I know it’s been like a really long time — sorry about that! My real life job got absolutely crazy and hasn’t calmed down at all. May not ever calm down but I’m handling the craziness better now that I’m kind of getting used to it. So….we’re back with even more queer history!
Chances are pretty good, if you’re an LGBTQIA+ person you’ve been to a gay bar. Even if you’re just someone who loves an LGBTQIA+ person, there’s still a good chance you’ve been to a gay bar. I’m not saying you’re doing queerness wrong if you haven’t been to a gay bar, I’m just saying it’s a pretty common shared experience. It’s true that bars being basically the central gathering place for our community isn’t without drawbacks — although, personally, I love them. But I’m not here to weigh the pros and cons of gay bars — we can all do that on Twitter (and we do) — I just want to talk briefly about the history of gay bars, talk a teeny bit about some of the first ones to exist, and some of the oldest ones that we still have today. A lot of these places will hopefully get posts of their own further down the line.
We have previously talked a little about molly houses before — specifically Mother Clap’s and the White Swan, which were both pretty historically significant. Gay bars were not, at least initially, all that different from molly houses and, in terms of their purpose, still aren’t. They’re a place for gathering socially with similar “deviants” and “sodomites,” to feel safe among those who have a shared lived experience. To separate molly houses from gay bars, we have to kind of look at the history of bars themselves. For a lot of (at least Western) history, bars weren’t really a thing — you had inns and taverns, which served alcohol but also offered lodging or food. Even pubs at the time served food and were intended as a place to have gatherings or meetings. The sale of alcohol was considered sort of a “side hustle” (even though it was probably where most of the profit came from.) Even saloons in the American western frontier were entertainment sites — where people could play games or see performances. Molly houses were typically fronted by taverns, inns or coffee houses, and usually also made money off prostitution. They were also places where fake weddings and mock birth rituals took place. So, to separate molly houses from gay bars — and I’m not going to claim this is the official definition, it’s just what I’m working with here — I’m going to define gay bars as legitimate, legal businesses focused entirely (or almost entirely) on the sale of alcohol to queer customers.
It wasn’t really until towards the end of the 19th century when there started to be bars as we know them today — places that really just served alcohol. I’d guess the invention of machines like the phonograph, which let places play music without having performers present, was probably a big part of that shift. So, of course, as mainstream society started socializing in these places, the queer community followed suit. And so gay bars began to pop up — the first, as far as we can tell was in Cannes, France (where homosexuality had been decriminalized since 1791.) That bar was Zanzibar, which was founded in 1885 and lasted 125 years — eventually closing in December of 2010.
Meanwhile, Berlin had also become a hotspot of gay and lesbian nightlife by 1900, thanks largely to the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee‘s presence there, though a lot of the specific records about these spots were lost thanks to the Nazis. Within weeks of the Nazi party taking power in Germany in 1933, fourteen gay and lesbian nightclubs were closed, including an internationally renowned drag bar called Eldorado.
The other issue for gay bars at the beginning of the 20th century was Prohibition. Several countries tried their hand at banning the sale of alcohol including Russia, Iceland, Finland, Canada, Norway and the United States. At least in the USA, the fact that everyone‘s bars became illegal and everyone’s drinking had to go underground — where we were already partying — had a pretty profound impact on the queer community. But the most lasting effect of Prohibition, at least for gay bars in the USA, was that alcohol sales became part of the world of organized crime. Even after Prohibition ended in the USA, most gay bars were run by the mafia for the next few decades. In fact, more than thirty years later, this was one of the issues that was raised and fought against during the Stonewall riots and their immediate aftermath.
Over the early decades of the 20th century, gay nightlife spread throughout Western culture. Here’s a few other highlights:
The Black Cat Bar (not to be confused with the Black Cat Tavern) was founded in San Francisco, California in 1906, and stayed open until 1921. It reopened in 1933 when Prohibition ended, and continued operating until 1963. It might be the first gay bar in the United States.
The first recorded mention of the then-popular Amsterdam gay club The Empire was in 1911, but it seems to have already been established several years prior. It closed in the 1930’s.
The Cave of the Golden Calf, founded in 1912, was the first “official” gay bar in England, though it went bankrupt and closed in 1914. Still, it made a reputation for its wild parties and influenced a lot of gay bars afterwards.
Eve’s Hangout in New York City was one of the first, if not the first, lesbian bar in the United States, opening in 1925 and closing at the end of 1926 due to police raids. This raid more or less led directly to owner Eva Kotchever‘s death at the Auschwitz concentration camp. (Which is definitely getting its own piece, don’t worry, I’m not just leaving you all with no details on that!)
Social reforms brought about by President Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico brought about the creation of roughly a dozen gay bars in Mexico after he came into office in 1934, including El Triunfo and El África in Mexico City. All of Mexico City’s gay bars were closed in 1959 and even though there are gay bars in the city now, none of the original ones reopened.
The first gay bar in South Africa opened in the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg in the late 1940’s — catering to wealthy white gay men. No women were permitted, and, you know keep in mind there’s Apartheid going on, so definitely no people of color, who were forced to create and use increasingly underground bars and clubs — unfortunately, there’s not too much available about those clubs at the time. However, some of these bars, such as the Butterfly Bar (now the Skyline) began to integrate in the mid-1980’s.
The American occupation of Japan following World War II brought gay bars to the country — New Sazae opened in Tokyo during this period, in 1966, and is still open now.
In the 1970’s, a lot of clubs in Singapore began having gay nights but no actual gay bars opened until the lesbian bar Crocodile Rock opened in the 1980’s. It is still open, and is the oldest gay bar in that country.
If you want to experience some history for yourself, here’s some of the oldest gay bars still around today:
Atlantic House (or “A-House”) in Provincetown, Massachusetts was opened as a tavern in 1798, but mostly served whalers until the beginning of the 20th century, when it became a popular hangout for artists and writers like Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. They “officially” became a gay bar in 1950 (despite already being popular with gay men like, y’know, Tennessee Williams) and it still operates as one today. (And I’ll vouch that it’s still a fun place to go!)
Café ‘t Mandje opened was opened in Amsterdam by a lesbian named Bet van Bereen in 1927, and continued to operate until the death of her sister Greet (who took it over after Bet passed away) in 1982. Her niece Diana reopened it on April 27, 2008 and it remains open today, still in the same family that started it!
In 1933, both White Horse Inn in Oakland, California and Café Lafitte in New Orleans, Louisiana opened (now called Café Lafitte in Exileafter they were forced to move to a new spot in the city in 1953). I don’t know the exact months or days they were founded, so I can’t tell you which is actually older (and of course, they both claim to the be the oldest.) I’m trying to solve the mystery, and rest assured, I will even if it means I have to take a cross country road trip to both of them.
The Double Header in Seattle, Washington opened up the next year and Korner Lounge in Shreveport, Louisiana opened sometime in the late 1930’s as well. Both are still open today.
Mirabar opened in Woonsocket, RI in 1947. It’s moved around to number of different locations (it’s in Providence now, for starters), and is still open today. (And they have a great trivia game on Wednesday nights!)
The Half-and-Half in Beijing is the oldest still-operating gay bar in China, having opened some time before 1994.
Some honorable mentions that aren’t really the “oldest gay bars” in their countries but are still historically important and that you can still visit today:
Julius’ – Julius’ opened in Manhattan in 1864 but it was decidedly not a gay bar but by the late 1950’s, gay men started frequenting it but were often thrown out or simply refused service because it was illegal to serve homosexuals in New York City at the time. In 1966, Dick Leitsch and Craig Rodwell, president and vice president of the Mattachine Society at the time, organized a sip-in protest. By most accounts I’ve, the bartender refused them service to help them with the protest not because they were gay. Laws were changed and Julius’ has been serving gay customers ever since.
Stonewall – the famous Stonewall Inn, which originally opened in 1967, has been through a lot since our riots — renovations, closing, reopening, closing again, hosting several other businesses, reopening again, closing again, reopening again…..they’ve dropped the word “inn” from their name, and have been open on Christopher Street in Manhattan since 2007.
The Eagle – Eagles can be found in cities all over the world. They’re not franchises, they’re not a chain, they’re just connected by the community they serve. After the Stonewall riots, the owners of the the Eagle’s Nest (which had been open since 1931, and is now Eagle NYC) made their club a gay bar and it became a very popular spot for more masculine gay men, and especially the leather scene, to hang out. Other Eagles opened elsewhere, even in other countries, and “the Eagle” became a sort of code for gay men looking to connect to their community in a new city. Not every Eagle is historic, but they are all part of that legacy.
I know this breezes past a lot of fascinating details and there’s an awful lot of countries that didn’t get a mention — I simply haven’t found what their oldest gay bars were yet. But rest assured, I’m going to keep the “Raising the Bar” series going intermittently, so there will be lots more coming on this topic!
Firstly, I really want to apologize for the lack of articles this month (Pride month of all months!), my job has been insanely busy lately and, unfortunately — I’m sure you’ve all noticed and are probably upset by this too — queer people still have to work in June. So, while I was really trying to get this post up three weeks ago….I’m doing the best I can right now. (And honestly, this could have — maybe should have — been a lot longer but…life is getting in my way.)
Anyways, you all probably noticed earlier this month a lot of attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the official beginning of the AIDS crisis in the United States. And while its certainly true that June 5th was when the CDC published its first report, it wasn’t the first time the growing epidemic had been publicly written about. Dr. Lawrence D. Mass had covered it nearly a month earlier.
Lawrence D. Mass was born in Macon, Georgia on June 11, 1946. I can’t really find anything about his childhood, so I assume it was pretty uneventful — which is pretty good considering he was growing up gay and Jewish in Georgia in the late 1940’s and 50’s. He graduated from the University of California at Berkley in 1969 with a B.A. and then attended the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine at the University of Illinois, graduating with his M.D. in 1973. Following that, in association with Harvard Medical School, he completed a residency in anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
In 1973, the American Psychiatry Association changed its classification of homosexuality, so it was no longer considered a mental illness. Unfortunately, that didn’t change the homophobia of many of the people practicing psychiatry at the time. Mass went up for a residency in psychiatry in Chicago, but mentioned in the interview that he was gay — and the response was, well, not good. It was the first of multiple interviews over several years where this happened. So Mass changed his whole career trajectory — he moved into activism and journalism. (And, not to be grateful for a bunch of homophobic jerks in Chicago or anything, but that turns out to have been a good thing for all of us.)
With homosexuality’s declassification as a mental illness, that did mean that gay practitioners could come out of the closet. Before long, the Gay Caucus of Members of the American Psychiatric Association was formed (now called the Caucus of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Questioning/Queer Psychiatrists.) Lawrence Mass became the editor of their newsletter. He was not afraid to feature politically charged articles in that newsletter — the first issue featured the article “Psychoanalytic Statute Prevents Legal Entry of Gay Aliens,” which exposed public policies that relied on out of date theories for justification. At the same time, he began contributing to a number of newspapers and magazines catering to the LGBTQIA+ community — using his expertise in medical fields to better inform his writing. His first piece was published in Boston’s Gay Community News.
Using his medical background and his insight into the American Psychiatric Association (through the caucus), Mass became — as he would put it — “a chronicler of a critical shift in scientific thinking about sexuality.” But he wasn’t just looking at how psychiatry was viewing homosexuality, he was watching shifts in a whole bunch of fields — not just medical science, but social science and political science. He interviewed a lot of leaders in the shift occurring across numerous fields of research, including Judd Marmor, Mary Calderone, John Boswell, Martin Duberman, and many others. Most of these interviews would go on to be compiled in his Dialogues of the Sexual Revolution collections. They provide important insight into the major cultural shift that was taking place in the USA in the decade following the Stonewall Uprising.
Mass also brought his medical background to discussions about sexual health in the gay community during the 1970’s in these same publications, covering the spread of STDs and even topics concerning fetish and kink — like 1979’s “Coming to Grips With Sado-Masochism” in The Advocate.
After a few years of that, it’s little wonder that rumors about an unusual illness afflicting gay men were brought to him. His best efforts to investigate met with little success — he’d talked to a friend who worked in a New York City emergency room, and learned of eleven cases (albeit only five or six of the patients were gay men). While that was promising, both the New York State Health Department and the Center for Disease Control assured him the rumors he was pursuing were baseless. Though he didn’t have all the information he was looking for, Mass went to print — hoping that laying out the facts as he had learned them would help keep his community informed and keep the rumors from starting any kind of panic. On May 18, 1981 his article “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” appeared in the pages of The New York Native which was, at the time, the most influential gay newspaper in the country. Although no one knew it at the time, it was the first published document about AIDS (at least in the US — though I haven’t found anything published earlier anywhere else either). The story would get picked up by the L.A. Times in June, with hardly any more answers that Mass had already gotten (as the L.A. Times article was published the same day as the CDC’s report.)
Mass’ article stressed that there was no reason to believe that whatever was (or was not happening) was linked to the gay community. One theory put forth in his research was that it was a new virulent strain of a fairly common microscopic organism, and such a thing obviously wouldn’t be tied to just one community. As Mass continued to publish articles as the epidemic unfolded, he stood by this — it was not a gay illness. While it certainly had a profound impact on the gay community, it’s true that we were not the only ones afflicted. Diseases don’t discriminate, and Mass was well aware of that.
By 1982, it was becoming increasingly clear as HIV/AIDS was found in more people than just gay men. Nevertheless, he joined Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Paul Rapoport, Paul Popham, and Nathan Fain in formally founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis (or GMHC) he was the last hold out on the organization’s name — insisting it was not a gay disease. He was overruled, something for which he later said he was grateful because the name works for the organization, even if it isn’t just a gay man’s disease. To this day GMHC remains one of the biggest and most important AIDS organizations in the world. Mass wrote all four editions of GMHC’s Medical Answers About AIDS.
