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That Was Then...This Is Now: 25 Years of Being Young and Gay in America

By Patricia Nell Warren

"What was it like, then?" a student asked me recently. "Were you a hippy? Did you go to discos and stuff? Did you, um, wear those nasty polyester clothes?"

People often ask me about being young and gay a quarter century ago. They wonder what my views are, on the subjects of how far we've come, and if our youth today have more freedom to live their lives. When I remember back, I find that discos and polyester were the least of my concerns. In fact, contrary to what many gay people believe today, we did not invent disco. In the Sixties, elegant dance clubs called "discotheques" were already popular in Europe -- they got imported to the U.S. along with the French fashions that every conventional American wanted to wear.

"History," as we call it, is seldom as neat as historians make it. What's missing from the history books is the messiness and confusion -- being swept through your daily life along with 20 million other people, each of them immersed in their own emotional challenges. A lesbian white woman living in New York City in the Sixties will probably have vivid memories of police raids on women's bars like the Porthole, while a closeted black gay man in the South might not even know that Rev. Martin Luther King's right-hand organizer, Bayard Rustin, was gay too.

For me, the gay and lesbian revolution of the '60s and '70s was centered around the Vietnam War.

Even though I was female and did not serve in uniform, the war marked my life deeply. Vietnam affected every man my age whom I knew -- from my brother, who came home from Southeast Asia profoundly changed, to friends like Arnie. He was an artist and ex-Green Beret, who had killed so many people that he couldn't paint human beings any more. And there was my best guy friend from high school, Charlie Marron, who was a Navy pilot and died over there.

Vietnam was a major turning point in our history because it was the first time that American youth massively resisted being shipped off to fight in a major foreign war. Our leaders ranted that the war was necessary, that we had to "keep communism from spreading." But young people looked at the TV news, at the grisly images of children burned by napalm, weeping refugees, burning villages, dead water buffalo, and our own maimed soldiers being hauled out in choppers. They absorbed these images, and felt we had no business participating in that civil war that had convulsed Vietnam for 20 years already.

Where was I in those days? Out of college, working, trying to bury my different orientation in a heterosexual marriage, trying to write heterosexual literature. But my job in the major media gave me a queasy close-up on events. And I was young enough to feel the questions jarring me.

Today, it's hard for a young person to imagine the anxieties of the 1960s draft lottery -- of your number coming up if you were 18 and male. To avoid going, some straight men had no problem telling the Army doctors they were homosexual, so they could get classified 4F. Pretty soon the protestors were marching in the streets, burning their draft cards, chanting "Hell no, we won't go." Mothers, wives, girl buddies, joined in. So did some disillusioned Vietnam veterans. Not only did the controversy tear our country in two, but it also sparked a youth revolution against the whole range of rigid American conventions and traditions. "Hell no, we won't follow your rules," shouted student demonstrators as they seized control of campus buildings, made speeches on bullhorns, and demanded a revolution that would humanize our society.

Without Vietnam, there would have been no "counterculture" -- no "flower children" who dropped out of conventional behaviour. Both genders wore flowers in their hair, as a sign of peace and harmony. They went barefoot, crowded into rock concerts, experimented with any drug they could lay hands on, had sex with whoever they pleased, were Buddhist or pagan if it suited them, had children outside of marriage -- anything and everything that might piss off their parents. You could find them living in the new co-ed dorms, on the street, in rural communes, in urban "crash pads" with a dozen other young people, or in psychedelic-painted VW vans that traveled the country. Straight men rejected the clean-shaven muscular image of American male, in favor of a slender androgynous body type with beard and long hair. Straight girls dumped the Miss America and French fashion looks -- they donned granny gowns or jeans, and said, "Hell, no, we won't wear bras."

Ultimately that revolution swept up young people who knew their sexual orientation was different. In 1969, at a Manhattan drag bar called the Stonewall, as the police raid came down, and drag queens went hand-to-hand with cops, the chant became "Hell no, we won't be straight."

Gay activists -- young radicals of the GAA, older organizations like One Institute and Daughters of Bilitis -- now had the perfect opportunity. They jumped on the bandwagon of national student unrest, and used its momentum to their own advantage. When the U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended in the early 70s, and our troops came home, U.S. campuses kept exploding with other issues -- racism, abortion, women's rights, affirmative action, the environment, censorship. Gay and lesbian rights got added to the lengthening laundry list of reform.

In 1973, living in New York, I finally launched my own private revolution -- ditched marriage, came out, wrote my first novel dealing with gay life. Naturally "The Front Runner" was a story of youth in revolt -- a college-age athlete who dared to make his own open statement at the 1976 Olympic Games. When the novel made the national bestseller list, I was invited to fly to California for my first campus lecture -- a student group at UCLA. With time, as I lectured into the 80s and 90s, I saw with my own eyes how students and teachers -- gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, as well as gay-friendly straights -- were transforming American education.

