Doors to the Magic Theater

G.J.’ Gallery and the Central Arms

I read Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf as an undergrad in the early 1970s. I had not heard of the recent riots at the Stonewall Inn. And I wasn’t aware of the existence of gay bars. The most striking and lasting impressions I had of Hesse’s novel were the depiction of free love and explicit drug use, the mysterious appearance of the Magic Theater at just the right time in the protagonist Harry Haller’s life, and the bohemian bar atmosphere of jazz and the homoerotic undercurrents of Pablo, who serves as a guide for Harry into this underground culture. The allure was electrifying for me.

When I walked into G.J.’s Gallery, a neighborhood bar in Albany, NY, for the first time, I found myself stumbling into the very bohemian underworld I had longed to find. I loved the atmosphere. Of course it was dark and smoky, and rock music (lots of the Rolling Stones) played on the jukebox. The space was long and narrow. A long bar stretched from the front door half way down the length of the bar. Plate-glass windows stretched for half of that length. The opposite wall was lined with booths. The pungent smell of Mary Jane mixed with cigarette smoke. 

Over time I became familiar with the bar’s clientele—a mix of writers and painters from the neighborhood, a few drug pushers, some gay men, and the occasional college student (like me), could go to bars when the legal drinking age in New York State was 18. The crowd was almost exclusively men. People smoked joints in the bathroom. Dealers peddled acid, speed, Quaaludes, and grass, making transactions in the rear of the bar, which had an extended space to the left, outside the line of sight from the bar and the bartenders.

I usually went to G.J.’s with two of my friends, Doug and Ritchie. All three of us were on the editorial board of the campus literary magazine. And Doug had recruited Ritchie and me to join his fraternity. All three of us were poets (Writing poetry was hugely popular in those heady days of America’s counterculture.) Our justification for hanging out at G.J.’s in the Lark Street neighborhood was to mingle with fellow artsy folks. My actual purpose was to find men to have sex with. If anyone asked, I declared I was experimenting with my bisexuality.

Looking back now from the distance of some fifty years, I am amazed at my intuition in reading the bar crowd, picking up on the subtle clues of men signaling sexual interest in each other and in the brazenness of me leaving G.J.’s accompanied by a total stranger in front of my fraternity brothers. 

One evening a guy I connected with asked if I wanted to go to the Central Arms. I had never heard of the bar. But he told me it was a gay bar where I could meet a lot more gay men. He said, “With your good looks you’ll be popular.” 

These were the first years following Stonewall, and the gay subculture in Albany was still distinctly pre-Stonewall closety. Chapters of the GLF, the GAA, and Gay Maoists started up on campus my freshman year. A few gay men were out on campus, but most, like me, were closeted. The Central Arms was also pre-Stonewall. It was in what had been a store in what was now a decrepit commercial street. There were no windows or signs on the building. It looked like it was abandoned. There was a peep hole in the front door. To gain entrance you pushed a button. Someone looked through the peephole. And, if you passed muster, someone behind the bar buzzed you in.

The bar ran along the entire length of one wall, as did a mirror. Guys used the mirror to surreptitiously check out other guys. Strings of twinkling Christmas lights were wrapped around the mirror and along the walls. A huge pink cardboard clock in the shape of a pop art daisy hung over the mirror half way down the bar. The jukebox played mostly ongs by the Supremes. Most of the men seemed to be fairly drunk all the time, and very “feely.”  I often got groped while I was standing at the bar ordering a beer.

I went home with many men. One worked at a hardware store, one was a seminarian, one was a florist, one a groundskeeper, one a hairdresser, one a state office worker. All the guys who picked me up were older. I was 19, 20 years old. Pretty much every guy would be older than me. They were all alcoholics, or budding alcoholics. I always gave a false name and, if they asked for it, a phony phone number. I never saw any of these guys a second time. 

As I found other ways to meet men for sex—cruising in Washington Park, calling numbers left on the walls of public toilets, cruising the stacks in the basement of the university library—I stopped going to the Central Arms. During those months I came out completely, first to myself, and then to my friends. When I was released from the terror of living in the closet, my heart began to open and I became open to having a lover and to making friends, social friends, with other gay men.

The Coleherne

By the mid-1970s I was fully out and an in-your-face gay activist, what in those days the straight press called a “militant homosexual.” I was a graduate student in West Germany and living with my first lover, a man who I expected to spend the rest of my life with. Dennis and I had an open relationship. I was by far the more sexually voracious. We both wrote poetry and, with three German students joining the editorial board, published a semi-annual small press poetry magazine. Over summer and winter breaks we traveled a great deal around Europe and the US.

In 1977 we visited Britain for the first time. We stayed at Redfield’s, a gay hotel in Earls Court, which in those days was a famous gay neighborhood in London. Our very first day there we came across a very popular gay pub, a few streets from our hotel. It was called the Coleherne. At that time the Coleherne catered to the levi and leather crowd. It had a long history as a bohemian pub before becoming the preeminent London gay leather bar in the 1970s and 1980s. It attracted an international crowd, including people like Freddie Mercury, Anthony Perkins, Rupert Everett, Ian McKellen, and Derek Jarman.

The pub was huge, with a horseshoe-shaped bar. On the short side of the “J” figure bar the leather crowd hung out. On the other, long side of the bar, the “levi” side, the crowd was thicker, the sexually charged air buzzing with English being spoken in different accents, English, Scottish, Irish, American, Australian. The cruising was heavy, and a narrow passage space was maintained between the bar and the crowds for guys to circulate.

I quickly picked up on the unspoken cruising rules. I’d survey the crowd looking for the guys I found most attractive or otherwise interesting-looking. I’d approach each guy and talk with him for a while. Sometimes a guy would offer to buy me a lager, or I’d do the same. After a while one of us would make an excuse to leave and resume circulating through the crowd. When closing time came I’d ask one of “my” guys to go home with me. If he turned me down, I’d ask the next guy on my list. I never left alone, and I always left with a guy I definitely wanted.

On my very first visit to the Coleherne I met and went home with a painter, originally from working-class Bradford in West Yorkshire. Ken was a redhead and spoke with suck a thick Yorkshire accent at that time that I had to ask him to repeat almost everything he said. Although we never had sex with each other again, Ken became my best friend. I would make many visits to London over the years always stayed with Ken. We always went out to the Coleherne. Over time my ears adjusted to Ken’s West Yorkshire accent. 

I met many, many gay men from all over the world in the Coleherne. I became friends with many of them. Some of these friendships endured for years. And all of those friends, except for Ken, died either from AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s or of old age in the last two decades. Ken is now over eighty, still living in London, and still painting. In retirement we are now both too old to visit each other (Ken used to visit me when I lived in San Francisco, then in Boston, and then again back in San Francisco.) We remain in regular contact by mail, email, and Facetime. 

My most poignant experience at the Coleherne was meeting Derek Noakes there. Derek was from Australia and working for a travel agency in London at the time. That was the summer of 1979 when I was leaving Tübingen to move to San Francisco. At that time I was again on my own and was taking the entire summer to get to the West Coast, stopping to stay with and visit friends along the route. My first stop was London and planned when I was ready to move on to fly standby to Boston. I had already shipped my stuff ahead of me to a friend (my then-current leather master) I was going to stay with in San Francisco and several friends along the way were expecting me to show up at some point in between.

And then Derek happened. We spotted each other while cruising one afternoon at the Coleherne. And we homed in on each other. I had never felt such a stark, strong, intense immediate attraction like that to any man before. (Derek felt something very similar.) We went back to Ken’s place and made love. (This was much more than recreational sex.) We agreed to get together the following day. And the following day, and again and again. I had never been fucked like that before. Derek fucking m gave me whole-body orgasms.

We became emotionally intimate. I had never experienced this form of love—the sexual intertwined with the emotional. I found myself falling deeply in love with him. But I was slow in realizing Derek was falling in love with me as well. We explored London together, walking around different neighborhoods, poking around odd shops, eating in ethnic restaurants, and sleeping at his place. 

Eventually, the road was calling me. I had other people to see and other promises to keep. On the day of my departure Derek and I exchanged gifts. (I gave him a book of Rumi poems and he gave me an Indian cookbook.) He asked me not to unwrap his gift until I was on my plane. He saw me off at the Earls Court tube station. When I got on the plane and took my seat, I unwrapped his gift. On the inside of the book Derek had written a note. It read, “Learn to cook these dishes and I’ll be yours forever.” It wasn’t until this moment that I realized Derek loved me as much as I did him. And I realized it was now too late for me to bail on my plans to move to San Francisco. I cried then, and I still cry whenever I think of Derek. If I could have stayed in London and made a new life for myself with Derek, I would have done so. This remains the only regret I still have.

The Balcony

When I arrived in San Francisco I was like a gay kid in a gay candy shop. As one tee shirt popular at the time out it, “So many men, so little time.” The pre-AIDS gay liberationist party of sexual freedom was still going nonstop in San Francisco. There were dozens of gay bars, gay bath houses and sex bookstore, bars with backrooms for sex. Castro Street was always full of gay men—Castro clones, for the most part—all easy-to-meet friendly, and always up for sex. My appetite for “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” (actually, disco music was omnipresent at this time) became insatiable. 

Shortly after arriving (my leather master kicked me out of his apartment after only three weeks) a guy picked me up in the very cruisy Badlands. Peter and I immediately became lovers. We drank heavily, drugged heavily, and had endless sex, often three-ways with guys we picked up at the bars or orgies in the gay bath houses. We both lived for sex.

