The Gay ’70s

Is being gay just about sex? It’s difficult to imagine anyone asking the question today. If the taglines used to market lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans to the country’s ...

Is being gay just about sex? It’s difficult to imagine anyone asking the question today. If the taglines used to market lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans to the country’s mainstream—“Love Wins,” “It Gets Better,” and “You Can Play”—have led to unprecedented levels of inclusion and visibility, it is precisely by shoving sex aside and presenting gay people and straight people as essentially the same at heart. In the process, as the outsider status attached to being gay disappears in more and more contexts, some of gay culture’s radical roots risk being expunged from memory.

This is what historian Jim Downs aims to remedy in his latest book, Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, by resurrecting the gay print culture and religious life that flourished in the 1970s. Among the root causes of the erasure, Downs argues, is the AIDS crisis; the sexual behaviors and promiscuity of the 1970s have been historicized as not only connected to, but also largely responsible for, the unsparing devastation that followed the spread of HIV.

Stand by Me uncovers the stories of people and groups sidelined by what Downs calls the “hypersexual caricature” of gay history’s “standard narrative.” As evidence against this narrative, he uses newspapers, magazines, and journals like LA’s The Advocate, Philadelphia’s Gay News, San Francisco’s Join Hands, and particularly Toronto’s The Body Politic that “became a means of establishing gay communities,” helping gay people “situate their culture.” At times these publications narrated a gay past, linking to vibrant but fragile moments like Weimar Germany; at others they defined a broader contemporary struggle by pointing to the common and intersecting oppressions of gay and ethnic and racial groups.

With its discussion of gay religious groups, Stand by Me notably complicates the ever-present liberation/assimilation binary—assimilationist groups and their radical counterparts in tension with each other, dialectically advancing a gay agenda. Rather than rejecting religious institutions wholesale, Downs writes, “many gay people actually turned towards religious organizations in the 1970s … Gay churches and other gay religious communities actually became a refuge that supported, embraced and helped to galvanize the gay liberation movement throughout the decade.” This was the case with New Orleans’s UpStairs Lounge, which, in addition to functioning as a bar, also housed religious gatherings.

By capturing “the stories of gay men who have been largely silent in the historical record and forgotten in the public memory,” Downs hopes to prove that the 1970s were about more than just sex. And in fact “More Than Just Sex” was the book’s original title, according to an interview Downs gave to Gawker earlier this year.1 This focus, however, renders the book vulnerable to critiques about what Downs chooses to include; the world reflected in Stand by Me features almost exclusively the white gay men victimized by the “hypersexual caricature.” There aren’t nearly enough mentions of women, people of color, or the gender non-conforming, despite the prevalent role they played in 1970s activism.2

Downs has responded to these critiques by saying that he “didn’t want to just plop in a chapter on women,” and that it wasn’t part of his initial historical question on “the mythology of white gay men as hypersexual [that’s used] to explain HIV.”3 But this explanation is unsatisfying and leaves readers unaware of how the rest of the LGBTQ community shaped gay institutions and culture, and how instances both of solidarity and of fracturing within the LGBTQ community affected the lives of the subjects privileged by Downs.

Yet, despite its validity, such a critique doesn’t negate Downs’s central claim. His documentation of gay-exclusive newspapers, bookstores, religious groups, and the ideas and culture that developed around these institutions is valuable to those who aim to more deeply understand the long trajectory of queer activism and to shape the future of the LGBTQ movement in America. Stand by Me includes massacre and tragedy; its opening chapter is an emotional rehashing of the 1973 arson attack at the aforementioned UpStairs Lounge. The attack—the most lethal targeting of gay people in American history until the June 12 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse club—took the lives of 32 men during a religious service, after the downstairs entrance to the gay bar was lit on fire. But most of the book’s pages document the manner in which gay people worked less to appease a society that excluded them than to give themselves a sense of pride and meaning by rallying around each other and founding their own institutions.

as the outsider status attached to being gay disappears, some of gay culture’s radical roots risk being expunged from memory.

