Tom Ammiano Gets His Letter

Tom Ammiano is nearly 80 years old and recently dyed his hair blue. Not your traditional “grandma’s rinse” – it’s a punk-ass electric blue. It suits him.

If you don’t follow California politics, you may not be familiar with the name of this San Francisco legend who served for years on the city Board of Supervisors as well as the State Assembly. But you may remember him from the Academy Award winning documentary The Times Of Harvey Milk. Or perhaps you caught the documentary See How They Run, about one of his two San Francisco mayoral campaigns. Or his appearance in the documentary To Be Takei. In Gus Van Sant’s movie Milk, he portrayed himself. In the miniseries When We Rise, he was played by Todd Weeks.

Suffice to say he has been in a lot of documentaries. Although he did not make the final cut of the groundbreaking 1977 film The Word Is Out, his 30 minute pre-interview surfaced online several years ago:

“I’ve never taken much shit but I do get the shit beat out of me because of it.”

In short, Tom the school teacher turned activist, politician, stand-up comedian, and pothead is always a compelling interview. His recently published memoir is titled Kiss My Gay Ass – a phrase he once yelled at then California Governor Schwartzenegger. The book reads like a private uncensored conversation with the author.

Tom AmmianoThere’s a story from the memoir that has garnered Ammiano a surprising amount of attention as of late. 63 years ago, he was a 106 lb. effeminate teen trying to fit in at a Catholic High School in Montclair, New Jersey. Although unsuccessful at contact sports, he excelled at track – running from bullies had trained him to be fast. Among those bullies – the football coach who would physically assault him in the hallways along with the other jocks.

By the end of the school year, Ammiano had performed well enough to qualify for a varsity letter. But before the ceremony, the rug was pulled out from under him. The letter sweater – that symbol of athleticism and masculinity – could not be allowed on the back of faggy Tommy Ammiano. The powers that be – namely, the football coach – would not let that happen. So they moved the goalposts: The track meet that garnered him those last few points towards his letter was suddenly disqualified. And Ammiano’s dream of acceptance through that symbol of “normalcy” went unfulfilled.

He writes of the humiliating experience in his book; “Shame. I hate that. I think shame was a very big deal growing up. During those years everything was about controlling you through shame. Then struggling against that shame – knowing, somehow, it was all wrong. But what are your options?”

Ammiano chose to bury it away and move on with his life – getting as far away from New Jersey and the innumerable aggressions and slights that many a “weird” gay kid suffered while growing up. He moved to San Francisco – “Oz” he calls it – and seldom looked back.

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But when you write your memoirs, you have to.

Ammiano recounted the story during a radio interview while promoting the book late last year. “It’s something that still hurts,” he said, “even a hundred years later.” A listener decided to try and correct this situation. He wrote to Immaculate Conception High School to request that they award Ammiano his long overdue varsity letter.

Unaware of this , Ammiano was floored when he received a letter from his alma mater in February of this year. “We most certainly would like to ‘right’ this ‘wrong’…… You truly posses the ‘heart of a Lion’…. You are an inspiration.

Last month, the cameras rolled as Ammiano was presented with his sweater. At age 79, the man of many documentary appearances has one of his very own. Granted, it’s 7 minutes long, but it’s beautifully done. And it’s on ESPN. He must have had a laugh over that.

ESPN also has an excellent article here. See the documentary here:

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Remembering his time on the track team, Ammiano wrote; “I especially liked the long distance runs… I got really good at those.”

He had no idea.

12 (More) Forgotten Classics by Women-Led New Wave Bands

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Last week, the New York Times posted a piece by Doug Brod titled 12 Forgotten Classics by Women-Led New Wave Bands. Brod writes: “……for every Kate Bush, Blondie, Bow Wow Wow or Go-Go, there were lesser-known female artists who exuded both sharp, shoulder-padded glamour and beehived, boho cool, often mixed with quick wit and sass.”

