When I had been living in San Francisco in my late teens, I remember being destitute and walking around San Francisco with only 25 cents to my name. I ate at the "missions" sometimes where you would get soup and a sermon. There were a couple of times that I was desperate enough for a few dollars that I would sell my body for a few bucks to eat. I would go to the unemployment office but could only get sporadic, temporary, minimum wage jobs. On one of those visits, I saw a flyer about a training program that would pay you while you attend classes to become a Licensed Psychiatric Technician. It wasn't long after Kenny had drank drano and killed himself and immediately after Jim Archiquette sent me and Louise suicide notes, that I fled back to Washington State. I worked for my dad at the Brunswick in Toppenish until my mom called or sent a letter to ask if I wanted to come to Upland to participate in a vocation program to become a Licensed Psychiatric Technician. I jumped at the opportunity, feeling like it might be my last opportunity to do something to get on my feet and finally have some independence and security.
After the year long program, I passed the California State board and got my license to work as a Licensed Psychiatric Technician. I had missed San Francisco so much during that year of Southern California suburban freeways. I would spend my weekends driving an hour to West Hollywood where there was a gay community and went to the bars and baths there but it was not the same as San Francisco at all. Gay people in San Francisco had seemed like an extension of the Haight Ashbury hippies, while the gay scene in West Hollywood seemed scattered and plastic by comparison. I returned to San Francisco as soon as I could.
I lived in the hotel over the Rainbow Cattle Company at the corner of Valencia and Duboce streets. I had a $10/week room with a bathroom down the hall and everyone on my floor shared a kitchen and a pay phone. I went out to all the hospitals in the area that had psychiatric units and even hitchhiked down to Agnew's State Hospital, about an hour South of San Francisco, which would eventually become the campus for Sun Microsystems. Then, one day, someone came to get me in my room to say that I had a call on the pay phone. It was Saint Francis Hospital.
Initially, when I first started working at Saint Francis, I would tuck my long pony tail, which went to the middle of my back, up under a synthetic short haired wig. I think I had purchased it at Macy's with Louise one day. I can not fathom why Macy's would have been selling short haired wigs at the time but it looked real enough that I could pass as someone much more conservative. The Director of Nursing at Saint Francis at the time, Doris Weber, was very conservative. I wore that short haired wig for the first six months or so that I worked at Saint Francis.
Since I was 6'4" and male, I was often called upon to manage out of control patients. Registered Nurses were the ones that were in charge and the ones who gave out the assignments and that would direct the activities of the staff. It often felt like I was put into tenuous situations by the R.N.'s. They seemed to have all the power. I wanted some of that.
I started taking pre-requisites at City College of San Francisco and it wasn't long until I had accumulated quite a few credits. It was difficult but I was determined to get through these classes. I had been derailed too many times by drama in my late teens and twenties and I was determined not to be derailed again. Along the way, I met Ron Greene.
Ron was gay and around the same as me but almost entirely bald. He was outgoing and friendly while I was more shy and reticent. Ron initiated our friendship and it was very lucky for me that he did. I had never had the best study skills and had never been one to create study groups. Ron had great study skills and had no problem pulling others into study groups. I really don't know that I would have ever made it through the pre-requisites and nursing school without Ron. When it came to cutting up a frog in Biology, Ron took the knife. I took notes. When it came to handling cadavers in Anatomy, Ron would pull them out of storage. I would observe.
It was the early eighties and gay men had been dying in droves from AIDS. In some of our clinical rotations, we were giving care to those dying of the disease. There were many times that I thought I couldn't do something and then it turned out I could. I always hated needles and giving shots but I had learned to do that as a Psychiatric Technician. Now, there were many other things that were extremely difficult to do that would raise my anxiety, but I found I could overcome my anxiety and actually do these things that seemed so impossible. One night before I clinical rotation where I knew I would have to, I couldn't imagine myself giving stoma care for a patients colostomy. Yet, the next day when confronted with the situation, I was able to step up and do what was necessary. We really are capable of so much more than many of us think!!
We had some great instructors at San Francisco City College. Down through the years, I would hear the misnomer "two year nurse." The fact is, there is no such thing as far as I have ever been able to find. The real fact is that most four year nursing programs include most of the general education courses and the pre-requisites in their "four years." There are some higher level courses of course, but generally geared toward management. For front line nursing, there is no more rigorous a program than what City College offered. The "two year" nursing program was on top of two years of pre-requisites.
On either a summer break or a semester break, as we approached the last semesters of the nursing program, Ron took a vacation to Mexico. He came back sick, complaining of open sewers that drained onto the beaches of Acapulco. He had also traveled on buses into remote regions of Mexico and had drank the water. He received treatment but just seemed to get sicker and sicker. Finally, he was diagnosed with AIDS and would never return to the nursing program. He would die at the V.A. hospital in San Francisco shortly before the rest of us graduated. I owe so much to him but he continued to give and left me his old car, which Milton and i continued to drive for another year or so after that.
