Sept.-Oct. 2003: “Americana” Issue

Published in: September-October 2003 issue.


The case of Lawrence v. Texas has been settled, and with it dies a legal monster that started life in 1533, in England, at the hand of King Henry VIII (as part of a drive to punish the Catholic priesthood!). The majority ruling expressly cited these origins in making the case that anti-sodomy laws have a specific history and are by no means universal—a fact that was brought to light in a 1998 article by Don Gorton in this journal (issue 5.1).

What made the victory so sweet—in addition to its broad affirmation of the right to privacy and its explicit refutation of the hateful 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick ruling—were a number of incidental factors that couldn’t have been better planned: the fact that the ruling came down just as Canada was busily legalizing same-sex marriage; the fact that it was announced on almost the exact anniversary of Stonewall; the fact that the case had originated in Texas. Ah, Texas! Where else would it even be conceivable in 1997 that the cops could come bursting into your bedroom on a phony 911 call ostensibly looking for guns, find you having consensual sex with another adult, and haul you off to jail? In truth, fully fourteen states still had anti-sodomy laws before Lawrence struck them all down.

One way to measure the progress of sexual equality is to chart the expanding geography of what might be called “gay space,” that zone of safety where it’s possible to live openly. In the early 20th-century, gay life was confined to tiny, secret establishments that resembled 1920’s speakeasies (as in Philadelphia: see Thom Nickel’s piece). By mid-century many large cities sported a street or strip where gay and lesbian life, albeit a rather sordid version of it, flourished—mostly at night. It wasn’t until the 70’s that the “gay ghetto” emerged as a pattern of residence whereby GLBT people would take over whole neighborhoods in the center of large cities. The most recent trend has been the migration of gay and lesbian communities to the fringes of cities and out into the suburbs and, finally, to small-town America.

Actually, gay and lesbian communities in rural areas can be traced back to the communitarian movement of the 1970’s. The Radical Faeries, for example, established a number of rural communes and retreats. Another expression of this was the women’s music festival—Woodstock-like extravaganzas such as the annual Michigan fest (see Bonnie Morris’s article), now in its 28th year. These communal experiments were marked by their isolation from non-gay populations and by their separatist ideologies. What’s happening today, in contrast, is that gay men and lesbians are forming communities in all kinds of places off the beaten track, ones that are well-integrated into the larger social fabric.

Take Appalachia, the region that conjures images of down-home unsophistication if any region does: it turns out there are thriving gay enclaves even in deepest West Virginia (as Jeff Mann documents). And who knew there were several large RV communities for lesbians near Phoenix (as Mimi Gerstell reveals)? or that Tulsa was “one of the gayest cities going” (in Alfred Corn’s words)? or that Waco, Texas, was once famous as the site of a would-be gay wedding that was raided by the police (in Buff Carmichael’s report)? Even Fire Island, now synecdoche for “gay resort,” started as an outpost of civilization that gay people started to colonize in the 1960’s and eventually made their own (as Felice Picano saw firsthand).

That a place like Fire Island has become altogether humdrum in its gayness—a fact that some people find depressing—is the flip-side of the fact that it’s now possible for people in Texas to be gay without breaking the law. While the Michigan festival has come to symbolize lesbian respectability and Pride Day has all the political edge of a Mardi Gras parade, there are still vast swaths of America where it’s challenging and even dangerous to be gay, where pioneers are still forming communities against all kinds of odds. The expanding frontiers of gay people’s physical presence in the world suggests that the whole concept of “gay space” is fast dissolving into the dark, smoke-filled mists of a bygone age.