The 7 Facts That Surprised Me About Gay Life in the '70s

While doing research for my forthcoming book, Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, I uncovered these 7 surprising facts about the '70s.

1. Religion: Today the gay community remains under assault by the likes of Kim Davis and the comments made by the Pope. Yet in the 1970s, many LGBT people sought refuge in churches and religious communities.

2. Black Lives Matter: Gay people in the 1970s understood that Black Lives Matter. Many of the leading white activists in the gay community were part of the black civil rights movement and often borrowed from the black freedom struggle and black power movement in creating their own campaigns for equality.

3. Violence: Despite the theme of liberation, the 1970s witnessed harrowing acts of violence. From the serial killer, known as the trash bag murder, who preyed on young gay men in California to the acts of arson that attacked gay churches throughout the country, violence stalked gay liberation.

4. Capitalism: Many gay people voiced incisive critiques of capitalism and turned to Marxism and socialism long before the Occupy movement and Bernie Sanders. Gay people understood how capitalism promoted consumerism that atomized people and undermined efforts to build community. As one activist from the period told me, gay people today evaluate each other as if they are buying a car, picking and choosing the parts that they like best in order to customize their sexual partners. In the early 1970s, this exaggerated emphasis on appearance did not exist and when hints of it began to surface other gay people called it out.

5. "No Fats-No Fems": I thought this was something that contemporary gay men invented as a cruel form of discrimination as they selected their sexual partners on Grindr and Scruff, but it turns out that some gay men in the 70s began using this phrase in the ads that they placed in the classified sections of gay newspapers looking for sexual partners. Since many in the community viewed sex as political, they argued against any acts that objectified gay men's bodies. They launched searing critiques -- often informed from lesbian-feminists' concerns -- about the personal and political stakes of being shirtless.

6. Newspapers: You would be hard pressed to find a gay man in the 1970s who could not name, at least, a half-dozen gay newspapers and periodicals that highlighted gay culture. Does anyone read or even know the name of the dozens of gay magazines today?

7. A Room of One's Own: From bookstores to bathhouses to bars, gay people in the 1970s often did not look for the approval of straight people, and they did their own thing. I found this to be one of the most compelling and telling aspects of their lives. Sure, some of them fought for equality and demanded political and legal recognition but most were more invested in creating a culture and community of their own.


Jim Downs is the author of Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation. He is currently an Andrew Mellon New Directions Fellow at Harvard University.

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