A couple of weeks ago I saw a great musical by the local playwright, Dave Deveau, called the Elbow Room: The Musical, about the Davie Street breakfast spot that is an institution in Vancouver’s gay community.
I’m sucker for stories about queer Vancouver, having written one myself. As proud as I am of the strides gay people have made since I came out 30 years ago, I’m still sentimental for queer culture at the height of AIDS crisis. I’m loathe to say they were simpler times, but they were. We didn’t have screens getting in the way of meeting each other, and if you wanted to go on a date with someone, you had to walk up to them and ask them out in person.
A recurring theme of the Elbow Room: The Musical, is knowing your history. You would think with all the queer studies courses being offered today in universities, and films like Milk and The Imitation Game it wouldn’t be as difficult. However, I do find a lack of respect for what queers my age went through by some (by no means all) from the generation nipping our heels.
Learning my history came natural to me; I’ve always been a fan of origin stories. I didn’t have the advantage of taking a class in queer culture in my early twenties. Back then all I had was the public library and Little Sisters Bookstore.
It was the book Stonewall by Martin Duberman that triggered my interest in queer history. I had never heard of the Stonewall riot before then. That book was a launching pad to others: The Mayor of Castro Street, And the Band Played On, Queer in America, and anything by James Baldwin.
Those books grounded me in who I was and the rights I was fighting for. If anyone accused gay people asking for special rights to my face, I would throw facts back in their face. It was empowering. Some of my friends accused me of being militant. I felt I was just standing up for my rights.
Lately I’ve been reading When We Rise by Cleve Jones. The book has rekindled some of those old feelings of self-discovery back in my twenties. While the stories he’s telling aren’t new, I’m getting a fresh perspective on them.
There is one section about a secret tree house in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco where queer men used to go to have sex and get high that made me nostalgic for the Seventies. If there is one thing I wish Millennials could experience, it’s the secret hideaways we used to have access to. I don’t mean exclusive clubs or bars; I’m talking actual spaces where you could be alone where no one could find you.
I love imagining what San Francisco and Vancouver were like before they got over-developed; when they were places for free-spirits and bohemians instead of venture capitalists and software developers.
I know it’s easy to get romantic about the past, that the times weren’t as simple as I remember them. I’m the first to admit those decades weren’t without their challenges, especially if you were gay or black. I personally lived in fear of having the crap kicked out of me.
That aside, you get the sense that people were free to do more then. Cleve Jones travelled most of Europe on just over $1000 US dollars. He was able to get a work permit in Germany. He hitchhiked from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC. He flew return from Montreal to London for a $100. I don’t know what that would be in today’s currency, but it’s still pretty cheap.
I don’t miss the past, but I certainly wish we had preserved more of it. I’m so sick of being chained to my devices, of checking Facebook every fifteen minutes whether I want to or not. I hate that anyone can find out anything about me and twist my words out of context or use them against me.
When We Rise has helped me put the times we are living in now in perspective. While Cleve Jones loves discussing all the liberty and sex he had, he’s also quick to remind us about all the horrible things that were going on: Nixon, Watergate, and the Vietnam war. Not to mention the government sanctioned affront on gays and lesbians.
At one point Jones talks about not considering himself to be an activist earlier in his career, but feeling obligated to at least show up for a protest. I’ve been struggling to figure my role in this sudden rise of nationalism, fascism, and every other phobia that has been raising it’s ugly head since the US election. There’s a part of me that doesn’t have the energy to fight the good fight. I still show up for memorials, like the one after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. But it doesn’t feel like I’m doing enough.
All l I can do for now is just show up for the protest. In time, hopefully I’ll figure out what my role will be.