The book is States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980). It's something White's publisher (E.P. Dutton) wanted him to write after his collaboration with Dr. Charles Silberstein on The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), a book which honestly could only have been written during the 1970s. Nowadays, of course, the information that we used to look at gay guides for is available online in lots and lots of places, but in the 1960s and 1970s, you needed a guide to tell you where gay men were accepted as customers and which establishments welcomed your business. No, it wasn't really obvious in most American cities.
So a brief history of the gay guidebook before we examine what White has to say about gay life in the cities (don't worry, he does five pages of self-criticism at the end of the book in which he beats himself up for no Lesbians, no small-town or rural gays, no gay Asians, no gay Jews [that's not exactly true], and a distorted view of what he DOES see). However, it's not like gay life in these United States had ever been written about in quite this way before. Bear in mind, there were access issues in the late 1970s, so this is probably a good place for a picture of Edmund White from 1980.
Follow me below the great orange, um, wristband for my idiosyncratic take on his idiosyncratic take on things.
There may have been earlier lists (the archivists and I looked for them at one of the leading LGBT research libraries in the country and we couldn't find them), but the first guide I knew about was Bob Damron's guide. By the mid-1960s, there were enough gay bars in enough parts of the country for Bob Damron to issue some pocket-sized lists. Simple codes: D meant dancing, P meant private, YC meant young crowd, G meant Lesbians, R meant restaurant, C meant coffeeshop, P meant private. Then, there were the "secret" codes which required the kind of knowing James McCourt writes about. S (Shows, as in drag), SM (Some Motorcycle, for leather bars), RT (for hustler bars), and PE (Pretty Elegant [and we all knew that P didn't mean Pretty] for bars where a suit and tie would be appropriate, like the now defunct Candy Store on 56th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in New York). Popular bars were distinguished with an asterisk.
In the 1965 guide, 68 gay bars and restaurants were listed for Los Angeles and its environs. The 1966 guide listed 68 men's bars alone, 15 restaurants, 4 Lesbian bars and 2 bathhouses. Several of the listings even saw me during the '70s and '80s: The Hub (now gone -- a basic cruising bar) and the Four Star in West Hollywood (the Four Star was actually our bar of choice when we lived up the hill between 1980 and 1983; after a fire, it was reincarnated as Micky's and that's still very much in existence), and I honestly don't think there are that many bars in greater Los Angeles today. Damron's guides stayed nominally pocket-sized (rear jeans pocket, at least) but it got bigger and bigger, and now it's online with all the interesting features behind a paywall. but who really needs it with sites like this or this or this (although I have problems with a site that pretends to review gay bars when over half of the reviews are by hetero women in their 20s).
But I digress. There were lists, and you could decipher the code, if you really needed to. In Boston during the summer of 1971, which bar you went to depended on the night, and we only went to three bars anyway: The Other Side (dancing) Thursday night, 1270 (behind Fenway Park - dancing) Friday and Saturday, and Sporter's (across the street from Mass General Hospital - no dancing) Sunday. No lists necessary, you just knew. They're all gone now.
There were other books, which I just don't have enough information about beyond my own faulty memory, during the 1970s, but White's was different, since it wasn't really a guide per se, it was an attempt to tell his readers what gay life was like in America's big cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Chicago, Minneapolis, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.). When the book was published, I was familiar with five of them, and White does a very decent job with those.
Los Angeles first, because he starts with it, and he actually figures out the city:
Only after a few days in Los Angeles did I discover I'd been taken in by false advertising. Angeleans are as frantic as anyone. They work long hours for money and status, the twin gods of the city . . . People develop ulcers, suffer from hypertension, drug themselves into sleep, shake with job anxiety -- and assure you they're laid-back. Whereas in New York you're obliged to tell friends you're overbooked even when you're idle, in Los Angeles you tell them you're relaxing by the pool even when you're huddled in your study over four phones and a desk full of contracts.Exactly. The days I had to talk to someone in New York (this would be in the early 1980s, right after the book was published) I'd get to work before 7, because if I waited until 9 there would only be a small window between 11:30 and noon otherwise, and New Yorkers left the office as soon as they could, especially in the summer where you couldn't reach them after 9 AM Pacific.
