The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture

On Melancholia and Nostalgia,
A Reflection

by Daniel Calzadillas-Rodriguez

Working on this Swish Alps chapter forced me to confront my own subjectivity as I found myself documenting absence and loss in Silver Lake. As a gay man, I worried in advance that my positionality would hinder efforts to be critical of the material we encountered. Indeed, my attempts at an impassive view of queer history quickly morphed into a very personal and uncanny sense of melancholia and nostalgia for a time and space that I never inhabited. To be a contemporary gay is to be burdened with respectability politics generated from legalized gay marriage, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the general appropriation of gayness’s deviance by a hegemonic value system. In exchange for marriage and the military, gays gave up their radical politics and imaginative ways of kinship, what Michel Foucault famously called “friendship as a way of life.”[1] Most poignantly, gays have given up their public space. Today, I am witness to the political passivity of my gay compatriots who have sacrificed their queerness for what Lisa Duggan has critiqued as unimaginative “homonormativity” working in collusion with neoliberalism’s construction of “the incredible shrinking public.”[2] The result has been a loss of the gay urban spaces that at one point were the sites of creative politics through which we dared to reconsider what it means to relate to one another. Silver Lake was such a place.

Critics may oppose my melancholia and nostalgia by arguing that there has never been a better time to be gay and that the loss of gay urban spaces is an indicator of our acceptance into general society. The past was bad, we are told, because it was a time of persecution, the closet, and AIDS. Such triumphalist narratives, however, actively obscure the persecution that continues through the rampant murders of trans women of color, the seclusion newly activated through the destruction of our public spaces, and the fact that HIV still lingers inside Black and Brown bodies in disproportionate numbers.[3] To think that queer history has moved progressively leading to today’s freedoms is to obfuscate the harsh realities of other non-white, less affluent queers. We must feel nostalgic in order to resist these progress narratives.

I suppose this distrust of melancholia comes from Freud’s pathological take on it. According to Freud, melancholia is the arrested mourning of a lost object that leaves the melancholic with a negative narcissism and detachment from the world.[4] In this instance, the lost object to me is the ethos of the gay ghetto. My melancholic state towards this ethos is also my stubbornness in not letting it go. Yet, queer theory has long argued that melancholia may be the key to reimagining future possibilities for the queer minority. As queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz proposes, melancholia is not an arrested state of mourning that inhibits us from moving on. Rather, it is a fixation that, for better or worse, describes hegemony for marginalized subjects: “[M]elancholia, for blacks, queers, or any queers of color, is not a pathology, but an integral part of everyday lives.”[5] Judith Butler holds that while both heterosexual and homosexual (and implicitly cis and trans) identities hinge on a refusal to mourn a disavowed pre-Oedipal gender position, “[g]ay melancholia […] also contains anger that can be translated into political expression.”[6] While she locates this productive melancholia in political activities like Queer Nation’s “die-ins” and the Names Project Quilt at the height of the AIDS pandemic, a redoubled grief seems to inhere in the gay community’s inability or unwillingness to mourn the loss of its own public sphere.

Similarly, nostalgia is thought to be an uncritical longing for the past; however, I argue that nostalgia has two distinct attributes. The first is a longing for the good things of the past and the second is a longing for the possibility of infinite futures. In the first sense, nostalgia is not simply longing for the general past. If we feel nostalgia, it is because we think some things were in fact better in the past, be it in one’s own lifetime or in cultural history.[7] One does not have to commit to everything about the past in order to feel nostalgic. Here nostalgia figures as a political tool because it allows us to measure our present. Rather than arguing for the preservation of a transhistorical gay identity and culture, queer scholars in fields ranging from literary studies, religious studies, and history itself have argued that nostalgia may be one of the defining features of queerness as an improperly subjective, inconsequential, and feminized hermeneutic. Cinema scholar Gilad Pavda provides a telling chart that demonstrates the alignments of nostalgia and queerness in the popular imaginary.[8]

In addition to revaluing the attributes of this right column, queer nostalgia arguably has a Janus-faced quality, open to being haunted by what historian Molly McGarry calls the “ghosts of futures past.”[9] The past has a possibility of infinite futures. Nostalgia instills in us a longing for the queer utopia José Estaban Muñoz dares us to imagine. As he proposes, “queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”[10] If utopia is the perfect future then, nostalgia becomes a political apparatus because it engenders such longing.

