Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

The 'Voice' reports the queer revolution

The Voice wasn't born gay. But its queerness was certainly overdetermined. The paper grew up with gay liberation. It not only covered the movement from its inception, but helped shape—and was shaped by—it. That only stands to reason: As realms of exuberant self-invention, the New Journalism and gay liberation were a perfect match.

Much of Greenwich Village boho was homo in the Voice's early days, so just by virtue of journalistic honesty, the Voice could hardly help steering queer. In the years before the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 Voice writers were already following the explosion of queer culture that gave rise to Off-Off-Broadway, pop art, and a flamboyant niche of underground film.

But not without anxiety. The Voice's first review of a 1960 production at the Caffe Cino reveals an under-current of homophobia that has frequently burbled within the paper's liberalism, occasionally erupting onto its pages as anti-lesbian wisecracking, trans sensationalism, cliché-ridden straight-guy reckonings with the erotics of male bonding, casual contempt, or plain old prudishness. But the vitality, diversity, and jouissance of LGBT writing that have coursed through the Voice for five decades have always overwhelmed these blips of hetero panic.

Jill Johnston and Arthur Bell at a Gay Pride march, 1971
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Jill Johnston and Arthur Bell at a Gay Pride march, 1971

In that Cino review, critic Seymour Krim shuddered at the clientele: "incense-burning faggots camping." But by the following year, when the Cino featured a chorus of hustlers in a production of Gide's Philoctetes, a gay critic, Michael Smith, had been installed at the Voice. Enthusiasm rather than priggishness now characterized the coverage of the unabashedly queer performances of Charles Ludlam, Jack Smith, Ron Tavel, Andy Warhol, Jeff Weiss, Lanford Wilson, and other gay men at the Cino, La MaMa, Judson Church, and wherever else they could gather an audience. (When a comparable burst of transgressive lesbian performance occurred in the '80s, C.Carr was on hand, as other incisive critics—the entire back-of-the-book personnel, in fact—have been for queer upsurges in music, theater, fashion, literature, film, dance, TV, and art.)

Jill Johnston—the paper's, and arguably the country's, first shameless public lesbian—joined the staff in 1959, inventing an astonishing free-form, self-conscious style for her art and dance criticism, which soon expanded into the witty, often outrageous chronicles of her own life-as-art. Thrilling to read today, Johnston's columns are as furious as they are frivolous: Part Dada, part militant feminism, they often ran upwards of 2,500 words. "My heterosexuality was a flash in the man, you might say," Johnston wrote in 1970. In an incantatory 1971 piece, much of which thinks too fast to be burdened with punctuation, she declares: "Until all women are lesbians there will be no true political revolution."

The rebellion that was under way—signaled by the Stonewall riots in 1969—became an ongoing story in the Voice, beginning with extensive, front-page coverage of that fateful June night when queens at a bar rose up against a routine police raid. From the Voice offices nearby, two writers came down to check things out, and one, Howard Smith, got trapped inside the Stonewall Inn with the cops, while Lucian Truscott IV reported from the streets. Smith detailed police violence, and Truscott tried to capture the mayhem in which "the show of force of the city's finery met the force of the city's finest." The Voice took some heat from the fledgling movement for Truscott's epithet-laden prose. But even as he wrote of the "forces of faggotry," his writing evoked respect for the "unprecedented protest" that for two more nights continued "to assert presence, possibility and pride . . . "

Gay power became a news beat at the Voice, and openly gay Arthur Bell was hired to follow it. Bell explained the movement's strategies, dissected its debates, and skewered its enemies. Along with Richard Goldstein, who had joined the paper as the country's first rock critic in 1966, Bell tracked the tortuous saga of New York's gay rights bill, first introduced in 1971—and passed in 1986. Bell originated the persona of the public gay male journalist and flourished in his Bell Tells, a column of radical dish. (His glass slippers were fabulously occupied and refashioned by Michael Musto after Bell's death in 1984.) Writing about the appearance of Metropolitan Opera diva Eleanor Steber in a "black towel" concert at the Continental Baths in 1973, Bell rhapsodized, "It was an affair to rank with the coming of Christ, the death of Garland, the birth of the blues, and the freezing of spinach."

Goldstein came out in the late '70s, and while continuing to contribute reported stories and analytical cultural essays, he also became an editor—a position from which he fostered diverse, frank, and honest queer coverage in the paper for some 25 years, often mentoring young writers, until his lamentable departure last summer. In 1979 he created the first Gay Life supplement to coincide with Gay Pride week. (It morphed into the Queer Issue sometime in the '80s.) The section offered a chance to move beyond each year's news events that regular Voice writers—Hilton Als, C.Carr, Athima Chansanchai, Laura Conaway, James Hannaham, Andy Humm, Gary Indiana, Doug Ireland, Jonathan Ned Katz, Lisa Kennedy, Donna Minkowitz, Donald Suggs, Guy Trebay, and myself, among others—reported on and/or analyzed. These topics included anti-gay referenda, the marriage debate, homophobia in sports, queer place-staking in religion, demos in D.C., hate crimes, out candidates and gay voting patterns, "don't ask, don't tell," police crackdowns on cruising, Supreme Court sodomy rulings, the Rainbow curriculum, the emergence of a gay right, GLF, GAA, Radicalesbians, NGLTF, ACT UP, Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers, HRC, and always, the vast imaginative contributions of lesbian and gay artists—and the attacks on them.

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