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From the Eastside to Hollywood: Chicano Queer Trailblazers in 1970s L.A.

"Say hi as you cruise by...cuz everybody is a star in Hollywood" Village People, 1977

In order to find our identity, we had to leave the Eastside.

Circus Disco: A New Gay Dawning

"A New Gay Dawning" – Circus Disco button, courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

The Chicano Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Stonewall uprising had empowered queer Chicano youth like myself to embrace our newfound sexual freedom. The Chicano student movement, especially, had instilled in us a sense of pride. In the wake of these heady events, we had the confidence to access another Los Angeles, a city our parents couldn’t.

East Los Angeles during the mid-1970s didn't offer many  safe spaces for people like us. But Hollywood did.

From 1975 to 1982 were the explosive, underground disco years in L.A., and for the first time in the city’s history predominantly gay and straight Chicano youth flooded Hollywood’s dance floors.

Being “out” back than was to learn how to negotiate the physical and social landscape in order to find safety – unlike today where people come “out” to their families, friends, coworkers, or even in cyberspace. To meet the demands of L.A.’s queer youth, 18-and-over dance bars opened up in underutilized retail stores fronts, mini-malls, or warehouses in commercial zones. Many of these places were small – on the order of 3,000 square feet – which created an intimate, social atmosphere.

The dance floors of such Hollywood and North Hollywood clubs as the Outer Limits, Other Side, Paradise Ballroom, Sugar Shack, After Dark, Gino’s II, and, ultimately, Circus were where we communicated with our bodies – an essential, enduring part of our queer development and identity. Many of these clubs and bars were intimate venues located in mini-malls, occupying retail store fronts less 3,000 square feet in size.

Whittier Boulevard, East Los Angeles, 1979

Whittier Boulevard, East Los Angeles, 1979. Photo by Anne Knudsen, courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

The macho landscape of the Eastside was a hard place for queer youth to find a safe space to be ourselves. For our own safety, we had to learn how to read other people’s body language and pick up subtle cues. I met my two best friends in the bus and at school. Both were shy social outcasts but our quirkiness brought us together. We became fast friends, came out to each other, and started planning to transform our lives by visiting a gay club we had heard about from a friend of a friend.

Though the journey from East Los Angeles to Hollywood was a few short miles, to me it seemed much further because my family never left the Eastside, and I didn’t have a car.

After Dark matchbook

After Dark matchbook, courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

One Friday evening, feeling bold, I left my family, who were watching TV in the living room. I didn’t know what I would find but I had to do it. Having the comfort of my entourage gave me the courage to make that trip to my future. I never would have been able to make it alone.

Our first trip to the club was by the Rapid Transit District bus. Nervously we met at the bus stop; it was still light out. We took the bus downtown to the corner of Fifth and Hill, from where all the buses to Hollywood departed.

We knew we were in the right spot when we met with a group of flamboyantly dressed African-American youth. As I looked around, I noted how, in the midst of all of downtown’s activity, this corner gave off its own gay vibe. On one side of the intersection was the notorious gay cruising ground of Pershing Square, and on Fifth Street there was a bookstore where you could peek at magazines like Physique Pictorial and After Dark. 

In the back of the RTD bus we found our temporary social zone. The bus engine groaned, and the black queens strained to talk smack over the noise. This was my community and we owned the city from in back of the bus.

Nightfall had taken over the light-manufacturing zone in Hollywood where we got off the bus. We headed to Arthur J’s coffee shop to use the restroom and do some last minute priming. It was a typical looking LA diner with a big counter where people sat around – but all the customers were men. Here we invaded the quiet world of mainstream gay white culture. 

Nestled between industrial buildings along the stretch of Highland between Santa Monica and Melrose was the Other Side dance club, located on the second floor. In the quiet of night under the darkness of ficus trees, as we gathered at the discrete entrance, other youth began to arrive with their entourages of sisters, brothers, friends, and neighbors. There were no rainbow flags or other obvious indicators of a gay space. We had our IDs out and ready to be checked.

I had butterflies in my stomach as I walked up the dark staircase and heard David Bowie’s “Fame.” I hadn’t known what to expect, but now I knew that I had found my Valhalla.

A disco ball spun above the dark room, and everything reflected in the mirrors on the surrounding walls. At one end a DJ stood at the disco altar.

