One narrative that often frames our understanding of the 1970s gay liberation movement is that of unrestrained gay sex. And lots of it.
So much so the images that continue to silhouette the ’70s — book-ended by the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the first diagnosis of the AIDS virus in 1981 — are usually highly sexualized snapshots. There are, of course, the familiar Tom of Finland drawings, showing the infamous macho “clone” — all handlebar mustaches and tight black leather — coupled with the recent retellings of gay liberation popularized in films like “Milk” (which used younger, predominantly white actors, often fornicating) and documentaries like “Gay Sex in the 70s,” which similarly glamorized the sex of the era. Unfortunately, these popular representations usually only reaffirm the misconceptions about the rich political and cultural terrain born of gay liberation.
This is perhaps why Jim Downs’ “Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation” proves such a necessary intervention into these narratives. Downs, an associate professor at Connecticut College, interrogates the cultural, political and importantly, religious landscape of American gay liberation, masterfully demystifying the many myths that continue to frame the way we understand the movement. Underpinned by a rich trove of archival material, Downs mobilizes these unseen or sometimes unheard-of artifacts to demonstrate just how 1970s gay America was far less sex-fueled and much more politically engaged than we think. Instead, Downs argues, the decade was an invigorating time when many young gay men embraced religion in their quest for self-knowledge, while others took solace in queer literature in effort to reconnect with their already fraught and shamed history.
“Stand By Me” powerfully opens with a little-known story of the “largest massacre of gay people in American history.” In New Orleans, on June 24, 1973, a fire burned out of control at a gay bar in the city and killed 23 of its occupants. A number of small gay newspapers reported on it, while even fewer mainstream newspapers did. Downs uses this tragic event not only to demonstrate how America’s early gay history was actively self-recorded, but also as a metaphor to show how so much of gay history can be “purposely erased from … historical record and from public memory.”
In uncovering important stories from the experiences of gay men, Downs then moves to retracing the history of early newspapers that flourished at the time, reflecting on how these publications generated a new and important discourse of self-representation among gay men. The newspapers that proliferated, including the Advocate and the now-defunct Body Politic, “helped promote a deep sense of culture of community among gay people in the United States.” Many of the publications sought to dismantle the overrepresentation white gay men had in the liberation movement, delivering countless op-eds and politically engaged commentaries on the ways women and people of color were being pushed more to the fringes of the liberation movement.
After Downs maps this growing self-awareness in the gay community, he soon shifts gears and delivers a convincing assessment of the rife “clone culture” that continues to define much of the gay community of the time. So much so that the circulation of Tom of Finland images — those infamous black-and-white sketches of white muscular men, many in leather and cop caps — continue to be cited and reused as primary artifacts from the time. Downs deftly argues against favoring the clone stereotype, asserting that the “whiteness, masculinity, and muscularity” of the clone continues to “ma[ke] many men forget the history of the 1970s.” He counters the widespread and insidious presence of the gay white clone in LGBT culture with an exploration of “effeminism,” an important but often overlooked political act that celebrated diverse gender identities and showed men “thinking hard about how certain male … postures codified patriarchal power.”
The sheer act of Downs’ acknowledging that not all gay men subscribed to the popular “three Big Bs” of the time — “the Bars, Beaches, and Baths” — and found their identity validated and articulated through the communal practices of Christian worship and cultural hubs (like the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop) is a refreshing and invigorating experience. “Stand By Me” proves a deeply moving read, one that passionately and urgently argues for us to acknowledge some of the forgotten history of gay liberation. Often it is more important to look at the gaps left by gay history — a narrative already fraught with breaks and missing voices — rather than to simply acknowledge the existing narratives that define the times