Stanley Bennett Clay is most well known these days as an author and director, but I remember him from his years as an actor (the first Bill Cosby show back in 1970, and on other classic TV shows of the ’60’s , ‘70’s and ‘80’s like ‘Room 222’, ‘Medical Center’, ‘Good Times’ and ‘Dynasty’ and in the wonderful 1977 film ‘Minstrel Man’, with Glynn Turman, as well as the classic film, ‘All The President’s Men’) . As an actor who spent his years in Hollywood as an openly gay actor during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s—a time when it was much more taboo than today to be an openly gay actor-- I wanted to talk with Stanley about those years in Hollywood. I also wanted to talk with him about his years publishing ‘SBC Magazine’ one of the early black gay magazines and so much more of his storied life. Here’s a ‘cat talk’ I had with Stanley in 2007. We talk about his being an openly gay actor in Hollywood (with some name dropping) and we reminisce about being openly gay black men in the 1960’s and the 1970’s. – BTW, today is Stanley’s birthday.
DCS: Stan thanks for letting me interview you.
SBC: Thanks for wanting to.
DCS: You really jumped at the chance to speak on being an older black gay man when I brought up this interview to you. Why?
SBC: It’s important to preserve our history and to tell our stories to future generations. They need to know what it was like for us in the sixties, seventies and eighties being black and gay. The culture that surrounded us, the atmosphere back then. They need to know that just as much as they need to know what it was like when Kennedy was assassinated and the cold war was happening. It’s all very important. It’s all history.
DCS: Yeah, yeah, I agree with you wholeheartedly. You hear so many of the younger generation speak and so many of them seem so detached from the historical perspective of what brought them to where they are.
SBC: Exactly. The Civil Rights Movement from a racial, gender and sexual perspective. They need to know that all these things didn’t just happen. That gay rights, these rights that we have for black people, men and women, didn’t just happen, there was lot of struggle that went into this. It’s why these rights and history has to be held with a lot regard. It’s all precious.
DCS: We all piggy back on the shoulders of our predecessors.
SBC: Right. And that’s how it becomes appreciated. You have to know it to appreciate it.
DCS: How old are you?
DCS: So you and I grew up in the same era. What do you remember most about that era- - the culture and the politics of the sixties and the seventies?
SBC: From a gay perspective?
DCS: Um, yeah, specifically as a black gay man.
SBC: It was courageous. We were all warriors. We all had something to fight for. It’s not as much of a fight now. So many seem to be enjoying the spoils of war. But before there was a serious fight. I remember, I came out before the Stonewall Rebellion (note: 1969), and then when that happened, to see we could go into the streets and protest and do things. The black movement and the gay movement was going on at the same time, when ‘Boys in the Band’ came out … I remember when it opened here in Westwood (note: LA), here at the National Theatre, and this had to be in like nineteen seventy, seventy-one (note: 1970). Man there was a line around the block of nothing but gay men trying to get into that theatre. You don’t see that anymore. It was such an occasion for us to celebrate that ‘we got something to celebrate’.
DCS: Yeah, I remember that. It was very relevant.
DCS: To get a little silly now who was your favorite singer back then?
SBC (laughing): Favorite singer… Barbara Streisand in the sixties. I was a Streisand queen.
DCS: A lot of people were. She did reign heavy back then. She and Aretha (Franklin).
SBC: Oh yeah, I can remember being fourteen and fifteen and seeing ‘My Name is Barbara’ and I was so taken with her and I can remember standing in my living room and doing her numbers with her, doing her profile—I was Streisand!
DCS: (laughing) I love it! See that’s why I’m asking these particular questions. I’m trying to capture a sense of time and essence back then.
SBC: It was wonderful because unlike many of my contemporaries back then, they were listening to pop music and R&B, I was mostly listening to classical music and Broadway show tunes. I was a Broadway music freak. I had a stack of show tune albums that had to have been three, four feet high… My mother was also a Broadway freak and she was my biggest audience. She contributed greatly to my queendom.
DCS: (laughing) I know what you mean, because my mother was my earliest fan. She always had my back… Were you much into the club scene as you got older?
SBC: Oh yeah. Oh my god yeah! Absolutely. In fact I think we all were even more then than today. The clubs don’t seem as much fun today. It seems everybody’s going to the club to pick up somebody and we used to go to dance.
