I still remember when I first came out. It was 1988, I was 19 and the world was both a wondrous and scary place for gay men.
If the modern-day gay movement had started in the late sixties with the Big Bang of drag queens rioting at the Stonewall Inn (I still think that’s a rather exaggerated claim, but more on that some other time), the gay men of the 70s had taken that and turned it into a universe of gay culture, art, music and social trends and traditions. No longer hiding in mafia-run bars with no running water or proper fire exits, gay men now proudly ruled the streets of Greenwich Village in New York, The Castro in San Francisco and West Hollywood in Los Angeles. My own new-found home of Toronto had an area called periodically “Mollywood” (after Alexander Wood, the man who had originally owned the land it stood on), Vaseline Tower (after the phallically-shaped and unfortunately-named “Village Green Tower” on Alexander Street) or Boy’s Town. It stretched down Church Street between Bloor and College Streets with the intersection of Church and Wellesley at the epicenter and became a bustle of activity for the gay community for years.
But it wasn’t all rosy.
It was, after all, 1987 and HIV was ravaging the gay men half a generation ahead of my peers and me, the American (and to a lesser extent, Canadian) political right had discovered that cashing in on the fear of “AIDS” and the gay men who were hell-bent on giving it to your kids was a lucrative industry.
Going to gay bars was both exciting and maybe just a touch jarring if you took everything in.
Komrad’s, my favorite dance hangout, was packed to the rafters from 9PM every night until long after the other bars closed. Young gay men (the drinking age in Toronto was 19), exploded with a new-found sexual energy and freedom. We’d date, hook up with our friends and guys we met while hanging on the “famous steps” outside The Second Cup, a coffee place on Church Street. Up the street half a block, we’d maybe get dangerous and meet anonymous sex partners in the shadows of Cawthra Park. The internet was still just a way for college students and government employees to access text files. There was no such thing as a hookup website. No cell phone apps to GPS the closest horny guy. Fuck that, we didn’t even have cell phones (there were car phones but only ultra-rich douchebags and pimps had those).
If you wanted to get laid or make friends or even find out what your friends were up to… you had to go out.
And out we went. Just about every night. To dance, to get laid, to make friends or just feel a connection to the vibrant gay community that made the neighborhood reverberate at all hours. Even to just sit around with my circle of close buddies over a beer and a shared plate of nacho chips.
But if you really looked around, you’d notice something. Something a bit off. Something missing.
There were a lot of men my age, 18-25. And there were plenty of mature men in their 40s and above. But there was an odd black hole that occupied the gap. Very few men mid-twenties to late thirties. Many, sadly, had died of AIDS and the rest were either in hiding, had raced back into the closet and the suburbs or were just unable to take the loss of their friends and peers and didn’t venture out.
Many of the men who’d created the culture weren’t around to enjoy it. Those of us looking for role models had to look not one but two generations back. Those of us who were coming out in the late 80s had our own pop idols. Madonna, George Michael, Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Taylor Dane and Lisa Stansfield ruled our dance floors and poured out of our beach boom boxes. The older men were uninterested in our music. They preferred the songs of the more classic Broadway divas like Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and of course Judy Garland.
The old guys LOVED Judy Garland. Of course they did.
When they had come out 20 or so years earlier, Judy was still alive, still one of the most popular female pop singers ever, and her “crying on the inside while joyously singing and smiling on the outside” style was in lockstep with a generation of gay men who, in the 60s, had to live a life of public hetero-normalism while keeping their dark, sexual secrets hidden from public view.
She was also possibly the only A-list star who would acknowledge her gay fan base. That endeared her to a generation of men who just wanted to be loved by a mother figure, openly and without judgement. Those fans were fans for life.
So when my generation came looking for our father figures at the piano bars, the book clubs or political action organizations, we were also given crash courses in all things Judy. I remember being attracted to an older man that worked as a manager at a bar where I was a waiter. Yeah, he and I shagged every chance we got but in the morning I would be served Judy Garland music with my coffee and pastries.
It got a bit irritating when straight people would condescendingly talk about Judy Garland when the word “gay” was mentioned. For a young guy like me, it was 60s old-school and not even the cool 60s old-school like Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. It was the music my mom liked. But because the segment of the gay community that thrived on Donna Summer, ABBA, Olivia Newton-John and Barbra Streisand’s disco phase had gone missing, the most “out” and established gay men were still living on a steady diet of “Live At Carnegie Hall.” So that’s who the straight mainstream culture thought we “all liked.” They were also in that mindset that all gay men were the same.
