Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: An Introduction

Block 1087 of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is a quilt block that memorializes the staff members, DJs, and associates of the New York City Saint disco club.

According to Janece Shaffer, the Communications Director at the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the size of the Saint disco club’s singular memorial panel is much larger than the average panel submitted to the quilt. Typically, panels are 3×6 feet (0.9×1.8 meter); however, the size of this quilt is that of an entire 12×12 foot (3.7×3.7 meter) “block” (“AIDS Memorial Quilt”). Blocks are usually composed of eight individual 3×6 foot (0.9×1.8 meter) panels, yet this block is its own individual dedication (“FAQs”).

The primary colors featured in the quilt are black, burgundy, and silver, though there are exceptions; the quilt’s inky colors evoke a funereal quiet. Many of the objects on the block have been stitched onto an expanse of either black or burgundy felt material, which raises them from the quilt’s flat surface. Three prominent features of block 1087 are its moon-like mirror ball, its expanse of golden five-pointed stars, and its colorful light structure (read more about this block).

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

In this essay, I intend to address how disco clubs liberated the gay and queer community in New York City by offering a historical account of the disco movement as well as a narrative of its seeming culmination in the creation of the Saint dance club. This paper will examine the effect of AIDS on the gay disco generation by honing in on remembrances and discussions of the Saint and other disco clubs in New York City.

My position on this topic will address the complexity of the influence of erotic social scenes, such as the Saint or founder Bruce Mailman’s other creation, the St. Marks Baths, on the spread of AIDS. I will attempt to answer the question that dominates Bruce Mailman’s controversy: did he condone the spread of AIDS through his refusal to close down his businesses? Was Mailman really a “merciless profiteer” who continued to ruthlessly benefit from the sex that took place in his establishments, despite growing awareness that HIV/AIDS was sexually transmitted (Peters, 82)? Neither a ruthless villain nor a sinless business owner, Bruce Mailman is a man who believed that he was protecting and affirming the civil rights of his customers.

My essay will first begin with a description of Bruce Mailman’s biography as well as a discussion of his philosophy towards gay male identity. Then, I will detail Bruce Mailman’s inspirations for the Saint dance club and examine the evolution of the extraordinary discotheque. I will conclude with an analysis of the impact of Mailman’s creation, as well as reactions to the onslaught of AIDS in the gay community and what that meant for the reputation of the Saint.

By describing the lifetime of the Saint, I will expand upon the current general knowledge of the disco era and make the details of disco’s presence in the 80s known. I will display the interaction between the gay community and the disco community by demonstrating the formation of the gay community around gay clubs that embraced the sexual liberation of the disco era (“Chapter 4: The Era”). As discos became cultural emblems of the gay community, their musical, physical, and emotional embrace liberated both young men and women by providing the space for their self-determination and youthful exploration (“Chapter 3: The Trip”).

I hope to increase awareness of the different ways that AIDS destroyed disco culture and the continuation of gay history. Once the disease disseminated throughout disco clubs and the larger gay community, AIDS ruptured the vitality of gay oral history. Death, sickness, and the isolation of the epidemic’s survivors disrupted the narrative of the gay disco generation (Peters, 143). Block 1087 captures only a fragment of the Saint’s significance.

READ THE FIRST CHAPTER

Annotated Bibliography Two – Annotation Five

AnOther. “A Rare Glimpse Into 1970s New York City Club Culture.” AnOther. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/8415/a-rare-glimpse-into-1970s-new-york-city-club-culture.

Meisler’s Childhood Inspirations

Meryl Meisler is a Long Island photographer known for capturing quirky, humorous, and theatrical photographs. In 2016, Meisler premiered an exhibition of her young adulthood, which traversed the decades of the 1970s and 1980s.
Meisler’s exhibition opened at the Steven Kasher gallery in New York City, New York.
Growing up in the North Massepequa suburbs, Meisler matured whilst surrounded by the subjects of her first “serious” photographs: Meisler’s relatives, neighbours, and […] best friends.” Describing her collection as a “retrospective of [her] life in the 70s,” Meisler depicts photographs of New York nightclubs, sunny summers at Fire Island, and memories of her childhood home (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”).
MOVING ON UP
When Meisler moved to the upper west side of New York, she was embraced by a “diverse group” of poets and musicians. Living with her distantly related cousin and other “completely different types of people,” Meisler felt sure that she was home and in a place that was both comforting and compelling (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”).
Meryl Meisler “carried [her] camera everywhere,” hoping to capture every “thrilling” moment of her new life (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”) in the city. Having just come out, moved out, and struggled through “economic and social difficulties,” Meisler felt extraordinarily thankful that she had found a place where she “belonged” (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”).