DCS: Right. I always tell people that back then going to clubs for gays was like going to church because it was the only place we could go to raise our hands and shout. To release our energies.
SBC: It was the only place we could go.
DCS: It was the same cathartic experience of going to a church. Probably more cathartic because being gay and going to church isn’t always a cathartic experience because it’s so full of guilt, whereas the club scene was affirming.
SBC: I guess you’re right to a degree. I stopped going to church when I was eighteen. So I had no religious thing hanging over me because I was brought up Jehovah’s Witness and because they didn’t approve of homosexuality and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite I said well I can’t be a Jehovah’s Witness and a homosexual. There’s nothing I can do about me being gay, but there’s plenty I can do about being Jehovah’s Witness…
DCS: What was your favorite club or bar back then?
SBC: Oh there was a club in West Hollywood back then called The Farm… this was before there was a difference between white clubs and black clubs. People don’t realize that back then everybody went to the same clubs until the white children decided they were more privileged and they wanted to be more exclusive in their clubs- - after they had benefited from the civil rights struggles…
DCS: Uh, huh
SBC:... and then the gay movement became a white gay movement…
DCS: Yeah…black gays sometimes had to show two pieces of I.D. to get into white gay clubs. The white kids didn’t have to show any.
SBC: Exactly. I remember that happening around the late seventies. Before then the clubs were completely integrated. That was during the time when two men couldn’t slow dance together. It was against the law, around nineteen seventy. But overall it was a great period. You knew all kinds of people. It was less segregated in the gay movement.
DCS: I guess because the gay movement was so new and like most movements when they start out you need everyone.
SBC: Everyone needs everyone, exactly.
DCS: But as it grows it becomes quite exclusive.
SBC: Yeah. Because if you look at West Hollywood now you see virtually no black people there. But there was a time that was mostly where the gay clubs were in LA.
DCS: I think coming out is a process. What year did you begin your journey? How did your family react?
SBC: Eighteen years old. I hadn’t come out to my parents yet, but I had come out to my brothers and sisters. I was like ‘big brother Stanley’ and my older sister knew and the younger ones knew and they just adored me and it didn’t matter to them. I was going to eventually tell my parents, but what happened was, like when I was twenty and I was still at home, I had invited a friend over and he spent the night and I had this antique bed in my bedroom which was next to my parent’s room and the bed got to squeaking, let’s say in a rhythmic pattern. The next night my father comes into the dining room where I was sitting and sits down beside me and we talked, and my friend was spending the night again, my father said “son why don’t let your friend sleep in your brother’s room tonight - - my brother was out of town- - and I said, “okay” and it was unspoken. And that was it.
DCS: Stan, Stan, you knew all Barbara Streisand’s tunes and you saw all the musicals, and come on, you had an antique bed… I think they knew.
SBC: (laughing) Of course, of course, and I didn’t’ mention that a few times when my mother went out and couldn’t find her high heels shoes, she would say “Stanley where are my shoes?”
SBC: There were no surprises. Shortly thereafter, me and this guy got an apartment together and my mother made us a set of curtains
DCS: Neat. A gift to both of you.
DCS: Did being out meet your expectations?
SBC: Expectations? Oh yeah. Oh absolutely. I guess it did. It’s been so long I can’t remember what being in (the closet) was like. I was out when I was a teen. My best friend on my street was as gay as pink ink
SBC: And we were running buddies. We would spend the night at his house when his family would be out of town and we would have boys galore there. Me and Willie would figure out a way to buy wine and me him and the others would get drunk out of our skulls…
DCS: (laughing) Now see?! Did you find a solid community when you came out?
SBC: I did , but I found it more with this theatre company I joined, since I wanted to be an actor. It was called the Ebony Showcase Theatre…There was a lot of sex going on in every corner of that place. Needless to say I spent a lot of time in that theatre!
DCS: Oh yeah, the sixties and the seventies, all the way up to the eighties and the AIDS pandemic, they were free-wheeling days for everyone, gay and non-gay.
SBC: Absolutely… Oh yeah. And since I was a working actor I had a lot of time on my hands, and when I wasn’t acting I was partying, and when I moved onto the Sunset Strip, imagine, a young cat of twenty living alone on the Sunset Strip, a pool and everything, I was partying all the time. I would sometimes have twenty or thirty of the children over (author’s note: ‘children’ is a term meaning gays and lesbians- - in this case, I’m sure it was men).
