Gay History: After Stonewall Clones, Closets and Codes

A work by Bill Costa, from the Leslie-Lohman collection. Registrar Branden Wallace traces the images of purity (white linen, smooth body) to the advent of AIDS and HIV. (Photo courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

Late June’s (2019) 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is making this Pride month a particularly reflective one.

But like a newly minted AARP member flipping through their high school yearbook, the modern gay rights movement’s “Big five-oh” moment brings, with its flood of memories, certain hard questions—not the least of which is: What possessed you to wear that?

“I have, fortunately, no photos publicly available of me during my ’70s platform shoes and glitter rock period,” says Joseph Hawkins, director of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives at the USC Libraries, who spoke with the Blade about how the things we put in our literal closet can liberate us from the figurative one (or keep us there).

“When I look at pictures of people back in the [pre-Stonewall] 1960s,” says the USC Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies, “there was an assimilationist viewpoint, where you wanted to look like a good citizen. I think of people marching in front of the White House, where they’re dressed in their Sunday best.”

“When the consequences of being an out homosexual were damaging to one’s life and career, there had to be codes to letting people know who you were,” observes registrar Branden Wallace, of NYC’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

Fashion, Wallace notes, “is a way to express one’s identity, specifically, for the time after Stonewall, when you had this bursting, where queer culture could actually be visible. They took their cues from things that were going on socially, and the trends in fashion, and also developed their own.”

Registrar Branden Wallace, of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. (Photo by Gonzalo Casals)

By the late ’60s, Hawkins recalls, “there was a lot of crossover [between the counterculture and gays]—ripped Hawaiian shirts, and ripped jeans. But later, that gave way that whole ‘clone’ thing, which came as a response to the term ‘sissy.’ Even within the gay community, a sissy would be ‘too’ effeminate. In the clone movement, the gay men were going to out-butch straight men.”

There was very little “humor, in these bastions of gay masculinity… seriousness and masculinity were the same thing. That opaque perspective on masculinity was also a mockery of drag queens and effeminate men. They weren’t really men,” recalled Gerald Busby, in a recent Blade article (“Of cowboy drag, cruising, and cocaine”) about the “cowboy” look he donned to make it past the doors of NYC’s Spike and Eagle’s Nest, during the early 1970s.

“It denoted seriousness of commitment to being gay and being masculine, as well as being decisive about what kind of sex you were after,” Busby noted, of the “alignment of costume and behavior… unmistakable symbols of sexual preference, such as blue or red handkerchiefs in left or right rear pockets of jeans, to indicate top or bottom.”

This exaggerated working class “clone” look, whether denim, lumberjack, or leather, Hawkins observes, was, in its own way, a “liberation ideology. Part of what allowed the sexual revolution to occur was this idea that masculinity could be a gay phenomenon. That’s what fed the ‘clone’ thing. It was a response to the idea that gay men couldn’t be masculine.”

Of his above-mentioned platform shoes ’70s look, Hawkins notes he paired it with skin-tight jeans, shoulder-length hair, and “an old saddle bag I carried. I don’t remember being ‘coded,’ though.” Working in an Office of Economic Opportunity program at the time, Hawkins recalls going on a field trip to Washington, D.C., when “a guy in my group turned to me and said, ‘Oh, girl, if you’re gonna sell that merchandize, you have to advertise.’ There were certain things you wanted to do to look gay, for people to know you were gay. You could walk down the street and catch someone’s glance. That was a different kind of coding.”

In the decades after Stonewall, Wallace notes, cloning reared a new head, and coding morphed with the mainstream, to the point of merger.

Sporting a well-groomed, muscled, manicured look and clingy shirts meant to showcase a sculpted gym body, the “Chelsea Boy” aesthetic ruled the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“I called it the ‘A-Gays,’ a standard that is unobtainable” yet desirable and pursued, Wallace recalls, also noting the Chelsea Boy look shared its time in the sun with “grunge and goth, the alternative kids who, no matter how hard they tried, could not fit in. So it’s amazing that in gay culture [of that time], you have the perfectly coiffed, and this side that just didn’t care, and was for all genders.”

There was also in this era, Wallace notes, “a drastic change in the photographic artwork. With the advent of AIDS and HIV, the art tends to go toward a smooth body, clean appearances. There’s usually white linen and water around. So artists like Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber are using these models for their purity; a perfect-looking body that is not possible.”

Nowadays, “anything goes,” Wallace says. “Beards, which you never saw in a Chelsea Boy in the 1990s, bow ties and sweater vests, and everything… I’m probably raw denim, wearing a T-shirt, got a big keychain in my pocket and a hanky and a Mohawk. That’s usually paired with a suit jacket or a jacket of some sort. You really can do anything now.”

“I don’t know why these things happen,” Hawkins admits, of trends and styles and looks that sometimes seem to defy explanation (he’s still wrapping his head around flip-flops). “Sometimes, in the middle of them, they make no sense. On the other hand, you look back and there are all these political and cultural cues. Maybe there’s an economic downturn or a wave of conservatism based on some sort of military action”—or, an event like Stonewall, which steps over lines in the sand while drawing new ones of its own. “Those things,” Hawkins says, “begin to infiltrate the way people think about fashion, and what they are going to do.”

Gerald Busby in cowboy drag, ready to cruise at the Spike and the Eagle’s Nest. (Photo by Joanna Ney)

Reference

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s