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I went to my first gay bar at 19 — a lesbian bar — the Silver Slipper, near downtown Detroit. I had fake ID and was escorted by two regulars. Lesbians sat in the balcony. Gays and “tourists,” downstairs.
“So, this is what I’ve been missing since puberty!”
The entertainer was porkulent Chi Chi LaTrine, aka Benjamin Ernest Franklin. He wore picture hats, and 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.”)
His shows closed with a trademark swallowing of a champagne glass. (Sidebar: Franklin had a sociology M.A., and was the first gay person to speak to Wayne University psych classes — in the 60s.)
Later with teenagers Gary and Richard, I hit the Scenic Bar in Toledo O, where we sipped Zing! 3.2 beer. It tasted like zip; but it was exciting being out-of-town “stars.” Soon our little circle — “Claudia,” “Margo,” and (groan) “Crystal” — took our road show to Cleveland O, Y-M-C-A!
I met a hunk (bottle deposit, no return) who took me home, played sing-along arias from La Traviata, and fed me a wonderful breakfast. It was magic — until I learned to my over-stuffed chagrin that my gourmet cook was another crossdresser. (My second that summer.)
Next came Big Apple week. Our trio took the New York Central train — playing gin rummy for 13 hours — and booked in the notorious Sloan House Y. It was mid-July, and no air conditioning. Heat 90-plus. Sweat soaked outdoors in minutes. So, we slept 12 to 9; partied 10 to 11.
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?” [Who me? Not Claudia or Margo?] After dinner we lay awake “fanning” each other into Manhattan bliss. He left next morning. Ever faithful at 19, I thought of Jerry for 36.5 hours, 36 seconds (DST).
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. “Oh, Gawd! Not THE Gunther Wilde,” I fawned shamelessly.
Richard, a hot Polish blond (peg pants, box-toe loafers, ducktail haircut), hooked two mid-30s Italians. They 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 got a toothache, a sunburn, no sleep, and 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. Those 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 — if you kept your “she this” and “she that” to yourself. Obvious types — “fairies” — provided cover, and we tended to keep our distance from them. Travel was a revelation for us gay kids.
We quickly realized we weren’t alone. We were everywhere: doctors, stevedores, actors, professors, cops, nurses, Indian chiefs, average Joes and exceptional Jills. You just had to know where to look. Gaydar was a godsend.
Funny what one remembers — and, sad, how very much one forgets. Young or old: Have a rainbow day!