Peter Bochove’s death on April 28 was very sad for those who knew him well. I became acquainted with Peter when we were part of a protest against the raid on the Bijou porn theatre in 1999. Peter was the last of a dying breed: the proud gay entrepreneur.
When Peter opened the Richmond Street Health Emporium in the pre-AIDS 1970s, there were other gay businessmen like him — unashamed capitalists who envisioned bars, bathhouses, restaurants and hotels where gay men could hang out, be themselves and also be sexual.
That era is over.
In the ’70s, we were very influenced by the notion of “free love.” The theory was that if men (in particular) made love – especially with each other – then they would be less likely to make war. Gay businesses supported the customs and practices unique to gay intimacy – that is, unabashed promiscuity, gender play, open erotic display, power games (SM) and camp. Eventually during the 1980s, gay-owned businesses expanded to include less overtly sexual institutions, including gift shops (like the now extinct Flatirons). The idea was that queer socializing might conceivably at any point become sexual (or in some other way piss off the straights) and that gay men and lesbians did not feel comfortable pursuing intimacy in straight environments.
Today, most queer people believe being gay is no different than being straight. Gays and lesbians are optimistic that they are – or will soon be – completely accepted. They don’t see why they shouldn’t spend most of their time in heterosexual bars, restaurants and hotels. Indeed, many gays and lesbians these days don’t wish to appear “ghettoized” by hanging out in the gay village.
I disagree. I don’t wish to say good riddance to gay businesses, or to the brave businessmen and women who founded them. I believe it’s dangerous that both gay and lesbian businesses are gradually disappearing. (Although it should be pointed out that gay men are more likely to have the capital to open businesses – since they are men, and thus historically more financially privileged.)
The idea that we no longer need gay-owned businesses is based on two false premises: first, that gays are completely accepted in all straight situations, and second, that our culture is no different than heterosexual culture. Although we have gained access to certain civil liberties, we often still do not feel comfortable being ourselves (ie displaying same-sex affection, being butch women or being feminine men) in straight environments. Many queer people have tried to solve this problem by making their sexual assignations (or having sex) online or by avoiding public displays of sex and affection or by acting as much as possible like straight people do.
I wish I could say that it is no longer necessary to defend our right to camp behaviour, unabashed promiscuity, gender play and open erotic display. I wish heterosexual culture would learn to make love, not war. I wish people were generally sex positive and enthusiastic about human difference. But because we do not yet live in an ideal world, I am sad to see the disappearance of the gay businessman, exemplified by men like Peter Bochove.
A friend of mine told me a story a few years ago about a trip that he took with a much younger boyfriend to Key West. Their gay guesthouse was soon to be demolished to make way for condominiums; it was therefore virtually empty. One night the gay businessman who owned the guesthouse jumped into the pool naked, wiggling his body at the couple, obviously wondering if they wanted a threesome. The younger man was completely horrified by what he charmingly called “a bear attack.”
Such a situation was typical of our gay community 30 years ago. As we tried to define our own new gay and lesbian world, personal boundaries were sometimes in dispute. We were trying to negotiate new rules, new civilities, new patterns for relationships – patterns that went beyond marriage and monogamy. As a result, there were often misunderstandings.
I remember my friend Sue Golding’s advice concerning an argument at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in the early ’90s (she was the president of the company at the time). The dispute involved whether or not we should provide mattresses for lesbians at a Dungeon Party, to facilitate lesbian sex. She said (and I paraphrase), “This discussion is a good thing. Of course there will be quarrels; we’re creating a brand new culture.”
The death of Peter Bochove signals that, sadly, the quest for our own new culture may have finally reached an end.
But is that really a good thing?