There were many gay bars in the Castro we drank and cruised in. But we soon settled on the Balcony as our neighborhood bar. We moved to an apartment half a block away to be closer. And once Peter and I broke up (In a burst of drunken rage I had beaten him up pretty badly), I spent most of my time there. It was called the Balcony because the ground floor bar had an outdoor patio facing Market Street. There was a downstairs bar, where all the cruising went on. There was a pool table indoors, between the doors to the patio and the bar in the rear of the space. On occasion, well after midnight, so the story went, the bartender would close the patio doors and permit a willing bottom to strip naked and get fucked on the pool table while an enthusiastic and inebriated crowd urged the fucker and fuckee on. (I never witnessed this, but I was always willing to do it.) 

There was also an upstairs bar. This is where the seriously drugged guys hung out. There was a bench that ran along the walls around three sides of the bar. Joining them, I’d find a spot to perch on. Joints and bottles of poppers would be passed around. And the crowd would become entranced by the music. Every night the bar played the extended-play version of Dan Hartman’s “Relight My Fire” (arguably one of the greatest disco songs ever). The EP version begins with a very long, gradual intro and pre-chorus. This crescendos into an intense, lush burst into the song. The effect is orgasmic and the Balcony crowd always screamed in chorus when the crescendo burst. (This daily repeating ritual was outdone only by David Kelso playing the piano and singing “San Francisco” at the New Bell Saloon, a gay bar on Polk Street. When he started singing, one of the bartenders would set the huge chandeliers in the middle of the bar swinging. And everyone would join in singing.)

One Sunday afternoon when I was newly single again, I got loaded on MDA (now called “ecstasy”) and headed to the Balcony to drink and cruise. I got very drunk indeed. The last moment I remembered in the bar I was making out with a guy. The next thing I remember I was waking up in bed at home with the radio blaring Sheena Easton’s “My Baby Takes the Morning Train.” I was sleeping on a bare mattress, all that Peter had left me when he moved out. I woke with a feeling of terrifying dread. I realized in that moment that if I continued on in this way I would soon be dead.

Not long after that I went to the VD clinic because I had the clap again. While examining me, the doctor asked me if I remembered being at the Balcony on a certain day. I did. He asked me if I remembered how I got home. I told him I did not. He then said he was the person who took me home. He saw me pass out in the middle of the bar. And seeing I was there by myself took me home. Or tried to. I gave him one address after another, which he drove me to, only to have me realize I no longer lived at that address. I had moved so many times and had gotten so drunk I couldn’t remember where I lived. Finally, I remembered my current address. And that was where I had woken up in a state of mortal dread.

Soon after that I stopped drinking and found sobriety. My first sober day was May 3, 1981. I have not had a single drink or taken any mood-altering drugs since then. I stayed away from bars for a few years until I was able to be comfortable being in an environment organized around drinking. I only go to bars when friends want to socialize there. I know very few people who drink nowadays. The popularity of drinking diminishes among people as we age, and drinking has become a far less common pastime from what it used to be.  As social media has displaced the historically central role of the gay bar in the gay community, they have largely disappeared, as we all well know.In the time since the leather bars died out, bear bars have come and gone as well. I came into the bear community around the same time I came into faerie community. As the bear bars died off, the warm and welcoming acceptance I found in the now old-school bear community has also disappeared, at least in the US. I have found the social isolation of being a single, older gay man in a conservative rural community at times intolerable. With everyone now emerging from the long Covid shutdown I am heartened to see a new desire awakened in everyone to reconnect again in person. Nowadays I get to reminisce about the good old bar-going days with the gay men I am now meeting at potlucks. But I still miss the Coleherne.


“Queer Relationships Are Not Like Straight Relationships”

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For me, the saving grace of Bros was this statement made by Bobby Leiber (Billy Eichner’s character). We are different, even if Bros (riffing on When Harry Met Sally) undermines its own message by resolving the story (of two gay men professing their rejection of romance) with the romcom cliché happy ending. Fire Island, another recent queer romcom, also undermines its portrayal of ethnic, socioeconomic, and physical appearance (body fitness and traditional good looks) inequalities in the contemporary queer (here read “gay male”) community, by ending the film (riffing on Pride and Prejudice) with the romantic couple sharing a dance and a kiss. Somehow, as we know from Austin that even though they live on opposite coasts, they will find a way to make it work. Even knowing that in real life we are different, the movies cave to the pressures of literary trope and commercial need to strive for box office success. After all movies succeed when they are entertaining, Even when a film is intended to be didactic, to carry a message about society, politics, or economic realities, no one wants to be lectured. 

As Ruby Rich wrote, “The interplay between lived behavior and behavior as modeled in movies is complex.” Rich is the film scholar who coined the term New Queer Cinema, an avant-garde film movement that came and went in the 1990s. Today trans is the new queer. Before there was queer there was gay, a term reclaimed by gay liberation activists in the 1970s and used to include all same-sex desire and all gender divergence. “Queer” has taken over this function as “gay” has come to mean cisgender, mostly white gay men. (And GWM is now usually also code for middle-class.)

Fire Island lifts the curtain from some painful realities about racism and economics in the queer community. Set in Manhattan, Bros presents a rather sugar-coated version of queer history and community. Both films invite straight audiences to see us in our messiness, assuming they are interested enough in us to pay money to see us among ourselves. Ironically, New York City and Fire Island both continue to be safe havens away from heterosexual gaze. Even as sexual, gender, and racial diversity within the queer community is included in these love stories, there are no poor queers, and old queers appear as benign, desexualized Auntie Mames – Harvey Fierstein cameos as a bed-and-breakfast owner in Provincetown (another queer safe haven) in Bros and Margaret Cho cameos as the older lesbian den mother who relies on her Fire Island home ownership to draw younger queers into her benign power. Queer poverty is too depressing to contemplate. And everyone knows that gay, white, cisgender men are all at least comfortably middle-class. Both films gloss over the relative wealth necessary to vacation on Fire Island.

The continuing mainstreaming of queers in America owes much of its recent success to the integration of gay and lesbians on TV, from Ellen DeGeneres to Will and Grace. (At the time of this writing, DeGeneres had just retired and Will and Grace are ancient history.) Once again the boundary-pushing edginess of queer films has been replaced by the comfort of queers in the comfort of traditional genre films. In the market-driven commercial film world, queers (mostly gay white men) with money get options. And political and social defiance is replaced by homonormativity.

This goes a long way in explaining the origin of both films. Both films aim to be groundbreaking, both by portraying queer culture more honestly than queer films have done in the past and by confidently believing straight audiences are ready for this honesty. In our current post-covid world efforts are being made to bring audiences back into the movie houses. There is legitimate fear that covid may have brought about the collapse of brick-and-mortar cinemas. Hollywood was banking on the past sure-fire success of the romcom genre with Bros. When the movie theaters shut down, movies went to the new streaming format. Fire Island was released on Hulu, one of these new streaming services. 

Despite rave reviews from the critics (89% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes), Bros did not do well at the box office. One London-based reviewer dismissed it as “self-indulgent and fauxgressive.” (Another reviewer had praised the film for its “militancy.”) One conservative (now code for “far right”) reviewer used his review as a platform to attack Hollywood’s “far-left” “woke” culture for being out of touch with (homophobic) mainstream society, as well as most gay men. I suspect the film’s ultimate failure from this perspective is that none of the queers died in the final scene.

Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet and the documentary film made from it show how the tragic gay man or homicidal lesbian needed to die in the final scene. Only flighty, light-in-the-loafer pansies useful for their comic relief value got to live. Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), the first film to portray gay men sympathetically and released in 1919, played to packed cinema houses in Weimar Berlin.  The love story between a violinist and his student ultimately ends in a suicide. (Gay and lesbian German films have a longer history that Hollywood.)

 After Stonewall this began to change. Gay men and lesbians began to tell their own stories in their own voices. The pivotal moment in history when we began to find each other was in the aftermath of World War II, as grassroots gay historian Allan Bérubé documented in Coming Out Under Fire. This laid the ground for the creation of gay community. Gays and (to a much lesser degree) lesbians began appearing in films in a positive light. A new genre, the gay coming out story, began and usually portrayed romantic couplings. In films such (sanitized) romances took place outside of the context of gay community. Both Bros and Fire Island are noteworthy for being set in realistically portrayed queer communities. 

“Homosexual” became a social identity in the nineteenth century. In “Capitalism and Gay Identity” John D’Emilio explains how the rise of capitalism gave individuals relative autonomy to leave home and the support network of family, free to support themselves and live and work elsewhere. Parallel to this was the rise of the division between the public and private spheres. Individuals (mostly men) were able to construct a private life and a social network of their own choosing. Sex was separated from procreation. Individuals who performed same-sex acts, according to Michel Foucault, became medicalized – the act became the identity. Medical science provided an alibi to justify marginalizing these newly stigmatized individuals.

On the eve of Stonewall two very different groundbreaking films portraying homo-social relations made the box office. Midnight Cowboy follows Joe Buck (Jon Voight) a would-be hustler from Texas as his increasingly fruitless efforts to make money servicing women leads him to try his luck with gay men. He is taken under the wing of a two-bit con man, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) . The social taboo placed on overt homosexuality plays out in the homo-social love relationship between the two men. Ratso, the con artist, rejects identifying his love for Buck, castigating “fags” on numerous occasions. The film also serves as a snapshot of Manhattan and Times Square, in all its seedy glory in the 1960s. 

Around the same time the film version of Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, the first depiction of circle of gay friends (in New York City) was released. Many gay men denounced it for its unflattering portrayal of gay men as bitchy, self-loathing, alcoholic, sadomasochistic. The film remains mostly unstudied in academia due to its painful testament to internalized homophobia. And yet, it depicts another snapshot of gay life in Manhattan in the 1960s. It is also the first depiction of what is now beginning to be called queer kinship.