In this project, Downs is not alone. Another historian, Timothy Stewart-Winter, has also recently released a book that emphasizes organizing power over persecution in its retelling of the LGBTQ past. Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics tracks the history of queer mobilization within the patronage system of Chicago’s infamous machine politics. Queer Clout and Stand by Me both situate the 1970s in a context of modern-day activism—its pivot away from the idea of “gay liberation”—and contemplate the shortfalls of our much more conservative times, in which advocacy has prioritized gaining full access to the military and the institution of marriage. Stand by Me recalls a time in which many gay activists “critiqued democracy and capitalism … [and] sought community and their own culture over legal rights and political recognition,” whereas Queer Clout resists the convenient narrative that suggests the fight for marriage began with the 1969 Stonewall uprising, claiming gay activism to be “more radical in its origins” than those looking back now recognize.

Queer Clout makes it evident that the 1970s were about “more than just sex” without opening itself to many of the critiques Stand by Me has elicited. Its political history encompasses women—“Relations between lesbians and gay men changed over time, but the struggle for gay rights always involved both”—and queer people of color—“The decade after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., saw a flourishing of black gay and lesbian organizations in Chicago,” like Third World Gay Revolution, “whose founders theorized the dual nature of their struggle.”

Queer Clout is engaging and timely when it delves into the tension between politics of assimilation and politics of liberation, explaining how radical elements began aspiring to clout within electoral politics. “Paradoxically,” Stewart-Winter writes, “although gay liberation was a radical movement suffused with rhetoric of revolution,” the work of its members—who fashioned themselves after groups like Chicago’s branch of the Black Panther Party and cared little about appeasing the society that oppressed them—ultimately incorporated them into that very society. Through actions like pride parades, groups like Chicago Gay Liberation and Chicago Gay Alliance “set in motion the greater visibility” of both “gay life on the North Side” and consequently “in urban machine politics.” Chicago’s activists weren’t able to elect any openly gay aldermen or pass a gay rights bill in Illinois, but increasing visibility “prodded those machine candidates facing independent challengers to back gay rights or, at a minimum, to meet with and listen to gay activists.”

A related paradox lives on today, with the more radical activists prioritizing coalitions and advocating for broad visions of justice on issues that asymmetrically affect queer people—like Project Fierce, which works to alleviate LGBTQ youth homelessness in Chicago, and Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, which works to support the queer and undocumented in New York—and those of more mainstream groups like Human Rights Campaign, which organize as lobbies and strive for access to those in power, often working in tandem rather than in opposition to confront an unlivable status quo.

Anyone looking to mine Queer Clout for takeaways today will find them, but present-mindedness is much more prominent in Stand By Me. The passages that grab you most in the latter book address the “usable past,” which Downs defines as the facets of history that provide gay people with “legitimacy, meaning, and, most of all, a genealogy to their plight.” And his passion is infectious. In today’s “born this way” era, it’s easy to think of sexual orientation as merely arbitrary, but the history Downs converts to a “usable past” in Stand by Me gives cultural meaning to queer identity.

Downs’s “usable past” largely hinges on proving that the 1970s “redefined homosexuality by showing the world that gay people were cultured and could not be defined simply by their sexual acts.” Fair enough. And yet the book’s polemic raises two related questions: What if the 1970s were just about sex? Would that be wrong? This is delicate, requiring us to explain that the 1970s were about more than just sex without moralizing against sex. Of the questions Stand by Me raises, these perhaps are the most pressing today—what is ultimately most “usable” in Downs’s book may not be the past he imagined.

Downs likely intends his “usable past” to be taken up by young LGBTQ Americans born after the height of the AIDS crisis, into an era much more focused on assimilation, one in which activism has been rather more about “gay rights” than “queer power.” But questions of how to situate sex in queer politics and life almost inevitably pull Downs’s “usable past” away from reframing “legitimacy and meaning” in the eyes of young people and toward analogous debates about sex and politics.


The back-and-forth surrounding the development of Truvada is one such debate. Truvada, a combination of two antiretroviral drugs, was approved in 2012 for use as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP); in other words, for use as an HIV preventive. PrEP is potentially transformative for the queer community, which still suffers asymmetrically from HIV/AIDS. According to a recent CDC report, one in six men who have sex with men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime; for black and Latino men, it’s worse: one in two and one in four, respectively.4 PrEP has proven effective as an HIV prevention tool if taken daily and is among our best hopes at stemming this crisis.

