07/11/2013 02:50 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Coming Out in Boston in 1969

In Boston in 1969, homosexuals were everywhere, but the trouble was finding them. I did a lot of walking around Boston on weekend nights trying to do just that. I was in the city as a 19-year-old conscientious objector fulfilling my alternate service work contract in lieu of military service.

I had read about cruising areas in the novels of John Rechy, so I knew that these areas were often near public parks. I headed for the Boston Common and the Public Garden, where I spotted what I was sure was my first homosexual. He was walking alongside the Public Garden fence. It was a foggy night, one of those New England fall evenings when one could smell fresh breezes from the bay. The park was nearly deserted, but suddenly there he was, a tall, blond guy in a cape. The cape took me by surprise. I'd never seen anyone wear a cape in Philadelphia, but here was a definite throwback to the 19th century, only it was not worn by an old, paunchy, Victorian gentleman with sideburns and a pocket watch but by an attractive man who had just left an exclusive social event, like an opera.

My heart skipped a beat, and I remembered stories of the Boston Strangler -- yes, no doubt about it, the strangler had probably walked along this very street -- in the news just a few years before my coming here. This was gothic glamor at its height: I was being led to the homosexuals by a figure out of Dracula.

I followed him at a discreet distance until he led me to a city block where I saw young men standing or sitting in front of the rows of townhouses. At that point he seemed to disappear in the mix, almost vanish into thin air, although I looked for him among the many masculine, young, handsome men in leather jackets or tight-fitting trousers and shirts.

Walking around the block five, 10, or even 100 times, until something clicked with either another walker or one of the guys sitting on a stoop, become the prescribed formula. I made it only halfway around when a car pull up beside me. I stopped when the driver rolled down the window and leaned across the passenger side to ask, "How much are you?"

"What do you mean 'how much'?" I said.

He saw the confusion on my face and explained that everyone on the block was either buying or selling. I told him outright that I was looking to meet someone.

"You're on the wrong block," he said and sped off. There was also no time to ask where the non-buying-and-selling block was, which I found out later happened to be very near this marketplace.

The next night, a Saturday, I left my Harvard Square rooming house sometime after dinner and took the MBTA to Washington Street, where I resolved to follow through with my plan: go to the adult theater district and ask an adult bookstore clerk where the nearest gay bar was. Adult theater people are used to every variety of sex and would not be shocked or angered by the question. Boston's Combat Zone in 1969 was a raw slice of neon with loud honky-tonk bars, large porno movie palaces and small adult peep show side shops. The Zone always seemed to be crowded with revelers, servicemen -- especially sailors -- in uniform, obvious prostitutes, and rowdy groups of bar hoppers. There were strip bars with long presentation runways where topless women in cheap chiffon gowns would strut back and forth amid cheering patrons. This was a far cry from sedate Philadelphia, a city up to its neck in Blue Laws and "Closed on Sunday" regulations.

The peep show clerk directed me to the Punch Bowl, which happened to be nearby, so I found myself, ironically, in the vicinity of the bus station where I had arrived only a few weeks before. Scully Square was less honky-tonk than the Zone, but the ground there had a 42nd Street feel to it. There was a big, open parking lot near the bus station that I had to walk through to get to the Punch Bowl, a gay bar founded in 1946 that attracted the likes of Rudolf Nureyev and Robert Mitchum.

At the Punch Bowl I bought a Miller beer and pretty much walked around in a daze, going downstairs to inspect the room that was sometimes used as a dance floor, and then walking upstairs again, where I took in the clientele, some of them flamboyant queens, while the majority seemed to be quiet, masculine types in V-neck sweaters and white Levis or black leather jackets.

A woman with a change pouch around her waist was going around taking orders from the patrons and then delivering the beer or drinks to them. I was on my second Miller when a guy in a cape came up to me.

"My name is Pierre Paul," he said in a thick French accent. He was a little older than I was, but not by much, and somewhat good-looking, with a slender body and well-defined features. The cape put me in mind of the caped stranger I'd followed by the Public Garden. At this point I was thinking that capes were an important part of the Boston gentleman's evening dress. I introduced myself, and Pierre toasted me with his beer. Because he did not hear a Boston accent, he asked where I was from.

"Philadelphia," I said. "I've been in Boston about a month." I told him about my alternative service assignment at Tufts New England as a conscientious objector, and he told me about his transfer to Harvard from a university in Paris to do graduate work in philosophy. The French connection had me over an emotional barrel; I couldn't get the names Rimbaud, Verlaine and Gide out quickly enough, confessing to him my love for French literature and even telling him that I was working on an autobiography. I loved the social aspect of talking to him in my first gay bar and wanted us to continue in that vein when, quite out of the blue, he asked if I wanted to catch a cab with him back to Harvard Square.

"We can ride together and then go to my place," he said, which of course is what I wanted all along, but at a much slower pace. The prospect of riding in a cab with a caped Frenchman promised a thrilling start to the weekend. Once out on the curb, however, he took me aside before putting his arm out to hail a cab. "Look," he said, dropping the French accent, "I am not from France. I am American. I'm from Stamford, Conn., and I am a Harvard law student. I live in the dorms. I'm sorry for misleading you; it's just that one has to be careful when going to these kinds of bars."

"Oh, you're saying you are not from Paris at all?"

"That is what I am saying, yes." He smiled nervously as a cab pulled up alongside us and asked if I still wanted to go back with him.

I told him, "Of course, yes," although I did not mention how disappointed I was. I was not going to have an affair with a Frenchman after all but with an ordinary American man, although the location of his dorm gave me hope. It was just a few blocks from my rooming house, which meant that we could see one another easily and often without having to go through the woman with the change pouch. The revelation made me reconsider the cape as somehow complicit in the disguise: Would the cape somehow protect him in a police raid? Had the police raided the Punch Bowl, could he say -- in his heavy French accent -- that he was from Paris and therefore didn't realize that he was in a bar of this type? The blond near the Public Gardens might also tell the police that he was on his way back from an opera or a classical music concert and not cruising or loitering outside like those bad-boy types selling their bodies.

In the cab on the way back to his dorm, he resumed the identity of a Frenchman and pretended not to know the city or where he was going. I became his unofficial translator. During the ride we were careful not to hold hands or sit too close to one another, because in 1969, the year of Stonewall, you never knew who might be looking.