From Oppression to Legalization
By Robert Heide
In New York the “World Pride” month of June, 2019, was given over to celebrate gay life worldwide and the concept of freedom to be who we are—gay, straight, bisexual, and the trans categories of transvestite, transsexual, and transgender; and queer. Each day in June, walking out of my Christopher Street apartment to Sheridan Square, I spent a good deal of time meeting and talking with people from all over the globe who came to Stonewall National Monument to join in on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the bar where the battle between gays and the police occurred.
I remember the Caffe Cino playwright Doric Wilson, who in 1969 was also the head bartender at the Boots and Saddles Bar on Christopher Street, leading one of the first Gay Liberation marches uptown with great zest and determination. The aftermath of all the fighting and activism that came after—particularly after the 2015 Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal—has in today’s terms brought “Gay” and “Gay Pride” into a time of normality. Husbands and husbands and wives and wives can now adopt children and raise families, and fantastic transgender drags like RuPaul cavort merrily on mainstream television.
Lately I’ve been thinking back on what it meant to be gay when I arrived in New York in the early 1960s. In 1961 my play West of the Moon opened off Broadway at New Playwrights Theatre, which was located on the corner of 3rd Street and Thompson Street where a deli is today. The play has a down-and-out older gay hustler whose glory days of living the high life as a young professional prostitute are over and who encounters a new arrival in town in a doorway in The Village during a rainstorm. Drugs, sex, and corruption is in the cards as the two come together. Panned viciously by most of the seven uptown newspaper critics, one of whom suggested I break my typewriter over my hands, I instead went home and wrote another play called The Bed, which was produced at the Caffe Cino. This play has two men stagnating in a bed drinking booze and taking drugs; and for this one I got rave reviews. What it meant to be gay when it was actually illegal is akin to the drinking days of Prohibition, when your drinks, provided by such as Al Capone, were served in a coffee cup in a speakeasy. You did it, but you were subject to arrest.
When the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933, drinking was normalized, and open and riotous fun was to be had by everyone at home and out and about, except perhaps for the threat in gay bars of the periodic but constant police raids such as the one at the Stonewall. In the 1960s in The Village, booze was to be found everywhere and drinking establishments thrived. Among the full-to-the-brim gay spots were Mary’s and the Old Colony, both on 8th Street, and my favorite, Lenny’s Hideaway, a very hot spot with a great jukebox, downstairs on 10th Street where Small’s Jazz Club is now. At Lenny’s, perhaps as a memory of its speakeasy days, a special nightcap drink called a Clinker was featured, made with brandy and apricot liqueur served in a brass cup. At Lenny’s I met now-well-known regulars like Edward Albee (before he wrote The Zoo Story), composer Ned Rorem, and Jerry Herman, who wrote great Broadway musicals like Hello Dolly, Mame, and La Cage Aux Folles.
My point herein is that, yes, one could not “out” oneself in the sixties at an office job; and even Broadway actors I knew had to pretend to be straight. Gay bars celebrated their new freedoms after the Stonewall rebellion, unfortunately going too far in the seventies with backroom sex parlors; the pinnacle of all the excess being the fabulous celebrity spot at which to be seen, Studio 54. Here a giant, hanging, animated man-in-the-moon figure lifted a huge spoon to his nose and simulated the snorting of cocaine above the crowd on the dance floor as they joined in, drifting off to the left and right to lounges where beds were provided.
Studio 54 was famously raided (for financial irregularities) as the seventies ended and the eighties began; the eighties almost immediately turning into the “AIDies” decade. Gay bars quickly emptied of many of their former patrons who wound up in the AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
There has been a sea change that presents a very different world 50 years on from Stonewall. There is a new play entitled The Inheritance, which began previews in late September on Broadway and was a recent big hit in London, that depicts the open “new-normal gay” society of today, oddly enough drawing on a combination of Tony Kushner’s 1991 epic play Angels in America, E. M. Forster’s Howards End, and—surprise!—Donald Trump. Stay posted!
Robert Heide 25 Plays, available at Amazon, includes essays on the making of the plays and the scenario for the Andy Warhol film Lupe, which stars the superstar Edie Sedgwick.