National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, Part 4 This Week: “Who Are We, Really? (Part 1)”

bentonmugThe purpose of this exercise is to contribute to a frank conversation about  about where LGBT people have come from, how we got to where we are now, and where we’re headed.


The purpose of this exercise is to contribute to a frank conversation about  about where LGBT people have come from, how we got to where we are now, and where we’re headed.
The explosion of self-affirmation among homosexuals leading up to and immediately following the Stonewall moment in the summer of 1969 was the most powerful and positive development for our kind in recorded history.
With it, the unique role for same-sex oriented people in the natural order gained an incredible boost, a lightning-like shot of energy propelling our innate creative, empathetic, care-giving and socially-transformative propensities. Unleashing a cascading process of “coming out” that rippled out to wider and wider waves of our population, it was without precedent.
We happily and positively embraced our difference in its many manifestations with no more shame or self-loathing in public ways never seen before.
Alas, it did not last. Within only a couple of years, the seeds of what would soon decimate this remarkable human movement were sewn. Those like myself who were there, riding the crest of this colorful gay liberation explosion, saw these changes with our own eyes.
In her one-person autobiographical play about her life through the gay liberation era, entitled “A Life Three Acts,” transvestite performer Betty Bourne describes how a happy commune of young gay men in London in the early 1970s suddenly and quickly began succumbing to heavy drugs and angry discord.
Later in her retrospective, she goes into the AIDS epidemic, as it impacted her living in Manhattan. She knew more than 100 friends who died. But what she did not connect was the relationship between what started dissembling her commune in the early 1970s, and the unleashing of the AIDS Dark Age in 1981.
It connection was direct, and strong evidence exists that was driven by an intentional intervention of covert U.S. intelligence operations plowing a petri dish-cultivated “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” synthetic anarcho-radical hedonist culture like a nuclear-tipped Trojan Horse into the gay movement, and into the wider elements of what had been the powerful anti-war, pro-civil rights current of the previous decade.
They did not invent the AIDS virus, most likely, but they deliberately created the social contexts for its emergence and spread.
In his epochal work about the AIDS epidemic, “And the Band Played On,” the late journalist Randy Shilts describes what I also witnessed repeatedly in the early 1970s by telling the story of one Ken Horne:
“Ken Horne had always wanted to be a dancer, performing a dazzling array of pirouettes, entrechats, and arabesques before a rapt audience that would nod approvingly at his grace and beauty. A glowingly optimistic sort, he loved everything about the theatre, with its romance and costumes and fairly-tale happy endings. Maybe he could even be a star, a guy people cheered and wrote about.
“That’s why he left his blue collar family in Oregon and moved to San Francisco in 1965, when he was 21, to study at the San Francisco Ballet School…The sheer contrast between his childhood plainness and his adult beauty made Ken’s introduction to San Francisco gay life rewarding. All these men liked him so much, and he so desperately wanted to be liked. Sometimes, he confided to friends, he felt like a Cinderella who had finally arrived at the ball.
“Maybe that’s why it was easier to let go of the dancer’s dream in the late 1960s….Ken dropped out of ballet school…In 1969, he took a clerical job…He liked the regular paycheck as well as a work week that was a dream compared to the regimen of 6 a.m to 9 p.m. he’d followed with the ballet. He had more time to go out at night now. ‘This isn’t so bad after all,” he told a friend. ‘I’m having fun.’
“Ken soon fell in love with a German sign painter and lost touch with his early San Francisco friends, who recalled a sweet young kid who loved romance. They were surprised five years later to happen into Ken at the Folsom Prison, a leather bar. His hair was cut severely and he sported a close-cropped, narrow beard that followed the line of his jaw…His old friends were floored, not only because he was to thoroughly the prototype of the black leather machismo…but also because he looked so wasted. His hair had gone gray and his eyes looked glazed. Ken complained of how tough it was in this “city of bottoms” to find a man who would screw him.
“His friends decided that Ken had fallen into the trap that had snared so many beautiful gay men. In his twenties, he had searched for a husband instead of a career. When he did not find a husband, he took the next best thing – sex – and soon sex became something of a career. It wasn’t love but it felt good…As the focus of sex shifted from passion to technique…sexual practices would become more esoteric. That was the only way to keep it from getting boring.”
A few years later in 1981, Ken Horne officially became the first person known in the U.S. to die from AIDS. (To be continued).



Nicholas Benton may be emailed at