More Than Just Sex: A Conversation About an Alternative History of Gay Men in the '70s

Historians in the News
tags: Jim Downs, Stand By Me



“Falling into the easy trap of foregrounding sex has the effect of erasing the nuance, the richness, and even the messiness of people’s lives,” writes professor of history at Connecticut College Jim Downs in his new book Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (out March 1). The book exists to highlight the nuance, the richness, and even the messiness of people’s lives by offering an alternate history of gay life in the ‘70s. Though the years leading up to the AIDS epidemic are largely thought of as a sexual free-for-all (as depicted in the 2005 documentary Gay Sex in the ‘70s, and Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots), clearly there was more going on than just fucking, and that’s where Downs comes in. He doesn’t negate the idea that lots of men had lots of sex in the ‘70s, he merely supplements it. 

“My focus here is to correct the hypersexual caricature of gay men in the 1970s by exploring and recounting the everyday ways which gay men sustained an identity and culture. What happened when they got home from the bars?” Downs asks in his introduction, “What did they read? What did they think about? How did they frame their sexuality? How did they develop a vocabulary to speak about what it meant to be gay? How did they understand their identity as a way to create a distinct culture? How did they find their place in the world?”

He answers his questions by focusing on unsung figures and under-examined forces within gay culture (though his subject matter largely relates to white gay men): the fire at New Orleans’s Up Stairs Lounge on June 24, 1973 (resulting in 32 deaths, Downs dubs this the “largest massacre of gay people in American history”), the gay religious movement of the ‘70s, Craig Rodwell (whose Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore revolutionized the concept of gay culture), Jonathan Ned Katz (playwright and author of Gay American History), the Toronto-based newspaper The Body Politic, gays in prison, and the rise of gay macho or clone culture in the late ‘70s. Throughout the book, sex is rarely far from the discussion, though it never threatens to dominate it. I found it to be consistently eye-opening.

I talked to Downs about his book and driving philosophy earlier this week by phone. A condensed and edited transcript of our discussion is printed below.

Gawker: You strike an important balance in this book: You discuss the sexuality of your intellectual subjects. It seems that you wrote carefully so as not to neuter them. Is that right?

Jim Downs: One of the things that guided this entire process was the narrative of gay men being perceived as hypersexual. That’s a narrative that’s not just about gay men, that’s something that’s been pinned onto black women since slavery. There’s always been this understanding that oppressed groups can be recognized as hypersexual. I understood that as a historian, but at the same time I didn’t want to diminish the fact that gay men like Craig Rodwell, and others in the religious movement and other places, didn’t see such a conflict between wanting to contribute to the movement but also have a lot of sex.

I think what’s happened is it’s our reckoning of the movement we’re trying to understand. We’re trying to explain HIV, so immediately people latch onto the promiscuity narrative without recognizing that people in the ‘70s didn’t have a conflict with [it and broader cultural activity]. There was a common understanding that you should embrace your sexuality, you should have sex, you should feel liberated. But so much of that narrative of being liberated played into a stereotype about gay men’s sexuality that was then mobilized to explain the spread of HIV. ...




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