Stuck in Oz: Two Gay Men Tackle Love & Sex in the 1970s (Part 1)

This is the story of a friendship that reflects the sexual freedom of the early LGBTQ movement of the 1970s. It’s also about how two friends responded in their own ways to a disaster that interrupted their lives.

What do we do when life as we know it starts collapsing all around us? How do we navigate a time of catastrophe? What voices do we trust?

My friend Richard Hendlowitch might be alive today if he hadn’t followed the recommendations of our government’s scientific leadership. Powerful forces of persuasion had convinced Rich and thousands of others to go down a dangerous path.

Rich spent the end of his life suffering needlessly from AZT, the first federally approved drug for AIDS. It very likely hastened his death at age 39. One year later, effective anti-retroviral drugs became available that could have saved his life. In a public health crisis, survival can depend on not blindly following official advice. This story is about one friend who did, and one friend who didn’t.

Photobooth X 1 Aug 1982
Me & Rich, August 1982.
Coming out on Christopher Street in the 1970s, which served as Main Street for queer life in New York City, was like Dorothy waking up in Oz. It was as if the world switched from dull grey inside the closet to glorious Technicolor once we came out. With its eclectic people, vivid colors and dancing crowds, joining in led many of us to question everything we’d been taught to believe about ourselves.

That questioning didn’t always stop there. The early gay-lib slogan, “We are everywhere,” captured the motley multicultural melting pot that was urban “gay” life in the 1970s. We were a movement without standards: all you had to do to join was show up. Wasn’t that the way America was supposed to be, the old “give me your tired, your poor…yearning to be free?” The social collision of the first generation of liberated queers, ran the gamut from filthy rich to broke-ass poor, from immigrants who could barely speak English to those who traced their lineage to the Mayflower. A political movement that bridged all societal divides was thrilling in its potential, but that doesn’t mean most of us thought about it or cared.

Loud mouths were all the fashion in the new “gay is good” era. It fostered confrontation and self-examination. Say something racist or offensive about any group and someone was usually nearby to confront you. Once we threw off the shackles of how we were taught to hate ourselves and each other, it led many of us to question everything we were taught.

But that’s my take on the years after “gay lib” began, which radicalized me. My friend Rich was more representative: he was just looking for sex and someone to love. He didn’t believe in changing the world; all he wanted was to make art and feel included.

To come out in the 1970s was to be part of a revolutionary cultural shift. The first post-gay lib generation no longer had to suffer in isolation. But unlike Dorothy, many of us couldn’t go home anymore. Once you believed “gay is good” you were literally or figuratively stuck in Oz.

With so many families turning their backs on us, and many of us not telling our families, friends became the building blocks for a new kind of family, the ones we pieced together for ourselves. Christopher Street taught us that there was safety in numbers, but it wasn’t just sexual exuberance that made the 1970s what they were: Wherever we congregated, queer friendships were in bloom.

Rich and I met in September 1977 during our first week at New York University’s Graduate Film Program on East 7th Street. What tipped us off about each other was that we both kept befriending women classmates. We were also the only two students lugging large, overburdened shoulder bags that made us look like fleeing refugees. We first bumped into each other while stepping outside to have a cigarette between classes.

 

“Got a light?” Rich asked me.

Three little words, but as soon as he said them, they resonated in a way that made us both start laughing.

“That is such a gay bar line,” I said.

Guilty as charged,” Rich shot back.

“What a relief. I thought I was the only one here.”  Rich nodded to say, so did I.

“That’s quite a pocketbook you’re hauling around,” he joked. “I thought mine was bad.”

“Yours looks like it weighs more than you do,” I responded in a regrettable body-conscious remark that was as much a reference to him looking thin as it was a sign of the newly emerging gay male gym culture.

“It’s the damn commute,” Rich explained. “I can’t just hop a cab back to my apartment when I need something, like these trust fund film school kids.”

“Tell me about it: I’m only a mile north of the Lincoln Tunnel but it takes two hellish hours in bumper to bumper traffic to get here.”

“You’re from Jersey?” Rich asked.  “So am I.”