Nostalgia also points to the importance of this project. If nostalgia is longing for the good things in the past, one must attempt to know the past. So, I hope this project does indeed make us feel nostalgia so we may retrieve a usable queer past and galvanize a more radical queer politics that does justice to Muñoz’s call for utopian futurity. As Elizabeth Freeman claims in her analysis of twentieth-century queer artists contemplating time, “Pure nostalgia for another revolutionary moment, their works seem to argue, will not do. But nor will its opposite, a purely futural orientation that depends on forgetting the past. Instead, the queerness of these artists consists in mining the present for signs of undetonated energy from past revolutions.”[11]

Stuart Timmons in Silver Lake

On April 12, 2016, Stuart Timmons—co-author of our project’s foundational text Queer L.A.—led our class on a tour of the gay sights, or what remained of them, in Silver Lake.[12] Beginning our inquiry into the gay past through Faderman and Timmons’s text turned out to be a peculiar happenstance given his death months after he happily took us on the tour. I still remember what were likely Professor Lukes’s last words to him: “Thank you, Stuart, for your contributions to the community.” In this space, I wish to reflect on the significance of Stuart’s tour as a subjective and, yes, melancholic narrative companion to our mapping project.

I first sought Stuart after finding on Facebook a historical tour of Silver Lake guided by him in 2015 and hosted by the Los Angeles Radical Faeries. From the Facebook page, I emailed Bill Fishman—who turned out to be Stuart’s good friend—to see if Stuart had any interest in leading another tour for our class. Bill and I met on Occidental’s campus where he told me that Stuart had suffered a debilitating stroke in 2008 and now had limited speech and mobility. Bill said it would be a challenge for Stuart to come meet us; however, he immediately accepted my proposal once Bill informed him of it.

I organized this tour for our class because I thought it prudent to layer the memories we explored in the archives with their physical locations. In a way, I imagined the tour as an effort for our class to momentarily switch our role of historians for that of archeologists. I could not help but compare our endeavor with an excavation of remaining Mexica ruins under modern Mexico City. Of course, there are actually no ruins in Silver Lake because—much like the Mexica temples that were demolished but whose same stones were used to build the conquistadores’ churches—the gay spaces were closed down but the same walls of the buildings that housed them were used to build what stands today. We thus had, as Pavda points, no “concrete landscape” but rather a “psychic” one that could only be legible through nostalgia. It was thus only through our nostalgia and Stuart’s guidance that we could make sense of the physicality of memories. 

April 12, 2016 was a warm, sunny day. The streets of Silver Lake were still. Other than a few hipsters working in coffee shops and some moms walking with strollers, we did not encounter many people. This warm stillness created an aura of contemplation even before we started the tour. Our usually vociferous class was relatively quiet—only interrupting this silence with a few laughs here and there. Stuart had the same script he used in 2015. Due to his condition, Professor Lukes and Bill took turns reciting it for him as our class made its way through the haunted streets of Silver Lake.

I helped Bill push Stuart’s wheelchair and thought of the dichotomies that separated us: old/young, disabled/abled, sick/healthy. The only things we seemed to share were our gayness and an affinity for queer history. Looking back, I think the dichotomy that concerned me the most was that of past/futurity. While Stuart had lived through most of the stories his script described, I had not. He was nostalgic for things he actually missed, whereas I historically “missed” them altogether. The legacy of a gay Silver Lake therefore rests between Stuart’s memory of its ephemera and my own melancholia and nostalgia for his memory’s futurity.

Stuart first took us to the Sunset Junction complex. Today’s Sunset Junction is home to a trendy coffee shop, a French restaurant, and several boutiques.  As Stuart and our oral historians tell us, the complex used to be ground zero for an important neighborhood
music festival called the Sunset Junction Street Fair. Musicians, straights, queers, families, and neighbors shared this space in celebration, and perhaps in spite, of their differences.

To begin a gay history tour in a site that hosted a mixed (i.e. straight and gay) street fair appeared peculiar to me. However, it made sense as I listened to Stuart’s script and Bill Tutton’s oral history. They both describe the Sunset Junction Street Fair as a site that not only permitted Jack Halberstam’s rendition of queer time but also celebrated it. Halberstam tells us that queer time allows queer subjects to “believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience-namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death.”[13] In other words, queer life is not structured around the normative temporal schema that is based on the hegemonic rituals of childhood and adulthood. The Sunset Junction Street Fair thus offered a rare respite from the immense pressures of hegemonic time. As Bill states, “the [neighborhood] kids… would see leather guys and wouldn’t be scared of that.”[14] The Street Fair proved that queers could co-exist with straights without needing to succumb to the straight world. As we looked at the large sign of Sunset Junction, we could see the nostalgia it evoked. The sign represented the peaceful junction of gay and straight people that permitted the former to exist as such—even if only for the duration of the festival. The sign pointed to a utopic possibility of acceptance that mainstream gay politics relinquished possibly too soon.

