By Tim Murphy
Well after midnight the Mattachine 2.0 crowd spills out onto the sidewalk. I ask performance artists Joseph Keckler and La JohnJoseph and their friend Stephen Kent Jusick, an experimental filmmaker: Why are we getting all verklempt about a painful, dangerous time for gays?
'Danger is exciting,' says Keckler.
'I think a little homophobia goes a long way in keeping us strong and not soft.'
Joseph, who's sort of dressed like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan but with black lipstick, disagrees: 'As much fun as homophobia might provide us, there are kids in places who aren't as lucky as us. If they want to wear black lipstick, it's a hassle for them.'
'The assimilationists win -- that's what happening,' says Jusick.
Joseph takes offense. 'I am hardly the face of assimilation!' We're all interrupted when a huge, belching garbage truck backs up on the sidewalk. 'Dive in, dive in!' people start shrieking. A garbageman in a do-rag that reads PUETRO RICO scowls at us. It all feels very Old New York, with rouged nelly queens and surly trade mixing it up.
I wander back inside, where DJs PJ and Amber have jumped from Judy's 'Get Happy' to Cher's 'Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves' to Cheap Trick's 'He's a Whore.' I ask Aaron Korntreger, 27, a tall, good-looking architect, what it's like rubbing shoulders with guys older than his father. 'Just by being next to each other, even if you don't necessarily interact, you're sharing a space,' he says. 'It's an acknowledgment that they exist and that they're not parasites.' Hmm, a touch condescending? I think about what Mitchell had said to me: 'There's a lot of old guys there that grew up in a spirit of repression and are kind of sad. We want to cheer them up.'
Truth be told, nearly all the older guys except Richard, Kevin, and Tom had cleared out by about 11, just when things were picking up steam. I ask the trio: Do we younger guys just not realize how bad it was for gays pre-Stonewall?
They look at me incredulously. 'I don't think you realize how good it was,' says Richard. 'It was fabulous. It was absolute freedom for everything!' But you could lose your job for being gay then, I whine. 'Some people did, but I never had that kind of job,' he replies blithely.
Kevin pretty much says the same thing. 'You'd just hang out in a gay circle and ignore the whole straight society,' he says.
'I had a horrible time coming out of the closet,' Tom acknowledges. 'A lot of people struggled and still do. I think it's easier for kids now that we're assimilated and getting rights.' But, he continues, 'being part of a subculture is very attractive to me. I'd hate to be straight. And I'd hate to be your age.' (I'm 39.) 'I was born in 1948; it's the best fucking time to have been born. I've had more sex -- it was un-fucking-believable. All the baths!'
I think back to earlier that night, when I'd chatted with 23-year-old Albert, a cherub with a Mohawk and a hobo bag from Target who'd just moved from Detroit ('Just like Madonna!' he said) and was working three jobs while he tried to make it as a writer. Would he really have wanted to be gay here 40, 50 years ago? He said he thought that, regardless of how hard it was for gays elsewhere, the city had always been a special oasis. 'I imagine that in Manhattan, wasn't it just [that] everybody was everybody, and it didn't matter?' he said.
And now -- as we approach 2:30 a.m., as the filmmaker Stephen Winter and drag artist Glenn Marla dirty-dance to Chaka Khan's 'Ain't Nobody,' as Justin Bond makes out with a lushly tressed trans gal -- I realize: Albert's kind of right. Whether it's the closeted '60s, the hedonistic '70s, the AIDS-shadowed '80s and '90s, or the overgentrified, overassimilated aughts, when you're young and free in the capital of the world, you work around the temper of the times and make your own freedom. Let's sip to that.