Friday, July 1, 2016

A Counterhistory of a Counterculture: Jim Downs' Stand By Me

Gay “Be-In,” Central Park, New York, June 28, 1970. (Photo: Diana Davies, New York Public Library)

Established in the Bay Area in 1970, Gay Sunshine, later Gay Sunshine Journal, was part of the flowering of post-Stonewall gay newspapers that also included Detroit’s Gay Liberator, Philadelphia’s Gay Alternative, Boston’s Fag Rag, and New York’s Come Out! The cover of the paper’s August ’71 issue, drawn in black ink by Bruce Reifel in the lineage of Aubrey Beardsley, depicts a naked man and woman running with raised fists and broken manacles in front of a five-pointed star that we can trust to be red in spirit. The man has a Clark Gable mustache; the woman the long, center-parted hair of Joan Baez or Shulamith Firestone. The caption, GAY BROTHERS & SISTERS UNITE! FREE OURSEVES · SMASH SEXISM, redoubles the Marxist heritage while urging on an already tenuous gay-and-lesbian alliance that in coming years would be further tested by divergent interests and male chauvinism. Although the cover typifies the countercultural naturalism that sought to separate nakedness from titillation, it’s also a reminder of how closely linked political and sexual freedom were in the early years of gay liberation.

Needless to say, the seventies, even before the powerful conservative revanchism that ignited in the decade’s later years, were not years of unchecked liberty for LGBT communities. Governmental repression, public bigotry, internalized oppression, and the constant threat of violence hardly vanished overnight – in many areas change was felt not at all. But in certain neighborhoods in some cities, there were, along with hopes for radical societal transformation, new opportunities for dramatically freer sexual expression. For some, sex itself was revolutionary, a source of unifying pleasure that could militate against shame and repression while challenging fundamental institutions and values: the family, the church, monogamy, patriarchy. It was often impossible to imagine political equality growing without the continued expansion of sexual freedom. “A humane socialism,” Charley Shively wrote in ’74, “must move beyond trade-union economism; it must lose its prudery, and find sexuality.” Or as Edmund White put it in his 2009 memoir, City Boy, “We thought that sexual freedom was the same thing as freedom. We were willing to contemplate the possibility of ‘gay politics’ or ‘gay culture,’ but only if we’d first secured total gay sexual liberty.”

In his essay “My Changing Sex Life” (collected in 2002 in his book The World Turned), John D’Emilio remembers the intoxications of the seventies in New York: “Gay liberation taught – and it was a most welcome lesson – that it was okay to feel good about our particular brand of sexuality. It created a movement out of sexual desire, an intensified sense of brotherhood that added an erotic charge to almost any encounter with another gay man. … Now we were gay not only when we went looking for sex, but during those endless hours when we were activists as well.” But over time D’Emilio came to believe, with many of his peers, that “we do ourselves wrong if we only imagine gay liberation as a sexual freedom struggle,” and he has written elsewhere about the tendency to “conflate the gay liberation impulse with the urban sexual culture that flourished in the 1970s.”

Certainly the range of the era’s sexual politics was wider and more complex than retrospection has often allowed. In part because queer sexuality is such a source of heterosexual fear, fascination, fantasy, and animus, the most visible or sensational means by which gay male sexual liberty and fraternity were expressed in and around big cities – in bathhouses, bars, parks, trucks, beaches, and discos; on the tumbledown West Side piers – created a stereotype that, in rigidly dated form, imagines a dozen years of perpetual cruising and anonymous revels proceeding sleeplessly between the Stonewall riots and the mysterious early days of disease.

It was in July of 1981 that the New York Times reported on forty-one cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma in gay men. According to one of that first widely read article’s medical sources, most cases for which there were diagnostic interviews involved men who had reported “multiple and frequent sexual encounters with different partners, as many as 10 sexual encounters each night up to four times a week.” The misleading connection between promiscuity and what came to be understood as HIV/AIDS was thus established from the beginning. In the introduction to his new book, Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016), Jim Downs writes that “an image of gay men as hypersexual began to be promoted in order to rationalize the spread of the virus,” as a result of which “the nuanced social history of the 1970s got pushed aside.” Of course, the image of the lonely, hypersexual gay man, often advanced in the old psychological texts, preceded AIDS, but Downs’ essential point is sound.