It’s an admirable dozen, evenly weighted with some of my favorites (The Waitresses, Josie Cotton, Rachel Sweet, Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, The Passions, Holly & The Italians) and tracks I had forgotten or never heard before (The Cosmopolitans, Nervus Rex, Spider, Robin Lane & The Chartbusters, Pulsallama, Suzanne Fellini).

Kenneth Walsh of KennethInThe212 blog posted a link to the article noting “I guess every writer finds himself saying, ‘How did I not write this’ at some point or another…..Seriously, how did I NOT write this?”

(Update: Kenneth has posted his list HERE)

I thought I would take the bait and compile my own list. And here we are:

12 (More) Forgotten Classics by Women-Led New Wave Bands

Of course, “forgotten” is subjective. Is The Flirts’ Don’t Put Another Dime In The Jukebox forgotten just because nobody can remember the band name or mis-identifies them as the Bangles? If I say “I might like you better if we slept together” to the most casual fan of new wave music and they get the reference but can’t place the band, does that make Romeo Void forgotten? Can a song be considered forgotten when it is on the soundtrack of one of the most popular video games of all time? (I’m looking at you, Passions. With a side-eye towards Romeo Void as well).

Both of these lists assume that you are already familiar with prominent post-punk / new wave acts like The Raincoats, Marine Girls, Slits, Go-Go’s, Blondie, Berlin, Eurythmics, Motels, Altered Images, Bananarama, Divinyls, Missing Persons, Pretenders,  Kim Wilde, Siouxsie, Yaz, Nena, Lena, Nina… the list goes on.

So – now that I have set the playing field, here are my picks – chosen by a middle-aged New Yorker who still loves the music of the 80’s but with little nostalgia for the decade. The music was great, but it was the pits to live through. Don’t kid yourself.

The Shirts – Laugh and Walk Away (1979)

The Shirts were the CBGB’s band that got away. Rubbing shoulders with the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads did not lead to worldwide success, although they garnered a few hits in Europe. Laugh and Walk Away was a single from their second LP Streetlight Shine.

Post-1981 breakup, lead singer Annie Golden’s Hang Up The Phone was a highlight of the Sixteen Candles soundtrack. Her eclectic career is now in its 5th decade, spanning film (Hair), Broadway (Leader of the Pack), and television (Cheers, Orange Is The New Black).  By all accounts she’s also one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. And The Shirts do get back together from time to time.

Hilary – Drop Your Pants (1983)

Hilary Blake released one EP – the Stephen Hague-produced Kinetic. Both the title tune and Drop Your Pants were voted “Screamer of the Week” – the coveted top-voted song by listeners to New York’s influential WLIR alternative radio station. Drop Your Pants – with a repetitive pulsating chorus of “Drop you pants around your ankles / You make me shiver when you deliver” was Hilary’s commentary on how ridiculous the fear of sex in United States was at the time.

Hilary and Hague were married for many years but had divorced before she died of cancer in 2007.

Jane Aire and the Belvederes – Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache (1979)

Jane Aire, aka Jane Ashley was one of several acts (The Waitresses and Rachel Sweet among them) featured on Liam Sternberg’s Akron compilation LP. Like Chrissie Hynde before her, Ashley left the wilds of Ohio to record in London, where her Belvederes were the UK band also known as The Edge: Lu Edmonds, Gavin Povey, Glyn Havard and Jon Moss (later of Culture Club).

Following a couple of Stiff singles, an LP was released on Virgin with background vocals provided by Ms. Sweet and Kirsty MacColl .  The album features several choice covers: Pearl Harbour & The Explosions’ Driving, The Supremes’ Come See About Me, and this Northern Soul classic by Johnny Johnson & His Bandwagon which was also later recorded by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Mari Wilson – Just What I Always Wanted (1982)

Mari Wilson was the epitome of the “beehive boho cool” that Brod writes about in the New York Times piece. And the foot-high beehive was her real hair. Do other people consider this song forgotten? It’s a default earworm in my head, so my perception may be off. But I am happy to introduce it to anyone who doesn’t know it.

