Strangers in the Night

The following short quote is from a site on Facebook called Stop Homophobia:

It is a photo of two little boys sitting on a pickup truck tailgate chatting with each other.

Does your family say a prayer before you eat your food” one asks

The other replies, “nope my dads are gay, they know how to cook”.

That we have come a long way from many gay men being just strangers in the night is reflected I think in this little meme taken from a Facebook post. The entire LGBTQ community has definitely come out of the shadows over the past 70 years. The process though has certainly had its ups and downs since the Mattachine Society was formed in L.A. back in 1950. 

Since it is what I know best I will use the phrase Strangers in the Night as a metaphor for many gay men cruising for sexual hookups, largely in public spaces that were certainly not brightly lit, throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s and of course going back many years before that. It is still occurring today but at nowhere near the level as in decades past. There is much less need to be searching out Strangers in the Night. Mayor Pete winning the Iowa caucus with his husband by his side is ample proof of that though they did meet on a dating app. Perhaps strangers on the web have replaced strangers in the night.

In California in the early 1950s charges of vagrancy were used to arrest and hassle gay men having consensual sex in various venues often in public spaces such as parks and restrooms most often at night and very clandestinely. Another such venue was sex in the parked car. This is what occurred one night in Pasadena California to Bayard Rustin and two other men in the same vehicle. Bayard Rustin would go on to be a chief lieutenant of Martin Luther King and a primary organizer of the March on Washington led by MLK in 1963. As a result of Rustin’s arrest in 1953, he served 50 days in jail and was required to register as a sex offender. He died in 1987 following complications from a ruptured appendix. 

In 2013 Rustin received the Medal of Freedom post-humously from Barack Obama. Just last week he was officially pardoned by the governor of California for his arrest and conviction on “vagrancy” charges. Dare I say he was an infinitely more deserving recipient of the Medal of Freedom than its most recent recipient?  The pardon too was decades overdue. (H/T to Wikipedia for helping me to refresh my memories of Bayard Rustin.)

The phrase Strangers in the Night rather oddly made me think back to the mid-1980s and attempts, I think well-meaning and not homophobic, by the local Denver heath department to curb the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. The bathhouses, in particular, could have probably just been closed down as a public health hazard with even gay protestations muted by the rising death toll. I suppose it was a form of compromise that led to monitors being placed in the bathhouses and some bars to ensure that any sex taking place was “safe”. Better lighting was needed to facilitate this big brother intervention by the sex monitors so a standard was set for adequate lighting to facilitate this effort. I personally had stopped going to the bathes a few years earlier so I never saw brighter lighting and monitors at work.

I always thought politicians and health department doctors should leave the bathes alone. The tubs could and did provide a conduit for AIDS information, safe sex education, and free condoms. I do not however think better lighting and puritanical monitors facilitated any of this. The bathes as they evolved in the 1970s were a unique gay male creation and provided a much safer environment than the bushes, parked cars, and public toilets.  The search for strangers in the night was much safer in the warm and cozy confines of the bathhouse.