The rise of homophobia, the rejecting of homosexual men and women, caused queers to move to the anonymity and relative safety of large cities. This created the conditions for an actual community to come into being. Gay men and lesbians began to find each other and organized socially (bars for gay men seeking sexual encounters, lesbians in private social clubs or literary circles, according to John D’Emilio). This underground gay subculture flourished in the 1920s in Weimar Germany. In the US the process was accelerated following World War II. This set the stage for gays and lesbians to create “community,” on the model of ethnic identity. 

Unlike Hollywood where films had to pay for themselves through box office sales, during the 1970s, directors of the New German Cinema were given the freedom to make the films they wanted to. They were supported by the German government with no restraints placed on film content or need for commercial success. Three significant gay-themed films emerged – Rosa von Praunheim’s activity documentary Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation in der er lebt, Frank Ripploh’s autobiographical Taxi zum Klo, and gay enfant terrible auteur director Rainer Werner Faßbinder’s Faustrecht der Freiheit. Faßbinder’s In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with 13 Moons) was a significant film about a transsexual.

After Stonewall the gay and lesbian subcultures also came out of the shadows as gay community. In current colloquial usage, any group of people can be grouped under this umbrella term. We speak of the African-American community, communities of color, rural communities, gated communities, the global community, and on and on. In sociological terms, community is defined by population, area (physical location), group identification (shared similarities), group sentiment (shared values), explicit shared goals, and permanence. The nascent gay community in America arose in the large cities, where there was enough density of population for there to be enough gays and lesbians in physical proximity to each other. Our community had shared political, social, and cultural goals. And we believed our neighborhoods – The Castro, the West Village, Boystown, the South End, Silverlake – were permanent.

As the gay community and gay and lesbian culture achieved stability, the project of recovering the gay past grew from grassroots efforts into a formally recognized academic discipline. Gay and lesbian literary studies transformed into queer literature, supported by a still-evolving queer theory. Documentary films, coming-out stories with happy endings, and more positive lesbian-themed films were produced. The AIDS epidemic and the rise of the internet had major effects on the LGBT community. And the first films addressing trans people as people rather than for their shock value to straight audiences appeared. Notable among the AIDS movies are Longtime CompanionsJeffrey, Angels in America (from the play), and The Normal Heart (from the play). Lesbian-themed films include But I’m a CheerleaderDesert HeartsGo Fish, and The Watermelon Woman. Trans-themed films include TransamericaBoys Don’t Cry, and The Crying Game. Perhaps the most influential documentary is Paris Is Burning, about a queer community of young queers of color and their drag shows. This was the first time queers of color, queer poverty, and their unique queer community were documented.

Asian-American communities have rarely been portrayed in American films. Eat a Bowl of Tea and The Joy Luck Club are the only ones that come to mind, that predate the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians. In this film a Chinese American professor goes to Singapore to attend the wedding of her husband’s best friend. She discovers that her boyfriend’s family is not just rich, but crazy rich. In spite of the film’s claims about its importance, for example the use of its Asian cast (like Bros’ all-queer cast) or characters not engaged in stereotypical professions, it has been criticized for whitewashing the ethnic diversity in Singapore, the city-state’s complex past, and the portrayal of Singapore as a hegemonic hyper-wealthy Chinese diaspora.

Cut to Fire Island, where two Asian American gay men pay a visit to the iconic gay resort. How their Asian-ness is received quickly dispels the utopian fantasy of Fire Island and lays bare many of the cruel realities of gay life – discrimination based on race, fitness, masculinity, economic privilege. Even as one of the characters, Noah, describes his and his friends as “literal trash,” comparing himself to the wealth and privilege of the ideal gay white male vacationer. He seems oblivious to his own relative privilege in being able to afford his vacation on Fire Island. The pressures to conform in the midst of this affluence is suggestive of nineteenth-century New York high society in The Age of Innocence. Noah calls himself a “class traitor” for having the requisite fitness which gives him access to sex. Looking for love they traverse the territory of false appearances and false assumptions of a Jane Austin novel. Deprived of the love and kinship they seek it is clear they feel like the outsiders that they are. The loneliness of feeling like an outsider when surrounded by queer community, yet failing to find one’s own tribe, is a very common experience rarely acknowledged by the queer community, let alone in queer films. 

In 1990 Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published, arguing that sex and gender are separate entities. As the focus on sex shifted to gender, a new trans activism has started to push back against the convergence politics of identity politics and the binary model (male/female, gay/straight, white/black, and now cis/trans). One of the first results of this shift was the revision of the history of the Stonewall riots. No one knows who threw the first brick (something Bobby Leiber points out in Bros), but Marsha P. Johnson, an African American self-identifying drag queen and transvestite (later labeled by trans activist Susan Stryker as a “gender nonconformist”), eventually emerged as the figurehead of Stonewall. (In the early years following the Stonewall riots a popular myth circulated. Gay icon Judy Garland’s funeral had happened only days before the riots. Gay men, overcome by their grief, channeled it into anger which they took out by rioting  in Sheridan Square where the Stonewall Inn is located.)

In the face of the current rapid expansion of binary mini-identities trans activist Kadji Amin has pointed out the weaknesses of the convergence politics of identity politics and proposes a politics of divergence. Amin argues for a new (trans) politics and discourse without gender identity. And  activist Jack Halberstam argues for trans liberation as central to the fight against the patriarchal system. The cutting-edge gay liberationist activism of the 1970s has now moved to the vanguard of trans activism in the 2020s. 

Diversity within the trope of romantic love between cisgender gay men (which arguably reached its sublime apotheosis in Brokeback Mountain) has been explored in recent films. Power of the Dog explores sublimated homosexual desire in a harrowing story of toxic masculinity. God’s Own Country, a seminal queer film, tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young English farmer finding love with a Romanian migrant worker. Call Me By Your Name portrays the awakening of gay desire between an American professor’s son and the doctoral student working with the professor over a summer in Lombardy. Another seminal movie, Moonlight follows a young African American man through three stages of his life on the margins of society, concluding with him reconnecting with the man he had carried a torch for. In Supernova an aging gay male couple take a final road trip as one partner is descending into Alzheimer’s dementia.

It is unclear to what degree non-binary gender fluidity may replace identity politics or how queer films will evolve. Numerous queer communities are yet to be portrayed in mainstream film – the leather community the bear community, the radical faerie community. In the face of physical gay communities disappearing, a recent comment made on Facebook asked, “If there are no leather bars, can I be a leatherman?”


The Life and Times of the Legendary Larry Townsend

by Jack Fritscher
Book Review by Les K. Wright

What becomes a legend most? Having his story told by another legend. And who better to tell Larry Townsend’s story than Jack Fritscher? 

Author of The Leatherman’s Handbook, Townsend has long been recognized as a primary shaper and influencer of the gay leather-and-kink world, his book a founding text of the leather and kink culture of the 20th century. Jack Fritscher, author, scholar, editor of Drummer magazine, and long-time friend of Townsend, serves up a carefully documented, thoroughly engrossing (at times dishy), and insightful account of Townsend’s life and the world both men inhabited.

Sexual outlaw and social iconoclast Fritscher brings fresh life to a frequently misunderstood community, usually overlooked by queer historians more concerned with being “respectable” than in telling the whole truth. Writing with an immediacy reminiscent of John Rechy, Fritscher details the back-story of another side of post-war gay Los Angeles, in all its unvarnished glory. Recounting many of the less than flattering grudge matches, Fritscher revels in the imperfect humanity of Townsend, himself, and many others, the sort of thing that many “respectable” historians are loathe to commit to print. This honesty is some of what makes this such an enjoyable and satisfying read. 


I first read The Leatherman’s Handbook in 1974 when I was 21 years old. It changed my life. I had recently come out and was reading everything I could find about homosexuality. Being drawn particularly to butch, preferably hairy, working-class men, men in white tee shirts and leather jackets, men who loved men who (to my eyes) looked and acted like men, I was astonished to find there was a whole tribe of gay men like me. Townsend guided me into the subculture of kink. Feeling doubly stigmatized for being not just a homosexual, but also a sadomasochist, I was so relieved to find I was not alone.

I had come across an ad for The Leatherman’s Handbook in an American gay magazine. I bought it mail-order, and it arrived with a small bottle of poppers. I was a student in West Germany at the time and living in a small university town. Emboldened by what I had been reading, I ventured out to the leather bars in Munich. It was there I had my first BDSM encounters and met my first leather master. The rest is history. 

Many years later, as I learned how recently unearthed gay history became susceptible to revision as it became a “respectable” subject of inquiry, like the white-washing of earthy Roman culture by Victorian scholars, I paid close attention. As a participant-observer of the gay bear culture I saw taking shape before me, I took Larry Townsend’s example to heart. With The Bear Book I sought to gather snapshots of what early bears were like, what they did, how they saw themselves – before historians after the fact would record a history not directly experienced to better align with their interpretation than the unvarnished truth. I also fashioned my book to be a how-to guide in the spirit of The Leatherman’s Handbook.

Once upon a time people like me were considered sexual outlaws. The action is often on the margins. Change is often brought about by what emerges from the margins. As an old man myself now looking back, I particularly enjoy now octogenarian Jack Fritscher looking back on Larry Townsend’s long life as well as his own. As Jack might quote from the Eagles, “You call someplace paradise / Kiss it goodbye.”

Open Letter to Jack Fritscher

Hi Jack,

I was excited to read the news of your latest book, on Larry Townsend. I will let you know when my copy arrives. (I contacted the Leather Journal, and they said they had already reviewed it.) 

