Romancing the Bars
by Dr. Jack Fritscher
When Gavin Newsom opened the romantic rotunda of City Hall for gay marriage on Valentine’s Weekend 2004, he became King of Hearts. Lovers from around the globe flew to San Francisco to wed on Newsom’s sweeping staircase. If 1967 was the Summer of Love, 2004 was the Winter of Love. San Francisco has always been very modish, and gay romance was suddenly very ala mode. Gladly queued up on the rainy sidewalks to get a license, thousands of Sapphos and Casanovas and Brokeback cowboys had new reason to leave their hearts in San Francisco—and host quickie receptions at their bars of choice.
How many weddings/divorces begin in the social network of gay bars? Even barflies lip-synching Connie Francis’ ironic “Stupid Cupid” kind of figure what’s more romantic than two brides or two grooms on a cake?
And what better month than February, traditionally the month of sex and love from the Victorians back to the ancient Romans’ fertility festival, Lupercalia, when young men drew names from a chalice to pick a swinging partner for the rites of spring. Gone are those days before Twitter when secret admirers mailed white-lace red-paper hearts on the feast of St. Valentine, the gay brother of the even gayer St. Sebastian.
Shakespeare wrote, yeah, 154 Valentine sonnets, but the best gay romance has always been cruising bars where strangers become mysterious lovers.
In 1953, my friend, the international writer, masochist, and bar cruiser Sam Steward (“Phil Andros”), lionized in Justin Spring’s Secret Historian, spent 42 days at that “Christian bordello,” the Embarcadero YMCA. Sam had sex 63 times with 38 new tricks he picked up at low-down cruise bars including Chilli’s on the Embarcadero, “The 356” on Taylor, the Cliff House, Keeno’s, the Old Crow hustler dive (962 Market Street, 1935-1985), and the leathery Paper Doll and Black Cat where Jose Sarria leaned into the curve of a baby grand piano singing torch songs like “My Funny Valentine.”
In 1954, emerging cruise culture seduced another pal, British poet Thom Gunn, to emigrate to San Francisco to romanticize the hedonism of leather bars in his books My Sad Captains (1961), The Man With Night Sweats (1992), and Boss Cupid (2001) in which “Cupid,” the Roman God of Love, winged with bow and arrows aimed at St. Valentine, becomes a leatherclad hustler cruising bars in his Doc Martens.
Gunn adored Folsom boltholes, particularly the No Name managed by American poet Ron Johnson, and David Delay’s Ambush where, in 1979, Gunn was famously photographed with my lover Robert Mapplethorpe as the two artists pub-crawled with our Drummer Salon, including Chuck Arnett, who in 1964 painted the iconic Tool Box mural romanticizing bikers, and then designed artwork for the Barracks’ Red Star Saloon, the Ambush, and Drummer magazine, whose Robert Opel reported on the first Leather Wedding in a gay bar in Drummer 7, July 1976.
Eons before Facebook, gay bars existed as the best social network of global watering holes for GLBT romantics. Fly to any city. Hit a gay bar. Get shot in the heart with Cupid’s bow and eros.
© 2011 Jack Fritscher, founding San Francisco editor of Drummer and author of the GLBT history book Gay San Francisco at www.JackFritscher.com
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