David Cornelius – Generational Effects

“Places that didn’t have signs . . . ”

I made [a] mistake when I was in Pitt. I took a friend of mine, a [straight] colleague who was teaching with me, to a gay bar that was near my apartment in Pittsburgh. We ran into some other people who taught at Pitt, and they called me over and they said, “Don’t ever bring a straight person with you to the bar again.” And I thought, “It never occurred to me [that doing so would be a problem].” It just never occurred to me! They just said, “We have a place to go, where we know we’re not going to run into people from work. You just brought this guy in from work, and that’s a real problem.” Well, now that’s really dated. That was the mid-‘70s. That attitude doesn’t exist anymore at all now, anywhere.

The few [bars] that are left that are strictly gay still are pretty well integrated. That exclusionary world just doesn’t exist anymore. It used to be we had our own bookstores, our own bars, our own restaurants. . . . It was because it was a safe place to go. That doesn’t exist in Spokane at all.

We had sort of a restaurant [in Spokane], but it was mainly a bar and restaurant. It’s been so many different names—where Irv’s is. It’s gone through—in my time here—four or five different names. That used to be a restaurant and bar, now it’s just a bar.

There was never a [gay] bookstore [in Spokane]. There was in Seattle, of course—which is gone now. The one gay bookstore is gone. You can now buy gay books at Barnes and Noble. Why would you have to go all the way up to Capitol Hill to the one gay bookstore to buy a book? [Laughs.] So those things are gone. Or the Walt Whitman Bookstore in New York—is gone! I used to make special trips to New York just so I could go to that bookstore. Well, it doesn’t make any sense, because you can get those books at any bookstore now, not just at one bookstore. But in the early ‘70s, it meant a great deal then, because you couldn’t find those books anywhere but in those specialty bookstores. That was the real private world.

Pittsburgh—as far as the gay bars—it was so elaborate [in the 1970s]. They had gay bars based upon all these different genres, and which still sort of exist, but most of that’s disappeared. To be safe, for example, I used to go to David’s, because David’s was a gay bar for older people: what the people used to call “wrinkle rooms.” They had gay bars just for older people. Not anymore. You don’t see that. They had this extensive set of private clubs in Pittsburgh, so that obviously if you want to go out to gay bars, you join all of these different clubs, and they’re open all night long and just packed with people. It was really, you know, definitely a whole separate world.

See, that was the nice thing about traveling, because wherever you went you could always say, “Well, let me find these bars.” It was very big and, of course, they have all these [travel] books. They still publish them, but nobody really needs them anymore. There used to be books listing all the gay bars, or places to go to meet gay people, because it was that separate world. Like Damron’s guide—that was one of the best known ones. You used to always have one. Everywhere you went, you just look at it and find out where all these bars are—because they often were places that didn’t have signs, so you wouldn’t know that they were there just by walking down the street.

[Spokane] was always listed [in the guides, but] the bars kept changing in Spokane so often that they were always out-of-date. It’s even the same today. I just looked at the SGN, the Seattle Gay News, last week—a friend came over from Seattle and brought me a copy. I just looked to see what they had listed for Spokane, and they had two bars that are out of business listed. They had Dempsey’s listed and the one before Irv’s listed. I said, “Even in Seattle, they don’t keep up with what’s going on over here.” They didn’t even have the nYne listed. They didn’t have Irv’s listed. So, strange.

That was the way it always was. They would always have something listed in Spokane that was out of business. Or they would say, “Oh, go to the park and meet someone at the park.” You don’t meet people at the park in Spokane! But they always had it listed. [Laughs.] I mean, some people do at People’s Park, but that’s kind of a scary world that I would not go to. [Laughs.]

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[Pride week in Spokane is] very well organized now. There is just lots of planning. It isn’t just 100 people who show up and walk around a block. It’s a very elaborate organization. And then the shows they do, and the trade fair, and so forth is all pretty good. It’s just increased in its depth of organization and complexity. It’s very professional. I mean, the group that I was working with[, the Spokane Regional HIV/AIDS Speakers’ Bureau,] actually couldn’t even afford to do their booth [at the Pride festival] anymore, because they don’t have that much money. They do require that you have to pay for the booth. They have to, to run something like that. I’ve never been involved with that organization [OutSpokane, which organizes Pride].

