Has The Gay Rights Movement Forgotten Its ‘Gritty, Dirty’ Sexual Past?

Gay-sex-in-the-70s-006Acceptance of gay people and support for their rights has reached an all-time high in this country. For the first time in history, a majority of Americans support same-sex couples' right to marry. We even have the expressed support of the first sitting president. Yet, as LGBT people delve deeper into the American mainstream, some argue that gays in America have abandoned some of the more seedy, sexual aspects of their past. 

Such is the subject of Robert A. Schanke's book Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans, as well as his recent HuffPostGay piece "The Gay Sexual Explosion That Has Been Nearly Forgotten". In his piece, Schanke chronicles some of his earlier exploits in New York City during the mid-1970's, specifically touching on such old haunts as The Anvil, The Spike, The Mineshaft, and the previously-abandoned warehouse district near the Hudson River. Much to his dismay, none of the places he describes in his piece are characteristic of their former selves. He opines…

"Today, in part because of AIDS, very few of those popular gay cruising sites still exist. In our current desire to acquire civil rights equal to the straight community, we have chosen to assimilate and to clean up our act. When I recently explored some of my old haunts, I was amused. The Anvil is now a gentrified, chic restaurant, complete with white linen tablecloths and candles. The waterfront along the Hudson River has become the lovely, serene High Line public park."

Gay sex in the 70s 7According to him, "for over a decade after Stonewall, a gay man could have sex in New York almost anywhere, anytime, 24/7." As to whether or not that is still the case could certainly be the subject of debate. While gay cruising and hookup culture has almost certainly changed over the years, just because it is different doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't exist. One quick sweep of smartphone apps such as Grindr, Scruff, and GuySpy (just to name a few), or sites like Adam4Adam, Gay.net, or even Craigslist (again, just to name a few), and one could certainly find plenty of willing sexual partners at any time of day, in virtually any city in the country. Thus, perhaps the contemporary gay movement hasn't done away with its sexual nature entirely. Instead, technology has allowed for cruisers to browse potential partners in the comfort of their own home. 

Then again, minority groups have always had to endure a bit of watering down when entering into the American mainstream. Malcolm X continues to be a difficult subject to teach in schools, due to some of his more radical teachings. Very often, those teaching about Helen Keller will conveniently gloss over her Socialist past. Such "cleaning up" is, to a certain extent, necessary when grade school teachers have to start teaching their students about the LGBT rights movement (something that this native FLoridian never got the chance to learn about until college). Thus, it will be the duty of scholars like Schanke to keep the more sexual aspects of the gay rights legacy alive. 


  1. Mike says

    Jesus. Yet another old queen crying about gay men not sucking cock in an alley anymore? He does realize the the Internet has simply moved the playing field, right? We’re still men with the same appetite. One day a guy my age will write a tome about Grindr.

  2. HarryB says

    Well – it lives on in Berlin, somewhat. Let’s see how long it lasts there …

  3. Arthur says

    I find it an ironic juxtaposition of this post’s title and the previous post, wherein, faced with an alarming example of contemporary Western society’s demonization of sex, you merely remarked, “[PM] Cameron needs to ensure that LGBT individuals in the country, and especially LGBT youth, have access to internet resources on sexual health and sexuality.” It’s pretty obvious that the LGBT mainstream has joined the finger-wagging, sex-negative, normalizing culture at large.

  4. Mastik8 says

    This is the price of admission. Individuals may choose otherwise but as a movement there isn’t a choice.

  5. JMC says

    I always get so grossed out reading about old gay guys complaining about how they can’t have sleazy sex in dirty public places anymore lol like yeah it’s really sad how we’ve lost so many things in our assimilation to heteronormativity but cruising isn’t one of them

  6. Adam says

    ” … some argue that gays in America have abandoned some of the more seedy, sexual aspects of their past.” ?

    Well, there’s still New Orleans …..

  7. Francis #1 says

    The gay community is not and never will be the straight community. Also, people overestimate just how accepted we as a community, but that’s another argument. If we were truly accepted without condition (we’re getting there but not there yet), then you’d see the lines blurred a lot more than they are currently.

