Between Riot and Ravage

How the makers of HBO’s The Deuce re-created ’70s New York, a brief golden era for gay men.

Season 2, Episode 2 of The Deuce, staring Aaron Dean Eisenberg and Chris Coy.
Season 2, Episode 2 of The Deuce, staring Aaron Dean Eisenberg and Chris Coy.
Paul Schiraldi/HBO

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

It’s often been argued that the 1970s in New York were a golden age of gay male life. A rising sense of liberation allowed many (though, due to various forms of privilege, certainly not all) urban gay men to do whatever they wanted, culturally and sexually, without any real consequence, post-Stonewall, pre–HIV crisis. It was a sacred time that can only now be experienced by reading (and rereading) books like Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance. New York City then was dirtier, alive with a glamorous danger that emanated from dark bars, baths, and endless nights cruising the famous piers. For those with access and inclination, it was a fantasyland filled with so many thrills that it feels more like fable for us gays who weren’t lucky enough to live it all firsthand.

Much of this world is brought to life in HBO’s The Deuce, a series, now in its second season, about the inception of America’s billion-dollar sex industry, beginning in 1971. It’s not a gay show per se but has enough queer characters and plotlines in the first two seasons to quench the thirst of anyone longing for a window into this special time and place. The second season begins six years after the first, in ’77, when, as a consultant on the show explained, gay liberation has settled in since Stonewall and queer people are far more comfortable with who they are. It’s magical to see it all in living color—so much so that it makes you wonder how the creative team was able to recreate this storied period so immaculately.

Considering the importance of this era for so many viewers, one would assume the pressure on the show’s creators, George Pelecanos and David Simon, to get it right was intense. Simon told me that in the writer’s room they had a good research department; he explained that a lot had been written about this era and documented in film and photography. He also told me that writer Carl Capotorto was brought on board for the second season to make sure that what they presented was accurate. Capotorto, who was a writer on HBO’s Vinyl and played Little Paulie Germani in The Sopranos, came out as gay in New York in the summer of ’79, when he was 20 years old.

One of his hangouts back then was Peter Rabbit, along West 10th Street. It was where cross-dressing sex workers (who’d now likely identify as transgender) would put on shows between pulling tricks off the highway. He was no stranger to the baths either, be it the New St. Marks Baths or Man’s Country, and had gone to the Hudson River piers too, a location that has been re-created in the second season.

“[Capotorto] steered us away from some of our presumptions and steered us to stuff that we didn’t know about or would’ve gotten wrong,” Simon says. It seemed to be a smart decision to bring him on board: The result is a convincing portrait of gay life in the ’70s, especially as delivered through the character Paul, played by Chris Coy. Paul enters early in Season 1, manning an empty midtown gay bar called Penny Lane that’s near its end. They had been “targeted” and some of their clientele were blackmailed, which consequently killed the business—all real problems from that period. Backed by the mob, the place reopens as Hi-Hat and becomes one of the focal points for the characters in the series.

Although the place is no longer a queer bar, Paul is kept on staff, offering an unique balance to an already eclectic cast of pimps, prostitutes, and one aspiring porn director.

According to Simon, Paul is based on a real person of a different name, who found himself in some of the same situations as Paul in the show. They took liberties in fictionalizing his life, but his character faces some of the very real tribulations that gay men in New York would’ve encountered during that time. Paul, for example, get arrested in Season 1 after leaving the Park Miller Theater, a porn cinema, for accepting a blowjob from an older gentleman. He was hauled into a paddy wagon just outside of the place. The charge? “Misdemeanor faggotry: being homosexual north of 14th street,” as he put it.

The language used in the series adds another dimension to its verisimilitude. It isn’t for the faint of heart since, by today’s standards, some of the characters are homophobic, at least with regard to the words they use. The casual nature of this homophobia demonstrates how queer life was a sort of Wild West in the period, with no protections against hate and discrimination to speak of. Hearing straight characters casually call a gay bar a “fag joint” is cringeworthy now, but within the context of the early-to-late ’70s, it seems just right. It’s also a good reminder that as much as one might hail the ’70s as halcyon days, it was often dangerous, and hardly easy, to move through life as a gay man.

It might surprise some that a show about the porn biz and Times Square’s pimps and prostitutes would include that experience, but Simon saw it as essential: “The idea that you can tell the story of sexual commodification or pornography or sex work and not include the world of the Village and the gay community in New York, that would just be fundamentally unsound,” says Simon. “I’m not sure he’s any more important than any given storyline, but the idea that we would try to tell the story and not have a homosexual component would be an affront, I think.”

Part of that is because any look at porno history, gay or straight, must include Wakefield Poole’s classic, arty skin flick, Boys in the Sand, which ironically borrows its name from Mart Crowley’s pivotal 1968 gay play Boys in the Band. The film, which offers a series of somewhat surrealist trysts in the nearby gay enclave Fire Island, becomes a part of Season 1, and although Poole wasn’t involved in the creation of the series itself, a consultant on the show had contacted him to confirm various details.

When I asked Poole what it was that made Boys in the Sand revolutionary, so much so that they’d feature it in The Deuce, he matter-of-factly insisted that “it was the first one.” “It was the first [gay porn] that, first of all, had my name above the title. That had a lot of weight because gay pride was just starting, and here I had a fairly well-known name in the theater, and I’d made a porno movie, a gay porno movie and put my name on it above the title, and it was on the marquee and people passing by could see my name up there.

“Not that gay films hadn’t run in other theaters,” he added, “but it usually just had the name of the theater, and it was small porno theaters like The David and The Jewel, so this was a legitimate movie theater on 55th Street right across the street where New York City ballet was playing at City Center.”

It’s fun to see the Boys turning point come alive in the show, first when Paul’s friend Todd (Aaron Dean Eisenberg) comes by the bar and explains that he’s landed a gig acting in a “fuck film” that’s shooting on Fire Island. They then attend the screening party together a few episodes later at a theater with banners hang on the wall, reading, “100 Box-Office Busting Days of Boys in the Sand! Real Gay Erotica Is Here to Stay.”

Simon explains that, as a revolutionary cultural moment, Boys in the Sand comes ahead of Deep Throat in terms of a porn being screened in a real theater with a real run, where people were bringing dates to see it. “The gay community got there first,” he says. “Maybe more artfully if you’ve seen the film.”

Poole said he was offended when, during the Boys screening scene in The Deuce, one of the straight characters couldn’t handle the gay sex in the film and walked out. (Poole’s purpose was to make a porno for everybody.) He wasn’t, however, offended with their representation of gay New York in the series, and for a gay man who’s lived in New York for 40 years, that’s saying something.

The Deuce shows a slice of queer history that we don’t hear much about—one that, though different from the usual wholesome narratives of civil rights and social integration, is nonetheless important. Perhaps because some see that part of our heritage as sordid or unsavory, the show is both a piece of activism and work of art, portraying a more complete picture of the gay experience and giving our forebears the full humanity they deserve.

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