As we continued our tour of Silver Lake, Stuart led us to a nondescript building on Sunset Boulevard that looked like most constructions in Los Angeles. A boring, white-walled building struck me as the most haunting stop in Stuart’s tour. This was the site of the now extinct bar, The Jungle, where men engaged in public sex at the start the 1980-90s AIDS crisis. Stuart told us that, in the courtyard of what is now an upscale restaurant called Cliff’s Edge, men used to lie in slings suspended from the beams “waiting to get fucked.” As the crisis worsened, Stuart continued, the space reincarnated to an AIDS patient wellness center called Being Alive. There is something surreal about the building’s courtyard. People now dine al fresco not knowing ghosts who moan in orgasm and cry in pain are haunting them.

I had a visceral reaction of resentment to this building. How could it be that these walls—the very same ones that protected pleasure and witnessed death—now house something as insignificant as a restaurant? I attempted to photograph these ghosts that were so immediately visible to me. A photo of the courtyard full of stacked chairs now frames the AIDS section of the chapter. This photograph was an attempt to make the ghosts visible so that they may not be forgotten. While they still linger, not everyone can see them. The melancholia that pained me as I peered through the building’s gates is perhaps the lens through which we can see the surreal—and recognize the ghosts.

We left the ghosts and continued on our tour. One of the last stops our class made was The Black Cat Tavern. Site of the 1967 riots against police raids, The Black Cat’s only remaining connection with queer people—since most of the clientele is now straight—is the plaque placed by the City of Los Angeles commemorating the early activism. A quick search in Google shows the bar’s description as an “upscale American gastropub in a historic location related to the LGBTQ civil rights movement.” I thought of the certain irony found in memorializing queer events in the midst of the neighborhood losing its queer presence. The plaque stands for a liberal view of history, for it marks this bar as the site of an event that fits within the progress narratives of contemporary politics. The plaque historicizes queer revolt as part of the LGBT civil rights movement. In doing so, it provides authority to the city government that once was the perpetrator of the raids against queer people. This memorialization also contributes to the gentrification that caused the loss of gay spaces: the space became universally appealing because its queer history became commodified to fit the structure of progress. The new people of Silver Lake can take pride in the neighborhood’s history while contributing to the demise of queer public space.

After our tour concluded, I drove Stuart back to his assisted living home. When we got there, I went inside Stuart’s room with Bill. Stuart showed me a collection of gay ephemera he gathered throughout the years. As I looked through it, I thought about our tour. On the one hand, I was upset that a space like Cliff’s Edge failed to render visible the ephemeral pleasures and pains of the past queers that moved within its walls. On the other hand, I was disturbed by The Black Cat’s highly visible memorialization of a fight for recognition that preceded the Stonewall Riots. I suppose both places signal to reasons for the demise of the gay ghetto. Cliff’s Edge was the site of queer displacement and AIDS. The Black Cat was one of lazy gay politics. Both sites failed to recognize a public nostalgia that was so essential to queer history. Cliff’s Edge was just a restaurant and The Black Cat’s plaque was cold and uninviting.

Stuart Timmons died on January 28, 2017. Author of The Trouble With Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement, co-author of Gay L.A., community activist, and contributor to gay publications such as The Advocate, Stuart left us invaluable knowledge as his legacy. 

I recall the day of his tour through Silver Lake. As our class walked along Sunset Boulevard, we briefly passed the infamous Circus of Books. Stuart told us that Circus of Books—more of a porn shop than a bookstore—was a cruising spot back in the day. I was familiar with Circus of Books because I had frequented its West Hollywood location just two blocks from my apartment. While the glory days of cruising were over and the shop indeed had more porn than anyone could possibly need, I cherished the large assemblage of vintage magazines, dusty posters, and queer themed books. To visit Circus of Books was to be transported to the time and place of the memories we investigated throughout the project. Having “missed” this historical period of public gay life, I appreciated the sincere, unapologetic nostalgia with which the shop dignified itself. On the day Stuart took us there, a note on the door announced the imminent closure of the Silver Lake location. Several months later as I was driving home from work, I noticed it had indeed closed. I immediately parked and walked to it. Two bored people rummaged through the piles of free books that surrounded the front walls. Along these walls, someone had graffitied the words “going, going, going.” I sorrowfully documented the scene on my phone and drove home. For the first time, I became nostalgic for something I had not missed. I became nostalgic for nostalgia.

Like the graffiti etched on the walls of Circus of Books read, our nostalgia keeps Stuart Timmons’s legacy and our queerness “going, going, going.”

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