Since the beginning of time, doing gay things hasn’t necessarily made a person gay. You know — boys will be boys. Stuff happens, especially when the guys are far away from womenfolk fighting wars, doing time in prison, hunting, fishing, or hanging out drunk at the frat house.
Beyond those who took the occasional walk on the wild side, I suspect even cavemen had an eccentric uncle, tolerated because he grilled amazing bison steaks, made the best loincloths, and showed no interest in diddling the women. What he did in his own cave was his business. And because of his…cooking skills, the men invited him along for hunting expeditions.
Really I have no idea what gay people did prior to the twentieth century. Yeah, there’s ample evidence of same-sex relations dating back to Alexander the Great and even earlier. But “gay” didn’t enter into common usage to mean something other than happy until the 1960s, and the word “homosexual” wasn’t coined until the 1890s. Sure, stuff happened, but gay life was very much on the down low.
The gay lifestyle originated in the early 1900s. The mass migration of young men from isolated rural areas to boot camps for military service and then to cities for jobs helped gay men to find each other. Urban gay ghettos sprang up, and with them, gay culture.
Camp was the official language of the gay world — theatrical, exaggerated, and effeminate. The catty undertone was our way of turning a liability (feminine traits in a macho society) into an asset. Honey, nobody does bitchy better than we do.
Life got rough in the 1950s when homosexuals were believed to be Communists, pedophiles, and anarchists. Hundreds of federal employees were fired for being gay, and a federal ban on hiring homosexuals was imposed. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, homosexual hangouts were the targets of raids, entrapment, extortion, and violent crimes — and that’s just what the cops were doing.
Guys who came out in the seventies and eighties found each other in gay bars. Bigger bars offered a wider range of options. In big cities, various cliques and factions had their own bars. Becoming part of the crowd at a favorite gay bar was a right of passage. There were loners and occasional visitors, but the majority who came to the bars fell in with a small group of likeminded pals.
Part of coming out, for me and many my age, was embracing gay culture — finding the right group of friends, learning the lingo, the music, the dance steps, and the way to dress and talk. Having repressed my gayness for so long, I embraced flamboyance with a vengeance. Nobody was gayer than me — I made sure of it.
I ventured into the straight world only when necessary. The rest of the time, I stayed with my gays — a fluid and evolving group of friends. The core group stayed the same for many years, with lots of short-timers coming and going for various and sundry reasons. I’m still in touch with two of the men who came out when I did.
Very few cities had more than two or three gay bars. Most had only one, a fact resulting in lots of road trips to checkout gay life elsewhere. The Damron Guide and others like it listed gay hangouts by city, ranging from truck stops and rest areas to gay bars and restaurants and everything in between. The information, being in print form, wasn’t always current. But taxi drivers and police always knew about gay bars and hangouts.
In the last fifteen years, hundreds of gay bars, restaurants, and bookstores have closed. Many of the young gay men I chat with today have never set foot in a gay bar. They talk, dress, and otherwise act just like everybody else does. They don’t need a gay bar to find a place where they’re accepted just the way they are. Some aren’t even bitchy.
Will gay culture survive the assimilation of homosexuals into the mainstream? Yes, but the gay lifestyle of my past is forever gone. It was, to coin a cliche, the best and worst of times. I welcome the changes and a future bright with possibility. But the end of the “bar age” still makes me sad.