Forced to organize by the AIDS crisis, the island Gay community is flexing
its economic and political muscle. The message? We’re here, so get used to us.
THE BAR, CALLED FUSION WAIKIKI, IS LOCATED UP a dark staircase off a deserted Kuhio Avenue courtyard. There’s only one small hard-to-read sign. It’s the kind of place that if you didn’t know where it was, you’d probably never find it. At 11:30 on a Saturday night, about 40 or 50 people have made their way here, nearly all of them men and men dressed like women.
On the small stage is an emcee in drag who calls himself “Miss Fever Beaver.” “What’s the matter?” he asks at one point. “Haven’t you ever seen a man in a woman’s dress before? We don’t bite — unless you ask us to.” Miss Beaver gives a free drink to the first patron to demonstrate he’s wearing no underwear, another to the first who can produce a condom. Then it’s on with the show. The stage lights flash wildly, there are loud motorcycle sound effects and Miss Beaver introduces Mr. Greased Lightning,
Mr. Lightning is a terrible dancer — and for that matter, not much of a stripper. He’s finally forced to sit on the floor to take off his motorcycle boots. But once he gets down to his green thong underwear, his body is all muscle. He spends the next 15 minutes going from table to table, humping up against patrons while they tuck dollar bills in his briefs. Once he’s milked the room of its last dollar, he bestows a kiss on one of his benefactors, then grabs his clothes and leaves.
Miss Beaver retakes the stage, and as smoke from a smoke machine billows around him/her, lip syncs to “Memories” from the score of Cats.
The scene at Fusion fits many straight people’s image of the gay lifestyle: that it’s sordid, silly, and ought to be confined to some back alley somewhere. But bars like Fusion are no longer typical of the Island gay scene. Gay life in Honolulu is out of the back alleys and into the political and social mainstream.
“There have always been gays in the islands,” says Jack Law, who, as president of the company that owns Hula’s, Malia’s Cantina and Wave Waikiki, has spent 25 years immersed in the Honolulu gay scene. In Law’s view, gays have always been tolerated here — as long as they were content to keep a low profile. “But that kind of tolerance made people apathetic,” he contends. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t get anybody to attend meetings, couldn’t sustain a gay newspaper, couldn’t do anything.”
Partially because of AIDS and partially because large numbers of gays suddenly seemed to tire of the closet, that’s all changed radically. Island gays now have their own political action committee, their own magazine and newspaper, their own yellow pages, even their own churches, softball league and country dance association. “These days,” says Law, the attitude is we’re here and if you don’t like it, the hell with you.
That power may be generated by sheer numbers. No one in the islands seems to have statistics on the local gay population. But Jeffrey Vitale, president of Overlooked Opinions Inc., a Chicago research firm that specializes in tracking the gay market, says his surveys show there are 97,441 men and women in the Islands who identify themselves as exclusively or almost exclusively gay. That’s 10.8 percent of the adult population — slightly greater than the national average of 9.6 percent.
And — says Vitale — Island gays are an affluent and well educated group. More than 70 percent have college or graduate school degrees, and their average household income is $56,218. Since so few gay households (6.9 percent) support children, gays are a lucrative market, with plenty of discretionary income.
“Even gays don’t realize the financial strength of their own community,” says Cheryl Embry, editor of the gay magazine Island Lifestyle. “When you see the numbers, you realize that gays are professional, managerial, entrepreneurial. We’re making our way in all levels of government and business. People think they don’t know any gays, but they do — they just don’t know they’re gay.”
Gays are learning to use their economic power, either to “buy gay” or to patronize business that at least make an effort to acknowledge the gay market.
“There’s real persecution out there,” says Embry. “Being gay is like a secret you hold from the world. The only time you can really relax is with other gay people, so there’s a certain bonding we all share.”
