If I’d known that being gay could mean this, I would have come out a lot sooner.
The young man stood across from me in the small, perfectly manicured yard of a decadent home that hugged slopes of Hollywood Hills. He was around 20 years old, awkwardly holding a wine glass, and this was his first big gay Hollywood party. He was from a small town in a midwest state. It might have been Ohio, or perhaps Minnesota; the details don’t matter, since this story isn’t really about him.
I smiled, imagining what in particular he might be talking about. Looking around the party, almost everybody you saw could be easily placed into one of two groups: very young men who were ridiculously attractive in a very polished, tanned, lean, high-cheekboned Hollywood way and older men who were absurdly wealthy, many of them also very powerful in some part of the entertainment industry.
I was actually somewhat out of place: at the age of 27, I was very close to the in-between “no-man’s land” demographic rarely invited to these events. But I had a few of the “right friends,” which always opens doors in Los Angeles.
Back to Midwest Guy. Maybe this was the first time he had ever seen an entire house packed full of gorgeous young gay men. That alone could have been reason for his wide eyes and feeling of awe. It also may have been the first time he was in a home that was worth nearly ten million dollars. Or it might have been the first time he was introduced to a director, two producers, and the president of a major television network all in the same night.
Most likely it was a combination of all of these things.
But there was more to it than the flash and glitz of Hollywood chic: having grown up in a small town, with a small town mentality, this may very well have been the first time he had ever felt that being a gay man could mean something more than being discriminated against and existing on the margins. He was surrounded by gay men who were successful and attractive, people whom he could look at and say: “I want to be like that.”
This wide-eyed innocence doesn’t last long, of course. Los Angeles in general, and the entertainment industry in particular, is known for its “who do you know, and what can you do for me?” culture. The young men who get invited to these parties, no matter how down-to-earth their background, get swept up pretty quickly. The clever ones learn right away whose names are worth knowing and which parties are the “right parties” to be invited to.
Some of the young men at these parties are starkly ambitious, but most of them are not. It’s wrong to paint them as merely filled with a craven desire to be around money and people who might give them a shot at stardom. For most of the young men there, the truth is much simpler and much more mundane: being at big opulent parties is fun. If you are young and grew up with modest means, it’s plain ol’ exciting to splash around in a pool on the edge of a cliff high up in the Hollywood Hills, looking down at the glitter of the city lights below. These parties were also a great way to meet other hot young gay guys: possible hook-ups, possible relationships, possible friends.
I don’t want you to think that I’m painting with a white brush, however. Up to this point, I haven’t described anything dirty or salacious. That isn’t to say that dirty and salacious things never happened. If you’ve heard about these parties or read about them in the news, you’ve probably heard them described very differently. They are sometimes described as drug and sex parties. They have been linked to criminal activities, like underage sex, sexual abuse and solicitation. They have been written about as settings where desperate young actors are willing to do anything to get a break and degenerate older men take advantage of their wealth and positions of power to get sex.
This culture came under fire recently when Michael Egan brought lawsuits against director Bryan Singer and then three other powerful people in Hollywood, accusing them of feeding him drugs and forcing him to have sex when he was 17 years old. The allegations included details of “Hollywood underage sex rings” and “coke-fueled pool-side orgies.” Egan referred to the parties as “lurid” and told reporters that he “was raped numerous times by multiple individuals, passed around like a piece of meat.”
I found out about the lawsuit on Friday, April 18th, because a friend of mine—one of the guys who first invited me to the big “gay Hollywood parties” when I lived in Los Angeles—posted a status update on his Facebook wall:
“So, I just had a VERY public TBT. #GawkerFamous.”
Naturally, I went over to Gawker to find out what he was talking about. It turned out that he was very recognizably featured in a photo that Gawker used for an article by Jordan Sargent called “Bryan Singer’s Obsession With Barely Legal Boys Was an Open Secret,” which they published right when news of the lawsuit first hit. At top of the page, there was my friend: in a picture of a large pool with dozens of skinny, smooth young men frolicking.
The article had almost nothing to do with the lawsuit itself: it primarily focused on the scandal and intrigue of these gay Hollywood parties. There was nothing to suggest that anybody in the picture was a minor. Nor were there any drugs depicted in the photos, nor was there sex or even nakedness. It was a pool party, at an expensive pool, with young people frolicking.