In our first conversation, we were amazed by the coincidences in our lives. We’d grown up in the same blue-collar county, Rich in Rahway, me in Union. We’d graduated from Rutgers University that June, moved onto the same street in North Jersey, and ended up in the same classes on the other side of the Hudson River. Both of our lovers were named Robert, although Rich’s lover was called Bobby and mine was Rob. We had the same first name, though I called him Rich and he called me Richard.

XMAS 83 RICH N BOB CRPD 2

Rich & Bobby

37. RICH_&_ROB_cuddle_at_Rutgers_1976.jpg

Me & Rob

“Its like we’ve been living parallel lives,” Rich said. “So, tell me, who’s your girl?”

“My girl?”  I asked.

“Judy, Liza, Bette – oh, wait, you’re a Hebe: it must be Babs. For me, it’s Jayne Mansfield — my muse. She had no experience — but she knew Hollywood — so, she stuck out her big tits and climbed the Hollywood ladder the only way she could.”

That’s where you get your inspiration?” I asked.

“Oh, hell yeah,” Rich replied, “I have pictures of me putting flowers on her grave in Argyle, Pennsylvania. You should see her headstone – it’s a pink-shaped heart.”

 

At first glance, Rich came off as borderline anti-Semitic (he wasn’t), bereft of feminist consciousness (not completely) and apolitical. To me, activism was self-esteem, a belief that people deserve better, but Rich didn’t see politics as a way to get there.

While my women friends were politically engaged, my gay friends weren’t. The only way I could lure one to a protest was to tell him how hot the guys would be. We all mocked the self-hating queens depicted in the 1960s gay classic, “Boys in the Band” as so last generation, but in private, we struggled to accept ourselves, and with good reason.

In 1977, who really knew what it meant to be a “gay man” or how to live one’s life? It had only been four years since the American Psychiatric Association ended their longstanding diagnosis that “lesbians and gay men” suffered from a mental disorder that was curable with psychotherapy. Now, suddenly, we didn’t. We could still be fired from our jobs, kicked out of apartments or arrested by police for a variety of reasons. It also left our sex and love lives criminalized, all of which begged the question, who were we?

As I recall, we acted like we knew, but it’s not as if we had relatives to model ourselves after or to rebel against. Coming out was the first step but where did “queers” belong? How do we build a life? Bette Midler’s 1973 gay anthem, “Friends,” offered one suggestion to those who’d just come out:

And I am all alone 

There is no one here beside me

And my problems have all gone

There is no one to deride me…

I had some friends, but they’re gone

Something came and took them away

And from the dust to the dawn

Here is where I’ll stay

Standing at the end of the road, boys

Waiting for my new friends to come…

 

“Who’s your favorite filmmaker?” I asked Rich.

“Douglas Sirk and Hitchcock but now I’d have to say it’s John Waters.”

“I love him!” I shouted. “I actually met Divine when I saw him Off Broadway in ‘Women Behind Bars’.”

“Honey,” Rich paused for dramatic effect, “I met John Waters!”

How?”

“I wrote to him about wanting to make films and he invited me to his house in Baltimore. He said, ‘don’t waste your money on film school – use it to make films.’”

“I want the whole story,” I told Rich. “We have 45 minutes before next class. Let’s go somewhere to talk.”

“Should we do a quick beer and cruise on Christopher Street?” Rich teased.

“It’s fifteen minutes to get there and fifteen minutes back. Is it worth it?”

We raced to the West Village with our shoulder bags flopping as fast as our tongues. By the time we reached Boots & Saddles, I was already thinking, Rich could be a soul mate.

Chatting away at the bar as Donna Summer serenaded us on the sound system, Rich and I clinked our beer bottles together in a toast to how grateful we felt to be exactly where we were in that precise moment in time.RB RH JUNE291980 CRPDWhen we got back to class on that warm, late summer afternoon – beer-buzzed, sweaty and panting from racing back — we looked like we’d just come from having sex. We were bubbling over from something that felt even better: two men affectionately reassuring each other as we confided our most intimate experiences. This began a profound level of trust and intimacy that would last the rest of our lives.