Just What I Always Wanted was Wilson’s biggest hit – reaching the UK top 10 accompanied by a video which gave glimpses of the dynamic stage show Mari and her Wilsations were famous for. As it turned out, being a pop star wasn’t just what she always wanted, and she moved on to successful forays in jazz and stage musicals. Wilson may not have garnered more pop hits, but her catalogue is considerable and definitely worth checking out.

Face To Face – 10-9-8 (1984)

Laurie Sargent fronted the Boston-based quintet Face To Face. In the 1984 movie Streets of Fire, the fictional band Ellen Aim and The Attackers were played onscreen by Diane Lane and the male members of Face to Face, with Lane lip-synching Laurie‘s lead vocals on several tracks. 10-9-8 was Face To Face’s debut single on Epic records and also their biggest hit – peaking at #38 on the US Billboard Top 100.

Book Of Love – Boy (1985)

Boy was the debut single by Book of Love, a New York by way of Philadelphia synthpop band fronted by Susan Ottaviano. Signed by Seymour Stein to his Sire records, the band gained exposure opening for Depeche Mode on their 1985 & 1986 tours.

Although Boy was popular enough in NY to become a WLIR “Screamer of the Week” in February 1985, the song did not chart nationally until 2001, when a Peter Rauhofer remix topped the U.S. Dance Charts. In a 2016 Village Voice interview, keyboardist/songwriter Ted Ottaviano revealed that the song was written about the gay East Village night spot Boy Bar.

Burns Sisters Band – I Wonder Who’s Out Tonight (1986)

Nowadays, Ithaca New York’s Burns Sisters are a well regarded folk duo with 10 albums under their belt. Back in the mid-80’s, The Burns Sisters Band launched as a quintet of siblings giving the Bangles a run for their money. Marie, Annie, Jeannie, Sheila and Terry had the WLIR “Screamer of the Week” with this single in July of 1986 – perfect listening while takin’ the time to do your hair / puttin’ on something HOT to wear.

The Tourists – So Good To Be Back Home Again (1980)

The Tourists’ output included three LPs and a handful of hit singles in their native UK. A peppy cover of Dusty Springfield’s I Only Wanna Be With You scraped the US charts as well. Keyboardist Ann Lennox shared lead vocal duties with guitarist Pete Coombs. There was also a guy named David Stewart in the band. After The Tourists split in 1980, David and Ann went on to do some other stuff you may have heard of, but their Tourists output is seldom mentioned and definitely worth a revisit, starting with this track – a top 10 hit in the UK and Ireland.

Put Your Back To It – November Group  (1983)

I actually ventured into the comments section of the NYT article (I know – the comments section can be a scary place. But for the most part, this time it wasn’t.) There were quite a few mentions of this alt band from the Boston new wave scene. November Group formed in the early 1980s with Ann Prim and Kearney Kirby, both previously of Wunderkind. Put Your Back To It was a single from their second LP- Persistent Memories.

Suburban Lawns – Janitor (1981)

“What do you do?”

Su Tissue was trying to have a conversation in a noisy room. She misheard the response “I’m a janitor” as “Oh, my genitals.” And a song chorus was born.

Suburban Lawns was formed in Long Beach, California in 1978 by CalArts students William “Vex Billingsgate” Ranson and Sue “Su Tissue” McLane. Their first single Gidget Goes To Hell may be more likely to turn up on new wave compilations, but Janitor – the lead single from their self-titled IRS LP – is an overlooked gem.

Cristina – Is That All There Is? (1980)

This slashing cover of the Peggy Lee classic was produced with broken glass and cuckoo clocks by August Darnell, a.k.a. Kid Creole. When the single was originally released in 1980, songwriters Lieber and Stoller successfully sued to have it withdrawn, objecting to the lyric changes embracing drugs, physical abuse and the club scene. They later changed their mind.