I am currently editing this article.. please return in a week or so..
During the period of living on Shotwell, Jim and I were getting along pretty well but we were young gay men and it was the height of the sexual revolution so we were certainly not going to be left out of that. We often went to The Stud on Folsom street and danced. I wasn't 21 but got in easily by just walking past the doorman without giving them eye contact. The place was consistently packed.
We also would visit other bars along Folsom such as the Ramrod. People openly smoked pot in the bars back then. There was a bar across from the Stud that was not very popular and didn't last long and would later be replaced by a restaurant called Hamburger Mary's and the bartender there was very Cockettish. He had a pierced ear and a pierced nostril with a chain going between the two. Jim and I invited him home for a "three way." As I remember that three way and a couple of other three ways I have had in my life, it was kind of awkward. Who do you focus on? Sex with one person can be complicated enough but two was just not my thing at all. There is too much thinking involved and distraction to stay excited.
I just want to say that the sexual mores of the seventies, (pre-AIDS), should not be be judged by the post-AIDS sexual mores and values. The sexual revolution that started in the sixties, after the birth control pill became widely available, and which continued through the seventies came to somewhat of an end, after people started dying in the eighties of AIDS.
Both heterosexuals and homosexuals were experimenting with sex during the seventies. Since gay men had the extra dose of testosterone to drive them, they did, without a doubt, take sexual activity to new levels. The attitude of the late sixties and seventies was "if it feels good and it isn't hurting anybody, do it!" There was a group of sex workers in San Francisco that summed it up- what young people were saying to the old with their acronym C.O.Y.O.T.E., which stood for "Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics."
Gay men were in just the beginning of creating community and discovering who they were. Many questioned heterosexual roles of the past. One did not necessarily have to play the "male role" while the other played the "female role." It could all be interchangeable and new roles could be created. Monogamy was not essential. Open relationships were common in which one could get their emotional needs of a partnership from one person but not have their sexual activity restricted. Of course there were still the human emotions of jealousy and insecurity that had to be dealt with but many couples navigated throught these emotions- some successfully and others not so successfully.
When I hear young gay men today talk about the promiscuity of the seventies with much judgement in their voices, I know they have no way to comprehend the context of those times. Kids grow up so differently today than the kids of the fifties and sixties. Kids today seem so much more knowledgeable of sex and S.T.D.'s and grow up associating promiscuity with HIV and death. In the seventies, there were no such associations. Sex was fun. It could be recreational. If you got a sexually transmitted disease, you stopped by the V.D. clinic and got a shot or a few pills. Nobody died from sex. In the context of post HIV, gay men of the seventies would appear to have all been sex addicts, but in the context of the the 1970's, that would not be accurate. It is all about the context of the times in which one lives and the community in which one lives and the values of that community. The culmination of the 1970's was like a release of pent up energy and a breaking away from the repression of the fifties. Those of us that grew up in the fifties and sixties where there was very little discussion of sex or information about sex, the sudden immersion in sexual freedom was exciting and fun. For those of us that were gay, it
was a new found liberation.
Jim took me to a bathhouse called Ritch Street for the first time when I wasabout nineteen or twenty. The was a three story building designed for gay men to engage in sex with one another comfortably. In bathhouses, you pay for either a locker where you can stow your clothes or a lockable cubicle of about five feet by eight feet with a mattress covered with a clean sheet. There are hooks on which you can hang your clothes. You are given a towel and you quickly learn there are techniques in wrappying the towel around yourself properly so as to make it look cute rather than sloppy. Some men wander around in underwear or in jickstraps or naked with the towel over their shoulder, but most have the towel wrapped around their waist with nothing on underneath. There is a constant pacing through thehallways looking for "Mr. Right Now," a sexual partner for the moment. Lighting is dim and lightbulbs are often red to be the most flattering. Often there
is no verbal exchange between men as it is easier for Mr. Right Now to fit into one's fantasy if he doesn't start talking. If I guy looks like a hot stud and then talks like a mincing queen, it can shatter the illusion and much of the sex in sex clubs and bathhouses is all about illusion.
The difference between a bathhouse and a sex club in those days was that bathhouses had showers where sex clubs might only have a sink to wash up in. There were no private, lockable cubicles in sex clubs. Sex clubs were usually cheaper and one generally spent less time there. You got in and got off and got out, where you might linger comfortably in a bathhouse all night.
