On Gay Sex in the Seventies

26Jan08

First, it’s a great title for a documentary; just to say Gay Sex in the Seventies makes us a little more forgiving than is perhaps our natural tendency. Plus you get to see some great shots of vintage Big Apple; the west-side piers, the notorious truck bays across the highway, the Upper West Side when it still had a soul gay bars, and of course the legendary bath houses and discos that have since been relegated to history. This alone makes the film — released in 2005 — worth seeing. Still, it is about (male) gay sex, and soon we are informed — and have no reason to disbelieve — that there was a LOT of it happening in the 1970s at these venues (and pretty much everywhere else in the city), and all of it enhanced by a LOT of drugs.

The narrative is thus established: the 1970s = sex + drugs; hardly news, but we are curious to see what the rest of the film might have to say about this. Unfortunately, the answer is less than nothing. The bulk of it consists of interviews of five or six veterans (survivors) of the scene whose comments — thanks in large part to the filmmakers — quickly become a collective reinforcement of the above calculation, but with the added component of the looming AIDS epidemic, which of course has been the pink elephant in the room. But once it is addressed, we are given a somewhat modified though equally familiar (and disheartening) narrative: the 1970s = too much gay sex + too many drugs, ergo AIDS.

This is the real tragedy of the film, because it makes it seem as if AIDS really was delivered as a moral judgment from the hand of some divine power who had seen enough. How we wish that the filmmakers would have fought this impulse, which caters to the most homophobic and degrading elements of our society! Rather than shrugging their creative shoulders, as if to say “well, we had it coming,” why not point out that the rest of the country was also on a sexual, drug-addicted rampage, and (to the extent we can talk of a collective) wasn’t rewarded with a lethal epidemic? Or why not talk about lesbians, whose relative immunity to AIDS so effectively trumps the morality card? Is there any reason to think they too weren’t having loads of free love in the 1970s? (And we’re willing to bet that there are still one or two around that would have been happy to talk about it.)

As it is, we are left with the sense that every single gay man who died of AIDS was the recipient of a collective punishment for a collective crime. This is a disservice, for it perpetuates a myth that helps to fuel so much of the hatred we feel from the Fox-News wing of the country; on the other hand, it exposes the danger of unthinking adherence to any form of “community,” which no matter how politically expedient can destroy the individuality of those whose stories we still desperately want to hear.

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