Downs is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College whose earlier books include Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012). Born in 1973, he was first prodded to delve deeper into seventies gay liberation after seeing Joseph Lovett’s 2005 documentary, Sex in the 70s. The film is a sex-positive work of elegiac New York nostalgia, often fun and often moving, but narrow even judged by its own focused terms, and Downs explains in his introduction why the documentary’s narrative – lotsa seventies sex leading unwittingly to HIV – first inspired his counterhistory. He became more attuned to simplified, rationalizing accounts of the seventies “not only in history books and films,” he writes, “but also in my everyday interactions with friends and colleagues.” Anecdotally, this seems correct to a point, but the need for historical revision, sounded throughout the book, would appear more pressing and persuasive if Downs had named and quoted from some of these history books, along with films and popular texts other than Sex in the 70s.

Stand by Me doesn’t intend to be a comprehensive, chronological history of gay liberation in the way that, say, Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad (1989) covered the pivotal events and debates of late sixties and early seventies radical American feminism. Downs’ seven, relatively short chapters home in on often neglected figures, incidents, and publications, and leave many of the period’s touchstones – the agitprop “zaps,” Harvey Milk, the fight against Anita Bryant – in the background. What remains won’t always be undiscovered country to students of LGBT history, notwithstanding the book’s subtitular “forgotten,” but Downs draws on original research and interviews, little-tapped archives, and the gay press. His emphasis is on how communities were built and identities formed through religion, literature, and scholarship. His concentration is on men, though he frequently describes gay and lesbian partnerships and fissures, as well as the movement’s debt to African-American freedom struggles and to women’s liberation. He sets out not only to show that the period shouldn’t be defined by sexualization, but also to highlight quiet expressions of gay liberation, often activist but not exclusively devoted to “screaming, yelling, and critiquing the state.”

New Orleans firefighters aid a victim of the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, June 1973. (Photo: Associated Press)

He begins with a harrowing account of the June 1973 arson attack on the Up Stairs Lounge, which occupied the second story of an antebellum building on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Like a lot of gay bars, the Lounge was also a de facto community center, and on Sunday nights it was turned over to the local chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church, an independent Protestant denomination established in Los Angeles in 1968 for the LGBT community. This particular Sunday night meeting followed an afternoon celebration of Stonewall’s fourth anniversary. While the congregation was being led in song, an individual or group doused the stairway leading to the Up Stairs Lounge with lighter fluid. The Lounge’s windows were fortified with metal bars, and many people were trapped in the building. Thirty-two died. (The title of Downs’ chapter, “The Largest Massacre of Gay People in American History,” alas, is no longer accurate.) Responses to the fire from mainstream media, police, governmental officials, and citizens were often callous, neglectful, flattened, or malicious. The crime was never solved, and it’s not known whether it was precisely an act of homophobic terrorism; a man on the fringes of the gay community allegedly confessed to the arson shortly before he committed suicide. In any event, the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy happened amid many attacks against gay people and establishments: arson, vandalism, assaults, police raids, threatening phone calls and letters, and murders. Lest anyone have some dim sense of the era as one of constant strobe-lit cork-popping following legal triumphs, Stand by Me portrays a time of heroic struggles in the teeth of routine violence and lingering anxiety.

From the Up Stairs Lounge fire Downs moves to a survey of the gay religious movement, which in addition to the MCC and its famous founder, Troy Perry, encompassed independent congregations of various faiths and denominations, as well as challenges to established churches. During this period came early calls for the ordination or continued ministry of out clergy in mainline churches, a battle that subsequently marked several victories and continues to the present. Downs casts the crusade to overturn anti-discrimination ordinances (or introduce discriminatory legislation), led by Bryant and other members of the growing religious right, as a backlash not only against gay liberation itself but as a specific response to the gay religious movement’s demands.