Past midnight on a Saturday, it’s standing room only at Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand. Hundreds of immaculately groomed men pack the courtyard under the lit banyan tree, drinks in hand, talking or simply checking out the action. (“I don’t see the point of bars,” says one disgruntled patron. “All there is to do is stand around, sweating and posing.”)
Once you get over the fact that the clientele is virtually all male — the handful of women present, it’s said, are straight, looking for a safe place to drink and dance — the crowd at Hula’s looks remarkably respectable. Dressed in carefully thought out casual outfits, people meet and greet like insurance salesmen working the room at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Some of this is sexual cruising, of course, clips from soft-core gay films alternate with scenes from campy musicals on the giant video screens. But, despite the crowded dance floor, despite the all-male hugs and handholding, there’s something more than sex going on here. Hula’s seems less like an orgy and more like a town meeting. “Yeah,” jokes one patron when he hears the metaphor. “A meeting of Boys Town.”
Much of the talk at Hula’s is about the dangers of the outside world — right-wing homophobic groups, gay bashing, the recent murder of a transvestite in Waikiki. The bar is a refuge where gays can gain strength from their own numbers and get in touch with who they really are.
Not everyone in Hula’s on a Saturday night is frankly gay the rest of the week. Most out-of-the-closet Island gays are haoles. (“That’s no surprise,” says Jack Law. “It’s always easier to come out in a city where your parents don’t live.”) For local gays, coming out isn’t easy.
When Mark Tanaka (not his real name) goes to Hula’s, he walks the long way around the block. He’s worried that if he doesn’t, the movie theatre across the street will let out and one of his cousins or co-workers will spot him going into Honolulu’s best known gay bar.
“The local community really does stifle people coming out,” he says. “It makes it very difficult for people who are gay to be happy.”
From a young age Tanaka suspected he was gay. But he says he might never have acknowledged those feeling if he hadn’t gone away to college on the Mainland. For years after returning home, he couldn’t bring himself to tell his parents he was gay. His desire to please his mother and “marry a good Japanese girl” was so strong, he even lived with a girlfriend — who knew he’d been gay — for nearly a year. “It was hopeless” he says in retrospect. “For us to have sex, I’d have to fantasize about being with a man.”
Finally Tanaka chose to tell his parents the truth. “I thought my mother could handle it — I thought she probably knew already — but she was the one who pleaded with me not to tell the rest of the family. It’s a little better in Hawaiian families, but in Chinese and Japanese families — oh, the shame.”
Tanaka is hardly an isolated example. Tom Humphreys, the noted biologist who heads up the UII Gay and Lesbian ‘Ohana, says he never knows what to advise young gays about coming out to their families: “Sometimes their parents throw them right out of the house.”
Most gays feel that they have no choice in their sexual orientation. “Nobody in their right mind would choose to be gay” insists Jack Law. “Nobody’s that masochistic.”But realizing that you are fated to be gay in a straight world is not entirely a pleasant experience. “Young gays typically feel hopeless, isolated, and vulnerable” says Humphreys. “There’s very good data coming out of the National Institute of Health that one-third of all gay males attempt suicide as teenagers. One-third.”
And the problems don’t end with maturity. “I think that virtually every gay person is in the closet to some extent,” says Humphreys. “There’s too much negative feeling out there.”
Even after you come out to your family, explains Tanaka, there’s always the problem of what to do at work. Being openly gay on the job is “always a promotion risk,” he says. “So many gay people just limit their ambitions and don’t do what they’re capable of.” Tanaka’s own ambition is to run for public office — but that may prove impossible. “There are only two choices,” he says. “Pretend you’re something you’re not and run to win, or make the point about being gay and probably lose. Which would you choose?”
In terms of thwarted ambition and stifled personalities, the price of being gay is probably higher than any one straight realizes. As Tanaka puts it, “If it was OK to be gay, if everyone in the state could deal with it, I’d be an entirely different person. So would a lot of other gays. This is a trivial example, but I used to bring flowers to the office all the time. I stopped because it made one of my co-workers thing I was gay. It’s no big deal, but I really like flowers. It seems stupid that I can’t enjoy them.”
