Michael Rumacker’s new memoir, Robert Duncan in San Francisco, provides a harrowing picture of what life was like for a homosexual man in San Francisco before the Castro became the Castro.
When Michael Rumaker attended Black Mountain College in the early 1950s, he had the privilege of having his senior thesis vetted by Robert Duncan [1919-1988], an American poet who’d made a splash in 1944 with the publication of an essay entitled “The Homosexual in Society.” The article had appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s magazine, Politics, and had the audacity to situate members of the lesbian and gay male community amongst the human race.
Robert Duncan in San Francisco – a memoir first published in 1977 – not only addresses the writer’s impact on queer students like Rumaker, but on queer consciousness more generally. And while the book is name-droppy and too often focused on the comings-and-goings of an inner circle that will mean little to most contemporary readers, it nonetheless presents a fascinating picture of state-sanctioned homophobia in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.
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Rumaker moved to the Bay area in 1956 with $30 in his pocket. His journey took him from Philadelphia, where he felt creatively blocked, to Duncan’s city, where he hoped that the literary muse that inspired his former teacher would take hold of him, as well. He also hoped for erotic adventures far from his deeply religious – and deeply rejecting – Catholic family. What he found, unfortunately, was a heavily policed city. “There was, in spite of the extraordinary quality of light, a heavy climate of fear,” Rumaker writes, “not so much from the violence which occurred, although there was enough of that, but rather from the activities and presence of the police themselves. This was particularly true for gay men. There was also the burgeoning Narcotics Squad with the beginnings of the wider use of drugs. But the Morals Squad was everywhere and the entrapment of gay males in the streets, the parks, and numerous public places was a constant fear and common occurrence.”
Rumaker, himself, got arrested in a sweep of “Polk Gulch,” a heavy cruising strip between Pacific Heights and Nob Hill. His account of walking down the street, alone and deep in thought, before being nabbed is horrifying: “As I was about to turn up Sacramento, several policemen came up behind me. One said to me in a quick, low voice, ‘You know that guy?’ pointing to a young man walking several paces ahead of me. I told him ‘no,’ looked at him and the other two cops with him, surprised where they could’ve come from so suddenly. ‘Yes, you do. I saw you talking to him. You were trying to pick him up.’ I stared at him in disbelief and said I wasn’t. He said, ‘Get in the wagon.’ “
A vanload of approximately 30 men – young queers like Rumaker – sat quietly and exited the vehicle when they arrived at the local precinct. All were booked, packed into several small jail cells and charged with “vagrancy,” a euphemism for sexual solicitation. Rumaker was later released, but not before being forced to post $20 in bail and promising to appear in court the following Monday. “I worried if my name and address would appear in The Chronicle or Examiner, common journalistic practice in such arrests in those days, and if I would lose my job,” he recalls.
Despite the existence of the newly-formed Mattachine Society, a gay rights group, Rumaker reports that he felt totally alone as he left police headquarters, terrified that he would be outed and thereby ruined. Nonetheless, two days later, when the judge asked him how he wished to plead, he stood up and said, “Not guilty,” as loudly and proudly as he could. “Surrounded as I was by gay males in the courtroom,” he continues, “there was no one to stand up with me, nor anyone to stand up with each of them. We were isolated from each other by guilt and shame and the profoundly inculcated belief that we had no natural right to existence, all that contagious determination that was embodied in the police, the judge, the assistant district attorney, the very law of the court itself as microcosm of the entrenched ignorance of centuries of the broader society at large.”
Rumaker was lucky – the charges against him were dropped for lack of evidence – but the incident left him profoundly damaged, and he spent weeks feeling unmoored and unloved.
Duncan, as older mentor, role model and friend, could do little to change this, for Rumaker had internalized a sense of self-loathing that was nearly impenetrable, at least at that point in his history. Still, the poet had a discernible impact on Rumaker, although it was perhaps greater in retrospect than in real time. In looking back, Rumaker concludes that Duncan created the conditions in which to flourish, establishing a domestic haven and surrounding himself with progressive friends and acquaintances – gay, straight, bisexual and asexual – with whom to discuss and debate the issues of the day. Indeed, these protections afforded Duncan a way to avoid the pitfalls that derailed other artists – mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism among the most serious – so that he could continue to write visionary poetry and prose. Rumaker did not do these things, and as a result, suffered from bouts of severe depression that ultimately led to a two-year stint in a psychiatric hospital. It’s a sad story with a relatively happy ending: Rumaker eventually moved back East, got a masters of fine arts degree from Columbia University, and slowly but surely established himself as a well-reviewed writer and teacher.
An interview with Rumaker, conducted by Ammiel Alcalay and Megan Paslawski of the City University of New York in 2012, included in the book, reveals that he was greatly impacted by the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement, which helped him deconstruct heterosexist bigotry and live in his own skin more comfortably. At the same time, he remains a product of his times – and it’s impossible to see him as anything but a splendid survivor.
Robert Duncan in San Francisco is Rumaker’s story, and while Duncan figures prominently, it is the author’s 16-month engagement with the city that is the book’s most intriguing tale. A series of previously unpublished letters between Rumaker and Duncan add further context and link past to present. That said, since San Francisco is a major character in the book, the story raises the question of how and when it changed from a place that targeted homosexuals to one that embraced them. Indeed, how The Castro became The Castro is an important piece of LGBTQ history, but readers will need to look beyond Robert Duncan in San Francisco to learn it.