Over the past two years of the pandemic shutdown I have been coming out of retirement, a step at a time, and reaching out and reconnecting with old friends. I never adjusted to being “retired.” I miss teaching, writing, being involved in projects I find meaningful, having a social life. The move to zoom allowed me to reconnect with people and went a long way in taking the Cortland, NY “blinders” off. The Real World full of Real People is still very much alive and well!

When I divorced my husband in San Francisco, and could no longer afford to live there, I made two attempts to get on my feet and start over – in Eureka, and then Palm Springs. I am now an “economic refugee from California.”

The only alternative to being homeless in California was to move back in with my sister here in Central New York. Eventually I got into low-income public housing here in “downtown” Cortland. I love my apartment. And I had long-needed state housing and steady (if below poverty level) income. And this has allowed me to move back into being involved, and not having all my energies being focused on survival.

I am working on a book. It began as a memoir. I am now working through the third major rewrite. I finally feel confident about this version. Working title is Resilience, a title my editor came up with.

I have been spearheading the reboot of the Bear History Project. I was very surprised and disappointed that no one ever picked up the ball when I retired my work in 2005. (1) The bear phenomenon had grown so large so fast that one person could no longer do the work. (2) print media moved over to electronic media, and I had no idea how to capture all that. (3) By that point I was $30,000 in personal debt paying for the BHP, and had run out of funds, and ended up in bankruptcy .

I have attracted a small, but growing, group of dedicated folks, who are now growing the BHP. They bring fresh perspectives, fresh energy, and badly needed professional skills. It looks like the BHP will grow wings and take off.

The Career That Never Happened: My career goal was to teach German and Russian at a small liberal arts college. I majored in Comparative Literature, where this made the most academic preparation sense. When I was a freshman in 1971 that was very marketable. Both languages / cultural studies were essential in the Cold War era. And someone competent in German and Russian in this country was a rare thing indeed.

As I was approaching the end of my doctoral studies (PhD 1992), the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union had collapsed. The humanities had been getting gutted for long time. German and Russian Departments had been closed. I graduated into a nonexistent job market.

Parallel to my formal academic studies, I started researching on my own gay literature and gay history, back in 1974 in Tübingen. I had hoped to become involved in an as yet nonexistent Gay and Lesbian Studies field. I did all my “queer” work outside the academy. By the time I started working on my dissertation, Queer Studies/Queer Theory seemed to emerge suddenly. And my approach was antiquated.

So I hustled to remake myself into an English scholar to make myself employable in a job market where most PhDs did not find employment. I did. Unfortunately, Mount Ida College turned out to be a truly nasty joke. After 12 years of MIC administration’s covert war on me, I left. 

All that is now far behind me, and I have been able to work past all the anger, frustration, and despair that caused me.

So, here I am writing again, getting into print again, working with the BHP, and bringing myself up to speed on Queer Studies/Queer Theory stuff. 

LGBT communities seem to have passed into history, for the most part.  I tried to start a bear club, then a leather club, to no avail. All of my involvements in CNY groups went nowhere. With the shutdown I withdrew from all of them. After a decade of circulating and making hundreds of acquaintances, I have found it impossible to make any friends – city, suburban, country; well-off to working-class; town or gown (I got the clear message form the Cornell bubble that the likes of me are not welcome there); etc., etc., etc. 

So, I have come to terms with the social isolation and solitude here. It took me a very long time, but I have been able to come to terms with all that. And I am “okay.” I have reinvented myself once again, and am very engaged and motivated to move forward with my new life, post-retirement. 




LGBT vs. Queer

“The absence of a Poor Queer Studies paradigm that might counterbalance current state-of-the-field work is particularly curious in light of the fact that concerns about academic elitism within Queer Studies are an undeniable part of the field’s history. Perhaps we used to hear those charges rather more often than we do now. Notably, Jeffrey Escoffier in his 1990 essay ‘Inside the Ivory Closet: The Challenge Facing Lesbian and Gay Studies’ posited a split between post-Stonewall scholars who increasingly enjoyed and industriously courted institutional status within the Academy; and pre-Stonewall ground-roots gay-and-lesbian San Francisco and queer academic Berkeley in the 1980s and early 1990s, all writers and activists whose primary commitments were to their communities and to making scholarship accessible beyond the academy.” –Matt Brim (Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University)

I had to “negotiate” this disparity every day that I went from grassroots gay-and-lesbian San Francisco and queer academic Berkeley. When I shared a couple of queer academic texts with my friend Allan Bérubé he was incredulous, finding it both horrifying and risible.

I Was a Working-Class Academic

Melissa Korn (Wall Street Journal)

Sixteen major U.S. universities, including Yale University, Georgetown University and Northwestern University, are being sued for alleged antitrust violations because of the way they work together to determine financial-aid awards for students.

According to a lawsuit filed in Illinois federal court late Sunday by law firms representing five former students who attended some of the schools, the universities engaged in price fixing and unfairly limited aid by using a shared methodology to calculate applicants’ financial need. Schools are allowed under federal law to collaborate on their formulas, but only if they don’t consider applicants’ financial need in admissions decisions. The suit alleges these schools do weigh candidates’ ability to pay in certain circumstances, and therefore shouldn’t be eligible for the antitrust exemption.

Thanks to a colleague, who just shared this article (below) with me.

I saw the movie “Good Will Hunting” in Boston with my friend Ruth (recently honored with an honorary doctorate from The University of Basel; an internationally recognized geneticist; and who has moved back and forth between NYU and MIT) and her boyfriend/life partner, another geneticist from an upper middle-class background and with an Ivy pedigree. We discussed the film later, and the BF dismissed it derisively as a bunch of nonsense. The BF has always treated me with condescension and publicly embarrassed me several times because of my lowly background. When I get together with Ruth nowadays the BF is always left out. 

The books on working-class academics I was referring to are:

Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class

This Fine Place So Far From Home : Voices of Academics from the Working Class

What Oxford taught me about posh people

The dreaming spires hide a vicious sense of entitlement


James Rebanks is a fell farmer and the best-selling author of The Shepherd’s Life. His new book, English Pastoral, came out in September 2020.

December 22, 2021

There’s a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where the working-class genius played by Matt Damon makes fools of some arrogant students in a bar, by knowing way more about their subject than they do. They’d been mocking his friends for their crudeness and stupidity, but they end up leaving with their tail between their legs.

I’m no genius, but I do know something about the social dynamics in that scene, because I kind of lived it.

All my friends got labouring jobs at the ages of fifteen or sixteen. To us, students were the middle-class kids who didn’t work, then left to go to “uni.” They never really came back, or if they did, they returned just to boss us around. Our home, for them, was something shitty to escape from. In their world, everyone babbled endlessly as if everything they had to say was fascinating. In our world, if you spoke self-importantly, people told you to shut the fuck up. They thought nothing of us; we thought nothing of them.

My experience of secondary education wasn’t good. I sat for five years in a crumbling comprehensive with thirty other bored working-class kids. There were fights in the corridors, bullying, shoplifting down the town at break times. We threw things at teachers, dragged our feet and our bags between lessons, and resisted every well-meant attempt to change us. Often disillusioned and half-broken teachers did their best to hold it all together. I hated it. I left as soon as I could with nothing to show for it.

My education might have ended there, but a decade later, I was talked into going back to school by my girlfriend. I got my A Levels by taking night classes at an adult education centre. A teacher there suggested I apply for university. I decided to give it a go. I didn’t tell my friends.

I was building a dry-stone-wall by a roadside, mulling over which through-stone fitted best, when the postman stopped to hand me a letter. He was a lad I’d been to school with. I opened it while I was chatting to him, and he seemed baffled when I told him the letter said I’d got into Oxford University. “But you’re thick like me,” he said.

After he’d driven away with a friendly wave, I thought, “How will I tell everyone?” Was I about to become one of the people I’d grown up hating? In fact, my people were proud of me and cheered me off to war against the posh people (they’d seen Good Will Hunting too).

I went for two main reasons, and neither of them were very nice. I went because our farm was struggling and had become very claustrophobic and small, way too small for me and my dad, and because I needed a new hustle: everyone I knew who had money seemed to have gone to university. But I loved books, too, and liked the idea that you could study just one subject, and skip the rest, which was handy as I was useless at most of the subjects. But it was terrifying. I didn’t want to leave the place and the people I was from, or give up being who I was. I wanted to come back afterwards, but had no plan for how that might work.

Going to an elite university exposed me to the people that made me most nervous: the well-spoken, (supposedly) clever people. My first instinct was to flee from this strange new world with its archaic traditions, funny language and weird social habits. But I was too proud to go home defeated, so I decided to fight instead. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the posh kids were all leather shoes, woollen jackets, small-talk and bullshit. I soon shrugged off the idea that there were some mystical clever people somewhere that were better than me: I’d now met them, come up against them one on one, and they were often bang average. I could hold my own on anything substantive. I’d grown up among straight-talking tough people who loved to argue in smoky pubs, so Oxford tutorials felt strangely familiar.

If I’d been confined to a plastic chair, and told to sit in silence and listen for an hour to someone who wasn’t very interesting talk about a subject I hadn’t chosen to be interested in, I suspect I’d have messed about and misbehaved, just as I did as a teenager. But Oxford wasn’t like that. The teaching was personalised, flexible and interactive. That kind of system keeps people like me in the room, fired up and engaged. Kids like me, who don’t flourish in school, can benefit from such attention, and focus, and belief. A good society would strive to give it to them.

But posh kids still dominate these institutions. I learned, when I was there, that their trick was not any kind of genuine superiority but pure conditioning. Their schools and families had taught them that university was as much a social rite of passage as an opportunity to learn. They aimed high, in terms of grades — and to be fair, often worked very hard to pull it off. I was from people with lots of excuses for not doing things out of the ordinary; posh kids strode into their extraordinary future with their heads held high. No one I knew had that kind of polish and swagger, but I soon realised you could fake it. I looked at them and thought: if you fuckers can do remarkable things, then why can’t I?