[The Gay Film Festival has] a newsletter and they keep you informed year around of what’s going on in the community. That is a very well organized group as well. They are able to keep everybody informed. It’s a lot easier now, electronically, to do it. The Gay and Lesbian Film Festival just sends me everything.

And then the new LGBT Center, I’m on their mailing list too, as far as electronics. It’s just so much easier now with digital communications and not having to rely upon the newspapers. We went through, in Spokane, The Swan and Stonewall. We’ve gone through that series of newspapers, which were very important at the time. They were important [sources of information]. The distribution was never as great as they would’ve liked it to be, but you could find them. It was a lot harder to pull people together [then]. Now you can just do it [online].

It was really funny: last week I was reading the SGN and I think, “Well, isn’t this quaint?” I remember how important it used to be to get the Seattle Gay News. Now I look at it and think, “Ah, well.” It’s so strange, because if I’m interested in anything in Seattle, I’ll just go online, call up the SGN, or The Stranger to find out what’s going on. I don’t need the newspaper itself.

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[For LGBT youth today] it’s a lot easier!

The main thing is having the connections with other people who are gay. It is possible in high school now to do that. Even in Kentucky they have Gay-Straight Alliances or gay groups in the high schools. All the colleges have them, so you don’t feel so alone. At a previous time, you felt alone. You felt alone so much that you just assumed that nobody else was experiencing what you’re experiencing. [Laughs.] You really just assume that. It was like “Oh.” You were the only one experiencing that. That’s why it was such a relief when you meet other people who are going through the same thing. It’s a lot easier today because there is a more public acceptance and so there can be groups. You can make contacts.

And the amount of information . . . When I did my dissertation, one of the differences between males and females that I had with this group in the ‘70s, I found out that men were able to come out and identify with the gay community having no experience whatsoever, or no personal contacts, but just by keeping up with all the information in the media. In other words, they felt involved. That wasn’t true for the female subjects. They required the personal relationships. But men could actually just come out and say, “Oh, I’m gay and I’m part of this,” and they’d never had a personal experience. It was all the world that was created by information they’d got from the media, from books, and movies.

I remember going to “The Boys in the Band” the first time.[1] I was in the Navy then, when that came out, thinking, “Oh, my God, I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life.” I was just floored, because you never saw any of that. Have you ever seen “Boys in the Band”?

Now it’s a very depressing movie. At the time it was actually almost celebratory, because you got to see all these gay men talking to each other. Now when you watch it, you realize they were all depressed and suicidal and say, “Oh God. What an awful movie!” It was different effects at different times. There was a lot of literature, and so that was the way that you could have the contacts—magazines and books.

[Earlier,] it was possible to have a whole world that you understood strictly from those sources of information, from printed sources. That was very real, but it’s still much more important to have the contacts with individuals. That’s what students can do now.

I mean, my closest friend all the way through high school is gay, but we didn’t realize it until after high school. We could’ve been very supportive of each other, but we weren’t. [Laughs.] Well, [we figured that out] when we were in college. Whenever I’d come back from Pittsburgh he was going to school [at a small college] near our hometown. We’d always see each other and eventually we figured it out, and said, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”

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One of the reasons I don’t like going back to Kentucky is because it reminds of my childhood and being raised in what I thought was a fairly oppressive environment for gay people. During the time [I was visiting Kentucky in 2014], they had the suit, make it through the courts, that Kentucky had to recognize gay marriages in other states. The governor came down. It was a nice Democrat that I really liked, but he came out, “Oh, no, we won’t allow this,” and, “We will fight this all the way through the courts.”[2] And [the] attorney general gave this beautiful speech in which he said, “I can’t fight that. I don’t agree with not recognizing gay marriages. I don’t care if this ruins my political career. I’m just not going to do it.”[3] The attorney general of Kentucky disagreed with the governor and refused to fight the issue! I watched the speech, and thought, “My God, I can’t even believe this is [happening]!”

I was just floored by it. I thought, “Oh gosh! If this can happen in Kentucky, it really is . . .” The momentum could stop. I know that. It’s like when the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] was going so well and then, “foom,” it just stopped with a tremendous backlash.

[1]A 1970 film.

[2]Governor Steve Beshear.

[3]Attorney General Jack Conway, in March 2014.

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Sources: Interviews with Laura S. Hodgman on 15 November 2012 and 6 May 2014; transcribed by J. Zander; edited by Laura S. Hodgman.