JD Doyle's '1981: My Gay American Road Trip'

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday October 31, 2023
Share this Post:
Author and historian JD Doyle
Author and historian JD Doyle

JD Doyle was the producer of the show Queer Music Heritage on KPFT (Pacifica radio in Houston) from 2000 to 2015 and maintains the website of the same name as well as the Houston LGBT History and Texas Obituary Project websites. He has just self-published the book "1981: My Gay American Road Trip," a journal of his cross-country trip to 29 cities in 24 states from April to August 1981.

Doyle starts the book by filling us in on biographical details. He's from Salem, Ohio, got a degree in Chemical Engineering from Youngstown State University in 1970 and worked for Kodak in Rochester, New York before moving to Norfolk, Virginia for a new job in 1978.

He began his journey out of the closet in 1976 and was fully out by the time he arrived in Virginia, having had gay sex for the first time in Toronto in 1977. Upon arriving in Virginia, he called the Gay Hot Line and shortly was working at the local newspaper, Our Own Community Press, where he became editor in 1979.

Right from the start the book impresses, not only because of Doyle's resourcefulness in using the Gay Hot Line in Norfolk (he uses hot lines throughout the book on his trip), but also in reminding those of us who came out before AIDS of the power that acts like picking up an issue of In Touch magazine and browsing it in a bookstore had (that's how Doyle made contact in Toronto).

JD Doyle's map of his U.S. road trip in 1981  

One thing that the internet has done is to make addressing sexuality a quieter, more solitary act. It's easy to forget that in this era it was often performative — going out to a bar, picking up a magazine at a newsstand, having a conversation on the street or on mass transit.

The genesis of Doyle's journey was his being laid off from his job at Virginia Chemicals. His father suggested that he use the opportunity to take a cross-country trip and keep a journal. On his trip Doyle visited places big and small (from cities like Los Angeles, Houston and Denver to places like Cheyenne, Wyoming and Elko, Nevada) and recorded his impressions.

The reason for publishing the journal now is clear. It serves as a window into pre-AIDS gay culture. The book mostly focuses on gay male culture so calling it "LGBTQ" would be an anachronism.

A blurb on the back cover spells it out, calling the book "a slice of our pre-AIDS culture," and quotes historian George Chauncey as saying it's "A remarkable journey through gay male life in the early 1980s...gay bars, restaurants, sports associations (who knew Houston had 55 gay bowling teams in 1981?), strip clubs and easy hookups, just before AIDS cast a shadow over everything."

Sylvester judging the Dog Show in the Castro, 1981 (photo: JD Doyle)  

Remember me
The book achieves this goal in ways obvious and not so obvious. In San Diego, Doyle meets Brad Truax at the Park Place, a newer bar at the time and one Doyle liked. Doyle guesses correctly that Truax is a medical professional, though the doctor keeps jokingly telling him that he's a hustler.

I previously knew of Truax as one of the heroic gay AIDS doctors who treated patients early in the epidemic when they knew the patients they were treating were going through things that might await them shortly. Truax died of AIDS in at age 42 in 1988. It's comforting to know he was joking, flirting and having fun before the epidemic hit.

Examples of pre-AIDS culture and what happened to it after the epidemic hit even reach down to the music in the clubs. While in Houston, Doyle first hears "Remember Me/Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Boys Town Gang at the Babylon disco and is quite taken with the song.

He mentions hearing it in Babylon again while attending a Grace Jones concert. The song was on Moby Dick records, associated with the Castro bar of the same name (which Doyle would visit in San Francisco). Moby Dick records shut down in 1984 after several employees at the label died of AIDS. It's worth remembering that Doyle's visit to San Francisco was just four months before Bobbi Campbell posted the flyer about "Gay Cancer" on the window of Star Pharmacy.

But to Doyle that is an unknown future, and his 1981 journey is filled with lively adventures across America. This book functions as local history for all the various places he visited.

Castro Street in 1981, including The Castro Station (photo: JD Doyle)  

SF bar scene
San Francisco readers will delight in his time spent in the area from June 4 to June 29 (he scheduled his trip to coincide with the Pride parade). This section takes up 41 pages in the book and mostly covers the city, Russian River and Sausalito.

One of the joys of the book is that Doyle sheds light on aspects of pre-AIDS San Francisco. In the 1970s and early '80s San Francisco had more than 100 gay bars. The sheer density of the community is portrayed in this Polk Street section:

"Saturday- June 13, 1981
Saturday night on Polk Street started off with a delicious dinner at La Trattoria and then bar-hopping, mostly on the west side of the street. There are five more bars on the east side of the street all within nine blocks of each other. You can spend the whole night without crossing the street. But before you get too excited, I would say that they sure did not seem like anything special. Even on a Saturday night. The one I liked best was the Cinch Saloon, a Western neighborhood-type bar. While there I saw a guy play Pac Man and score 197,000 points in 20 rounds! I had never seen anyone get past nine rounds before—this guy was incredible."

The other bars he mentions on this Polk Street trip are Kimo's, the New Bell Saloon, the Giraffe, Polk Gulch Saloon, and the Stallion.

While in San Francisco Doyle goes to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Dog Show and Parade (Harry Britt, Cleve Jones and Sylvester were the judges), the nude beach at Land's End, Buena Vista Park, and a reading by Armistead Maupin at the Walt Whitman Bookshop.

Along with the Castro and Polk neighborhoods, he visits bars in the Haight (Deluxe), South of Market (Arena was one his favorite bars in San Francisco) and the Financial District (Sutter's Mill). He travels north to the Russian River and stays with Leonard Matlovich. And all of this before the parade! Doyle was one ambitious and accomplished traveler!

Hibernia Bank on Castro at 18th in 1981 (photo: JD Doyle)  

Out west
The book has stories about unlikely places as well. In Cheyenne, Wyoming he calls the gay hotline and is told the Hitching Post is a mixed bar. Doyle found it "painfully straight," but even this failure leaves a trail for future Wyoming LGBTQ historians in the knowledge that there was a gay hotline and a pitiful mixed bar. Doyle's experience in Cheyenne was not uncommon in this era. The late comic Danny Williams quipped that the Damron guide definition of a mixed bar was "a bar that was straight until you got there."

Doyle's journal reveals a world lost not only to AIDS but irrevocably altered by technological change. One of the stops on his journey is the Gay Press Association meeting in Dallas in early May. Many of the publications represented at that meeting have now either shuttered or evolved into online-only publications. Likewise the record and bookstores he visited are mostly gone too, victims of streaming media and online booksellers.

The book made me reflect on societal change and social history. How does the loss of common spaces change how we relate to one another as a community? There is a tangible difference between meeting someone in a club where people are flirting and hooking up (as Doyle did in multiple cities) and doing it over an app. Something communal is lost when the shared environment disappears.

The journey brings about big changes in Doyle's life. A romance forms over the course of the book and the trip inspires Doyle to move from Norfolk to Houston. This trip feels both historic and yet still relevant. I found myself thinking of women and trans youth who might be planning trips now to move from unwelcoming states to find friendlier homes.

Any book that evokes thoughts of our current lives in the reflection of a forty-plus-year journey is doing yeoman's work and is a thoughtful and wonderful read.

JD Doyle's '1981: My Gay American Road Trip' QMH Press, 334 pages, $39.95 hardcover, $35.95 paperback.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.