Cristina, aka New York socialite Cristina Monet-Palaci Zilkha recorded two highly regarded but commercially unsuccessful albums for ZE records before turning her attention elsewhere.  She succumbed to coronavirus at the age of 64 on March 31, 2020.

And as sure as I’m standing here talking at you, I was not ready for that kind of a come down.

Strawberry Switchblade – Let Her Go (1985)

Strawberry Switchblade – Jill Bryson and Rose McDowall – were a Glasgow duo formed in 1981. They released one album and had a top 5 UK hit with Since Yesterday. Follow-up single Let Her Go and a synth-pop cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene also charted – especially in Japan – before the duo split in 1986. Both continued to make music but were unable to recreate their Switchblade success.

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New York City In Touch, 1979

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A few weeks ago, I posted an article from the Nov/Dec 1979 issue of In Touch Magazine. This was part of trio of San Francisco articles from gay publications (the other two from the September, 1980 issue of Blueboy featured essays by Armistead Maupin and Randy Shilts).

Shifting focus back to the East Coast, there were some New York-centric ads and pop culture info that I wanted to post, since that’s my home turf.

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So here we are again, back in 1979 with Issue #44.

Lets get a different perspective of cover model / centerfold Todd Denson:

 

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There are several ads throughout the magazine for CBC Clubs  – a gay-owned chain of bathouses that dotted North America. CBC Club New York was located at 24 First Avenue in the East Village. This branch closed in the mid-80’s and the space was purchased by the Suthon family, which turned it into the restaurant Cave Canem and later Lucky Cheng’s. It was during the twilight days of Cave Canem that I moved to the neighborhood.

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I had been living there for about a year when my boyfriend and I saw a listing in HX magazine for a gay bar/restaurant inhabiting an old bathhouse located at 24 First Avenue.  This seemed strange – it was only 4 blocks from our 6th Street apartment, yet we had never heard anything about it.

One night we ventured over – only to be turned away by a surly doorman who claimed there was a private party inside. We didn’t believe him – how did he know we weren’t invited guests? Our imaginations went wild with speculation of what gay/leather/sex dungeon lurked behind those doors. After reading this interesting piece on the history of the space in Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, I gather that it probably WAS a private party that we tried to crash… and possibly a lesbian orgy.

LuckyChengsThe following year Lucky Cheng’s Chinese Restaurant opened with its now famous drag and gender-fluid waitstaff, thriving at this location for 19 years. By the time I finally ventured in – just once – it was to buy a gift certificate for my parents, at their request. The once bohemian restaurant had become an edgy staple for straight out-of-towners. Lucky Cheng’s eventually followed the tourist trade up to the theatre district. The building was sold and is slated to be torn down and replaced by… you guessed it: Luxury Apartments!

One other note to add a little context: right across the street at 19 First Avenue is Lil’ Frankie’s Restaurant and the former home of East Village Radio’s storefront broadcast booth. This is where my show 60 Degrees aired from 2008-2013. (see & hear here & here)

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1979 marked the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.  Here’s an account of how the occasion was celebrated in NYC and Fire Island, as well as the protests surrounding the filming of Al Pacino’s laughable misfire Cruising.

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Some background on the musical references above:

16 year old France Joli’s July 1979 Pines performance is the stuff of legend. She made a return to the annual Beach Party in 2018.

Wardell Piper is mentioned performing “Super Sweet” at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove. She had been a member of soul group The First Choice, but this was her biggest solo hit:

I love the passing reference that Ann-Margret – “hot to go disco” – couldn’t get into a West Village club to have them play her record. Sounds like the gays weren’t having it. “Love Rush” was a track from this brief chapter of her career. Any allusion to poppers is purely intentional.

Here’s some other ads – one for Broadway Arms Baths, which was located across the street from the Ambassador Theatre on West 49th Street, and two NYC-based gay porn video companies featuring VHS tapes for the low low price range of $65-$99.50! Just imagine what the VCR cost.

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I had to post pics of this guy, who is SO 1979 that it hurts. Michael Mouse Hank Owens is a landscaper, a Sagittarius and only indoors when he’s at the disco!

