We’ve Come a Long Way
After Christmas Eve takes place in late 1965 and early 1966 in Washington, DC. I didn’t have a choice. Details I wrote into Until Thanksgiving, before I knew there would be a prequel, forced my hand.
I firmly believe in writing what you know. My first two books were set where I’ve lived. For the memoir, I didn’t have any choice. The story takes place in Lexington, Kentucky; Washington, DC; or Athens, Georgia–the three places I’ve called home. For the novel, I had a choice, but opted for DC during the time I actually lived there. My memory and the occasional refresher via a search of the internet or my old journals provided all the details I needed.
Now I’m writing a story that takes place when I was seven years old in a city I didn’t visit for another thirty years. Even Mapquest can’t get me back to my comfort zone. I’m here now, and I need to find a way forward.
I’ve been doing some research. Thanks to Google and the internet, I’ve learned a lot over the last few days. This morning I talked through what I’d learned with a dear friend who graduated from a DC-area high school in 1965. He’s gay and remembered that everyone dressed like Baptist ministers to go to gay hang outs and being in a group meant keeping an eye out for police raids or gangs of marauding homophobes. Rich fodder for my book.
In the 1960s, nobody lived an out-of-the-closet lifestyle. For the unfortunate few who didn’t have a choice, life was hard. Gay hang-outs provided a refuge from an openly hostile world. Gay clubs were often hard to find, with unmarked doors in locations you had to know about to find. And you always made sure nobody saw you coming in or going out. Once inside, dim lighting made it hard to recognize people from more than a few feet away–on purpose.
Bars in many states were prohibited from serving alcohol to homosexuals. Police raids of gay watering holes were common. Publishing the names of those who’d been arrested in newspapers ruined lives and prevented others from even thinking about going to such places. Society would not condone, accept, or tolerate homosexual behavior.
The Mattachine Society of Washington was established in 1961 to, among other things, assist gays who were victimized daily. Nobody talked about equal rights for gays. Society still wasn’t fully committed to equal rights for African-Americans. Women either, truth be told. Those early gay activists wanted the raids to stop, an end to entrapment stings, the repeal of sodomy laws,and for homosexuality to otherwise be decriminalized.
The first club in Washington to allow same-sex dancing opened in 1968. Before that, the gay hang-outs were mostly little restaurants that also served food, some with juke boxes and some with live entertainment of some form, including drag shows. Many were rough, dark, and notorious for unseemly activity in and around them.
Numerous gay sex workers operated in and around DC. Most are runaways, including a fair number who were kicked out by parents with zero tolerance for a homosexual son. DC is a magnet for young homeless kids from across the region. In the early 60s, about half of the gay hang-outs had well-established reputations as places where clients and homeless hustlers connected. Everything was on the down low.
Now I’m excited about imagining life for the characters of After Christmas Eve in this world where things are so dramatically different from the world I live in today. I’d forgotten about the persistent fear that still went part and parcel with being gay in the 70s when I came out. Thanks to the Rainbow History Project, Wikipedia, and my pal from DC, I have enough information for a reasonably realistic depiction of the times.
Sometimes you can’t tell how far you’ve come until you look back to where you started. The Stonewall Riots in New York City on June 28 of 1969 mark the beginning of the gay liberation movement. That’s what we called it for years. Now we call it the struggle for gay rights. Communities across the United States will hold Gay Pride events this month to celebrate.
I came out a decade after Stonewall, in 1979. I’ve never experienced a police raid or been beat up. I’ve been mighty uncomfortable a few times, but nobody has ever physically harmed me because I’m gay. You might say I’ve just been lucky. I wouldn’t disagree, but we can’t rule out progress.
And we certainly have made progress. In some states, we can even get married. We’ll be able to marry in Georgia eventually. It’s just a matter of time.
Sadly, too many of my friends will never know what freedom from that persistent fear feels like. Most of the many gay men I ran around with in the year or two after I came out are dead. AIDS killed most the ones that didn’t drink or drug themselves to death. Accidents and outright suicides claimed the rest. Swimming against the current takes a lot out of a person.
To them, on the weekend that our nation’s capital celebrates Gay Pride, I dedicate this post. The world is becoming a far kinder place for us than we ever tried to imagine. All we wanted was for people to leave us alone–to stop singling us out because of what might or might not be happening in our bedrooms.
Now we aspire to equal rights–the freedom to marry and to file our taxes jointly. To have one health insurance policy instead of one for each of us. If you were here today, you’d be so proud. I know I am. Happy Gay Pride from all of us here at…
My Glass House