He was ready to go beyond nudity. He launched a write-in campaign for City Council, sponsored by a committee called Fags for Unseating Civic Knuckleheads, or FUCK. His platform centered on removing Ed Davis, the Los Angeles police chief, whom he described as “a pterodactyl that preys on the minds and bodies of anyone who has had original thinking since the Stone Age.” He debuted a character named Mr. Penis, a cousin of Mr. Peanut, originally intended as a sculpture for a gallery show. (Mr. Penis had a partner, Virginia Vagina, who Opel also dressed up from time to time.) Opel appeared as Mr. Penis in the Christopher Street West parade, which had banned sexually-oriented costumes, a move one gay magazine called “Uncle Thomism tries to win heterosexual acceptance.” The parade committee expelled Opel, and after confronting the president, he was handcuffed and jailed for three hours.
Opel had entered a crack in the gay movement. While some waved the banner of direct sexual liberation, others wanted to act respectfully and assimilate into the heterosexual world. Opel was on the wild and free side, but LA seemed to be squeezing it out. the advocate, with new owners, was going national, and Opel’s cheeky “Around Town” photos were discontinued. He had also contributed photographs and reports to drummers, a magazine for the gay leather community (including a Halloween cover story on “Cycle Sluts”). After the Los Angeles police raided drummers S&M charity “slave auction”—Davis ludicrously tried to indict publisher on slavery charges—magazine moved operations to San Francisco. “Leaving Los Angeles and going to San Francisco was like leaving East Berlin for West Berlin,” Jack Fritscher, who became drummers new editor-in-chief, he recalled.
In 1977, Fritscher invited Opel to his office, in a Victorian building on Divisadero Street; With long, slender hair, Opel struck him as a “sybarite Pan”. Fritscher thought they could do a beautiful and wicked job together. Opel says goodbye to Hollywood. Her future and his freedom were in San Francisco.
The city had earned its reputation as “Sodom by the Bay.” In Eureka Valley, once an Irish Catholic enclave, gay men bought Victorian houses on the main drag, Castro Street, turning the neighborhood into a gay mecca. According to a police estimate, since 1976, some eighty gay men had arrived each week, and some one hundred and forty thousand of the city’s residents were gay, more than a fifth of the population. In “The Mayor of Castro Street,” journalist Randy Shilts described the well-perfected mating ritual: “Eye contact first, maybe a slight nod, and if all goes well, the right one struts toward the target with an appropriately grunt.” cold”. greetings.” Bars and bathhouses thundered to Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and T-Connection, whose 1977 hit “Do What You Wanna Do” doubled as a liberation anthem.
Opel plunged into the 24-hour bacchanalia in the spring of 1977. It set its sights on South of Market, the home of the gay leather scene, raunchier than the Castro. Soma, as it came to be called, what an old industrial district, and the burly leather people mingled with the junkyard workers and hash dealers at Hamburger Mary’s. One of those residents was Jim Stewart, who ran an erotic photography business called Keyhole Studios out of his apartment. In his memoir, “Folsom Street Blues”, Stewart wrote that one day he found a man with long dark hair and a trimmed beard at his door. He seemed familiar. “Why do I think I know you?” Stewart asked him. “Have we screwed up?”
“I won the Academy Awards,” Opel said. He explained that he was opening an art gallery nearby on Howard Street, telling Stewart: “I need hot artists to hang out with.” Gay artists had been showing his work primarily in bars, and Opel was turning a shop into a gallery that would embody his innovative aesthetic. He would live in an apartment in the back. He called it Fey-Way Studios, a play on “fey,” meaning limp wrist, and a nod to “King Kong” star Fay Wray.
Fey-Way opened on March 10, 1978, with an invitation-only preview of a show called “X: Pornographic Art”. Among the artists on display was a little-known thirty-one-year-old man named Robert Mapplethorpe, who had been documenting New York’s gay underworld with little attention. He had come to town to see Jack Fritscher, the drummers editor, with whom he was having an affair.
Fritscher had introduced the two Robertses at his home. People had already confused the two of them, merging them into one person named Robert Oplethorpe. In Fritscher’s kitchen, as he recalls in his book “Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera,” the two Robertses measured each other over a joint and a few beers. Opel needed artists, and Mapplethorpe needed places to showcase their edgy photos.
