One way that evolution happens, including social evolution, is that a part separates and forms an independent stream of what let’s call the cultureome. Maybe the reason is multiple, which I think is esp. true when science makes a breakthrough, society develops that into previously optional behaviors, and then economics fix those behaviors into place. So the realization that a gay man has a genetic difference, women having more economic and biological options so that they were not so driven to capture a man, enough general prosperity for men to not be locked into jobs, the growth of cities that permitted differences and allowed certain kinds of men to gather and interact intensely -- suddenly it seems as though the gay explosion in San Francisco was spontaneous but it wasn't. And it rejoined the mainstream, changing us all.
This social revolution was an ordeal and transition with a huge impact on American life, still reverberating through society in surprising ways. Let me be the first to admit I know very little about all this, but I claim the right to have opinions in spite of that. (It’s an American tradition -- as both the extreme left and extreme right well know!) The San Francisco sub-group included other sub-groups. In fact, I would suggest that this multi-centered aspect is one of the contributions, though each part of the group can’t help struggling to represent everyone who is a man who desires men.
The SF men voluntarily gathered from the whole continent, self-selecting by knowing who they were, believing there was a place for them, and generally being unusually attractive. When one looks at archival footage of parades and street scenes, there are few geeks, fat-boys, decrepit and elderly guys. Rather they are in their prime sexual years, glittering with energy. The swishy, prancing ones are there, but not out in front. Leathersexuality (self-named) was a sub-group on the tough guy end of the scale and I have no idea who would be on the poetic elfin end, except that they probably identified as “faeries.” I know this sounds hopelessly dumb. Forgive me.
The festival of freedom and exploration these men found was soon followed by an ordeal, a plague that seemed to target them specifically but came out of nowhere. It mixed with the remnants of the social censure and punishment they had felt earlier in life. There were several consequences. One was that gay men who had spent years developing their bodies to be attractive, now necessarily had to become very body conscious in a new way. Since in the beginning no one knew where the affliction came from or what the symptoms were exactly, every gay man had to watch himself with a horrid fascination, suspended between denial and wanting to know for sure.
Then when the drugs began to work, every man who had previously been a pharmacist in search of the perfect mind-altering drug, now became expert on which cutting edge drugs, which regime, might be life-saving or at least life-extending.
These men, despite being aggressively polyamorous and relating sexually to people they barely knew, often paired off into truly intimate and loving relationships, which meant that they had to watch their lovers die. They became nurses, mothers, care-givers and sometimes mercy killers. This is a skill set that had always been delegated to low-status people. But now there were a large number of men who learned to give bed-baths, to empty bed-pans, to dress sores. It changed our ideas about men.
Since formerly productive and well-employed men were thrown into poverty and dependence, gay men began to see the importance of social services. They gradually understood that HIV -- like TB, asthma, hepatitis -- were linked to poverty, not just because one resort of the desperately poor was sexwork, but also because nutrition, education, and raw opportunity to grow and learn were missing. For the young men of color, the temptation of stealing or drugging, the uncontrolled violent emotion, the lack of fathers or rejection by unsophisticated and resentful fathers, were always more present. The Dionysian gays had accepted lovers of color, lovers from poverty, and saw them as human beings. These men had a high awareness of how eroding it can be to be seen as “different,” and -- in fact -- to realize that one is different. They threw themselves against racism and structural poverty.
The whole question of families and the capitalist insistence on men’s ownership of their wives and children, the treatment of family members as though domestic animals, has become conscious and political. Parents who control or abandon according to their own convenience call into question the value of marriage as the tent pole of family. Households based on more affinities than just sex grew out of free-love communes. Legal systems struggle to accommodate ownership and responsibility issues: who must pay taxes, who must maintain property, who can inherit, who has access to the very ill and can make medical decisions? Parents who had rejected their sons in life suddenly became interested in their dead bodies -- and their estates.
In high schools across the country the “different” often had taken refuge in the arts. English teachers accepted them as “sensitive” and in a kind of “Tea and Sympathy” impulse, gave them extra time and coaching in drama groups, choirs and art studios. PBS was sympathetic, particularly the BBC replays. This pulled gay men towards international cultures that had always hummed along underneath the conventional world, producing literature and art much admired by the monied classes. Gay men had voices and the skills to describe what they were living through.
A darker impact was the realization that priests, possibly repressed gays, preyed on boys. All the while religion was one of the refuges for the oddball, who could insist he was not “different” but rather “chosen.” A gay man who made this choice had a different struggle with the discipline of celibacy. This demanded understanding and restructuring that is only beginning to extend to the other boy-centered activities, including athletics and their group shower scenes. The tentative experiment of Nambla, which claimed that men and boys should form sexual relationships as in historical cultural examples, ran into the modern corruptions and abuses and was unable to separate itself from predators.
Religious institutions responded with the gay-designated Metropolitan Community Church, or the self-studies of mainstream Christian denominations to make room for gays by erasing the barriers of moral stigma. Beyond that, the wave of death threw open an abyss of horror and despair that demanded a “spiritual” response. Ransacking esoteric historical and minority rituals accompanied secular exploration of how to manage a human consciousness. Leathersexuality was one radical approach to claim spirituality. It was no longer possible to take whatever “religion” is for granted.
Once again it becomes obvious that a culture -- particularly one that cannot prevent itself from being invaded, diluted, misrepresented, captured by the venal -- has many parts. If a significant part -- like gay men -- steps away from its previous role and claims both the right to participate in the mainstream and the right to stand apart from it -- even in opposition to it -- then that changes everything. Some will call this “coarsening,” but little is more coarse than coming home drunk and beating up one’s family, particularly gay sons. Little is more degenerate than letting poor people die from curable disease because helping them is not profit making.
Geoff Mains, Brit-born/Canadian, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the U of Toronto in 1972 and did a B.C. post-doc in forest ecology. Copies of his first book, “The Oxygen Revolution” are on Amazon Canada, but at $30 out of my reach for now. I found an article at this site: http://exacteditions.theecologist.org/print/307/308/6360/2/13 He was a genuine scientist used to thinking about physiology in a systems way. He felt that this symbiosis of intimate use of pain was a way of triggering the release of endorphins. When he joined the gay revolution in San Fran, a mix of male sexuality and polyamorousness which was also vulnerable to the abuses of domination/submission, and even more vulnerable to the transmission of viruses and microbes, he understood all that.
Before the internet one way of converting ideas to an economy was writing and publishing books. Art and psychotherapy are also interested in these concepts, which draw on many realms including anthropology, religion, and sci-fi. The ideas are intimidating, iconoclastic, and so powerful that even diluted and candified juvenile versions have a strong hold on the media where they are acted out in gladiator and space hero fantasies. In the end, dying, Mains mourned, “I stand, uncertain . . . The past that I believed in, the times I lived for, are gone.” They are and they aren’t. S/M, in its flesh grappling and invading, has become on one hand so trivialized that a chirpy young female on YouTube explains fisting, but also it remains a contributor to the radical redesign of our culture. He says, “North Americans have yet to truly accept the animal reality of the human condition.”
There is a National Leatherman’s Association International. It opposes domestic abuse. If a boy were being beaten and assaulted by adults, and no one intervened, and if a Leatherman arrived on a Harley and knocked on the door, could he make a difference?