A burst of sexual expression, maybe. A burst of anti-repressive sexual activity, which had its own forms of repression built into it, often unacknowledged because such knowledge doesn't come easy--especially if you're used to be drugged in order to have sex at all. One way gay men deal with their self-hatred for being gay is to obliterate their minds when having sex.
This movie was difficult for me to watch because it reminded me of how much gay men do just to try and have real contact with one another--a high price is paid to feel something beyond pleasure, beyond sensation--and it is the price of knowing who you are and what living in the world as both a privileged and oppressed person, both statused and stigmatised, costs you. And it'll be difficult for me to analyse, but here goes. I'm jumping in the deep end of the denim jean pool.
I remember this era but was too young to participate in it sexually. But some people I knew who were a little older got to experience it, participate, and allegedly enjoy it. And some of them got HIV. One of those people is still alive and well: an ex-boyfriend of mine: we were together when teenagers; he was fifteen and I was sixteen; this was first love for me with a boy and for him too. But love cannot co-exist well with hate, and I hated myself for so many reasons. The story of our love affair is for another time. But years after we were forced to end our relationship by his evil step-father, he ventured into the Big Apple, to take a bite or two. He's someone who is probably genetically lucky, having a body that is more virally resistant than most people. And he does take meds too, but didn't for a long, long time after knowing he was HIV positive. He's healthier than me, probably. And I don't have HIV. But it's not just his genes. It's far more to do with his class and race. Because he didn't have to hate himself also for being poor and of color. He only had to contend with the self-hatred of being gay.
For me, given my age, this is what I think about when I hear about "gay sex in the '70s": I think about HIV/AIDS in the '80s, and what's happened to HIV since then--how it is now, disproportionately, killing so many poor women of color in the U.S. and elsewhere.
But when white guys with some economic privilege want to have fun, fuck everyone else. Literally. "Gay men having lots of sex in the 1970s" are not a discreet, quaranteened group, despite many homophobe's best efforts to accomplish that rounding up. The most vile of the homophobes did and do still argue that AIDS was the gay plague, something visited upon that population by a het white sky-god who hates f*gs. I won't tell them G-d, our Lorde, is a medium- to dark-skinned lesbian. I'm not sure they could handle it.
Gay men in the 1970s included bisexual and bi-curious men in the 1970s, who would visit the many places the video documents in NYC: the West Side
There's another cover, I guess, to the same video/DVD, and this is it:
|image of DVD cover is from here|
|this image of the DVD cover is from here|
Except for one African American man who is interviewed along with a few other men, this is a white man's story. It's not REALLY a white man's story, but only white men tell the story, except for this one Black man. These are the survivors of that era, and one anecdote is kind of chilling about how this comes to be the case. One of the white interviewees tells us of arriving at a party brimming with handsome men in a posh flat, a NYC apartment that seemed, much to his potential delight, like it might turn into an orgy. A real live orgy. As he'd never experienced one, but had experienced just about everything else one could have in NYC in the '70s, he was really excited about what might happen. Except, well, his boyfriend said "We're going. Come on, let's get out of here." He left with his boyfriend, bitterly. And as the story-teller informs us, soberly: four years later only he and his boyfriend were alive, of everyone who attended the party that day. (They knew the men who were there--these were not strangers to one another.)
So, given my age, I think of the '80s aftermath: of Ronald Reagan REFUSING to promote educating people about how to not transmit AIDS, and refusing even to discuss AIDS at all. It's called mass murder by neglect. That's what Ronald Reagan was guilty of. And he was doing it to appease a group he didn't even really agree with: the U.S. "Religious" White Right who he felt beholden to for helping him get elected. "Religious", here in this context, means evil white Christian-identified people who were the Devil incarnate.
But if we back up into the era I didn't really know much about--the one prior to the '70s, we learn a fair amount about the context for why it would be that sex would "explode" onto the scene in NYC. That context was almost unbelievable sexual repression, gross overt hatred, and institutional oppression of gay men. Also of lesbian women, but this movie doesn't concern itself with women--at all. Not even one lesbian. Not even an accidental shot of one lesbian. I think there's one heterosexual woman in the film; heck, maybe she's bi or a lesbian--how the hell do I know. One. Make no mistake--the cover sure doesn't--this is a MAN'S MOVIE, for men, about white men having sex with men of many colors--manly sex with manly men who were very hated and reviled, who'd been beaten or painfully closeted in high school. Who'd been told their sexuality--who they were as sexual beings--was contemptuous, dirty, and evil: and sick, too. Very sick. In need of shocking therapies. Horrid [mis]treatments to "cure" them of this affliction of homosexuality. That this bullshit still exists today in the form of quasi-Christian camps, compounds, and counseling centers to cure gayness makes me sick.