As we walk into Club 58 after Hula’s, my guide says, “Oh dear, this is where gays go to die.” It’s an unfair remark. Here the crowd is a little older. There’s less dressing for effect and far less cruising and posing. You get the feeling someone might hop up at any moment and suggest a game of charades.
The entertainment is a standard lounge act, a piano player belting out Sinatra standards: “Straaaangers in the niiiight, exchanging glaaances.” There are two older straight couples at a front table, polyester-clad tourists who may have wandered in here by mistake. One of the men is singing along enthusiastically.
At one point a woman in a mu’u mu’u — or perhaps a man, it seems impolite to inquire — gets up and does a hula. When she’s done, she circulates through the crowd with a large can, collecting money for PWAs. Everyone else seems to know that stands for Persons with AIDS. “It’s important we take care of PWAs,” says the pianist. “No one else is doing it for us.” As she comes by, we each stuff some bills into the can.
“I’ve personally watched 200 people, mostly my friends, die of AIDS,” says Kevin Scahill. “That takes its toll on you.” Two years ago Scahill founded the local branch of the ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a group which demonstrated during George Bush’s last visit to the Islands and during last year’s April 15 tax deadline rush, both to protest government in action on AIDS.
National chapters of ACT-UP have staged some conspicuous acts of civil disobedience — stopping traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge and the New York Subways, chaining themselves to the railing of the New York Stock Exchange to protest profiteering on AIDS drugs.
“Hawaii isn’t ready for that kind of in-your-face activism,” says Scahill, “but there’s as much anger here as anywhere.” ACT-UP’s slogan is “Silence-Death.”
“It’s AIDS that has forced gays out of the closet,” says Scahill. “Where it’s a matter of life or death, what’s the use of worrying about what other people think of you?”
Scahill — who became HIV-positive though a long-term lover who was among that rare minority of HIV sufferers who don’t react to the usual tests — has been radicalized by his experiences. He believes in the controversial practice of “outing,” gays publicly unmasking other gays. “I hate it when prominent people raise money for AIDS but don’t admit they’re gay, because that’s the same as saying that it’s not all right to be gay.”
To Scahill, the notion of working patiently through the normal channels to get AIDS funding is ridiculous: “We’re Americans. We should just demand to be well-treated by the system. I hate the way things work in Hawaii, the you-keep-my-secret-and-I’ll-keep-yours way of doing business.”
But it’s precisely because gays have had to learn to work through the normal political and bureaucratic channels that AIDS has created gay power. That’s the view of Scott Foster, who at 50 is one of the gay community’s senior activists.
Foster is not as angry as Scahill, but he agrees that AIDS is the over-riding gay issue. “It’s when we realized that no one else cared whether we lived or died that we found strength,” he says. “We found out our financial strength when we started to raise money for PWAs. We found out our political strength when we had to go down to the Legislature to get AIDS funding. The anti-discrimination bill became important because we were so busy dealing with AIDS that we didn’t have time to deal with all that other bullshit.”
Foster feels that AIDS will soon stop being an exclusively gay issue. “The day Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, I felt a great millstone being lifted from my neck. I was sad because I’m a basketball fan. But I honestly felt, I’ve done my part. It’s up to the straight people now, because they’re starting to see those same small numbers of AIDS cases that the gay community saw 10 years ago.”
To Tommy Aguilar, AIDS may eventually bring gay and straight together. “When the heterosexual community mirrors what happened in the gay community, it’s going to realize that every single AIDS organization in the country was started by gay people. We’re the one who’ve done all the groundwork to fight the disease. We’re going to come out of this heroes.”