Mass committed himself to providing up to date and accurate information about the AIDS epidemic and combatting AIDS denialism, but early in his research he was confronted with an incident of overt anti-Semitism — the first he’d experienced as an adult. The event was traumatic, and led him to realize that he’d been surrounded by anti-Semitism his whole life, and even internalized a lot of it. Ultimately, this led to his publishing an autobiographical collection of essays in 1994, entitled Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite. (“Wagnerite” because Mass was a big fan of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, the German composer. As Mass began to broach more subjects in his writing during the 90’s, his love of music became one of his chosen topics.)
The years of research into anti-Semitism helped give Mass a unique insight into the subject of his next major publication: We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacy of Larry Kramer, published in 1997. Mass was an editor for the book, taking contributions from notables like Anthony Fauci and Tony Kushner, but his own contribution — at the beginning of the book and entitled “Larry vs. Larry” — details a tumultuous friendship, but also recalls how inspiring Mass found Kramer’s personal voice in his writing was.
About that time, the late 90’s, Mass also found himself writing regular articles for gay publications about public health issues facing the gay community other than HIV/AIDS — crystal meth addiction, anal cancer. As the decade came to a close, he began writing specifically regarding bear subculture, publishing articles in American Bear Magazine and in A Bear’s Life Magazine.
Much of Lawrence Mass’ work has been collected and archived by the New York Public Library. That said, Mass is still listed as a contributor on the Huffington Post, but all of his most recent writings have been on Medium. He is presently living in New York City with his partner, activist Arnie Kantrowitz. Sounds like a happy ending, and after everything he (and Arnie, but that’s another story) have done for our community, I think that’s very well deserved.
With the Comic Code Authority’s giant switch in regards to LGBTQ+ content, things changed pretty immediately in the industry — instead of being forbidden, or being considered “adult” suddenly queer issues and queer stories were an untapped wellspring of fresh plot ideas.
Andy Lippincott returned to Doonesbury in 1989. While the character had appeared off and on since his introduction in 1976, this time he became a staple of the strip — appearing pretty frequently over the course of the next year. The story arc began withAndy’s friend, and one of the main characters of the strip, Joanie Caucus learning that Andy was in the hospital with AIDS. Over the next year, the comic would revisit Andy — touching on the stigma of the disease, the stigma of homosexuality, the medical community’s confusion over the disease’s unpredictability, the difficulty of getting into experimental treatments, and many other topics and issues facing AIDS patients. 900 newspapers carried Doonesbury at the time. Only three of them refused to publish this story arc, saying it was “in bad taste.” But for readers of those other 897 newspapers, all over the country, it brought the very real tragedy that so much of the LGBTQ+ community was dealing with into their homes every day. And then, finally, on May 24th, 1990, Andy Lippincott became the first comic character to die of AIDS complications. I gotta tell you, I read his whole arc in researching this article and I cried. I read it all at once, which….I don’t recommend. Give yourself a little time in between the strips, okay? But its understandable that people had an emotional reaction, and some people were galvanized to take action. Garry Trudeau received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the story arc (well deserved, in my opinion). In Doonesbury, Andy Lippincott has a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. A real panel was created by G. Scott Austen, Marceo Miranda and Juan-Carlos Castano which hangs in the NAMES Project Foundation’s offices (rather than being sewn into the actual quilt itself.) As far as I know, he is the only fictional character to have a panel in their honor.
With the Code having reversed its position on gay people, Marvel decided that 1990 was the year they were going to have someone with superpowers really actually come out in the pages of their comic books! So, at the end of Captain America #368 they included a short story in which the Machinesmith revealed that he was gay! But only for male robots like Vision (which is fine because Machinesmith has put his mind in a robot body himself.) But then again, like, we saw Vision in Wandavision and I’m kind of on board with Machinesmith for that one. Except that he was evil at the time which is how they justified the events of Avengers #325, wherein Machinesmith manages to knock Vision unconscious and has his way with him. However robots do that. And later his villainous cohorts find him spooning with the unconscious android. So, just to recap, Marvel’s first super-powered truly openly gay character is an evil robot and a rapist. What were you thinking, Marvel?
Marvel wasn’t the only kind of missing the mark when it came to positive LGBTQ+ representation that year. Around this time Dark Horse Comics was making waves, having steadily grown for years. In Dark Horse Presents #40, they began a story set in a dystopian future where homosexuality had taken over and heterosexuality was criminalized. It was making a really valid point, but still didn’t exactly paint gay people in the best possible light. The story was never finished. Still, there was worse happening that year. Mark Millar, in his first published work, wrote a series called Saviour for Trident Comics — the lead character was the antichrist and he was not above raping men. In particular, a priest (who he promptly also murdered.) Millar would go on to be a really significant comic book creator for both DC and Marvel, and some of his works for other companies are now successful movie franchises, like Kingsman and Kick-Ass. Rick Veitch self-published a limited series called Brat Pack, a really dark satire of mainstream comic books, sort of akin to Watchmen in some ways but like….worse. In it, the Batman analog Midnight Mink was a flamboyant gay man who sexually abuses his sidekicks. But never fear, because DC Comics would not let us down, giving an emotional moment to The Brain in Doom Patrol #34, when he confesses his love for Monsieur Mallah before his body promptly exploded. Okay, they’re villains, but it was still a heartfelt moment.
In 1991, LGBTQ+ people pretty much cornered the market when it came to telling queer stories in comics. Roberta Gregory created her landmark character Bitchy Bitch for the series Naughty Bits — accompanied shortly thereafter by a lesbian character named Bitchy Butch. Robert Kirby began publishing his long-running series “Curbside” in various LGBTQ+ newspapers and magazines, and released the first issue of his antholoy Strange Looking Exile. Celebrated German cartoonist Ralf König had the first of his work — Kondom des Grauens (or, translated, The Killer Condom) — translated into English in this year and released in the United States and in Canada. Diane DiMassa published the first twenty issues of Hot Head Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist. That series would continue running until 1998, and was described (on Wikipedia) as “rage therapy for the marginalised.”
By this point, you may have noticed, Marvel Comics was clearly falling behind when it came to LGBTQ+ representation. I mean, DC has more queer characters than I can count on one hand and has even tackled gender dysphoria (twice). But they were starting to get it — in December of 1991, in The Incredible Hulk #388, dealing with Tyler Lang‘s AIDS diagnosis. Lang’s father is a mob boss, who hires the supervillain Speedfreek to kill his son’s lover, Jefferson Wolfe for infecting him. Over the course of the book, it was revealed that major recurring character Jim Wilson — a friend of the Hulk and the nephew of Sam Wilson (better known as the Falcon, who MCU fans should recognize) — was HIV positive and managing an AIDS Clinic. Tyler Lang became the first Marvel character to die of AIDS complications in that issue. (Jim Wilson would ultimately meet the same fate three years later.)
DC comics spent that year fully embracing the new Code rules regarding LGBTQ+ characters by first having the former supervillain Pied Piper come out as gay in the opening pages of The Flash (vol. 2) #53 — which would win the first ever GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book the following year, despite it really having nothing at all to do with the main story of the issue. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series — published by DC’s Vertigo Comics — went on to introduce three queer characters, including Wanda Mann, a transgender woman. They kept that trend going in 1992 putting the reformed villain Lightning Lord in a gay relationship, and implying that the heroic duo Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass were a couple, and Justice League Quarterly #8 casually mentioned that Tasmanian Devil was gay (not the Looney Tunes one, I know you were thinking it) by having him express how accepting the team was. In Hellblazer #51, John Constantine — the lead character of the longrunning series — casually mentioned that he’d had “the odd boyfriend” — the first official reveal of his bisexuality. They also did a whole story arc to finally deal with the rumors that had been circulating for decades about their character Element Lad and his romance with Shvaughn Erin by having it turn out that Shvaughn was a transgender woman, who had transitioned with the help of a sci-fi drug called “ProFem”. With this revelation, Element Lad declared that what they’d had together was “in spite of the ProFem, not because of it.” Because alien invasion interrupted the supply of ProFem, Shvaughn was forced to de-transition but the two stayed a couple. (Until DC rebooted their entire universe and retconned virtually everything about these two characters, but that’s beside the point.)
Marvel’s Northstar officially, finally came out in the page of Alpha Flight #106 in 1992! This was actually a pretty big deal, it even though everyone had already known for years. Seriously. If there was ever a superhero I would not trust to keep a secret…. Anyways, the plot, essentially, is that Northstar — in his public persona as a former Olympian — adopted a baby named Joanne, who had AIDS. This garnered a great deal of public sympathy. This made Major Mapleleaf (the Canadian version of Captain America, who was never in a comic before this and….) pretty mad because his gay son had died of AIDS and been blamed for it, because of the stigma surrounding both AIDS and gay people. So Major Maplelead attacked the hospital Joanne was in, quickly coming to blows with Northstar — venting his frustration during the fight. So, Northstar says he knows the hardships gay people face, since he is gay….and that makes Major Mapleleaf even angrier because Northstar isn’t using his fame to help gay people or act as an AIDS activist. The issue received a ton of acclaim from the LGBTQ+ community for tackling the AIDS crisis so well, dealing with HIV stigma and homophobia simultaneously, and finally getting Northstar out of the closet. They did a lot. And it just goes to show that when Marvel is trying they can do actually great LGBTQ+ representation! If you want to read the Major Mapleleaf fight sequence for yourself, I found it on Imgur here.
So, while this was all happening, the sci-fi TV show Quantum Leap was having additional “episodes” published as comic books. Andy Mangels wrote the ninth of these, published early in 1993, in which the lead character Sam Beckett leapt into the body of a lesbian photographer in New York City, in June of 1969. You know where this is going right? The issue touches on almost everything happening in NYC leading up to the Stonewall Riots — police corruption, mob run gay bars, Andy Warhol, Judy Garland — and leaves off right before the police raid begins. Quantum Leap, on television, had handled queer characters before (in fact, the lesbian photographer was a character in one of the TV episodes) this issue did not shy away from getting political. You can actually read the issue online for free here.
In March of 1993, Lynn Johnston’s syndicated comic strip “For Better or For Worse” — running in daily newspapers since 1979 — began a story in which long-running character Lawrence Poirier came out of the closet, becoming the first openly gay teenager and first gay person of color (as his father is Brazilian) in a syndicated newspaper comic strip. The story was inspired partially by the murder of Johnston’s friend Michael Boncoeur. Lawrence’s coming out was a four week set of strips, in which — to briefly summarize — he comes out to his friend Michael, then to his family, is rejected by everyone and then when he goes missing (after getting thrown out of his house), they all go looking for him, and in the end everyone comes around to accepting him for who he is. It’s pretty sad, until the end of the arc which is a much more upbeat ending than a lot of gay kids find with their families and friends even now. I think part of the hope was that by showing it in the strip, it might inspire some parents to come around to accepting their own kids. The publisher, Universal Press, was fully on board with the story, but when it was sent out to the various newspapers who ran the strip forty of them refused to run it. The response to the strip was overwhelming, and powerful — and much more negative than what I’ve read that Andy Lippincott’s reception was (perhaps because Doonesbury is inherently political and tends to lean to the liberal side of things?). Newspapers had to install new phone systems to handle the volume of calls, and Johnston began to be inundated with hate mail — including death threats. Nineteen papers stopped running “For Better or For Worse” altogether. Papers who were running the strip were attacked for it, and papers that refused to run it were accused of censorship. Within a couple of weeks, however, the tide changed — Johnston began receiving heartfelt letters of gratitude from the LGBTQ+ community. By the time the “coming out” story had finished, and the letters she’d received were sorted, more than 70% of the feedback Johnston received was positive.
In other comic strip news, one of the four leading characters of Doonesbury, Mark Slackmeyer, also came out of the closet as a gay man in that year. Rock ‘n Roll Comics #62 included a biography of Elton John — and by this point, there is so much LGBTQ+ themed work appearing in underground comics, I can’t even cover it all or this series will go on for forever. (Some of you probably already think it’s too long!) I just have to start hitting the highlights. But the biggest news of the year — for queer people anyways — was not actually in what was published, but what was won. The Comic Creators Guild awarded Gay Comics(formerly Gay Comix) its Best Anthology Award. After years of circulation, that bit of recognition was a big deal.
In comic books, Marvel gave the first-in-mainstream-comics explanation of the difference between sexuality, gender, and cross-dressing in Nomad #11, when the main character got into drag to investigate a series of murders in which the victims were all cross-dressers. Once again, Marvel goes to show that they can handle the queer stuff pretty deftly if they feel like it.
At the same time, under its Vertigo brand, DC was giving the gays everything. They created a mini-series called Sebastian O, the lead in which was basically a gay James Bond (and I don’t know about you but I’m dying for the film adaptions!) In Enigma #4, the Enigma entity awakened the latent homosexuality of its host Michael Smith — it was only an eight-issue series but it was still the lead character for the series grappling with his own sexuality. And then, just to confirm they had not been playing around by John Constantine’s casual coming out, in Hellblazer #69 depicts Constantine sharing a bed (well, a mattress on the floor) with a male prostitute. In Milestone Media — which published and distributed its comic books through DC — superhero Fade was outed by a telepathic supervillain in Blood Syndicate #8 — making him the first black gay superhero by a mainstream comic book publisher, even though he never really embraced who he was.
However, arguably DC’s most important queer character of the year was one we now often overlook — Coagula, who became a recurring character on Doom Patrol until about 2002. Coagula was the first transgender superhero (because Shvaughn Erin is technically not a superhero, she’s a just a regular cop), which she’d gotten her powers while working as a prostitute on the streets, after being hired by Doom Patrol’s Regis. She had first applied to join the Justice League and been rejected — something that seems to fly against previous statements by the Tasmanian Devil about how open-minded that group was. Whatever the case may be, she ended up joining the Doom Patrol and stayed with them until her death in 2002. But the most important thing about Coagula is her creator, Rachel Pollack — the first openly transgender writer to have worked for DC Comics. There have only been four others. The series Blood Syndicate would sort of reveal in their tenth issue that their shapeshifting character Masquerade was a transgender man, but they were just a few months after Coagula’s introduction.
