Arguably the ultimate expression of the disco experience and culture , the Saint opened in September of 1980. It is something that is hard to explain to people today, but I'll try. It's also something that looking back 30 years now, represents a lost paradise and in many respects a sexual utopia that was probably too good to be true and never meant to last.
Now many people think of Studio 54 when they think NYC and discos, but in comparison Studio 54 was a tourist trap, celebrities and show, it was for posers. Studio 54 was all flashing lights and disco balls, neon and smoke machines. At The Saint the place was more of a backdrop. The Saint always realized that the real show was the show on the dance floor. Sure there was the obligatory disco ball and gelled lights, the star machine, but the main feature was the expansive plain white fabric dome over the dance floor. It gave a soft glow to the sweaty bodies and provided a screen for the light and laser show to play off of. The main show though was always on the dance floor. In fact there wasn't really much of a way to stand around and watch the dance floor, you were pretty much thrust into the middle of the action.
It was a sea of mostly naked sweaty men, and we're talking really hot men. The disco music was loud with a thumping bass beat and the smell of amyl nitrate was overpowering. This was the good amyl too not the watered down room deodorizer stuff but the medical ampoules. The spent white capsules would litter the dance floor, and one of the most popular accessories of time were the stainless steel "bullets" you'd wear around your neck, that held your amyl in a presoaked wick until you'd unfasten the cover and shove it up your nose for a big whiff. Then you'd be off on a Sylvester-driven "Feel Mighty Real" sweaty muscled body bump and grind high for a good five-ten minutes. This was before ecstasy and meth -- cocaine was the drug of choice and it flowed freely. Tiny brown bottles with bumping spoons in the lids were stuffed in pretty much every pair of impossibly tight half buttoned 501 jeans.
You'd never really ask anyone to dance, you just went out on the dance floor and danced by yourself, but not for long before you'd be felt up, sandwiched and lost in a sweaty mass of man flesh. Now if this sounds terribly decadent - it was. it truly truly was. And as decadent as you can possibly imagine it was, it was actually 10X that. But for a young farm boy like myself from rural NC, it was also pure heaven. It is hard to express the extent to which, for so many of us, this was the promised land. After years of self doubt, family rejections, discrimination, verbal and often physical attacks, this was the most accepting, affirming, and even most spiritual of places one could imagine, and once you finally got there it was so much more than one could have ever even hoped for.
Eventually after dancing a while you'd wordlessly click with someone, and after dancing all sweaty and pec-to-pec, and after lots of long deep hard kisses, you'd slide out together from under the fabric roof of the dance floor and find your way up to the balconies. The nightclub was in fact an old theater. Something that you'd never know from the dance floor, but from the balconies you could feel the history of the place. From the balconies the domed dance floor looked out of place below, it was as if an alien space ship had landed in the middle of the theater. The dance floor gave a glow to the balconies but there was no other real light, you could see the dance floor through the gauzy panels, and the music was muffled (but not much). You'd then proceed to have really intense porn star, drug driven sex with this hot guy you'd just met maybe twenty minutes ago. Then... you'd go back and dance some more. Yes there was this huge casualness about it, a hedonistic rush, but it was at the time the ultimate expression of being gay and being part of the gay community.
But like all utopian dreams it was too good to last. Within a year or two after the Saint's opening, the gay community would start to experience strange mysterious deaths, and the gay cancer, the gay plague was upon us. Soon a shadow would be hanging over the Saint. Live sex shows got more creative, and less graphic. Eventually they'd become safe sex vignettes and demonstrations. Within a decade the Saint had peaked and closed. Once the epicenter for gay culture, it came to represent the haunting devastation that ravaged the community.
Now I have no intention here to discuss or pontificate on the AIDS epidemic and it's causes and lessons. Though those are all worthty of long serious discussions and decades of articles, speeches and books have been dedicated to just that. However, I would like to point out that with everything the community lost, all the talent, the lives, the wisdom and life experiences; we also lost a great sense of openness, adventure, community and celebration. Of course there was a great sense of community that developed around the battle cry to fight the disease, a renewed sense of purpose, even power and effectiveness at times. The joy the celebration though was gone.
It's not unusual today for young gays to shake their heads and say they're going to scream if one more old queen goes on about "the good old days" - I understand that. But I also realize there is an experience, a feeling of community, a freedom that I don't think they'll every know to the extent my generation did. I have to wonder what takes it's place?
Us "oldtimers" often bemoan the back burnering of the AIDS epidemic, even in the LGBT community, but that's another whole discussion. However, it's encouraging to see all the energy put into the Prop8 battle, even the work on DOMA and DADT battles. There is I suppose a bit of that same euphoria here that I once saw at the Saint. I've seen it in an odd place though, like the faces of those married couples in CA when they could get married for that brief time.
It's that same glow of victory and of unbridled happiness, of belonging and acceptance beyond anything you'd imagined, of accomplishment after a long battle and rough road that I would see at the Saint. I don't think our opponents realize how sweet they're going to be making our eventual (and inevitable) nuptials. How much more sacred our vows will be for not only the level of commitment to each other but all the hard work that went into them. How it will be the ultimate expression of not just a same-sex couple making a commitment, but a symbol of a unified GLBT community.
So as much as I miss the good ole disco driven days of the Saint, I do feel I might one day capture that same silly grin eurphoria. Perhaps standing with a man I love (I'm still looking), surrounded by life-long friends, standing in a garden, music playing. With that same sense of community - that YES, this is what all the struggle was for. All the ups and downs, the protests, the letter writing, the rallies they all come down to this - a wedding, surrounded by community and family. Then of course we'll play Sylvester "You Make Me Feel, Mighty Real" at the reception and I'll once again dance under a disco ball, holding a man close, and I'll probably cry. I have lived in remarkable times and seen remarkable things.