Jesse Monteagudo

The Gay Seventies: A Survivor's Story

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | April 30, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: 1970s, documentary film, LGBT history, sex

In Joseph F. Lovett's 2005 documentary, Gay Sex in the 70s, survivors of the 1970's reminisce about gay life in New York City during the hectic decade between the Stonewall Uprising and the AIDS epidemic. gay-sex-70s.pngListening to the likes of Arnie Kantrowitz, Lawrence Mass, Tom Bianchi and even Larry Kramer wax nostalgic about the good old days, I thought about the French statesman Talleryand who, having survived both the French Revolution and Napoleon, said that "he [or she] who has not lived in the years around 1780 has not known the pleasure of life." Talleyrand, of course, was one of the lucky ones.

Like the veterans in Gay Sex in the 70s (and Talleyrand) I am fortunate to be alive to tell my story. And while I was not featured in Lovett's documentary - a New York-centered movie that ignored what was going on elsewhere at the time - I told my story in various anthologies and in Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones (2001), James T. Sears's 70s history of the LGBT South.

My presence in Professor Sears's book, unlike Talleyrand's in French history, is serendipitous: I was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Even so, this experience allowed me to join the likes of Jack Fritscher, Brad Gooch, Ethan Mordden, Felice Picano, Edmund White, and the heroes of "Gay Sex in the 70s."

Today we tend to idealize the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS decade as a golden age of gay sex. Like most men of a certain age, we who survived the disco era tend to exaggerate our youthful sexual experiences. And like Talleyrand's aristocrats, only a minority of white gay men (and a few men of color), living in large cities of the USA, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, were able to enjoy "the pleasure of [gay] life" in that crucial decade.

There certainly wasn't much joy in being gay in the rural South, not to mention the Third World or behind the Iron Curtain. Most of us who were openly gay in Southern cities like Miami or Atlanta, New Orleans or Houston, were mostly young and poor and naive and very untypical. Most of the gay southern "A-listers," who would have been the queens of gay society up north, were in the closet.

To be publicly gay was to court disaster, as was the case with the 28 gay men who perished in a fire that consumed the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans (1973). That someone like the late Logan Carter (a.k.a. "Roxanne Russell") flourished in such a climate speaks volumes for Carter's force of character - and his incredible talent.

If there was anything that characterized the men and women of the "Rubyfruit generation," it was our innocence and our idealism. We really believed that we could make things better, for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters. Though we lost some of our innocence on June 7, 1977, the day the voters of Miami-Dade County, Florida repealed their "gay rights" ordinance, we managed to keep our idealism intact throughout repeated electoral defeats, the assassination of Harvey Milk, and the "White Night" riots. The March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (1979) was, at least for the men, a celebration of gay sexual freedom as well as a political statement.

Many people who did not live through the 70s view that decade as a period of unbridled decadence; and the people who were sexually active then as unprincipled libertines who sowed the seeds of their own destruction. This is unfair of course: people who cruised urban bars, baths, back rooms, parks, trucks and docks from 1970 to 1979 could not know that AIDS was just around the corner.

I certainly don't regret living through the gay seventies, though I would do anything to bring back the many friends that I've lost since then. It was wonderful to go through my prime at a time when the drinking age was 18, and when the worst you could get from sex (we thought) could be cured by a trip to the VD Clinic.

I was lucky (and privileged) to be involved in Florida's LGBT movement during its early years; and to be out when most "community people" (to quote the semi-closeted leader of a semi-closeted group that flourished at that time) were not. And though the seventies was a period of separatism for both lesbians and gay men, I was blessed to have some wonderful women friends.

And finally, though I've lost my 70s innocence, I managed to retain my idealism throughout 35 years of grief and disappointment.

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Thank you for this -- for pointing out both the ways we romanticize and criticize the gay 70s, a decade we can still learn from and one I hope we never forget.

The '70's saw the real gay political awakening and establishment of gay activism as a now permanent part of the political spectrum. There was a huge need to feel empowered, no matter where you lived. The big political move was simply "coming out". It had been so dangerous for gays to come out prior to this, that this act was huge for every individual who did. The 50's and '60's had seen many thousands of 'suspected homosexuals" loose their jobs, be thrown out of the military, etc. The '70's institutionalized coming out as ESSENTIAL for every gay person to live a fulfilled life. For the first time, being gay was not per se officially considered SICK by the American Psychiatric Association. Although gay acts were still criminal in many states, gays succeeded in getting these laws repealed in many places. it is nothing short of shocking to stop and realize how different the world was then, and how we have survived, although we mourn the great many who werelost to AIDS or suicide.

The 70’s were the highest of highs and the 80’s were the lowest of lows.

Your last line; "And finally, though I've lost my 70s innocence, I managed to retain my idealism throughout 35 years of grief and disappointment"
struck a chord with me. As a celebrant and grateful survivor of the 70's I sense that most of us from that era have indeed held onto our idealism. I think it's because most of us were influenced by the 60's flower power, hippies, and protests, too. Though we've made great strides since then, I've never sensed a larger tide of idealism as we experienced back then. Notions of looks-ism, gym worship, the 'me generation' barely touched us and I'm glad to have sailed over those concepts. Forgive me if I sound smug; but I think it's that idealism that fueled our compassion and commitment to combat the plague of AIDS as effectively as we did.

Jesse, I count the post-Stonewall era as being the time when I first recognized that I had a yen for sexual encounters with a man. I didn't acknowledge myself as gay at that time, but looking back surely brought me to the realization. Had Stonewall not occurred at just the right time, and had I not been had the opportunity to know other gay men (and realize that they were normal people), I might have been more reticent to investigate my longings. I suspect that I might have remained in denial to this day without the breakout of the 70s and the overall impact it had on the world.
Obviously, a large portion of the world as we then knew it was distressed by the burgeoning gay community, but I count myself as grateful for what forced me to reconsider myself sexually and to finally come to grips with who I really am.

I too was there for the innocent 70s. Gay liberation's radical politics is still what I live by. The first time I watched "Gay Sex in the 70s" I was delighted to recognize so many guys in it that I knew form those days, and more importantly, that it was not just MY rose-colored memories--it really WAS the sweetest and sexiest and most celebratory of times! ... even if I never get to be a talking head in a gay documentary.