Thor (thornyc) wrote,

When gay was in quotation marks – Life magazine’s “Homosexuality in America,” part 2

continued from yesterday’s first installment

(Note: each and every instance of the word “gay” is highlighted in the reproductions of the magazine pages, since that is the word I searched by in the Life archives to find this article. The pink highlighting of Life magazine’s often sensationalistic and biased reporting is mine.)

Life magazine, June 26, 1964


By Paul Welch
Photographed for LIFE by Bill Eppridge

The ‘Gay’ World Takes to the City Streets

In New York City, swarms of young, college-age homosexuals wearing tight pants, baggy sweaters and sneakers cluster in a ragged phalanx along Greenwich Avenue in the Village. By their numbers and by their casual attitude they are saying that the street -- and the hour -- is theirs. Farther uptown, in the block west of Times Square on 42nd Street, their tough-looking counterparts, dressed in dirty jackets and denims, loiter in front of the cheap movie theaters and sleazy bookstores. Few of the passers-by recognize them as male hustlers.

By Chicago's Bughouse Square, a small park near the city's fashionable Gold Coast on the North Side, a suburban husband drives his car slowly down the street, searching for a "contact" with one of the homosexuals who drift around the square. A sergeant on Chicago's vice squad explains: "These guys tell their wives they're just going to the corner for the evening paper. Why, they even come down here in their slippers!"

In Hollywood, after the bars close for the night, Selma Avenue, which parallels Hollywood Boulevard, becomes a dark promenade for homosexuals. Two men approach one another tentatively, stop for a brief exchange of words, then walk away together. In the shadows that reach out beyond the streetlights, the vignette is repeated again and again until the last homosexual gives up for the night and goes home.

Homosexuality -- and the problem it poses -- exists all over the U.S. but is most evident in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans and Miami. These large cities offer established homosexuals societies to join, plenty of opportunities to meet other homosexuals on the streets, in bars or at parties in private homes, and, for those who seek it, complete anonymity. Here, tolerance, even acceptance by the "straight" world, is more prevalent than in smaller communities. Where the "gay" world flourishes and presents so many social compensations, even the persistent pressure of antihomosexual police operations can be endured. Also, in the big cities, those professions favored by homosexuals -- interior decorating, fashion design, hairstyling, the dance and theater -- provide the most job opportunities.

Homosexuals can find some or all of these advantages in many parts of the U.S. but, because of its reputation for easy hospitality, California has a special appeal for them. In the city of San Francisco, which rates as the "gay capital," there are more than 30 bars which cater exclusively to a homosexual clientele. The number of these bars changes from week to week as periodic police drives close them down (their average life expectancy is about 18 months). Some bars, like the Jumpin' Frog, are "cruising" (pickup) bars, filled with coatless young men in tight khaki pants. They spend the evening standing around (there are few seats in "cruising" bars), drinking inexpensive beer and waiting. As each new customer walks into the dimly lit room he will lock eyes with a half dozen young men before reaching his place at the bar. Throughout the evening there is a constant turnover of customers as contacts are made and two men slip out together, or individuals move on to other bars in search of better luck. At closing time – 2 a.m. – approaches, the atmosphere grows perceptibly more tense. It is the “frantic hour,” the now-or-never time for making a contact.

In contrast to the “cruising” bars are the “gay” cocktail lounges, some of them just off the lobbies of the city’s better hotels. They are frequented by local businessmen and out-of-town visitors – plus occasional innocent heterosexual travelers.

A step or two down from the cocktail lounges are the “gay” bars where a single personality draws the customers. Until it closed recently, the Backstage was one of the town’s most popular because of José Sarria, who entertained regularly on Sunday afternoons. Sarria winds up his routine – an interpretation of “Salome” – standing in full “drag” (dressed and made up like a woman) and shouting to the audience: “All right, you Nellie queens, on your feet! United we stand, divided they’ll catch us one by one!” As San Francisco’s self-styled “dowager queen,” José has achieved a certain notoriety: in 1961 he openly ran for city-county supervisor and polled almost 6,000 votes.

In San Francisco’s Tenderloin, off Market Street, are the bottom-of-the-barrel bars where outcasts and misfits of all kinds hang out. Their bedraggled clientele includes dope pushers and users, male and female hustlers. Most of the customers have been “busted” (arrested) at least once. Here one finds the stereotypes of effeminate males – the “queens,” with orange coiffures, plucked eyebrows, silver nail polish and lipstick. There may be a man or two in “drag,” a few Lesbians, some “gay” prostitutes, drunks and cheap con men.

On another far-out fringe of the "gay" world are the so-called S&M bars ("S" for sadism and "M" for masochism). One of the most dramatic examples is in the warehouse district of San Francisco. Outside the entrance stand a few brightly polished motorcycles, including an occasional lavender model. Inside the bar, the accent is on leather and sadistic symbolism. The walls are covered with murals of masculine-looking men in black leather jackets. A metal collage of motorcycle parts hangs on one wall. A cluster of tennis shoes -- favorite footwear for many homosexuals with feminine traits -- dangles from the ceiling, Behind it a derisive sign reads: "Down with sneakers!"

"This is the antifeminine side of homosexuality," says Bill Ruquy, part owner of the bar. "We throw out anybody who is too swishy. If one is going to be homosexual, why have anything to do with women of either sex? We don't go for the giddy kids."


[caption 1] The window of this New York Greenwich Village store which caters to homosexuals is filled with the colorful, off-beat, attention-calling clothes that the “gay” world likes.

[caption 2] A homosexual sits on a rail in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square, where homosexuals new in town make contacts. A few who frequent it are male prostitutes but most just seek company.

[caption 3] Two fluffy-sweatered young men stroll in New York City, ignoring the stare of a “straight” couple. Flagrant homosexuals are unabashed by reactions of shock, perplexity, disgust.

Tags: history
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