It was liberating to find that I was clever enough, if I worked hard. And I knew how to work hard — for hours, days, weeks and years. OK, my people didn’t achieve highly in education or the professional white-collar world, but we were proud farmers with a culture of striving. I simply switched that mentality and applied it to education — something I hadn’t realised was possible at school. I knew the posh kids couldn’t outwork me. And the fact that I’d failed a lot was a strength, faced with their easy but brittle confidence. I knew how to get back up off the floor. People from more disadvantaged backgrounds than mine often lack this self-belief. But what if they were surrounded by people and institutions expecting and helping them to excel, as the posh kids were?

So much of this is about self-fulfilling prophecies. For years university worked because we believed it worked. It turned out “clever” people for “clever” jobs with good salaries, and sent the rest down the mine, to the factory or the farm. No one asked whether these students were really the most intelligent people. The system just confirmed the advantages of birth and background. My odd, and entirely untypical, journey exposed me to the extremes of the British education system. It has left me with complicated feelings about what universities can and can’t do.

A lot of people treat you different when they think you are an Oxford graduate than when they think you are a farm labourer. They talk to you differently. They talk to you more. They invite you to their house and try to make friends with you. They talk about books. Some of this is perhaps based on not unreasonable assumptions. Some of it is just lazy snobbery. I knew people that would talk down to me or my friends because they thought we weren’t very bright or worth very much. With those people I’d shamelessly mention having been to Oxford to knock them back a bit. It was like sprinkling fairy dust. They’d shrink back as if I’d said the password — or worse, start fawning, when five minutes earlier they’d thought I was northern, common, and knew nowt. Snobs and the powerful fetishise ‘academic’ credentials. I didn’t even pick my degree up, but it didn’t matter. Once you are in the club the detail isn’t important. You just have to look at our leading politicians. Boris Johnson would be stacking shelves in Aldi or working down the chippie if he’d been born in Hartlepool.

My story is sometimes seen as a rags-to-riches tale. But I wasn’t exceptional; I was lucky. The point of this story is that a society that is blind to the potential of so many of its young people, is a wasteful, unfair and ineffective society.  I look at bookshop shelves and wonder where half the stories are. Where’s the book by the girl that works in the laundrette, the man who serves you in MacDonalds, the Romanian woman who cleans your hotel room, by the lads that work on the railways or the building site? We don’t care about these people enough because they don’t get heard, and they don’t get heard because we build a success machine that they don’t want to be part of, or can’t access, or use, or afford. Instead of a fair system, the machine churns out entitled mediocrities, born to be heard, born to rule.

And though universities are trying hard to become more “accessible”, there is only so much they can do. Perhaps it’s too late by the time the kids are eighteen. And if working class kids don’t apply, what can an admissions system do?

Around this time eighteen ago, I was sitting down to take my final exams. I did well. I could probably have stayed and become an academic, but I was drawn home to my own landscape and work — to the place and people that made me. Oxford didn’t make me, as a person, or a writer, but I’ve returned there over the years. The people that once taught me seem sad. They say it has gotten worse: the posh kids arrive, use it, then leave to work in the City.

And perhaps all the debt this training requires means that the kids are right to be mercenary about it all. Work hard, get the grades, move to London, do the job, get promoted, earn more, pay it back. Love of subject, creativity, taking risks and experimenting: these things feel marginal. I can see why people are skeptical about universities, and angry at the elite ones. They are often now little more than training camps for the storm-troopers of capitalism. I may have been lucky to go when I did.

This piece was first published on May 31, 2021

Update on LTS AIDS Film

Here is the film made of long-term AIDS survivors. Instead of being a documentary, it is a compilation of talking head snippets arranged into a message created by the film-maker. I feel misled. I do appear saying “forty years.” At the time I thought it odd that I did not fill out any paperwork or sign a release – something ALWAYS done with interviewees.

So, I am still open to and hoping to find someone to work with in making an actual documentary on long-term AIDS survivors.

I contacted the film-maker several times, but never heard back from him. When this film was aired, I went over his head and contacted the overseer of the program. This prompted an immediate response from the film-maker, apologizing for having “missed” my emails.

Another item to file under “I got mine; you can go fuck yourself.”

Lou Sullivan Has His Own Coffee Mug

Look who’s got his own coffee mug? (This came in a fundraiser from the LGBT Historical Society San Francisco): My old friend Lou Sullivan, pioneering trans activist and fellow founding member of the LGBT Historical Society San Francisco. I originally met Lou in the 1970s, where he was an editor on the GPU News in Milwaukee and I was submitting my creative work (poetry, short stories, photographs) for publication. At the time Lou presented as a gay man. Later we met and became friends through our involvement with the LGBT Historical Society. Along with Paula Lichtenberg and Eric Garber, we had fun working on the newsletter (Paula is one of the old friends I had in mind when writing my essay on Friendship in Old Age).

Louis Graydon Sullivan (June 16, 1951 – March 2, 1991) was an American author and activist known for his work on behalf of trans men. He was perhaps the first transgender man to publicly identify as gay, and is largely responsible for the modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts. Sullivan was a pioneer of the grassroots female-to-male (FTM) movement and was instrumental in helping individuals obtain peer-support, counselling, endocrinological services and reconstructive surgery outside of gender dysphoria clinics. He founded FTM International, one of the first organizations specifically for FTM individuals, and his activism and community work was a significant contributor to the rapid growth of the FTM community during the late 1980s.

Sullivan grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the third child of six in a very religious Catholic family, and he attended Catholic primary and secondary school. Sullivan started keeping a journal at the age of 10, describing his early childhood thoughts of being a boy, confusing adolescence, sexual fantasies of being a gay man, and his involvement in the Milwaukee music scene. During his adolescence he expressed continued confusion about his identity, writing at age 15 in 1966 that “I want to look like what I am but don’t know what someone like me looks like. I mean, when people look at me I want them to think – there’s one of those people […] that has their own interpretation of happiness. That’s what I am.” Sullivan was attracted to the idea of playing different gender roles, and his attraction for male roles was outlined in his writings, specifically in his short stories, poems and diaries; he often explored the ideas of male homosexuality and gender identity.

At the age of seventeen he began a relationship with a self-described “feminine” male lover, and together they would play with gender roles and gender-bending. In 1973, Sullivan identified himself as a “female transvestite” and by 1975 he identified himself as a “female-to-male transsexual”. In 1975, it “became apparent” that Sullivan needed to leave Milwaukee for somewhere where he could find “more understanding” and access hormones for his transition, so he decided to move to San Francisco. His family was supportive of the move and gave him “a man’s suit and [his] grandfather’s pocket watch” as going-away presents. Upon arrival in San Francisco, Sullivan began working at the Wilson Sporting Good Company, where he was employed as a woman but cross-dressed as a man much of the time. In his personal life, Sullivan lived as an out gay man, but he was repeatedly denied sex reassignment surgery (SRS) because of his sexual orientation and the expectation of the time that transgender people should adopt stereotypical heterosexual opposite-sex gender roles. This rejection led Sullivan to start a campaign to remove homosexuality from the list of contraindications for SRS. In 1976, Sullivan suffered a severe crisis of gender identity and continued living as a feminine heterosexual woman for the next three years. In 1978 he was shaken by the death of his youngest brother. In 1979, Sullivan was finally able to find doctors and therapists who would accept his sexuality and began taking testosterone, with double mastectomy surgery following a year later. He then left his previous job to work as an engineering technician at the Atlantic-Ritchfield Company so that he could fully embrace his new identity as a man with new co-workers. In 1986, Sullivan obtained genital reconstruction surgery. He was diagnosed as HIV positive shortly after his surgery, and told he only had 10 months to live. It is likely that Sullivan was HIV- infected in 1980, just after his chest surgery. He wrote, “I took a certain pleasure in informing the gender clinic that even though their program told me I could not live as a Gay man, it looks like I’m going to die like one.” Sullivan died of AIDS-related complications on March 2, 1991.

Sullivan wrote the first guidebook for FTM persons, and also a biography of the San Francisco FTM, Jack Bee Garland. Sullivan was instrumental in demonstrating the existence of trans men who were themselves attracted to men. Lou Sullivan began peer counselling through the Janus Information Facility which was an organization that provided transgender issues. He is also credited for being the first to discuss the eroticism of men’s clothing. Sullivan was active in the Golden Gate Girls/Guys organization (later called the Gateway Gender Alliance), one of the first social/educational organizations for transgender people that offered support to FTM transsexuals, and in fact successfully petitioned to add “Guys” to its name. From July 1979 to October 1980, Sullivan edited The Gateway, a newsletter with “news and information on transvestism and transsexualism” that was circulated by the Golden Gate Girls/Guys. It was originally primarily focused on the needs of MTF and transvestite readers and read “much like a small town newspaper”, but under Sullivan’s editing it gained more gender parity between MTF and FTM issues. According to Megan Rohrer, Sullivan “transform[ed] Gateway in a way that [would] forever change FTM mentoring” because trans people could still obtain information on how to pass without having to attend group gatherings in person.

Sullivan was a founding member and board member of the GLBT Historical Society (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society) in San Francisco. His personal and activist papers are preserved in the institution’s archives as collection no. 1991–07; the papers are fully processed and available for use by researchers, and a finding aid is posted on the Online Archive of California. The Historical Society has displayed selected materials from Sullivan’s papers in a number of exhibitions, notably “Man-i-fest: FTM Mentoring in San Francisco from 1976 to 2009,” which was open through much of 2010 in the second gallery at the society’s headquarters at 657 Mission St. in San Francisco, and “Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating San Francisco’s GLBT History,” the debut exhibition in the main gallery at the society’s GLBT History Museum that opened in January 2011 in San Francisco’s Castro District.