Hamburger Mary’s is the most radical of the gay bars. Here there are no women — patrons have been known to hassle them. The fashions are more denim and leather, the look more masculine, somewhat of a relief from all the perfect haircuts and meticulous shaves at Hula’s. There’s very little talk, a lot of exaggerated stares, like a school yard where everyone feels compelled to act tough.
There’s no actual menace here, unless you count the promise of rough sex in the air. But the whole scene makes my guide extremely edgy. “This place makes my skin crawl,” he says, “I don’t see how anyone can stand to come in here.”
But even Mary’s has a function in the gay community besides its obvious one. “For decades,” Scott Foster has told me, “bars were the only place that gays and lesbians could go and be with one another in a relatively safe environment. They became our country clubs, our churches our meeting halls. Mary’s on a Sunday afternoon was always a political meeting. We’d go because we’d run into our political cohorts and we could talk about things. Of course, that’s starting to change. Now it’s all political action committees and fax machines.”
Tom Humphreys is on the fax machine circuit. In addition to his work with the UH Gay and Lesbian Ohana, he heads the Hawaii Organization for Political Empowerment (HOPE), a political action committee that has already raised $20,000 for legislators the gay community feels are progressive in attitude, most prominently Jim Shon and Gary Gill.
Rouse, who had cut his teeth in the struggle to get Wisconsin to pass the first gay anti-discrimination law in the nation, had, without pay, lobbied the Legislature on the bill for four years. In 1991, he got Ann Kobayashi to sponsor the bill in the Senate and Wayne Metcalf to do the same in the House. “Both are good people,” he says, “but I don’t think either of them was really eager to take on the struggle.”
The bill was purposely narrow. It covered only discrimination on the job, when many gays would have also liked to forbid it in housing and public accommodations as well. “We went with what we thought we could win on,” says Rouse. Even so, the lobbyist put in several anxious months, lining up votes, warding off threats, answering the question of skeptical legislators.
He began to feel confident when he found out that one legislator — one whose support he did not expect — had stood up in a private caucus and delivered an impassioned plea to his colleagues to pass the bill. He had gay people in his family, he said, and knew the kind of hassles they went through.
“Ultimately,” says Rouse, “I did not change one person’s mind about the bill. All I did was assure legislators that if they stood up on the issue, they wouldn’t be alone, that they wouldn’t risk taking it on the chin for something that would loose anyway.”
What convinced the legislators, then, to risk the anti-gay backlash they knew would come? “They all knew somebody who was gay — their friends, their family or at work,” says rouse. “I got credit for getting the bill passed. But It wasn’t me. It was all those thousands of gays who had the courage to come out to their families or their friends or to someone at work.”
The bill attracted a last-minute flurry of opposition, mainly from the right-wing fundamentalist Christian community. (Most mainstream religious denominations supported the bill, saying that although homosexuality was morally wrong, that was not sufficient reason to discriminate against gay people — a “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach.)
“I don’t feel the bill was accurately presented to the church people who opposed it,” says Rouse. “There were some out there whipping up unfounded fears about what the bill would do — especially to churches, which were legally exempted.”
Despite the pressure, the bill passed and the governor signed it. The last is currently being challenged in court by a group of anonymous citizens, represented by the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal aid organization. The suit claims the law abrogates the religious freedom to discriminate against gays. Rouse is confident that the law will stand: “We’re not going to go backwards here. Gays are unanimous on this issue and we will not be deterred.”
All the way down Kuhio Avenue, my guides keep apologizing. They’re sure that on a weeknight, there won’t be anyone at Interim, Honolulu’s only surviving gay women’s bar. “Perhaps that can be your story” suggests one. “You can write that women don’t like the bar scene. Gay men meet their partners at bars. Women meet them through friends.”
It’s true that compared to the thriving men’s gay bar scene, Honolulu has few public places for gay women. (Even San francisco cannot support a full-time women’s bar.) But once we climb the dark concrete steps to the second-story bar — no sign, you’d never find it without help — the place is fairly busy, with maybe two dozen patrons in two dark rooms. The low-rent look is relieved by a stunning photo essay on women’s relationships by artist Gaye Chan.
