03 July 2006

When Liberation Wasn't Liberating

(Jesus Christ said) "Some people have wings, but rush toward visible things that are far from truth. The fire that guides them gives them an illusion of truth. It will shine on them with a perishable beauty, and it will imprison them in dark delight and capture them in sweet-smelling pleasure. And it will make them blind with insatiable desire, inflame their souls, and be like a stake that is jammed into their heart and can never be removed. Like a bit in the mouth, it leads them according to its own wish."

In the 1968 movie Barbarella, Jane Fonda's character was imprisoned inside a diabolical machine designed to kill her with intense pleasure. Thirty years ago, Gay men seemed to be desperately trying to find a machine like that to use on themselves. I was reminded of that this weekend, when I saw a documentary called Gay Sex in the Seventies. Its focus was New York City in the years following the historic Stonewall rebellion of June 1969.

It was the first flush of Gay Liberation; homosexual men felt free to express their sexuality openly for the first time in American history, and man, did they ever! With the Watergate hearings, Norman Lear TV sitcoms and the Disco music explosion as a backdrop, they made the "free love" hippies from the '60s look like vestal virgins! Using vintage film footage and conversations with elderly Gay men who survived those wild times, the film goes into great detail about just how wild they were.

Interview subjects speak wistfully about scoring three and four sexual encounters in a single day, about prowling the groves of Fire Island for outdoor sex, and casual get-togethers that turned into all-night orgies. They speak about dozens upon dozens of sexual encounters in Gay bathhouses, public parks, pornographic movie theatres, and even on discothèque dance floors in front of hundreds of people. They'd actually have sex standing up, and then retreat to the restrooms so they could wash off the semen and saliva . . . ugh!

An extended segment of the film is devoted to chronicling the crazed sexual activity that took place around New York Harbor. Every night, hundreds of Gay men would flock to dangerous, vermin-infested piers in order to copulate with one another in the dark. Some plunged through rotting floorboards to their deaths! It was a risk many were willing to take in order to bag a cheap thrill or two. They also risked getting beaten, robbed or killed. One man speaks of stuffing a scrap of paper with his name and address on it in his jeans pocket. Why? So the police could identify his body "if something bad happened" to him. Yet, he always left his wallet at home as a precaution against theft! It was insane!

Abandoned buildings all over the city hosted late-night Gay orgies. Meat packing plants had to make their refrigeration trucks extra-secure because hordes of horny men started breaking into them at night and staging sex parties inside the cargo holds! As you might guess, much of this behavior was fueled by illegal substances. Cocaine and angel dust were the drugs of choice back then, along with copious amounts of "uppers" and "downers" washed down with shots of whiskey. "It was great," enthuse the interviewees, "until you got obsessed and couldn't stop." It was all about obsession, or more precisely, addiction! Addiction to sex, alcohol, marathon Disco dancing, pills, poppers and powder.

Some men realized that they were falling into a death trap and managed to pull themselves up short. Many didn't. Hundreds if not thousands succumbed to overdoses, various kinds of fatal accidents and HIV infection. That's what they called Gay Liberation! In retrospect, it looks like a bunch of sad human beings spiralling out of control. Who can blame the religious Right Wing for being appalled once they learned about this sorry scene? I'm old enough to have experienced the tail end of the Gay Lib era, but fortunately, I was able to avoid its more extreme aspects.

Everybody knows that Gay Liberation resulted in the colorful Pride parades we see every year in large cities all over the world. Fewer people know that it precipitated the greatest outpouring of self-hatred the world has ever seen. That's what was motivating the fleshpot atmosphere that took hold in New York City and other metropolitan centers during the 1970s. Heterosexual observers thought they were just witnessing Gay hedonism, but they were really witnessing what centuries of internalized homophobia could do to people.

It could, and did, make people commit suicide in public. It made multitudes of Gay men act out Yukio Mishima-style hari-karis using penises instead of Samurai swords. How else can you describe what they were doing? Those unsanitary sex-and-drug bacchanals were bound to lead to something catastrophic, and everybody knew it on some level. The more tolerant social climate gave them the opportunity to uplift themselves. Instead, they chose to degrade themselves!

Most didn't consciously understand why they were engaging in such mindless, lemming-like behavior, but in the end, it didn't matter why. Gay men had to deal with serious consequences and confront some heavy life-or-death issues. Those who survived came out of the experience profoundly changed. They realized that death by pleasure wasn't what they wanted after all. They began to value life. More important, they began to value themselves.

Despite the millions of lives it snuffed out prematurely, the AIDS crisis was ultimately a good thing for Gay men. I know how terrible that sounds, but I really do believe that it proved to be a force for good. AIDS was the hard slap across the face that woke us up and turned us off the path of self-hatred. We learned by necessity how to reign in our sexuality. We began to understand that intimacy was preferable to anonymity (setting the stage for the 1990s marriage equality era). In the process, we saved millions of lives, probably as many as we lost.

Now, as more of us embrace committed relationships, faith and family, and seek full integration into the larger society, we finally seem to be on the road to self-respect. We're certainly not there yet, but thank God we're not where we used to be! Yes, there are Gay men today who still engage in degrading behavior; they claim that dangerous, unsafe sex habits are part of "Gay culture" and argue that they have a "right" to practice them. Obviously, internalized homophobia is still a force to be reckoned with.

However, I feel confident that most of us no longer harbor a death wish. Those of us with a progressive mindset know that we can never free ourselves by oppressing ourselves! Self-destructiveness is not, has never been and never will be a means to achieve liberation.

I think LesBiGay folk are still trying to figure out what Gay Liberation really is. Knowing what it isn't can be just as useful. It isn't anything that leaves us addicted, afflicted and dead! A truly effective liberation strategy would recognize that we are God's children. It would incorporate the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. The Savior's message offers us freedom from shame and self-hatred, and His Gospels reveal our direct connection to the kingdom of Heaven.

How's that for Gay culture? Something that makes marching in a Pride parade well worth the effort! To me, being committed Gay Christians makes a lot more sense than subjecting ourselves to hangovers, drug withdrawal and indecency convictions, and it sure beats having to make those anxious, repeated visits to the Free Health Clinic.