So we already have a few things going on here: the disproportionate class privilege of white gay men due to being white men and not having families to financially support or be responsible for in any number of other ways; the race privilege of having wealthy left to you, and being able to go to various places and not be considered a criminal based on skin tone--no matter how tan that white skin got; the unbridled expression of male supremacist sexuality, unmitigated and unresponsive to feminist/womanist critiques and challenges; and a form of man-worship that Marilyn Frye (in her first book of white radical lesbian feminist philosophical essays, The Politics of Reality) once said should make gay men the patron saints of patriarchy. Or something like that: maybe she said the Cardinal Bishops. Ironically, the Catholic Bishops are, often enough, closeted homosexuals; others are child molesters and nun-rapers. Such a holy bunch, those high-ranking Catholics and other Christians. NOT.
When viewed through just about any lens that isn't white class-privileged gay men's, this story doesn't get told the same way, because it has implications for every other demographic that the white gay story-tellers don't tell us about, at all. They pretend white gay sexual activity that is public and pervasive, not perverse, doesn't spread disease to women, for example. They pretend this. They pretend none of these males are prostitutes. That none of those prostitutes and bi-curious men have sex with other men who have sex regularly with women at home. They get to pretend this. The women at home didn't. The women prostitutes didn't.
From a trans perspective, I am left to wonder about all those males who just didn't look like those guys on the covers of those DVDs. Meaning, really, MOST males. We can add from a man-of-color perspective, because the scene really was VERY dominated--and I DO mean DOMINATED--by white men, some of them in leather, with chains and whips and shackles--pretending this had nothing to do with being white in Amerikkka. But what of those males, myself included, who were into androgyny, who were intersex, intergender, transgender, or asexual? Where did we go? This isn't really answered, except to note there were clubs for us to dance in. But not to have rollicking, robust sex. But one answer is that we were often the prostitutes and street people, kids who ran away from home, often enough, who were being rented and bought and sold to white men with money who wanted to pay for some form of sex, instead of getting sex in abundance for free. We're not mentioned in this movie. AT ALL. The men who are in this movie are all masculinist men; all male supremacist men; all the kinds of men who I didn't find in the least bit attractive because they were so goddamned butch and into being "MEN". The politics, along with the sex, of the day, was that gay men are REAL MEN. And REAL MEN have lots and lots of sex. Het men, bi men, and gay men too.
Which brings me to my next area of analysis: what of this extreme fetishisation and obsession with men-as-objects, as body-parts, as things-to-fuck? What about the rapes that are talked about repeatedly in this film, but NEVER ever once using the word "rape"? Why is that? I knew gay men who had sex with men. And what you learn about having a lot of sex with men is that a percentage of them won't give a shit about you, and will want to use and abuse you and hope you call it as good a time as what he just had--or not: who cares, get out, go away. So much for the love-fest. Woodstock, it wasn't.
Feminist revolution, it wasn't either. And what is not noted in this documentary is that the Women's Movement, with lesbian women often in leadership positions alongside their heterosexual sisters, were embarking on ground-breaking social change efforts, and were succeeding in many regards and many significant radical activists came out of NYC. Meanwhile, down on the docks, in trucks, in the back rooms of clubs, and in bath houses, the gay men were sucking and fucking their brains out. Or so it seems from watching this movie.
We ought to note: it's not that lesbians weren't having sex. They were. But they didn't see their sex lives as sectioned off socially from the rest of their lives. Or, rather, they weren't able to section them off and "have sex over here" and then go to work over there. Or, well, take care of one's parents, siblings, and children. Caring for others is usually women's work, after all. What can be forgotten is that in the 1980s it was lesbian women who weren't HIV positive and ill who took care of lots and lots of very ill gay men. A favor gay men have never repaid to lesbians, btw.
So the questions I have are this:
How do we affirm sexuality without affirming male supremacy and heterosexism? And prostitution? And how do we affirm sexuality without fusing it to capitalism, class privilege, and raced economics? How do we affirm sexuality without making it reflect and re-enact racism: slavery, bondage, chains, whips, buying and selling people?
What of Audre Lorde's essay and speech, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, written and delivered exactly in that place and time--in NYC in the 1970s--and spoken at conferences across the U.S.? What about that as sexual affirmation, and why is it that men, bi and large, won't touch the sexual-political-spiritual-emotional-intellectual content of that essay with a ten foot pole?
