Learning to Be Gay (1979)

Corporate life


Miserable in my bureaucratic NYC banking job in 1979 and with no gay life to speak of, I scrimped to save a few thousand dollars,  negotiated my departure from my firm, sublet my Manhattan apartment, and took off for California in my little Toyota Celica. In retrospect, I had to leave NYC to “learn to be gay”.

In Houston, in Search of Gay America!

I drove across the country, stopping in every town large enough to have a gay bar, using my Damron’s Gay Travel Guide, and checking out what each city’s “gay scene” looked like. I even kept a list of every place I visited.

I started out at bars in DC. Then, I dropped into the Discovery Disco in Little Rock, a sad, empty room with its hanging glass ball and two forlorn-looking patrons. I thanked my lucky stars that evening that I lived in NYC.  After that, I visited bars and discos in Dallas, Austin, Houston, Albuquerque, Phoenix and a whole host in West Coast cities.

I’m not sure what I expected, but the places I frequented represented a broad spectrum of Gay America: cruise bars, country and western dance clubs, discos, leather bars, and gay restaurants. Some were crowded, popular, and cruisy. But, on average, most were quiet, with non-descript-looking guys, and not all that memorable. Accordingly and unsurprisingly, I most vividly remember the handful of establishments where I met men who I went home with.

The scene got progressively better as I visited larger cities where “gayborhoods” had sprung up, like the Montrose in Houston and Cedar Springs in Dallas. I was still intimidated by the intensely sexual atmosphere I typically encountered, but city by city I began to get more accustomed to it. My first “conquest” was a muscular Hispanic with a mustache and goatee in Houston who took me home for a romp while his partner was out of town. By the time I reached San Diego, I felt I had at least begun to get the hang of bar etiquette

Sweet and Sexy Bo

On one of my first nights in San Diego, I walked into city’s largest gay disco, the West Coast Production Company (known as  the “Wussy Pussy” to regulars) and was served by a handsome young bartender, Bo Ronilo. In part because I didn’t pay him the attention he was accustomed to getting, Bo sent a bar-back over to me with a complimentary beer.  After supplying me with free beers and several quaaludes (the two weren’t supposed to be mixed) to keep me occupied until 4 a.m. closing time, he spirited me home for a steamy late-night romp. Bo turned out to be a sweet guy from the same redneck southern region on the Florida/Alabama border where I had grown up. He was surprised when, unlike his usual one-night stands, I chose to stick around the following day.  That led to us hooking up and hanging out every time I returned to San Diego that summer.

Bo introduced me to his friends. It was an era when sex with multiple partners was considered a good thing among young gay men. So, with no hard feelings on his part, I slept with a couple of his friends, who became my friends as well. From there, it was on to LA and San Francisco.  I was exposed to their more established drug and disco culture, especially in LA with its famous Probe nightclub, where drugs and men circulated faster than a sccret among gossipers.

By the time I drove back to NYC three months later, I had gained insight and confidence about being gay. Without that time away for experimentation, my integration into the social gay scene at 27 years of age would surely have taken place even later.

.—Mike Balaban

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