"I've never had so much gay sex with straight men in my life as I did in Charleston!" His words had my head spinning in complete and utter disbelief. As my blonde friend spoke, his brunette friend vigorously nodded his head in agreement.
At first I thought maybe these two guys were talking about another Charleston, they must have been mistaken. But no, they meant Charleston, first to fire a shot in that war of northern aggression, the site of our nations first rebellion, first to secede, South Carolina, USA.
It was a beautiful glorious day in San Francisco around 1985, the sun was shining, it was warm, and if you've been to San Francisco in the spring you know warmth, spring and northern California are not on speaking terms on even a good summer day. I was giving a ride back across the Bay to a couple of theater colleagues, two gorgeous and very funny young white men who'd just moved back to the Bay Area after two years living and working in Charleston at the Spoleto Festival.
We were having a fabulous time singing along with Sylvester at the top of our lungs, windows rolled down catching the wind as we rolled across the Bay Bridge, the sun seemingly following us on it's way toward Hawaii and no traffic in sight.
Sure there are gay men in the South. I knew that but he explicitly said "straight men." (Even black folks from the big city of New York have stories about music directors, and choir directors in Black churches that everyone just turned a blind eye to and pretended ignorance. "Oh, meet Mr. Black, he's Mr. Gray's roommate.") So no, I didn't know any gay men in the South back then but, certainly there must have been many. It was just that most, no, all of the gay men I knew from the South had left; they'd fled screaming on the first thing smoking out of the South to environs more friendly. And it seemed that all of them had moved to the Castro District in San Francisco in the mid 80s!
"Can you believe it, we had to move back to San Francisco to get a rest." Huh, say what?
"These married men would get up in the morning, put on their suit and tie, kiss little Johnny and Suzy goodbye, buss the wife on the cheek, grab their briefcase, hop in the car, and stop at my house on the way to work for a little topping off before heading to the office. It was fun and exciting at first, but I just couldn't juggle them all anymore. It was just exhausting"
By now I was flabbergasted. All the gay men I knew were, well, openly gay. This was my first glimpse into a subculture of folks who are not just undercover, or in the closet even, but men who are actively passing because they have compartmentalized that part of themselves that likes sex with men. They were gay, I kept insisting. Then they must be bi-sexual? Right?
Very patiently, like trying to explain "blue" to a blind person, they kept saying, "No, not gay, straight, they just like a little diversity." So I had questions, how could this be? Mind you, this was pre-E. Lynn Harris, pre-down low as something that everyone is familiar with, whether you're white or black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay or straight, the down low has now become a part of our lexicon. But it was 1985 and I was being schooled.
After the about fifteen-hundredth time I'd said, "But I don't understand, how this can be going on in the South?" Their response was, "Honey, let me tell you about living in the South. You can do anything in the South that people do in other more "liberal" (fingers as quotation marks) parts of the country. People do drugs, sell drugs, there are bootleggers to get around the laws in "dry counties," (fingers as more quotation marks), people screw their best friend's wives, or husbands, sisters or brothers, fathers rape their daughters, people steal, lie, cheat. You can do anything, just don't put it anyone's face! It's the veneer that's important, not the substance but the surface."
So there you have it! The low down on the down low. It's a southern thing. Well no, not really. But you get my point, the down low is about preserving the surface, the veneer of things, no matter how ugly it may be, how much "stuff" is roiling and boiling underneath, as long as things are civil and serene on the surface, as long we observe proper decorum and demonstrate good manners, it's all good. And that is very Southern.
There's something else that has stayed with me about the ride that day across the Bay Bridge. Within four years of 1985 I lost 22 friends and colleagues to AIDS, 85% of them within a two year period. Sylvester's voice was also stilled. The sheer loss of talent and creativity is incalculable. I don't know but certainly have ample reason to suspect that the two beautiful young men I'd given a ride that day, may also not have survived what felt like a tsunami of death. There were no drug cocktails back then, no one-a- day regimens, getting the result of your tests took two weeks, and though people were dying to get into drug trials, (pun intended) at that point AIDS was a virtual death sentence. So the chances that they made it out of that period alive are not great.
It makes me wonder though, what ever happened to the wives of the husbands in Charleston who needed a little "topping off" on the way to work?