Some bathhouses were beautiful environments and some in places like New York even had live entertainment. Bette Midler and her pianoplayer, Barry Manilow famously got their start in the Continental Baths in New York. Ritch Street didn't have such entertainment but it did have a fabulous whirlpool in the basement with an aquarium that must have been about eight feet by six feet with exotic fish swimming in it as a background the the beautiful naked men. You could sit in the cafe that served salads and sandwiches and snacks and watch the men shower and bathe in the whirling waters of the pool.
If I remember correctly, the first floor of the Ritch Street was made up of lockers and cubicles. I think there were some glory holes and showers in one area and a television viewing area. Glory holes are essentially holes in a wall big enough for a penis. A man wanting oral sex would step up to the wall and put his penis through the hole and a man on the other side wanting to give oral sex would be on the other side. Sometimes each cared about who was on the other side and would try to see who entered on one side of the wall or the other but at other times, it didn't really matter who was on the other side as the fantasy in the mind was more significant than the reality of who was on t
he other side of the wall.
In the basement there was a large whirlpool in which probably fifteen to twenty young men would rest between sexual encounters or find another sexual encounter. Above the pool was a huge salt water aquarium in which exotic, beutiful fish were swimming. There were a row of showers along a wall in which the young men could shower off the chlorinated water
of the pool after exiting the soothing. pulsating waters. All of this could be observed while having a healthful snack such as a salad or a sandwich on multigrain bread. The place was beautiful and filled with beautiful men.
In April 26, 1980, CBS Reports episode, "Gay Power, Gay Politics" anchored by Harry Reassoner focused on the growing political power and influence of the LGBT community in San Francisco. Harry Reasoner began the episode with
"For someone of my generation, it sounds a bit preposterous. Political power for homosexuals? But those predictions are already coming true. In this report, we'll see how the gays of San Francisco are using the political process to further their own special interest, just like every other minority group before them. Gay power, gay politics, that's what this report is about. It's not a story about life-styles or the average gay experience. What we'll see is the birth of a political movement and the troubling questions it raises for the eighties, not only for San Francisco, but for other cities throughout the country."
After the episode aired, I remember my sister calling me and asking if those things shown in the sensationalist episode were true. Much of it was. I knew Buena Vista Park well.
"Cruising" with Al Pacino released was released not long after this with the serial killer, killing gay men in New York.
By October 1984, the cities health director ordered bathhouses to close... almost all of these sex clubs and bathhouses were closed and the majority of gay bars began to close and or became straight venues. at that time 723 men in San Francisco had died since 1981.
I think that many of us that lived in San Francisco during the eighties will remember that decade as the decade of AIDS and seeing many of our friends pass away.
The seventies had been an incredible party for gay men in San Francisco. The sexual revolution for both gay and straight people had started in the 1960's. "The pill" had allowed women to take control of procreation in a way they had never been able to in the past. This liberated both women and men from anxieties about pregnancy. Antibiotics had made sexually transmitted diseases more of a nuisance than a worry and many considered diseases like gonorrhea about as bad as a mild cold. There would be some irritation or discharge from the urethra and sometimes pain with urination that let us know something was amiss.
There were multiple bathhouses and sex clubs throughout San Francisco. It was called "the gay mecca." Gay men were everywhere in The City but especially in the Polk Street area, The Castro Street area and the Folsom Street area. Each of those areas was teeming with gay bars and gay businesses including bars, sex clubs, peepshows and bathhouses. There were "glory holes" in many public restrooms throughout San Francisco and you could walk into almost any park after dark for sex. Sixty minutes did an expose of gay promiscuity and focused on Buena Vista Park in The Haight/Ashbury neighborhood but Lafayette Park and Alamo Square were almost as busy. Anonymous, no strings attached promiscuity was the norm. Hardly a day would go by without at least one new sexual partner but several new sex partners in a day was not unusual. Sex had become a recreational pastime. It was everywhere. By the end of the decade, many of us had hundreds, if not thousands of gay partners.
Most of us made frequent visits to the V.D. clinic, (called the City Clinic), for testing. A cotton swab culture of the urethra or a urine test would confirm either gonorrhea or "non-specific urethritis." I was told years later that at that time, the test for chlamydia had not been developed so a lot of the "non-specific urethritis" was actually chlamydia. The City Clinic was full of hot young men and sometimes you could meet your next sexual partner here before you even got done with your testing. Nobody was that concerned about a little "clap."
If one had been a bottom, you were asked to spread your cheeks so a swab could be taken of the rectal area. Often you would be ordered antibiotics whether you were positive or negative as rectal gonorrhea was harder to confirm. After the swabs were done, you would then get some blood drawn to check you for syphilis. I don't think I had even heard of herpes until the very late seventies and it was something that was not tested for at the time.
