The Last Days of Gay Disco

The current disco revival conceals its homo soul.

For nearly two decades,disco has been high on the list of cultural unmentionables, along with Barry Manilow and the leisure suit. But ever since the relaunch of slut gear (i.e., Candies) and the huge success of VH1's "Seven Days of '70s" celebration in 1996, disco has become the latest prize in the scavenger hunt of the Nostalgia '90s.

Along with this summer's two big dance movies, The Last Days of Disco and 54, the top-10­isms of disco are popping up in everything from Burger King commercials to designer jeans, neo-vintage wrap dresses, and the ubiquitous mirrored ball. All the contours of a new disco boom are in place, but there's something missing, something that can only be conveyed through the smell of poppers and the sweat off a stranger's body--some reminder that the soul of disco, after all, was gay.

The only gay character inWhit Stillman'sLast Days of Disco isn't gay. He's a hetero yuppie who embraces an occasional gay identity to get out of messy straight relationships. This is about as close as the '90s can get to the profound issues of sexuality that disco raised. But it's also an inadvertent nod to a major part of the disco experience: straight people adopting a gay persona, if only to fit into a milieu that was quintessentially gay.

If your only knowledge of disco comes from retrospectives like VH1's recent Studio 54 documentary, you might conclude that gays were a colorful accessory to an otherwise straight scene.In fact, Studio was an exclusive version of the pansexual playland that had been built in gay venues like 12 West, The 10th Floor, and the legendary Loft. Here, gay sensibility met the American dream and produced what novelist Andrew Holleran called the "strange democracy" of the dance.

Even in its time, this vision of a tribal, transcendent gayness that overwhelmed sexual categories was impossible to reconcile with mainstream culture. How could there be a mass version of the ritual that occurred at Studio 54: washing down the balcony to remove the sexual detritus of the night before? The only way to represent the ecstaticpower of disco was to de-gay it. And even in the '70s, that's exactly what the most famous disco movies did.

The Hollywood disco of that era did not resemble Paradise Garage, where the fluid tangle of gay bodies wove a seamless sexual web. Instead, Saturday Night Fever used Brooklyn's 2001 Odyssey, where white-suited Tony Manero presided over a regiment of sexually tormented devotees. Repression and hierarchy, not arousal and surrender, drove that version of the disco boom. Its anthem was "Stayin' Alive," not "Love To Love You Baby." The 1980 film Can't Stop the Music presented the even more surreal vision of a de-gayed Village People, in which the Indian (who had been discovered by the group's producer at the gay s/m bar the Anvil) cruises women, and the construction worker comes out of an actual manhole (albeit with steam rising around him).

The cosmetic surgery performed on disco--then and now--can only be undone by exposing its real foundation, laid during the halcyon days just after Stonewall in 1969. To understand the real meaning of disco and the reasons it died involves taking a trip back to the gay coming-out party that launched this scene in the first place.

Some say the first gay disco was the Ice Palace on Fire Island; others insist it was the Manhattan restaurant-discotheque Aux Puces, or a place that towers over all others in sheer notoriety: the Sanctuary.

"It was supposed to be a secret," recalls Leigh Lee, a Mapplethorpe model who visited the Sanctuary when it first opened in 1969, "but I don't know how secret it could have been when faggots and lesbians can come out of a church from midnight till sunrise." Located on West 43rd Street in a former German Baptist church, the Sanctuary evolved from a straight disco for white celebrities to a bacchanalian palace populated almost entirely by gay men. From his booth at the altar, DJ Francis administered a thumping sacrament to legions of adoring parishioners, who celebrated his mastery of slip-cuing by showering him with quaaludes while dancing the original, gay version of the Bump.

The Sanctuary epitomized the post-Stonewall era, when gay men had won the right to dance intimately together without worrying about the police. But the early gay discos were not only pleasure palaces, they were also sites of liberation free from the prying eyes of the suspect straight world. Steve Sukman, who ran the club Private Eyes in the '80s, remarked that "pleasure and being around your own people was the gay metaphor for disco; simple pleasure was its straight application."

The gay club owners of the underground disco years soon faced the dilemma of all new cultural movements: whether to exclude the masses or attempt to convert them.A major issue in early gay disco was whether to allow straights to enter the sanctuary. Ultimately, most owners proved ecumenical, if only because any straight incursion into the disco scene occurred on terms set by its gay founders. And for its part, the straight party world seemed to acknowledge gays as the indispensable ingredient of disco. The most valuable commodity for a start-up club in the '70s was a gay mailing list.

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