It’s always bittersweet to gaze down the deep well of the past and spy ancient moments still fresh and vivid after many decades. That happened just now as I started reading a book by Jim Downs called “STAND BY ME, The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation,” Basic Books, 2016.
So far I’ve read only up to page 7 of the Introduction. In those first pages I was touched that a guy probably born around 1980 found it important in 2005 to research gay history from the 70’s—and amused how the author considered that decade “ancient” gay history. Taking that view, I guess I came out in the Stone Age (1961).
In the next couple pages Downs immediately placed the libertine gay lifestyle of the 70’s in the context of the ensuing plague of the 80’s. My memories of the 70’s aren’t distorted by knowing what was to come. I saw a future promising ever more joyful liberation.
My experience of that decade was hardly as wild—or sordid—as what the author read about, largely in New York. In DC where I lived, things were more civilized: We lived exactly the kind of gay culture and community that Downs will probably describe in pages to come. He wrote, “I wanted to show how the 1970s was more than a night in a bathhouse.” So I look forward to reading his view of the history I lived.
He included New Orleans in his research, which pleased me much, and after another paragraph hit me over the head with “the fire in New Orleans that killed 32 people on June 24, 1973.” I then noted that the Up Stairs Lounge is to be the subject of Chapter I: The Largest Massacre of Gay People in American History. Tragically, scarcely a year after his book came out, that was no longer true. There was that horrific slaughter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
I haven’t yet read beyond that mention of the Up Stairs Lounge because I’ve found myself once again staring down that well. Living in New Orleans in 1972, I hung out in the Up Stairs Lounge, but a year before the atrocity, I moved to DC… I’m almost afraid to read Chapter I.
Already on page two, Downs had remarked that “…gay people across the country had a responsibility to document the past and to tell our own history.” For more than 30 years I’ve taken that responsibility quite seriously in two novels. First drafted in 1985, one was rewritten a number of times and eventually became “Bat in a Whirlwind.” About an unconsciously gay teenager in the backwoods in the 50’s, you might say it was set in the Jurassic era of gay history.
My second novel, “Divine Debauch,” is about the gay Stone Age, that decade before Stonewall, in the fairyland of the French Quarter. There was definitely some gay history going on even then. I’m a veteran victim of the infamous raid on the Quorum Club in June, 1964. Just like the episode in my recent post “Got Laid,” I marginally fictionalized that raid in the novel.
Briefly, my Quorum experience happened like this: A female friend Linda and I shared a horoscope, and that day in the newspaper we were stringently warned to stay at home. We usually went out dancing in La Casa de los Marinos but decided to do as we were told and sat around my apartment listening to records and reading.
Getting rather bored later that evening, Linda convinced me to walk her over to the Quorum Club on Esplanade to look for our friend Gia. The club was a small, low-key coffee-house which scandalously also served black folks. As a matter of fact, that evening a black musician named Babe Stovall was playing on his guitar.
Because of defying our horoscope, Linda and I walked in a bit apprehensively and looked around for Gia. She wasn’t there, but a (black) friend of mine mentioned that she might be upstairs at George’s party. So we trudged up the stairs and mingled our way through those also racially mixed festivities without finding our friend.
We were standing out on the rear balcony when folks in the front room started yelling, “Police!” I made to escape by climbing down into the neighbor’s patio, but Linda was too scared. So I gallantly stayed with her, and we nervously awaited our fate.
The cops herded us all out of the apartment (past poor George lying on the carpet with blood all over his face) and downstairs to the Club, where they separated the men and women and loaded about 75 of us into various paddy-wagons. At the jail they put the sexes and races into separate cells, whites on one side of the aisle and blacks on the other.
In my white guys’ cell I got into a bridge game with some others, including a drug dealer who was awaiting transfer to Leavenworth. Meanwhile, the girls started singing “We Shall Overcome!” and the black guys all stripped butt-naked and started swinging on the bars.
The cops kept yelling at us to shut up, to no avail, and then with a fire hose they washed us up against the bars. That ruined our bridge game and swept away most of the black guys’ clothes. The pile of glistening black bodies was better than a wet dream.
Finally they let us each make our one phone call. I called my apartment and asked my lover Eric to get my stash of money and come bail us out. When he got there, he said, “I can’t believe you hide your money in your bedpost!”
The next day the story was on the front page of the newspaper. It began: “Last night the New Orleans Police raided a noted center of communist, homosexual, integrationist activity…” and reported that we were ridiculously charged with “being loud and boisterous.” Ironically, at the time I was a student (and teacher) of Russian at Tulane, and so the cops figured me for the translator for the local communist cell.
For the next couple weeks till our hearing I lived under police surveillance as a suspected commie. They apparently didn’t care that I was a flaming faggot. Cop cars tailed me down the streets of the Quarter, but I’d walk on the wrong-way streets to evade them. And they didn’t dare follow me into my sailor dives on the “Wild Side” of Decatur Street.
Just before our hearing, miraculously, the Civil Rights Act passed, and the DA Jim Garrison (remember him?), quickly got the charges against us dropped. Apropos of Jim Garrison, in the summer of 1963 when my then lover Alphonse got thrown in jail, I had to call up his father’s friend Clay Shaw to spring him from the clink. That was only about three months before the Kennedy assassination, another of my close brushes with fame, or infamy as the case may be.
While maybe not strictly gay history, this tale was definitely the historical experience of a gay boy in the Stone Age. You’ll find another, the story of my getting finessed back into the closet, in my first memoir “There Was a Ship.” The second, set in the fabled 70’s, will be the story of my second coming-out into that newly liberated world.
I guess I’m now ready to read on in Jim Downs’ history book.