Stonewall 1979: Gay Life, Present at the Creation

“New York has become a gay place. The material of the new homosexual culture pervades its life, from lowbrow to high­brow, on the streets and in the shops, the theatre, the cafes, and the apartments of at least a dozen neighborhoods.”


Present at the Creation
June 25, 1979

The lives of great cities are ordinarily organized by the imperatives of class, race, religion, and authority. The temper of Boston is Brahmin and Celtic; the tone of Dallas is Baptist and nouveau riche; the mood of Chicago is bourgeois and bossy. The texture of New York is woven of all cults, castes, and nationalities, but now there is another, wholly new strand in the social fabric: affection. For the first time in history an affectional community — comprising a million or more homosexuals — occupies a territorial base, and it has begun to promote its power and assert its attitudes in ways that are rarely recog­nized and little understood.

New York has become a gay place. The material of the new homosexual culture pervades its life, from lowbrow to high­brow, on the streets and in the shops, the theatre, the cafes, and the apartments of at least a dozen neighborhoods. What is startling about this cultural explosion (the city has seen many others) is that it flows from a source of sexual identity, just as the stuff of ethnic and religious communities grew from their more familiar roots. We know about Polish peasants, African slaves, Prussian burghers, Can­tonese coolies, Latins, Litvaks, and Levantines. We can trace their influence in our politics, our literature, music, busi­ness, language, dress, cuisine, morality, and everyday attitudes. We speak of the Jewish novel, black jazz, Calvinist work ethic, Latin rhythm, Oriental patience, Irish politics, Italian filmmaking. We may relish, detest, or simply describe the re­gional flavors that blend in the melting pot, but their origins are hardly mys­terious anymore.

But there are no evident precedents (in this civilization, at least) for the development of an “ethnic” culture based on sexuality and centered in a single geo­graphical district. Scholars may fetch far for parallels in the myths of Amazon woman-nations or the tales of Greek homoerotic cults; but there are no ready records of self-conscious communities formed around a shared, exclusive sexual trait — masculinity, femininity, homosexuality, transvestitism, or whatever — to compare with the extensive gay society that has developed in the American metropolis in the few short years since its birth in 1969 in Sheridan Square, in the battle of the Stonewall bar. It is no exaggeration to say that we are present at the creation of a stage of society and a style of life that is unique in the world we inhabit.

Two important distinctions should be set down. First, the new gay city includes both men and women, of course, but for many reasons (not least of which is plain sexism) the gay male elements are more noticeable than the lesbian ones; and, many of the descriptions used to charac­terize the common culture come out of the male experience. Patterns of lesbian cul­ture are often included in the larger category of feminism — for which there is no gay male analogue. Second, the development of a visible gay community in New York — in Manhattan, most of all — is replicated by similar developments in other cities around the country. The birth of the various gay communities is really a vast “invasion,” a migration that is both external (from the hinterlands to regional centers and then to the largest cities) and internal (from the closets into the sunlight and moonglow). Gay life elsewhere may be more intense or per­fected; but nowhere is it as much of a model, on a scale so mass, as in Manhattan.

The elements of gay style are both banal and extraordinary, as unimportant as the short cut of men’s hair and as weighty as the invention of pop art, as trendy as the redevelopment of Columbus Avenue and as serious as the emergence of gay psychiatric and medical services. Gay sensibility can be sordid — the dives along the Hudson River way after midnight; or elegant — the ballet, the musical theatre, the opera; or glitzy — Studio 54, Saturday afternoon “tea” in the Pines on Fire Island, a roomful of Art Deco chatzkas; or angry — a march through the Village after a homophobic incident, or a flood of letters to the Post after a know-nothing column by Harriet Van Horne.

All told, there are as many separate — and often contradictory — styles as there are homosexuals, and the assertion of any of them, or of any set or system, may provoke vehement attacks and vigorous exceptions from those who do not feel themselves included. No heterosexual is as bothered by the bars and baths as are gays who do not frequent them; no Brooks-Brothered straight man will rail against the leather look as furiously as a preppy partisan of Shetland sweaters and penny-loafers in an East Side gay garden; no one hates gay disco more than a gay punk.