We became inseparable at school, two creative spirits who wanted the best for each other. We didn’t want to compete – we wanted to help each other be the best we could, the best we two “faggots” could. I had friendships like this with women, but it was harder to find with gay men who, just like straight men, were often raised amid unrelenting pressure to compete and adopt adversarial relationships. Rich was the gay brother I’d longed for.

We began double-dating with our respective lovers and having dinner at each other’s apartments. It felt so cutting edge, especially at a time when we couldn’t step outside looking like lovers without fear for our safety. When Rich’s other best friend, Angelo, started joining us, my friends and his friends became our friends.

In an age before cell phones, the two Roberts would call and comfort each other when the two Richards were late getting home from NYU. Rob and Bobby became suspicious of our whereabouts when film shoots began to stretch a full day of classes late into the night. As our first semester was ending, their suspicions became justified.

One night a film shoot ran past 2 am. Rich and I had class seven hours later with two back and forth commutes, so we crashed overnight at the nearby Club Baths. Gay bathhouses offered student discounts. I forget which one of us had a joint that night, but I remember us giggling hysterically in our cubicle and bopping to disco hits playing on the sound system that muffled the recurrent sounds of men having sex nearby.

CLUB BATHS AD photoGay bar guide ad, 1977

We decided to dim our room light, open our door and check out the men prowling by. But as one towel-clad, half-naked man after another cruised past, the mood changed, our giggling stopped. One passing guy provoked a gut reaction in Rich.

“Holy crap!” Rich whispered to me. “That’s my type.”

Rich re-wrapped his towel around his waist and flashed me a see-you-later grin. As I was about to tell him, “the girl can’t help it,” a handsome man stopped in our doorway. He nodded to me. I froze in desire. He walked in, slid off his towel and I shut the door.

CLUB BATHS AD pageWe hadn’t gone to the Club for sex but resisting it in a bathhouse didn’t last long. Rich and I often talked about the strain our grad school schedules were putting on our relationships and the challenge of keeping sex alive with a longtime partner, especially amid the kid in the candy store aspect of gay male culture. In 1977, who else was there to talk to about such things?  Parents? Doctors? Syndicated advice columnists?

Like so many others, we were trying to find the balance between what we needed, what we wanted and what we valued. As Rich saw it, “What’s the big deal about sex with strangers while you’re in a relationship? Sex doesn’t have to mean anything.” Then, in his half-hearted, perfectly awful Jayne Mansfield imitation, he added, “We can have our cake and eat it too!”

Rich knew Bobby saw other men. Lots of gay couples operated by mutually created rules that permitted sex with others but with agreed upon boundaries. Sometimes they worked; sometimes they didn’t, sometimes they had to be renegotiated.

Rich and I went to the baths several times that year, which posed a concern: sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Gay bar guides ran public service ads urging gay men to get tested every three months. Rich knew about the two free STI clinics run by gay men for gay men – the St. Marks Health clinic located a block from school and the Gay Men’s Health Project in Sheridan Square. I dreaded going alone but not with Rich. We’d share a joint on the streets as we walked to the clinic (cops left us alone back then) and make slut jokes while filling out our “Patient Sexual History” forms.

“Excuse me,” Rich told the clinic receptionist as he handed us clipboards, “my friend here is gonna need much more paper than this.”

My laughter ended with a Q-tip twisted into my urethra to test for gonorrhea. Rich took it all in stride: “Pills, shots and appointments aren’t pleasant, but look at all the fun we have. Once in a while, you gotta pay the piper.” But that didn’t ease my squeamishness.                                                                      *       *       *BULLDOG Show 1971Rich grew up breeding bull dogs and visiting flea markets with his family. He developed a passion for buying old furniture and restoring and selling it at a huge profit. He could make money doing what he loved, be his own boss and avoid minimum wage jobs.

Having worked at McDonald’s, I admired that. We’d both grown up being told that a college degree guaranteed lifelong financial security, a place in the middle class, only to discover when we got to Rutgers, that it was no longer true. Guys mocked us for wanting to be artists. We thought we’d have our degrees to fall back on, but we knew that if we didn’t make it as filmmakers we were doomed to what we saw as soul-sucking, insufferably hetero, 9 to 5 office jobs.