    Assimilation comes with a price but the gay world and the straight world aren’t the same worlds. There’s still a distinct gay culture, it’s just less insular and less driven by fear and shame. And given that’s the case, you’re going to see more same-sex couples having children and you’re going to see less sex in bathrooms. There’s more openness. But that doesn’t mean we’ve turned completely heteronormative.

  8. Gus says

    Sorry but the vast majority of gay men of that generation never went to The Anvil, The Spike, The Mineshaft. And didn’t care to go there in the mid-1970’s. In reality most gay men are more vanilla than not.

    That does not mean they are anti-sex.

  9. Jack M says

    Don’t worry, there are plenty of guys who still think it’s the 1970s and want to have quickie sex in places like locker rooms. The rest of them have actually grown up.

  10. scott says

    Yea, as a college guy, I do tire of these sorts of pinings for the supposedly hedonistic days of the ’70s, early ’80s. And then the next post is about remembering AIDS victims from exactly that time period.

    The reason people aren’t f*cking in the street all the time like the
    good ‘ol days” is because they started DYING.

  11. Leo says

    Um, yes, AIDS had something to do with the changes in his old haunts, and maybe assimilation plays as role as well, but there’s also something called the NYC real Estate market. Did he imagine the meat packing district was going to be set in amber circa 1977? Can you honestly fault landlords for renting their spaces to restauranteurs instead of sex club operators? Did he think the Hudson river waterfront was going to remain a district of dilapidated, rat infested piers indefinitely?

  12. johnny says

    As a 54-year-old veteran of the 70s and 80s, I personally think it’s FANTASTIC that a new generation has cleaned up the gay act.

    Please put me down as one of the older gay men who think that the type of article above is nothing short of some old perv who is sad that sex isn’t something he can find in a alley or a park any longer.

    I absolutely hate the word “heteronormative” because it implies that heteros are the only norm. Gay people have a norm too and thankfully, it is no longer sleaze. It’s healthy, in-the-open attitudes about monogamous relationships and low-risk sex and there is no longer a place for secret alleyway and park hook-ups with as many men as possible with no protection.

    Those days are OVER and so is the attitude that it’s OK. It’s not OK and never was.

    “Gritty, dirty sex” is sad, dangerous and risky. If that’s some kind of kinky turn-on for some, don’t paint the rest of my generation with that brush. Too many died in that way for it to be a good thing.

  13. abie says

    If Schanke thinks that Gays are not having sex anymore, then he is clearly mistaken.
    He is also fooling himself if he thinks that Gay rights could have been achieved without moving the conversation away from sex acts toward showing that we are well rounded people with full lives outside the bedroom, or the dirty West Side alley.
    I wish that the Roxy was still open, but things change and that’s the nature of the Universe. Sexy bars and clubs in the 1970s may have brought Gay men together, but not all of us have been interested in the kind of promiscuity that ultimately proved devastating to our community. I understand and respect their place in our history and may have even enjoyed partaking in them from time to time, but, frankly I don’t care to be represented by a leather bar or a sex club.

  14. hotbeef801 says

    @Johnny I just have to echo what you say as a 48 year old and I also think it is a much better place for the younger generation. However I think knowing our history is key

  15. ripper says

    “Yet another old queen crying about gay men not sucking cock in an alley anymore? He does realize the the Internet has simply moved the playing field, right?”

    Spot on. And furthermore, the Internet and the sheer number of out men has enabled gays to be more choosy. They’re still have dirty, nasty, gutterbutt sex. Just not with him.

  16. Michaelandfred says

    Times change, roll with it. Men are still having anonymous sex with strangers who are older and look far worse than we imagined, they’re just doing it on grindr. Plus, they aren’t risking a head bashing or arrest to do it. Nothing stays the same forever. For any of us. Let it go.

  17. GMB says

    LOVE the collective tone of these responses. Y’all are right. There was a long period where sleazy bars, clubs, bath houses and cruising joints were the ONLY place to meet one another. I’m proud of the fact that today, from high school GSA’s to knitting clubs to LGBT athletic groups, we’re meeting one another by daylight. Proudly.

