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Pride Month: Boyd McDonald

Recently rereleased by Semiotext(e), Cruising the Movies, is an acerbic, queer-eye take on the greats and the not-so-greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Written by Boyd McDonald from a single room occupancy in gritty 1980s New York, the book takes no prisoners in its reviews of famous films from a bygone era. Some of McDonald’s targets include the Reagans, Steve McQueen, and Gary Cooper, throwing shady before it was even a thing. Cruising the Movies with its quick wit and DIY aesthetic reads as a sort of punk-poetry for the then underground gay scene. In our concluding Pride Month installment, William E. Jones, who wrote the introduction to his book, reflects on Boyd McDonald’s importance to a culture that is vastly underrepresented in history.

Boyd McDonald (1925–1993) was the main creative force behind one of the most distinctive underground publications, Straight to Hell, the first queer zine, founded in 1973. Self-published and crude, Straight to Hell’s sense of urgency was as strong as its contempt for authority. It was devoted to publishing its readers’ explicit sex stories ranging from the innocent to the raunchy, with emphasis on the latter, and McDonald interspersed these with a running commentary on the hypocrisy and corruption of the American political establishment. Nothing was sacred; the man who assembled this material didn’t give a damn about any recognized standard of taste.

Issues of Straight to Hell were illustrated with beefcake photographs and candid shots of men. Most were by Bob Mizer of Athletic Model Guild or David Hurles of Old Reliable, but Straight to Hell also published many amateur photos sent in by subscribers. The unnamed men who mailed their stories to McDonald came from all walks of life, were young and old, barely literate to highly educated. They all had one thing in common: a need to write accounts of their sexual exploits and share them with their fellow men. McDonald attached great importance to his undertaking; he once wrote, “I consider this history, not pornography. It’s very serious work… the true history of homosexual desire and experience.”

Boyd McDonald lived and worked in a single-room occupancy hotel on New York’s Upper West Side during the last 25 years of his life. After serving in the army and studying at Harvard (Class of 1949), he found a job at Time/Life as a staff writer. A corporate environment nearly destroyed him, as he later told an interviewer, “It was such a trauma for me, going to work, that I started drinking that very day. And I drank constantly afterwards.” In 1968, he dried out, pawned all of his suits, went on welfare, and not long afterward, began the work for which he is known today.

McDonald collected the best of Straight to Hell in anthologies with blunt one-word titles: Meat, Flesh, Sex, Cum, Smut, Juice, Wads, Cream, Filth, Skin, Raunch, Lewd, Scum. These books contain descriptions of “how men look, act, walk, talk, dress, undress, taste and smell.” He approached his project with a sense of mission and an attention to detail that approached fanaticism. He rarely left his room. His main source of entertainment was a small black and white television, and this became the inspiration for his wittiest writing.

A collection of film essays that originally appeared in the gay literary magazine Christopher Street, McDonald’s book Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to “Oldies” on TV (1985) departed from the format of STH anthologies of “true homosexual experiences.” In it, McDonald described with great concision and clarity his cinematic obsessions, which mainly (though not exclusively) focused on male anatomy. Unlike Boyd’s rather monomaniacal view of actors, his taste in actresses displayed a range of interests: he preferred women of impressive physical bearing like Jane Russell, glamorous antagonists like Gail Patrick, and tough leading ladies like Barbara Stanwyck. All of the women McDonald admired were adept at delivering wisecracks, and this ability, learned from countless hours of movie viewing, found its way into his writing and conversation. He did not want to be Barbara Stanwyck, but he aspired to the contemptuous way she treated men, who were, after all, only sex objects.

By the time the gay liberation movement got underway, Boyd McDonald was a middle-aged man. His books are a valuable testament to the sensibility of an earlier generation devoted to Hollywood movies and clandestine sex.

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