In a different time: Gay life, love and sex in the 1970s
Updated: October 9, 2017 at 11:47 pm
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[Ed. Note — In the Feb. 1, 2013, print edition, we’re profiling several topics related to gay sexuality in our annual sex issue. Read more about it in this issue’s Editor’s Note column.]
The 1980s AIDS Crisis changed everything — politics and activism, culture and community, sex and love. For those who lived before it, through it and after it, the AIDS Crisis marked a decidedly earth-shaking turning point — as an old world passed away, along with a whole generation of LGBT leaders and young people with it, and a new one was born.
For older community members, many memories of life, love and sex during the 1970s and how the community changed as a result of the Crisis’ onset are still fresh and powerful.
“God, what a decade,” says Don King, 70, of the decade that brought us The Village People, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Donna Summer.
There were complications and hardships, too, like coming to terms with one’s own sexuality, coming out to others or meeting other LGBT people and finding community. Until 1973, gay and lesbian people risked being diagnosed as mentally ill. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be until 2003 when private, consensual gay sex was decriminalized.
Coming to terms
For King, coming out came gradually. In 1967, he was married and eventually separated in 1971 at the age of 29.
“At the time, I was living in Durham,” he says. “My first occasion to go to a gay bar was with a man who worked in a wig shop just a block across the street from the newspaper in Durham that I worked at the time. I knew this wig shop because of one my fellow sports writers, his wife worked there.”
King says he and the man became close after he attended a party at King’s home.
“He was invited over to a party I had at my house that included primarily straight folks, but he came with the wife of this other sports writer,” he recounts. “I took him back home and we must have sat in front of his house and talked for two hours. He was the first gay man I ever really had a decent conversation with.”
Eventually, he and the man visited a gay bar in Chapel Hill, King’s first outing to such a bar.
“It was such a fine experience,” King says. “And, in the meantime, he and I had had sex. He was the first guy I’d ever had real sex with. Once my wife and I separated and I had sex with this guy, I realized where I truly belonged.”
Despite King’s newfound sense of acceptance, fears still abounded.
“At the newspaper, I never came out to anybody,” King says, noting most of his friends at the time were never out, either. “Being openly gay was rare, in my experience, especially in mainstream employment.”
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An insular social scene
At the time, the gay community was insular, but friendly — centered mostly around small, underground gay bars, close friends and private parties.
“I started getting more and more aware that there seemed to be a fairly large number of gay people and that they made accommodations for their own social lives,” says King. “Of course, that had been going on for years, but I was just becoming aware of it.”
Not long after meeting his wig shop friend, King found himself in Charlotte, a move prompted after a co-worker noticed his car parked at the home of the wig shop employee. The move, King says, was out of self-preservation.
In Charlotte, King found a more open community, though gay bars still played a central role.
“Oleens, was already open and was thriving,” King says. “The Brass Rail was downtown. My life in the early ‘70s revolved primarily around gay bars.”
Dave Webb, 57, was 20 years old when he began college at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in 1975. He, too, remembers the sense of community in the gay bars.
“The first time I went to Scorpios was in 1974,” Webb says. “It was amazing. It was affirming. It was exciting.”
Yet, like King, Webb still lived in silence among his straight peers.
“I wasn’t open and out to my roommates,” says Webb. “It was still one of those things, not like today with Lady Gaga and ‘Born This Way,’ that just because of the social norms there was still very much a sense, I don’t know, of doing something bad. I used to know guys who would go to Scorpios and back their cars into the parking space so no one would happen to notice their license plates.”
On campus, Webb and other gay acquaintances treaded lightly.
“I remember one of my roommate’s friends came over,” Dave says. “I didn’t know it, but he had seen me at Scorpios and kept asking in a roundabout way, ‘Did I see you in a club sometime? Maybe a club over on Freedom Dr.?’ It was very much coded. You were very careful.”
King, meanwhile, in his 30s at the time, says he had the good fortune of living in Charlotte with a first cousin.
