We all know that “coming out” is a process, although most of us have a defining moment from which we choose to celebrate an anniversary of sorts. Perhaps it’s telling your best friend, your folks, or attending Gay Pride Day. Mine was in bed with two other fellows talking about our fathers.
Now, I am not telling you this to be salacious nor to boast, but just to explain that I had a conscious realization 25 years ago that what I truly desired was not random sex but rather an association with other gay people. I desperately wanted to have the feeling of belonging. I don’t know if it’s true today whether coming out has the same impact on gay people as it did 25 years ago when I came out and stayed out. It’s hard to explain or convey the feeling of solitary confinement that being in the closet felt like to gay people a generation ago.
Back then only a handful of movies depicted gays and lesbians in a positive light. Rock Hudson had just died of AIDS and disparagingly cruel jokes were made at his expense. No gay character was on TV unless you count Billy Crystal’s Jodie character on Soap or Steve Carrington’s Dynasty character who became straight.
There was Fame but no Glee. Ellen DeGeneres had not come out. There was no Will and Grace. No constant media attention on all things LGBT. In fact there was no LGBT; only gays and lesbians. No youth groups, no gay-straight alliances, no PFLAG, no anti-discrimination laws, no thought of gay unions let alone gay marriage. Sodomy was illegal. All gay people were criminals and sexual outlaws in Utah whether we were doing it in the bushes or in our bedrooms. Salt Lake City’s housing ordinances prevented same-sex men renting one-bedroom apartments. It was pretty dismal but also exciting because it kind of felt like we were living in war time.
A generation ago, when I came out, being gay was nearly considered a death sentence. When gay was discussed at all it was almost synonymous with AIDS. The first time I had ever seen the word AIDS it was scrawled on a bathroom wall as an acronym for “Anally Injected Disease Syndrome.” When I told my family that I was gay they were devastated not because I was gay but they were sure that I would die of AIDS.
Actually it was the fear of dying young and never being true to one’s core identity that drove many gay men, including myself, out of the closet and out of marriages entered into as a promised cure for homosexuality. A generation ago men and women coming out were leaving wives, husbands and children behind in a grief-driven Sophie’s Choice moment. Many of the support groups that sprang up at the time dealt with gay fathers, lesbian mothers, children of gay parents and spouses of gay people all trying to repair broken families.
For those coming out 25 years ago there was only one entry in the phone directory under the word gay. It was the Gay Help Line (533-0927) created in 1975, and kept in operation by a variety of individuals through the years. The Gay Help Line informed those “coming out” of the few support groups like Affirmation and Lesbian and Gay Student Union at the University of Utah, the locations of bars, and also served as a suicide prevention line. One of the most harrowing calls I was told of was when a operator was thanked by a caller for listening to his anguished story, and then he heard a gunshot on the other end. A generation ago suicide was rampant, but only known among the friends and families affected. No one posted an obituary mentioning suicide or AIDS or being gay. In fact, straights kind of expected gays to “bump themselves off” at the end.
Health resources for gays, though there were several, were primitive 25 years ago. They included the Salt Lake County VD Clinic, Gay Alcoholics Anonymous, The AIDS Hot Line, Community Service Clinic, and the fledgling Utah AIDS Project and Salt Lake AIDS Foundation.
A generation ago there was a small, nearly underground, but vibrant gay community if one knew where to look. Without any true center of the community to help people with coming out, the bars and taverns of Utah offered a sense of belonging for those adventurous enough to maneuver the sponsorship system of getting into a bar.
A generation ago there were seven bars in Salt Lake City that catered to gays and lesbians, while Ogden had two. The Salt Lake City bars included The Sun, the In-Between, Backstreet, the Deerhunter, Reflections, Radio City Lounge and Puss and Boots. Ogden’s bars were the Blue Horizon and the Wall Street Journal.
These bars were not particularly “straight friendly” due to the fact that heterosexuals saw these spots as “freaky places.” In fact the In-Between kept a sign posted on its front door saying that it was a gay establishment and that if you are easily offended, stay out! The Sun was probably the most famous gay bar in the state a generation ago, and many straights, accompanied by gay friends, would go for the fabulous dance floor. Long lines formed outside The Sun waiting to get in and those in line often had to endure derogatory epithets hurled at them by cars racing by. Sometimes more than epithets were thrown.
A generation ago, while all the bars allowed both gay men and women to enter, patrons of the bars tried to keep them exclusive to one gender or the other. Puss N Boots and The Deerhunter were the most notorious. Puss N Boots was a lesbian bar and The Deerhunter was a levi-leather man’s bar. The ideas of “safe space” and “territory” were very important among people that felt isolated in the outside world.
A generation ago Salt Lake City boasted two gay bath houses that served as after-hour party places. Jeff’s Gym located on 17th South and 7th West, and Club 14 at 14th West and 2nd South. These places served as semi-safe places for gay men to meet and have sex outside of the parks and slough of clandestine toilets. These places also served as social outlets for many who would never go to a bar. Outside of Man To Man, which was Utah’s only Gay owned telephone dating service, the bath houses were they only places where gay men could go for sexual release. For many gay men, even those out of the closet, a “boyfriend” relationship with someone was simply not feasible due to society’s restraint on men living together.
A generation ago there was a dearth of places for lesbians to meet. Organizations were secretive and knowledge of them was strictly by word of mouth. Outside of Puss N Boots house parties were where women mostly met other women. A few social groups that survived the death of 20 Jacob Rue and Women Aware were Women On Weekends, Order of the Rose and OWLS-Older and Wiser Lesbians.
A generation ago the choices for recreation was The Salt Lake Men’s Chorus, the Gay Rodeo Association, Wasatch Leathermen and the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire. There were no other sports leagues, performing groups or organized activities.
While a generation ago there was no barrage of gay media outlets and no Internet, Salt Lake City did have what larger cities did not — Concerning Gays and Lesbians. This was a locally produced news and information program broadcast on KRCL. Also, since 1975 there had been locally operated newspapers or magazines in Salt Lake City. These printed papers could be found in all the bars and a few gay-friendly businesses such as the Cosmic Aeroplane, The Waking Owl Book Store and the Kite Shop.
And that is how it was a generation ago.