When men my age wouldn’t know some Judy Garland song or movie or piece of trivia and some bitter old gay man would spit “and you call yourself a homosexual” at us like being gay required lessons and an oral exam of some sort. Like it wasn’t enough to be turned on by having sex with guys. We had been cast out of our high school cliques for not being masculine enough and now we were being graded on how – for lack of a better word – “feminine” we could be.
Without the 70s Disco men, the New Wave boundary-pushers or the early 80s “Guppies” to pass on their culture to the new generation of gay men, gay culture didn’t really evolve much. It devolved. We went back to having Judy Garland being “The Icon” of gay men. We were not gay men, we were devo. Or something.
The oddest Judy Garland reference I ever read was when a straight porn company tried to launch a gay porn site of Jenna Jamieson’s “favorite” gay porn movies.
The marketing campaign claimed that “gays love Jenna” and said that they held her in high esteem along with other gay icons “like Judy Garland and Liza Minelli.” I guess someone should have clued them into the fact that gay men weren’t jerking off to pictures of Dorothy Gale or Sally Bowles.
My generation was certainly hit hard by AIDS, I lost count of how many funerals I went to and how many casual acquaintances I would realize I hadn’t seen in months or a couple of years. But because the message of condoms and safer sex had been driven into our skulls by gay men’s health care organizations and community centers, we were much more likely to protect ourselves.
Coupled with how many of us had to look literally into the face of AIDS as it served us our nachos at Toby’s on Church Street, we were the proud Safe Sex generation.
But… in the mid-t0-late 90s, we started to see our beloved Church and Wellesley intersection be crowned not by the vaguely homoerotic beer and jeans and underwear billboards that stood on the roofs of the corner business, but huge ads that depicted a handsome, strong, rugged man in his 30s, climbing a mountain or playing sports. These were ads for what we hopefully called “AIDS Drugs.”
Protease inhibitors had been approved to treat HIV. And they worked.
A few of my friends who had quietly given away all their possessions and spent their life savings to spend their few remaining months on the beach in Miami began to reappear… healthy and… planning a life. Planning to live.
The San Francisco Bay Area Reporter had a famous front page in 1998 that read “NO OBITS!” the AIDS crisis was hardly over but things began to change for the better.
My generation stopped focusing on helping our older friends die and became big brothers to the next generation of young gay men. We were all turning 30 and the clubs that had once held us now held a new 20-ish crowd and us along with them. We passed on some of our favorite pop music to them… they took Kylie and Madonna, they passed on Rick Astley and Lisa Stansfield.
They discovered their own icons. I always thought their choices of “divas” were telling. We gave them solo individuals who told them to “express” themselves. They chose the Spice Girls who were five pop stars in one. Before, to fit into gay culture, one had to shoehorn themselves into the culture. Now you were given choices of “Scary” or “Posh” or “Baby” or “Ginger” or “Sporty.”
Some of us ditched the idea of “Glamour” and instead chose Björk or Courtney Love who would take a baseball bat to the idea that gay men liked poise and grace.
In the late 90s, everything changed.
Gay culture had become so much of a non-issue in urban areas that gay men started to venture out of their own bars and safe zones. Gay guys went to “straight” techno clubs and danced along with the straight crowd that welcomed them. Gay fans of hard rock would be welcomed to Lollapalooza and when stadiums full of metal heads found out that their Metal God Rob Halford was gay himself, the reaction was a collective shrug and the band played on.
I reached the tipping point in 2006. I had been out for half as long as I’d been alive and I saw two generations take their place after mine, each one having their own heroes and icons and divas. They would take the best from before (Madonna and Kylie both still make the cut 25 years later) and leave the rest (The Spice Girls burned bright and fast and disappeared just as quickly). The men in their 40s that had taught us a love of Judy 20 years before were now in their 60s and had no influence on the new 20 year-old fans.
It was noted by Robert Leleux, gay men no longer need or even care about Judy Garland. Her music no longer speaks to them. Judy’s legend is usurped by the more current legends of Michael and Whitney and Britney (who’s still alive at the moment but… ya know… tick tock). It’s not that Judy doesn’t have fans anymore… Of course she does. She just doesn’t represent current gay culture. She’s an icon of the past that is still beloved today.
A faded symbol of a bygone era occupied by their grandmothers, having gay men now scold 20 year-old gay men for not worshipping Judy Garland would be like a straight grandfather scolding his grandson for not having a pinup of Betty Grable.
Their mothers listened to Madonna, too. And Cyndi Lauper and maybe Belinda Carlisle. But not Judy Garland.
Judy Garland no longer matters in that “gay icon” way to the new generation of gay men and that’s a good thing. It means we lived. It means that our culture didn’t get stuck in that devolved, no-man’s land.
It means we’re evolving again.