The Last Days of Gay Disco


For nearly two decades, disco has been high on the list of cultural unmentionables, along with Barry Manilow and the leisure suit. But ever since the relaunch of slut gear (i.e., Candies) and the huge success of VH1’s “Seven Days of ’70s” celebration in 1996, disco has become the latest prize in the scavenger hunt of the Nostalgia ’90s.

Along with this summer’s two big dance movies, The Last Days of Disco and 54, the top-10­isms of disco are popping up in everything from Burger King commercials to designer jeans, neo-vintage wrap dresses, and the ubiquitous mirrored ball. All the contours of a new disco boom are in place, but there’s something missing, something that can only be conveyed through the smell of poppers and the sweat off a stranger’s body–some reminder that the soul of disco, after all, was gay.

The only gay character in Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco isn’t gay. He’s a hetero yuppie who embraces an occasional gay identity to get out of messy straight relationships. This is about as close as the ’90s can get to the profound issues of sexuality that disco raised. But it’s also an inadvertent nod to a major part of the disco experience: straight people adopting a gay persona, if only to fit into a milieu that was quintessentially gay.

If your only knowledge of disco comes from retrospectives like VH1’s recent Studio 54 documentary, you might conclude that gays were a colorful accessory to an otherwise straight scene.In fact, Studio was an exclusive version of the pansexual playland that had been built in gay venues like 12 West, The 10th Floor, and the legendary Loft. Here, gay sensibility met the American dream and produced what novelist Andrew Holleran called the “strange democracy” of the dance.

Even in its time, this vision of a tribal, transcendent gayness that overwhelmed sexual categories was impossible to reconcile with mainstream culture. How could there be a mass version of the ritual that occurred at Studio 54: washing down the balcony to remove the sexual detritus of the night before? The only way to represent the ecstatic power of disco was to de-gay it. And even in the ’70s, that’s exactly what the most famous disco movies did.

The Hollywood disco of that era did not resemble Paradise Garage, where the fluid tangle of gay bodies wove a seamless sexual web. Instead, Saturday Night Fever used Brooklyn’s 2001 Odyssey, where white-suited Tony Manero presided over a regiment of sexually tormented devotees. Repression and hierarchy, not arousal and surrender, drove that version of the disco boom. Its anthem was “Stayin’ Alive,” not “Love To Love You Baby.” The 1980 film Can’t Stop the Music presented the even more surreal vision of a de-gayed Village People, in which the Indian (who had been discovered by the group’s producer at the gay s/m bar the Anvil) cruises women, and the construction worker comes out of an actual manhole (albeit with steam rising around him).

The cosmetic surgery performed on disco–then and now–can only be undone by exposing its real foundation, laid during the halcyon days just after Stonewall in 1969. To understand the real meaning of disco and the reasons it died involves taking a trip back to the gay coming-out party that launched this scene in the first place.

Some say the first gay disco was the Ice Palace on Fire Island; others insist it was the Manhattan restaurant-discotheque Aux Puces, or a place that towers over all others in sheer notoriety: the Sanctuary.

“It was supposed to be a secret,” recalls Leigh Lee, a Mapplethorpe model who visited the Sanctuary when it first opened in 1969, “but I don’t know how secret it could have been when faggots and lesbians can come out of a church from midnight till sunrise.” Located on West 43rd Street in a former German Baptist church, the Sanctuary evolved from a straight disco for white celebrities to a bacchanalian palace populated almost entirely by gay men. From his booth at the altar, DJ Francis administered a thumping sacrament to legions of adoring parishioners, who celebrated his mastery of slip-cuing by showering him with quaaludes while dancing the original, gay version of the Bump.

The Sanctuary epitomized the post-Stonewall era, when gay men had won the right to dance intimately together without worrying about the police. But the early gay discos were not only pleasure palaces, they were also sites of liberation free from the prying eyes of the suspect straight world. Steve Sukman, who ran the club Private Eyes in the ’80s, remarked that “pleasure and being around your own people was the gay metaphor for disco; simple pleasure was its straight application.”

The gay club owners of the underground disco years soon faced the dilemma of all new cultural movements: whether to exclude the masses or attempt to convert them. A major issue in early gay disco was whether to allow straights to enter the sanctuary. Ultimately, most owners proved ecumenical, if only because any straight incursion into the disco scene occurred on terms set by its gay founders. And for its part, the straight party world seemed to acknowledge gays as the indispensable ingredient of disco. The most valuable commodity for a start-up club in the ’70s was a gay mailing list.