For like the other evolving, expanding ethnic sectors in New York — black and Latin, for instance — the gay community is fragmented, disparate, and heterogeneous while it is profoundly self-conscious. Differences in class, gender, age, race, ideology, and psychology give the culture its many-sided surface: it can be as radical, reactionary, racist, tolerant, snobbish, or democratic as any other social grouping in these times. But what unites homosexuals on a deeper level are the common condition of oppression, the shared history of liberation, and the sense of permanent separation from the prevailing social definition of normality. We may be teased, tolerated, or loved; we must always be different. From such differences comes a unity in spite of ourselves, a sense of pride as well as fear, struggle as well as acceptance, superiority as well as vulnerability.

Straight society sees homosexuals (the flamboyant few), but it does not readily recognize the presence of a gay culture. Last winter, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on the city’s “renaissance,” replete with color photographs of all the fashionable features of born-again Gotham: discos, musical comedies, Bloomingdale’s, rehabbed brownstones, warehouse neighborhoods, Deco restaurants, designed boutiques, gourmet kitchens. There was hardly an item on the list that was not tinged with gay sensibility — or created by it. And yet the influence of the new sexual community on the revitalized city was never once mentioned — not even in the coy euphemisms (“neighborhoods of single adults”) that the genteel press prefers. Gays who read the Times were astounded by the omission. It was as if a newspaper had described the New South without mentioning the blacks of Atlanta or Birmingham, or had recalled pre-war Vienna without admitting the existence of its Jews. The oppression of gays takes many forms — from brutal discrimination on employment to psychological submission in the family — but the most devastating of all is the cloak of invisibility imposed by the straight powers that be.

It is hardly surprising that gays themselves often participate in the unorganized conspiracy of silence about the very existence of gay culture. Gays are all still in the closet to some degree, the militant no less than the mouse. Invisibility may be frustrating and stifling, but it is also protective. Homosexuals who are entirely comfortable in an all-gay environment often find it difficult or disturbing to communicate the quality of that experience to their straight friends, no matter how approving the straights may be: “they don’t understand”; “they have no idea what goes on in our lives”; “they don’t think like us.” Every gay person knows that the mood of a roomful of homosexuals is abruptly and irreversibly changed when straights enter.

The straight world is what is; to be gay is to be aware of a special reality. Depending on how a particular homosexual may feel about himself or herself at a given moment, that reality may be glorious or ghastly, enlivening or deadening. But gay reality stands out against ordinary life in sharp relief. There are neighborhoods and gay neighborhoods, newspapers and gay newspapers, resorts and gay resorts, bars and gay bars, doctors and gay doctors, dinner parties and gay dinner parties (compare: judges and lady judges, or theatre and black theatre). The very awareness of a distinction constitutes the primary closet, whether gays are conversa­tionally open about their sexuality or not. For liberation, after all, is both a personal and a social process. Heterosexual con­sciousness imposed closets on gays in the first instance, through religion, the ideol­ogy of family life, machismo, puritanism and gentility. Gays cannot fully escape without changing the greater world as well as their own smaller selves.

From the moment gays begin to test their identities against straight “norms,” they learn to pretend: to hide behind straight masks, to perform straight parts in straight plays, to divide gay selves from straight roles. Only the eyes betray the truth: gay men check out everyone within eyeshot for the sly glance, the subtle mannerism, the hidden smile, the meas­ured gait, the clothes, the posture — all to find fellow members of the tribe and announce their own “ethnicity,” in ways so covert that outsiders (those whom other tribes may call strangers, barbarians, ofays or goyim) seldom catch the ex­changes. It happens all the time: on the subway, in an office, on a movie line, in all-night banking centers, airport lounges. The universal gay check-out glance may be a kind of “cruising,” but its basis is survival and support more often than sex. Until recently, a gay grew up believing he was the only queer in the world; the search for others is essentially a means of reassur­ing himself that he will never again be alone.

There were millions of homosexuals before Stonewall, of course, but there was no coherent, self-aware gay community. There were bohemian elites and quiet cliques of closeted homosexuals, but no gay culture, no visible gay presence on the street except for the odd “queen.” For the most part, homosexuals were allowed to express their identity in purely sexual terms (hence the clinical, Latinate name homosexual), and only after dark, in bars and in bed. Homosexuals had straight jobs, socialized with straight friends within a strictly heterosexual culture, participated in straight politics, talked straight talk. Homosexuals bought records of straight popular music, whose lyrics told of guys and their dolls. The straight theatre consisted of plays based on the formula: boy meets girl, etc.

Only after the straights dropped of fatigue or boredom could homosexuals “go out” — that is, present themselves in a gay setting. But the night trips of that era were always furtive, dangerous and often hu­miliating. What gay culture existed before 1970 was preeminently a culture of oppression, in which homosexuals conformed to the perverse and prejudiced definitions of sexual “deviation” dreamed in the worst heterosexual nightmares. Gays were sissies, tramps, sadists, drunks, neurotics, hysterics. All expectations were con­firmed, all prophecies fulfilled.

