Thanks to Donald Trump’s taped boast that he has kissed women without permission and groped their genitals, the issue of sexual harassment and assault has inspired numbers of women to go public about their own experiences of coerced sex. Those courageous women inspired me to contribute to this conversation by publicly recalling a painful experience of my youth.
It was 1961, I think, and began like any other New York City gay male pickup of that time. I spot him as I get out of the subway at Eighth Street and Broadway. I’m coming home after working late in the textile studio where I make a living as a freelance designer. He’s standing on the corner, a big guy, much taller than me. I look at him, he looks at me. I’m feeling lonely so I say “Hi.” He says: “Hi, ya? Do you live near here?” “Yes,” I say, “on St. Marks Place. Want to come up?”
In my apartment, he looks around, sees some books, and asks if I know T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I admit I’ve never read it. He recites, “April is the cruelest month….”
I sense something’s wrong when we’ve undressed and he turns his head away and won’t kiss. I’ve never met a guy before who won’t kiss. Then he’s insistently pushing my head down to his crotch. I don’t want this, but don’t know how to stop it. Satisfied, he abruptly gets out of bed, gets dressed, goes into the bathroom, and stays there a long time.
I put on my pants and shirt, wondering anxiously what’s going on. He comes out and asks, “You don’t have any drugs?” It’s almost a complaint. I shake my head numbly. He pulls out his wallet, flashes some kind of badge, and says, “I’m a policeman, and you’re under arrest. I’m taking you to the station house.”
Horror engulfs me; fear floods over me. I’ll be exposed to the world as a pervert. My name will be in the newspapers, my parents will see it. My mother will be fired from her editing job at Parents Magazine, disqualified from advising America’s mothers because she’s produced a faggot son, a criminal. She’ll be disgraced before her neighbors. My father, who’d had a serious heart attack 10 years earlier, will have another heart attack and die.
I’m 23, and I’ve recently told a therapist I want to be heterosexual. I’ve admitted my homosexuality, privately, only to a new, close friend and mentor, Carol, a fellow textile designer. “Yes,” I’d responded, when she’d asked if I was gay as we worked alone together late one night. I assume she’s told her husband, Bob.
The pickup asks, “Do you have any money?” I pull out my wallet and he takes it and sees a card with my name. He says, oddly friendly, “Oh, you’re Jewish. I’m Jewish too. Schwartz.” He takes $90 from my wallet. Looking around, he asks, “What else can you give me if I don’t report you?” He sees my camera hanging in its case and takes it, putting the strap over his shoulder. “I don’t have anything else,” I say.
“OK, I won’t report you this time, but don’t pick up guys again,” he admonishes me sternly, like a strict father. “Remember, I know where you live.” And he walks out. Shaking, I lock the door behind him.
My horror turns to violent self-disgust. I’ve brought this on myself. I’m an idiot for picking up this guy. I feel physically and mentally violated; I feel I’ve asked for it. My apartment, my bastion against the cruel world, hasn’t protected me. I’m vulnerable to evil, tangible and banal as this slimy extortionist. My father is right: In this society exploiters rule. My mother is right: Everyone is out to get you.
I telephone Carol and Bob, who live around the corner and stay up late. “Something has happened!” I say urgently to Carol, my voice shaking. “Can I come over?” I splash mouthwash into a cup and rinse out my mouth. Then, fearfully, I open my apartment door, scared that Schwartz will still be lurking outside. But he isn’t, and I hurry down the tenement’s four flights.
Carol and Bob see from my face that something really bad has happened. “I picked up a guy and he took some money,” I tell them, condensing the incident, embarrassed to admit the sex part. “I’m such an idiot, I’m such an idiot,” I say, over and over, accusing myself before an admonishment my dear friends don’t make. “Did you have sex?” Carol asks. “Yes,” I admit, and feel dirty. “Do you think he was really a policeman,” Carol asks. “I don’t know,” I say forlornly, thinking that it doesn’t really matter. “He could have beat me up or killed me,” I say. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Talking with Carol and Bob consoles me, and I want to go home and reclaim my apartment. I go, apprehensively, back up the four flights, and sleep fitfully, the door double-locked and bolted.
One evening, a month later, an unexpected knock on my apartment door causes terror. “Who’s there?” I ask, and a voice says “Officer Schwartz.” I pretend rage I don’t feel. I yell, “Get the hell away from my apartment and don’t come back or I’ll call the police.” Pretending to call out to a friend, I say, “Mike, call the police!” I hear Schwartz descending the stairs. But my anxiety about his possible return doesn’t go away. I double-check my door lock every time I come in. I never pick up a guy again without first sitting down and having a drink with him and sizing him up. If I have the slightest apprehension, I tell him it won’t work. For many, many years, when I meet a new guy in the street, even after I’ve reassured myself that this costume designer is benign, this social worker is not a threat, my stomach churns, the old terror returns.
Sixteen years later, in 1977, in a consciousness-raising group, I compare notes about dangerous encounters with a group of gay men. It turns out four other guys have suffered a similar or worse threat. We commiserate about our gay lives before gay liberation. We begin to speak out; we begin to resist.
JONATHAN NED KATZ is an independent scholar, historian, and founder and codirector of OutHistory.org.