Until you adjust to the gloom, there’s a fair bit of gender confusion. The preferred look seems to be short hair, no make-up, jeans, T-shirts, denim jackets — imagine a radical women’s faculty caucus, plus cigarettes, drinks and a pool table, and you have a reasonably accurate vision of the scene.
Several male gays have warned me about coming here. “You’ll get some hard looks, like women do at Mary’s,” said one. Another predicts I wont’ even get thought the door. But the place is welcoming enough. The drinks come in paper cups, but there’ decent Scotch in them. And I pick up a couple of carpentry tips from the conversation.
Several women I meet apologize for the bar — not because it’s gay, but because of the cigarette smoke and alcohol. “I’d never come here if I wasn’t a lesbian,”says one woman. “NO, scratch that — I’d never come here if I wasn’t a single lesbian.”
Although you’d think that gay men and women would find much in common, the two communities are often divided. “In all our organizations we strive for a gender balance in the officers. Sometimes we even have co-chairs,” says Island Lifestyle editor Cheryl Embry. But, she admits, there are gay women (the politically correct term is lesbians) who refuse to have anything to do with gay men. And gay men who refuse to spend any time at all with women. “But those kinds of people never come to meetings, so in our political agenda, gays and lesbians are pretty united here.”
Some gay men grumble about lesbians. “The women have it so easy,” says one gay activist. “Unless they are really butch, no one even suspects. Two women holding hands are friends. Tow men holding hands get rocks thrown at them.”
Asked weather he thinks gay women have an easier time of it, Jack Law shakes his head: “They are discriminated against twice, first as women, next as gays. I hate to say this, but sometimes the male gay community discriminates against the female gay community, and it also discriminates against people who are more feminine, especially the transvestites. But if you’re not going to accept the discrimination against yourself, then how can you practice it against someone else?”
The gay community is far from monolithic. There tends to be unanimity on discrimination issues — employment, housing and so forth — but, otherwise there are competing agendas. Some gays, for instance, feel that the next step in legalizing gay marriage; others feel that since being gay is an alternative lifestyle, it’s inappropriate for gays to try to imitate heterosexual marriage.
The leading figure in the Hawaii gay marriage movement is Bill Woods, head of the Gay and Lesbian Education and Advocacy (GLEA) Foundation. Woods has been the Island gay community’s most visible and vocal spokesperson for 20 years, but he also tends to polarize the gay community into pro and anti-Woods factions — a situation that was exacerbated earlier this year when allegations arose that Woods had diverted his organization’s funds to his own personal use. (Woods apologized publicly for the incident and claims it was a bookkeeping misunderstanding.)
Woods attributes the opposition to jealousy of his activism. Certainly, to him belongs the most visible victory of the Hawaii gay power movement, the shutting down of The Natural Deli. The deli belonged to Mike Gabbard, who had founded a group called Stop Promoting Homosexuality and spent $200 or $300 a week at radio station KGU to buy air time for a show called “Let’s Talk Straight Hawaii” (pun intended).
Gabbard believes he had a calling to oppose the view that homosexuality is an acceptable alternative lifestyle. In his view, “Homosexuality is not normal, not healthy, morally and scripturally wrong.” Although he would stop short of declaring homosexuality a crime, he does suggest that the repeal of sodomy laws across the country in the ’60s and the American Psychiatric Association’s decision in the ’70s that homosexuality was normal and not a mental illness, led directly to the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s.
Gabbard, the only solution to being gay is spiritual enlightenment — “walking with the Lord” — and renunciation of the whole lifestyle. “You can never feel good about yourself if your lifestyle is displeasing to the supreme being,” he explains. “Down deep, most homosexuals know what they are doing is wrong, and that makes them deeply unhappy.”
