Longform

Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

Page 4 of 27

It was an exciting time for Gourley. The center was a place to debate politics and make plans for dealing with issues such as police harassing patrons at gay bars and bathhouses. And a lot of the social and political consciousness flowering at the center had to do with the lesbians who were showing up in increasingly greater numbers and demanding their place in the community. Many of them had learned their activism in the feminist movement, only to discover that they did not quite fit in with the heterosexual women there. It was the women, Gourley noted, who raised the issues of racism and sexism in the gay and lesbian community; some of the bars and baths, for instance, did not allow blacks. It was issues such as these, the lesbians pointed out, that made gays hypocritical when they accused straight society of discrimination.

Gourley was continuing to go through his own changes. He decided he was being less than honest telling the world he was gay in Denver, Colorado, where he didn't have to worry about his family finding out, so he wrote a letter to his parents telling them and asking them to understand that he was happy and among good friends. His mother got the letter, read it and held on to it for a couple of days before giving it to her husband. She then called Gourley to say "everything's fine. Your dad wants to write a response, but he needs a few days to think it over."

Two days later, his father wrote that in some ways it all now made sense: There had always been something different about his son Patrick, but in a good way. You were always sensitive to the plight of others less fortunate than you, his father wrote, recalling his early interest in the civil-rights movement. As long as Patrick was happy, then he was happy for him. He closed by suggesting that Patrick get in touch with Dignity, a Catholic support group for gays.

The letter made Gourley smile, both for the sentiment and for the thought of his Midwestern-farmer father going to the local priest to find out about Dignity. He laughed, imagining that, for his parents, the only thing worse than having a gay son would be having one who left the church.

Gourley did not have a full-time lover, though he cruised the gay bars and frequented Denver's gay bathhouses looking for sex, which was easy to find. The post-Stonewall '70s had ushered in a new era for gays. Not every homosexual came out of the closet, and many who did preferred to live quietly monogamous lives. But for thousands of young men, the shock troops of the gay-rights movement, it was a time to test the boundaries of their freedom.

Gourley fit the profile of most bathhouse customers: young, white, well-educated, middle- or upper middle-class. Many of the men he met had the money to travel, and the scene often included coast-to-coast bathhouse parties. In Denver there were Empire Tubs on East Colfax and The Zuni in northwest Denver. The biggest of all was The Ballpark on Broadway, with its thirty-foot waterfall pouring into an indoor pool and an abundance of hot tubs and private rooms. A man could have sex anytime of the day or night, often with strangers from opposite sides of the country and all points in between.

But as much as he enjoyed the bathhouse scene and expressing his sexuality, Gourley was beginning to ponder what the lifestyle was saying about gays. Were they to be defined only by the sexual acts they participated in with one another, or was there something more to it? He thought the latter and was supported in this view through his work at the community center. There he'd met many friends, attractive men with whom sex wasn't a part of the relationship -- men like Phil Schroeder, who confessed that he'd literally spent hours driving around the block before parking and then nearly as long walking around before working up the courage to come through the center's doors.

Like he had counseled so many others, Gourley told Schroeder that it was going to be all right. He was home among friends, among brothers. That year, Gourley also met Harry Hay, considered by many to be the father of the modern gay-rights movement and sometimes referred to as "the queer Malcolm X."

Born to an upper-class British family in 1912, Hay, whose father beat him regularly for being a "sissy," had moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1919. As a student at Stanford University in 1930, Hay described himself as "temperamental," a code word for being gay. In the 1940s he argued publicly that gays were born, not created by their environments, and that they should be considered, and consider themselves, a cultural minority, much like Jews. In 1951 he founded the Mattachine Society, the country's first public organization for gay men, but his disappointment that the society seemed to be more of a social club than an organization to lobby for gay rights eventually resulted in his resignation. He was a Marxist and a trade-union organizer whose outspoken involvement in the gay movement during the anti-communist and anti-homosexual hysteria of the Cold War got him summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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Steve Jackson