Though Downs rarely ventures into literary criticism, Stand by Me is significantly interested in how far-flung people were brought together as readers. A chapter on the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop is built on founder Craig Rodwell’s papers, particularly an epistolary trove showing how the Greenwich Village store, which opened in 1967, served as a beacon for former or would-be customers writing from remote settings. Downs’ history of The Body Politic, a Toronto-based newspaper with an international readership, begins with an account of three scholarly articles James Steakley wrote for the paper on the history of homosexuality in Germany. This was a time when historians of LGBT history were extremely thin on the ground, and Downs ably demonstrates how work such as that of Steakley and Jonathan Ned Katz helped give gays and lesbians what Van Wyck Brooks called a “usable past,” in this case connections to earlier periods of achievement and persecution that, as Downs has it, “would provide legitimacy, meaning, and, most of all, a genealogy to their plight.” Downs also contextualizes the Body Politic’s ill-advised decision to publish a long apologia of sexual relationships between men and boys.

The Reverend Troy Perry, Gay Activist, in His Burnt Down Church, Los Angeles, 1973. (Photo: Anthony Friedkin)

In his chapter on the evolution of Katz’s pathbreaking 1976 book, Gay American History, Downs writes passionately on the importance of preserving subcultural histories ever at risk of erasure, a mission that drives his own book. For a few pages, the chapter lingers on a New York Times review in which Martin Duberman pitted Katz’s Coming Out! – the play that led to Gay American History – against Al Carmines’ off-off Broadway hit The Faggot. Katz’s consciousness-raising documentary play, in Duberman’s view, was inspiring and progressive while Carmine’s comic musical was self-exploitative, trivializing, and backward. In quoting Carmines’ response letter to the Times, Downs takes some odd interpretative turns. One of Carmines’ sentences began, “My bored and depressed middle-aged homosexuals …,” clearly in reference to his play’s characters and not, as Downs has it, the playwright-composer’s personal cohort. Neither is it fair to say that “implicit in Carmines’s defense of his play was the idea that gay liberation was something new and thus, like a fad, something that might pass,” or that Carmines seemed resigned to perpetual gay despair. The letter was supportive of gay liberation; Carmines, who appeared in the show as Oscar Wilde, was only stating his art-for-art’s-sake allegiance to staged messy life over art with didactic aims. The aestheticist position can be effectively conservative, but it isn’t inherently so. And considering that Stand by Me is devoted to documenting potentially forgotten history – to revealing the unreliability of tests of time – it’s strange that Downs concludes the interlude by noting somewhat dismissively that, unlike Katz’s landmark book, “Carmines’s play would fade into the recesses of popular memory and become largely forgotten.” True enough: few theatrical works enjoy revivals and enduring reputations, but connoisseurs seem to remember The Faggot; a YouTube memorial performance of “Ordinary Things,” a beguiling song from the show, suggests why. These are tangential complaints, but representative of other underexamined points and passages.

Elsewhere, Downs seems too concerned that the reader will lose sight of his central premises: that gay liberation was more than just sex and marches, and that many enriching aspects of its history have been erased or forgotten. When we read, for instance, that letters sent to the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop reinforce the message “that many gay men wanted more out of liberation than just sex,” we might start to feel that, in issuing these regular reiterations, Downs is spending too much time deflecting rather abysmal levels of lethean ignorance instead of rigorously exploring subtler arguments. It’s indeed important to combat hateful stereotypes of gay male hypersexuality, along with all brands of superficial history, but it’s also important to surprise the reader and eventually argue against a higher baseline of enlightenment.