I'm asking why understanding and treating ourselves as whole human beings isn't seen as a worthy social justice battle. And I'm asking why it is that white men's ways of being--het or gay--public or private--must rule.
I do think that this apparent "celebration" of male sexuality was tinged a bit with self-hatred. This would explain why rape could happen so frequently, but no one felt able to object. Not objecting to abuse is one of many learned ways of being for oppressed people. I see homophobia at the same time I see gay pride. The two are always fused, for me--one always a response to the other. My objection to some of how Sheila Jeffreys characterises the sex gay men have in her important and insightful book Unpacking Queer Politics--a must read, I'd say, for anyone who is queer--is that she presents gay men as if they aren't an oppressed group of men. And as if oppressed groups don't act out our oppression, our self-hatred, our self-loathing, in various ways.
We must keep in mind that of the population "males and men", the ones who turn out gay are disproportionately vulnerable to childhood sexual abuse, in part because of our longing for connection to males that is physical. Men, usually not gay-identified ones, exploit our need for contact and affection, sexualise it or take it as "consent" if we're sexually interested in men when we're children and teenagers. Adult men can be selfish pricks, and those pricks traumatise lots of children--girls twice as much and twice as often as boys. Father-daughter incest is the most common form of any child sexual abuse. But for the boys and other males who were abused, where do you suppose that rage, hurt, and pain gets acted out? My answer: against ourselves and other gay males, in the course of trying to find pleasure, validation, and esteem.
And please, if interested in knowing how else white gay males can be, see these two films.
The first is titled, Edge of Seventeen.
|image of DVD cover is from here|
The second is called Shelter.
|DVD cover image is from here|
And, for the record, I'm not politically against any form of sex that is genuinely consensual, including sex between strangers. I feel about sex the way I do about conversation. Sometimes you can sit down on a park bench, strike up a conversation with someone and have it be amazing, and never see them again. And such encounters are rare, and repeatedly seeking out amazement from strangers is often a sign one is avoiding the terror of intimacy, or of knowing too much about who one is and why.
For more on this, please read Andrea Dworkin's chapter in Intercourse on the work of James Baldwin. The chapter is called "Communion". From that chapter, quoting Baldwin in the novel Giovanni's Room, and also the novel Another Country:
[...] David confronts himself, his great failure of courage and love: "I look at my sex, my troubling sex, and wonder how it can be redeemed..."
Shame, like, hate, can kill love; make it dirty; but if one is brave, one will love and that will defeat shame. Shame, unlike hate, can be defeated. One older French homosexual, an exploiter at home in the underground world of gay bars and gay boys, has tried to tell David that he must love, or shame will triumph; the sex "'will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his.... You play it safe long enough ... and you'll end up trapped in your own dirty body forever and forever and forever.'" The sex this man has is shameful, he himself says, "'[b]ecause there is is no affection ... and no joy. It's like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light.'" And Giovanni, tormented by David's inability to love, wants to escape from his inner life of passion, from the commitment and the involvement and the pain; he wants "'to escape ... je veux m'evader--this dirty world, this dirty body.'" He is anguished because he loves; and using the body in fucking without love, with indifference and mere repetition, would mean escape from pain. For Giovanni, the fucking expresses who he is, has been, can be, what he wants and knows, his passion for David: passion is personal. David cannot love, refuses to be touched (changed, committed).[...]
An inner chastity, an emotional rejection of the tangle of physical love that implicates (and therefore compromises) the whole person--not being touched, not being at risk, not being contaminated by what Giovanni calls "the stink of love"--is a way to avoid the kind of pain that Giovanni is in; and instead of pain, Giovanni too wants the numbness, the ignorance of self, that the coward in love has (however lonely it makes him); Giovanni wants to sleepwalk through life, habitual sex during which, because of which, the insides do not bleed; he wants not to suffer from a consciousness and depth of feeling that permeates his physical existence now, when he does love, his existence inside sex with sex inside him: the way he loves, which is with and through the body and fucking. What he wants but cannot have--because he loves--is perhaps best described by Eric in Another Country:
And the encounter took place, at least, between the two dreamers, neither of whom could wake the other, except for the bitterest and briefest of seconds. Then sleep descended again, the search continued, chaos came again.
But Giovanni never escapes his ability to feel; his identity. Being able to love, rooted in self-knowledge, only makes love possible, not inevitable; not happy; not reciprocal; never safe or certain or easy. [Dworkin, Intercourse, Communion, pages 74 - 76]