At first in the seventies, STD's just seemed innocuous but then gradually started getting more complicated as the decade progressed. There was an epidemic of amoebas, parasites, giardia and shigella at one point. At that time, I was seeing a straight physician. I had been having mild diarrhea for about a month and the straight doctor I was seeing had no clue what was the underlying cause. Finally, I went to see Dr. Paul Isakson in San Francisco, who was located in The Castro and had a primarily gay practice. He was pretty sure what the underlying cause was because he was aware of the current epidemic and sent me to the University of California in San Francisco's "tropical disease" department to get my stools tested. Sure enough, the cultures for ova and parasites came back positive and I was treated.
Amoebas and parasites were being transmitted through feces. Gay men were especially prone due to anal sex and sex practices such as "rimming." Most of us were young and naive and didn't know the consequences of some of our actions. As we experienced new diseases, many of us began modifying some of our behaviors and sexual practices.
In 1974 I had contracted hepatitis b and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Apparently it had been contracted through body fluids but it didn't impress me as something that should curtail my sexual proclivities. My understanding was that I was now immune to future bouts of hepatitis b so one less thing to worry about. I recovered fully and became involved in the City Clinic study which would eventually lead to the hepatitis b vaccine that is available today.
Around 1980 my mom sent me an article about something called "gay cancer." A lot of us wondered if this was some ruse by the media the scare gay men. Then we started seeing friends with mysterious lesions. People were not sure if it was connected with sexual activity or something else. Poppers were one of the possibly culprits discussed. Poppers are an inhalant used at the time by most gay men and many heterosexuals during sex but also used on the dance floor. You inhaled some from a small bottle or other devices made specifically for this purpose and you would get a rush of excitement and energy through your body. The smell was familiar to anyone that went to a sex club or dance club during the seventies.
The first person I knew that died of AIDS was a guy I worked with named Paul. He had contracted an unusual type of pneumonia, called pneumocystis. Within a few weeks of his calling in sick at work, he was dead from what was called "gay pneumonia" at the time.
Mysterious illnesses were everywhere very quickly. The Bay Area Reporter, a local gay newspaper that had been heavy on sex ads, now published obituaries of the men dying in droves.
By 1984, San Francisco's Public Health Director ordered 14 bathhouses and sex clubs catering to gay men to close. By this time, scientists still didn't understand the disease that was killing gay men and more and more rapid rate but it was obvious that there was some connection to gay activity. Since 1981, there had been 723 cases of AIDS reported.
Rock Hudson, a famous leading man in Hollywood, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. He had lost a lot of weight and looked sick and gaunt when he appeared with Doris Day, an actress with whom he had starred in several movies, at her press conference. On October 2, 1985, Rock Hudson's death from AIDS shocked the world and rocked the gay community in San Francisco.
It was about this time that many in the gay community began using condoms and practicing what was being called "safer sex." Poppers disappeared from dance floors. Sex clubs were closed and safer sex was less sex and fearful sex. A lot of us were reading Kubler-Ross' "On Death and Dying" and books by Louise Hay which seemed to tell the dying that they could "heal their lives' through meditation. Of course, the HIV virus didn't care about anything like meditation and ultimately nothing would be able to stop it for years to come.
My ex-boyfriend's, John and Stanley were both diagnosed in the eighties. Both were dead by the 90's.
I was still working as a Licensed Psychiatric Technician on the psychiatric unit at Saint Francis Hospital and going to San Francisco City College to become a Registered Nurse. I was living with Milton on Waller Street and he was also going to City College too.
The first patient I dealt with that had AIDS was when I was still in nursing school with our clinical rotation at the Veteran's Administration hospital in San Francisco. The patient had Kaposi's Sarcoma, which was what had initially been called "gay cancer" at the beginning of the epidemic. He was very sick and in isolation. It was pretty well established by this time that you could not catch HIV or AIDS from touching patients. Many had insisted on wearing gloves when doing any care of an AIDS patient but now we knew that wasn't always necessary and only impeded physical contact. Housekeeping at the V.A. apparently refused to clean his room out of fear of the disease. Besides caring for this early AIDS patient as a student nurse, it also fell on me to do what should have been the hospital's housekeeping department. I cleaned the room. I gave him a bed bath and a massage which was typical care for a student nurse to do. I washed his lesions and made pleasant conversation.
My best friend in nursing school was Ron Green. He was outgoing and friendly where I was more aloof and shy. He got me involved with other students at school and always made me part of his study groups. I don't think that I would have ever got through nursing school if it hadn't been for Ron. During the summer break, he had gone to Mexico and had fallen ill during his visit to Acapulco. Upon return, he continued to be sick and was eventually diagnosed with AIDS before our final semester. He would die at the same V.A. hospital where I had experienced my first AIDS patient as a nursing student.