouldn't be where we are today, without what you all have gone through.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Mark - being a fellow survivor; I understand exactly what you're saying. There was a time when I couldn't drive anywhere in The City without running by the home or apartment of a gay friend who'd passed. I shut down for about a decade - even though I had a partner by my side; I wanted nothing to do with the gay community. I couldn't stand the ignorance of the younger ones and their harsh criticisms. It's what we endured which gives them the freedoms to be so outspoken about anything gay. They just don't get it!!! Thanks for sharing.

9:35 PM  

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