Lou was a writer and capable of standing up for what he saw as truth. He was a gay transsexual man, before this was even allowed or recognized. He is also the person who helped to change that, and now – being gay is no longer an issue if you want to begin transition. Sullivan lobbied the American Psychiatric Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health for them to recognize his existence as a gay trans man. He was determined to change people’s attitudes towards trans homosexuals but also to change the medical process of transition by removing sexual orientation from the criteria of gender identity disorder so that trans men who are gay could also access hormones and surgery, essentially making the process “orientation blind”.

In June 2019, Sullivan was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall’s unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In August 2019, Sullivan was one of the honorees inducted in the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood noting LGBTQ people who have “made significant contributions in their fields.”

Works: “A Transvestite Answers a Feminist” in Gay People’s Union News (1973); “Looking Towards Transvestite Liberation” in Gay People’s Union News (1974); Female to Male Cross Dresser and Transsexual (1980); Information for the Female to Male Cross Dresser and Transsexual (1990); From Female To Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland (1990).

A Tale of the Coleherne

Thinking about my slight connection with Stephen Sondheim opened a floodgate of memories. Our friend in common was a tall, dark, handsome (aren’t they all?) pre-bear era leather bear named John Scobie. I met John at the Coleherne originally. He stayed with Sondheim when in NYC and I stayed with a friend (who I had also met at the Coleherne) on the Upper West Side. (Richard Gampert still lives there.) John introduced me to fisting. John also became friends with a London painter, Ken Ratcliffe. Ken is still painting in London and he is still my life-long best friend. Scobie, like nearly all the guys from those days, did of AIDS decades ago.

The legendary Coleherne pub was located in Earl’s Court, a gay neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s. Much like Castro Street in the same era, everyone went there. It was a leather bar with a huge J-shaped bar. Along the long side of it leather and levi guys socialized and cruised. Along the short side, the more dedicated leather guys congregated. In those days English pubs opened for lunch (11-3) and in the evening (6-10). The photo here is of a typical 3 pm crowd that formed after closing. The socializing and cruising got more intense. The proprietors would try to get the guys to leave quickly, before the police showed up and started arresting them for public nuisance, public intoxication, etc. (typical police harassment at the time).

The Coleherne 1866 – 2008 by Charlie Dave on Flickr:
Only five London pubs have witnessed the span of (modern) gay history, from the prohibition of the 1950s to the present day. The Coleherne became the UK’s first leather bar. Some of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 80s were regulars. That history began in 1866, when the Coleherne Hotel was built in the Old Brompton Road, later to become part of West London’s Bohemian quarter. The pub began to turn queer in the mid-1950s and swiftly built up a loyal following. A regular performer from the old days said “We used to see the same faces in the same places every week. We wondered if they ever went home or if someone just came in and dusted them down.”

Gay Men’s Friendships

Friendship in Old Age
Gay and Lesbian Review

The term “friendship,” for Americans, is a very broad and nebulous concept. Where I currently live, many people (whom I consider casual acquaintances) call me a friend just because we exchange “Hellos.” I lived in West Germany for most of the 1970s, where I learned that Germans’ definition of a friend was much narrower, closer to what Americans might call a close friend. I have absorbed this alternative sense of friendship and have kept a distinction between “friend” and ”acquaintance,” even while adhering to American social norms and calling many people friends who are in fact acquaintances. 

In Germany, I had a close, warm, mutually supportive, and trusting circle of friends, a mix of gay and straight people who are still my friends almost fifty years later. When I moved from Tuebingen to the Castro District of San Francisco, I found myself having all gay (and lesbian and trans) friends.  Suddenly, friendships came quickly and easily, I had many more of them. One common path to friendship for me was to befriend many of the guys that I tricked with. I entered a vast network of complex relationships, different from the heterosexual world that I’d grown up in. This grew into my (mostly gay) “family of choice,” what I call my “gay family.”

Against my better instincts, I was forced to relocate to my rural childhood home in the Northeast, far from my close friends on the West Coast and in Europe. It was here that I developed the habit of calling passing acquaintances friends. In the eight years I have lived here, I have made only one friend, what Aristotle called a “useful” friend. I have many social acquaintances here. I socialize a lot, I move in many circles. I am by nature shy and introverted, but try to be friendly and easy-going, and to meet people at their own level (something classroom teaching taught me). I have missed my gay friends and gay community, the feeling of being safe in an extended family of choice. With the social isolation of the current pandemic, everyone can now relate to that sense of social disconnectedness.

After these years of frustration, sometimes mixed with anger or despair, I obsessively reviewed the history of my friendships over a lifetime, trying to understand why I was failing to make new friends. I decided to do some research. I came across Peter Nardi’s Gay Men’s Friendships: Invincible Communities. Published over twenty years ago, it remains the only systematic study of gay men’s friendships.

Nardi notes that Aristotle defined three kinds of “civic” friendship: useful, pleasurable, and good (the ideal). Useful friendships are based on “the good accruing to each from the other,” not necessarily mutual affection. They come and go quickly and prevail among the young and the elderly. Pleasurable friendship is based more on emotion, for the pleasure given, not for who the person is. It is most common among young men in their prime.

The basis of friendship (especially among gay men), according to Nardi, is loyalty, intimacy, reciprocity, trust, authenticity, similarity, sharing, acceptance, and support. Nardi finds that gay men’s friendships combine straight men’s friendships and women’s friendships. Men focus on mutual interests and shared experience, are low in self-disclosure, low in physically-expressed affection, and focus on topics for discussion that are external (news, sports, work), and they do not spend a lot of time with each other or stay in touch by phone (or internet).

Women (according to Nardi) focus on intimate self-disclosure and mutual aid (and talking about the friendship itself) and on relationship problems. They allow physical expressions of intimacy, and provide emotional support to each other. 

Gay men will recognize both modes in their friendships, partly because gay men have historically been social outcasts, and partly because sex is often complexly interwoven into friendship. Friendship often arises from a casual sexual encounter. Some gay men have “fuck buddies,” where friendship may take root. Gay men have historically had a network of mutual aid, helping a friend find a job or a gay-friendly landlord, providing emotional support following a breakup or other personal crisis. Gay communities arose from networks of personal friendships. Gay men came together during the AIDS epidemic, when mainstream society turned a blind eye. We only had each other to rely on. Friendship among gay men was not only a wonderful thing but necessary for our survival in a hostile world. 

Lovers I had hoped would become my life partner have come and gone. It has been my gay family that has sustained me and stayed with me. Nowadays, with the mainstreaming of gays and lesbians and the formal establishment of every sort of professional support, young gay men would seem to have less need for support from gay friendships and gay community. The Internet and social media have replaced much of what used to happen face-to-face. Finding myself, as an old gay man, invisible in relevant social media spaces, I am unable to ascertain how younger gay men create community there.  

Today, I continue to live with the deeply ingrained need for gay male friendships. These are the people who truly understand me. These are the people, for the most part, that I have relied on in times of need. Old people have a hard time making new friends. In America they’re typically viewed as nonproductive burdens on society, whose life experiences are irrelevant. They face ageist prejudice in the gay community. We often (as in my case) end up poor, lonely, and isolated.

During the pandemic, I have deepened some long-term friendships and renewed others that had faded with time and distance. My gay family still includes treasured straight friends from long ago. It has taken me years to make peace with my current living situation, but I continue to cast about and hold out hope that this will not be the last stop, that I will again find my way to a community where I feel connected, understood, truly accepted for who I am, where I can engage in meaningful community involvement. Promising leads have come and gone. I live with hope, not expectation. And, if this is the final chapter, I can accept that. There is a saying. “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what your plans are.”

Communicating Across the Queer Generations

I am occasionally asked to speak to classes at the local college as a gay activist and long-term AIDS survivor. Last week I was asked to hold a 90-minute Q&A with Tyler Bradway’s AIDS Literature class. Today I received the email below from one of the students in that class.

Hi, I just wanted to thank you for coming into my AIDS Literature class last week.
I appreciated the honesty and transparency you had while talking to us. One thing
I thought a lot about afterwards was this idea of a physical queer space. As a queer college student, I can’t help but notice the lack of physical spaces for people like myself to meet. Yes, there are many places online, but I don’t think it is quite the same. This is something I think about quite a lot because as I learn more about gay history and AIDS it seems like there were many physical places to meet, some of which that were extremely niche. I always liked the idea of a gay bookstore or coffee shop as a place to meet people rather than a bar. I feel like now I only hear about “gay bars” rather than other places. However, when I came to college, I became best friends with two girls who were also gay which was such a funny coincidence. There is something quite provocative about the idea that many LGBTQ+ teens and young people happen to become friends with each other before even knowing that they’re LGBTQ+.
I appreciate that you were able to come and speak with my class. Thank you, have a great rest of your day and a happy Thanksgiving.


The Triumph of Narcissism, Anger, and Resentment?

Review of Our Own Worst Enemy, by Tom Nichols (2021)

In recent times I have found the current American ethos best described as “I’ve got mine; you can go fuck yourself.” American individualism, rampant consumer capitalism, and the breakdown of any sense of community – the erosion of fundamental values necessary for a democracy to function – have all contributed to the deplorable and continuing decline of America’s liberal democracy. Due to the United States’ physical isolation from and ignorance (and indifference) of the world beyond its borders, most Americans know nothing about European social democracy, where governments serve their people more than private business and where the average citizen enjoys a standard of living increasingly higher than most Americans. 