Everyone was mesmerized by the club’s diversity that converged on the dance floor in such a vivid spectacle. This is where Latino, African-American, Asian, and white youth – outcast from various parts of the city – found each other. They danced. They mingled. They laughed together. And, unlike the predominantly male clubs down the street in West Hollywood or Silver Lake, the patrons here were both male and female, which eased the sexual tension.

Each dance was a visual performance directed by the person behind the DJ booth: bodies bumping, partners swinging, hands waving in the air, skirts swirling, and scarves flying to the hustle, the cha-cha, the bump, the bus stop.

Circus Disco button

Circus Disco button, courtesy of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

Because these venues were small, they needed inexpensive dance music, and so they hired DJs to spin vinyl dance tracks. MichaelAngelo, who spun at the Other Side and later Gino’s II, became one of L.A.’s first superstar DJs. He worked the crowd by spinning funk, glitter rock, and Euro-disco, and also introduced longer dance tracks. This new style of music influenced the Eastside social scene a few years later.

The disco clubs’ informal dress codes stressed not the physique but the silhouette. Unlike the predominantly male West Hollywood clubs, where buff men wore tight-fitting jeans and t-shirts, here diverse youth used fashion to explore their fantasies and bodies. Glitter babies or Hollywood Swingers, youth with their big hair, scarfs, baggie pants, shoulder pads, and glitter make-up created an avant-garde fashion palette that ranged from Joan Crawford to David Bowie. Everyone stood high and mighty in their six-inch Fred Slatten platform shoes or platform tennis shoes.

The disco was not a space of intellectual but of visceral experiences; at that time in our lives we were not able to talk about our sexual identity, but we could perform it on the dance floor while burning off our youthful energy.

That Friday night trip to the Other Side was my quinceañera, my coming out where I was initiated into gay life on my own terms. Here I found a group of Chicanos and other minority youth who, like myself, were discovering their sexual identities. We thought we were the chosen ones and traveled from the eastside with our entourages. We traveled in cliques and came from as far away as Orange County and the Inland Empire (most of us by bus!). Many of the local Chicanos came from the various public and Catholic high schools in and around the greater Eastside: Roosevelt, Garfield, Belmont, Lincoln, Marshall, Belmont, Montebello, Schurr, El Rancho, Mark Keppel, Salesian, Cantwell, Cathedral, Mission, Ramona, Sacred Heart, and others.

Over the next few intense years I immersed myself in that tightly knit social scene where we danced every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. We started hosting house parties with DJs on the eastside. We spent Sundays afternoons dancing atop Griffith Park lookouts and at night went to the Gino’s dance contest. Our weekends started on Monday when we rushed home from school and practiced the latest dance steps or visited thrift shops looking for a “forties” outfits. Our phones rung off their hooks as we coordinated our weekend activities.

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Like most trends, disco came to an end. By 1982 the music, fashion, and the city had changed. The intimate 18-and-over gay clubs that launched Hollywood’s and West Hollywoo’ds revitalization were disappearing, making way for new investments and developments. Perhaps the city’s higher cost of living (rent, gas, congestion) had made these places unaffordable. Or maybe this underground dance scene simply went mainstream as larger clubs opened in other parts of the city, playing the new wave and punk music that quickly overtook disco in popularity.

The dance floor had brought us out of our shells, given us a new way to communicate, built our confidence by allowing us to build our own community without compromise. Many of us moved out of the Eastside with confidence for places like the Westside, New York, San Francisco, or Europe to pursue our dreams. Many of us became interested in entering creative fields like fashion design, art, photography, hairdressing, architecture, and, my choice, urban planning.

In finding our sexual identity we also learned to appreciate and understand the dualities and complexities of the people and places that LA had to offer. After all, we discovered that the school’s social outcast could become the diva on the dance floor. Likewise, the mood of L.A.’s streets and buildings could change from day to night. Underutilized old industrial buildings and vacant storefronts could find new uses.

Most of all we learned how to create a vibrant, enduring, community out of the margins by fusing our Latino cultural values within the predominant gay white male landscape.

The author (second from left) at a 1978 house party on the Eastside. Courtesy of the author's collection.

The author (second from left) at a 1978 house party on the Eastside. Courtesy of the author's collection.

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