One last important queer comics moment in 1993 that I wanted to touch on was when Malibu Comics Entertainment offered us a pretty harsh critique of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy three months before the Clinton administration enacted it, in The Strangers #5, in which the character Spectral comes out to the rest of the superhero team. They’re immediately accepting. (This also made Spectral the first gay character for Malibu Comics but since they were only going to be around another year before being absorbed into Marvel and basically forgotten, that’s kind of incidental.)
In 1994, a piece of anti-gay legislation appeared in the state of Washington. In order to combat it, Hands Off! Comics by Over 35 Artists Collected to Fight Discrimination and Homophobia! was published with all proceeds donated to Washington Citizens for Fairness. Advice columnist Dan Savage also took that year to dabble in comics, releasing two issues of Savage Love. The idea of gay superheroes took hold in underground comics, with Go-Go Boyby Neil Johnston and Leatherboy by Craig Maynard both being released.
In Marvel’s New Warriors #48, a time-traveling Justice would discover that his father — up to this point painted as a pretty unsympathetic abusive father character — was a closeted homosexual. And while that could have been dealt with really terribly, instead it was dealt with really compassionately, with Justice starting to come to terms with who his dad is and why. It’s kind of touching, but it doesn’t come close to what Marvel was gonna do next.
In The Incredible Hulk #417, Hector came out as gay and talked about how it wasn’t his choice. This set off an interesting relationship with his teammate Ulysses, who was homophobic. This would become particularly relevant later in the year when the two came to blows during The Incredible Hulk #420 — that issue revisited Jim Wilson’s AIDS in what is generally considered one of the best issues of the series. Aside from Jim’s storyline and ultimate death to AIDS complications (after being caught up in some violence at a protest over a student being expelled from school for being HIV positive), there’s a subplot wherein Betty Banner (the Hulk’s wife) tries to convince a straight white guy who’s just been diagnosed with HIV not to commit suicide — and she fails. Comic books often included letters from the fans at the end, but this issue instead had a number of comic book creators write a little bit about their own experiences with AIDS (all of which are in this really great article about the issue). The issue’s cover was used as an HIV awareness poster, so there’s a good chance you might recognize it even if you’ve never read it.
If it seems like DC was slacking off that year…well, not really. In the miniseries Fighting American, in which they were pretty blatantly parodying Captain America, they had their main character pursuing a relationship with a woman named Mary who turned out to be lesbian in the last issue. Shadow Cabinet revealed two of its female superheroes, Donner and Blitzen, were together, and in Static #16, the main character’s best friend Rick Stone came out after surviving a brutal gaybashing at the hands of white supremacists. The series The Invisibles introduced Lord Fanny, a transgender shaman from Brazil. The series Deathwish began, and one of the leads of the series was Marisa Rahm a transgender woman serving on the police force. Perhaps more notable is that Deathwish was written by Maddie Blaustein — a transgender woman herself, although she hadn’t changed her name yet. (Fun fact: Maddie also voiced Meowth on the first eight seasons of Pokémon.)
In 1995, the Atlanta AIDS Survival Project began including the strip “HIV + ME” by Chris Companik in their newsletter, which carried on into 2011. Kitchen Sink Press released….I mean just the most delightfully sacrilegious comic in Taboo #8, in which Jesus Christ and Lucifer have a philosophical debate that leads them to understand they have a lot in common. And then they kiss. The book was a collaborative effort between two openly gay creators P. Craig Russell and David Sexton, both of whom are fairly big in the comic industry.
That year would also see even more gay superheroes — Malibu Comics, recently acquired by Marvel, wrote superhero Turbocharge coming out in Prime (vol. 1) #21, becoming the first gay teenage superhero in mass produced comics. In Gen 13 (vol. 1) #2 by Image Comics, Native American superhero Rainmaker came out as bisexual. In DC’s Black Lightning (vol 2) #5, the hero Jefferson Pierce learned that his recently killed co-worker Walter Kasko was gay. Howard Cruse, best known so far for underground work, published a historical graphic novel called Stuck Rubber Baby for DC Comics, which dealt with the intersectionality of race and sexuality during the Civil Rights Movement. DC also released Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci that left in all the juicy gay parts that usually get dropped. They also gave Maggie Sawyer her own series — despite not being a superhero herself — called Metropolis S.C.U. — which was the first time a lesbian character was the lead in a mass produced comic book series that lasted for more than one issue (for which they would be awarded the GLAAD Outstanding Comic Award).
In 1996, DC, under their Vertigo Comics brand, published the autobiographical graphic novel 7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz — four years after his death from AIDS. The book told his entire journey, not shying away from anything — from working as a teen prostitute, to his drug use, to his struggle with HIV — and especially his anger with the government for ignoring the epidemic. The call out of the government itself in a comic book is particularly significant. That same year, in the pages of Justice League of America #110 and #111, two different team members (Obsidian and Ice Maiden) told Nuklon about their queer sexualities. Just a couple of months later in DC’s series The Spectre (#45) in a story called “Acts of God”, the Spectre (and his alter-ego Jim Corrigan) learned to overcome his own homophobia and stand up against anti-gay violence being done in the name of religion. That story was nominated for a GLAAD Outstanding Comic Award, but lost to Neil Gaiman’s Death: The Time of Your Life — also published by DC. That miniseries follows a lesbian couple in which one is a popular musician on tour, tackling a whole lot of issues about public and private identities.
The following year, the character Hero came out about his homosexuality in the pages of Superboy and the Ravers #13. Supergirl (vol. 4) #10 introduced readers to Andy Jones — an angel made up of a man and a woman…it’s very reminiscent of Cloud only without having Andy’s attraction to Supergirl have any impact whatsoever on their gender presentation at any given time, which makes a lot more sense. (That’s Linda Danvers Supergirl not Kara Zor-El Supergirl…you know what? It’s a little confusing.) And the two did eventually have a relationship, albeit fairly short lived. Andy’s recurring appearances would score Supergirl a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic in 1999 — the fourth time DC won that award.
It seems like as soon as the Code said it was okay to do, DC was like “here’s all these queer issues we want to talk about, and a whole bunch of queer characters!” And they just went for it for most of the 90s. A big part of that can probably be credited to Neal Pozner, who was the Creative Director for DC Comics for a time and who was an HIV-positive gay man. He died from AIDS complications in 1994, and his romantic partner Phil Jiminez, who was a writer and artist for DC, began penning the miniseries Tempest shortly afterwards. It was based around Aqualad, a character Pozner had created a new costume for when he was writing Aquaman in the 80’s. At the end of the fourth issue of Tempest, which was published in 1997, Jiminez included an editorial in which he dedicated the miniseries to Pozner and publicly came out as a gay man — believed to be the first time a creator came out in the pages of a comic book. DC received over 150 supportive letters in response. Jiminez has gone on to great success since then and is arguably one of the more important comic book creators of the Modern Age.
Other openly gay creators, such as Maurice Vellekoop, began getting serious recognition for their work, even outside of underground circles. Drawn & Quarterly, one of the largest and most successful comic book publishing companies in Canada, collected a decade’s worth of Vellekoop’s works and published them in a book entitled Vellevision: A Cocktail of Comics and Pictures in November of 1997.
That was the same year that Disney animator Elizabeth Watasin debuted her character Magical Witch Girl Bunny in Action Girl Comics #13. Only a few years later, that character would be leading her own series called Charm School — of which nine issues have been published, and a tenth is currently on the way. Meanwhile, Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin attempted to another franchise lagging in queer representation into the future by introducing the lesbian character Etana Kol into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #10 — a comic book series created by Marvel Comics to tell additional adventures based on the TV series. I’m a big Trekkie myself, so let me tell you: it’s really a shame that these comic books aren’t considered canon because there wouldn’t be an actual lesbian in actual canon Star Trek for another 22 years. That’s another post I’m probably going to write at some point…
In 1998, Mangels and Martin introduced a gay man named Yoshi Mishima to Star Trek in Marvel’s Star Trek: Starfleet Academy #17 — still not canon, still about 18 years before actual Star Trek would have its first actual gay man. But a good effort all the same. Other than that 1998 mostly saw our representation in underground comics like Havoc Inc. — a comedic sci-fi adventure series starring Chester Magreer and Chris Deck, a gay couple who operate a space freighter business together with their adopted daughter. The series ran for nine issues, ending in 2001. The comic strips “Troy” (by Michael Derry) and “Chelsea Boys” (by Glenn Hanson) — both of which would end up published in various gay newspapers and magazines — both launched that year as well.
The following year seemed like it would be much the same — mostly queer artists telling queer stories in underground and alternative comic books. Julian Lake‘s cartoons were released in a collection called Guess Who’s ComingOut at Dinner, Samuel Delaney published an autobiographical graphic novel called Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, Jennifer Camper put out the first strips of “Subgurlz.” And then San Diego Comic Con International happened — the first edition of Out in Comics, a guide to the work of LGBTQ+ comic creators, was released by Andy Mangels and an ashcan edition of Gay Force Quarterly appeared at the convention as well, creating quite a stir (until no finished issues were ever released. Oops.)
But even that paled in comparison to what would happen in December when DC, under their WildStorm imprint (which they had just acquired), released The Authority #8, wherein it was revealed that Midnighter and Apollo — basically the Batman and Superman of that comic universe, who’d been fairly central characters in two series for the past year — were a couple. (And when I say “revealed” I really mean “confirmed for people who really can’t read between the lines” — they were naked in a bedroom together in their very first everscene, for crying out loud.) There was nothing truly “first” or groundbreaking about them — two white male superheroes being gay together. What made it important was that they were already so important. And they’d be even more important in the coming decades….
Last time, we talked about the Bronze Age of Comics and the declining influence of the Comics Code Authority. I left you off in 1984 because according to comic book historians (that’s a thing) that was the end of the Bronze Age, and 1985 is the beginning of the Modern Age of Comics. The only real difference between 1984 and 1985 that I’m aware of though is that by the end of 1984, every major comic book publisher had introduced at least one gay character (kind of). I’m not saying that we’re the defining feature of the Modern Age of Comics, but I’m also not not saying that.
Eclipse continued not caring whatosoever about the Code, publishing a story called “Dance on a Razor’s Edge: A Ballet on the Death of Yukio Mishima” in Night Music #2, including an erotic dream by Mishima about Saint Sebastian (who is a Catholic saint the gay community has kind of co-opted.) The comic story also included Mishima’s seppuku, which he committed in 1970. The whole Night Music series was created by a still-closeted P. Craig Russell.
Underground comics were still light years ahead of mainstream comics — in 1986, the space opera series A Distant Soil revealed that D’mer and Reiken/Seren two of its leading characters, both men, were in a non-exclusive romantic relationship with each other which became a central part of the series. The series was written by Colleen Doran, and published — at the time — by WaRP Graphics, though it was reprinted (at least once entirely from scratch) a handful of times and is currently being re-released by Image Comics.
That same year, Last Gasp released Watch Out! Comix by Carl Vaughn Frick (sometimes just called “Vaughn” or “Vaughn Frick”), which was a satire about the gay community of San Francisco. Starblaze Graphics published the graphic novel Fortune’s Friends: Hell Week by Kay & Mike Reynolds, the lead character of which was gay. But, perhaps most importantly, 1986 was the year that Meatmen was launched by Leyland Publications — it was an anthology book of primarily erotic gay comics. It would run continuously until 2004, and during its run it is said that they featured “every gay male cartoonist of note who has worked since the 1970s.” This includes a lot of artists we’ve already talked a bit about — Tom of Finland, Howard Cruse, Joe Johnson, Donelan, Al Shapiro, Jeff Krell, Carl Vaughn Frick, and many many many many others. By the end of its run, there were 26 issues published.
But it wasn’t all good news — as queerness became more prevalent and more accepted in comics, the enemies of the LGBTQ+ decided to try to wield the medium as a weapon. And so Homosexuality: Legitimate, Alternate Deathstyle came to be published — a “non-fiction” book claiming to be “the facts” but in actuality a whole bunch of propaganda about how evil homosexuals were. You know, the usual. This was the first comic book published at actively speak out against the LGBTQ+ community and sadly, it wouldn’t be the last.
The series Watchmen, which has seen a great deal of success as a movie and now as a TV series, came out in 1986. It was still seeking Code approval, and so the only openly homosexual character was the minor character of Silhouette. There were implications (later confirmed by the creators) that the two minor characters Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis were gay and in a relationship together. The character Rorschach, frequently assumed to be asexual, also referred to the character Ozymandias as “possibly homosexual.” Watchmen did its best to be as queer as possible, while still getting a CCA seal of approval.
While not strictly queer, Megaton Comics did make a bit of a splash in their comic Megaton #4. In the story, the hero Matt Scott — trying to get work as an actor after years in a coma, discovers tabloids are saying that he is dying of AIDS. These rumors, it turns out, are flying around because he had worked on a film with Rock Hudson right before his coma. This was possibly the first time AIDS was mentioned in a mass-produced comic book. In 1986. Yeah, even Ronald Reagan got to it first. So, it’s kind of a shame Megaton Comics would fold within the next year.
Ivan Velez Jr., working with the Hettrick-Martin Institute, began releasing the series Tales of the Closet in 1987, which was praised for its quality despite not being published by a LGBTQ+ youth outrach organization rather than a publishing company. It followed eight queer teens as they sort of…stumbled their way through high school, dealing with all of the things that make that period of life complicated and more complicated for an LGBTQ+ kid trying to find themselves. Unfortunately only eight issues were published and the story has never been completed (so far!) That same year, Blackthorne Publishing released Danse— which featured the first lesbian lead character in a mass-produced comic book….but it only had one issue.