Nichols frames his book as an introspection, and suggests all Americans need to reflect on the part each of us has played in contributing to our situation. We have reached this point, not because we are suffering, but rather because of the triumph of our prosperity, peace, and health – the very things Donald Trump seeks to save his cult followers from. Trump and his enablers in government, his wealthy circles, and authoritarian friends abroad follow the Nazi playbook, dissected by Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism. Totalitarian leaders exploit prejudices of the “superfluous people” (what Nichols, borrowing the term from Balzac, calls “the insignificant folks”), using terror to subjugate mass populations, victimizing the very people they claim to be helping. Propaganda is also used to transform “classes” into “masses.” Totalitarian leaders use front organizations, fake government agencies, and “esoteric doctrines” to conceal the nature of their aims. Trump and his enablers employ all these techniques today. The primary difference is that they do this openly. Employing Orwellian Newspeak, whatever they assert is true is true – because they say so. 

Arendt also argues that loneliness, resulting from social isolation, is a necessary precondition for those who are drawn to totalitarianism. When I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), I found what I had been observing all around me and experiencing in my own life clarified. Postman asserts we have become a Huxleyan society, distracting and medicating ourselves with endless entertainment Today we live in a society even more immersed in mass media distractions – cable news, vacuous Hollywood movies, video gaming, and social media, which produces immediate intimacy between strangers. (My experience with “connecting” with strangers on social media has been only the illusion of intimacy.) Putman ascribes the collapse of community to the disappearance of in-person social interactions. Truer now than before, social media seduces isolated individuals into believing they are in a community of like-minded people. Rather than coming together for mutual aid or working for the common good, social media fans the flames of anger and paranoia. 

Since Reagan, the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has been accelerating, as the transfer of wealth to the wealthy continues to shrink the middle class.  Wealth, power, and fame have become the dominant values, separating the “winners” from all the Average Joe “losers.” While elite education continues to train America’s ruling class in how to manage their power and wealth, these same people have used their political power to dumb down public education, essentially producing politically passive consumers, with no understanding of how American government works or how to think critically. “Informed citizenry,” a prerequisite for a democracy to function, has been replaced with consumers, who increasingly believe in “alternative facts,” that truth is merely someone else’s opinion, and that they have the freedom to do whatever they choose, with no sense of responsibility or the welfare of their fellow citizens. To make matters worse, Nichols points out, 20% of Americans believe military rule is good, 33% believe violence is justified to advance political goals, and that someone other than elected officials should make national decisions. 

Those on the right see democracy as a game for suckers and use voting as a weapon. Laws exist only to protect one favored group and punish everyone else. The populist right, according to Nichols, is motivated by nostalgia for an America that never existed and by a desire for social revenge. Americans in general have become short-tempered and embracing of self-centered fantasies about politics. This is the narcissism, anger, and resentment that have replaced the values and attitudes that are the underpinnings of democracy.  Nichols reminds the reader that people are responsible for their own happiness and the safety of their own freedoms. He concludes Our Own Worst Enemy on a hopeful note, presenting three proposals to get the US back on track As I write this, Trump’s cronies continue to follow Trump’s orders to break the law, most Republican leaders continue to cynically peddle Trump’s Big Lie to save their own political careers, and continue to undermine American government and society in their quest to make themselves the permanent ruling party. Here’s hoping Nichols’ optimism will prove right. 

“All hail, the American Boy!”

A Dismantling of the American Dream

In A Cool Million Nathaniel West parodied the myth of the American Dream through the “dismantling” of Lemuel Pitkin. In “All hail, the American Boy!” (The closing sentence of A Cool Million) Les K. Wright recounts his own would-be “dismantling” as the American Dream reveals itself for it truly is.

The American Dream is a dominant, albeit now waning, myth which began as an ethos based on the ideals of democracy, individual rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality. These ideals, it was widely believed, could be lived in a young democracy recently freed from the constraints of the rigid social, political, and economic hierarchies of Europe. The most long-lasting belief was that hard work was sufficient for social mobility and each generation would rise higher than the previous one. The California Gold Rush gave rise to the California Dream – the ease of instant wealth – which still lives on in the faith Americans place in winning the lottery or being an entrepreneur. All you need is to have the right idea at the right time. Horatio Alger popularized the myth in his “rags to riches” fiction, in which hard work and good faith efforts inevitably lead to material success. What has generally been overlooked is that the success of each of these poor young men turn out to be achieved, not by their own efforts, but rather by the intervention of a wealthy deus ex machina. This is a handy literary device,  rarely happens in real life. 

I grew up in the postwar era that saw an explosion of consumer capitalism. Mass-produced consumer products, from suburban tract houses and cars to frozen TV dinners to eat in front of the TV sets suddenly appearing in every household, advertised the newly expanding middle-class. The GI bill afforded men (and women), who had missed out on higher education while serving their country, the opportunity to catch up. Education was the guaranteed path to social mobility. 

I was born into a working-class family. We did not participate in this new wave of material and social advancement. We remained non-unionized working-class renters.  My father always drove an older used car, which he constantly repaired himself. Color televisions remained too expensive. We never went on vacation. A better-off relative usually paid for the extras, as well as some necessities, that I and my sister received. 

I took the Iowa Test in third grade, and discovered I was bright, very bright. In high school my IQ score ranked me at “near-genius” level. I loved school and was an A student. My parents and I saw that education was clearly my path to a brighter, non-working-class future. 

So, that is the path I took. I garnered academic awards in high school. I was able to spend a year in West Germany as a high school exchange student. I won a National Merit scholarship. My future looked bright.

But I was taken in completely by the myth. I returned from a year in West Germany living with an upper middle-class family, which gave me a different perspective on my family’s social class. My access to higher education would allow me to move on and away from that. My passion was for foreign languages and literature. I entered college with a proficiency in German other undergraduates would only attain through classroom learning by the end of their senior year. At the recommendation of my high school German teacher, I had applied to Middlebury College in Vermont. It had the reputation as the best school for undergraduate training in foreign languages. I was accepted. But the financial aid package I was offered, including two scholarships, work-study, and student loans, still did not come close to covering the cost for me to attend Middlebury. I had to decline the offer. Only many years later would a former professor of mine tell me that this was a common practice among private colleges – to accept poor students in the full knowledge they would not be able to afford to attend. Later I also came to understand that a degree from Middlebury almost assuredly would have opened the doors to an Ivy League education for me, which would have gained me access to the privileged world reserved for the entitled few. 

I chose to go to SUNY Albany. Although I had two scholarships, I quickly found out I also needed to work part-time to make ends meet. It was the best place a working-class boy could hope to go to. At the time it was the flagship school of the SUNY system and was informally known as the “Berkeley of the East.” 

I came out shortly after the Stonewall riots. Navigating homophobic society as an openly gay man was challenging. Navigating academe as a working-class academic, another world where I was unwelcome, was complicated by my homosexuality. As my personality, proclivities, interests and involvements, both personal and professional, took shape, I found myself an eccentric “bohemian.” Academia, it seemed, would allow me the space to be myself. 


“Bobos,” as the Apple ad enthuses, are “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers.”  With the rise of Big Tech, the highly educated creative class, as David Brooks reports in “Blame the Bobos,” found secure and lucrative jobs. Their tastes and employment drew them to the major cities. With their wealth they raised the cost of urban living beyond most of the of the middle class. During the 1970s and 1980s gay men migrated to major cities like San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Boston creating gay neighborhoods where they could live in safety. The cost of living at that time was cheap, cultural life was rich, and  job opportunities were great. In 1979 I moved from Tübingen, West Germany, where I was pursuing a PhD, to live in this burgeoning gay Castro District in San Francisco. Social and cultural innovation was everywhere. The future looked very bright. But over time the newly gentrified urban gay neighborhoods became too expensive, and newly wealthy (mostly) heterosexual Bobos moved in, displacing the gay urban pioneers. I became one of the economically dispossessed. 

I eventually earned my doctorate at UC Berkeley. By then I had gotten a solid education. According to the American Dream, pulling myself up by my bootstraps and taking the path of self-betterment through education, I should have been poised to start an academic career. My plan was to teach German and Russian at a small liberal arts college. When I was a freshman in 1971, this was a highly employable (and uncommon) skill set. By the time I graduated PhD in 1993, the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union had collapsed. Most German and Russian departments had been dissolved. My career chances had evaporated before I even got started.

Parallel to my academic training, and in tandem to my coming out, I researched and read widely in what little gay history and literature I could ferret out in the 1970s. Perhaps more wishful thinking than practical, my Plan B was to teach gay literature and make a small contribution to what I hoped would become the of field of Gay and Lesbian Studies.  (I had observed student agitation for Black Studies and Puerto Rican Studies in Albany.)  As I neared the end of my doctoral studies, gay and lesbian literary studies had emerged, but my approach was suddenly old-fashioned, superseded by newly emergent queer theory. I was as employable as a cooper. Using my degrees in Comparative Literature (often interpreted in academe as “glorified English”), I marketed myself as a professor of English.

A close lesbian friend at an open-admissions private college in Boston, who was well acquainted with my situation, saw to it that my c.v. was placed at the top of the pile of applications for a new English position there. She had warned me about the poor working conditions there. Academic standards were very low. The faculty had little power, usually overruled by the will of the board and senior administrators. The college was owned and run by a family of wannabe Boston Brahmins, who used the college as a family cash machine. For liberal Boston, campus culture was surprisingly conservative, and sometimes openly homophobic. Friends on the West Coast thought I taught at a conservative Christian college. Faculty salaries were very low – so low that NEASC, the accrediting agency, threatened to pull the college’s accreditation if our salaries were not brought into line with national averages. As real estate prices escalated in Boston, I was forced to move to an outer suburb an hour’s drive from Boston, where I could afford to live. When I parted ways with the college,  after two large raises, my salary was still not quite half the national average for an associate professor of English. 

