Readers’ Thoughts

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Gay Life Thrived Long Before Stonewall

 

To the Editor:

You state that one of your missions is “to preserve our history, especially the early history [of gays and lesbians],” yet you ignore a segment of early gays who do not fit, it would seem, into the convenient ideas of what life was like for homosexuals in the 1940s and ’50s.

In an article several years ago, Martin Duberman, speaking of his years as an undergraduate at Harvard, stated: “During that time [1952 to 1957] there were only two bars for men … and we would sneak off to them in terror of being seen by anybody. … They were terrifying times to be growing up gay” (GLR, Sept.-Oct. 2008). He also said, “My generation led miserable lives cowering in their closets.” Andrew Tobias has said that in his years as an undergraduate at Harvard (1965–1968) there was no gay activity. And Andrew Holleran said he was aware of almost no gay activity there when he was an undergraduate in the 1960s.

You have also published the stories of many others who have written about the Sturm and Drang of being open about their homosexuality, about their guilt and shame. These histories may make better stories than ones about those us who enjoyed or at least accepted being homosexual, who never felt the need to see a psychiatrist or to get married or otherwise attempt to become a person they were not intended to be. If the goal is to embrace all of our histories, then we should not ignore those who were openly and actively gay without shame or guilt in those early days.

We existed despite the lack of visibility. I wrote a couple of letters, one published in your magazine, one in The Harvard Alumni Bulletin, and a long article on the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus website, but my attempts to urge a bit of balance in the reporting of early gay lives has produced nothing. Perhaps presenting ourselves as deserving of sympathy worked. Certainly things have changed remarkably since I first became actively and openly gay in 1945, but shouldn’t the histories of a minority group be recognized by a legitimate history?

Let me give one example of this oversight. In the article by Martin Duberman from which I quoted earlier, he stated that there were only two bars for men in Boston and none in Cambridge from 1952 to 1957. A more thorough examination would have turned up the following, in addition to the two he mentioned, the Napoleon Club and Punch Bowl: the College Inn, the Novelty Club, Phil Harris’s, Playland, the Silver Dollar (a sailor bar but frequented by Harvard guys, including my classmate Frank O’Hara), the Petty Lounge, the Silhouette Room, the Chess Room, Midtown, 12 Carver Street; and, in Cambridge, while not exclusively gay, the gay-friendly Casablanca, Club 100, and the Stag Club.

There was police harassment, as has been frequently cited, but the raids were seldom more than a reminder to the mostly Mafia owners that they had missed a payment. At the Punch Bowl, as Mr. Duberman may remember, there was dancing in the basement, which was illegal at the time. On some nights the emergency lights would go on, indicating that the police had come in above us, and we’d better stop dancing. We thought— or at least I did—that dancing with a boy was exciting precisely because it was illegal.

As for there being no gay activity at Harvard in the ’60s, this is hard to believe, since in the late ’40s and ’50s there was plenty of it. Over the years I have compiled (with some help from other sources) a list of 66 gay boys who were at Harvard during my years of 1945 to 1951. Some of them may have been in the closet at the time, but clearly there was plenty of gay activity. And we had fun. If we looked over our shoulder, we were not fearing that someone might think we were gay, we were looking for the next boyfriend. I still visit with a couple of my gay classmates, all that are left of many that I used to visit or write.

For my 50th Anniversary Report, I wrote: “Having been openly gay for more than fifty years, I have led a different life than most of my classmates. But I have always liked being gay. Its rewards have more than compensated for its disadvantages.” I imagine there are few of us alive today who have been contentedly gay for seventy years. But we existed, so let us have our history.

Preston Clarridge, Fort Lauderdale, FL

 

Oliver Sacks Was Outer Than Alleged

 

To the Editor:

In a review of Bill Hayes’ recent memoir [Insomniac City, in the Jan.-Feb. 2017 issue], the late-in-life partner of Oliver Sacks is said to have reported that Sacks “had never come out publicly as a gay man.”

Prior to the New York period of his life, in about 1962, Oliver Sacks was living in San Francisco in a scholars’ residency for people in his profession. I knew him well. In those days, few of us were totally out. However, Oliver was out in the sense that he frequented the numerous leather bars of the time, using the name “Wolf” Sacks. I believe that was his actual middle name.

Back then, there were also a number of gay motorcycle clubs that organized a few activities of their own. Oliver had a bike, a BMW, that he and I would ride out to the local beach towns, where he loved to swim out quite a ways into the Pacific Ocean and back. We would meet constantly at any one of the aforementioned bars, where we were both well known. Another of his interests was weightlifting. He could lift a full-sized motorcycle up into a pickup truck. I suspect he held several records in that field. I do not think he had any regular “lovers” then, but he was certainly a regular in the San Francisco gay leather scene.

Bill Requé, San Francisco

 

If They Come for Any of Us…

 

To the Editor:

Citing the well-known Martin Niemöller quotation, “And then they came for me,” Don Gorton [in his Guest Opinion piece, Jan.-Feb. 2017]might have been even more forceful in advocating that we take action “when groups including Mexicans, Muslims, and immigrants are singled out.”

Aside from the fact that there are plenty of LGBT Muslims, Mexicans, and immigrants, each of us must vow to sign on to any registry promulgated by the Trump administration, whether we are specifically named as targets of such lists or not—just as when we AIDS activists were arrested and asked by the authorities, “Which of you is HIV-positive?” and everyone would respond: “We all are.”

Ty Geltmaker and James Rosen, West Hollywood

 

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