May 29, 2019 at 9:07 pm PST | by Scott Stiffler
Of cowboy drag, cruising, and cocaine

Gerald Busby in cowboy drag, ready to cruise at the Spike and the Eagle’s Nest. (Photo by Joanna Ney)

“It denoted seriousness of commitment to being gay and being masculine, as well as being decisive about what kind of sex you were after,” recalls Gerald Busby, of the “cowboy drag” he donned to make it past the doors, and into the darkened corners, of NYC’s Spike and Eagle’s Nest, during the early 1970s and beyond.

The Tyler, Texas native was well-equipped to present himself in the manner of Marlborough Man machismo, having grown up in a world where boots, broad-rimmed hats, and jeans became faded and frayed—the result of hard, manual labor as practiced by strong, straight, good Christian heads of households.

So appropriate, then, that when their gay sons spread their wings in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, they sought to subvert, and fetishize, the clothing of their youth.

Comparing strict adherence to the standard-issue components of cowboy drag to “cults of religious fundamentalism and Barbie dollism,” Busby recalls the “alignment of costume and behavior in the ’60s and ’70s” sent its signal of masculinity via the display of “unmistakable symbols of sexual preference, such as blue or red handkerchiefs in left or right rear pockets of jeans, to indicate top or bottom.”

Like a deer hunter dressed in camouflage, ready to bag his buck, Busby blended in well, having “worn Levi 501s, with metal buttons, all my life.” He knew exactly “what size to buy that would, when properly broken in through countless washings to produce fading, conform enticingly to my ass and crotch, without revealing the precise shape and size of either.” 

And if there was little elbowroom for one’s ass and balls within those tight Levis, there was even less room for, Busby notes, “humor, in these bastions of gay masculinity.” In the bars, on the streets, and at the piers, “seriousness and masculinity were the same thing. That opaque perspective on masculinity was also a mockery of drag queens and effeminate men. They weren’t really men.”

Uninhibited sexual behavior, back then, as it is and ever shall be, was buoyed by alcohol and marijuana, Busby notes, until the paradigm-shifting time when “cocaine became universally available and stylish.”

Busby, 83—an HIV+, four-decade resident of Manhattan’s legendary Chelsea Hotel, who was a protégé of composer/critic Virgil Thomson and wrote the score for the Robert Altman film, “3 Women”—paid a price for bringing this new, white powdery (and, later, rock) accessory into his bedroom (and life, for that matter).

“The gay men stylized drugs,” Busby says, “and the age of unabashed decadence proceeded to a calamitous end with the AIDS epidemic.” At the time, Busby’s cocaine use came to “adversely affect” his predilection for bondage.

“It isn’t easy to tie knots,” he notes, “when you’re stoned.” Busby recalls the increasing drug use within the leather and denim community “was distinctly affected. The deep subjectivity of drugs penetrated the obsessive objectivity of gay/masculine costuming.” Sunday brunches, Busby recalls, “were diluted by overnight drugging at the Mineshaft.”  

Today, sober, in good general health, and still in demand as a composer of works both past and present (his 1975 commissioned score for the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s “Runes” was just presented by Parsons Dance, at Chelsea’s Joyce Theater), Busby says he’s replaced sex with Reiki, and sexual conquest with the chaste company of young gay artists.

These friends and colleagues, he observes, “mostly don’t dress up for sex,” but do for special social occasions, like gay marriages. In this case, “their purpose in dressing up is to show their good taste, more than to attract another man for some designated sexual experience. That doesn’t mean there aren’t costume fetishists still thrilling to the aesthetic delights of clothes that dictate and support certain sexual behavior,” Busby says, with bemusement and approval, noting the pleasures to be found by “discovering that someone you’re attracted to shares your sexual fixations.”

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