Meisler began to frequent disco clubs in the area and grew immensely fond of their energy and charm. At first, Meisler primarily attended CBGB, where one of the two photographs I have included in this annotation, was captured. See above.

However, Meisler also “went with a friend to Studio 54,” and “loved it!” (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”).

Meisler also loved to dance. However, no nightclub was complete without Meisler’s handheld camera, which she often brought with her onto the dancefloors of various disco clubs, into the crowds and throbbing sounds of the deejay’s sonic magic.

Meisler claims that she “went to all the hot clubs in Manhattan,” and asserts that she “preferred the music in the clubs.” She also enjoyed the “mixed” atmosphere of the clubs she partied in, never wanting to attend “only gay nights, or only lesbian nights” (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”).

Channeling Brassaï

Taking photographs on the dance floors of disco clubs sometimes produced images that were “really not safe for work” (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”). The people Meryl Meisler encountered on the floors of disco clubs were really “friendly;” she was always able to dance with strangers, and later photograph them, even if they were in states of sensual and sexual expression.

In this article, Meisler states that there are some “people in [her] show that are totally naked, yet [are] very comfortable with being photographed, because [she] danced with them on the weekends” (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”).

Inspired by the French-Hungarian photographer, Brassaï, who took photographs of Paris and Parisians in the night, Meryl Meisler documents the nightlife of New York City in an exhibition of her experience within the disco dance scene.

Meryl Meisler was young when she started attending dance clubs, but, generally, always had a very positive experience in the clubs. As a young queer Jewish woman, Meisler remembers that “everyone was very friendly, warm, joyful, having a ball and finding themselves” (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse”). Alongside those changing adolescents, Meryl Meisler, too, began to mature and grow in confidence, both in her identity and in her art. On the dance-floor, through the lens of her camera, Meisler came of age.

But she had fun doing it. Meryl Meisler “felt like [she] was living [her] nightlife,” when she hopped from one club to the next, night after night. In the article, Meisler discloses that it was “a good thing that the doorman at Studio 54 liked us,” indicating that the doorman’s favor was likely the reason she could enter and enjoy Studio 54. However, “if the guy at the door that liked you wasn’t there, you’d go to another club” Meisler adds (qtd. in “A Rare Glimpse).

CLUB-HOPPING WAS A TYPE OF DISRESPECT

Meisler’s club-hopping undermines the importance of membership at disco clubs like Studio 54 or the Saint.

Carol Cooper writes in her article “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of The New York Dance Music Underground,” that the “best golden-era deejays worked hard to mark each night they played a special event, which is how membership-only spots developed” (Cooper, 165). People “proved [their] appreciation [of particular venues] by becoming a dues-paying member” (Cooper, 165).

At The Loft, founder David Mancuso threatened to withdraw patrons’ membership if they did not attend his private disco parties on a weekly basis. To Mancuso, the presence and feedback of the audience was just as important as the disc jockey’s musical compositions in the booth. To Mancuso, those savoring the musical, sensual, and transcendent fruits of disco clubs should, in turn, offer their thanks and appreciation by becoming paying members.

To Carol Cooper, “building that sense of interdependence between a deejay and his or her public was the key to the growth of black radio in this country, and subsequently the key to the growth of a dance music community out of the disco underground” (165). Thus Meryl Meisler’s club-hopping might have been frowned upon by some disco owners, who felt that the crafts hosted within their clubs deserved commitment.

a discussion of meisler’s narrative

Meisler’s narration of her experiences during the 1970s provide a personal, subjective insight into the goings on of popular disco clubs. Her narrative serves as a specific historical account of the disco era, which narrows one’s perceptions of the era to precise moments in time and intimately connects an observer to an otherwise foreign epoch.

The photographs included in this article are expressive and impactful; they serve as communicative devices beyond the somewhat flat affect of written accounts. Photographs from inside of the disco clubs one reads about do well to express the physicality and attitude of the club as well as its attendees.

In contrast, Meisler’s verbal account of her experience during the 70s leaves the reader grasping for more information, details, and stories. Though somewhat lacking in volume, Meisler’s memories still attempt to satisfy the dilemma introduced in Carol Cooper’s article “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of New York Dance Music Underground.”

Currently, the disco era suffers from a lack of firsthand documentation of the disco experience from the people “most qualified” to report on the era (Cooper, 164). In this article, Meryl Meisler’s storytelling attempts to provide such firsthand documentation, even if she lacks the details of the inner workings of disco clubs that owners, DJs, or other staff members would have been able to share. Her account still delves the reader deeper, personally, into an era he or she may be unfamiliar with.

Read more about why the disco era lacks firsthand documentation beneath the MISSING FIRSTHAND DOCUMENTATION header on this annotation, found near the bottom.