Eclipse wasn’t making things less gay either, even going so far as to produce a three issue miniseries called Hotspur which includes a gay barbarian named Suu of Xoo — a clear parody of Conan the Barbarian, I think. I’m mostly mentioning this because I wanted to include the panel here (on the right). It makes me laugh. Was it groundbreaking or historically important? Not really. Especially not for Eclipse. Was it full of sarcasm and sass? You bet. At about the same time as that series began, First Comics published Jon Sable, Freelance #45, wherein the title characters accompanies his gay friend Gray Adler on a yacht to Cannes – it’s a complicate storyline, but it involves closeted gay actors and people dying of AIDS. The next year in Sable #1, Gray Adler convinced Sable to help a gay man dying of AIDS return to Iran before his death. They also made on the lead characters in their series Phaze a gay man named Artemus John who had a lengthy history of gay rights activism prior to the beginning of their story.
Meanwhile at Marvel Comics, the writing of Alpha Flight had been handed off to Bill Mantlo. Mantlo was also committed to Byrne’s idea of making Northstar gay, and so continued dropping those hints. In 1987, Northstar contracted a mysterious illness that — reportedly — was planned to be HIV (and they were going to kill off Northstar). The Code would not allow this, so the storyline was dropped and so then they ended up having Loki tell him that he was sick because of his magical biology, because instead of being a mutant….Northstar was actually an elf. That’s right, that made him a literal fairy. The hints about his sexuality were being dropped as subtly as cartoon pianos. (Within two years, they decided that Loki was lying, because that’s a thing he does, so Northstar is not an actual fairy anymore. Comic books can be so hard to keep up with.) Alpha Flight, around this time, also had a storyline about their character Sasquatch being killed and his soul being transferred to a woman’s body and….it sounds like an effort to recreate that Sir Tristan plotline, but like…more confusing, because Sasquatch still could transform into this like yeti-ish form….that was male. I don’t know. A for effort though. On the other hand though, Marvel also began dropping kind of heavy-handed hints that Mystique and Destiny were in a romantic thing together in Marvel Fanfare #40, which dropped in 1988.
1988 was maybe the first really big year for gays in comics. A lot happened — more than Marvel’s less than subtle hints. The big news of the year would mostly come from DC Comics, who introduced their first gay superhero Extraño (real name Gregorio de la Vega) in the issue Millienium #2. Extraño exemplified virtually every stereotype of gay men, which was an intentional effort by his creators to get the point across without using any language that would violate the Code. While it worked and Extraño’s introduction was CCA-approved, the LGBTQ+ community did not particularly love him. Neither did the Latinx community, of which he was also representative. It got worse, when his team battled a vampire called Hemo-Goblin, who infected people with HIV by scratching them. That storyline was also heavily criticized because that is not how HIV is spread and it definitely did not help the rampant stigma that made people not want to even shake hands with HIV-positive people. (I will say, I think Hemo-Goblin is a pretty clever name for a vampire supervillain though.) However, after Extraño and another of his teammates test positive for HIV after the battle, he admits he had actually contracted HIV well before their battle. How is never actually revealed, despite the fact that that particular story didn’t get Code approval anyways so they may as well have told us. (I think we’re all assuming the same thing though.) In the following issue of The New Guardians, the team attends a support group at an HIV clinic and runs into protestors outside. Honestly, it was handled pretty well minus the whole vampire part of it and the embarrassing stereotypes surrounding every part of Extraño’s character. Extraño appeared numerous times in 1988, then practically disappeared from comics altogether for quite some time.
But don’t worry! DC also introduced Maggie Sawyer in that year — a bad ass police officer who would become a staple of their superhero books (and television adaptions) in the following decades. Maggie was a very popular character, and in the March 1988 issue of Superman (vol 2) #15 — under the writing of John Byrne, whom you may recall was insistent on Northstar being gay — she became the first openly lesbian character in DC comics. That issue also introduced Maggie’s daughter, making her the first homosexual parent in a mainstream comic book. DC also redeemed themselves from that Extraño mess by having Dr. Fate defend a gay rights rally in The Spectre #11, and having the Green Arrow investigate anti-gay hate crimes in Green Arrow #5. As if that all wasn’t enough to make us forgive them, they also introduced us to minor gay characters (of course without using the word — they had to consider the Code!) in Ray Monde (in Hellblazer #3) and Tony Mantegna (in Action Comics #624). Tony, by the way, was also a deaf character which is a also much-needed bit of intersectional diversity.
While the comic book company Archie Comics wasn’t nearly ready to include actual queer characters, they did include a PSA in The New Archies #5 advising that the best weapon against AIDS is education, and reminded readers that AIDS could impact people from “all ages, in all walks of life.”
By this point, the presence of queer characters in comic books was undeniable, unavoidable and unstoppable. Andy Mangels wrote a two piece article called “Out of the Closet and Into the Comics” which appeared in Amazing Heroes #143 and #144 in 1988. (The title was also a play on “out of the bars and into the streets” — a rallying cry of the gay rights movement.) That same summer, he moderated the first Gays in Comics panel at San Diego Comic Con. The Gays in Comics panel has occurred every year since, though the name was eventually changed to “Out in Comics.” Yes, it even occurred last year as an online panel during the COVID-19 pandemic! Andy Mangels has moderated all but four of the panels in its history.
So, underground comics by 1988 are producing so much LGBTQ+ content that like…if I tried to give it all to you, this article would basically turn into just a really long list. (In fact, I’m sure I’ve already skipped over several.) So I’m just going to hit some highlights, but believe me there is plenty more. One key book was Strip AIDS USAwhich was an anthology published by Last Gasp with a lot of work by some of the biggest names in comics at the time — Garry Trudeau, Frank Miller, Will Eisner, for some examples — which was sold to raise money for the Shanti Project. Black Kiss was a twelve-issue series about a transgender prostitute named Dagmar and her lover Beverly breaking into the Vatican’s pornography vault, which (obviously) quickly became mired in controversy. Meanwhile Donna Barr began publishing The Desert Peach — a comic book series detailing the World War II adventures of Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel’s fictional gay brother Manfred Rommel. There were 32 issues published, and the series also spawned a novel and a musical. A collaborative effort by queer artists from the UK, the US, and Canada resulted in AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), which was released in the UK that year, in order to raise money to fight against the anti-gay legislation Clause 28.
The next year the comic strip The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green by Eric Orner began to be published, which would run for 15 years. It was syndicated to a number of gay newspapers and magazines, and later a movie was made based on it. The graphic novel Homo Patrol was released, tackling issues surrounding AIDS and homophobia. Leyland continued adding to its library by releasing Castro Comics— a flip book featuring “Between the Sheets!” by Bruce Billings and “Under the Covers” by Kurt Erichsen. John Blackburn began self-publishing his gay erotic comic series Coley. Meanwhile, Eclipse Comics adapted two of Clive Barkers horror stories, “Human Remains” and “In the Hills, the Cities”, into comics for the first two issues of their new horror anthology series Tapping the Vein.
Robert Triptow put together Gay Comics, a history of well, everything you’ve read about here so far — the history of gays in comics. It featured a lot of reprinted comics. Shortly afterwards, Jericho Wilson and Mark Phillips founded the first gay amateur press association (or APA) which they called Northstar after, you know, Northstar. The first such organization, and while I don’t know what inspired that name I have a sneaking suspicion it might have been a certain superhero we’ve already discussed. A matter of months later, Andy Mangels and Roger Klorese founded the second gay APA which they called The APA That Dare Not Speak Its Name (after the infamous Oscar Wilde speech). The two APAs appear to have joined forces now, at least on Facebook.
With all of this attention, it was only a matter of time until the CCA had to respond. And they did, towards the end of 1989, by completely dropping all of their rules against LGBTQ+ content. Instead, they replaced them with a rule that required all social group — including homosexuals — to be portrayed in a positive light, and that derogatory references to sexual orientation could only be used for dramatic purposes. A complete 180 but a very welcome one! And things in the world of comics would change almost immediately.
Things changed in mainstream comics almost immediately. DC’s Doom Patrol combined their heroes Negative Man and Negative Woman, making them a non-binary intersex character called Rebis and the creators of Wonder Woman finally confirmed what we’d all known to be true (and that even Dr. Frederic Wertham had said), that there were lesbians among the Amazons of Paradise Island. Nobody was surprised but it’s good to know all the same.
With the only real institutional barriers against LGBTQ+ content lifted, creators were about to tap into a whole well of untold stories — and they were going to wholeheartedly embrace that…..which we will discuss next time!
So, last time we talked about the Golden Age of Comics and the subsequent Silver Age of Comics — the era ruled over by the Comics Code Authority. When the Code loosened up in 1971, the world of comic books entered a new era: the Bronze Age of Comics. (I don’t know who decided that all these periods needed to be named like this, but…it’s getting to be a bit much, isn’t it?) The Code was still not ready for LGBTQ+ people to appear in the pages of comic books…but the people making underground comics did not care. They were ready to go for it — and queer artists, emboldened by the growing gay rights movement — were ready to push the envelope even farther.
In October of 1971, artist Rand Holmes tackled the homophobia in the book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) — which we will some day talk about in greater detail some day when I tackle the sordid history of conversion therapy — stating that it sets psychiatry back by 50 years, and going so far as to have the lead character of his “The Continuing Adventures of Harold Hedd” engage in explicit oral sex with another man before blatantly calling out the book’s author David Reuben M.D. by saying “you are rilly fucked up man.” I’m not sure if word ever got back to David Reuben but the whole thing was a pretty fantastic call out.
The following year, the feminist comic book Wimmens Comix began its run — being published initially by Last Gasp though it would change hands over the years. As if to exemplify how much they did not care about the status quo, the first issue included a story called “Sandy Comes Out” by Trina Robbins — featuring the first openly lesbian character in comics. Despite breaking new ground, the comic was not especially well received by the LGBTQ+ community — in part because Trina Robbins is a straight woman, but mainly because it simplified the complexities of coming out. And so in 1974, Mary Wings entered the world of underground comix by self-publishing the entirely lesbian-focused book Come Out Comix.
1974 was also the year that Steve Glanzman’s story “Toro” was published — one of his U.S.S. Stevens stories that were printed in Our Fighting Forces by DC. Toro is a tragic story — and ostensibly a true on (as all of Glanzman’s war comics are believed to be), but there’s little question that the character it is about is not a straight man. Being published by a mainstream publisher, this was toeing the line of what the Code would allow. It managed to eke out a Code seal by never really going farther than referring to the character as a “fairy” in a way that might have implied that he was magic rather than gay.
Though 1975 was something of a quiet year — with the exception of a lesbian being introduced in the second issue of Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp by Lee Marrs, and the character Pudge getting almost arrested at a gay rights rally. Howver, 1976 was a banner year for gay comics. It kicked off in February with the first recurring openly gay character in mainstream comics — comic strips, that is — when Garry Trudeau introduced the character of Andy Lippincott to his daily strip Doonesbury.
That same year Howard Cruse had the continuing character of Headrack come out in the second issue of Barefootz Funnies. Headrack, while not the central character, was the best friend of the central character and so was a continuous presence in the series. Which meant, officially, the first gay recurring character had appeared in comic strip and comic book format. Pretty important, but there was more ahead for 1976. Roberta Gregory — one of the contributors to Wimmen’s Comix — began self-publishing her own work, centered around lesbian characters, called Dynamite Damsels and Larry Fuller put together an anthology series featuring all gay male characters called Gay Heart Throbs. All of these, of course, were underground comic that did not need to meet the Code’s standards and intentionally did not. So, despite the fact that 1976 was a pretty impressive, groundbreaking year….most of the United States only knew about Andy Lippincott.
In 1977, Gerard Donelan (often just called “Donelan”) — a fan of Joe Johnson‘s cartoons — submitted work to The Advocate, disappointed that they weren’t continuing to run Johnson’s work. After they ran his first cartoon, they hired him to create a regular strip called “It’s a Gay Life” — which would run for 15 years. This, perhaps, was the inspiration Rupert Kinnard needed to begin creating “Cathartic Comics” for Cornell College’s student newspaper, which featured the Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé — the first gay and lesbian (respectively) black characters in comics. This is often overlooked, because there’s no actual crime fighting or supervillains in the strips, but Brown Bomber is also the first gay superhero — he transforms into his superheroic identity through the power of magic hiccups. Of course.
The following year, a book of gay cartoons from the magazine Christopher Street was released. It was advertised as “The World’s First Gay Cartoon Book!” which, as we’ve seen, was not strictly speaking true. But I’m including it in this article primarily because the title of the book makes me laugh every time I see it: And God Bless Uncle Harry and His Roommate Jack Who We’re Not Supposed to Talk About. Other gay magazines, such as In Touch For Men would also soon release their own cartoon collections in 1978. But without the funny titles.
Meanwhile, still in 1978, DC was working hard to counteract various rumors about some of their characters being gay. To that end, they introduced a woman named Shvaughn Erin — an officer of the Science Police, very capable woman — to be the love interest of Element Lad who had been continuously subjected to rumors of being gay since his creation. Despite this, the rumors persisted. It’s like the people at DC had never heard of a beard before.
Anyways, with queer cartoonists taking the lead in telling queer stories with underground comix, Denis Kitchen decided his publishing company, Kitchen Sink Press, could help get those stories out there even more. In 1979, he asked Howard Cruse to help him put together Gay Comix — an anthology series exclusively featuring LGBTQ+ stories by openly LGBTQ+ artists. Gay Comix would run for 26 issues, ending its run in 1998. It would go on to feature Jerry Mills‘ series “Poppers,” and so many others I could probably write a whole article just on it.
By 1980, the Code itself had lost much of its sway. Major publishers were starting to get books sold at comic book stores without with the CCA seal, simply by marketing them as “for mature audiences”, and the CCA was putting its stamp on books that would never have been allowed before. Eclipse Comics published the graphic novel Detectives Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green (by Don McGregor), which featured lesbian characters and Stewart the Rat (by Steve Gerber) which also featured a little bit of queer content. Even Marvel, I guess, tried to dabble in queer content. Kind of. It was a deeply offensive story (especially if its your first time having gay men in a story) called “A Personal Hell” from Hulk! #23, written by Jim Shooter. Again, deeply offensive, so we’re going to breeze on past it. I wish we could pretend it never happened but….we’re not done with Jim Shooter yet.
