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At 19, I went to my first gay bar – the Silver Slipper, a dyke bar on Grand River, near downtown Detroit. I used borrowed ID, was escorted authoritatively by two regulars, Speedy and Draino.
Lesbians sat in an upstairs balcony space. Gays and “tourists,” downstairs. Tourists came to gawk at the queers.
Entertainer was porkulent Chi Chi LaTrine, aka Benjamin Ernest Franklin. He wore wide, be-ribboned picture hats, sang songs with lyrics of questionable OB-GYN soundness. (“Douche yourself with kerosene. Light it with a match. You will be the only queen with a blow torch for a snatch.”)
Chi Chi’s comedy routines closed with his trademark insertion of a champagne glass into his ample facial cheeks and mouth. (Sidebar: Franklin had a sociology M.A., and in the early 60s was the first gay person to speak to Wayne State University psych classes.)
With teenagers friends Gary and Richard, I also hit the Scenic Bar in Toledo, Ohio. Soon our little circle – “Claudia,” (Richard) “Margo,” (Gary) and (groan) “Crystal” – took our sing-along road show to Cleveland, staying at the Y-M-C-A!
I met Marcus, who took me home, played Maria Callas arias from Verdi’s La Traviata, fed me a wonderful breakfast. It was magic – until I learned to my over-stuffed chagrin that my gourmet cook was yet another crossdresser. Two that summer!
Next came Big Apple week. Our threesome took the New York Central train – playing gin rummy for 13 hours – and booked into the notorious Sloan House Y. It was mid-July. No air conditioning. Heat 90-plus. Sweat soaked outdoors in minutes. So, we slept at day; partied at night.
I had no sooner unpacked my things when the phone rang. “Hi! I’m Jerry. I saw you in the lobby. Can I take you to dinner?” He left two days later. Ever faithful at 19, I thought of Jerry for 36.5 hours, 36 seconds. (Jerry, who?)
Our trio went to a Greenwich Village downstairs bar, the Sans Souci. “Cry Me a River,” sung by Roberta Sherwood was the jukebox hit. Bar ambiance was intimate and discreet. I met a bona fide actor: Gunther Wilde. (Gunther, who?)
Richard reeled in two mid-30s Italians who invited us to Fire Island. We took the train to Babylon – three hours – and a ferry boat to Cherry Grove. “Truman Capote’s there,” they lied. I experienced a toothache, a sunburn, no sleep, a sore back. (It was worth it.)
In 1955, we had no role models. We suspected certain movie stars. (Tab Hunter, Barbara Stanwyck, newcomer James Dean). All wishful thinking. These Senator McCarthy witch-hunting years were terror for “known homosexuals.” We had no choice but the closet.
For those who could pass for straight, problems were few – vice cops, crabs, VD, job firing, shock therapy, excommunication, incarceration, media exposes – if you kept your “she this” and “she that” to yourself.
Travel was a revelation. We gradually realized we weren’t alone. We were everywhere: doctors, stevedores, actors, professors, cops, nurses, Indian chiefs, average Joes, exceptional Jills. Gaydar was a godsend. (Question: Who needs gaydar these days?)