*I was 19 in 1974, the year I first moved to West Hollywood. Moved in with my first real girlfriend, into a charming gray, two-bedroom bungalow on Westmount Drive.
Everything in my life was new. In Los Angeles but a year, I spent most of it living with Aunt Jewel and Grandmother in predominantly Black South Central L.A. The lady with whom I moved in had been kind enough to rid me of my pesky virginity, and West Hollywood, just seven city miles and 20 minutes from my Aunt’s, seemed a world away.
Back then, West Hollywood was a cozy little hamlet. Hip, but not tragically so. The massive Beverly Center mall had yet to be built. In its place was Beverly Park, a quaint outdoor amusement lot for parent-accompanied children featuring a pony ride and bumper cars.
Several houses from our love nest, on the corner of Westmount Drive and Melrose, there was no Urth Caffé, the ever jam-packed trendoid hang immortalized in the HBO series, “Entourage.” Instead, there were a couple of small, independent retail shops. Next to them was the now legendary and recently departed spiritual book store, the Bodhi Tree.
West Hollywood was chic, but warm. It was post-hippie “Have a nice day.” It was the Melting Pot and Joe Allen’s and vegetarian restaurants, “health food” stores and iconic live music haunts The Troubadour, the Roxy, the Whiskey A Go-Go and the Starwood, all playing big name acts.
And West Hollywood was Gay.
In Oklahoma City, where I was born and raised, Gay wasn’t out in the open. Blame it on the times, but also the attitudes in Oklahoma that called for a person to conceal his or her romantic/sexual attraction to someone of their own gender.
Which is why, when I moved to West Hollywood, I was surprised. Gay people held hands in public. They embraced on the street. They kissed passionately and they argued, well, like lovers. I was never put off by anything that I saw; I was simply fascinated that I could actually see it.
I became a man in West Hollywood. That is to say, I turned 21 there; learned adult responsibility there; began learning how to navigate a relationship there; honed the rudiments of communication with my mate and others. It was in West Hollywood that I truly pursued my interest in writing about music.
When I walked outside my door—to go to the grocery store, to browse Tower Records on Sunset Blvd., to have dinner at a restaurant or go have a rum and coke—I learned aspects of Gay life. Like the white kid who grows up in a black neighborhood with black friends and is comfortable with things that go on that are inherently “black”—including racist language they instinctively know doesn’t apply to them–by living among Gays and Lesbians, you learn things.
And the first thing I learned is that, despite stereotypes, people attracted to their own gender don’t necessarily have a “look.” That was Jeremy. One of the few black guys living in my neighborhood, J and his partner, a blond British chap, introduced themselves one summer evening when my girlfriend and I were taking a stroll. After running into the couple around town several times, we finally exchanged numbers.
Jeremy and I got on immediately. I was in my jazz/rock phase then, and J, a bronze, twenty-five year old actor with a strong jaw line and a full afro working as a bartender whose hobby was electric guitar, like myself, loved Return To Forever and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Both Jeremy and his lover looked “straight” to me—tall, fit, masculine. Alone one evening at their place, J and I shared a joint and listened to Larry Coryell. I felt comfortable enough to make a stupid query.
“Hey, J, who’s the ‘man’ in y’all’s relationship?”
He chuckled a bit. “What the fuck do you mean, ‘Who’s the man?’”
“Like, who’s the man? You know—the man.”
“Oh, I see,” J began calmly. “Well, let me ask you this, Ivory—who’s the man in this room right now?”
“Well, hey, J, I’m STRAIGHT, brother. I like women, so, it goes without saying that….”
“…That you’re the ‘MAN’ here, right?” J was toying with me. “Well, last I checked, Ivory, I didn’t have a vagina. I’m a man, too. And so is [his partner]. So, to answer your question, there IS no ‘girl’ in our relationship. Like you and your lady, we’re emotionally and sexually attracted to one another. We just happen to be men.”
I left it alone, but the lesson was clear: Some men are Gay. But they’re MEN.
That was the beauty of being tight with Jeremy, though. I could ask him anything. Once he realized I was sincere in my ignorance, he responded as compassionately as he could.
Often, he answered by putting the question back to me—a mental mirror of sorts. Like the time I asked another stupid question: when did he “decide” to become Gay?
“When did you decide you liked girls, Ivory? You DID actually decide, right?” I thought about it. I couldn’t remember when I WASN’T attracted to girls.
“Me, either,” he said. “I was attracted to girls, too. But it was with boys that I felt a real communion. Always. But ask me how old I was when I realized my attraction to males was considered by some people to be wrong, and I’ll answer as you answered me about your attraction to women–I don’t remember WHEN I knew, I just knew my interest in guys was considered ‘bad.’ And everything in society—the cartoons I watched, the music I liked, the church we went to, friends, family—only served to reinforce that thought.”
It was in West Hollywood several years and a new girlfriend later, as we moved into a cool little spot on Almont Drive, that I realized Gay isn’t the new Black: the landlady, happy to have us, confided that an elderly white Lesbian couple in the house next door complained bitterly that she would even think of renting to a black couple. “Of all people to talk,” the landlady offered disdainfully. The lesson: human rights aside, racists are racists.
I haven’t lived in West Hollywood for years now. Too expensive and too crowded. Mostly too expensive. But the way Tony Bennett sings about San Francisco is how I feel about WeHo. And I’m only 10 minutes away. In any case, when I left, the town duly prepared me for what is unfolding today in America and the rest of the world.
In West Hollywood, where an impassioned young man first explored his own predilections, I learned that as long as no children or animals are involved, and as long as the adults are consenting, what you do in your bedroom is your own damn business.
I also discovered that if you truly want to know where people stand on any number of things, simply bring up Gay.
If the soliloquy reeks of disparagement, simply take out G-A-Y and fill in the blank with Black or Latino or Jew or Asian or Women or Poor or Disabled or whatever (in West Hollywood, the new whipping boy is the recent influx of Russian Jews). Because, that’s usually a person who lacks a sense of tolerance for much of anything or anybody. And no matter your preference or your zip code, intolerance is plain ol’ uncool.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]