“Falling into the easy trap of foregrounding sex has the effect of erasing the nuance, the richness, and even the messiness of people’s lives,” writes professor of history at Connecticut College Jim Downs in his new book Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (out March 1). The book exists to highlight the nuance, the richness, and even the messiness of people’s lives by offering an alternate history of gay life in the ‘70s. Though the years leading up to the AIDS epidemic are largely thought of as a sexual free-for-all (as depicted in the 2005 documentary Gay Sex in the ‘70s, and Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots), clearly there was more going on than just fucking, and that’s where Downs comes in. He doesn’t negate the idea that lots of men had lots of sex in the ‘70s, he merely supplements it.
“My focus here is to correct the hypersexual caricature of gay men in the 1970s by exploring and recounting the everyday ways which gay men sustained an identity and culture. What happened when they got home from the bars?” Downs asks in his introduction, “What did they read? What did they think about? How did they frame their sexuality? How did they develop a vocabulary to speak about what it meant to be gay? How did they understand their identity as a way to create a distinct culture? How did they find their place in the world?”
He answers his questions by focusing on unsung figures and under-examined forces within gay culture (though his subject matter largely relates to white gay men): the fire at New Orleans’s Up Stairs Lounge on June 24, 1973 (resulting in 32 deaths, Downs dubs this the “largest massacre of gay people in American history”), the gay religious movement of the ‘70s, Craig Rodwell (whose Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore revolutionized the concept of gay culture), Jonathan Ned Katz (playwright and author of Gay American History), the Toronto-based newspaper The Body Politic, gays in prison, and the rise of gay macho or clone culture in the late ‘70s. Throughout the book, sex is rarely far from the discussion, though it never threatens to dominate it. I found it to be consistently eye-opening.
I talked to Downs about his book and driving philosophy earlier this week by phone. A condensed and edited transcript of our discussion is printed below.
Gawker: You strike an important balance in this book: You discuss the sexuality of your intellectual subjects. It seems that you wrote carefully so as not to neuter them. Is that right?
Jim Downs: One of the things that guided this entire process was the narrative of gay men being perceived as hypersexual. That’s a narrative that’s not just about gay men, that’s something that’s been pinned onto black women since slavery. There’s always been this understanding that oppressed groups can be recognized as hypersexual. I understood that as a historian, but at the same time I didn’t want to diminish the fact that gay men like Craig Rodwell, and others in the religious movement and other places, didn’t see such a conflict between wanting to contribute to the movement but also have a lot of sex.
I think what’s happened is it’s our reckoning of the movement we’re trying to understand. We’re trying to explain HIV, so immediately people latch onto the promiscuity narrative without recognizing that people in the ‘70s didn’t have a conflict with [it and broader cultural activity]. There was a common understanding that you should embrace your sexuality, you should have sex, you should feel liberated. But so much of that narrative of being liberated played into a stereotype about gay men’s sexuality that was then mobilized to explain the spread of HIV.
I have to admit that I was wary about your book’s premise initially, and I think it still runs the risk of a superficial assessment that goes: “What’s Downs’s motivation for framing this alternate history? He must not enjoy or have had a lot of sex.”
When I initially tried to sell the book, before I had an agent, an editor at a press was like, “This is kind of the Will version of [gay history].” It was the idea that Will from Will & Grace is this sexless creature and I was trying to advocate that. I really made [the contrary] clear, especially at the end when I give the example of the [newspaper employee] saying, “What could it mean that after we did layout on Thursday night, the guys would be in Herbe’s Ram Rod Room on their knees suckin’ dick all night? Was that an informal part of it, something to be ashamed of?” I really was like, “Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to explain.” It’s just in the historical record.
We think of history as this siloed off thing that happened in the past. We don’t realize how the politics of today shape how we understand that period. These guys were creating newspapers with their own budgets, building churches out of their own pocket. Today, I can say this as a college professor: My students will get involved in Black Lives Matter. My students will go to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But they will also make sure that it’s on their resume. These guys and women could never put this on their resume. This was not something that would get them professional cred, street cred.
There’s another narrative that risks the opposite sort of imbalance: The story leading up to marriage equality was, “We’re the same as everyone else. We’re normal. We don’t have sex, or at least, we won’t let on whether or not we do.” That seems as misleading of a narrative as, “We only have sex.”
What I’ve uncovered in this book is the fact that in the ‘70s, gay men, lesbians, and trans people were not invested in gaining recognition from the state. They were fighting for an end to employment discrimination, an end to sodomy laws, but their energy really went into creating their own culture. That’s why you have the lesbian separatist movement; that’s why you have these gay guys creating their own churches and newspapers. They’re not interested in what the state says. They believed, and this is part of the zeitgeist of the ‘70s, that capitalism was flawed, the federal government was flawed. They didn’t want part of it. Their critique of the idea of marriage would be: That’s an oppressive institution, it is part of the state and we don’t want anything to do with it.
I think when the marriage debate first started, you saw the radical, progressive edges of the gay movement saying, “We’re not looking for this kind of validation,” and then, as soon as marriage happened, we drew a straight line to gay liberation in all these history books, like, “VICTORY!” and “the gay revolution.” They all tried to say, “Look at this thread of gay people being political since Stonewall.” That’s not right. There was a moment where they weren’t political, like any other oppressed group: blacks, women. These gay historians believed, “Oh, in order for us to be considered legitimate, we have to show how we were political and trying to gain rights.” And that’s a problem.
