This column first appeared in BTL 6/4/15
As a teenager I learned the lay of the land from word-of-mouth sharing from those who had navigated Detroit’s watering holes years before me. I did however once venture – daringly – on my own into the Greyhound Bus Depot to check out noonday comings and goings. I was cautious. I had been forewarned.
“Miss Tillie goes there all the time. Mind your business, child. If you have to pee, just pee. Don’t look anybody straight in the eye!” said street-wise, factory worker Miss Bruce.
Stories of hundreds of arrests for merely glancing at a vice officer – Miss Tillie – circulated. “It’s your word against theirs, Mary. Case closed.” Accosting & Soliciting. 30 Dollars or 30 Days!
Just behind the Greyhound Bus Depot was another hangout for gay teenagers: Mama’s. One diner star rating over the Hub Grill’s none. Mama’s was owned by the mother of 30-something, Butch Jimmy (“BJ”), who had as lovers his share of impressionable, gay teenagers.
A moody chef named Frank made sarcastic remarks about anyone he deemed “too queeny.” He also liked to loudly confide, while troubling greasy hamburgers and well-bruised hot dogs, that he had his casket all picked out and knew where he was to be buried. (R.I.P., Frank.)
Mama – short, stocky, ruddy, roly-poly faced – was of ethnic heritage, possibly Hungarian, Romanian. She wore her hair in a tight bun. Dressed in basic black. No pearls. She got her sense of humor by osmosis from gay kids, greeting regulars with a hearty wave of the hand, “Kud-de-vahs! Kud-de-vahs!” “Whores! Whores!”
As a teenager, I had no gay-positive role models. I learned how to survive from older, more experienced gays and lesbians. I came to realize that knowing a professional, boss, teacher, professor who was gay could be used to my advantage by letting him – or her – know that I too was “a friend of Dorothy.” It was an on-the-QT bonding. (It certainly helped grades and opportunities at Wayne University.)
A real plus was to know a gay doctor you could consult if a health concern or infection was a problem. (As an OR Tech at Harper Hospital, I was acquainted with two gay urologists.)
Contact in parks, outdoors, on busy streets or cruising areas was done cautiously, obliquely. “Do you come here often?” was one way of touching base, awaiting a suggestive response. (And, it was possible on many occasions to ask someone if he was gay and get as an answer, “Yes! I’m happy. Are you?”)
It was done by looks. Winks. Hints. “Dropping hair pins.” Very rarely directly. Gaydar circa 1950s nonetheless. Unlike today, the average straight person knew very little about gays or lesbians. We belonged to what essentially was a secret organization – the Gay Masons! – with passwords, special looks and hand signals.
Categories: Dinge Queen. Rice Queen. Leather Queen. Browning Queen. Rough Trade. Jail bait.
The better gay bars had back entrances. Keep it secret! Survive! Don’t get caught! But do enjoy yourself! Just be on the lookout for straight tourists – maybe noisy neighbors – who come to gape and giggle at queers. If need be, switch pronouns when straights might overhear your ‘secret’ conversations. She for he. He for she.
Yes. It’s been a long journey for me. It wasn’t always easy. But then again, it wasn’t that hard either. I’ve survived. And I like to think I’ve made something useful of myself as an artist, writer, human being who just happens to be gay. Quite gay. Contentedly so. Reasonably happy – most of the time. That’s tax-paying life.
Fortunately for today’s LGBT youth, it’s a better – in many, many respects – world than it was 60 years ago. Yes! Been there. Done with that. Advice for today’s newcomers: Take nothing for granted. Speak up! Speak out! Fight back!