A regrettable side effect of press scrutiny was the implied link between extravagant gay Hollywood parties, held at luxurious estates and populated by hordes of attractive young men, and the accusations in the lawsuit: drug abuse, rape, the abuse of minors. What message are people supposed to take away from an article like this? That big decadent parties are intimately tied to rape and child abuse? Looking at some of the comments on Sargent’s piece and others like it, that was definitely what some readers believed.
Sargent linked to other gossip websites, such as Queerty and Dlisted, for more innuendo and suggestion about the horrors of the sexualization of “barely legal” teens. The main point of articles in gossip magazines is not to expose criminal behavior, nor is it to show real concern for the welfare of children. The point is to latch on to salacious stories in order to titillate people. In this particular case, the subtext of the article was pretty clear: Look! A decadent party with young people! They are probably doing drugs and having sex! Are they being preyed upon by older men? What other terrible things might be happening?
In the week that followed, however, stories of first-hand accounts poured in and a new picture emerged. People said they always saw Singer with very young guys, but the young men never seemed under any kind of duress. People admitted that cocaine was available at some of these parties, but nobody ever said they were forced or drugged against their will. If the older men at these parties were guilty of any great moral crime, it was being sleazy, creepy and a little sad—a far cry from headlines that include the phrases “child abuse” and “sex ring.”
A week after his initial story in Gawker, Sargent wrote a longer follow-up piece, “The Sad Truths Behind the L.A. Party Scene That Took Down Bryan Singer.” In this article, he added some much-needed nuance to the reporting about the gay Hollywood parties. Instead of painting the “Hollywood moguls” as monster child-abusers who manipulated vulnerable youths, he talks about the sadness and emptiness of a social scene that appears to revolve around two demographics coming together to manipulate each other. In a world of aspiring actors, guys in their late teens and early 20s know very well what they are doing when they bat their eyes at older, powerful men. This was the new narrative: there is plenty of “blame” to go around.
While I respect the added nuance of this perspective, it still doesn’t tell the whole story. It still paints these parties––and the social scene behind them––as merely craven and shallow. The phrase that Sargent uses is “profound loneliness.” And there is some truth to this analysis. Of course, there were people who used each other, and of course, there were social climbers at these events. It is always difficult to untangle the skein of motivations people have when you throw wealth, sex and power into the same fabric.
But for the people I knew who were involved in this social scene, that was not what it was all about. Somehow, neither the people attacking the “Hollywood moguls” nor the people defending them in the media seem to consider that this social scene was also a refuge for young gay people coming to Hollywood. Nobody seems to consider that a lot of younger men are actually, legitimately attracted to older men. And somehow everyone seems to miss the fact that sex, drinking, and even experimentation with drugs is fine––as long as everyone is consenting and of age, there is really nothing to be morally outraged about.
There is nothing to be outraged about, unless you are nothing more than a moral elitist who automatically assumes that parties that involve sex are bad. When lawsuits like Egan’s come to the forefront, people are outraged by allegations of rape and abuse, as they should be. But blurring the lines between extravagant parties and sexual abuse doesn’t help to stop rape culture. The way to fight rape culture is to fight actual rape, not to demonize decadent parties, no matter how much consensual sex and drug use might be going on.
This is not to say that decadence doesn’t come with risks. Many, but not all, of the young boys that went to these parties flirted briefly with drug use, or even drug addiction, but most moved past that to lead sober adult lives. Many of them went through a “player” phase with wild sex, but most of those people have settled down into stable relationships. Their trajectory in life wasn’t that different from that of any adolescent who is given the opportunity to experiment with sex and drugs: they give it a shot, get it out of their systems, and move on.
Did any lasting good come out of that social scene, and those parties from ten to fifteen years ago that have become so infamous? Some of the young men I met there are now in the entertainment industry––but most are not. A couple are successful models, and a couple have written scripts for movies and television shows that you have seen. But others are journalists, realtors, event promoters, or financial planners. Most lead calm and quiet private lives at mundane jobs that make them happy. Some of them are married, some are raising children.
Most importantly, many of them still have very strong, life-long ties to friends that they met at the “gay Hollywood parties” over a decade ago. Some of them started out like Midwest Guy, who I described at the beginning. He found a place to meet people and experience a social group he never imagined possible.
It’s something to remember the next time you read an article in a gossip rag about “coke-fueled pool-side orgies.”
Photo by Guillaume Paumier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)