Nostalgia for Gay Sex

The "Golden Age of Promiscuity" was funnier, quirkier and a lot more boring than some recent books let on, particularly if you were young, skinny and scared.


Scott Baldinger
September 9, 1996 11:00PM (UTC)

Lust, we all know, is such a nuisance, particularly for gay men who, like myself, came of age during the 1970s. Ruth Gordon, in the movie "Harold and Maude," summed up the era best when she said, "I see a flower, and I reach out and pluck it." The flowers were everywhere back then, in subway men's rooms, parks, cheap apartments, street corners, bars, baths and clubs, plucking and being plucked. Casual sex with a good-looking stranger was more than just a lonely night's expedience. It was both personal and political liberation, an empowering antidote to having been disenfranchised from society, the ultimate self-esteem booster (or destroyer, if one was rebuffed). Lust was something to be discharged, and on a daily basis. Chronic, unsatisfied lust was for losers. Flower power -- pollinate me!

Then came AIDS -- which gave sex its worst rep since syphilis was first contracted from sheep in the Middle Ages -- and a barrage of revisionist denunciations of promiscuity, led most vehemently by playwright/activist Larry Kramer. Now, years into the epidemic, three new books attempt to remove the mental condom of the last decade through nostalgic, elegiac views of quickies: two novels -- Brad Gooch's "The Golden Age of Promiscuity" and Andrew Holleran's "The Beauty of Men" -- and Douglas Sandownick's social history, "Sex Between Men." Whether relentlessly downbeat, like Holleran's book, blithely nonjudgmental (Gooch's) or psychoanalytical in approach (Sandownick's) each treats the libidinous impulse as the core of gay identity, as illustrated by the following passage from "The Beauty of Men":

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"Why are gay men so promiscuous?" his cousin had asked him one evening... "Because," he said -- thinking, Because sex is wonderful, and who wouldn't want to do it as much as possible? Because sex is ecstasy, and there's no ecstasy left in this civilization anymore. Because we thought penicillin could cure everything... Because, because, because, he thought, and then he turned to her and said, "Why do you smoke?"

However tinged with rue, this adroit defense of sex is bold and refreshing to rubber-addled gay psyches -- including mine -- and has brought on an orgy of my own memories of the period when cruising was king. Actually, I didn't have such a great time back then, and frankly, it didn't seem as if anyone else did either.

It was the promise of a brave new world that led me to come out in 1973 at the age of 16, and venture from suburban Long Island into the city, wearing a lambda pendant around my neck for all the businessmen on the Long Island Railroad to see, as well as platform shoes and a big "Jew-fro." I still had braces, which I was desperate to have removed, knowing that they would be a turn-off to anyone who cherished his genitals. (Intuiting the reason for my pleas, my orthodontist tried to soothe me by playing Stephen Sondheim musicals on his stereo whenever I visited his office.)

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I wanted a lover more than anything else in the world, but no one in that harsh city was interested in a long-term relationship with a metal-mouthed 16-year-old. So, like everyone else, I settled for the sex I could get. Frightened by the EST-initiation scowls of rage on the faces of men who frequented gay bars, I decided to find companionship through political activism and went to the now-mythologized Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse in SoHo. All I got there was someone licking my ear (aural sex, I called it) and a case of syphilis from a gay activist who I thought was Martin Duberman. (He wasn't.) After the doctor gave me a painful wallop of penicillin, he asked, "Are you a happy homosexual?" "Not now!" I replied.

For Lark, the middle-aged hero of Andrew Holleran's "The Beauty of Men," a secluded lakefront cruising area near Gainesville, Fla., is a refuge from this brave new world -- and the disease that brought it to an end. Even though he feels he is "a failure as a homosexual" and is depressed about everything -- from his receding hairline to the state of the nation to the fact that Angela Lansbury isn't starring on "Murder She Wrote" -- Lark still cruises or watches others cruise. Like a Stockholm Syndrome victim, his existence has virtually no meaning outside of the prison of once-promiscuous, now-AIDS-palled New York, where Lark finally feels trapped. His only respite from despair is sitting in a car at the Boat Ramp, waiting for someone to look at him with interest. It is the only place where he feels some communion with other gays, relatively whole and at peace with himself.

