Originally published in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, June 26, 2002.
Orgasm now! If consumer capitalism thrives on delayed gratification, orgy rooms do not. And back in the1970s, San Francisco was just one giant orgy room, or so nostalgia would have us believe. Homosex was everywhere, and it seemed only Armistead Maupin actually had a job. Those were innocent times, when the aftermath of an evening of fellatio at the Boot Camp or fisting at the Slot could be undone by a good night’s rest and maybe a visit to the clap clinic. But within a short decade, the Edenic orgy came crashing down, straight into a swamp of viral death.
And yet even death can’t stop desire. Despite ongoing troubles with AIDS, and the queer community’s love affair with respectability, gay sex is back. A confluence of factors--some good, some not so--have resuscitated queer sluttishness. First came battle fatigue and the dawning realization that the epidemic was going to be around for a long time to come, so carpe diem, dammit. Then came the rise of the Internet; in a place like San Francisco, getting laid via AOL is as easy as ordering a pizza. (Assuming that the pizza delivery boy stands you up half the time.) The rise of new drug regimes has made HIV seem less threatening, even though it’s still plenty deadly. And despite all the rear-guard backlash against sodomy, the discourse around sexuality has broadened greatly over three decades. What was once unspeakable is now just more fodder for talk-shows. Queer As Folk is a hit. Sex, including gay sex, including kinky sex, just won’t shut up, though whether this is what Herbert Marcuse dubbed “repressive tolerance” is worth pondering.
In 1982, I was editor of the program book of what was then called the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade, back before “pride” changed from a deadly sin to a political agenda. On the very last page, there was a short article warning of a mysterious new disease that had begun cropping up among gay men. That was just before the deluge, before everything changed. Gay men, just emerging from millennia of oppression, were still fighting the battle against shame when--boom--the wages of sin became plain to see on the faces of frail men stumbling through the Castro. The unspeakable had crashed the party.
We began marching around in ACT-UP T-shirts that read “Silence equals death,” but in our heart of hearts there was the unspoken, ghastly knowledge that sex, too, could equal death. In the late 1980s, things got godawful grim on the fuck front.
We queers had once done our time in high schools where the good girls/sluts dichotomy held sway. But we’d broken free to become happy, proud sluts ourselves. And now, our enemies cackled, we were paying the price.
Buena Vista Park was defoliated. The bathhouses got shut down. As leathermen died off, the stand-up-sex backroom bars South of Market disappeared, too. Tumbleweeds blew down the empty reaches of Castro Street.
Sluts--those of us who survived--went out of style.
The threat of HIV was (and is) real and deadly. But the epidemic also was seized upon as a instrument of control, both by assimilationists within the queer community who wanted us all to behave like good girls, and by those in the larger heterocentrist culture who were both envious and repelled by men who numbered their sex partners in the dozens. Or hundreds. Or thousands.
Partly as a result of AIDS, many more men came out--always a desirable thing. But a goodly share of them were less sex-positive than those who’d gone before, and some young queers bitterly blamed their enforced self-restraint on men they decried as old libertines. And it turned out that the ruling class, too, had its fair share of homos, and not all of them wanted to rock the yacht.
Many Respectable Gay Leaders proclaimed that we were really no different from everyone else, that our pre-HIV carousings were just growing pains. That immature sowing of wild oats, they said, had been a symptom of the internalized homophobia that robbed us of self-respect.
Sexual radicalism was supposedly defunct, derided as another dead end of a failed countercultural moment. In place of the sixties’ genderflex hippies in the Haight, the seventies’ gay radicals, and the eighties’ self-consciously butch clones with poppers stuck up their noses, the new face of the queer movement was responsible folks making responsible demands. Gay marriage. Gay adoption. A place at the table. A place in the ranks. A broader, sadder-but-wiser queer community demanded every right that hets have, even the right to be boringly desexualized.
Gays began settling down in monogamously coupled bliss. Some moved to the ‘burbs, bought that BMW, spent their days at IKEA and the MCC. Given the large proportion of het marriages that crash and burn, it should come as no surprise that many of these domestic arrangements didn’t last as long as hoped. Some did, though, and more power to ‘em. As long as it stems from true mutual desire, not just from jealousy and fear, monogamy is a fine thing. Sometimes it even works out.
But not everyone longs to raise rug rats and exchange vows in church. And sluts should have rights, too. When Rosie finally, finally, finally came out, she didn’t do so for the sake of her queer brethren and sistren, nor as a challenge to straight hegemony. She came out for the sake of The Children, deriding as “gay Nazis” the more radical queers who’d urged to for years to come out. Thanks a whole fucking lot, hon.