This past August, we mustered our resolve and our masks to board a plane and cross the country from San Francisco to Philadelphia. My husband was born in nearby Wilmington Delaware, and I was looking forward to finally meeting his brother and sister in law, and other family and friends. I was also very excited to be visiting the historic location of one of my favorite musicals, in which a number of men in wigs and stockings argued and danced vigorously and sometimes wittingly, railing against the injustice of those in power. Nope, not “Hamilton”, but “1776”. As a teen, it was the first “professional” touring musical my Dad and stepmother had taken me to see all the way in Los Angeles from Corona – and I had enjoyed the soundtrack many times.
But of course, it’s been 50 years since I first heard Adams, Jefferson and Franklin sing about liberty and courage, and much in our world has changed – as have I. We were somewhat concerned initially about whether it was “safe” to go – interestingly, some of the greatest numbers of unmasked faces in public were to be seen in Wilmington, where the Biden’s are just “folk” like everyone else (well, to some). Happily, we remained unaffected and enjoyed a wonderful trip, and as we stood in Independence Hall, and then in line to view the Liberty Bell, it had many memorable moments.
Philadelphia too has changed much over the years, like all big cities – we took a bus tour, visited some museums, and since I had never been to the area, being a gay history buff as well as a history buff, we wandered into the area just a short stroll from where the Declaration of Independence was signed, known affectionately as the “gayborhood”. We found a wonderful variety of eclectic shops, restaurants, homes along narrow cobbled streets – and I was delighted to pick up a few books at the nation’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore, where a few new volumes are dwarfed by several floors of older books on all kinds of subjects.
But of all the gayborhood businesses we visited, the one that seemed the most filled with history – even though not my own – was a bar called the “Bike Stop”. When I had taken up riding a motorcycle in my own early coming out years, I enjoyed going on rides with a gay biker club in Los Angeles, called the Satyrs (read about them here) – like many, they had formed in the years when the emerging communities formed in major metropolitan centers, offering those men who found their way to a new kind of life, and less of a sense of isolation, the opportunity for friendship, belonging, and support – and, in time, the basis of political influence, and impact beyond those areas that few predicted would ever come to pass.
The bars these men frequented, were the “infamous” leather bars, and not everyone visiting rode bikes – many just wanted sex. Movies like “Cruising” and magazines reported a distorted view of that time and way of life – I was not part of those days but being closeted and far removed from anyone gay in my own circle, I was fascinated by the portrayals and pleasures it seemingly offered. Now, having met men whose lives were intertwined with those events, I realize the gift that such bars and clubs offered to so many who had been rejected and left out, were deeper than the brief encounters portrayed then (and now) in more salacious publications and films. They offered family to those that had none – to those who felt they did not belong anywhere else. Although that history was not a part of my own – the feelings certainly were.
Walking through this darkened bar, opened in 1982 (but with a history stretching much further back in time as shown in this excellent article), I was deeply moved. I had known that loneliness for much of my life, and not found any sense of real community until I let myself accept those regions of my heart that others had encouraged me to crush. Seeing the pictures of these men, relaxed, having fun, standing unashamed were more than moving to me, they were in a way, sacred. I knew that many of these men probably, within a few years of the pictures on the wall, died of AIDS – and that others lived, and with friends and growing acceptance in other communities, worked hard to raise money for the care of those ailing, and the search for a cure.
Various cases around the bar are barely visible – especially in the darkened corners – but the photos are still striking, fully of life and energy and joy. The pins from various clubs and bike runs are framed; the artwork that 30-40 years ago was cheap bar promotional material now sells for thousands of dollars in galleries, and the banners and awards that were bestowed upon those deigned representative of the aspirations and values of this niche community may no longer even be noticed by the current denizens. Yes, bars have changed, and technology changes how like-minded people connect (or isolate); but they are also adapting to the changing populations of the city, and the mindsets and priorities of those who, different perhaps in what they seek on the outside, still long for belonging inside (click to read).
I realize as a “maturing” white gay male, of my era – even though I did not take the same steps in life as the men in those photos, or many who are in my circle today – for some, serve as a bridge from that era to the future. What I find fascinating is that no matter what the issue is, there are always going to be people who are “outsiders”, and always going to be others who label and exclude; it is to be expected, if not accepted. And yet, within a short stroll from this building, where the numbers of men and women who congregate here, and neighboring businesses, are less dense than in the era of the cabinets filled with mementos – a very different group of men gathered and argued and debated and ultimately created a model for a society that could be more inclusive, and offer greater freedoms, in time. It is far from a perfect union still, but it moves toward being more perfect – just as we do in our own growth.
The August evening is settling in as we leave the Bike Shop, and return to our family’s home, soon to board a flight back to California. The voices of the American Revolution, and the voices of the gay liberation front, and the voices of today, clamoring for change, inclusion, respect and justice, rise from the streets of Philadelphia, and our world. I will remember the men in these photos, whose faces I never saw, but whose courage and resolve, and need, gave me a chance at a better life – and I realize I too have a responsibility to continue that pursuit of happiness for others.
Although I had thought the prior paragraph was going to be the close for this post, about 4 months after my visit to Philadelphia, I find the forces of life and time that are impossible to predict remind me that December 1 was Worlds AIDS day 2021. Started in 1988, this annual commemoration of the ongoing efforts to prevent and treat AIDS, and to bring attention to the needs of those impacted by it in now 4 decades of international loss. It was the first world health day, and now, in a pandemic that again sweeps our globe, people are coming together against seemingly insurmountable hurdles, lifting one another up, just as the patrons of the Bike Stop, other bars in other cities, and an emerging community nationally and around the world built bridges. The National Aids Grove is a memorial, like so many others, to the losses and sacrifices and courage of uncounted thousands. Can we take inspiration from those who reached across their differences to offer hope? Can we set aside our expectations and our limits, our walls and our blinders – shedding the scales from our eyes – to offer love and encouragement even when we do not have answers or “fixes”? Perhaps the greater question should be – how can we not?
So, folks, we have reached the end of today’s journey … but more to come. See you around the corner – and remember ….
Hey, here’s a late Cyber Monday offer – heck, its good year round – if you want to stay apace with my wanderings. I love to hear from strangers who, for whatever reason, find their way here and find something that resonates. Hope you find joy today!