Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Is the Gay Bar the Book Equivalent of Homophile Socializing? Meditations on Reading Gay Bar, from Will Fellows and Helen Branson.

I was reading Will Fellows' new book Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s at the Alterra at the Foundry in the Fifth Ward (formerly the north part of Walkers Point, and perhaps often mistaken for the Third Ward, which stops at the river). Fellows put this together after finding Helen P. Branson's memoir, while working with a playwright on what it was like to be a gay man in the early 1960's.

I'm not sure if this is the best usage for irony, but it is funny that here I am just blocks from a neighborhood that had two of the busiest in Milwaukee, M&M and the Wreck Room, when I moved here in the 1980's. There was (and still is) another center of bar gravity on 2nd and National, but along with This is It on Mason (which perhaps in some ways is most like the bar depicted in Gay Bar). Plus the Mint something, which was torn down for the Bradley Center. Rats, I can't even find it on the Milwaukee LGBT history site bar page. But M&M is now an Irish pub, while the Wreck Room is part of the student center for MIAD.

(Note: a kind reader informed me it was the Mint Lounge, and that This is It is on Wells).

So I think, what is happening to gay bars in the age of the internet, to say nothing for an age where LGBT might just as easily meet at the workplace or through friends? Are they like books, crowded out by modern technology? I have heard that in other cities, there are substantially less bars than there used to be, but just recently, a new bar, Hybrid Lounge, opened on Van Buren and Brady, on the site of the old Dancing Ganesha (and another less memorable Indian restaurant, my apologies). And needless to say, I think of that in terms of bookstores, though I had a comforting conversation last evening during the Tucker Max event* with two Marquette students, one of whom is the son of a friend from my college days) who said they only read electronic books when they can't afford regular books. And they are under 30! Of course, they aren't everybody, but we don't need everybody. Heck, we already don't have most people.

Back to the book Gay Bar. Helen Branson, the bar's owner, manager, barkeep, social director, security force, and handyperson (and yes, she documents all of that in Gay Bar), hostessed and managed bars in Los Angeles before opening her own. Her niche was straight-acting men who need a space safe from leering straights and police harassment. In those days, gay was not indiscriminately used to describe all openly homosexual men, but only those going through the equivalent of adolescent rebellion phase. In addition, she was fanatic about keeping out folks she deemed (not me, not me) "swishy." This was an issue that divided the gay community at the time, and in some ways, still does.

It's a picture of the times when it was thought that being gay might be caused by an infant boy choking on his mother's breast milk. It's a sign of the times that the first choice to write the introduction was Albert Ellis, the psychotherapist "who viewed homosexuals as neurotic and favoried helping them to become heterosexuals." The final introduction was written by Blanche Baker, a psychotherapist that was more interested in helping gay men and lesbians become self-accepting, a radical concept at the time.

Fellows' intersperses Branson's own reminiscences with the historical record and his own analysis. It's a fascinating look at the time period, an entertaining and enlightening read. We're hosting an event, co-sponsored by Bronze Optical of course, on Wednesday, November 17th, at 7 PM. The book is out now.

Oh, and as long as we're talking about LGBT history, don't forget we're co-sponsoring the event with Justin Spring, author of the acclaimed new book Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade, who is speaking tomorrow, October 14th, at 6 PM, at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center. I'm just going to make a pronoucement here that Helen Branson would have tossed out Samuel Steward in a heartbeat.

*Tucker Max? This blog is rather yin yang, isn't it? I didn't hear much of the Q&A session, but here are Tucker Max's three favorite books:

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk (see, it is thematically connected, after all)

Anything by P. J. O'Rourke, but looking at demand and excluding his most recent hardcover and paperback releases, the most popular would be Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics.

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