It’s hard to imagine now but not long ago homosexuality was something to be hidden at all costs. Fifty years ago homosexual acts were illegal in every province in Canada and every state in America. To be a homosexual was to live in exile from mainstream society. The majority of society looked at homosexuals not just as a subculture who were engaging in illicit sex and possibly prostitution and that they were also a community of people who were sick and deviant. I like the closet.
And for the brave few who declared their homosexuality it was a life in the shadows. The price for being openly gay was that you were poor and you had jobs like being away there and a lot of people devoted their entire lives to being gay and it had a terrible cost. Most chose to hide they sought to move like ghosts through the straight world invisible to all. It was called passing.
It’s very difficult to remember the complete and utter invisibility of gay people at that time. Not only did people not really believe that there were gay lawyers and professionals and middle-class people and people in the suburbs. It was unfathomable. People didn’t believe that gay people existed when I worked for Time magazine in the 60s. Being him and I wanted to talk somewhat about my personal life to my colleagues and friends but it all had to be straight. So instead of talking about Bill as six foot two blonde I had to talk about Nancy a five foot one blonde. And then you had to remember your lives. It was as hell to live through and you felt always so duplicitous because you couldn’t really be intimate with your straight friends because you were lying to all them and you knew that if they discovered the terrible truth, A) you would be fired from your job and B) you would lose all your friends.
When I got out of the Navy I went with a couple guys and we used the same two lesbians as girlfriends which you think someone would have picked up on it. I always want me to Betty and whoever I happen to be going with with Pauline. It was always the case of showing up with someone of the other sex. I’m married when I was 19 right out of high school. And it was a very rocky time because deep down the side I knew that I was gay but I had fought it so many years and hidden so many years I just figured I could go on through life doing that the price of marriage was the cultivation of a secret life. I can remember being married and Sunday night after church I would go by this drug stroke and he had muscle men magazines underneath the counter. And you have to ask to see them. That was the only magazines or anything we had to look at. I was too embarrassed to buy them. So would make my girlfriend I was living with buy them for me so she would go and say I’ll take the Grecian gild please. And they all had the alibi of being about ancient Greece or about weightlifting.
For most men in the closet sex was furtive anonymous and often in public places all we could do is go out to the bars or us go to the park we would go and park our cars and walk out into the woods and different people have sex there and then you’re going on with your life that’s how we live we live down closeted.
It was a dangerous life and police harassment and the risk of arrest were an ever-present threat. Getting caught meant personal ruin and humiliation for a long long time. The police had been involved with a process of trying to suppress marginalize and clean up the subcultures that they saw as illegitimate. And the police were ruthless. The major problem with homosexuals is the places of congregation to commit their sex acts in public places where they walk the streets hoping to make it and pick up. They had Vice working the part that go up there and cut offs as sexy as they could be and then when you put a make on them their arrest. Yeah, they’d come up sometime in a bus and arrest enough people’s. Almost fill the bus. People have hidden deep inside them and we’re very guilt-ridden about it if you were closeted and you were married. You didn’t have any place to go. Most hotels would not rent to men and if you did you might very well have the police bang through the door. People went into public washrooms and into parks and that would be the first place they could kiss another man. The lack of understanding and acceptance leads to the creation of a lurid set of myths about homosexuals.
The medical profession and the psychiatric profession are very much part of this story. Homosexuality was not just criminalized it was medicalized. You grew up with a lot of shame a lot of denial sometimes actually listening to what you read in the medical books which was that being gay was a disability or a condition. I really would pray that it would just go away. I prayed that I would just magically have a girlfriend. I would wake up every day I was still there. Many of them would undergo this behavioral reconditioning which was you would bring pornography that turned you on and then they would project it. And then they shock you or induce vomiting. It’s hard to underestimate how dire things were. Most parents were doing it. For the good of the child they knew that if the son became homosexual he was condemned to live a very difficult and unhappy life. The parents would take their son to a physician who have been educated in a Medical School where homosexuality was considered a disease. If he thought it was a serious problem then he’d recommend treatment. You would go through a year or more of electric shock. And before you finally decided that you really ought to find women interesting. I went to a shrink for 20 years trying to go through I was engaged with twice. The idea was to have the trapdoor beside the bed to get rid of the evidence that you were gay so you could start off with a clean slate. Maybe today I’ll go straight.