Opel had been toying with new magazine ideas, a call cock sucker and other National Pornographic (“The magazine that puts dirt back where it belongs”). He had asked Fritscher to submit a dirty story. At the kitchen table, Fritscher handed Opel seven typed pages. “I want you to read it to me,” said Opel.
Fritscher demurred, saying, “It’s better to read erotica in private at home.”
“Come on, Jack,” Mapplethorpe intervened. “You’re talking to a performance artist.”
“OK” As Fritscher read aloud, Opel unbuttoned his jeans. Mapplethorpe chuckled as he watched what happened next. When Fritscher reached the end, a satisfied Opel zipped up and pulled the checkbook out of him. Will one hundred twenty-five dollars be enough? he said.
“I thought I he had to work hard to sell a piece of art,” Mapplethorpe said.
Opel responded: “You should see my rejection slip.”
As Opel prepared to open Fey-Way Studios, Anita Bryant, the singer and citrus spokesperson turned anti-gay activist, was campaigning to repeal a Florida ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. In San Francisco, conservatives who had held their noses during the Summer of Love now believed that homosexuals were desecrating their city. The San Francisco Police Department had a history of harassing homosexuals; on weekends, barhoppers were rounded up in the Castro and beaten with batons. Graffiti urged passersby to “Save San Francisco: Kill a fagot.”
The Castro had its own self-proclaimed hero. In some ways, Harvey Milk was a mirror image of Opel. Both had conservative beginnings—Milk had campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964—and became radicalized in the late 1960s; Milk joined the Greenwich Village gay crowd and began attending anti-war rallies. They had both come to San Francisco and opened stores: Opel at Fey-Way Studios and Milk at Castro Camera. But, while Opel embraced his freedom, Milk bought herself a three-piece suit and ran for office, using his store as his campaign headquarters. Opel wanted to undermine the establishment; Milk wanted to infiltrate him.
One day, Opel walked into Castro Camera. Behind the counter sat one of Milk’s young acolytes, Danny Nicoletta. Opel wanted to send Milk a campaign poster he had made: a surly-looking woman showing off her left breast, with a “Harvey Milk for Supervisor” pin through her nipple. Ooh, creepy, Nicoletta remembered thinking. The campaign refused to use it.
On Election Day, the largely white and conservative 8th District elected to the Board of Supervisors a former police officer named Dan White, who had campaigned to restore traditional values to a city defeated by “radicals, social deviants and incorrigibles”. But the headlines belonged to Milk, in District 5, who became the country’s first openly gay elected official and celebrated his victory by leading an impromptu parade down Market Street, carts ringing their bells in celebration.
Shunned by the Milk campaign, Opel focused on Fey-Way, a party hub for the Soma scene. Opel’s friend Lee Mentley said, “There would be everyone from drag queens and S&M leather boys and girls to Pacific Heights matrons and upper-class people who could afford to buy the art.” When people found out that Opel was the winner of the Oscars, they would boast: “No one even remembers who won the Oscar that year!”
Opel showcased underground artists from around the world, including Japanese fetish artist Go Mishima and Tom of Finland, a cult figure known for his drawings of men with rippling muscles and bulging groins. To the straight world, and much of the gay world, the leather scene was the unseemly underbelly of gay liberation. Dianne Feinstein, Harvey Milk’s colleague on the Board of Supervisors, fretted: “One of the uncomfortable parts of San Francisco liberalism has been the promotion of sadism and masochism.” But the sadomasochistic fantasies displayed by Opel offered a way out. “We allowed terrified people to perform counterphobic rituals that helped them deal with the stress and tension caused by the persecution that everyone was under,” Fritscher recalled.
In California, the specter of persecution was acute. Anita Bryant’s success in Florida inspired John Briggs, an Orange County state legislator, to sponsor a bill that would ban gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools, singling out San Francisco as a “moral dump”. Proposition 6, or the Briggs Initiative, sparked a counter-operation to sway public opinion, led by Milk. For Opel, who had been laid off from jobs in education, the Briggs Initiative struck a nerve. Proposition 6 was defeated in a landslide, due in part to bipartisan opposition from both former Governor Reagan and President Jimmy Carter. A marching band preceded Milk’s victory speech at the Castro, in which he urged gay people around the world to come out and “bust the myths once and for all.” The celebrations in the streets lasted until 4 in it.