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Gerald Gerash


Gay at Cal, 1954

Gay life at Berkeley was not too apparent to me at first. As I had a lover, I had no need to find the gay bars to seek out other gay men. Besides, I had very little spare time for a social life as I took a full load of class units, and sometimes more, to maintain my student deferment from the draft and the Korean War, and worked 20 hours a week, as well. I knew of no such thing as a gay organization in 1954. One couldn't find gay groups, bookstores or theaters or gay anything in the phone book. They just didn't exist. Many years later, I discovered one had existed in San Francisco, The Mattachine Society. Few knew about it because it did very little outreach due to the potential exposure and danger to its members....

Pete and I had an apartment on Oxford Avenue, which was adjacent to the south side of campus and less than a block away from a student Co-op, Oxford Hall. One evening, I went to Oxford Hall, to leave off some leaflets. Opening the front door, the first person I saw was James, a Black student, working at the telephone switchboard, inside a cubbyhole of a room. I started a conversation with him, asking where I could leave the leaflets. I quickly picked up on his gayness, as he did on mine. The discovery that the man you are now talking to is gay and that he is also in the process of discovering the same about you, and you are both aware of the other's discovery, without a single word exchanged on the subject, was special.

Of course the same thing occurs today, but the feelings upon such a discovery, in the 50s was more startling and intense. It was finding the treasure of the treasure hunt. It was succeeding in our surveillance, wherever we may be, in the continual search of finding gays and their hiding places. Mostly, it was virtually impossible to succeed - like looking for drops of water in a swimming pool.

We exchanged phone numbers and somewhere in the conversation I told him I lived nearby down the block, without mentioning I had a lover. The next day, he introduced me to a gay engineering student, Jerry. The three of us thereafter were in almost daily contact throughout the rest of our student days. As the semesters went by, we added a few others to our nucleus. If we met another gay we introduced him to our nucleus and gradually we developed a wider circle. Some were graduates of Cal and those who weren't lived in the Berkeley-Oakland area. Of our nucleus, I remain close to Jerry and, although I live in Santa Monica and he in San Francisco, I see him a few times a year.

I broke up with Pete at the end of the summer of 1955. I told him I wanted to think about our relationship and needed to get away for the summer to think things over. Although I had already made my decision, I was afraid of hurting him and the unknown consequences. Getting away, I thought, would give him room to be more comfortable to the idea of living without me. I took a summer room and board job as a waiter at Irvine Restaurant and Lodge that specialized in homemade blueberry pies, about 75 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 101.

I did not get the mental and emotional stimulation from Pete and didn't think I ever could, and realized that I never was in love with him. As it turned out, he was not at all heart broken, and was more than carefree over the summer, having sex with at least one person I knew. All of which made my break easier upon my return, separating on friendly terms.

Most of my introductions to other gays were off campus. I met guys at The White Horse, a gay bar on Telegraph Avenue, a convenient walking distance away, across the Berkeley-Oakland line. Some, not many, were tricks - one night stands - and an occasional slightly longer liaison. I also made friends there. Very few were students. The Cal students I recall meeting at the White Horse, I met after graduating.

Our inner nucleus had special names for some of our friends. There was a couple we named "Fluffy" and "Precise". Fluffy was blond, stout and fat and full of fluffy conversation and smiles. His lover was taller and lean who took himself a tad too seriously, trying always to be very scientific and exact, therefore, we named him "Precise". We didn't dare reveal our nicknames to them. They were too mocking. Their nicknames were so on the mark though, it was impossible not to at least chuckle whenever we used them.

Jerry and I had a nickname for James that we secreted between the two of us or with someone special we could trust not to report back to him. James refused to answer to "Jim" or "Jimmy" or any other variety, only to James. He was big and burly, medium-dark, Black student who was prone to brooding and holing up in his faintly illuminated, room. However, he screamed with delight when we camped it up. I was sure to get a little squeal out of him whenever I referred to him as "mein schvester". In spite of his campiness and having sex with one of the students at the co-op on a fairly regular basis, he refused to consider himself gay.

The rooms at Oxford Hall were small and Spartan, but James transformed his into a salon. Whereas, all other students had bare floors, James' room had a faux Persian rug which, in the subdued lighting, looked luxurious. He removed the standard pull down, paper window shades and installed formal drapes with swags, all in chenille. While other students had a narrow single sized bed, his was large, with a chenille bedspread, matching the drapes.

When he hosted us in his room, he ruled his roost and held court as he lounged on the masses of pillows on his bed. Although usually a very warm and delightful person, he also would cast long and haughty glances about his room, with an impatient and pained look. Our name for him was Elizabeth, The Queen. Jerry and I loved him and felt closer to him all the more when we used his nickname. It seems to capture the pathos of the duality of his life, as well as the fun of it..

One light skinned, Black feminine gay occasionally enjoyed wearing high heels, a fur coat and being naked underneath. That was the way he sometimes liked to go to the movies. We called him Cinderella, but usually we shortened it to Cindy. Malcolm saw him one day walking down the street towards him, butch-like, in regular male attire, with someone who appeared to be a new boyfriend or date whom Cindy was trying to impress and not appear feminine. When Cindy saw Malcolm walking towards him and his boyfriend, he gravely gave him the high sign not to blow his butch cover. However, as he approached them, Malcolm couldn't resist greeting him, in a sing-song drawn out feminine drawl: "Hi Cindy-eeee".

