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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Same as a handshake

I am a member of that gay golden generation that came of age sexually between the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the appearance of AIDS 12 years later. My peers and I are among the last to know what it was like to exchange bodily fluids not only without a condom, but also without a fear that we were putting ourselves at risk of anything that couldn't be cured with a few shots of penicillin in the ass. The only thing remotely unsafe about sex back then was a cigarette smoked afterward.

Several years ago I dated a much, much younger guy. (He was in college at the time, so I wasn't exactly in Michael Jackson territory.) We went out a few times, but what he seemed to enjoy the most were long conversations about what it was like to be gay when I was his age. I'd haltingly tell him stories of trips to Kansas City as a college student and things I had seen (and participated in) at parties, in "cruising" areas, in the dark corners of gay bars, and once in a glass elevator overlooking the Country Club Plaza.

Talking about those times is difficult for me because of the hindsight of what came next. But for him it was as much as ancient history as a Roman orgy. "It was a different time," I told him. "We didn't have AIDS to worry about and a blow job was the same as a handshake." His eyes would be big with wonder and I was never sure whether he was feeling envy or amazement that such times ever really existed.

Now there's a new documentary that tries to recapture that time - a time Brad Gooch captured in the novel The Golden Age of Promiscuity and Larry Kramer wickedly satirized in Faggots. I haven't seen Joseph Lovett's "Gay Sex in the '70s" yet and I'm not sure I will. I've tried to convince myself that Lovett's film deals only with New York and my experiences in that vast wasteland those on the coasts call "the flyover" are much different from the perspective of a gay New Yorker of the same era. In truth it's more that thinking of the '70s evokes a mix of nostalgia and guilt.

The nostalgia comes from the unbridled freedom to explore your sexuality to its fullest potential. The guilt comes from knowing that so many others who did the same things I did are no longer here.

I was 12 when the Stonewall riots happened in New York. I hadn't heard about it at the time. That kind of news seldom filtered down to the rural small town in Southern Missouri where I grew up. But that same summer I was experiencing the beginnings of my own liberation. That was the summer when I discovered what jacking off meant and what "shooting sperm" felt like, courtesy of an older boy name Roy who was staying with his aunt across the street. The same summer that queers and drag queens were taking to the streets, I was learning about the kinds of things they were fighting for in a shaded "fort" hidden along a fence row.

I was 15 when I first read Dr. David Ruben's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Actually, the chapter on homosexuality was the only thing I read in the book. In it I learned that people like me shoved cucumbers and light bulbs up our asses in the absence of a partner and we could never be happy or find love because we were forever looking for "the perfect penis." The bad (and downright erroneous) information aside, the book did give me ideas of where I could meet people like me and I couldn't wait until I had my driver's license to go find them.

At 16 I was having a friend with excellent penmanship forge letters allowing me to leave school for appointments with doctors and dentists. Then I'd drive to the county seat of the next county where I had heard men like me met in the basement men's room. Ironically, I was already well-versed in the concept of the glory hole and the tea room before I even knew what the words meant. I was very popular among the mostly married men who dropped by and more than a few would hand me money afterwards. It never occurred that the offering was anything other than gas money for the trip home.

During my senior year in high school, Miss Wright, my teacher in a class called "family living," wrote across the top of my end-of-the-year term paper how glad she was I was going to college and how she was sure I'd find college to be a "more accepting place" than high school. When I discovered she didn't write a similar message on the term papers of other college-bound classmates, I wondered if she guessed the secret I worked so hard to keep hidden. Her prophecy came true in ways I'm not sure she ever intended.

College was a turning point for me. For the first time in my life I was away from the stifling, small town atmosphere and I reveled in my freedom. Once I had explored the options available in a larger (but still too small) college town, I set about discovering the carnal pleasures of Kansas City. Among the new words I learned was "Meat Rack." While every city has its own version of the meat rack, Kansas City's was a section of Penn Valley Park where a series of paths led through an "enchanted" forest where a short side path could lead you to a shaded spot beaten down by thousands of feet where you could witness just about any sexual act ever catalogued or imagined.

That was my sexual coming of age. Sex came easy. A willing partner was never more than a few steps away. If you forgot to ask his name, what did it matter? You weren't likely to see him again.

The '70s taught me all about sex. But the closet I got to love was exchanging phone numbers or, more likely, being turned on enough by a guy to feature him in jerk-off fantasies for those times I couldn't make it to the meat rack or any of the other places where sex was given so freely.

That was my version of "Gay Sex in the '70s." I'm not sure I need to see Lovett's version.

Earlier today I came across a column on PlanetOut on the documentary. It was written by a man born in 1974 (at about the same time I was skipping out of school to explore the courthouse's basement men's room). In the article he writes:

At the beginning of the new documentary, "Gay Sex in the '70s," the director refers to this era of drugs and anonymous sex as "the most libertine period the Western world has ever seen since Rome." And after watching the film, I'm glad I wasn't of age to experience it. ...

While certain aspects of the film did seem like the '70s might have been a good time -- nude sunbathing on Fire Island or hobnobbing with the glitterati at Studio 54, for instance -- the ramifications of unprotected sex with hundreds of people wouldn't have been worth it. I would have preferred to be a fly on the wall of a dark backroom, as opposed to having my fly unzipped as I was pushed up against the wall of a dark backroom.

As Rome eventually fell, so too did this decade of decadence. The era of free gay love came to a screeching halt in 1981 with the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. One would hope that the gay community would have learned from the past, but everything in life is cyclical. I am not surprised that, 20 years later, more and more gay men are involving themselves in risky behaviors, such as barebacking and PNP ("party and play") -- much as they did in the 70's.

My overall impression from the film was that the promiscuous gay sex in the '70s, while fun at the time, is best left to the homo history books. And that "Chelsea Piers" would be a great name for a drag queen.

So perhaps one day I'll write my own "homo history book" about what it was like to have gay sex in the '70s. But I don't want to stop with just descriptions of acts and partners and settings. I'd want to show what came next. Sure, there was the scourge of AIDS, but for those of us who made it through it there was something else, too. We learned about caring for each other in new ways. We learned to comfort each other. We learned to grieve. We learned to stand up and fight back. We learned to be angry.

And somewhere along the way we learned about love, too.