And now, a trip back in time to Gay life in Peyton Place….
“I found me a hot lover friend!” My friend Gary screamed this out one night as we passed him on “The Block” in front of the Church on Main Street. He had ridden his bicycle down there and it was stashed, hanging partially out of the trunk of a Mercedes sedan. It was one o’clock in the morning and he was leaning out of the passenger window as he smiled and waived at his friends as he left “The Block”. We thought he must have been picked up by an “out of towner” that night or he would never have been allowed to be so obvious.
But strange things could happen on “The Block.” His new Lover Friend could have just been an infrequent visitor to the Block whose wife was out of town. The guy may have just had too much liquid courage to be cautious. Gary was justifiably proud of his achievement. It wasn’t often a boy of 18 like, like Gary, ended up in a Mercedes. Well, on second thought, it did happen more often than one might suppose.
Friends and lovers were not mutually exclusive terms if you were Gay in the South in the 1980’s. The very thin line was frequently blurred and crossed. In that world, common sexual desires led you to make some friendships you wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to pursue. Everyone was looking for a little happiness and taking a few calculated risks to make it happen. There a was definite link to the amount of bourbon consumption and the amount of risk one was willing to take.
My first lovers were friends. We first tentatively, then actively, expressed and explored our secret, forbidden sexual desires. We felt safe because we both had too much to lose to be public. In today’s more vulgar parlance, we would be called “fuck buddies”. I much prefer Gary’s term of “lover friends”.
When I came back to town after college, I would frequently go out with my friends or on a date with a woman, claim to call it a night with them, then meet one of my “lover friends.” We kept sex and social interaction very separate. Or, at least we tried. Our other friends knew more than they admitted at the time. We all played the game. Everyone did. It was the original era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But Gay sex in small towns is incestuous. Eventually, due to too much booze and too close a proximity, everyone seemed to sleep with everyone else. And everyone eventually talked. That’s how I became aware of all the layers of Gay life in a small, Southern city.
A certain group of the married gay/bi men seemed to have arrangements to get together in the hot tub at one of their houses when one of their wives were out of town. Then they would have a few drinks and… No one ever officially told. But innuendo and gossip was widespread.
But the poorer boys had more challenges. They didn’t have hot tubs, but they had “The Block.” They had to worry about being arrested or beaten up on “The Block” or disowned by their religious families. Or being called out at the evangelical churches where their families worshipped a cruel and judgmental God–who miraculously mirrored their beliefs– then being thrown out and homeless. It was a complicated world with complicated rules. I only became aware of how complicated it was once I moved to my Grandmother’s old house in the Mill Village for a while surrounded by poor, judgmental, Pentecostal Holiness people.
I grew up in a small, southside Virginia town that called itself “The City of Churches.” There had to be more churches, per capita, than any city in America. These churches multiplied like rabbits in heat because their congregations kept getting into fights, splintering off, and forming more Churches. Every vacant store front in town seemed to eventually become someone’s “Church Home.” But none of these parvenu evangelical Churches carried the social clout of the big, historic Churches on Main Street.
My town also had, per capita, the largest proportion of closeted gay and bi-Sexual men of any city in America. Or so it seemed based on my unscientific “studies” in the early 1980’s.
I’ve often wondered how these two facts were inter-related.
One of the old line, upper crust churches was the cornerstone of “The Block” where gay and bi men cruised to meet each other for sex in the late night hours. Between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am, it was the busiest, most happening night spot in town. It seemed much busier than the heterosexual redneck cruising grounds along Riverside Drive. And it was much more socially diverse.
British society and the Indian Caste system are much less restrictive than small town Southern society once was– and arguably still is. People were born into these small towns and cities where everyone–white and Black– knew “their people”. Their place was established at birth and people would kill to keep their “places” in the upper echelons. We worried a lot about losing social positions and “what people might say.”
But there were no class lines in bed and no one would ever have called Gary poor white trash while they had their head between his legs. And they were quite beautiful legs. Twenty or thirty years later, Gary could have been an Abercrombie and Fitch model, but those were not our times.
Churches, Main Street or Store Front, were a major tool of social definition. Mostly the old families, college professors, social climbers– or the “out of towner’s” with big jobs– attended the Main Street bastions of the local Southern aristocracy. No store front churches for this group.