As our year at NYU ended, I was just getting by on food stamps. I took a work/study job through NYU for the summer, a secretarial position at a left-wing filmmakers’ collective. Rich was selling art deco furniture, which enabled him to skirt the economic decline hitting our friends. Those with trades — decorators, plumbers, haircutters — saw their incomes rise, while college-educated, debt-saddled friends faced diminishing prospects.

That summer, when Rich and Bobby returned from Provincetown, I told Rich I had to take a one-year financial leave of absence from NYU. He was devastated, but so was I.

In spring 1979, as Rich finished his second year at NYU, I realized that my $140.00 weekly salary didn’t leave enough savings to return. I knew that whatever I was striving to be, wasting 3 hours a day commuting was not how to get there – living in NYC was. It was a painful decision but when Rob told me he’d never move to Manhattan, I left him, knowing I was hurting him and fearing I’d never find love like that again. We knew we’d stay close; maybe one day we’d reunite.

When NYU granted me a second year’s leave of absence, I had to do more than just pay rent and bills. I told Rich I was going to try to make extra money as an escort, which he knew I’d dabbled in at Rutgers. He was concerned: “For how long? What would be enough money to stop?”

I told him the truth: I was holding onto my job and just going to try. If it didn’t work out, I’d never be able to return to NYU.

I found a cheap apartment in Chelsea where Rich and my friends could crash and hang out. Once my escort ad appeared, I was earning $1,000 a week — a month’s salary at my job. It was hard for my friends to fathom, or criticize. I left my job to escort full-time. I’d never seen so much money. I didn’t stop to wonder “for how long.”

After two months of sex work I needed a break and a beach, but when I landed in Miami, something was missing. I called Rich and offered to buy him a plane ticket. “I’m already paying for the rental car and motel,” I argued, “so please come down.”

“I’d love to get out of this bitter cold.”

“I’ll drive to Key West,” I said, desperate to convince him. “It’s the new gay Provincetown but with palm trees and tropical heat.”

That hooked him. For Rich, it was always too cold; for me it was always too hot.

KEY WEST PK Banana300dps
Picking bananas: Rich in coat, me in T.

It was night when I picked up Rich at the airport. We decided to rest before the long drive to Key West, so we went to a bathhouse to nap, shower and check out the men. We were surprised as New Yorkers that hardly anyone was there, so we relaxed in the sauna and took pictures of each other goofing around.

“One day when we’re old and gay,” Rich said, “we’ll look back on these pictures in our rocking chairs and reminisce.”

BATHS MIAMI RICH Jstrap 1980 CRPD  BATHS MIAMI US X 2 Feb 1980

At 24, the only thing that scared me about being a gay man was growing old alone, so Rich’s image of us in rocking chairs was reassuring. He now saw us as lifelong friends. That’s what I’d wanted since the day we met.

How does one capture the way intimacy ferments over time? It’s not tangible things or dramatic events that are key; it’s the slow, prosaic accumulation of ordinary moments shared by two people yearning for someone who will always be there, a connection where conversation flows as easily as silences and grows over time into something greater than its moments.Gay Pride June29 1979 US 2 at 256W15thRich told Angelo that Key West was where he realized how much he meant to me. As Americans, we tend to have instant recall about what we gave to others and amnesia about what others gave to us. It wasn’t until after Rich was gone that I realized we escaped that — the tally, the keeping score, what friends give that don’t come with price tags.

In June 1980, Rich earned his Master’s degree with a film he made in Rahway. I went out to help, but Rich could tell I was itching to get back to the city. I apologized that I couldn’t hide it, but Rich said, “With me, you don’t have to. I’m not even sure you can.”

On the train home, I watched Manhattan’s skyline come into view. I was sure life at 24 couldn’t get better than this, but a gathering storm was about to change everything.

GAY PRIDE June 1981 US on street CROPD Gay Pride, 1980.

NEWS TRIBUNE RH MAR 1 1980

NEWS TRIBUNE 2 RH Mar 1 1980

 

END OF PART 1.

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