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In Search of (Gay) America

STORY: In 1979 and with no gay life to speak of, I scrimped to save a few thousand dollars, negotiated my departure from my firm, sublet my Manhattan apartment, and took off for California in my little Toyota Celica. In retrospect, I had to leave NYC to “learn to be gay.”

Bo Ronilo on his cherished Fiat Spider at a San Diego Marina in 1979
Me in my corporate attire before quitting my job to travel across country in 1979

I drove across the country, stopping in every town large enough to have a gay bar, using my Damron’s Gay Travel Guide, and checking out what each city’s “gay scene” looked like. I even kept a list of every place I visited (see two images immediately below).

Page 1 of my log with info about gay bars I frequented during my cross-country trip in 1979oss-

I started out at bars in DC. Then, I dropped into the Discovery Disco in Little Rock, a sad, empty room with its hanging glass ball and two forlorn-looking patrons. I thanked my lucky stars that evening that I lived in NYC. After that, I visited bars and discos in Dallas, Austin, Houston, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and a whole host in West Coast cities.

Page 2 of my gay bar log while traveling cross country in 1979

I’m not sure what I expected, but the places I frequented represented a broad spectrum of Gay America: cruise bars, country and western dance clubs, discos, leather bars, and gay restaurants. Some were crowded, popular, and cruisy. But, on average, most were quiet, with non-descript-looking guys, and not all that memorable. Accordingly and unsurprisingly, I most vividly remember the handful of establishments where I met men with whom I went home.

The scene got progressively better as I visited larger cities where “gayborhoods” had sprung up, like the Montrose in Houston and Cedar Springs in Dallas. I was still intimidated by the intensely sexual atmosphere I typically encountered, but city by city I began to get more accustomed to it. My first “conquest” was a muscular Hispanic with a mustache and goatee in Houston who took me home for a romp while his partner was out of town. By the time I reached San Diego, I felt I had at least begun to get the hang of bar etiquette.

Me with a friend at Gilley's country western club in Pasadena, Texas on my way west in 1979

On one of my first nights in San Diego, I walked into the city’s largest gay disco, the West Coast Production Company (known as the “Wussy Pussy” to regulars), and was served by a handsome young bartender, Bo Ronilo. In part, because I didn’t pay him the attention he was accustomed to getting, Bo sent a bar-back over to me with a complimentary beer.

After supplying me with free beers and several quaaludes (the two weren’t supposed to be mixed) to keep me occupied until 4 a.m. closing time, he spirited me home for a steamy late-night romp. Bo turned out to be a sweet guy from the same redneck southern region on the Florida / Alabama border where I had grown up. He was surprised when, unlike his usual one-night stands, I chose to stick around the following day. That led to us hooking up and hanging out every time I returned to San Diego that summer.

Traveling solo, I had to rely upon a stranger to take this photo of me in front of the Grand Canyon in July 1979

One day, we went to San Diego's famous secluded clothing optional/gay Black's Beach, at the foot of 250 foot high cliffs. I persuaded Bo to join me on my daily five-mile run, totally nude, but he dropped out after a mile. I kept at it and eventually was "pulled over" by a policeman and policewoman in a van, who issued me a citation for being nude on a public beach. Unbeknownst to me, I'd strayed from the city beach onto the county beach (or vice versa), where nudity wasn't permitted. The ticket I received is shown immediately below.

The citation I received for running in the nude on Black's Beach in 1979.

Bo introduced me to his friends. It was an era when sex with multiple partners was considered a good thing among young gay men. So, with no hard feelings on his part, I slept with a couple of his friends, who became my friends as well.

From there, it was on to LA and San Francisco. I was exposed to their more established drug and disco culture, especially in LA with its famous Probe nightclub, where drugs and men circulated faster than a secret among gossipers.

By the time I drove back to NYC three months later, I had gained insight and confidence about being gay. Without that time away for experimentation, my integration into the social gay scene at 27 years of age would surely have taken place even later.

—Mike Balaban


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