Kevin Bentley was twenty-one when, in July of 1977, he left El Paso and headed for the bustling streets of San Francisco—one of thousands of young gay men flocking to this vibrant city in search of acceptance, community, and hedonism. San Francisco offered an enticing allure of possibilities and new beginnings, and as Bentley navigated his newfound freedom, he quickly became enveloped in a world of exciting encounters and profound connections. Yet, beneath the surface of these exhilarating experiences lay the ominous shadows of the impending AIDS epidemic which would eventually take countless lives, including those of people he knew and loved. A writer at heart, Bentley kept a detailed diary throughout this period. The following entry came shortly after his arrival.
The Diary Entry
August 13, 1977
Every boy or girl must make a break and leave home sooner or later, and if he or she is gay, it’s probably sooner and a bit further. One day I was finishing up summer session courses and dreading student teaching in the fall, and the next I was following the black Magic Markered route on a series of creased highway maps to San Francisco in a red, ’69 VW with my worldly possessions in the back seat and $500 in Traveler’s Checks in my sock. My crime? I’d met a man at the Pet Shop and stayed out all night, again.
“Maybe you’ll be happy where there are others like you,” Mom said, wiping her eyes.
“Queer! Fairy! Faggot!” said Dad.
When the attendant at a filling station in Needles glanced at my Texas license plates and asked with a wink if it was true everything in Texas is bigger, I knew I was headed in the right direction.
That was three weeks ago. Now here I am in my Planet of the Apes red polyester tunic with the little cat-eared, pointy-breasted silhouette dancing on the shoulder patch, balancing my notebook behind the popcorn machine at the concession counter I operate 5:30 to 2:30 A.M. five nights a week here at the Pussycat Erotic Theater on Market Street. Last week I walked all over downtown leaving résumés first at bookstores, then trying anything. Stuart, the evil leather queen manager here, called right away. (“I’m going to take a chance on you, Kevin,” he said sternly, looking me up and down. You’d think I was applying to the naval academy.) Three years of English lit, history, and creative writing have more than qualified me for serving up stale popcorn, flat soda, and petrified hot dogs to a very odd assortment of patrons and answering the constantly ringing phone to say, “That’s right, tonight’s three-hour features are Oriental Babysitter and Sticky Fingers.” Most of the callers are creeps who wait for the spiel and then say something like, “You know what? I’m coming down there and I’m going to cut your prick off and feed it to you.” Just a moment, sir, you must be looking for Stuart.
In 2002, two decades’ worth of Kevin Bentley’s diaries were published with the title Wild Animals I Have Known: Polk Street Diaries and After. It’s a touching, tragic, amusing, and often erotic account of one gay man’s journey through a significant period of change. In 2005, Bentley also released a memoir, Let’s Shut Out the World.
- From 2005, a piece in the New York Times on Bentley’s diaries and memoirs
- The UCSF Archives and Special Collections’ AIDS History Project
- Pussycat Theaters: The Inside Story
Diary entry used with permission from Wild Animals I Have Known: Polk Street Diaries and After, published by Chelsea Station Editions, copyright 2002 and 2016.