But a few pioneers start to push the idea that homosexuals have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of the spirit of the times as one minority group after another demands to be heard. In 1965, the first gay protest in North American history occurs. In order to present homosexuals as a respectable and employable, male participants are required to wear ties preferably with a jacket and women are told to wear skirts. In 1969, Canada moves to the foreground of the new social revolution when it decriminalizes same-sex intimacy in the privacy of one’s home. There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation and I think that you know what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the government. In the U.S., the Battle of her homosexual rights erupts on a June evening in 1969 at a tavern called the Stonewall. As an angry mob of drag queens mixed race black and young people fight back against a police raid. Those individuals were largely on the outskirts of society. They were gender nonconformist. There were drag queens. There were a number of individuals that don’t necessarily fit within the mainstream. There were lots of what we called a trainers that as people came on the train from Harlem. People had nothing left to lose. These guys had been fighting the police all their lives and now they were doing it as gays. But they had done it as oppressed minorities before anyway. I think it was in the air we weren’t gonna take it anymore. We were gonna fight back this time. With Stonewall, gays experienced the power that could come from standing up for themselves. With the new consciousness comes a new idea. The secret to happiness was to admit to being homosexual. To come out. As the 70s started happening you actually for the first time started having an actual human being who would get up and actually say I am a homosexual. A thousand gay liberationists demonstrate in New York urging the City Council to pass a homosexual rights bill. As homosexual, we eat and sleep and watch television. That’s what we do we. Do what human beings do. I’ve never come out on anything like television and said I am a lesbian. It’s a very frightening thing to do.
Word of Stonewall drifts back to Canada where gays are increasingly feeling inspired by the battle. To the south, the first gay pride march in Canada takes place on a cold wet August morning in 1971. It’s organized by an American draft dodger. Living in Toronto a generation gap starts to emerge between the gays who came of age in an earlier time and those growing up in the 1960s fearing the consequences. The vast majority choose to stay in the closet. They were going around saying things like gay is good which was an echo of black is beautiful. The idea of having a gay magazine or a gay organization. We would say well were criminals should safecrackers have their own magazine you know. I mean this is ridiculous. It wasn’t like Stonewall happened then. The next day everybody came out and everything was beautiful everybody had their own individual journeys that they had to struggle with. There were no role models. There was no history showing the ten people that I know who went through this and boy did their lives turn out great.
The word on the street was: the people who had been arrested and lost everything, the people who had been thrown out of the military, the people who had lost their jobs and the fears were real. But for those who were out the dream of having a life like other people start to grow with this room. I give me my promise, my promise with my heart, I’d be like thee with my heart with my body. I will worship thee with my body I will worship. The continuing lack of acceptance in mainstream society meant gay life could only flourish in so-called gay ghettos. It was this definite feeling of freedom in these little protected ghettos that we created that Stonewall allowed. And instead of living a life of hookups in a park or bars where you risked arrest, you could celebrate on mass with large numbers of men and feel a sense of community. And to feel that freedom was just extraordinary. But slowly outside the ghetto walls, a few key allies started to emerge including the parents of some gay children. When you had anybody who was outside support you it was really profound. So, when you actually had a parent like who actually would say good things about his or her son or daughter. Like oh my god like you know like like I can tell you people would just hug them and love them like partly because they knew their parent didn’t react that way. But the enemies of gay freedom remain committed to keeping homosexuals in check. You start seeing a lot more visibility. At the same time there was an emptiness of the community and the police really realized that if we don’t actually do something now this is going to get completely out of hand.