You write that Rodwell “had a vision. He imagined a world where gay men would no longer be restricted to the bars and bathhouses in the city as the only places to congregate.” It sounds like he’s your avatar.
I spent an entire summer documenting and reading about him, and he was basically saying everything that I kind of thought. It was my argument and my hunch about this.
Another quote that seemed to illustrate your philosophy was this, regarding Katz’s ideology: “Katz came to realize that his decision was born out of a particular ideological view of gay people as insignificant. History was not a comprehensive accounting of everyone who ever lived, but a means of talking only about people and events that best represented the past in the view of those in power.” That’s your thesis embedded in the book.
A hundred percent. When I wrote this book, this was about five years ago, California was really trying to implement gay history as part of a curriculum. I just kept telling my agent, “They don’t have books they’re going to be able to draw on for the curricula.” They’re just going to have these glossy books of gay people fighting for rights, or gay people in bathhouses, gay people in Cherry Grove. My book is going to show different aspects of gay culture and I think that’s really useful in terms of thinking about curricular development.
You discuss the concept of “usable past” (“a connection to a previous decade or epoch that would provide legitimacy, meaning, and, most of all, a genealogy to their plight”), and it seems like that’s what you’re providing here. Your book highlights so many things people believed in, and fought for, and preached in the ‘70s that remain unresolved issues. The Body Politic had an anti-“no fats, no fems” policy in its personals, and yet “no fats, no fems” is a notion that continues to plague hook-up apps. The Black Panthers met with gay activists, and yet people still argue that there’s a divide between the “black community” and “gay community,” as though they never intersect. Katz had a hard time including lesbians in his play because he just couldn’t find that much information on gay women. To this day, the lesbian narrative is less prominent than the gay male one. To me, it seems like we haven’t learned nearly enough in the past 40 years.
I’m a huge supporter of Black Lives Matter. I’m a huge supporter of a lot of the stuff that’s happening around trans issues, but those movements sometimes lack a historical context. They’re often positioned as, “We’re the first to crack this topic.” There’s a loss of political energy, especially by people who are older, who are like, “We were actually engaged in this. We actually did this,” or, “Here are some ways it worked, and here are some ways it didn’t.” I think that’s definitely true in terms of how there’s also been an erasure of thinking about that. If I were more conspiratorial, I’d say, “That’s something in history that people don’t want to see.”
People are happy to see black people fighting their way out of slavery and for civil rights. People are happy to see gay people in their own way, but what does it mean? It’s more threatening if you can identify moments where these people came together. That’s what can create a revolution. If you have these different groups of people coming together under the banner of oppression, and recognizing shared struggles. That’s what can overthrow power. Working on their own, they can’t. That kind of historical amnesia isn’t accidental, that’s purposeful. The other point is to say that these groups have been fighting, that’s also a point of power. Not true.
Do you think AIDS decimating so many interesting and smart people has anything to do with our historical amnesia?
Yeah, of course. But, interestingly enough I was working with Jon Katz because someone’s doing a documentary on him. He said that at one point Larry Kramer approached him and said, “Listen, man, you need to join ACT UP,” and Katz said, “Absolutely not.” He was like (and I’m paraphrasing), “I have to continue to write about the past. This is my contribution to the movement of AIDS activism. I can’t stop being a historian.” Writing about the past, to him, was just as efficacious as politically mobilizing around HIV. Katz, in that [Stand by Me] chapter, has a real, keen awareness that this is something that could be erased. For people in the ‘70s, writing about the past was political. It was a way of documenting the past, it was a way of being intellectually engaged, it was a way of upsetting stereotypes, and also it was a way of really powerfully indicating that all of our energy should not be expended within these traditional confrontations with the state.
In one of the footnotes, you write, “This book focuses on the experiences of white gay men and does not by any means purport to chart the diverse experiences of the LGBTQ community.” Don’t you risk reifying the traditional narrative—that white men are the only LGBTQ people who matter—just as you accuse Larry Kramer of doing by writing exclusively about sex in Faggots?
That’s why I wrote the chapter at the end about the clone [the typically white, muscled, jeans-wearing symbol of the “gay macho” aesthetic movement of the ‘70s]. In it, I try to explain that this notion of the white, gay male is not just a way of privileging whiteness and men. It actually comes out of a cultural moment when there was all this work done in creating that stereotype that actually made the movement look more lily white than it was. Analytically that’s how I do it. Analytically that’s how I do it.
The initial title of the book, what I sold it as was More Than Just Sex. I was trying to debunk the mythology of white gay men as hypersexual [that’s been used] to explain HIV. That’s why I focused on that. The title Stand By Me is much more inclusive. And then it almost becomes: Why didn’t you do a chapter on women? Why didn’t you do a chapter on transgender people? The title was changed once the book went into production. I also think that as an African American historian, as someone who’s interested in questions of gender, I didn’t want to just plop in a chapter on women. The question of lesbians during this period is so complicated that it would really be superficial to just drop in a chapter on them. That wasn’t my question. That’s why I keep emphasizing the HIV part. Through HIV, gay men have been portrayed in a certain way. My point was, let me get in there and show you when you take HIV out. This is what the ‘70s actually looked like.