Kitchen Sink Press and Eclipse Comics both, apparently, discovered they could make money from unabashedly presenting queer characters. In 1981, Kitchen Sink Press introduced a recurring strip called “Omaha, the Cat Dancer” in its anthology series Bizarre Sex. Several characters engaged in homosexual activities throughout the course of the strip, but it kicked off with the openly bisexual character Shelley Hine in that very first strip.
Also in 1982, Marvel comics tried the whole “gay characters” thing again, with much more success. They introduced the character Arnie Roth, who had been friends with Steve Rogers before he became a superhero, defending him from neighborhood bullies. Arnie ran into Captain America, revealing that he had long ago guessed Cap’s secret identity. Captain America and Arnie set off on an adventure to rescue Arnie’s “roommate” Michael Bech. When they succeed and Arnie and Michael are reunited, Captain America figures out pretty quickly that they’re actually a couple. It’s a sweet little story, and gives Arnie Roth the distinction of being Marvel’s first gay character. And, because he’s a minor character and he’s not shown kissing, and because Michael is consistently called his “roommate”…he also has the distinction of being the first gay character to have his story told with a CCA seal of approval. (Marvel made a recent announcement regarding Captain America while I was researching this…which I found particularly interesting because of this…but that’s for the end of this series. If I talked about it while it was news, it wouldn’t be history, right?)
DC began publishing stories without the CCA seal — marketing them as being for “mature readers.” These included Camelot 3000, in which the Knights of the Round Table are reincarnated in the year 3000 AD. The knight Sir Tristan, when his memories awaken, finds he has been reincarnated in the body of a woman named Amber. Tristan gets more upset when he discovers Isolde, his great love, has also been reincarnated…also as a woman. Isolde helps Tristan come to terms with the situation and the two become lovers again. Despite the fact that Tristan has kind of medieval attitudes about sex, gender, and sexuality (which is kind of understandable since Tristan is from that time period) it’s actually like pretty good transgender representation. A gigantic leap forward since the last major transgender representation in comics was decades earlier and was….oh right….a bored guy on Mars.
Also in 1982, something new and important happened very quietly in the underground comix scene. Gay Comix #3 incuded a story entitled “I’m Me!” by David Kottler appeared, his only credited work in comics of any kind, at least under that name (as far as I’ve found). The story is a brief one about his transition. David seems to have been the first openly transgender comic creator and the first to tell a story about an actually transgender person (not some wacky sci-fi/fantasy genderbending hijinks) in that format.
Not to be outdone, in December of that year, Eclipse Comics series SABRE by Don McGregor introduced two gay characters, named Deuces Wild and Summer Ice, who were presented as lovers basically as soon as they appeared. A year later, the same series featured the first gay kiss in mass-produced comics — by the same characters, unsurprisingly. Underground comix had, of course, had plenty of gay kisses by this point, but those were not mass produced by any definition. Eclipse Comics was operating somewhere between underground and mainstream — they were able to mass produce comics but, obviously, did not care at all about the Code. Their books would sell anyways.
1983 was also the year that Alison Bechdel began publishing her comic strip series “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the magazine Womannews. If Bechdel’s name sounds familiar, that’s either because you already know her work, you love the Broadway musical Fun Home, or because the Bechdel Test is widely used to sort of gauge the quality of female representation in pieces of media. The test — if you haven’t heard of it — is basically, are there two named female characters who speak about something other than a man. That test is named after her, despite her crediting her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, because it was first described in — you probably guessed this already — the strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” (But not until 1985, at which point Bechdel was self-syndicating the strip.) The strip would run continuously until 2008, at which point Bechdel decided to retire it, except for occasional special ones like the “Postcards from the Edge” story she published in 2017 for the “Ides of Trump” campaign.
Bechdel was not the only queer artist putting out new, gay work in 1983, however. In the UK, David Shenton published his first graphic novel, Stanley and the Mask of Mystery. Howard Cruse, though still producing Gay Comix began publishing a strip called “Wendel” in issues of The Advocate, and the series “Jayson” by Jeff Krell began appearing in Philadelphia Gay News (it would later be published in Gay Comix and Meatmenas well.)
Also in 1983, was the first issue of Alpha Flight — a Marvel comic book series about a Canadian superhero team. They’d been introduced as enemies of the X-Men back in 1979, but now they were getting their own series. And one of their founding members was Northstar. Now, one of the problems with taking bad guys from a single comic book issue four years prior and making them stars of their own book series was….you had to make up backstories for them. Creator John Byrne was convinced that Northstar was a closeted Olympic athlete — and also secretly a superhero, and was determined to tell that story. Now, the Code and also executives at Marvel — primarily editor-in-chief Jim Shooter (I told you we weren’t done with him) — prevented him from telling it as plainly as he’d have liked. It’s been said that Shooter was determined to have “no gays in Marvel Comics.” The comics were full of hints about how Jean-Paul Beaubier (that’s Northstar’s secret identity) was too busy with Olympic training to be interested in girls, how he would ignore his throngs of female fans, etc. Like, it wasn’t spelled out but it was hard to miss. But outside of the pages of the comic, Byrne would tell pretty much anyone that Northstar was gay. As a result, Northstar is pretty widely considered to be the first gay superhero from a mainstream comic book publisher (despite not actually be out in the comic book).
But one thing Marvel did manage to do in this year without any concern about the Code was to use the word “gay” — meaning homosexual — for the first time in a mainstream comic book. It’s a subtle little thing — a bit of dialogue I’m sure many straight women will have lived through themselves. It appears in Fantastic Four #251, when the characters of Julie D’Angelo and Sharon Selleck are discussing their new friend Grey Landers (whom Julie is all about) right before Johnny Storm — the Human Torch — comes over to ask her out. They’re setting up a whole love……some sort of geometric shape….but, alas, a purely heterosexual one.
The next year, in Vigilante #5 DC introduced the freelance mercenaries Henry Cannon and Marschall Saber (or simple, Cannon and Saber). Although their being a gay couple was presented as like a minor detail that didn’t matter, probably to sneak it by the Code, really the whole plotline wouldn’t work if they were not. Despite the subtlety, they didn’t get this approved by the Code. The story is, basically, that a D.A. has arranged for them to go into witness protection together if they kill each other’s bosses. They do so, but before they can be entered into Witness Protection, they get attacked in their home by the Vigilante. In the ensuing fight, Cannon and Saber were actually winning until the fight was interrupted by the Electrocutioner. The story almost managed to get a CCA seal, primarily because the gay characters were villains but their relationship is actually pretty wholesome — they work as a team, they protect each other over anything else, and they support each other’s goals. There are good guy gay couples in the media now that don’t have relationships this healthy.
Marvel, meanwhile, revealed that their character Cloud was transgender…..uhm….kind of. You see, they introduced a plotline wherein Cloud was falling in love with Moondragon, one of her female teammates on the Defenders…..so she began shapeshifting into a man. This story did not get approved by the Code, but still managed to get sold in stores. Some stores, anyways. It would later turn out that Cloud was actually a nebula from space that had taken on human form, lost their memories, and become a superhero. The Marvel Database officially lists Cloud as “genderfluid” and, in this sense, that’s pretty literal. Still don’t think this storyline was quite up to par with the one in Camelot 3000 but that’s not up to me, is it?
There was a bit of a minor shakeup in the comic book world, as two new publishing companies were trying to make room for themselves in the industry. One of them was Megaton Comics — who we’ll follow up with later — and the other was First Comics. Among the various hurdles First Comics was dealing with was their own unwillingness to abide by the rules of the Code. For example, in Sable (vol 1) #15, the lead character Jon Sable assured Grey Adler, his love interest’s best friend, that he didn’t judge homosexuals. Grey would become a major recurring character, leading Sable into various adventures pertaining to issues facing the gay community.
Though Marvel and DC were just beginning to put their toes into the big LGBTQ+ representation pool, the underground comics scene was really getting the hang of it. 1984 was the year that Tim Barela debuted his strip “Leonard & Larry” in Gay Comix. The strip would later also be published in The Advocate and Frontiers— and it would run in Frontiers until 2002! The strip featured a wide variety of characters, all falling under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and was praised for its depiction of queer families and for the fact that the characters in it aged realistically over the years.
By the end of 1984, there had been at least one queer character introduced in virtually every area of comics — there was still a long, long, long way to go between where we were then and where we are now (and where we still need to go!). And we’ll go over more of that journey in the exciting next episode!
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have spent a whole lot of time this past year of lockdown enjoying some nice escapism in fictional worlds with fictional people. A lot of what I’ve delved into has been comic book shows — catching up on those Arrowverse shows on the CW, and — of course — watching Wandavision. And while those universes aren’t real and the people in them aren’t real, the representation of queer people in those universes is very real. So I’ve decided to do a series on the history of queer representation in the media — starting with comics. (As a disclaimer, comic books exist all over the world, and they all have histories as they relate to our community. For the purposes of this post, at least, I’m focusing on the United States.)
So, when comic books really began to be a thing in the United States, they were just collections of strips that had been run in newspapers. As a result, pretty much all comic books were kind of mainstream — and that meant any queerness was only going to be implied. The exception to that was the Tijuana bibles which were small, illegal books which depicted major comic characters (we’re talking Donald Duck, Betty Boop, Dick Tracy, Popeye, etc) in explicit sexual situations of every kind — including homosexual ones. These started appearing in the early 1930’s — incorrectly believed to be smuggled in from Mexico (hence the name). While these were the not hiding any homosexual activity in them, the characters weren’t actually queer characters — they weren’t even characters belonging to the people who made these books. It was basically just erotic fanart.
Meanwhile, the Golden Age of Comics was taking off for the mainstream comic world. And although it was sometimes tough to see, a handful of actual queer characters were hiding in plain sight — like we’ve done everywhere else throughout history, right? One particular strip, Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, featured a cross-dressing villainous French woman named Sanjak — who was pretty heavily implied to interested in the protagonist’s girlfriend April. Though the strip began running in 1934, Sanjak didn’t show up until the strip published on February 12, 1939. She’s widely considered the first lesbian in comics even though it was never blatantly stated.
While transgender representation was utterly nonexistent, comics discovered that they loved to tell stories about crossdressing or genderswapping, genderbending, etc. In 1940, the crimefighting Madam Fatal was introduced in Crack Comics #1 — her alter ego was a man named Richard Stranton. This appears to be the first time comics did something like this, but they sure jumped on the bandwagon. Months later, an ongoing supporting cast member from All-American Comics and the comedy series Scribbly — Mrs. Abigail Mathilda “Ma” Hunkel began cross-dressing as the parody superhero Red Tornado. (Later, more serious, incarnations of Red Tornado would go on to be quite successful — Ma Hunkel’s incarnation is mostly forgotten despite possibly being the first female superhero.) That same year, Superman’s enemy the Ultra-Humanite — typical mad scientist type — had his brain transplanted into a woman’s body. A movie star, actually, so that worked out really well for him. (And then his brain was transplanted into an albino gorilla, of course.) It wouldn’t be comic books if there wasn’t something ridiculous like that happening, right? Even Wonder Woman had her own gender-reveal plot twist in 1946 when her enemy Blue Snowman turned out to be a woman. They really learned to love this trope but still managed to have no transgender characters.
The closest that comics actually got to an actual transgender character was in Space Adventures #3, published by Charlton Comics in 1953. This issue included a story called “Transformation,” said to be inspired by Christine Jorgensen, in which a Dr. Lars Kranston and his girlfriend/assistant Betty crash on the planet Mars. They’re separated, and each thinks they are the only survivor. Dr. Lars, thinking he’s going to go insane without something to occupy his time, goes digging through the wreckage of the ship and discovers and experimental gender reassignment process. Which he undergoes to irreversibly become a woman…because — and I cannot stress enough that this is the actual reason in the story — because he needs something to do with his time or he will lose his mind from boredom. Let me repeat that: Dr. Lars Kranston transitions to life as a woman to avoid being bored. Meanwhile, Betty fights her way through the hostile terrain of this inhospitable desert planet to get back to the ship only to discover that her lover became a woman instead of looking for her. Someone thought this was a good story to tell. Someone thought this was how people we would want to read about would behave. Someone thought this story wouldn’t make me shout obscenities at my computer screen while I was researching this post. Someone was deeply mistaken. I’m still shouting.
Anyways, there’s no need to worry about comics latching onto this “become a woman so you won’t be bored” thing — there was no time. See, while all of this was going down, a man/possible real life supervillain named Dr. Frederic Wertham was campaigning against the comic book industry. He had a whole bunch of, ahem, “research” to prove that they were corrupting the young people of the country, that they were leading to the moral degradation of the United States of America, that Batman and Robin were homosexual lovers, Wonder Woman was a lesbian (though to be fair, early Wonder Woman books had a lot of bondage imagery between women), and — most importantly — that the comic book industry were such fascists that they made Adolf Hitler look like an amateur. I know that’s offensive, and I wish I was exaggerating but he actually said that. And, honestly, I think it’s important that we all know he was that outlandish and that people still believed him. A lot of people. People actually believed that Captain America — Nazi-punching Captain America — was a tool for fascist propaganda. And Dr. Wertham put this all in a book called Seduction of the Innocent which came out in 1954. (As a side note, in 2013 Professor Carol Tilley went through Wertham’s research and found that almost none of it was up to scientific standards and a whole bunch of it was straight up falsified. Utterly unsurprising, if you ask me. But no one knew that yet.) He was promptly called before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency who he managed to convince of his findings. They said, basically, that the comic book industry could regulate themselves to get their “morality” on track… or the government would step in and do it for them.
And so the major comic book publishers banded together and created the Comic Code Authority (CCA) — or, as it was more often called: The Code. Now, the Code was not some authoritative set of rules that publishers were obligated to follow — but comic book stores would not sell books that did not bear the CCA stamp of approval. And this is an era before the Internet — you couldn’t download a book from the publisher’s web site. You had to go somewhere to get it. So even though the Code didn’t have any real legal authority of any kind, it was absolutely in the best interests of publishers to adhere to it if they wanted to make money.