The very unlarklike Lark's funk reminds me of what a straight friend once said to me even before the advent of AIDS -- that "gay" was a misnomer; "morose" would be a more suitable name for the homosexuals he knew. Perhaps this is true because so many gay men struggle with what torments Lark -- the feeling that we are plebeians in the aristocracy of beauty. Fear of not being attractive enough, of being a lusting troll, is something that has pained not only your average Bruce, but even great gay writers like Thomas Mann and Tennessee Williams. But while Mann and Williams turned their unfulfilled desires into ruminations about the alienation and fragility of the artist (among other things), there is no transcendence in Holleran's extended kvetch. Because for Lark, after death and disease, not being looked at by a cute guy on the street is the most shattering of experiences.

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The filmmaker George Kuchar ("Hold Me While I'm Naked") once described this feeling as the unbearable realization that "other people are having more fun than you are." Not being on the A-list, disinvited from the party -- isn't this basically an offshoot of the fear of death itself?

"The Golden Age of Promiscuity" is the polar opposite of Holleran's downer. It recreates, without angst or any other emotional inflection, a Manhattan life of floating from chic cocktail parties and New York Film Festival openings to sex clubs like the Mine Shaft and various bathhouses: the Everhard (very smelly, I myself remember it being), the Club (too many pissing cupid fountains) and St. Marks (good ham sandwiches). But the book's good-looking, Gooch-like protagonist is so undisturbed by feelings of inadequacy amid this challenging milieu that he doesn't seem to have any feelings at all. There is no apparent longing or manipulative narcissism (like that of Mann's Felix Krull) or the darkly determined cruising of a John Rechy character. Gooch's hero is a flanuer, a would-be Rimbaud, who finds himself tied up in the baths one night or having his nipple pierced on film on another, but the reader never gets a clue as to why he's there to begin with. Holleran and company take note -- having good looks and talent has its pitfalls: The resulting lack of emotional conflict leads to an almost incomprehensible affectlessness.

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My own best memories of '70s wanderlust occurred one summer recess from college in the Central Park Rambles, where, waiting (and waiting and waiting) for some great sexual encounter, I took it upon myself to clear up the man-made spring called the Gill, which was clogged and stagnant at the height of the city's fiscal crisis. (To make this easier, Betsy Bartlow, the head of the Central Park Conservancy, lent me knee-high rubber boots, which soon became a fashion trend among other gay "ramblers" -- for reasons that had nothing to do with civic-mindedness). I remember being led by an older man I had befriended to the bloodied rock and t-shirt that William Friedkin left behind as a momento after the shooting of his film, "Cruising." This same friend -- whose name I completely forget, but who had some business association with Salvador Dali -- also regaled me with the kind of "Oh, he's gay" stories usually focused on movie stars. His involved people like Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo, who, he insisted, were lovers and had wild gay sex parties on Bebe's yacht. This he knew because he was the boat's captain, or was it the caterer...?

In Sandownick's "Sex Between Men," it is anonymous sex in parks and baths -- not gabbing or cleaning streams -- that creates community. The book's interesting scholarship, written with extraordinary sophistication, is mixed with sauce-psychological analyses of why guys like sex so much. (Sandownick, who is studying clinical psychology at Antioch University, offers up something neo-Jungian about looking for the other in oneself, although I kept thinking about what Lenny Bruce said on the subject: "Men will schtup anything: chickens... mud."). These elements are interspersed with vivid narratives of how men cruised and coupled in the '50s, '60s and '70s, turning "Sex Between Men" into the first of what might be a new genre: pornographic history.

As for my own pornographic history, sure, I could write a book, if they asked me (possible titles: "The Quick and the Dead," "Kiss Me Stupid," "Waiting for Godot"). But good sex is never funny, so why bother? The reality was funnier, quirkier and a lot more boring than other people seem to remember it being, particularly if you were young, skinny and scared enough to begin with, even before AIDS.

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Perhaps the very reason that I have memories to begin with is because I wasn't all that successful in my pursuits. I used those vacant hours to actually converse with other gay men, although at the time I would have traded all those conversations for a moment with the hunk lurking in that bush or hanging like a monkey from that tree over there. Talking with fellow cruisers mitigated the tension of the scene, the desperate desire to be good enough, to be a member of the club, the fear of rejection that hung over everything and everyone, in baths, clubs or the deceptively pastoral landscape of Central Park.

Another, even greater consolation for not having been as popular as I may have wished back then, before we knew about safe sex, is that (knock on wood) I'm still alive to cherish the other things that life has to offer -- collecting Fiestaware, for instance. Life itself, with all of its tortures and moments of ennui, during moments of sex and moments of no sex, alone or with some hot guy, is, when you think about it, the real party.


Scott Baldinger

Scott Baldinger is a New York-based journalist. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times and Out.

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