Bob Damron's Address Book - A Queer Archive

My husband once told me a story from the late 90s about a group of male, foreign tourists who showed up at his local coffee house in Silver Lake one morning.  The group of three men were in their late 40s, sharply dressed, and each carried a duffel bag.  I remember him telling me that the group of men spent a lot of time outside, huddled together around a small rectangular book.  He said the men were visibly confused at the sight of the coffee, muffins, and book-reading patrons and methodically buried their head into the little book, whispering to one another as they pointed at something on the weathered page.  After emerging from their huddle, they ventured inside, and one of the tourists cautiously approached the barista and discreetly presented the book and asked him a question. The barista shook his head as if to say "no", and crestfallen, the man returned to his group to deliver the bad news.  The men quickly shuffled out of the coffee shop, gym bags in hand, forsaking the little book (or so I imagine) that lead them there in the first place.

 

Later, my husband would find out that the group of tourists were looking for a bathhouse and ended up in that coffee shop because of an old travel guide. The tourists were likely using an outdated copy of the Damron Guide--a gay travel-guide familiar to gay men traveling in the US during the 80s and 90s--and in the process inadvertently revealed the controversial history of the coffee shop (not entirely uncommon for the neighborhood given that at one point Silver Lake boasted more than ten exclusively gay bathhouses).  In the early 2000s, I myself was familiar with the commercially published version of the book after running across it in the “Gay and Lesbian” section of Barnes & Noble, but I didn't realize then that this now glossy and gleaming travel guide started as a secret collection of addresses, passed from one man to another during the 1960s.

Secretly published in 1965 by a man named Bob Damron, the discreet book listed every gay bar, restaurant, bathhouse and eventually sex clubs and cruising spots in every major US city.  Published yearly and sold by Bob Damron himself, the address book became the easiest and safest way for gay men to find welcoming spaces to meet at a time when moral decency laws made gay associated spaces prime targets for police raids, harassment, and arrests.  A member of the Mattachine Society, Damron was one of a few early pioneers in publishing gay listings. A San Francisco bar owner, Damron collaborated with fellow Mattachine Society member, Hal Call, to publish what was then known simply as “The Address Book”.  First published by Call's own Pan-Graphic Press, and later published and distributed by Damron's own Calafran Enterprises (a discreet mail order enterprise primarily specializing in gay erotica), the addresses and listings published in the book were gathered by Damron during several months of exploration where he wandered through US cities building relationships with patrons and bar owners (Meeker 2006).  Like the infamous wanderings of the French Situationists International (SI), Damron undertook a dèrive throughout the US, losing himself in the burgeoning gay landscape of the late 1960s.

First designed as a small, wallet-sized book, the early editions of the Address Book contained no single mention of the word “gay” or “homosexual”.  In fact, if a stranger were to get a hold of the book there would be no discernable way to identify it as listing gay establishments. This of course was done on purpose--a safety measure against the threat posed from the straight world, yet to a gay man in the know, the book was full of clues and lingo accessible only to those in the “lifestyle”.  In “Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communication and Community, 1940s-1970’s”, Martin Meeker explores the system of codes used by Damron to differentiate the listings. Meeker explains:

 

"For example, a “D” indicated that dancing was permitted; a “G” signified that “girls,” likely meaning lesbians, frequented the bar; “PE” meant “pretty elegant” (although some readers may have decoded it as “Piss Elegant,” a derogatory term for upwardly mobile gays)...”RT” was decoded as “rugged types,” but those already in the know would further recognize the “RT” as an initialism for “rough trade,” or masculine male prostitutes; and, similarly, “S-M” was explained to mean “some motorcycle,” although those in the life would have recognized those letters also to stand for “sado-masochism.”

The codes in the guidebooks were legible only to a distinct and specific community, making them a clear example of what Jose Esteban Munoz calls “Queer Ephemera”.  In “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts”, Munoz describes the survival of queerness this way:

 

"Queerness is often transmitted covertly.  This has everything to do with the fact that leaving too much of a trace has often meant that the queer subject has left herself open for attack.  Instead of being clearly available as visible evidence, queerness has instead existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere---while evaporating at the touch of those who would eliminate queer possibility."

 

In the years before the Black Cat and Stonewall protests, this level of covert secrecy and innuendo was necessary, but as the rise of the gay rights movement gained momentum in the early 1970s, Damron shed the coded nature of the books and began a remarkable transformation of the guidebooks that in many ways mirrors the transformation of the gay community in the US taking place at the time.  This transformation is most clearly visible by the abrupt and sudden appearance of advertisements in the 1974 edition of the guidebook.  Every year Damron published a new and updated version of the book, and as the gay rights movement progressed, so did the overt nature of the advertisements. By 1977, advertisements featured fully nude men and by 1979 the advertisements openly courted gay men.

In addition to the growing number of advertisements in the books, the number of listings also dramatically swelled, peaking in the 1982 edition.  By 1984 however, the Los Angeles section of the guidebook saw a 60% drop in listings--a fact that can easily be attributed to the start of the decimation of the AIDS epidemic during those early years of the crisis.  On the one hand, the advertisements and growing number of listings act as evidence of the success of the gay rights movement, yet the decline in listings that begin in the editions published in the early 80s also speak to the devastation of a disease--one whose destruction was aided by government inaction rooted in animus.

 

This remarkable rise and fall is what this web-project visualizes and maps.  "Disguised Ruins" approaches the address books, not as historical relics, but rather utilizes them as potent archives of queer spaces.  The addresses found in these archives tell a story of the psychogeography of queer Los Angeles--a liminal space whose history and presence is continually threatened.  This threat is what prompted me to undertake this project--to visualize and record the history of these spaces so that the next time I walk past the former site of Cypress Baths or The Pleasure Chest, I can connect the past with the present.  This project insists on marking the existence of queer people and the spaces they created--a map-based resistance that refuses to see the cleaned up and renovated buildings of a newly gentrified gayborhood as just another disguised ruin from a forgotten and unreachable past.