The few homosexuals honored in the heterosexual world were forgiven their bad habits if they did not flaunt them, or if they made a valuable contribution to straight culture. Tennessee Williams was lionized as long as he kept the sexuality of his dramatic characters properly am­biguous and his own predilections nicely sublimated. What Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears did after the opera was their own business. Similar rules held in other oppressed cultures: Ralph Bunche did not flaunt his blackness and Margaret Chase Smith did not trumpet feminism; the occasional homosexual celebrity was ex­pected to keep his or her own quirk hidden as well.

Looking back, the world seemed positively medieval; in these post-liber­ation years, gays have been able to inte­grate their lives with the facts of their sexual identity to a degree considered impossible a short time ago. In New York now, gays may live in supportive surroun­dings, in heavily gay districts, within a social and economic infrastructure shot through with aspects of gay culture. Gays may work in gay-run businesses catering to a gay clientele, or they can get jobs through the gay network in larger estab­lishments, such as department stores, where gays occupy top managerial posi­tions. They eat in gay restaurants, shop on gay avenues in gay boutiques, listen to gay-oriented music, share gay living-quar­ters, dance in gay discos, vacation in gay garden spots, worship in gay churches, read gay magazines and gay novels, snack on gay pizza and gay burgers, see tele­vision programs with gay characters and movies by gay directors featuring gay actors and actresses, play softball in gay leagues and hope for victory in the Gay World Series, sail on gay cruises, get high on gay drugs pushed by gay dealers, and spend all their social hours with gay friends.

Both straights and gays debate the value of gay exclusivity, but the trend appears to be firmly established. The need for it is evident beyond argument: gay culture strengthens the fragile self-image of homosexuals, and the more complete the community, the stronger the image. The development of a more or less total gay culture is analogous to the experience of other ethnic minorities at similar mo­ments in the history of their liberation movements: read Miami Beach for Fire Island or 125th Street for Christopher Street, and gay exclusivity does not seem so strange. Many homosexuals will con­tinue to spend their hours in heterosexual culture, too; there is no one empowered to demand affiliation in one or another social set. But the developing gay com­munity in New York will certainly set the terms for the next phases in all of gay life: there is power, energy, and innovation in the creation of a separate gay society, and it has already had an enormous impact on the lives of all New Yorkers.

What makes a hamburger gay? Cer­tainly it is not a genital attribute. What counts is the context: like the space “around the fish” in Klee’s famous paint­ing, the surroundings of the ordinary burger on the bun give it a cultural meaning. Walk into Pershing’s on Colum­bus Avenue or Clyde’s on Bleecker Street: the sound is disco, the texture is grainy, the pitch is high. A youngish man with a dark mustache, short dark hair, and a tight T-shirt and jeans approaches with a certain smile. He nods in a familiar manner and recites the list of burger possibilities (cheddar, “blue cheese,” bacon) in a litany laced with a little lilt. Almost everyone in the room seems to be a male homosexual. Even the plants are well hung; and so a neuter burger becomes recognizably gay.

Sometimes the defining characteristic of the new gay institution is the specific makeup of its clientele: the sheer size and aggressive good taste of Bloomingdale’s gay trade makes the store a center of the New York gay marketplace. Often, gayness is a matter of attitude or emotion: gay disco music is apt to be rhapsodic or sentimental rather than driving and raw — Candi Staton rather than Instant Funk. Or, that certain veneer of camp irony may characterize a gay neighborhood: Columbus Avenue — the main street of the “Swiss Alps” — is lined by shops with such names as The Sensuous Bean (coffee), Kiss and Make Up (Cosmetics), Le Yogurt (yogurt), the Cultured Seed (flowers). Decoration of course, is also telling: the To Boot cowboy boot story on West 72nd Street — “Queens Boulevard” — features “situation windows” that suggest the presence of odd couples rather than the conventional kind. In one display, two pairs of empty boots are placed in a room from which the occupants have hastily abandoned an elaborate Sunday brunch. One can only imagine what is happening “offstage.”

