When I first heard about homosexuals as a young boy, I wanted to know what they looked like. How could you tell if someone was gay, and where could you find them? And most importantly, how could they possibly identify one another in order to be together?
These things were cloaked in mystery. One of the few things I was told was that they had secret signals, such as wearing an article of clothing in a particular color, like a red necktie.* I never saw any men with red neckties, nor did I encounter any men who were openly gay. For that, I would have to wait until I moved to New York City.
Of course, at that time, things were very muddled and misinformation ruled. Homosexuals, pedophiles and perverts were all lumped together in a convenient basket of societal miscreants, a mess that took me years to untangle and sort out.
One of my high school math teachers was a very accomplished artistic figure roller skater. He was married. One day a comment was made aloud, directed towards him, implying something of an effeminate or gay quality. Our teacher turned bright red. Nothing else was said. Was he a married gay in the closet or just embarrassed by a false accusation? I will never know.
After my first visit to New York City in the 1960s, it was immediately clear that this was the locus for all things offbeat, unconventional, and counter-cultural - a place where those who were different could be themselves and accepted. This was the place I had been looking for, and New York City, particularly Greenwich Village, called out to me like a siren. It never occurred to me before moving here that the tolerance this neighborhood was known for would include gays.
When I was a freshman at New York University (located in the heart of the Village), we were told there was a bar nearby where gay men openly congregated - Julius' at Waverly and 10th Streets. This we had to see. A number of us went, nervously observing the patrons coming and going and even peering through the window, not knowing what to expect. However, they all just looked like everyone else. And I saw no red ties and no red faces...
Note about the bar: Julius' is the oldest continuously operating gay bar in New York City. The building dates to 1824, and it has operated as a bar since 1840. It has been frequented by many members of the gay community since the 1950s, including many well known such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Rudolf Nureyev (see NY Times article here). Although not technically illegal, gays were not served alcohol prior to 1966. The State Liquor Authority had a regulation against serving homosexuals in bars, by considering them "disorderly." In 1966, the Mattachine Society staged a Sip-In at Julius', challenging the SLA and getting the courts to rule that gays had the right to assemble and be served. This paved the way for the Stonewall Riots.