Not only did gay men confer instant cachet on straights, but the very ethos of the disco era–the quest for perpetual pleasure–seemed to have pansexual applications. Albert Goldman, a chronicler of disco during the ’70s, observed that “what differentiates discomania from most of its predecessors is its overt tendency to spill over into orgy, as it has done already in the gay world. All disco is implicitly orgy.” In the course of this overlap, disco became the vector by which gay liberation’s sexual mores penetrated the straight world.

Within a decade of Stonewall, then, straights were compelled to navigate in an inverted cultural order whose terms were set by gays. One writer in a 1977 Harper’s piece expressed confusion at the presence of heterosexuals in primarily gay discos: “While they might say they were there only as watchers, only as voyeurs, they were also becoming participants…, outlaws in what had always been an outlaw world.”

The rise of disco had brought with it the mainstreaming of gay, possibly the opening salvo in the queering of America. Yet it wasn’t homosexuality per se that disco ushered in but a sustained exploration of the sexual self, including the femme side of the male persona. With its fluid structure of crests and flows, disco music allowed men to imagine the wavelike and recurrent quality of the female orgasm, and to enter a world of psychic plenitude where the spartan injunctions of machismo had been overthrown. Needless to say, this world turned upside down made another, discophobic America very nervous.

A similar experiment had taken place in the mascaraed masculinity of the rock scene known as glam. But by 1975, only David Bowie could get away with rhapsodizing “all the young dudes,” and even he would eventually retreat to an approximation of butch in a business suit. The demise of glam made the polarization of rock and disco an inevitability, and for a while it looked as if disco would erode the willingness of young Americans to stand in stationary phalanxes at arena concerts, saluting bloated, burned-out superstars with lit matches. The kinetic ambiguity of disco demolished the boundary between performer and audience, and made the dancers the stars.

But the real animosity between rock and disco lay in the position of the straight white male. In the rock world, he was the undisputed top, while in disco, he was subject to a radical de-centering. Disco was an extended conversation between black female divas and gay men.Straight men were welcome to join the party, but only if they learned the lingo. Some did, but for many, this new demand aroused a kind of “castration anxiety,” as Alice Echols put it in a 1994 essay. Disco symbolized a world where straight men were not only expected to engender the female orgasm, but to incorporate it.

Only by killing disco could rock affirm its threatened masculinity and restore the holy dyad of cold brew and undemanding sex partners. Disco bashing became a major preoccupation in 1977. At the moment when Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 achieved zeitgeist status, rock rediscovered a rage it had been lacking since the ’60s, but this time the enemy was a culture with “plastic” and “mindless” (read effeminate) musical tastes. Examined in light of the ensuing political backlash, it’s clear that the slogan of this movement–“Disco Sucks!”–was the first cry of the angry white male.

The rock/disco wars might seem silly in retrospect if it weren’t for the deadly seriousness with which they were waged at the time. In a 1979 end-of-year summation, Rolling Stone,the index of cultural regression, surveyed the field of battle like military strategists: “You can say that the first six months [of 1979] belonged to disco… and that the last six months belonged to the brave young rockers.” The turning point was the July “Disco Demolition” rally in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. The event’s original gimmick involved blowing up disco records between games of a doubleheader, but the charged-up crowd lost control and began tearing up the stadium. Comiskey turned into a giant coded gay bashing, a frightening harbinger of an enraged, homophobic America, given sanction in the mock-patriotic venue of a baseball stadium.

By 1980, disco had become a dirty word. The term was banished from the language as an added security measure, but the music was exported to England, where it was de-gayed and re-exported to the States under a new name: “new wave dance music.” The rock majority was satisfied by the replacement of explicitly gay Sylvester with flamboyantly closeted Boy George. As the playlist segued from “I’m Coming Out” into “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” the pulverization of the liberal imagination became a political fact. Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the following June, a mysterious new “gay cancer” appeared.

The ’90s looks back at its alter ego the ’70s across the chasm of AIDS, and all it can see is a coked-up Adam, Eve, and Steve having unprotected sex just before their expulsion from Eden. While AIDS phobia in the ’80s was certainly more acute, cultural lag delayed until the ’90s the sense that our sexual lives are permanently circumscribed. Which explains our current impulse to demonize the ’70s, and our reflexive use of “excess” to describe that era.

Yet the ’90s also needs to celebrate the ’70s, the last sexually free decade of the 20th century. Since this moment cannot be relived–not even in the current gay circuit scene, which ironically has more in common with arena rock than with the louche and thoughtless abandon of the ’70s–disco can only be processed through the filter of nostalgia so that it comes out as a kitschy aesthetic with accompanying soundtrack. What’s lost is what made disco so alluring and threatening at the time: its heedless, unrepentant approach to pleasure. Since that philosophy was epitomized by gay men, they must be removed from the picture, lest we all be reminded of what we cannot possess, but refuse to forget.