Bars are still at the core of gay social life (there are more than 70 in Manhattan), and the baths, backrooms, and warehouse barracks were sex is easily and anonymously available remain popular from that earlier era when they were, in a sense, pressed on the gay population by the straight definition of homosexual encounters as strictly zip-fuck meetings. While many gays deplore the exploitation of affection which bar life entails, the priapal palaces still serve a social and emotional purpose that will last until the next level of ascent to a more sincere and non-sexist society is reached. But while gays attack “cock culture” from the inside, there is something disingenuous about straight criticism of gay social institutions from the outside — as if masters condemned servants for participating in the culture of servitude.

The specific vision, manners, protocols, and imagination of gay culture were first forged in response to the prevailing definition of homosexuals as “different” in their sexual affections from ordinary people. Those who are called different and treated as such, will naturally develop different ways of life. At bottom, it matters little what the original difference was thought to be: Jewish culture began many millennia ago as a function of the oppression of Jews for their monotheism or their curious tribal rituals. But theology is not primarily what concerns that culture today. Blacks were oppressed because of the amount of melanin in their skin and because of their African habits of life; but black culture in America is more than a color code or a continental curiosity.

And yet many heterosexuals still admit the existence of only sexual differences between themselves and homosexuals. Jeff Greenfield, for instance, charged in this paper last year that gay rights are unworthy of liberal support because they involve mere methods of copulation, not community demands or cultural needs. For such heterosexual critics (and there are homosexuals still stuck in their closets who want desperately to agree) there is no gay culture, no gay lifestyle, no gay consciousness — just isolated units of homosexuals doing their thing in the sack.

Such denials of a gay sensibility lead to bizarre lapses of comprehension. For example, Time and Newsweek have both published long cover articles on the masters of pop art, which detail every conceivable influence brought to bear on the works of these artists — except the overwhelming fact of homosexual culture to which they belong. Reading such analyses, we learn about the importance of the artist’s regional background, his relationship to city and country, his favorite ancestors in art history — about everything except the one influence which was most responsible for the creation of the artistic genre: the gay aesthetic vision. The pop artists and their followers attacked the analytic traditions of modernism that held sway for 50 years, and promoted instead a romantic “camp” attitude that profoundly changed American tastes in art, performance, and design. It is impossible to understand these breaks in cultural continuity without accepting the reality of a gay aesthetic — and yet it seldom appears in straight art criticism. Only when artists paint homosexual pornography, or when writers describe sexual acts, is their own sexual “preference” considered relevant.

The struggle for visibility — that is, for social acceptance of a gay identity beyond mere sexual practice — is long and tedious, with lags and leaps at unexpected times and in improbable places. Failures in the political forum — such as the repeated refusal by the City Council to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance — may turn out to be less significant than success in community development. For the most important changes in the lives of gay people since Stonewall have come from the creation of the new ecology of gay institutions — commercial, cultural, political, and intellectual — which provide the material basis to protect and extend the community.

The gay “movement” after Stonewall was largely radical in its analysis of sexist society and militant in its practice of confrontation with the straight male “ruling class.” It had personal and ideological ties to the equally radical and militant antiwar, civil rights, and socialist movements of the era. There was a moderate wing as well, but it too was part of a movement of structured organizations — even if the total effort often seemed disorganized and the relationships were usually strained.

Only in the loosest sense does a definable gay political movement still exist in New York: rather, there is a social earthquake, without significant, representative organization or clear direction. If there is a discernible theme to this enormous event it is, simply, change: very little that can be seen in metropolitan gay culture today will last the year, perhaps not even the week.

For example, the macho styles of dress and attitude so much in vogue in Village gay life in recent times seem to have lost their power and punch. While the “look” is still prevalent, it is no longer on the front edge of historical necessity. Gay macho (which was really never macho at all, if the truth is told: under those leather jackets lurked a lot of pussycats) ex­pressed and exaggerated the suppressed masculinity of gay men, now made legit­imate by the ideology of liberation. In the old days, homosexuals were “nellies” and “femmes.” Suddenly, it was possible for homosexual men to be men, and they clutched at society’s symbols to validate that difficult definition. Some gays with a well-developed radical approach were able to avoid the butch look and the violent symbols. But macho had to work itself out. As macho naturally followed sissy, its own negation will arrive when the time is ripe — probably soon, from the look of things.

One clue to the new shape of-things could be found at the annual Black party held last month at the Flamingo disco, attended by several thousand of the most self-conscious gay circuit riders in the city. The 1978 Black Party had crackled with leather and rattled with chains; its domi­nant style was s&m. This year, the hard core softened: costumes were fanciful and ethereal rather than heavy-metal — head­-dresses of silver-tipped black feathers replaced executioners’ hoods of leather. Moreover, the mood of the party shifted from sinister to rollicking, from heavy duty to good fun.