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That’s all for now! I leave you with an ad for lube. Natural lube. With a horse.

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San Francisco In Touch (1979)

I recently posted two San Francisco-based articles from the September 1980 issue of Blueboy magazine – one by Armistead Maupin and another by Randy Shilts. I was ready to move back to the east coast when I came across a third article – written by Dan Turner for the Nov/Dec 1979 issue of In Touch Magazine. It seemed to work as a literary triptych with the other two articles. Also… it looked somewhat familiar….

The flipped version of the shot below accompanied the Armistead Maupin piece in Blueboy. And no, those are not nude sunbathers on the roof – it’s an overlapping photo.

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The shot below was from the Nov/Dec In Touch Magazine article. Same guys, same clothes or lack thereof. Some people have shifted around a bit, so it was taken at a different time on the same day.

SF IT photoThrough internet magic, I did a little “Google map virtual walk” down Castro Street, which led me to the corner of 18th st. And there it is: the boys’ perch, 40 years later. The pharmacy is now a Walgreens:

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I felt like I was slipping down the rabbit hole. Next stop: YouTube with a search of 1979 Castro Street Fair videos! Sure enough, there they were – captured in grainy home movie footage.

Theses guys were photographed more than the soldiers at Iwo Jima. Call it Gay-wo Jima.

Before I started to save videos and crop and edit and convert to gifs and blah blah blah, I took a step back from the edge. I felt that I had lost the plot at this point. Where were we? Oh yes.

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In Touch Magazine.

Nov/Dec 1979, Issue #44.

San Francisco: Ever Onward.

Written by Dan Turner.

Cover model / Centerfold: Todd Denson.

There is also a New York-centric piece in this issue that I will be posting soon. I wanted to complete this three-part series first.SF1

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Dan TurnerThat last paragraph just hurts. How could anyone have known what the future held? In 1981, the author of this piece, Dan Turner was one of the first people diagnosed with AIDS. This was before it even had a name. He helped found the AIDS Foundation, People with AIDS and the AIDS Switchboard. He was the longest surviving person with AIDS when he passed in 1990 at age 42.

“…they are not just pretending to be the heroes they admired. They are becoming the heroes themselves.”

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Revisiting Blueboy Magazine (1980)

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A recent post – the one featuring an essay written by Armistead Maupin for the September 1980 issue of Blueboy Magazine – was my most-viewed ever. This was thanks in part to links from Queerclick and KennethInThe212. I threatened to upload another article from the San Francisco-themed issue written by Randy Shilts: What If They Gave A Backlash And Nobody Came? Several people requested it, so here it is.

But first… a couple of other items of interest from this same issue:

 

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There used to be a whole lot of Uncle Charlies in New York City! None of those advertised above is the one that lasted longest: The Uncle Charlies bar on Greenwich Ave. in the West Village, which closed in 1997. And then there’s the one that has been on E. 45th st for 10 years now.

And Look! It’s an advertisement for Grace Jones’ fourth LP… her first good album!

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Record review: San Francisco’s very own Two Tons O’Fun. Izora Armstead and Martha Wash had been Sylvester’s backup singers. They soon changed their name to The Weather Girls when it started raining men… and the rest is history. Hallelujah!

 

 

 

PM Movies
10 time capsules from PM Productions. Check ’em out! They’re a hoot. And Christopher Street Blues has a zippy little theme song.

And now for our feature presentation. This article recounts several significant incidents where backlash against the San Francisco gay community was anticipated, but did not happen. It’s interesting to read Shilts’ account of what had been accomplished up to this point in time – with no idea that they were standing on the precipice of a health crisis that would decimate the community and undo so much of the work towards assimilation that he was highlighting.

