Winter Dreams: “Sexual Awakenings”

Published in: January-February 2022 issue.

THIS ISSUE’S THEME has a subtitle: “The postwar origins of LGBT sex culture.” The “sexual awakenings” of the title are ones that began to stir after World War II and culminated in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s true that everyone woke up to sex in a new way in this era after a long slumber, but developments in the LGBT world were always on a separate track, albeit one that intersected with the cultural mainstream at critical points. The illegality and taboo nature of homosexuality meant that developments in socializing and sexualizing would happen in a more furtive realm, but this pariah status undoubtedly freed gay culture to seize the vanguard when it came to sexual self-expression.

            By “sex culture” I mean the movies, the books, the venues, the technologies for hooking up that are in general use at a given time. Today we have Grindr and Scruff and pornographic apps and websites for use on devices large and small. Back in the 1950s, the technologies that make today’s sex culture possible were a distant dream, and the U.S. was in the “Scare” years—first the “Red” and then the “Lavender,” when homosexuals were singled out as public enemies whose lives could be destroyed if their secret was exposed.

            And yet, it was in this era that LGBT forces were stirring for both political and sexual liberation. It is the latter that concerns us here: the origins of indoor cruising venues; the rise of live-action gay movies; the birth of gay sexuality as a subject of study and discussion. To those who insist that bathhouses and pornos represent the underside of gay culture, Jeffrey Escoffier argues here that porn played a crucial role in the creation of gay identity by presenting, and legitimizing, the very thing by which that identity was defined.

            In an interview, Escoffier shows how porn began organically in the ’60s when amateurs with home movie cameras started writing scripts—there had to be a plot!—that allowed men to get naked together and eventually to touch, to become aroused, and to have full-on sex (by the mid-1970s). But viewers needed a place to watch these films—this was long before VHS—so the gay arthouse was born. The first ones arose in New York and San Francisco, where an entrepreneur named Shan Sayles led the way, as documented here by Finley Freibert.

            Meanwhile, the Sexual Revolution was in full swing in the larger culture, and gay themes even found their way into mainstream films. James Gilbert maintains that Midnight Cowboy (1969), which is widely seen as an early “bromance,” depicted a highly charged relationship between a bisexual hustler and a lonely misfit who’s desperate for love. Going back in time, John Copenhaver looks at the noir films of the 1940s and finds an LGBT prototype in the femme fatale figure who inhabited this world. It was all about slipping through the straight male straitjacket and finding a way to be free.