Discussing what he found to be wide-ranging and hardly puritanical religious publications such as the newsletter produced by Dignity, a gay Catholic group, Downs writes: “The gay religious press facilitated the underground discourse among gay men who imagined a world not centered on ‘gay life’; to read these publications now is to uncover a forgotten portrait of gay men who did not just engage in sex but thought about its meaning.” Certainly the seventies gay religious press languishes in obscurity, but Downs’ point seems to be larger, and a bit dubious. Almost all of us are vastly ignorant in various ways, and collective knowledge on the intellectual history of nondominant groups will be even gappier than it is on everything else. But one struggles to think of many seventies books more enduringly influential than Michel Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality, and while it’s true that disparate seventies writing on sex by gay men such as John Rechy, Gore Vidal, Edmund White, and Larry Kramer is now underread, it might be too much to say it’s forgotten.

Craig Rodwell founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City in 1967.

Or not: perhaps worries about forgotten history are rarely misplaced, and ever in flux. Just as Downs argues that sex has been exaggerated in accounts of gay liberation, others have seen it being scrubbed way. In his foreword to Patrick Moore’s 2004 book, Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality, Michael Bronski lamented not only the institutions where sexual experimentation flourished but that “even the memory” of them was fading. “Of course,” he wrote, “this is partly because many of the people who created and attended them are now dead, but also … because of a sense of community shame, which erupted at the advent of AIDS, that such flagrant sites of ‘vibrant sexual culture’ existed in the first place.”

How much or little to emphasize sex in LGBT discourse and demonstrations is an old strategic and philosophical debate, and one of the wedges that divided pre-Stonewall veterans of the homophile movement from gay liberationists, as well as gay male liberationists from lesbian feminists. But in stressing gay liberation’s religious, literary, and intellectual communities over its sexual politics and practice, Downs hasn’t become lost in prudery. Many of the figures he profiles, he points out, led active sex lives, and he’s not so much interested in refuting the sexual rhetoric of early gay liberation, only in showing that its appeal was far from universal, and that its ideas were frequently betrayed as sexual culture grew increasingly commercial. He tracks, for example, how the mid-seventies rise of the macho or Castro “clone” – the fashion for proletarian clothes, short hair, and muscular bodies that would have been welcome in the physique mags of the fifties and sixties – alienated gay men of color by projecting a white ideal, widened rifts between gays and lesbians, and reversed gay liberation’s ideally open attitude toward diverse affects and body types.

But although Downs acknowledges here and there that gay liberation often constituted a simultaneous political and sexual awakening, he doesn’t give a real voice to the people who theorized its sexual politics most eloquently and distinctively. Na├»ve readers of Stand by Me won’t necessarily emerge from the book thinking that all that talk was just a convenient framework for hedonism, but they probably won’t understand why gay liberation’s sexual culture and theory seemed so radiant and galvanizing to many, and why the ideas still hold interest today. Stand by Me is in part an intellectual history, but one in which the world of ideas isn’t always explored with captivating depth or insight. It’s usually better to risk obviousness than obscurity, but the book is somewhat weighed down by fair but flat generalizations, such as that “many gay men in the 1970s understood poetry as a crucial part of gay identity and culture,” and by observations that for many readers will be understood, such as that “Marx was the topic du jour among the political and intellectual left during the 1970s.” Downs is writing here for a nonscholarly audience, and he does so lucidly, but he might have challenged us more. And though it tries, the book doesn’t always compensate with the stuff of propulsive popular history: vividly described players, colorful adversaries, escalating tensions. That’s mostly a matter of style, partly a symptom of what the book avoids: it’s not so hard to write about this period without covering sex, but one makes sacrifices in turning attention away from oft-covered street activism and legislative campaigns, rich ground for drama, factionalism, heroes, villains, and narrative arcs. There’s a lot of activism described here – on behalf of gay prisoners, for instance – but not always of the type with inbuilt climaxes.

Downs has succeeded, though, in coloring in white spaces left in other histories. To many who lived through the period, Downs’ history will likely come closer to reproducing day-to-day life: of Saturday night dancing and Sunday morning church services; of discord in the letters pages of gay newspapers and friendships formed in the aisles of bookstores, perhaps while reaching for the same book of previously untold history.

 Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician, and the author of the novels Amateurs and Boarded Windows. His journalism has appeared in theVillage Voice, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Paris Review Daily, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Nina Hale, and their son, Jackson.

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