    If you haven’t seen the excellent documentary “Gay Sex in the 70’s,” do. It’ll give you a great understanding of our recent history. I agree that younger gays should learn about this stuff, but they shouldn’t ever have to re-live it.

  18. Joe says

    Gay men are mostly judgmental bitter queens. I guess that’s still the same. It would great if the younger generation would change that negative aspect of the gay community.

  19. randyalways says


    We have historical past that dosen’t seem to want to be discussed. It is part of our past and is important to our history. It is these figures from our past that have brought us to where we are today. The author happens to be a great friend and an excellent writer. Just because someone is past the so called gay prime does not make them a bitter old queen. Grow up boys!

  20. says

    “Though nothing can bring back splendor in the grass or the glory in the flower…”

    …but frankly folks, we HAD to evolve.

  21. andrew says

    @ Johnny: I am an older gay man too and I couldn’t have said it better than you did!!!

  22. joe says

    Glad to see the comments here today. If you enjoyed dirty, unprotected, risky sex in the 70s, good for you. Don’t tell us that we all need to lament something that disgusts the majority of us.

  23. says

    YES and NO.

    there’s a world of queer youth who are not only very knowledgeable about the specifics of the LGBT Liberation movements, but are incredibly empowered by that knowledge.

    then there’s the hack idiots who haven’t a clue. most Conservatives. you know, the whole “why is there pride? what have drag queens got to do with any of this? gay rights are over. it’s no big deal. what’s a Stonewall? who was harvey milk? stereotypes are bad, i’m a man-bro and i don’t like anything that people think is gay. i’m so empowered”

    Facepalm! The Musical.

    it’s not so much about which streetcorners one can get a rockin’ B.J. at, but about the reality that we cannot, and should not, remove the SEXUAL element from this movement for liberation.

    the neutering of ourselves will aid no one. just as the eunuchs of the Gay Republican demographic.

    there’s indeed a whitewashing, and kudos to this article for pointing out two of my heroes, and how their story’s get glossed over: Helen Keller, and Malcolm X.
    two figures of hope, that nonetheless pose a problem for conservative-thinking minds (oxymoron, i know…) due to their very specific sociopolitical outlook.

    it’s not so much about “being pervs”, dudes; it’s about not worrying about if others think you’re a perv or not.


  24. David From Canada says

    I’ll never forget a somewhat funny story that a gay friend from Michigan told me.
    Back in the 1980’s he went on vacation to a country overseas, I think it was Poland. While walking through the countryside one day, he met a man who couldn’t speak English and they were not able to communicate with each other. Finally, they went into a field and had sex together, the universal language.
    Much better surrounding than a dirty alley!

  25. randyalways says


    How can you say it discussed the majority of us? Do you know all of us? Not sure who are the bitter old queens, the jaded queers. I am not advocating unsafe sex. but I think you are a fool if it does not go on all the time. How do you explain all the online hooking up. I agree with Dan Savage. Here is the ranking of monogomus relationships. from the bottom to the top. GAY MEN COUPLED STRAIGHT COUPLES AND LESBEIAN COPULES WHERE IS THE MOST cheating gay men and straight couples. Men are men and will always be

  26. Graphicjack says

    I think it’s great to have the option to have varying sexual experiences. Today we have better rights and are safer, but it’s clear that gay men knew how to party in the 70s before AIDS. With online crap, we’re becoming more impersonal and treating others as objects to admire or judge. I think what is healthy is to mix online connections with real ones, to meet different people, to talk and learn from others, and to explore our sexual fantasies with each other. A lot of the conservative responses here are quite sex negative and judgmental, which I think is sad. If you are in a monogamous relationship and are happy, I congratulate you. But there’s nothing wrong with others who want different experiences… Being single, friends with benefits, open relationship, whatever. I have used online apps to meet guys and arrange to have sex in parks, or in my place or there’s, or whatever. You can have sex in unusual places now and not have to worry about bashings or the police, if you are smart about it. Why deny a part of sexual experience and diversity that you might enjoy? I think a good rule of thumb is try anything you might be interested in at least once… You may not like it but then again you might really like it:) as for outdoors sex, I found it can be amazing, and I’m not into “sleazy” sex or in getting caught. All I am preaching here is to not close your minds to varying experiences, and to not judge others who may like things that you are uncomfortable with personally. Be safe but have fun. Boys will be boys.

