Longform

Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

Page 3 of 27


Found my baby down by the river...Knew we'd have to come up soon for air. Even as Gourley was dancing to Dead tunes like "Sugar Magnolia," other events were taking place that would shape his future.

On a sweltering night in June 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, fought back against a police raid, and the ensuing riot demonstrated that gays were through being pushed around. The American public was set on its ear. It was a time when powder kegs were going off across the country: Blacks were rioting in ghettos, students were rioting on campuses. And now, Oh, my God, even the drag queens are rioting.

Gourley, however, was oblivious to what had occurred at Stonewall and would not connect its significance to his own internal revolution until years later. In 1972, over a large bottle of tequila and with the Dead on the stereo, Gourley, whose long red hair didn't set him apart from any other male of his generation, and several of his roommates decided to move from Illinois to Colorado. The state seemed exotic, practically on the edge of the frontier -- and they'd heard that the Dead played there often. They all piled into a 1961 blue Dodge Dart, an "invisible car" the cops weren't likely to notice, and arrived in Denver, where they found an apartment in the 600 block of Elati Street.

The apartment was just two blocks from the city hospital, what was then called Denver General Hospital. Not long afterward, Gourley heard that the hospital was hiring attendants for its locked psychiatric ward. He'd never really considered a career in medicine -- in fact, he'd studied to be a teacher -- but he needed a job, and this one was close.

Once again, Gourley found himself in the midst of strong, dynamic women: the nurses of 4West. Worldly and profane, they certainly weren't Holy Cross nuns, but there were many other similarities, including their outspokenness.

Compared to the rest of society, it was easy to be a gay man on 4West. The nurses didn't care. In fact, Gourley found reinforcement for the notion that straight women and gay men make great friends because neither is interested in the other sexually. Nor did he have any problems with the other male attendants. Most were conscientious objectors to the war in Vietnam, and they, too, were ostracized by the larger society.

There were important lessons to be learned on 4West, many of them from the patients. Like homosexuality, mental illness seemed to the general public to be a lifestyle choice: People believed that the mentally ill could do something about their problems if they really wanted to. Patients would arrive with their lives in shambles, though some had been businessmen and housewives, lawyers and teachers. They might have been arrested or beat up on the streets and had often lost everything they had, including family and friends.

On 4West, however, they were treated with dignity and compassion by the nurses and physicians, and Gourley realized the treatment often had as great an effect on them as any of the medications. Thanks in part to his acceptance on 4West, Gourley was encouraged to continue his search to find out who he was. After seeing Denver's first men's "coming out" group advertised in one of the gay newspapers, he attended its initial meeting at the Unitarian Church on 14th Avenue and Lafayette Street. It was the first openly gay "space" that wasn't a bar or a bathhouse, a place where gay men could talk about their experiences and difficulties without the buzz of booze, drugs and naked bodies.

As in other parts of the country, gays in Denver were beginning to realize that nobody was going to hand them their rights; they were going to have to demand them and be willing to fight. In June 1975, a few hundred people, including Gourley, gathered at the urging of two gay organizations, The Tavern Guild and the Imperial Court, at Cheesman Park and staged the first march down Colfax Avenue in commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots.

In 1976, a group of gay men, including the leaders of the guild and Imperial Court along with gay Christian organizations Unity and the Metropolitan Community Church, formed the Gay Community Center and hired Phil Nash, a young activist, as its first director. Gourley soon left the coming-out group to volunteer at the center, mostly helping gay men find out where to meet others -- which at the time meant referring them to the gay bars and baths. But there was more to it than that.

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Steve Jackson