That was easier said than done, of course. The Code was SO over the top — like SO SO SO over the top. First and foremost, virtually anything sexual was out. Anything outside of the strict gender binary was out. No more cross-dressing Red Tornado (although Jimmy Olsen was allowed in drag on a couple of occasions in the 60’s, but I don’t know the details of how that was permissible.) No more lesbian pirates. But also, no more sympathetic villains — this is why the “moustache-twirling evil villains” became such a thing in comic books — and no villains that were sexy or glamorized being a criminal. So, that meant….bye bye Catwoman! (They may have had a point there — I mean, have you ever seen a Catwoman you didn’t want to be?) There could be no swears or bad language and words like “flick” (where the ink from the “L” and the “I” might run together to make it look like a “U” to accidentally create a naughty word) were also completely forbidden. Love interests for heroes had to be wholesome, of the opposite sex, and model citizens. Romances were meant to “emphasize the value of home and the sanctity of marriage.” And there were so so so so so so many more rules, even stating what could and could not appear in titles — and they also had a rule stating that anything they found was not in the spirit of the Code could be prohibited at their discretion. Here is a good list of the entire Code if you’re interested.
And thus ended the Golden Age of Comics.
Mainstream publishers like DC Comics were working hard to undo the damage Wertham had caused, and so characters were axed and new ones were created. While getting rid of Catwoman certainly helped with some things, she was the female love interest for Batman….who was already being accused of being too gay. First, they gave him a dog to make him more family friendly — Ace the Bat-Hound. It wasn’t enough to curb the rumors. And so, a year later, in 1956, Kathy Kane came on the scene — acting as his sidekick and love interest Batwoman! Her neice Betty Kane became the first Batgirl and a love interest for Robin. And so they became the official Bat Family. (A term still used for Batman and his cohorts — who I promise we’ll get back to later on!) This didn’t stop speculation — particularly about new characters. The character Element Lad, created in 1963, spent decades having fans interpret him as gay despite the best efforts of his creators. We’ll talk more about him later on too.
The point I’m trying to get to here, really, is that the Code wasn’t just bad for queer representation is was bad for comic books in general. But, yeah, it was also really bad for queer representation….unless you weren’t particularly concerned about profit. The Code also created an entire underground or alternative comic book industry — known colloquially as “underground comix.” Small independent publishers, or independent people just publishing their own work and passing it around or selling them in stores that weren’t actually comic book retailers — like smoke shops. These comics often explored complex social issues and political issues. But sometimes they were just erotic or trying to thumb their nose at Code itself. Queer artists like Tom of Finland and Bill Ward were relegated to drawing pictures for bodybuilding magazines like Physique Pictorial — a good way to show off homoerotic art, but not a great venue to tell a story in. Queer artist Joe Brainard self published two anthology books entitled C Comics — the first in 1964 and the second the following year — but neither featured any overtly queer characters or content. I’m inclined to think, because of this, that even in underground comics it was believed that LGBTQ+ content simply wouldn’t have an audience.
As a result, comics were pretty much devoid of queer content until 1964 with the introduction of Harry Chess, created by Allen J. Shapiro. Harry was introduced in a one-shot comic appearing in Drum, a magazine for gay men. For months later, Shapiro began publishing a strip in each issue of Drum entitled “Harry Chess: That Man From A.U.N.T.I.E.” The comic strip was spoof of the popular The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series, but also parodied political issues of the time and dealt with serious issues facing the gay community. These strips only lasted until 1966. While Drum was running those strips, The Advocate attempted to get some strips of their own running — theirfirst effort was with Joe Johnson penning strips about his characters Miss Thing and Big Dick.
The success of these characters seemed to make it a little bit more acceptable to start having homosexual content in comics. In 1968, Zap Comix #3 included a story by Steve Clay Wilson called — and I swear I’m not making this up — “Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates” which included explicit homosexual sex scenes in an effort to make underground comic artists deal with more culturally taboo topics — which, after all, was the entire purpose behind underground comics! Ultimately, it wasn’t Captain Pissigums that spurred underground artists into creating gay content but it was about to happen.
It was actually the Code itself. By 1971, the Stonewall riots had come and gone and virtually every area of LGBTQ+ culture had changed as a direct result — we were inspired to start standing up for ourselves, being loud, taking up space. But not in comics, not yet. Due primarily to mainstream publisher’s pushing the envelope in the late 60’s, the Code was revised in 1971. Some of the restrictions were loosened up, a few were done away with entirely. This spelled the beginning of the end for the Code — and the actual beginning for queer comic books.
Arr, me hearties! Let me spin ye a yarn about some high seas homosexuality! Okay, I’m giving up on talking like a pirate. Too much of a land lubber, I guess! But we’re still going to talk about pirates. I’ll admit, I’ve been on a little bit of a “Golden Age of Piracy” kick and why not? Pirates are fantastic — swashbuckling adventurers, sailing across the ocean! And the thing is….they’re also pretty queer. Like, queer coded in movies and such, I mean.
But it turns out, pirates were actually pretty queer. A lot of it can certainly be chalked up to “situational homosexuality” — so much so that in 1645 the governor of Tortuga imported 1,650 prostitutes so that he could get the pirate men to sleep with women — but that certainly doesn’t explain all of it. For example, pirates also had something called “matelotage” which was essentially same-sex marriage. Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not matelots were sexual but its generally agreed that at least some of them definitely were. And even those that weren’t were very much like marriage, in terms of legal rights. If you died, your matelot got all of your share of the plunder, and any death benefits a captain might have offered to his crew. If you moved to a different ship, your matelot went with you. And matelots were frequently symbolized by gold rings worn by both parties. I mean, I know married couples that don’t sound this married.
Many pirate captains kept excellent records. Unfortunately, that’s excellent records of their plunder and not so much of crew relationships. Nevertheless, we do know something about a relationship between two pirates: that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann.
Culliford was born in England sometime around the year 1666. By 1689, he had found himself a member of the crew of the French privateer crew of the Sainte Rose. He was one of seven British people aboard — including William Kidd and Samuel Burgess. After they heard word that there was a war going on (the Nine Years War or — as it was called then the War of the Grand Alliance), the crew staged a mutiny and wrested control of the ship from its captain, Jean Fantin. Kidd was elected captain and the ship was renamed the Blessed William. If that less-than-subtle name change made you a little irritated, try living on the ship. It must not have been particularly awesome (despite making a whole lot money in privateering) because a year later, in 1690, Culliford led another mutiny against Kidd. Afterwards, William Mason was elected captain.
Mason and his crew (Culliford included) did some fairly standard piracy in the Caribbean — you know, attacking towns and ships and stealing booty. Then they scooted up the coast of North America to sell their ill-gotten gains in New York. While they were there, Mason procured a letter of marque from the acting governor Jacob Leisler — basically, giving them official permission to engage in piracy. (Which made them “privateers” not pirates.) So they sailed up to ransack two French-Canadian towns…but like, officially, on behalf of New York, and then they captured a French ship called L’Esperance.
Mason gave L’Esperance to Culliford, officially making him a pirate — I’m sorry, privateer — captain. He renamed the ship the Horne Frigate because nothing says “this is my first boat” like putting the type of ship it is in the name of the ship. The ship didn’t stay in his command long, and the two ketches that were carrying most of Mason and Culliford’s loot ended up getting attacked and stolen by French privateers. Mason and Culliford ended up having to return pretty much empty-handed to New York aboard a different French ship they managed to steal, the Jacob. In December of 1690, Mason and his crew — with Culliford now serving as quartermaster — left New York aboard the Jacob once more.
By 1692, the Jacob had made its way to India. They robbed the people of Mangrol in the state of Gujarati, but the authorities were not putting up with this at all. Culliford and seventeen of his crewmates were captured and held in a Gujarati prison. Culliford was held there for four years before he made his escape, with a handful of his comrades. They made it to Bombay, and signed onto the crew of an East India Company ship called the Josiah. The ship made it as far as Madras (still in India — not far at all!) before Culliford led his crewmates in hijacking the ship. They sailed for the Bay of Bengal, and began engaging in piracy again.
Unfortunately for Culliford, most of the crew of the East India Company ship liked, y’know, not being pirates. So they retook the ship and left him stranded on an island near the Nicobar Islands. Ralph Stout, captaining the Mocha, found Culliford and rescued him. He was dead within the year and Culliford became captain of his ship. (Half the reports on his death say he was killed by natives of the Laccadive Islands, and half of them say he was killed by his crew when he said he wanted to retire from piracy. I’m not saying I’m suspicious, but I am going to point out that Culliford had mutinied before. Draw your own conclusions.) After this point, the ship is sometimes still called the Mocha and sometimes is called the Resolution so Culliford may have changed the name, but I can’t tell you for sure when that happened. I think the reason for the inconsistent use of the name Resolution is because there was another pirate ship sailing around in other parts of the world with the same name — but that ship is also totally inconsequential in regards to this article, so I’m going to take to calling the ship by its new name that doesn’t make me want a coffee.
Culliford sailed alongside the Charming Mary for a time, but ultimately Culliford broke off the partnership to go ransack ships on his own. That was going fine, until he set out to loot the British ship the Dorill. The Dorill, however, was not some defenseless ship and instead opened fire and broke off the Resolution‘s main mast. Culliford turned tail and headed for Île Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar to lick his wounds — on the way, he still managed to plunder a French ship for a cargo worth £2,000 (which, according to my sources, would be over 400,000 American dollars today) despite his ship being fairly crippled and only having a crew of about twenty people.
Anyways, by this point Captain Kidd had turned from piracy into pirate hunting. And he also headed to Île Sainte-Marie, knowing it sometimes served as a refuge for pirates. He found Culliford there — and I’m sure he was delighted, given their history. There’s two differing accounts of what happened next: in one account, Kidd made peaceful overtures towards Culliford — acting as though he still considered him a brother, trying to lull him into a false sense of security. In the other account, Kidd thought that Culliford had a full crew and hid from him until two more ships full of reinforcements arrived. Kidd’s crew jumped ship (literally) to join Culliford’s crew. (The score is now Culliford: 2; Kidd: 0.)
This new, large crew set off in June of 1698 to leave Kidd, his thirteen remaining crewmen, and his ship (which had been ransacked of anything worth value) abandoned on Île Sainte-Marie. Culliford joined forces with Captains Dirk Chivers and Joseph Wheeler and in September they took down the ship the Great Mohammed in the Red Sea — taking for themselves treasure worth £130,000 (which is the equivalent of over 23 and a half million US dollars today.) Captain Nathaniel North of the Pelican also claimed to take part in this, but the other three captains refused to share the plunder stating that he and his crew hadn’t actually participated. Afterwards, Culliford and his allies parted ways, with the Resolution heading back to Île Sainte-Marie (and taking down another ship on the way).
Either because of his now pretty incredible wealth, or because he was seriously wanted at this point, Culliford decided to lay low and settle down on Île Sainte-Marie. Living with him, as his consort, was the little-known, pretty much inconsequential pirate captainJohn Swann. (See, we got to him eventually!)
Now, okay, here’s the thing. So John Swann was — in my opinion — undoubtedly Culliford’s lover. But that is — of course, as always — a matter of some debate. Swann is referred to as a “great consort” of Culliford’s in the deposition of a pirate named Theophilus Turner. Now, “consort” was also used to refer to pirate captains or crew that sailed together on separate ships, so lots of historians insist that no, this was just a platonic relationship. I don’t think that’s what “consort” means in this context for a few reasons — first of all, in that definition of consort, Culliford’s “great consorts” would be Chivers and Wheeler who helped him against the Great Mohammed. A score for which Swann was not present. Secondly, Swann and Culliford weren’t sailing together, they were literally settling down on land together. And, in fact, Swann was retiring from piracy altogether. So, while I agree that in piracy terms, “consort” doesn’t always mean lovers, I just don’t see the other use of the term applying here.
A number of Culliford’s crew left Île Sainte-Marie to go settle in Nassau. Swann may have been among them, traveling under the alias “Paul Swan.” Which is, frankly, a pretty terrible alias. Other testimonies, which I’m more inclined to believe, claim that Swann was still on the island when four British warships arrived, offering royal pardons to all of the pirates there. Swann and Culliford both accepted, and then made their way to Barbados where they parted ways. At that point, Culliford decided to return to the open sea and headed back to the Indian Ocean. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and sent to Marshalsea Prison in London. His royal pardon was promptly thrown out because the ransacking of the Great Mohammed was, apparently, not actually included in the pardon he’d received (tricky legal loopholes, I guess) and he was all set to be hanged from the neck until dead….until Captain Samuel Burgess — former crewmember of Captain William Kidd — was arrested. Culliford testified against Burgess in exchange for a pardon, and then completely disappeared. Rumors indicate he may have settled in Boston, Massachusetts, though that has never been confirmed.
With both Swann and Culliford dropping off the grid, this story leaves us with more questions than it answers. But I think the best question we can ask is….why isn’t this a movie yet?
Queer history, as we all know, can be difficult to track down. Sometimes that’s because the language we use now didn’t exist, so it’s hard to identify queer people. Sometimes it’s because people actively tried to suppress the information. And sometimes, unfortunately, its because no one was paying attention. The Sydney Cliff Murders are one such instance — even today, this doesn’t even have a half-assed Wikipedia page. (Yet. I’m betting that will change after this though. Fingers crossed anyways.)
The Sydney Cliff murders were a string of murders from the 80’s through the 90’s against gay men in the of Sydney, Australia which may have had as many as 90 victims — primarily in Marks Park at the top of the Bondi Beach cliffs, which was a popular cruising spot for gay men, but also in some other areas that were popular “gay beats”. The police hardly ever investigated the crime scenes, just took a cursory glances and declared them suicides or accidents. Those weren’t totally off-the-wall or impossible suggestions, but let’s be honest: the police would have actually investigated them anyways if it weren’t for who the victims were and where the victims were. According to retired High Court justice Michael Kirby, the police viewed gay men as low level criminals (even though sodomy was decriminalized there in 1984) and thought that homosexuals should pretty much expect to be hurt or killed.