In the winter of 1981, police in Toronto execute a massive crackdown on the gay bath houses. This was the largest police operation that had happened against the Heisman gay community. And it was in fact the largest mass arrest in Canadian history second only to the war Measures Act. He says you’re all being charged for being in a body house. I was flabbergasted! I still had no idea what he was talking about. The police went whole hog. They decided to do it all on one night: arrest as many people as possible. Let’s drag them in, let’s really teach him a lesson. You were in the room and you started hearing commotion. You didn’t know what was going on and then a cop would come and smash the door and drag you in and put you in. If you were naked so be it. The people in the shower would be grabbed out of the shower room. It happened February 5th. On the morning of February 6th, we decided to actually have a demonstration that very night. You had all these people contact their friends that contacted their friends. And so it actually spread very very fast. It really was on an order that had never been thought of. A lesbian and gay demonstration which was far more angered and far more aggressive than the police ever thought they had on their hands. They’re completely thrown back. The reaction you could see. They were not at all prepared for this angry mob. I still couldn’t believe it was in front of their eyes. Police knew nothing at all about the gay male community. They actually thought there were only three or four hundred gay men in Toronto. They would all pack up, move to Vancouver as a result of the raids. But really the bath house raids happened in one night. But the politics of the bathhouse raids were at least a couple of years old. We had 308 men who had to go through the legal system. So we went and tracked each of those cases. We had fundraising that had to be done. Those are political social skills that build up a community. We went through what could have taken us 20 years in two years. But within a year of the raids, a much bigger crisis has emerged on the horizon. It represents a threat not just to gay freedom but to gay life itself. What do you think it is about the gay lifestyle that turns off so many straights? Well probably that we have so much style and so much fun, that we have more interesting jobs than they do. That we generally know how to live better. That’s probably what it is.
By the late 1970s, gays were experiencing unprecedented freedom. It was actually fabulous to be gay in New York at that time. We weren’t thinking of marriage, of getting rid of don’t-ask don’t-tell, of getting into the Boy Scout. Those things weren’t even issues. Between 69 and 81 was the only period in human history when everybody straight or gay was free to do what they wanted to essentially because there was birth control. There were antibiotics and religion was on the wane. That was a golden age of promiscuity both for straights and gays. But in 1981, an enormous tragedy hits the gay community as a rare and deadly form of cancer shows up in 41 homosexual men in New York and San Francisco. Word of the outbreak spreads rapidly through the gay community. People didn’t know what caused AIDS. They thought maybe it had something to do with sex. But maybe had some youth appetite ‘as there are all these crazy theories. And since gay liberation was sexual liberation for us, the idea of giving up sex was just so amazing. Anyway we were going men now I mean we weren’t going to stop having sex.
We had the doctors saying you need to stop having sex. In the sexual liberation age, most gay activists were like you don’t know that and there was doubting of the science. And there was a whole threat to what we had built up into that point and what the gay rights movement had focused on up until that point which was sexual liberation. You would see men in their 20s and 30s walking along with canes and the pages of the VAR would have obituaries every week. It was a dark time in San Francisco history. Over 10,000 people in the zip code alone died from AIDS. I remember finding it easy to find rentals for an apartment because they were gay men who had died and didn’t have family. This is 1980 Christmas party and everybody but myself has died of AIDS. Everybody seemed to have been infected before they found out and then it was just a little too late to do much of it. Through the eighties mostly you were always taking people to hospitals or going to funerals or something. I’ve said to lots of gay men got sick and once you were sick you were probably out because if you were recognizable as a person with AIDS people were going to think you were gay whether you were gay or not. We didn’t realize until we were forced out of the closet how hated we were. We created all these little cocoons for each other so we didn’t have to feel that hate or know how that hate could play out and so AIDS taught us that how much America hated us.