After eleven years of surviving the relentless toxic work environment of the college I had a major nervous breakdown and an HIV-related illness. I realized this was not what I wanted to be doing on the day of my death. So I quit and moved back to San Francisco, knowing this was ending my academic career. A couple of years later the college folded, victim to the endless mismanagement and corruption. The entire tenured faculty found itself unemployed overnight.


Over the many years of my graduate education I had taken a couple of breaks and explored making a career change. I found survival jobs to keep a roof over my head. I explored options that did not require significant education and further student debt. Both times I opted to “follow my passion” and return to graduate school. When I graduated PhD and could not land a single job interview, I again attempted a career change. I sought to start over as a technical writer with a high-tech company in the Silicon Valley. As I had done before in other attempts, I went to many informational interviews. A technical writer friend got me an interview with his company, but his boss, a manager, rejected me because (as my friend reported) she was afraid I was really after her job. Then a new boyfriend, also a technical writer, lined me up for a job interview. However, he committed suicide and his company cut off all communication with me. 

Then came the Boston teaching job. When that ended and I moved back to San Francisco, I had set up job interviews at two San Francisco colleges. Both interviews went well, but I did not get a job offer. Instead, in both cases, the college hired their inside candidate, whom they had planned to hire all along. This is a common practice in academe, at least in the humanities. The hiring committee goes through a big, and expensive, show of interviewing the strongest candidates, knowing they will not hire any of them, to give the appearance of following the law. I was not granted an interview for any other job I applied for. If any reason was given, it was “you do not meet our needs at this time.” If pressed further, the answer hidden behind that was “you are overqualified and under-experienced.”

Not yet old enough to retire and ever hopeful of finding gainful employment, I turned to an agency in San Francisco that helped long-term AIDS survivors return to the job market. After much counseling and testing I began a new career search. My first goal was to become a documentary filmmaker. My counselor dismissed that out of hand. I next applied to a local college to become a licensed MSW.  In the middle of my application process the college acknowledged it was on the verge of bankruptcy. They offered the financial help of a student from Bhutan, who claimed to come from a wealthy family. He proved to be a fraud and the college closed.

I then followed through on two alternative careers testing had shown to be good matches for me. I spent a year in seminary and realized I would accrue student loan debt I would never be able to pay off. There were far too many unemployed priests already. And food for thought, the very first thing I was taught in seminary was that almost everything I had been taught growing up in my parents’ church was not true. So many of the teachings of the church were things formulated and decided by committee 300 years after the death of Jesus.

I then earned a high school teaching credential and went on the job market, first in California, and then in New York State. Again, I never got a single interview, even to become a teacher in the prison system. (Prisons have a hard time filling these positions.) As I then found myself being rejected from minimum-wage jobs, it became clear that I was now facing illegal discrimination. Not only was I “overqualified and under-experienced,” but also “too old” to learn a new job. 

I am now officially retired. I moved back to the working-class community I grew up in and had once escaped from. I never planned for retirement as I had been diagnosed with AIDS in the early years of that epidemic – I never expected to see 30, let alone 40 or 50. By 50 it was too late to start planning. I have never owned a house or condo. I live in low-income public housing. A a gay man of my generation I never had children. I am the black sheep of my extended family, so I do not have family to fall back on. 

“Genteel poverty” is a term applied to the “undeserving poor,” who have fallen (far) down the economic ladder through no fault of their own. Americans generally believe poor Americans are  “deservingly poor.” They are too stupid and too lazy to help themselves and they only have themselves to blame. As I fell below the official poverty line, many of my (now former) middle-class friends have distanced themselves from me. In some cases I am no longer able to keep up with their level of “respectability.” In some cases, they are embarrassed for me or ashamed for me. 

Sadly, for them, I am embarrassed and ashamed for them. I have accomplished much in a difficult life. I continue to respect myself. I hold myself with dignity. As one academic mentor once told me, “You are a survivor, not a victim.”

Queer durch Tübingen

I just received the Queer durch Tübingen catalog of the exhibition on the history of homosexuality in Tübingen put on by the Stadtarchiv of the city. 

I was an active member of the IHT [Initiativgruppe Homosexualität Tübingen], the gay activist group, from 1975 to 1979.  I moved to Tübingen from Würzburg with my lover and began my doctoral studies at the university. Having been involved with the gay activist group in Würzburg, I immediately sought out the Tübingen group. During this time I became a gay left activist, came out into the leather community in Munich, and for the first time performed on-stage in gender-fuck drag.

Guest Opinion: Susan Sontag and me: Epidemics I have lived through

When the COVID-19 shutdown began in the spring of 2020, I posted on Facebook that I expected the pandemic to be, for me, a pain in the ass, a royal pain in the ass. I am a long-term (pre-highly active anti-retroviral therapy, or HAART) survivor of AIDS. I lived through the first 15 years of the AIDS epidemic at ground zero in the Castro district of San Francisco. I was infected in 1981 and diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1991. In the early years it was assumed that 100% of the gay men in San Francisco were infected and that 100% of us would die from AIDS. Having lived so many years of my productive adult life with an assured early demise, COVID couldn’t possibly be more than a “royal pain in the ass.”

In the 1980s then-President Ronald Reagan tried to ignore AIDS out of existence, and has been forever despised by the gay community for failing to say the word “AIDS” in public until 1985. Many gay men worried our newfound open sexual expression – having too much sex – was the cause of AIDS. Some suspected AIDS was a government plot to kill homosexual men. The evangelical right seized upon AIDS as God’s judgment of homosexuals and our lifestyle. AIDS-phobia became rampant and, even today with the “undetectable = untransmittable” information campaign, AIDS-phobia remains distressingly widespread, even in the LGBTQ community.

When the COVID-19 virus began spreading across the globe, its potential dangers were quickly known by the Chinese government and the knowledge suppressed. Even as COVID-19 started to devastate Americans, then-President Trump withheld the truth from the American public. In the face of emerging facts, Trump and his supporters lied. They lied and lied and lied. When the right had demonized AIDS as just punishment for the afflicted Other, this same segment of the American people now demonized science and facts, and public health officials’ recommendations, as lies, as efforts of rob them on their constitutional right to control them, to do whatever they want. This response was made possible by Trump and his cadre’s politicization of everything, including the health of the nation. While gay men dramatically changed their sexual habits (something that had never happened before), even giving it up for years, to protect themselves and others, much of the evangelical right and all of the Trumpite Republicans have refused to follow public health guidelines. Wearing a face mask is now a public statement, not a health precaution. Gathering in crowds and social distancing are encroachments on personal freedom. Getting vaccinated is a personal choice, even in the face of nearly certain infection and possible death. It has now become a constitutional right to kill others in complete anonymity and with no consequences. Even the chance to win $1 million (the appeal to greed) is not enough to persuade anti-vaxers.

In the European Middle Ages, the Black Death led to the death of nearly half of Europe’s population. People lost faith in the Roman Catholic Church, which changed the world profoundly, leading to the world we have been living in since then. Disease overthrew an entire social, political, and economic order. Susan Sontag, in her seminal “Illness and Its Metaphors” (1978), demonstrated that how we assign meaning to illness defines how we react to it. Her later “AIDS and Its Metaphors” (1988) was even more germane to me: it deconstructed how I had become a “diseased pariah.” When I took the first test for “exposure to HLTV-III virus” in 1986, my result was positive, as expected. The clinician at UCSF told me I was in the “highest risk” category and they could not explain why I was not already dead. Today, I am once again in the “high risk” category – over 65 and living with a compromised immune system. However, I feel far safer today. I stopped counting the number of people I knew who died of AIDS when that reached 500. A year and a half into the COVID pandemic only two people I knew have died. AIDS profoundly altered my gay world – the world I knew and the life I led then are now distant history. I have survived one revolution. And I started over. 

The COVID pandemic continues to rage on, in one wave after another, as I write today in 2021. The entire world has entered into the next profound change in the social, political, and economic order. Randy Shilts blamed the outbreak of AIDS in the U.S. on his Patient Zero, a “promiscuous” gay French-Canadian flight attendant. Trump blames COVID on secret Chinese forces in a Hunan medical lab, demonizing China. AIDS began as a “gay disease,” COVID has begun as a “Chinese disease.” It is yet to be seen how COVID will be metaphorized. There is still no vaccine or cure for AIDS. Vaccines for COVID-19 were developed and deployed in under a year. AIDS is still endemic in parts of the world, where medical treatment remains unaffordable to most and having AIDS remains a stigma, as much of the global population has wearied of endlessly repeating shutdowns. In the U.S. more and more people are turning hostile, throwing tantrums on airplanes, berating wait staff (who are quitting their jobs in increasing numbers), and shooting store employees because they will not be told to wear a face mask. Giving up sex and wearing a face mask are not exactly comparable.

So, what will emerge? As Ben Rhodes describes in “After the Fall” (2021), for the last 30 years the world has been descending into a frightening (from the democratic, Western point of view) failure of globalization, the rule of oligarchs everywhere, the spread of neo-fascism, the rise of technology-driven authoritarianism, and the ascent of China as the leading world power. In the current leading world power everything has been politicized. Truth is a matter of opinion. The government is incapable, or unwilling, to assert public health policies on an ever-more hostile population. Politicizing a pandemic will not end it. In China the government imposes a strict and strictly obeyed shutdown. If people in a democracy do not want to save themselves, there’s no telling what we are to do.