Flamingo is an extreme example in all respects — many gays find it intimidating because of the emphasis its members place on brawn and bodies and disco madness. But the same kinds of changes evident at the Black Party there will be found in other gathering places which cater to gays of milder temperaments.

If one factor in the change of attitude is the passage of time, another is the arrival of the second post-liberation gener­ation to positions of status in the gay community. Homosexuals who came out — that is, affirmed their sexual identity to themselves and those around them — when they were already adults will never lose their closet consciousness as thoroughly as young gays who come out now, in a vastly changed social universe, during adolescence or before. The latecomers see the issues in their own way, conditioned by the pain and confusion of years of real repression. The task of self-definition as gays was arduous and confused; the ways were uncharted.

Younger gays today are relieved of some (although not all) of the problems which plagued the first generation. While there is more open “fag-baiting” and less genteel obliviousness found in many areas of the city, the psychological security of a vast, visible gay world is drawing out people who would have been intractably closeted in the ’60s. At least there are available models now by which young gays can begin to define themselves. And those who will come out in future years into a much more supportive and well-posted gay community will have a still clearer sense of who they are. How that will affect their behavior in the full society is im­possible to predict with any certainty. But it is clear that homosexual life 10 years from now will present scenes as different from those visible today as our own pic­tures are rearranged from the pre­-Stonewall era.

Take one example: there is a group of men in New York these days that one writer I know describes as the “killer fruits.” They are rich, powerful, and ma­nipulative businessmen, lawyers and de­signers who hold court in East Side duplexes, chic discos, and the Hamptons with a retinue of young “twinkies”­ — attractive boys who are kept amused, kept busy, and simply kept by their older protectors. Competition among the “killers” is fierce, pressures are intense, and humane values are held in abeyance as the men jockey for position, status, and the favors of their followers. The “killers” are only partly out of their closets; they gain power by keeping their sexual identity ambiguous to the straight world in which they operate. But they are of a certain age and history which suggest that they will soon vanish as a breed. The closet that produces them will cease to be so attractive as the gay community widens and its opportunities for a fulfilling life improve. Closets are places of personal as well as social oppression: they torment their inhabitants and diminish their func­tional capabilities. The end of the closet — as a concept of mind — is the essential goal of gay liberation.

Because there is no politburo, legisla­ture, or gay town meeting to establish priorities and set goals for the gay com­munity, the scene in New York is every-­homosexual-for-himself. Contradictions tumble over one another: for instance, every phase of liberation becomes a base for commercialization — which in a certain sense replaces one form of oppression with another. The demands of vanguard capitalism on the consciousness of the gay community are in some ways as strong as the strictures of puritanical heterosexuality. Gays have more disposable income these days than their straight counterparts in class and age — these are few, if any, children to educate, families to support, heirs to provide for. Gays may be easily led into traps of conspicuous consumption.

There is a final contradiction in the construction of a complete gay society, which may prove to be the most difficult to resolve: the backlash of heterosexuals against the accumulation of power, privi­lege, and status by gays. The difficulties here will not arise primarily from the Anita Bryant end of the right wing, nor from the traditional homophobic centers in orthodox religion. The more serious problem will come from the majority of straight men who find their own emotional mobility and social comfort circumscribed by the growing influence of gays — in business, entertainment, and everyday life. Heterosexual men used to take their privi­leged positions for granted, but all at once it seems, they are threatened by the success of gay liberation and feminism. It is not impossible to conceive a scenario for severe backlash. In a time of economic hardship, straight men may come to be­lieve that gays have the good jobs, the most spending money, the least responsi­bilities — and the most fun. Gays could be seen not only as “different,” but also as threatening. At that point, the gay “ethnic” community could be a target as easily as other groups served as scapegoats for mass social failure in the past.

Gays will be vulnerable for years to come — as far into the future as we can see. But gay liberation and feminism are allied in function as well as form, and together they infiltrate so much of the majority society that it would be hard to re-isolate and destroy them. The gay ghetto is primarily a function of consciousness, not class or race. Gays are, literally, everywhere — in every family, every business. The backlash seeks to re-closet gays, but before it can succeed, it must erase the liberating experiences of millions of men and women. It would be a cruel endeavor indeed, and also self-defeating. Gays have valuable lessons to teach the world — about freedom from roles, the importance of emotion, the varieties of sexuality — and if given the chance, people will learn what is best for them.