For a good number of years "Mary" was a camp term that was used a lot. A student friend of mine, Harry, told me about how it got him into trouble. When he and his roommate, both students, rented an apartment, the landlady told them that she was especially strict about one thing - no women were allowed in the apartment. That would certainly be no problem for them, Harry told her..

Harry and his roommate used to yell at each other and, in their shouting sessions, sometimes said things like: "Come on Mary, get those dishes done" or "Clean up your damn mess, Mary" or "You look gorgeous, Mary". Once the landlady was visiting Harry's neighbor when some of the Mary camp was going on. She evicted them because Harry and his roommate were "yelling at that poor Mary" and were violating her cardinal rule against women in the apartment. Harry was too embarrassed to explain who Mary was....

Walking around campus, between classes or after classes or at football and basketball games, the closest thing to cruising on campus, was lots of exchanged looks. This, of course, was not cruising. Even those who looked longer than usual were most likely merely inquisitive or curious, typical of youth observing youth.

There was an incredibly beautiful Dutch student who ate at the rooming house where I worked, washing dishes and cleaning up the dining room who I pined for and often day dreamed about. I was on daily watch for him, first for his entry into the dining room and then after finishing his meal, for his entry into my little dish washing room to bus his dishes.

When he came in, our exchanged looks, separated by only a few feet, were very intense and prolonged. While I don't know exactly what he was thinking, it was clear he had a strong interest in me. I was too scared and tongue tied to say anything. On the other hand, he had a brother who usually ate with him, whom I was not attracted to, and with whom I had no problem exchanging smiles and hellos or how are you's. He, I believed was gay or extremely friendly to the help. But his handsome brother so flustered and paralyzed me, I couldn't even muster up a little telling smile.

Another case of my frustration was a bank teller at the Bank of America branch on Telegraph Avenue who friends told me was gay. He did decidedly cruise me once when I went to his station for a bank transaction. His smile at me was so big I could have walked into it. It was difficult for me to know how to deal with these situations.

I am quite sure if I had said something friendly to get to know him, we would have found a way to meet outside the bank setting. If he had been at a bar, I would have been able to be a bit more relaxed and even strike up a conversation with him. At the bank, I was too scared. Yet I was very attracted to him, but too struck with fear to say anything in public.

In those days, it felt like it was almost against some law if you were gay, to flirt openly and in plain daylight. I had a deep fear of the reaction of onlookers. We had only limited areas for cruising or picking up people. At the bank in broad daylight or while I was working, seemed just too unsafe. Whereas, at the gay bar or other known cruising places, there was the safety in the knowledge that everyone else was also gay. One might very well say that we intuitively knew our place.

The only open cruising that I saw on campus was at the swimming pool of the Phoebe Hearst Women's Gym, in the summers, on certain days of the week, when it was open only to men. It was the land of svelte, sinewy, tanned bodies. On the hotter days, languid men sun bathed for hours, frequently glancing at and gazing upon nearby bodies. While frequent glances didn't classify one as gay, as the day wore on, it became clearer who was gay and who wasn't.

The gays fastened their eyes upon the men, just as I did, when someone with a particularly fine body arose to begin his walk on the pool deck, down the length of the Olympic size pool, in a kind of projected cake walk, not taking their eyes off his body until he completely disappeared through the massive, gray, stone doorway arches of Phoebe Hearst Gym. Without interrupting my locked focus, I was still able, in the periphery of my vision, to note which heads were turning, in synchrony, with mine.

As closing time approached, the numbers of heterosexual men dwindled, leaving a smaller, mostly gay crowd. We were more interested in lying in the sun longer and more patient in the investment of our time for a good tan. As a result, towards the end of the afternoon, nearly all the remaining guys in the showers were gay. That was probably another reason we gays stuck around until closing. It was in the shower rooms that cruising became obvious.

Cocks were distended and fulsome as pairs of men, sometimes more, depending on the section of the shower room, visually fed off the adjacent bodies. We slowly soaped our bodies down, with handfuls of liquid soap, our hands spreading the suds, small areas at a time, into our firm flesh, while at the same time being careful to strike and hold a position that would likely display the musculature and curvature of the part of our body we wanted to show off. For that particular moment.

We repeated the process of rubbing soap into the next favorite portion of our body, allowing us to get into yet another pose. It was an in-place dance, each guy creating a choreography that best suited his body parts. The sprays and beads of shower water from the powerful shower head bounced off our bodies at crazy directions and angles. It tingled, and also gave us some visual effects. Our only audience was the dancing-in-place neighbor. A unique, sui generis dance seldom performed elsewhere, except, I suppose, in other similarly situated communal shower rooms across America, and possibly throughout the world.

I never saw sex acts or even any touching, but I did see some brazen full erections. Once I saw a couple of men leave their section of the showers together to go to a more remote, private section. I still remember a few students who had startling endowments.

Read More About It

  • Gerald A. Gerash, "Being Gay and Left at Cal in the 1950s: Life in Two Undergrounds," in the Gay Bears Autobiographical Essays Series, The University Archives, Berkeley. (CU- 484.2)

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