But it wasn’t a rash of suicides plaguing the gay community of Sydney. It was murder. And, no, it wasn’t a serial killer on the loose or anything nearly that dramatic — it was groups of violent, homophonic teenagers who knew that crimes against gay men would never be taken seriously by the police. For the most part they were right — only a handful were arrested for the murders specifically, though a number were arrested for other crimes and then later were discovered to have been involved in a murder at Bondi Beach. “Poofter bashing,” as it was called, was something of a sport.
The earliest one of these deaths that I can find is that of David Williams. He was found, naked, at the bottom of the cliffs in the area of Manly. His clothes were neatly folded at the top of the cliffs. No investigation was made, no coroner made any report about his body.
Scott Johnson was a 27 year-old American “brilliant” mathematician (some of us can do math! Not me, but….some of us!) who had graduated the University of Cambridge and moved to Sydney in 1986 to be with his partner Michael Noone. He had applied for permanent residency and had nearly completed his PhD at the Australian National University by the end of 1988, when his naked body was found at the bottom of the North Head Cliffs in Manly. His clothes were in a folded pile, with his student ID, a ten dollar bill, and his watch nestled on top of them. Police called it a suicide. Neither Michael Noone or Scott’s brother Steve believed that for a minute and made sure the police of New South Wales knew it.
On July 22, the following year, Ross Warren — a discreet but not exactly closeted television news anchor — disappeared. His car was found near Marks Park, and his keys were found in rocks at the top of the cliffs. Police reasoned he must have accidentally fallen off the cliff into the water, and on July 28 they announced they expected his body would wash up soon. It didn’t. Nevertheless, police declared that his death had been accidental, there was no foul play, and he also hadn’t faked his death. His mother Kay began writing frequently to the police, insisting they actually investigate his disappearance. Warren’s body has still never been found.
On November 23 of 1989, John Russell — a local Sydney bartender — was found dead at the bottom of the cliffs on the Bondi Beach side of Marks Park. Police investigated enough to discover he had a high concentration of alcohol in his system, and ruled he had accidentally fallen off the cliff. Not quite a month later, on December 18, Alan Boxsell was attacked by a group of teenagers in Marks Park. He managed to flee his assailants and even, surprisingly, reported the attack to the police. He identified some of the bashers. Days later on December 21, David McMahon was assaulted by a group of teenagers in almost the same place where Russell would have fallen from — one of the attackers even suggesting “Let’s throw him off where we threw the other one off.” McMahon managed to escape, and identified some of his assailants to police. Some of them were the same people identified by Boxsell. None of them were arrested due to a “lack of evidence.”
In 1990, a Thai man named Krichakorn Rattanajurathaporn was attacked with a hammer and knocked off the cliff. This one — as a nice change — was investigated and three teenagers were arrested. They would be known as the “Tamarama Three.” Despite the fact that one of those teenagers was reported saying to the police “The easiest thing with a cliff is just herding them over the edge” the police didn’t begin investigating the rash of murders.
Five months later, in December of 1990, eight boys discovered a phone number written in the toilets in Alexandria Park, and used it to lure Richard Johnson to the park after dark. There, they beat him to death. The eight boys — who would be called the “Alexandria Eight” were arrested and eventually convicted of the crime. Homicide detective Steve McCann secretly recorded conversations the boys had with each other and other inmates — they bragged about killing gay men at the cliffs at Bondi Beach. Despite this, only McCann was interested in looking into the deaths of gay men in that area. His investigation was hampered by resistance from his fellow police officers. He turned to lawyer, and official liaison between the New South Wales police and the gay community, Sue Thompson for help but even so there was only so much they could do. Through their investigation they learned that “poofter bashing” was something of a widespread sport — a gang of at least thirty teenage boys and girls, called the “Bondi Boys” frequently engaged in it as a form of initiation.
As an aside, there’s a lot of victims or possible victims here. I could not talk about them all while also talking about the police action (or lack of action, as the case may be) and keep this post to a relatively reasonable size. But I don’t want to overlook them, as so many of them have been continuously overlooked. So I am promising that there will be a follow-up post (posts?) about the victims. All 88 if I can find all of their names. I’m still making working on that list. Anyways, back to what the police were doing….
By 2000 — after eleven years of hearing from Kay Warren — one of her letters (which contained copies of all of her previous letters) caught the attention of the police. It was handed off to Detective Steve Page. He noticed what McCann had noticed — a lot of gay men were dying or disappearing around Marks Park. He picked up where McCann’s investigation had left off. Page was able to prove, through reenacting the scene with a dummy on December 9 2001, that John Russell was thrown from the cliff he was found at the bottom of — there was nothing accidental about his death after all. This opened the doors on many more closed “investigations” (if you can really call them that). Revisiting these cases was a major undertaking, and so it became a full-fledged project named Operation Taradale. The task force interviewed the Tamarama Three and the Alexandria Eight — all of whom denied any involvement in killing John Russell, Ross Warren, or any of the others
In 2012, at the request of Steve Johnson — now a wealthy former AOL executive — and his family, an inquest was made into the death of Scott Johnson. It was determined that the original investigation had not been thorough, and that the death should be re-investigated. As a result of this, the New South Wales police began Operation Parrabell, a review of 88 investigations into various deaths of gay men — trying to determine if the crimes should be classified as hate crimes. That list of 88 deaths is based on recommendations by Sue Thompson and criminologist Stephen Tomsen going as far back as David Warren’s death, but Parrabell met criticism — even from Sue Thompson — for their methodology. Of the 30 unsolved deaths in that list, she and Tomsen found compelling evidence of foul play in 22 cases. The Operation Parrabell task force for unsolved homicides accepted eight of those as potential anti-gay hate crimes that needed to be investigated. Those eight did not include Scott Johnson.
In 2015, another inquest into Scott Johnson’s death was made — also recommending the case be investigated again, as a homicide. In November of 2017, a third inquest formally declared that Johnson had been the victim of a hate crime. As a result, the following month a reward of one million Australian dollars was offered by the Australian government for any information leading to conviction. With no information forthcoming, the Johnson family doubled the reward in March 2020 — and in May, a man named Scott Price was finally arrested for the murder of Scott Johnson.
These cases inspired a television miniseries in Australia called Deep Water. A documentary was also made that year, to go alongside the fictionalized show, called Deep Water: The Real Story.
As of now, 22 of the Sydney cliff murders remain unsolved. A parliamentary inquiry regarding the New South Wales police’s response to hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals in Sydney between 1970 and 2010 is currently underway. We may never see justice for all of those many queer individuals who were lost in these murders, but I take some comfort in knowing that, finally, there are at least some people who are trying.
As I’m sure you all know, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, there’s alotofriots in queer history. Today, I’m going to tackle another — the White Night Riots of May 21, 1979.
I do have to start with a little backstory, so let’s rewind a bit. There’s a whole long very gay history going back to the founding of San Francisco but I’m not going to go back there (today, anyways) — suffice it to say that San Francisco was considered something of a haven for LGBTQ+ people in the United States, particularly gay men. An estimated 25% of the city’s population was LGBT. That didn’t change the laws of the country, though, and being openly gay in San Francisco still led to being arrested, losing your job, etc — it just meant there was a louder, larger community that had your back if those things happened. Which, of course, meant that there had been more than a couple mostly peaceful conflicts between the police and the queer community of San Francisco.
In 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco and opened Castro Camera, and — with political expertise and a lot of charisma — quickly became one of the leaders of the gay community of the city, which was centered in the Castro District (and I believe still is). In that position, Milk ultimately made himself very unpopular with the police — after one incident on Labor Day in 1974 where police beat dozens of gay men on Castro Street, and arrested 14 of them for “obstructing the sidewalk”, Milk hit them with a lawsuit for $1.375 million. In 1977, Milk won an election to the city Board of Supervisors (making him the first openly gay person elected to any office in the United States, yes, and I’d focus on that more but really it needs its own post.)
Also on the Board of Supervisors was Dan White — a former police officer who now owned a restaurant. He was a conservative in a city that was turning more and more liberal, and his restaurant was having serious financial problems. He resigned on November 10, 1978. Shortly after that, he met with the Board of Realtors and the Police Officers’ Association — both organizations encouraged him to ask for his position back, correctly realizing that his vote was essential in preventing more liberal policies that they opposed from being implemented in the city. So White asked for his position back — the liberals on the Board of Supervisors did not want him to get his position back. Milk and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver led them in encouraging Mayor George Moscone not to reinstate White. And ultimately, on November 26, Moscone announced that he had agreed not to reinstate White. On November 27, White broke into the city hall through a basement window, went into the Mayor’s office, argued with him and then shot him three times — twice in the head. He then went to his former office, called for Milk to join him there, and shot Milk four times — twice in the head. Their bodies were found by city supervisor Dianne Feinstein.
White was arrested, obviously, for the double homicide. The prosecutor, Thomas Newman, sought charges for first degree murder with special circumstances, so he could ask for the death penalty. Meanwhile the San Francisco police and fire departments raised $100,000 for White’s defense, and they attended the trial wearing shirts that said “Free Dan”. As this was going on, police attacks against the gay community began to gain momentum. In March of 1979, drunk off-duty members of the police squad attacked a lesbian bar called Peg’s Place in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Tensions between the city’s LGBTQ+ community and the police had never been higher.
The defense attorney, Douglas Schmidt, played a recording of Dan’s confession to the jury where he ranted about the amount of pressure he was under — which some members of jury actually cried after hearing — and had a psychiatrist stated that White had diminished capacity due to a poor mental state. The evidence of this poor mental state was the amount of junk food he’d been eating — something which came to be known as the “Twinkie defense”. The jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison with the possibility of early release.
News of the verdict reached the Castro Distract. Activist Cleve Jones announced the news to a crowd of about 500 people, saying “Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. It was not manslaughter. I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.” The people there were fairly convinced that the prosecution and the police had worked together to ensure White would not have a severe sentence (although Newman denied this until his death and no proof has ever come to light of such a conspiracy.)
The crowd started marching, shouting “Out of the bars and into the streets” down Castro Street. Each time they passed a bar, people answered the call. They circled through the district until the crowd had roughly tripled in size — and then they started towards city hall. By the time they got there, the crowd was about 5,000 people. There were only a handful of police and they had not dealt with a crowd this large and angry before — they attempted to hold the mob back but to no avail. The crowd started vandalizing city hall, tearing gilded ornamental work off of the iron gates of the building and using them to bust open windows. Some activists attempted to calm things, including Milk’s longtime partner Joseph Scott Smith.
Police reinforcements arrived, attacking the crowd with nightsticks. (Absolutely exactly the wrong thing to do. This is ten years after Stonewall, they really should have known better.) The crowd started setting police cars on fire — ultimately, thirteen police cars and eight other vehicles would be set ablaze. As the last of the police cars was set on fire, the man who did it told a reporter on the scene “make sure you put in the paper that I ate too many Twinkies.”
These burning cars became such an iconic symbol, that the punk rock band Dead Kennedys used a photograph of a burning police car from that night as the album cover of their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in 1980. Members of the crowd also stole tear gas cannisters from these police vehicles, and threw them at the police. The crowd pulled down the cables for the trolleys, disabling them.
Inside city hall, Police Chief Charles Gain — at that moment the most gay friendly police chief in the city’s history (and one of the most hated by his subordinates) ordered his men to stand their ground but not to attack the crowd. Meanwhile, Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Supervisor Carol Ann Silver attempted to calm down the crowd by sympathizing with them — Silver even stated “Dan White has gotten away with murder. It’s as simple as that.” Some sort of object, can’t find good records as it what it was, got thrown at Silver, injuring her.
After three hours of rioting, the police launched a full offensive — their badges covered with black tape to hide their identities (sound familiar?), particularly as they were not following orders. They also used tear gas — but the rioters fought back, using anything they could get their hands on as a weapon, including pieces they tore off of city buses and pieces of asphalt they ripped out of the street itself. Nevertheless, the crowd did eventually disperse.
And then the police defied their orders from Chief Gain and attacked the Castro District in retaliation — they began at a bar called the Elephant Walk, which they vandalized — breaking windows and beating the patrons inside. After fifteen minutes, they left the bar and began indiscriminately attacking people in the streets of the district. This carried on for two hours before Chief Gain heard about it and went to the Elephant Walk. Upon seeing the damage, he immediately ordered the police to withdraw.
Mike Weiss — a freelance reporter who had been covering the trial of Dan White and would publish the book Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings in 1984 — stated that he encountered a couple of police officers at a bar later that night, drinking and laughing. One officer reportedly told him, “We were at City Hall the day the killings happened and were smiling then. We were there tonight and we’re still smiling.” Now, it’s true that Weiss is the only source for this, but he did win a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Baltimore riot in 1968 so he does have some credibility.
The rioting caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage in just a few hours. Adjusted for inflation it’s estimated this damage would have been over a million dollars were it to happen today — making this, as far as I know, the most expensive riot in queer history. Certainly putting the Stonewall Riots to shame. Aside from the property damage, 140 protesters were injured — with 100 of those needing to be hospitalized — as well as about 61 police officers.
The next day, the leaders of the gay community in San Francisco held a press conference. The media was expecting that these officials would condemn the violence and apologize. Instead, Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk as city supervisor for the Castro district, issued this statement: “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.” They made it abundantly clear to the people of the Castro that no one was ever to apologize for the riot at all. As of this day, no one has — of course, neither have the police.
That night, an estimated 20,000 people rallied in the Castro District. May 22 was Milk’s birthday, so the rally had been planned long before the rioting. The rally managed to stay peaceful, although the entire city was tense. If anything, Cleve Jones can be credited with keeping it that way — laying out contingency plans, coordinating with Chief Gain, and having 300 monitors to keep an eye on the crowd. However, the point of the rally originally had been to have a celebration of Milk’s life and that had not changed. Despite the underlying anger, there was still plenty of dancing and partying in the streets.