DCS: Mm hm. What about the level of respect with all the sex that was going on. What do you remember that to be… Did all the sex get in the way of friendships?
DCS: That’s the way I recall it. I remember a lot of downtime in which if there wasn’t much partying going on, I was pretty much a loner…
SBC: You say you were alone?
SBC: Hmm, well I guess since I didn’t have a lot of down time- - because when I wasn’t partying I was rehearsing a play or shooting a T.V. show. I was always doing something creative. I was writing and things like that.
DCS: Growing up in Cincinnati and LA is different.
SBC: Oh yeah. Back then clubs were open every night and I had a disproportionate amount money than my friends because I was a working actor so I had the means to travel and party. It was always about partying. I don’t know if you remember Raymond St. Jacques…
DCS: Yeah. A really good actor.
SBC: Raymond was like the ‘queen father’. He would go to Brazil a lot and we would get together with his young lover
DCS: Sterling (St. Jacques)?
SBC: Of course… and we would go up to his house and raid the place. He had all these naked pictures of all these different movie stars and we knew where he kept the photos and we would sit around and look at all these naked men. And we would make sure we put everything back before he returned.
DCS: Ohhhhh… I remember Sterling St. Jacques was supposed to have been his ‘son’, but of course everyone in the gay community knew what that meant.
SBC: Oh yeah. It made the relationship easier…
DCS: Is he (Sterling St. Jacques) still around?
SBC: No he passed away, maybe fifteen years ago. I know Raymond passed away like twenty years ago. I was one of the pall bearers. I liked Raymond a lot. He cared about young people. He would take you under his wings and become like a father figure to you…
DCS: In an interview at ‘Rod 2.0’ you mentioned being in love with another boy at the age of nine… That’s so cool you were able to mention that because so often we don’t go back that far when talking about being gay… I think it needs to be done more… Being a youngster and being gay… It shows the depth of our identity…
SBC: Yes. Heavens yes.
DCS: I don’t usually hear black gays and lesbians talk about being gay kids.
SBC: Hmm. And the thing is, I knew so many gay kids. Like I said earlier, there were so many of us and we used to run around together…
DCS: I think that’s why the African American community (and others) walks around with this idea that ‘you chose this at the age of seventeen or eighteen’, you chose this. But they need to hear that even when we were five, six, seven, eight, nine years old we knew what we liked…We didn’t have a name for it, but we knew what our attractions were.
SBC: Exactly. I had a friend and when we would leave school, we would go to his house, he was a latch key kid, and we would make out.
DCS: Some people who read this interview… I can imagine them going ‘Oh I can’t believe that’, but basically you did no more than what heterosexual kids did at that age, when they were exploring their sexual identity.
SBC: Right. You’re going to be homosexual or heterosexual and my urges were homosexual. I look at my brother… growing up with him, and he’s only a year younger than me, he was doing the same thing in a heterosexual way.
DCS: Exactly. There’s this double standard that if he was to recount some of his ‘nastiness’… It would be more acceptable but for us to recount ours there would be this whole moral dilemma.
SBC: And it’s funny, I guess it’s because of the people I have hung out with that I don’t hear a lot of that denunciation. And I think another reason is because I’ve been so open and out with my sexuality and so proud of who I am for so long that it makes it very difficult to get up in my face and put me down. If I don’t put myself down, then you can’t put me down.
DCS: A friend of mine was called the ‘F’ word once and he turned to the guy and said, ‘it’s not what you call me that matters, it’s what I call myself that matters most’.
DCS: Speaking of empowerment, The Gay Movement caught on in our era, mostly white but greatly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. Do you remember the Stonewall riots? I don’t recall hearing about the Stonewall riots until a few years after it happened… I was so caught up in the black movement.
SBC: Even though I was out before it happened, I didn’t hear about it until afterwards…. I think it’s because we had less communication back then. We had three T.V. stations and no one reported on gay activities. Eventually, books were published on it, but back then there weren’t many books published on gay history.
DCS: And the fact that it occurred in the larger context of the black power movement…
SBC: Oh yeah and on top of that a lot people don’t know that those were mostly black and Puerto Rican drag queens who created this. And that’s why it’s so interesting that the white gay community tries to completely take it over. (Part II follows where Stanley talks about being an openly gay black actor in Hollywood in the '60's and '70's)