Gay activists knew it was useless to change oppressive sex laws if the nation's faulty indoctrination on sexual orientation was not changed too. For the time being, K-12 schools were out of reach, too tightly controlled by local community politics. So activists focused on higher education. Slowly, creakily, the system began to change. Liberal schools added gay-studies programs, agreed to allow LGBT student unions, conferences and support groups. Gay and lesbian books in the campus library were a new thing -- along with a librarian who might be newly out! This could happen because colleges and universities were less vulnerable to public fears about "impairing the morals of minors" -- most students were over 18.

"Coming out on campus" was yet another courageous, heroic and daring personal statement you could make in the 70s -- along with joining black marchers, burning your bra, staging sit-ins at nuclear power plants, and supporting the American Indian Movement in its battles with the FBI. As the statement-makers got better at manipulating the media, their statements became more colorful...and news attention helped popularize the causes.

To conventional Americans, this youth revolution was frightening and invasive, almost like something from another planet -- like the space-age technology that was relentlessly transforming the familiar American landscape. Older Americans were equally terrified by the personal computer, communications satellites, nuclear submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles -- and the live TV newscasts that were ever louder and more influential in their homes. Indeed, as they watched the news, they learned that students were rioting in Europe and Asia too. In their view, kids all over the world were going crazy.

To conservative Americans in the media, the "fags" among these out-of- control kids shouldn't even be mentioned. For a long time, the media managed to ignore most gay news. "Fags" were all "pinkos," meaning socialists or communists. This conservative attitude harked back to the 1950s and the McCarthy hearings in the Senate, when homosexual allegations were launched against spies and Hollywood screenwriters. In other words, to call a man a "fag" was to label him "traitor." And a young straight man with long hair and androgynous image was acting like a "fag," so he deserved to get treated like a traitor. For every gay man and lesbian who was beaten up on the street in those chaotic days, there was a straight hippy guy who got the same rough treatment from local rednecks.

There were risks in every statement, as young civil-rights activists found out when they crossed the KKK in the South -- as student rioters learned when some were shot down by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1969. After Kent State, as author James Mitchener researched his book on the massacre, he was shocked to hear the first loud preachy voices of far-right violence. One day I sat in an editorial luncheon at the Digest and heard Michener tell his Kent State stories. Clearly the author was shaken by the bloodthirstiness of some right-wing parents that he had interviewed. "My daughter should be shot for not wearing a bra." Or, "My son should be shot for going barefoot."

For gay activist Harvey Milk, newly elected city supervisor of San Francisco, the risk was an assassin's bullet in 1978. Gay people made their own prime-time riot news, as thousands of outraged men and women fought with police in San Francisco, after hearing the news that assassin Dan White would get a slap-on-the-wrist sentence for two murders -- Milk and his straight political ally George Moscone, mayor of San Francisco. Both of whom had been shot dead at their desks in city hall.

Right-wing Christians, in those days, had stayed out of active involvement in U.S. politics for decades. But the youth and gay revolutions terrified them so much that they started organizing. By 1973, the Campus Crusade for Christ was already active on campuses -- solemn born-again evangelical students whom the lefties liked to tweak by calling them "Jesus freaks." By 1978, Jesus-freak leaders -- including Anita Bryant and Lou Sheldon, who were young then -- had formally declared a Bible-based war on "free sex," especially the gay variety.

Today Americans who must compute the risk of incurable disease with every social move have a hard time imagining an era when people were happy-go-lucky about sex. Straight people who tsk-tsk over the so-called "gay promiscuity" of the 60s and 70s have clearly forgotten how "promiscuous" the straight folks were being. The new contraceptive pill and cheap, safe abortions were now legally available to all. Condoms were viewed as old-fashioned, used strictly for birth control. The key word was "experiment." Everybody, straight and gay, flung off the old conventions, and got busy tinkering with sex, the way tekkies were tinkering with all the wonderful new computer hardware. Married suburbanites had fun with rampant adultery -- a national scandal exploded around wife-swapping in major-league baseball. The partying among young straight weekenders in the straight areas of Fire Island was every bit as wild as wife-swapping in major-league baseball.

Then there was "swinging." The 70s was the era of "swinging singles." For those who have conveniently forgotten what "swinging" really meant, a "swinger" was a person who went both ways in bed. Non-hippy straight men were so relaxed into unisex fashions and non-traditional male images that some were willing to experiment with other guys. Even the gay community was more relaxed about bisexuality in those days!