To many gays, Gabbard’s show was outright gay bashing. They were outraged that KGU and the newspapers (which run Stop Promoting Homosexuality’s anti-gay advertisements) would allow someone to malign a minority. “It’s hard to imagine if the word gay was black or filipino that the radio station would accept the money to put this stuff on the air,” says Scott Foster.
But gay bashing is legal. Gabbard was fine until he said on the air that confronted with two equally qualified job applicants, one gay, one straight, he’d take the straight one. Unlike gay bashing, discrimination in employment is, since last year, illegal.
Woods organization immediately threw up a picket line. Gabbard says the picketers refused to negotiate; Woods says Gabbard never had any intention of talking to the gays. Within 12 days, Gabbard shut down his business, getting national media coverage in the process.
Some gay leaders had some doubts about the picket line, since it seemed as much directed against Gabbard’s radio show as against any specific employment issue. (“Bigots have the right of free speech, just like we do,” says one anti-Woods gay activist). But most gays found Gabbard’s show intolerable and were just as glad to have Woods prove that there’s no profit in gay bashing.
In fact, both sides may have “won.” Gays got a taste of power (and Woods notched up a major victory at a time when he was under fire in the gay community). On the other side, Gabbard says that with all the publicity, contributions have begun pouring in and that he’s even received a couple of job offers. It’s easy to imagine he’ll end up on a national speaking tour, introduced to select audiences as “the man whose small business was destroyed by radical homosexual activists.” (In the meantime, however, he says he’s worried about keeping up the mortgage on his condo.)
Gabbard’s story has had one probably unintentional effect. By deliberately provoking the gay community, he has conjured up an image of gay power that is far more powerful than the real thing. “Gays in this country have seized control of the media and the streets and have a policy of intimidating their opponents” he says. But he was shut down by five or six pickets who didn’t even have the full weight of the Honolulu gay community behind them. In fact, what really shut him down may have been his own customers’ reluctance to support homophobia.
Gabbard fears that if they are allowed to consider themselves “a normal alternative.” Gays will recruit others to their cause — with consequent ill effects in the social, moral and medical realms. Many gays, on the other hand, are just worried about injustice or violence from a straight majority that up until now they have not had the power to fight. They dispute the fact that anyone can be recruited into the gay ranks. Mainly they just want to be left alone.
“Outside of the 20 minutes a day that people spend having sex, we are no different than anybody” says Scott Foster. “We’ve got the same shit to deal with in life. In addition to that, we’ve go to worry about whether we’re going to get kicked out of our homes. Up until last year, we had to worry about whether we could be fired from our jobs.
“Add that to the normal problems of living, and then you understand why we have such a tremendous drug and alcohol problem, plus low self-esteem and high suicide rate with teens. Our battle is for us to be just like you guys. So we don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen to us because we’re gay and we can start worrying about things that really matter.”
Unlike the Waikiki gay bars, Tropical Paradise has a nice, local feel. It’s a little funky and out-of-date Space Invader games, light fixtures that look like crystal pineapples, and various ceramic figurines. But despite the crush of people, every seat at the tiny Formica tables is taken and it’s shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar. The atmosphere is mellow.
You can tell it’s a gay bar. On top the cigarette machine are little plastic bags from the Life Foundation, each filled with two Lifestyle Extra-Strength Condoms and a plastic vial of Astro-Glide lubricant. It’s a mixed crowd here, but the men are with the men and th women with women.
It all seems so normal. On stage is a trio of aunties playing Hawaiian music, just like at a baby luau. Joining them for a few songs tonight is a major Island singing star. The crowd is mesmerized, appreciative. After the star finishes up his set, he comes down and joins the knot of people where I’m standing. He’s in a great mood, introduces his current boyfriend. Then he discovers that he’s in the company of a reporter doing a story on gays.
“When I’m in here, my name is Bobby Schwartz,” he says. “Got that? Bobby Schwartz.”
It’s still not easy being gay in Paradise.