  27. anon says

    The article puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. It’s not sex that has gone away, it’s the fact that young gays get to discover a “gay world”–a sort of alternative reality you can enter fully at times. I would suspect that gays under 35 or so have no idea what that was like, particularly from personal experience. Grindr is not a substitute. Likewise, back alley sex is not what it was about.

  28. says

    Bars and bathhouses and trysting in public, and Gay men who lived for sex and sex alone: That is not and has never been the experience of every Gay man. This is another example of what I call The New Heterosexism: Gay hedonists who cling to stereotypes as hard as (or harder than) any Straight bigot,and who get royally pissed when the so-called Gay community doesn’t live up to them. It’s pathetic.

  29. Nat says

    “We have historical past that dosen’t seem to want to be discussed. It is part of our past and is important to our history. It is these figures from our past that have brought us to where we are today. The author happens to be a great friend and an excellent writer. Just because someone is past the so called gay prime does not make them a bitter old queen. Grow up boys!”

    There is an ocean’s difference between knowing the past and unreservedly celebrating it.

    And there is more than a little bitterness. Schanke can complain about normalizing forces all he wants, but it is apparent that he simply wants to replace the current dominant narrative with one of his own choosing. He’s not a libertarian, he’s another tyrant trying to impose his own vision.

  30. Kyle says

    Who in the world wants to remember degrading, loveless, unhealthy actions that led to a deadly epidemic and ruined so many lives? Learn from and move on, but don’t try to revere it.

  31. Derrick from Philly says

    Well, now that I’ve read all the comments I just want to thank y’all for letting me attend this Southern Baptist Convention.

    Shall we sing now,

    Thank you, Lord, for cleansing my
    soul…for cleansing my soul and
    my azz hole. Hallelujah!

  32. Cam says

    Is this a joke? The documentary “Gay Sex in the 70’s” was just out in wide release a year or two ago.

    Please save us from these wannabe authors who come out every few years and claim that there is a hidden history.

    Yeah, hidden except that somebody writes about it every few years. There is another documentary about the Bathhouses coming out in just a few months. If anything this seems to be all we hear about.

  33. Hephaestion says

    I agree with Johnny. Sleasy, gritty sex is good for nobody. Thank God we have healthy options today. I want a guy my family can welcome, not somebody I have to hide.

  34. Kyle says

    Little Kiwi, you do realize that condoms are not a 100 percent assurance that you will not contract STIs. In fact, condoms offer no protection to some STIs, including HPV. That is why the CDC and other medical experts consider condomed sex with people infected with STIs to be risky sex nonetheless. Moreover, there is a reason why most people would not knowingly have sex with someone that they know has an STI, especially herpes or HIV.

  35. JimH says

    Little Kiwi, Thank you for identifying repression by our own kind. It is everywhere because those married ones with their trophy children don’t want anyone else to have fun because their husbands may figure out what a bores they have become.

  36. gomez says

    besides our favorite resident pedantic little child-king, there are few things as tedious as nostalgia. especially for sleazy public sex from the old “radical” guard

  37. rjnick says

    Some of the comments on here are pretty disappointing. Calling the writer a “dirty old perv” and a “bitter old queen” is not just insulting, but the words themselves are pretty homophobic. We get so much of that from those outside the gay community, it’s sad to see when it comes from within, which it often does.

    Yes, gays should be free to marry and adopt if they choose. But not every gay is looking to be partnered for life, and not every gay is looking to be married with children. Some gays prefer to cruise for sex, or have kinky sex or group sex, or open relationships or no relationship at all. What good is mainstream acceptance if it doesn’t accept all of us for who we are but instead only accepts some of us who represent what someone else thinks we should be?