Disease? Not to worry. Herpes 2 was said to be incurable, but few people -- straight or gay -- bothered their heads about that. For other diseases, there was always antibiotics. The smiley face, that cultural symbol of the 70s, could have been posted on most doctors' doors. Only an insightful few saw that the rising curve of so much sex would inevitably push a rising curve of contagious disease. Something called "AIDS" would not be mentioned till well into the 80s.

"So," pursued my student questioner, "were you one of those wild chicks out there?" She had read a little about the 70s, and knew some of the slang.

Yes, for a while, I was one of those "wild chicks." I wore the clothes, had the hangovers and the buzzes, went to the concerts (missed Woodstock, but made it to Watkins Glen), fell for Janis Joplin, and boogied my brains out. For a while, those being such "bi times," I still dated a guy or two. Naturally I came out at work, and was lucky to keep my Digest job. My world-weary colleagues at the Reader's Digest could tell whether I was in a femme or butch mood that day, depending on whether I wore platform shoes or riding boots to work. This phase lasted for two years, during which I wrote two more novels and was lucky I didn't get an STD.

Today, as the social pendulum swings back from its long arc to the left, the military draft is long gone. Vietnam veterans -- including the LGBT ones -- are starting to die of old age. Young Americans are more apt to be killed in a neighborhood drive-by, or a schoolyard massacre, or a gay-bashing, than in a foreign war. In Los Angeles, gunfire is so everyday that the county coroner's office uses the term "L.A. natural" for a shooting death.

Today, controversy about "homosekshuwals" seeps into every nook and cranny of American life, like the proverbial butter melting into an English muffin. Indeed, the gay issue has torn the country in half the way the Vietnam issue once did. There is probably not a single small-town newspaper that hasn't published scalding letters about Disney and gay marriage. There is probably not a single religious building which hasn't echoed to the voice of a priest, minister, elder, rabbi or mullah who is holding forth on the subject. Legislatures, city councils, police departments -- all spar over domestic partners, park cruising, Pride festivals, and whether gay businesses can legally display rainbow flags.

Today our university campuses -- excepting those in California where students demonstrate against Prop. 209 -- are curiously quiet. It is the high schools that are getting noisy and "radicalized," as minors grab their moment before the news cameras and make their mark on the history of activism. Religious righters who want to remold American youth back into tradition may be in for a rude surprise -- today's teens may prove as unruly as the "flower children." In Boise, ID, thousands of students marched to protest elimination of AIDS information from their

America's K-12 schools are now the main battleground between the far right and liberal Americans. Issues of student violence, free speech, censorship, dress code, personal privacy, body searches, sexual harassment, gay and lesbian bashing, transsexualism -- and of course the recent hails of deadly gunfire at several schools -- all are catapulting high schools into the evening news. Indeed, a student of the 90s can't get through a day without hearing the word "gay" on TV, at school, at home, or from friends. The entire state of Utah -- legislature, attorney general, governor's office, Mormon church -- went into convulsions over a gay club started by 17-year-old Kelly Peterson. With the federal government stepping into gay-bashing litigation, and the possibility of protecting youth under Title IX's sexual-harassment clause, another 17-year-old -- William Wagner, of Arkansas -- may cast his own long legal shadow.

One thing has not changed since the '60s and '70s: the risks. That was plenty of risk and violence against gay people then. And there is plenty of risk and violence now.

The style and complexion of violence may be different. In the '60s and '70s, it was more silent, hidden, seldom reported to police -- the police would do nothing in any case. Today the violence is open, blatant, unapologetic -- whether at gunpoint in a schoolyard, or under the electrodes of shock treatment, for a kid whose family has sent him/her to a private mental institution for "de-gaying".

A recent report by People for the American Way reveals that anti-gay violence is curiously focused in four states: California, North Carolina, Washington and Massachusetts. According to PFAW, religious-right organizations were involved in nearly 40 percent of the 170 incidents mentioned in the report. Says Carole Shields, president of People For the American Way Foundation: "The Religious Right has poisoned the public dialogue about gay and lesbian rights."

The very phrase "violence against the young" ought to be an oxymoron -- no such problem should exist. The young should be cherished and protected. Yet some American adults have always been ready to bloody the noses of their young, in hopes of controlling them better. When it comes to homosexuality, some Americans have always been extraordinarily, inexcusably violent to their own and other people's children -- like those wild-eyed parents who shocked James Michener so much.

Looking back at the Vietnam era, however, I do feel hopeful. In spite of the hard line taken by our government, the 60s and 70s youth revolution forced the United States to withdraw from the war. Hopefully, in time, we can look back on the 90s, and see a similar victory for those believe that all young people -- gay and straight alike, liberal and conservative alike -- should be respected and cherished equally.

Copyright 1998 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.


©1998 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.