YMCA: Militant Anthem of Gay Liberation
by Dan Taylor
The 70’s are personified in popular culture as the Me Decade, a time of turning inward to the self. But, masked beneath this is the story of much collective liberation that happened during this time, although often interpreted through the lens of individual liberation and sexual liberation, it made us all collectively more free. Coming out of the bloom of the 60’s, the 70’s were a stark time. Victories, through the excessive haze of trying to forget the pain of the oppression and bigotry that existed, were hard fought. Homophobia was still very real at the time, as it is real now, but even more public, prevalent and mainstream. Yet, somehow YMCA, because of or notwithstanding all of its kitsch, became a megahit, and is everywhere to this today. Played at mega sports events, shopping malls and schools, the song knows no bounds. It is above all else fun, a joyous song of liberation, both collective and individual, linked as as the two are always are. But, below the surface, the song was also a guide for the rough but slowly bettering times, a manual for gay men coming to the decayed New York City of the 70’s, brutal and dangerous, escaping the homophobia of wherever they came from. New York was free, because of the terrible state it was in, it existed as both a no man’s land and an everyman’s land. Free territory that it is sadly still not today, being engulfed by global capital and real estate speculation, pushing all the fringe and difference out. But, not without a fight. YMCA teaches us this lesson, it is an infectious song of survival of an earlier time.
In pre gentrified Chelsea of the New York 70’s, the old YMCA on 23rd St. was a refuge, a haven, for all, but especially for young gay men with little money fleeing to the city. Chelsea was a rough and diverse area, and a hub of gay culture. Sadly, there is now no longer much left of those things. But, the Village People (The East Village, just below Chelsea was also a gay hub in Manhattan) were telling fresh arrivals were to go then, where you could stay and have a damn good time. As characters playing on male masculinity and stereotypes, they were also saying, we are trying to fit in like society tells us to, but we can’t, and we aren’t afraid to have fun with it. We aren’t afraid to name and break down these stereotypes, even as we use them to assimilate and create a persona. Gay men (mostly but not all) of color, Black and Puerto Rican, creating a music of the people. Music that was revolutionary in a very fun, real and immediate sense.. Music for the revolution of everyday life, as Raoul Vaneigem said, “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” Or to put it more succinctly like William Blake, “Exuberance is Beauty.”
And the Village People certainly had no corpse in their mouth. They had a hopefully message to the Young Man. So what, fuck it! Be broke, be new in town, we as gay as you wanna be, and go to the YMCA, get a cheap place to stay, and most of all, get laid. Hell, the song is off an album entitled “Cruisin”! This was still the 70’s after all, the primetime for free “love” or sex, before AIDS epidemic that would ravage this community. These were still free times, as hard as they still were. Have a meal, make you dreams real. Life life and enjoy New York, the simple and liberating message of the Village People.Let your brother guide you and carry you, and then do the same for them one day, while you still can. Be a Macho Man if you like, play the game, Go West, check out San Francisco if you like, or join the Navy. The possibilities are endless.
As East Village and Chelsea are now playgrounds of the rich, the young and transient and sexually fluid no longer flock there. For now, until it also is ruined, they come to Brooklyn, or to other cities. Or people stay where they are and be free where they are from if they so choose. This is and should be our world now. Be free where you are. Let the message of the Village People guide you to your own damn YMCA and get others there as well. And celebrate these brave gay men of color, and recognize that disco really was a music of the people, and just as revolutionary, if not more so, than punk rock. Punk Rock was of history and nostalgia through the lense of art. Disco was of NOW, of the dance and of diversity. YMCA should not be relegated to just a novelty hit, but seen in its social context as protest music against the grey times of then and against all grey times of the future.