THE BLOG
07/22/2013 06:41 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Gay Sexual Explosion That Has Been Nearly Forgotten

WARNING: This post contains sexually explicit language. Please read on at your own discretion.

When I finally came out to my friends in New York in the mid-1970s, they were delighted and decided to introduce me to the New York gay scene. We had a late dinner, about 9 p.m., took a brief nap, and then prepped ourselves for a night on the town. They instructed me to wear a T-shirt, tight jeans, and black leather shoes -- definitely no sandals or sneakers -- and hung a chain around my neck that held a small black vial of real poppers, the original kind that you actually popped, promising me that one sniff would send me to the moon.

About midnight we took off for a night of adventure. I quickly learned that the most active gay bars could always be found in seedy, poorly lit warehouse districts on "the wrong side of the tracks." Our first stop was The Anvil, located in the Meatpacking District. After entering the dimly lit and smoke-filled bar, the first thing I saw and heard was a row of three naked men spread out on the bar being fisted! A large stage at one end allowed customers to watch paid performers fisting, occasionally with members of the audience. The damp and musty basement with nearly pitch-black, darkened caverns and passageways was strewn with groaning naked men, some of them lying in stagnant puddles of water that had leaked from pipes overhead. An occasional rat scampered by. I was so shocked that I vowed never to return. But, of course, I did.

Later, we walked a few blocks to The Spike, a notorious leather bar with men in harnesses, tit rings and clamps and leather chaps, some sporting Prince Alberts. Everything was painted black. The room was heavy with smoke. Behind a black curtain was a small, dark room, so dark that you could barely make out where to walk. Stumbling over a couple of writhing, naked bodies, my shoes sticking to the floor, I slowly inched my way to a side wall. As my eyes dilated, I saw several couples fucking, a few men down on their knees and sucking. Everyone had their shirts off, and most had dropped their jeans. When I pulled up my pants after about half an hour, I discovered that my wallet was missing; my driver's license, credit cards and money were gone. That's when I learned never to take a wallet when I planned a night out, and always to stuff my money and keys down one of my socks, where it was nearly impossible to be stolen. This same place that housed such heavy sex on Saturday night hosted a lavish Sunday brunch just a few hours later, with luscious eggs benedict and warm camaraderie.

And then there was The Mineshaft. Gritty, dirty, the epitome of sleaze, it was probably the most popular and notorious gay club in history. Customers were encouraged to check all their clothes and stroll about naked or in a jock. Behind a partition there was an entire wall of men kneeling in front of glory holes, servicing whatever passed through. Downstairs you could choose to perform in the recreation of a jail cell or the back of a truck, or lie down in a sling and wait for a fucker to walk by. The most infamous room held a bathtub where men could lie down and take turns being pissed on.

Undoubtedly, the most frightening and dangerous place was the abandoned warehouse district along the crumbling piers of the Hudson River, especially the rotting wooden structure of Pier 48. With no lighting to help as I stumbled along, tripping over broken floor boards and empty beer bottles, bumping into hidden walls and naked men, and being groped by strangers I could not see, I was occasionally satisfied with the adventure. More often, I fled after a few minutes, fearing what I was getting into.

Yes, for over a decade after Stonewall, a gay man could have sex in New York almost anywhere, anytime, 24/7. As described on the website Back in the Gays, "[t]he sex was constant, boundless, free and liberating. It was a sexual urban wilderness ... but ... is somehow slowly being forgotten and hidden as if it was shameful and embarrassing. Which, it was not." Today, in part because of AIDS, very few of those popular gay cruising sites still exist. In our current desire to acquire civil rights equal to the straight community, we have chosen to assimilate and to clean up our act. When I recently explored some of my old haunts, I was amused. The Anvil is now a gentrified, chic restaurant, complete with white linen tablecloths and candles. The waterfront along the Hudson River has become the lovely, serene High Line public park.

This nearly forgotten gay sexual explosion is the subject of my most recent book, Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans. It examines the life and career of a maverick, award-winning playwright whose plays were manifestations of the sexual liberation of the 1970s. Exploring both sex and sexuality candidly, he burst the boundaries of what was considered acceptable. His story provides a rare exploration into the pivotal moment of American history between Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic. Just as we are forgetting the gay sexual explosion of the 1970s, so have his plays been ignored. He wrote in his 1979 diary, "Perhaps in years to come some young queen will find [my writings] in an old trunk bought at an auction, will read [them] and say, 'My God! Was that the way it was? Times sure have changed.'"

For more on Cal Yeomans, check out calyeomans.com.