And the organists at these churches were among the highest ranks of the “underground” gay society. Of course, they never saw themselves as “gay”. They thought everyone just saw them as artistic and they tried to see themselves through that lens. And I don’t think any of the major Protestant churches had a straight organist. It was an unofficial badge of honor to have the most temperamental, artistic organist.
Even if they were the local equivalent of “The Boys in the Band”, these men would have died before they came out. They were, without a doubt, some of the most pretentious queens I ever met. I’ll never forget going to one of their parties and one of them explaining his quandray. He said: “I could never be openly gay. It would cost me too much. I would lose my job, my inheritance and my social position!”. One of my friends replied: “ So you’re afraid your sister will get both the double wide and the tupperware collection at the home place in Caswell County, North Carolina?”
Everyone knew these guys were gay, but they just couldn’t admit it. The whole town may have practiced “Don’t ask, Don’t tell”, but they still saw them as the Gay Aristocracy or the “A” List Gays. They were much higher on the Social strata than the hairdressers and florists- which most saw as the only other occupations open to gay men in the South in the 1980’s.
These boys would not have been caught dead on the block. They much preferred their “house parties” or weekends in New York, Washington or Richmond to sew their Gay Oats.
“The Block” was the one place the Social Caste System totally broke down. This was in the early 1980’s when AIDS was only something just being written about as GRID in New York and San Francisco. It was not thought to apply to a small town in Virginia. We were to be proven tragically wrong…
“The Block” ran from one of the big Churches on the corner at Main Street, down a declining residential street to the Sears Store, around another corner to a street parallel to Main, and back up to Main Street past the bus station. It was one block from the Police Station, but the Police tended to ignore it as too many prominent, married citizens surreptitiously “cruised the Block.”
The most visible people on “The Block” were the black drag queens and the poor boys with nothing to lose. They would frequently have an impromptu block party in the parking lot at the Sears store on a Friday or Saturday night. They were loud, raucous and enjoying the only outlet they had in a town too small for a Gay Bar. And the married men would cruise by and circle the block trying to pick each other up- or as the night got later- pick up one of the partiers at Sears. Sometimes, if one of the married guys had too much to drink, he might even be brave enough to pull into the parking lot and chat through his open car window.
This was the way the married gay/bi guys ended up with some of the cutest yard men, painters, plumbers and handy men in town. These guys didn’t need to have any real training in their official trade as long as they were available, accessible and talented at their unofficial trade.
I stayed away from “The Block” as much as I could and I never went by myself. It scared me too much. I preferred the house party scene where a gay guy would give a party for other gay guys and the gay underground spread the word. These were the only “official” parties where social position did not matter. Especially if you were young and cute.
Some of the wildest house parties were given by the male nurses. They had pursued one of the only other occupations emerging as accessible to gay men at the time, but it was still somewhat outre to be a Male Nurse. A lot of these guys were gorgeous in the way “clones” were in that era. Mustaches and perfectly blown dry hair like the stars of some of the porn films some of us had seen or like the guys in the magazines we surreptitiously purchased at “The News Center” downtown. Those were really their only role models and they copied them well.
The only problem with their parties is that they were so obviously trying to land one of us young, closeted preppy college guys in bed. Around midnight, you could always count on them playing Dolly Parton records and one of them emerging from the bedroom wearing only red bikini underwear and a vest. I still cringe at the memory of and can’t listen to Dolly Parton singing “Here You Come Again” without flashbacks…
But we met other guys who had other parties through them.
I met Gary at one of these other parties. And Andre.
Gary was the lover of one of my friends who owned a small business in town. But that didn’t keep Gary off “The Block.” It was his social world and he was the prize everyone wanted. He was in his prime and living in and for the moment. This was also before Gay men really embraced monogamy. Remember, it was a time pre-AIDS and just a little more than a decade after Gay men first fought back at the Stonewall riots in New York to be allowed to be freely and publicly gay. We were inching forward as much as we dared in the 1980’s South and true relationships still seemed an impossible dream to most of us. We didn’t have any real role models for monogamy.
Gary introduced us to Andre who was determined to become my fast friend, much to my fear and chagrin, once he realized I had graduated from Washington and Lee University.