He talks about the gay neighborhoods, identifies four restaurants (three not especially gay) the bars (acceptable to go at ten PM because they close at 2 AM). None of the ones he mentions are still there. The Blue Parrot, where he says you can pick up the guys who snubbed you someplace else earlier was a great neighborhood type bar when we got to LA in 1980 but it closed soon after and morphed into a video bar called Revolver, which was also fun. It's gone now too. Then he gets rapturous over the 8709 Baths. VERY restrictive policy (I never went, because I had already done the flat stomach test for another sex club, and I wasn't about to ask people for a referral, and besides, there were other places to go plus I didn't need my companions to be pre-screened), but, well, he's Ed White. It's his L.A. It's not really mine.
His San Francisco is even less mine, although he gets to the cabdrivers and supermarket stockboys with doctorates within the first three pages. He goes to the Castro (it is what it is), and the Haight, and the leather bars on Folsom:
At the Black and Blue the customers are so butch they swill Perrier water right out of the bottle (the bartenders jam the lime down into it).And then there's this observation, which dovetails with my perceptions:
Without a doubt many gay men are the worker ants of our reviving cities. They deserve credit for having made our inner cities safe and attractive centers once again.But yes, Latino gays can feel oppressed. It's a relatively sensationalist view of the city (no Lion Bar? Just because it's not in an especially gay neighborhood? No bathhouses without "special" facilities? They were there and a lot more popular than the places White mentions, but, then again, Michel Foucault didn't go to Ritch Street or Dave's) but it's no less true than what I remember.
Boston? "A talk shop." Gay men live in the Back Bay, on Beacon Hill, and in the South End, but in one of those neighborhoods is the concentration great enough to speak of a "ghetto." No bars, but a book group where they all read Dancer from the Dance when it came out, and then discusses pedophilia (because of an incident in Revere that involved thirteen to fifteen year old boys). Key West isn't Fire Island South yet because it's a real town with great weather where everyone goes to the end of Duval Street each night to look at the sunset. But it's fun, just be careful.
And then there's New York. Complex, allowing specialization. Pretty close to James McCourt's New York, just updated. Many, many different New Yorks contained on Manhattan Island. White troops out the neighborhood stereotypes: The Upper East Side Queen lives beyond his means and pretends not to know his way around Greenwich Village (Michael in The Boys in the Band), the Upper West Side gay is essentially the Castro clone, New York edition (although I contend that the "clone" look was actually created at Uncle Charlie's North, in the east 70s), the Brooklyn Heights gays are partnered and can't lure their Manhattan friends across the East River more than three times a year, and Greenwich Village is the gay ghetto
though in a city where one out of every four men is homosexual the term doesn't mean much.Bars? Not so much. Sex centers: Flamingo, the Anvil, the St. Mark's Baths (I liked it the few times I went there), and the Mine Shaft, and he describes the scene at each in some detail. It's not exactly my New York but it's recognizable the New York that people wrote about in Christopher Street and magazines like that.
If I've been mean or dismissive to White it should not detract for my enthusiasm for the book, and please don't take this as anything but a recommendation. It's like James McCourt's books because it teaches you about a decade, this time the 1970s. White's book isn't as encyclopedic as Mc Court's and it's a lot more expansive in terms of the variety of people and cities he discusses. Plus, White writes very very well. In Minneapolis, he talks to a baker with roots in Northern Wisconsin who moved to the city because he almost never met any gay people, and his take on that is
It occurred to me that one aspect of oppression is that it tends to force gay singles to live in the city. No hardship on those who love urban life, but painful for those who hate it.Perceptive, too.
The line that has stayed with me for the thirty-two years since I read the book for the first time, though, is from the New York chapter, when he's discussing the fact that in New York friendship is friendship and you don't have sex with your friends (see my diary Literary LGBT History: Dancer from the Dance for a gloss on this from the same period). The friend he's discussing is an older man who falls asleep when the conversation drifts away from the subject of love. White describes the older man's apartment:
a dozen clocks in as many voices chime out the hour; family photos, some a hundred years old, crowd the top of the desk, artificial flames rotate within the useless fireplace; the needle lifts from an old Peggy Lee record and falls on an older Zarah Leander record.It has taken me this long to investigate Zarah Leander. I know why now, and I'm not sure you'll be ready for this, but here she is singing Burt Bacharach:
For the decade of gay liberation and a report on how the first ten years worked out, you can't really do much better than this. Besides, White and I went to the same doctor (his description in The Farewell Symphony of a visit to this doctor matched the way I remembered his office and his dogs --King Charles Spaniels -- exactly).
It's difficult to believe I'm writing this thirty-two years after the book was published. Perhaps this is one of my recovery efforts too. Maybe we should reminisce in the comments.