Code Talker

I came out of the closet in the golden summer of gay liberation, six years after the fiery Stonewall riots, six years before the firestorm of AIDS. I told a high school friend who, I was sure, was gay too. Not so, he told me. He didn’t mind that I was gay, but he wasn’t “that way.”

Except that he was gay — very gay — despite his protests.

It was, in retrospect, my first lesson in the delicate art of coming out. It’s always better to come out to straight people, I discovered. They’re charmed by the revelation, often honored by the confidence. It gives them a chance to bestow their seal of approval, to assure you of their support and acceptance. It lightens their load.

The next friend I told, a coworker at a weekly newspaper in the liberal seaside town of Hermosa Beach, California, put me at ease immediately. “I didn’t think you were gay,” he encouraged me, boosting my fragile sense of masculinity. “I just thought you were English.”

Greg took a sincere interest in helping me acclimate to my newfound identity as an out gay guy. He even accompanied me to some of the area’s thriving gay clubs — his girlfriend resentfully in tow — so I wouldn’t feel like a loner.

Not a fashionable look in the disco era. But a look nonetheless.
Not a fashionable look in the disco era. But a look nonetheless.

Gradually, like a little bird leaving the nest, I struck out on my own, exploring Southern California’s remarkably diverse gay scene, from the friendly Pink Elephant bar in Santa Monica to the discriminating (in every sense of the word) 8709 bathhouse in West Hollywood, where a line of pre-screened patrons snaked around the block after dark.

What I learned of gay life came in dribs and drabs from the other young men I met around the city, and from the tacky publications piled up at the door of most gay clubs. The hanky code, I learned from a magazine called DATABOY, was a surefire way to avoid unnecessary confusion when cruising for sex. Different colored bandanas strategically placed in a back pocket signaled your preferred activities.

In time, I became somewhat more confident in the rituals of the bars and baths, while never entirely successful in connecting with the men of my dreams. For all the sexual energy that marked the era, Southern California’s gay community remained a tightly regulated society, where looks, youth, money and sexual prowess were filtered through a complex algorithm that allowed no margin of error.

“Plaid looks ridiculous on you,” I was lectured by a young lesbian I met at the Pink Elephant. “And sideburns are definitely out.” But, in a foolish act of rebellion, I refused to change my look. Having finally released myself from the bounds of the closet, I told her, I had no interest in trying on a straightjacket, no matter the designer label.

But, of course, she was right, and I drove home alone.

Youth, it turns out, covers a multitude of sins, even sins against fashion, and within a few weeks I had a new boyfriend. He approached me at one of the local clubs a few miles from my home. “My friends say you’re not my type at all,” he declared with an appraising nod at my torn denim jeans. “But I think you look interesting.”

I fidgeted with one of my sideburns and ordered him a screwdriver. Sometimes you have to take a risk, we both decided. Besides, I realized too late, I had left my hanky code in the car.