However, decades of public health orthodoxy, rooted in the AIDS crisis and ACT UP’s “condom code,” unconditionally wedded to its use as the primary tool to prevent the spread of HIV, are being upended, and this process hasn’t failed to generate pushback. Fears that the use of PrEP will turn people toward “barebacking” (condomless anal sex) without—due to PrEP—the risk of seroconversion, have incited hysteria from a wide range of people, including at one point America’s most famous AIDS activist, Larry Kramer, AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein, and Jim Downs himself. Situating sex in queer politics remains just as delicate among gay men today as it was during the time depicted in Stand By Me.

In a Huffington Post essay, “Is Being Gay Just About Sex?,” written while he was promoting his book, Downs couldn’t help but comment.5 “The recent emergence of a new drug, Truvada, which helps to prevent HIV infection, has only indirectly added to this problem,” said Downs.6 What “problem”? “Despite the impressive technological advances that facilitate the spread of knowledge,” Downs lamented, many gay men limit their social media use to “apps like Grindr and Scruff to find Mr. Right, or Mr. Right Now, or for showing off their bodies.”6

To self-proclaimed “Truvada whore” Damon Jacobs, the drug’s development is revolutionary not just in terms of science but also in reclaiming a facet of gay culture absent since the ’70s. Speaking at the LGBT Center in New York City earlier this year, Jacobs explained what the drug has meant for many gay men, himself included, who “have been so conditioned to associate pleasure with punishment and fear,” either due to individual struggles of coming to terms with sexuality or collectives ones having to do with the AIDS crisis.8 In the same speech, the activist celebrated the pleasures of bareback sex with no smutty details barred, making it clear that this isn’t your mother’s gay rights movement. Many, like Jacobs, internalize trading in condoms for the pill as a liberating political act, but this cultural shift is, to say the least, controversial. Perhaps Bryan Lowder put it best when he concluded in a 2014 essay, albeit with some frustration, that “This Truvada thing is way bigger than a pill.”9

<i>New York City Department of Health PrEP Advertisement</i> (2016). kpeavz / Instagram

New York City Department of Health PrEP Advertisement (2016). kpeavz / Instagram

Downs’s account of how, for some in the 1970s, “sex represented a radical political act” could very well apply to the PrEP era—with these debates, the way people have sex is beset with political undertones. Yes, Treatment Action Group’s Jeremiah Johnson’s February piece on PrEP, “It’s Not Irresponsible to Like Bareback Sex,” isn’t quite Charlie Shively’s 1973 manifesto, “Cocksucking as an Act of Revolution.”10 The tension between a politics centered on the idea of assimilation—aspiring to a future in which sexual orientation will no longer be relevant—and one that aspires to maintain the cultural specificity that comes along with existing outside the social order continues to characterize intra-LGBTQ politics. PrEP reinserts sex into queer advocacy debates and reverses a tactic of putting forth a sanitized image of homosexuality—not talking about sex itself explicitly—that groups like Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry have utilized to win mainstream support for marriage equality.

These groups have been extremely successful at fundraising and marketing, and the tangible gains they’ve won through targeting their advocacy at members of Congress were rightfully celebrated at 2015 Pride Parades throughout the country.11 But marriage equality and corporatized Pride haven’t managed to save everyone, and 2016’s fights feel much different. This year’s onslaught of anti-trans bathroom bills in state legislatures, the recent tragedy in Orlando, and the averted tragedy in Los Angeles, demand more than assimilationist taglines. For many, it hasn’t gotten better, and a “usable past”—whether Downs’s or Stewart-Winter’s—that can provide LGBTQ Americans a “genealogy to their plight,” is needed now more than ever. Both Stand By Me and Queer Clout breathe new life into the efforts of activists and prevent them from being forgotten. Unlike the 1980s, explored in works like A Normal Heart, Angels in America, How to Survive a Plague, We Were There, and United in Anger, there isn’t anywhere near enough about LGBTQ life in the 1970s in either public memory or the historical record. These two new books make a good start toward filling that gap, helping us explain both our pride and our rage. icon

Featured image: Gay rights demonstration, Albany, New York (1971). Diana Davies / New York Public Library Digital Collections