When I was first beginning to explore the gay world of the late 1970’s the possibility of having a loving, intimate relationship with a man did not appear, to me, to be possible.
The 1970’s world of discos and baths did not tell a story of loving, committed, stable gay lives. Nor did the culture, press, or politics of the 1970s or 1980s imply that two men could deeply love each other in a long term and committed way. Gay life at the time was highly sexual and often outrageous.
In my early college years, I went to Studio 54 a few times with my close friend Ron. I also went a few times to the gay discos that were at the base of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. They were hot, sweaty, seething pits of disco music and sexual energy. I loved these experiences. They represented the wild and pulsating gay culture of the day. But there was nothing about this scene that said love or relationship.
Ron and I made a few trips to the Pines and Cherry Grove on Fire Island. I have vivid memories of dancing with him at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove. The Ice Palace in the late 1970s was a small disco with tightly packed, half-naked men, sweating and pulsating to disco music, after a long day at the beach. It was a sexually charged scene, and I remember the sexual buzz it brought me. I loved it. I remember dancing with Ron to the Village People’s YMCA and Donna Summer’s MacArthur Park, both of which were still new and fresh at the time
I have memories of Ron on the beach at Fire Island. Ron quickly stripped off his bathing suit to sunbath nude, as did many other men. I was too uncomfortable, at the time, to remove my bathing suit, even with Ron’s urgings and teasing. Ron was my gay tour guide. He showed me parts of the gay scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s that I was just becoming aware of. I was 20 years old when I first met Ron in 1977 and apprenticed for him in his design studio for a year and a half. Ron was at least ten years older than me. I was probably 21 or 22 when we first went out to Fire Island and to Studio 54.
Even though I had gay friends in college, I was not out. At the time I wanted desperately to be straight and had been in therapy to ‘change from homosexuality’ since I was 16 years old. While there were some very hot men in my college classes, I was not close to any of them. One man, who was in most of my classes, as we shared the same major, looked like the cowboy in the group, Village People. He had a thick dark mustache and hairy chest that poked out of his shirt tight flannel shirt. He wore tight blue jeans and black S&M boots to complete the picture. He was so hot and I had all sorts of sexual fantasies about him for the four years of college, but we rarely spoke. He was so sure of himself and sexy and I felt out of his league. I was deeply conflicted about my sexuality and in hiding.
I was not sexually active at the time with men in any regular way. I had a growing collection of gay porn magazines in my apartment which I masturbated to, but I avoided any sexual involvement with the men. During my college years, the sexual pressure would build up in me for weeks and months. When I could no longer contain my drive for sex with a man I would head off to the gay baths in New York City, just over the bridge from my apartment in Brooklyn.
My first experience with the baths was at an older seeder bathhouse, which I remember being located First Avenue near 2nd street. Later I would go to the new St. Marks bathhouse on East 8th Street. The bath scene both excited me and frightened me. I would be an emotional mess by the time I arrived at the baths: nervous; driven; excited; fighting with myself for going to the baths; and afraid. Once I paid the entrance fee and got my towel, I often ran to the bathroom to urgently empty my bowels, which seemed to explode from my nervous energy. I would wander the baths like a tourist, staying clear of the naked men in the small cubicles. I liked meeting men in the steam room or sauna and found the scene there quite sexy and hot. Once I had an orgasm, I would feel the sexual pressure lift, and I would head back to Brooklyn to my closeted life until the next time I felt driven to go to the baths.
The gay cultural images at the time in mainstream America were few. There was the sad and tortured movie, The Boys in the Band, which presented a prissy, backbiting view of the gay world. I had read the chapter on Homosexuality in the book, Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex, but Were Afraid To Ask, by David Reuben, at 14 years of age, and it painted a miserable, sad, tortured and sick view of gay life, which at the time influenced me greatly.
Ron, when first I got to know him, was in the process of breaking up with his boyfriend who had introduced us. Ron and his partner fought like something out of The Boys in the Band, with nasty prissy sharp-tongued barbs. Their fighting only reinforced my feeling, at the time, that a loving intimate relationship between two men was not possible.
The men I knew, like Ron, all went out regularly for anonymous sex. Ron lived on West 71st, a half a block from Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There was a gay backroom bar, at the time, north of him on Broadway. I remember Ron saying to me many times with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes, “I just went out for a little nookie.” It was the constant stream of random, anonymous sex, that a few short years later likely killed Ron from AIDS