Out in New York
In New York City for Pride, Lance Richardson discovers a colourful scene that’s a world away from its furtive gay past.
Now, say you’re a gay man arriving in New York City in the first half of the twentieth century, though the term ‘gay’ doesn’t exist, nor ‘homosexual’, and everyone calls you a fairy and believes you’re perverted.
You come from the corn belt – one of those redneck backwaters in the West – and you’re poor and young and lonely, but full of something you can’t explain and don’t want to stifle. There’s a dark allure in being different. Years later, Joe LeSueur will put it thus, talking about the great gay poet Frank O’Hara: “‘There are other reasons for being homosexual’—that was Frank’s way of expressing how relieved and content he was to be queer. What he meant was, going to bed with our own sex was just part of it, the great freedom we enjoyed assuming such importance that in his view it was more than sufficient compensation for being thought of as sexual pariahs and, in some quarters, as detested perverts. So we lived our lives the way we saw fit, and if it was our fancy to go gaga over a movie star, that was our business”.
Right now, however, before the Stonewall riots of 1969, you find yourself caught up in the clandestine maelstrom of Manhattan, picking up trade on the Bowery or in the bathhouses where Bette Midler will soon get her start; or trekking up to Harlem for grand, outré parties, filled with drag queens and black men. There are secret codes for so-called ‘horticultural lads’, different ways of finding your way through the world: red neckties; eye signals; favoured haunts, often in the Park.
And where do you stay? At the McBurney YMCA! That song didn’t come from nowhere, after all. True, this may be New York, but treading recklessly can land you in jail – or worse. Best to stay where the rules are as flexible as a pair of gymnast’s legs.
Cut to 2011 – July 24, to be precise – and you’ll find me strolling along Lafayette Street, heading south. Today is the day when gay marriage, now legal, opens for business. There are more than 800 couples corralling around City Hall to make their relationships official. Clutching fans and bottle of water, men and women in dresses, suits, kilts, and crowns, wait patiently alongside their witnesses and civil rights activists sobbing with joy.
A solitary protester – male, Jewish, dressed all in black – stands on the opposite sidewalk holding a sign that says ‘THIS IS A MISTAKE’. Under the collective chatter of a thousand jubilant New Yorkers his voice can’t even carry across the street. He looks lost, like a man who has stumbled into the 21st century purely by accident.
Now, say you’re a gay man arriving in New York City at the end of a long flight. It’s the present, sometime in June; you’ve come for the famous NY Pride Parade. Nobody calls you anything but mister – at least not in Manhattan – and most people believe you’re normal (though fabulous).
You come from Anywhere, The World, and you’re poor or rich, young or old, lonely or partnered. You know exactly what you are, you can explain it, even if people don’t want to hear; and you can embrace your difference in a melting pot of comradely understanding. You go gaga over movie stars and sit respectfully through sports. You’re the modern Renaissance man.
Again, you find yourself caught up in the maelstrom of Manhattan, though Brooklyn is a head-turner, like that little brother who suddenly grew up; and despite the decline of the Bowery and drying up of bathhouses, trade is abundant in the new ‘It’ neighbourhood of Grindr. Nor are secret codes quite so secret anymore: ‘top or bttm?’; a tank top slashed down both sides to the waist. It’s a new world, sure, but making one’s way is a piece of (low-fat) cake.
You walk out on a crisp blue Saturday morning and head to the West Village, where coloured flags make the surface of the world shimmer like a rainbow. The Pride Parade is soon underway, and it’s something like our beloved Mardi Gras, though more civilized, with less libidinal humping. That night you go to the equally-famous Pier Dance, recently moved from the original pier for fears it was about to fall into the Hudson River, creating the most glamorous mass-death scene since 1997’s Titanic. Red neckties are out, it seems, though red-framed sunglasses are all the vogue.
And where do you stay? At the OUT NYC. Brand new and immaculately decorated, the OUT represents the first “straight friendly” urban resort in the city, a far cry from the mid-century offerings of the YMCA. Think enormous gym, model staff, black décor and blue beanbags. Rooms open onto sunny courtyards, where patrons coo over cocktails like sybaritic whores (and love it). The nightclub, XL, looks like Tron and is run by a well-preserved diva who participated in Woodstock.
How much has changed. And yet the fidelity is there. To visit New York is a look to the future while giving the past a great big sexy bear hug.
[Pictured] Marchers at New York Pride Parade in June; the famed ‘straight-friendly’ hotel, OUT NYC. Photos: Getty Images; M. Biernat.
Rooms at the OUT NYC start at $99 for a sleep share, or $250 for a private. Go to www.theoutnyc.com.