Back in the 1980’s, Washington and Lee University, known as W&L, prided itself on it’s well-cultivated image as the Oxford or Cambridge of the South. Some of my less charitable friends referred to it as ‘that rich bitch preppy Southern boys’ school” as it was still an all male University that catered to the scions of the best families in the South. But there were no Gay Men at Washington and Lee. I now know that statement is false, but that’s another story. Let’s just say only I could manage to go to an all male school and not manage to get laid…
Anyway, Andre dreamed of going to W&L. He actually had a Washington and Lee decal on the back window of his car. The only problem was Andre was a gay, black man from a poor family. True, in those days, W&L was so desperate to appear diverse they would probably have written a check to any Black man willing to attend a school partially named after Robert E Lee. The administration may have meant well, but the students would have eaten him alive and thrown his bones over their shoulders on their way to cocktails at their Frat Houses.
Andre was a drag queen. At least part time. He worked in Atlanta and Richmond. When he wasn’t working as a drag queen, he worked at Thalhimer’s Department Store in the China Department. He saved his money and bought a full set of sterling silver, service for 8, that he proudly kept in a safe deposit box at the bank. He would go in every few weeks and just fondle it and feed his delusions of grandeur. He so wanted to be a rich, preppy white man. He told everyone he was “Spanish” and not really Black. Poor Andre had a lot of issues, but he was lovable and funny and totally over the top.
He scared the hell out of closeted, Southern WASP’s like me.
The other thing about these house parties is that you met some of the older gay men in town. They were more than willing to take sexually and socially unsure younger men under their wing. That’s how I met a man I’ll just call “The Politician”.
An older Gay man introduced me to “The Politician”. He was a man my older friend had met through his job and connections. “The Politician” was a very attractive man, in his early 50’s, who was viewed as a rising star by the Republican Party of Virginia. He came to town a few times a year to see this friend and always called me to meet him at his house. And I did.
Eventually “The Politician” married a very nice lady, for convenience and career, but it was a very open marriage. I heard through the grape vine, even after his marriage, he spent most of his nights in bars and bathhouses while the Legislature was in session. But he was a Gentleman and one of the sexiest, sweetest men I met during that time of my life.
But the closet walls were beginning to crumble and AIDS was the great social leveler.
We all tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. We all tried to pretend it wasn’t happening in our world. People like us just didn’t get AIDS. That only happened in New York and San Francisco.
We were so wrong….
Andre was the first to go. Gary spent hours by his bed at Andre’s grandmother’s little house in the “colored” part of town. “The Politician” went next. All the papers said “cancer”. Then so many more seemed to go so fast. There appeared to be a major cancer epidemic among young, single men.
Closet doors blew open all over the South no matter how hard families tried to nail them shut.
It’s now almost 30 years later. Gary has been in a relationship for 20 years. Some of my friends from those days are still my friends today– just not lover friends.
I came out years ago and let the social chips fall where they may. Most of them fell on nothing and no where. All the games we played, the energy we exerted on subterfuge and the pretenses really didn’t matter after all…
My partner and I have been together for 16 years now. We’ve marched in Gay Pride parades in North Carolina with the “Womyn of the Land” and had cocktails in Paris with former Sweet Briar College girls from my W&L days.
This world of “The Block” all seems so long ago and far away. And yet, like yesterday. It’s all part of who I am because it’s part of who I was…I’m just so glad it’s over.
Some of my former Lover Friends are still caught up in this world of subterfuge. Mainly guys of my class and background. They are married and drink too much and are still cheating on the odd weekend out of town, with the handy man or at the hot tub parties.
I wanted so much more for my lover friends from those days and I thought they did, too. For some of them, the old ways had gone on so long they just seemed so much easier than change. Now there is so much more at stake to them because of the house of cards that make up their lives.
But, I like to think “The Block” has shut down and most of the men I left behind found better options. I like to think young, gay men aren’t as scared, unsure and shy as we were then. I like to think married Gay men aren’t sitting in small towns at forty five or fifty five or sixty five second guessing their choices over too many drinks at the Country Club or the bar at the Holiday Inn.
I like to think Andre is sitting in heaven knocking back bourbon in Waterford glasses with the Politician while they look down and laugh at it all and how silly it all seems now.
I like to think young, Gay men in the South and everywhere, else don’t go through what we did and just accept themselves as how God, the Goddess or Nature made them- and that others do, too.
And I like to think that all the Lover Friends who survived this long and complicated journey, with health and sanity intact, just may be happy now….
Because I am.