A grand jury was convened to determine who had ordered the attack on the Elephant Walk — but there was no real evidence, so it remains a mystery. No officers ever faced consequences for the police action. With Feinstein looking to win a full term election as mayor, she spent a lot of money campaigning in the Castro district — courting the still politically powerful gay community. Her primary promise to them was to appoint more gay people into public offices. After her election, she kept this promise — even replacing Chief Gain with the openly gay Cornelius Murphy. Murphy overturned some of Gain’s less popular policies (namely, the colors that police cars were painted) which won him some popularity with the police force, but insisted on progressive policies regarding the gay community. By the following year, one out of every seven new police recruits in San Francisco was gay or lesbian.
The riots had received national attention and, if anything, stressed the need for minorities to be represented in government. Gay and lesbian people began to be elected or appointed to public office all over the country. The legacy of those riots lasted for decades. In 2009, fearful of what the verdict might be, as the California Supreme Court deliberated on the case of Strauss v. Horton, the then Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom asked the court not to announce their decision on May 21. Although the court actually decided in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, they still agreed not to publicly announce their decision on the 30th anniversary of the riots, waiting until May 26.
Unfortunately, of all the things that have changed in the 41 years since the White Night Riots, police brutality in the United States is really not one of them. This week we’ve seen historic protests over this issue — and a lot of controversy about riots. We cannot, as a community, forget where we’ve come from. I’m not saying we all need to go out and start riots right now, but I am saying that our community already fought this battle with decades of rioting. There are people still fighting this battle, people our community has left behind. We need to support them now.
Before we begin, I do want to take a moment to apologize for my lengthy hiatus — life just got really busy around the holidays and — I’m sure you’ve all noticed — a lot has been going on since then just in the world. Anyways, craziness aside, it’s Pride month now and festivals or no, I was not about to let this month go by without writing out some queer history for you! So, we’re back! I was writing a post about Harvey Milk, but then something happened that called for me to change courses: we lost a legend. Not to spoil the end of this post or anything, but Larry Kramer passed away last week. And as he was someone who had a profound impact on our community…I couldn’t just not write about him.
Laurence “Larry” David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, CT on June 25, 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. He was the second child of a struggling Jewish family, who had really not wanted another mouth to feed as they struggled to find work. His father George Kramer was a government attorney, his mother Rea worked variously as a shoe store employee, a teacher, and a social worker with the Red Cross.
Eventually — after the Depression — the family moved to Maryland — I’m guessing because of his dad’s job — but they were in a much lower income bracket than the family’s of Larry’s fellow students at his school. Larry had his first sexual relationship with another boy during junior high school. It was, from what I can gather, purely sexual and not romantic at all.
As he grew up, he had mounting pressure from his family. His father wanted him to marry a wealthy Jewish woman, and go to Yale, and become a member of the Pi Tau Pi fraternity. Although Larry enrolled at Yale….the rest of that is not exactly how things were going to go down. When Larry got to Yale, he found himself very isolated, feeling like the only gay guy on campus. This is 1953, so there’s not like a Gay/Straight Alliance he can just join up with — he’s pretty much stuck on his own with no way of connecting with other queer students. So, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin.
Fortunately, the attempt failed. I don’t know the details, but I’m hoping he just like…got a cramp for ten minutes and then was fine. Probably not, because he was very much changed after that. He became loud, proud, determined to fight for gay people and determined to explore his own sexuality. And determined not to marry a rich Jewish woman. The following semester, he began a romantic relationship with his German professor. He joined the Varsity Glee Club, and was an active member there until he graduated in 1957 with a degree in English. As far as I know, he never joined Pi Tau Pi.
At the age of 23, Larry became involved in movie productions, taking a job at Columbia Pictures as a Teletype operator — a job where the office happened to be across the hall from the president’s office. This led pretty directly to his first writing credit, a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. He followed this by adapting the novel Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence into a screenplay. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 1969. Larry’s third major project was a musical adaption of Frank Capra’s movie Lost Horizon, which debuted in 1973. Though Larry later was embarrassed by the project, it made him a substantial amount of money that, due to some wise investments made by Larry’s older brother Arthur, gave him enough money to not worry about money for the better part of the 80s and 90s. Doesn’t sound all that embarrassing when you look at it like that, huh?
Having established himself, Larry began taking some risks. He started writing plays and — much riskier — he started adding homosexual elements to his work. The first of these plays was 1973’s Sissies’ Scrapbook (which would later become the play Four Friends — I gather the play is better but the title’s pretty forgettable now.) Larry found he loved writing for the stage — until the producer canceled the show despite a favorable review in The New York Times. At that point, Larry promised never to write for the stage again.
In 1978, following a break up with his boyfriend David Webster, he wrote and published the novel Faggots. The book was based around a character who was looking for love, but was caught up in drugs and partying in bars and clubs on Fire Island and in Manhattan. To say that the book was not well received is an understatement. Heterosexual readers found it appalling, and could not believe that it reflected an accurate representation of a gay man’s life. The queer community had an even harsher reaction to the book — the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the only gay bookstore in New York at the time, refused to sell the book at all. Larry was banned from the local grocery store where he lived on Fire Island. The book was universally trashed by mainstream and queer media alike.
Despite that, Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time and has not been out of publication at all since its debut. The book is often taught in LGBTQ+ studies. It’s been noted that the themes of Faggots are still relevant to the gay community to this day — the negative reaction to the book, as pointed out by many who’ve studied the book since it was first published, such as Reynolds Price and Andrew Sullivan, is largely because it touched a nerve and was more honest than people were comfortable with.
Despite the reaction to the novel, Larry still managed to have a lot of friends on Fire Island, so when a number of them began to fall ill in 1980, he was concerned. The next year, after reading an article in the New York Times about “gay cancer”, he decided something had to be done. He invited about 80 affluent gay men to his home in New York City, where they listened to a doctor explain what little they knew about the related illnesses afflicting gay men. By the next year, this group had officially formed into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which quickly became the primary organization raising funds and helping to provide services for those afflicted with AIDS in and around New York. GMHC is still providing support for people who are impacted by HIV and AIDS and has been expanding every year.
Kramer led the GMHC in a fight to get funding from the city to help them provide much-needed services to those fighting the disease. He made NYC mayor Ed Koch a principle target for this fight. When doctors began to suggest that, to curb the spread of the disease, gay men stop having sex, Larry brought this to the GMHC and suggested they spread the word. His colleagues refused.
Larry was not deterred. He wrote a fiery piece called “1,112 and Counting” which was published in the gay newspaper the New York Native. The essay attacked basically everyone. Healthcare workers, the CDC, politicians — and it also went after the apathy of the gay community. The piece did something important than no one else had managed: it caught the attention of the rest of New York’s media. It finally had people talking about the AIDS epidemic. According to Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, “With that one piece, Larry changed my world. He changed the world for all of us.”
Unfortunately, it also contributed to Larry’s growing reputation as a confrontational crazy person. He had gone toe-to-toe with an NIH agency of not devoting more resources to the AIDS crisis because he was deeply in the closet. Similarly, Larry had it out quite publicly with conservative fundraiser Terry Dolan, even throwing a drink in his face, for secretly having sex with men while using homophobia as a political tool to his advantage. He argued with his brother, whose law firm Kramer Levin refused to represent GMHC. He called Ed Koch his cohorts in city government “equal to murderers.” He even attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the scientist who was leading the government’s response (once there was one.) Ultimately, this behavior led to the dissolution of Larry’s long-term relationship with a fellow member of the board of GMHC and — perhaps even more devastating — it led to GMHC removing Larry from the organization he’d essentially started in 1983.
After his removal from the group, Larry traveled to Europe. While he was there, he visited the Dachau concentration camp where he was horrified to learn that it had begun operating in 1933 and no one, in or out of Germany, had seen fit to stop it. He felt this paralleled the US government’s response to AIDS. Despite having sworn never to write for the stage again, Larry churned out a script for the play The Normal Heart — a somewhat autobiographical look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I’m not going to talk too much about its contents, other than to say that you should absolutely watch it — you can see the 2014 film version on Hulu or Amazon Prime, starring Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. The play itself was groundbreaking — one of, if not the, script to actually talk about AIDS. The play premiered in 1985, a full year before President Ronald Reagan would publicly mention the disease. It was produced by the Public Theater — running for over a year and becoming the Public Theater’s longest running production. It’s been produced over 600 times since then, in countries all over the world. (That’s not even counting the movie!)
Two years later, Larry was invited to speak at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC. His speech was well-attended and focused on fighting AIDS. He started the speech by having two-thirds of the people in the room stand up — and then he informed them that they would be dead within five years. For the most part, the rest of his speech was rehashing his points from “1,112 And Counting.” At the end of the speech, he asked the attendees if they wanted to start a new organization devoted to political action. The audience agreed that they did, and two days later about 300 of them met again to form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) — an direct action organization primarily focused on advocating on behalf of issues relating AIDS and HIV, such as medical research and improving public policies.
Initially, their primary method was civil disobedience. They sought to get attention for their cause by getting their members arrested. Larry himself was arrested over a dozen times. ACT UP did manage to capture a lot of attention — with new chapters forming rapidly across the United States and even into Europe. (And, if you’ve seen or heard RENT or watched the second season of Pose you already knew about them. And if you haven’t watched Pose, fix your life. After you finish reading this.)
In 1988, Larry wrote his next script — Just Say No, A Play About a Farce. Despite the title, the play is not a farce, it’s a dramatic piece that is almost entirely a commentary on the indifference the Reagan administration showed towards the AIDS epidemic. The play received a terrible review from the New York Times which kept most audiences away. However, those who did attend reportedly loved the show. After seeing it, activist and writer Susan Sontag wrote, “Larry Kramer is one of America’s most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice.”
The stress of the opening of the show caused Larry to suffer a hernia, which sent Larry to the a few weeks after the show opened. While there, they discovered he had experienced liver damage from Hepatitis B and, subsequently, they found that he was HIV positive. Nevertheless, Larry was not deterred, and he was not about to lower his voice.
He published a non-fiction book called Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist in 1989. The book documents his career as an activist, particularly his time at GMHC but also his work with ACT UP and a lot of letters to editors and speeches he wrote. The book encouraged gay men to take responsibility for their own health, and urged survivors to help strengthen their community by giving back to it and advocating for it. The book also, quite intentionally but definitely controversially, declares the AIDS epidemic a holocaust, stating the government ignored it because it was primarily wiping out minorities and poor people.
His next piece was a sequel to The Normal Heart called The Destiny of Me in 1992, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, won two Obie Awards, and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year. To be honest, I haven’t seen it or read it (yet!) so I’m not going to tell you too much else about it.
In 1995, Larry reunited with his ex-boyfriend David Webster. The two were together for the rest of Larry’s life.
In 1997, Larry tried to give several million dollars to Yale to establish a continuous, permanent gay studies class, and to possibly construct a gay and lesbian student center. The proposal was incredibly narrow — something which Larry would later himself comment on the flaw of — and stated “Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale.” The provost declined, stating it was too narrow a field of study. By 2001, however, Larry and Yale reached an agreement. Arthur Kramer gave Yale 1 million dollars to have a five year trial of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies — a program focused on gay and lesbian history.
2001 was also the year that Larry needed a liver transplant. He was rejected by Mount Sinai Hospital’s organ transplant list because of his HIV. At the time, HIV positive patients were routinely rejected because of a belief that they were more likely to have complications. I don’t know if that was true or not at the time, I’m not a doctor and I don’t really follow advances in organ transplants. Larry certainly considered it discrimination, and — as we could predict by now — he was not quiet about it. In May — with the help of Dr. Fauci, who he had actually become very good friends with over the years — he was added to the transplant list at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. It was too late to stop the media though — on June 11, Newsweek published an article titled “The Angry Prophet is Dying”. He received his transplant on December 21 and was moved out of the intensive care unit on December 26. There was some miscommunication about that, which led the Associated Press to release an article erroneously announcing that he had died. In actuality, he was in a regular hospital room and was released to his home the following week.
Larry managed to stay out of trouble for a couple of years after that — until George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Larry believed Bush’s re-election was mostly due to opposition to marriage equality, so he gave a speech entitled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” on November 21 of that year. The speech was published in a book the following year. In the speech, he laid out the framework for an intentional plan by the wealthy and conservative elite to destroy the lives of racial minorities, non-Christians, the poor, and gays and lesbians that went back as far as 1971 with the “Powell Manifesto”. He described the AIDS epidemic as a dream come true for this behind this — a genocide that the undesirables spread among themselves. It was mostly hailed as a passionate and truthful call to arms. Others, however, accused Larry of homophobia — pointing to his history of being anti-sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and Faggots to establish a pattern. I’d like to point out, though, that much of what he was warning us about is proving true right now.
The next decade was a fairly quiet one, although the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart won a Tony Award in 2011, and he married David Webster in 2013. The following year, of course, The Normal Heart was made into a movie.
In 2015 he published the novel The American People: Volume 1, Search for my Heart, a passion project he’d been working on since 1981. In it, he asserted that a number of important American historical figures were gay: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Richard Nixon…. while the novel is a work of fiction, apparently he put a great deal of research into it, but I am still really skeptical about most of those names. (But I’m definitely doing some of my own research just to be sure!)
Anyways, this year — 2020 — he released the second volume of The American People: Volume 2, The Brutality of Fact. The combined work is called The American People: A History. I haven’t read it yet. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry began writing a new play called An Army of Lovers Must Not Die. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish it before he came down with pneumonia and passed away on May 27.
Larry Kramer had a remarkable ability to force a spotlight to shine on issues. He probably garnered more attention for the AIDS crisis than anyone outside of Rock Hudson. He certainly reshaped the way that the government, and scientists — particularly those working with the government — respond to activists. He had a profound impact on medicine in general — it is because of him that part of the process the FDA uses to approve new drugs involves consulting with representatives from groups who will use the medicine. He will likely go down as one of the most aggressive activists in queer history, but he’ll have that reputation because when he did it…it worked.