    And that is really the point this article is trying to make. It’s not just lamenting the loss of easy sex in the ’70s. It’s lamenting the growing intolerance over any image of gay couples that isn’t Ozzie & Ozzie (or Harriet & Harriet). “Pride” used to mean accepting and loving everyone for who they are, regardless of who they are. The Stonewall generation understood this and embraced it. The Prop 8 generation should think twice before abandoning it.

  38. KidJ/NYU says

    Excerpt from gay culture planning meeting circa 1970:

    “I have a great idea! Now that we’ve won some freedom at least in a few large cities, let’s replicate the loveless, anonymous sex that we were forced into in decades past! We’ll commercialize it and expand it, ensuring that to be gay is to have a long line of sex partners and no commitment or love. Your desirability will depend on your looks and your youth, two assets both guaranteed to decline with age. And since everything is based on sex and not boring ideas like love and commitment, we’ll be guaranteed relationships that are unstable and undependable, leading to social isolation and depression. Man, this is gonna rock!”

  39. Rowan says


    But was pride ever or is pride ever really like that? The gay community I see all the time are racist, judgmental of anyone who doesn’t LOVE bitchy mean women, shows disdain towards anyone who doesn’t look OR dress like them, ridicules gays who don’t fit into what apparently ALL gay men are supposed to be like or act.

    I see this ALL the time. ALL the time.

  40. AladinSane says

    “We even have the expressed support of the first sitting president.”

    I’m sorry, must have missed it in history class when George Washington said he was down with us gays (maybe it was right after he cut down that cherry tree).

    I think you mean “We have the expressed support of a sitting president for the first time.” :p

  41. TG says

    @Johnny: Count me as another old-timer who emphatically agrees with you.

    Sex in public parks, restrooms, etc. is indefensible. It was hardly good for the gay community’s self-esteem, nor was it good for PR. I’m glad to see that behavior largely disappear. Good riddance.

  42. says

    Kiwi, just what is your problem? Is your support hose in a tangle or something? I beg your mother-friggin’ pardon if my habit of not defining myself solely by my sexuality rubs you the wrong way. Maybe if your trifling ass got a damn life, it wouldn’t bother you so much? But don’t worry about who I may or may not be shagging, ’cause it sure as sh*t won’t be you in any case.

  43. Bri says

    “A Renegade History of the United States” by Thaddeus Russell. All you all give it a read. It’s the renegades that change history, and shape the future. Conformists follow.

  44. TimD says

    I happily lived through the 70s sex clubs and they were great fun. It is not possible for young people today to truly understand that time period. I would correct the author of the book though. The old Anvil is a cheap hotel now, not a restaurant. J’s is a triangular shaped building and is a restaurant. The piers are now the Hudson River Park. The High Line is the old abandoned railway that was also used for sex. I’m very glad I grew up when I did; today definitely seems like a no fun zone. Partly because I am old, yes, but living in a gay subcultural was definitely something I would never trade anything for.

  45. YsoSerious says

    I am honestly heartened by the vast majority of replies here. I lived through the ’70’s and I can tell you, only a tiny minority of men ran off to NYC and sleazed out at the buffet of men.

    Heteronormative is a buzzword (used by those who somehow think they’re cool because they’ve had public sex, a lot) and yet, when I would ask these same yahoos, were they a top or a bottom (and they always had an answer) I would point out that THEY were emulating heterosexuality far more than my tired vanilla azz ever would.

  46. Ian says

    The sleazy bars, clubs, bath houses and cruising joints only existed because we were a marginalised group who had to make our own rules and live our life-style away from the public eye. We had no choice; it was that or nothing. But we no longer need to hide on the fringes of society. We are now a part of that society.

  47. Jerry says

    “The idea of persecuting gay porn is redundant. Gay life IS porn. What you see up on that screen are the community standards. Nobody’s being exploited. These are f*gg*ts, people!”

    — Buddy Cole