“We came out to each other,” he says. “He and I would go out and look for husbands with each other — or dates, rather. Of course, we didn’t think about that cute little phrase, ‘going out and looking for husbands.’ We were just going out and looking for sexual partners and I was always jealous because he ended up with the best-looking guys in the bars.”
Sex without fear
Despite the fear of social rejection or, in worst-case scenarios, public or legal condemnation, King and Webb both recount a sense of comfort, ease and freedom in gay men’s sexual culture.
“Condoms were never used,” says Webb. “You didn’t need to use condoms. Yeah, you might get some STD, but it was usually something you could take a little pill and it would be gone in 10 days.”
Sex was ubiquitous and worry-free in the absence of significant health threats like HIV. Sexual freedom or promiscuity wasn’t seen as “dirty.”
“There was a freedom and there wasn’t a worry; definitely not the way it is now,” Webb says.
“There was so little concern,” King says. “The four things you did have concern over was crab lice, which you could get rid of with the stuff they sell at the drug stores, gonorrhea, which you can get rid of with a shot, syphilis, which if you caught it early enough you could get rid of with a shot, and the bad one at the time was herpes.”
Though herpes didn’t have a cure, King says society seemed to have treated it differently. “You were not afraid of it, with great reason. Herpes won’t kill you. People don’t want to get herpes from you, but it certainly wasn’t the deadly situation that came up with AIDS later.”
King adds, “It was a fun time. You could go out…and just have a ball. … If you found someone attractive, you didn’t worry about disease.”
But, King and Webb were the lucky ones. They felt comfortable going to the gay bars and clubs. Others didn’t, resorting to sexual encounters in public parks and restrooms.
Though Webb felt comfortable at bars, he says there was still “something oddly erotic about public sex” at the time.
“Some guys got into it a whole hell of a lot more than I did,” he says. “I was comfortable. The bars were there. Bottom line, I didn’t want to get arrested either.”
Other men weren’t as willing to be seen in gay bars. King knew of many men who would be arrested in public parks or restrooms. The men, he says, never could bring themselves to go to a gay bar, though he tried to convince them it was safer.
“I had friends who were frequent patrons of those kinds of places,” says King. “Of course, if I wanted to pick someone up, I’d go to a bar because I felt free enough to go to the bars, but there’s that’s other segment of society that has never felt comfortable going to gay bars and they still exist in some respect today and oddly enough there are probably a good number of people like that…who had no gay friends because they didn’t know how to make gay friends.”
A great time
Webb and King both have fond memories of the 1970s.
King, an adult well into his career at the time, eventually became one of the city’s most outspoken and recognizable activists. In the 1980s, he was instrumental in organizing and fundraising and building public awareness.
Webb graduated from UNC-Charlotte in 1979, eventually moving to work in Atlanta before recently moving back to Charlotte.
Looking back, Webb says he’s grateful.
“I came out when, thank God, gay bars were coming about,” he says. “I was young enough and open enough to go to the bars. I’m lucky I came of [age] during that age.”
Despite the later hardships of the 1980s, King wishes young people today could have lived during the 1970s.
“One of the things I regret is that today’s young people don’t have the same sexual freedom we did,” King says. “I lived in a great part of these years on this planet.”
“It was a whole lot of fun to go out in Charlotte in the 1970s,” he adds. “You could go out and let your hair down. You didn’t have to worry about a thing.” : :
more: This issue’s special coverage, Love & Lust, The Annual Sex Issue, continues online. Read exclusive commentary on the 1980s AIDS Crisis. Also, a special “From the Archives” reprint of a 1991 feature on North Charlotte’s gay hustlers and a retrospective piece 22 years later from its author. Read more at goqnotes.com/sex2013/.
Models: Gary Carpenter and Bobby Kerschner
Photo Credit: Matt Comer
Design: Lainey Millen
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About the author: Matt Comer was the editor of QNotes, first hired to serve in the role in October 2007, with his tenure ending August 23, 2015.