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The Age of Glitter

By Darryl Pinckney

Matchbooks from The Bike Stop, Cats, Uncle Charlie’s Downtown, Julius, Barbary Coast, and Bogart’s

Matchbooks from the collection of Darryl Pinckney. Courtesy the author

I don’t remember noticing when the riot happened in June 1969. I flunked geometry that year and was still in the deepest disgrace when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July. That autumn the politically advanced at my Indianapolis high school were whispering about joining the Days of Rage riot in Chicago. Just before junior prom, I’d gone on a double date to see The Boys in the Band, and my date smiled at what I was not yet prepared to admit.

I can remember the Gay Liberation Front at antiwar demonstrations. The group passed out leaflets dense with analysis and demands. Huey Newton had urged the Black Panther Party to work with the Weather Underground, the women’s movement, and the gay-liberation movement; nevertheless, to be gay felt as isolating on the left as anywhere else. It took me a while to understand that a Trotskyite group was trying to recruit me. My minder was exasperated that his black front referred to Angela Davis during a radio interview. She of the Communist Party ­USA had few open admirers in the Socialist Workers Party. I refused to attend any more meetings after he explained that homosexuality would wither away along with the bourgeois state because it was just an expression of its decadence. I auditioned for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the Renaissance choir.

In 1972, Joe Donovan—he had long, dark hair, a beautiful voice for madrigals, and would die of ­AIDS—announced in the corridor of the eighth floor of Hartley Hall, “This is the Age of Glitter.” Bette Midler’s hit record was playing loudly somewhere on the floor. She was free, Joe was free, but, so no one would see me, I took a roundabout path to the monthly gay dance on the other side of campus, as if there could be much question about a druggy, sodden black En­glish major in thick wire-rimmed glasses. For some reason, I dreaded the derision of black macho in particular. When I look back and see myself taking the back way around Low Library, in order not to happen on the cohort of future black physicians and black attorneys that once fell into a mocking silence as I passed, I am ashamed of my shame. Just before the United States entered World War ­II, my father got kicked out of Fisk University for calling the French teacher “a queer,” adding that he knew the professor’s name was pronounced Cotton back in Augusta, Georgia, where he came from, not Cotin. My father played football for Fisk, but not for Morehouse, where he ended up the next day, the day he met my mother.

Antiwar demonstrators march down Constitution Avenue, in Washington, D.C., during Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, January 1973. Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah, from Pride: Photographs After Stonewall, published in May by OR Books.

Antiwar demonstrators march down Constitution Avenue, in Washington, D.C., during Richard Nixon’s second inauguration, January 1973. Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah, from Pride: Photographs After Stonewall, published in May by OR Books.

I’d transferred from jock-dominated Indiana University because, in spite of the tribal judgment in my head, New York was the answer. I didn’t need courage, only my father’s money for tuition and cigarettes. Joe Donovan would just be arriving at the gay dance in Earl Hall when I was fleeing the green strobe light for Greenwich Village, my bell-bottoms spreading out on sidewalks—­and where are the platform shoes of Glitter’s yesteryear? I’d get crushes on strangers kind enough to stop and give me directions. I had a crush on a curly-headed boy in the bursar’s office who advised me to go to the Firehouse, the SoHo headquarters of the Gay Activist Alliance. I went to one meeting and guessed, decided, I’d never fit in. I think I’d been too friendly, too corny for their vibe, for a black guy with a big afro. Never mind, I was free at last, and no one knew me or anyone I knew.

I remember George Stade saying, in his lecture on Huysmans’s À rebours, “Try to imagine, those of you who are straight,” and the class was delighted, caught off guard, and I saw one of the nicest guys I ever made a fool of myself over also savoring the personal freedom of student life in New York, his head thrown back in laughter, luxuriant hair down the back of the wooden chair. It was 1974 and I wasn’t furtive with myself or anyone else—in New York. I was happy, in New York, and the Age of Glitter was also the Age of Discovery as class after class, performance after performance, revealed how queer high culture was. I was unwilling to unhook Mahler from Visconti and Mann. So who is this Alma? Collegiate parties were not like the bars in that one always went home with someone, often straight, and sometimes the gender was not predictable. In those days, New York was a dangerous city, and Columbia had trouble competing with other Ivy League schools because it was perched on a cliff overlooking Harlem and its housing was grim. An admissions dean told me they went for the weirdos, the kids who may have fucked up, but could do one thing like nobody else, had one gift that redeemed them. Many white kids were proud to be freaks and in that liberal university context gay was cool, okay, your bag. Here is my black gay friend . . .

The drinking age in New York was eighteen, and I didn’t go to Julius’—that packed Greenwich Village bar featured in the opening scene of The Boys in the Band—faithfully anymore. Soon an old hand, I went on weekends into lots of places and left each after a few minutes. My straight friends liked Peter Rabbit, at the end of West 10th where the black river waited, a Brechtian dive, as we saw it, of sawdust, real seamen, and talentless drag queens. I went to several places that were probably like Stonewall, and not just downtown—neglected, Mob-owned joints surprised by what gay and youth culture looking for space and cheap drinks had turned them into. Ancient regulars, neighborhood relics, old-time alcoholics, male and female, sitting across from the new clientele of benny and lude users getting their groove on at the pool tables.

The years go by, a history of different moods and different kinds of music, leaving me with one of the leading collections of empty matchbook covers from Manhattan gay bars and gay clubs of the 1970s. Gay culture was a parallel universe, an elite world, and before everything changed, before cocaine, before the life to come—I found in my father’s papers the draft of a resolution he must have submitted to an ­NAACP subcommittee in 1984 calling for support for ­AIDS patients who were losing their insurance—there were unforgettable, seemingly endless hot summer nights when Christopher Street hummed with the voices of boys, hundreds of boys walking around (not many women, it’s true, a divisive issue in the early days of gay liberation), boys hanging out, applauding Rollerena, an old guy in large butterfly glasses, a white wig, and a ball gown, weaving in and out of traffic on roller skates, tapping the hoods of cars with a wand, yelling back at teens from someplace who’d come to Christopher Street to jeer, and the boys answering back, kicking tires, their voices raised, not taking shit, brothers of Stonewall whether we knew it or not.

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