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Randy Shilts Interviews Harvey Milk ca1977_8
Randy Shilts Interviews Harvey Milk (1977/78)

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Randy Shilts on The Charlie Rose Show (1993)

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Randy Shilts with Lily Tomlin (1993)

Shilts would go on to write three books, all important documents of gay history: The Mayor of Castro Street – a Harvey Milk bio, And The Band Played On, which chronicled the early days of the AIDS epidemic and Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians In The Military. He died of AIDS complications in 1994.

Just imagine what he would have to say about the current administration. Or Mayor Pete. Picture him as a frequent guest on Rachel Maddow. His voice is sorely missed.

 

Armistead Maupin in Blueboy Magazine (1980)

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Back in the early aughts, an older friend of mine was preparing to move out of his NYC apartment and gifted me with a gay time capsule: a closet full of porn magazines dating back to the mid-1970’s. He had moved into this rent stabilized 5th floor walk-up in college and stayed there for 30 years. Roommates and boyfriends came and went – leaving a trail of old magazines in their wake. But my friend stayed in this spacious top floor railroad apartment in the last remaining tenement building on a stretch of East 59th street, with a living room facing the Queensboro Bridge. Why move? The landlord finally offered him a sizable cash settlement to leave, unaware that he was ready to depart NYC anyway. But it was a nice parting gift.

I, in turn was given a King’s Chamber of gay erotica: 7 file boxes full of near-pristine old smut.

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Shocker: porn is lucrative. For a few years I supplemented my income by selling them singly on eBay. The shrinking collection has now moved through 4 different apartments in the last dozen years. Unfortunately I did not have my friend’s tenacity (or luck) when it came to NYC real estate.

Torso cover 1980Recently I cracked the boxes open again and came across an article I thought was worth sharing. Yes, an article. As the old joke goes – I like these old porn mags for the articles. Well… the photo layouts are nice too, but… the articles do give a window into what gay life was like before the plague.

The September, 1980 issue of Blueboy Magazine was dedicated to the city of San Francisco – The Promised Land for gays. Presented below is an article titled The City That Dare Not Speak Its Name penned by Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin.

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Author Armistead Maupin at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Although this was written just before the AIDS epidemic blew the gay community sky high, San Francisco had already been through some shit, as Maupin mentions in his opening paragraph. The Zodiac Killer, Jonestown Massacre, Patty Hearst kidnapping, the murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone… followed by Dan White’s acquittal…. I am unclear what “Decadence” he is referring to, but surely it was a bloodbath.

Maupin sensed that the press was sharpening its knives to criticize his beloved city. And he wasn’t wrong in his assessment. Like his Tales of the City series, the article is a love letter to San Francisco, capturing the time and place as nobody else could. It was the best of times… it was the worst of times….

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A couple of notes:  The mayor mentioned in the article is Dianne Feinstein, now the senior California senator. And the 30-inch girlfriend he refers to was Tamara De Treaux, basis for the main character in his novel Maybe The Moon.

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Armistead Maupin photographed in 1978 as part of Don Herron’s Tub Shots photo series.

In the spirit of “everything old is new again,” Maupin observes “…. some local lavender ward healers (that) propagate the Cult of the Politically Correct can grow tedious beyond belief, and I wonder, in my heart of hearts, whether the immeasurable joys of cocksucking are worth the price of being either political or correct.” Yes, he ultimately concludes that nobody embraces eccentricity as unconditionally and as joyously as do San Franciscans.

40 years later, I think those who love the city would agree… even if they do complain about all the human feces in the streets.

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The article concludes with a reference to a novel Maupin was working on: Jackie Old – a fictional piece about Jacqueline Onassis at age 70. Unfortunately she did not live to see 70 and this novella – initially published as a 5 part series in New West magazine –  would not get an official release until a 2014 Kindle edition. Even so, it is not included in his bibliographies.

Also featured in this mag is an extensive piece by another prominent gay San Franciscan:  the late great Randy Shilts, author of And The Band Played On. I will post this piece – What If They Gave A Backlash And Nobody Came? -if there is interest. Lemme know if you want it. (UPDATE: I posted it HERE)

Or…  I could post more photos of these guys:

Men of SF