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A Cross-Country Odyssey

Gay historian JD Doyle’s new book chronicles pre-AIDS gay life in America.

JD Doyle (Photography by Alex Rosa for OutSmart)

JD Doyle is renowned as Houston’s LGBTQ archivist and historian, capturing and sharing the untold stories of our queer past. His websites, including Queer Music Heritage, Texas Obituary Project, and Houston LGBT History, have won praise and awards—most notably in 2019, when the Library of Congress selected the JD Doyle Archives for inclusion in their internet LGBTQ studies web archive.

Now, in his new book, Doyle shares a deeply personal story of his cross-country odyssey at age 34 through the burgeoning gay American subculture developing in cities large and small. Entitled 1981—My Gay American Road Trip: A Slice of Pre-AIDS Culture, the book is based on a journal that Doyle kept of his adventures as he traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again. It vividly evokes a lost world: the high summer of gay sexual liberation that blossomed in the decade after Stonewall, before the catastrophe of AIDS would brutally extinguish it.

1981—My Gay American Road Trip arrives with praise from notable LGBTQ historians and writers including George Chauncey, director of the Columbia Research Initiative on the Global History of Sexualities. He hails Doyle’s “remarkable journey,” praising the book as “full of insights and vivid sketches of people and places.” 

In 1981, when Doyle was laid off from his job as a chemical engineer in Norfolk, Virginia, he heeded his father’s advice to seize the opportunity and take a cross-country trip. Over the next four and a half months, he drove over 12,000 miles, explored 24 states, and visited 180 gay bars in addition to dozens of queer businesses and several lesbian and gay conferences.

JD Doyle circa 1981 (Courtesy)

Doyle paints a marvelous portrait of gay Houston in the early 1980s prior to a devastating oil bust. The city was buzzing with bars, discos, social groups, and a thriving gay sports association. While in the Bayou City, he also encounters a handsome young insurance adjuster named Clark, and their blossoming affair played a key role in bringing Doyle back to Space City toward the end of his journey.

During his cross-country wanderings, Doyle crosses paths with a number of celebrated gay figures. In Houston, he meets legendary gay-rights activist Ray Hill, then in his prime as general manager of Pacifica’s KPFT radio station. While touring around California’s Russian River in June 1981, he got to spend the night with the pioneering Vietnam veteran Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who had won a Purple Heart, came out as a gay man in the Air Force, and landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1975. In San Francisco, he encounters writer Armistead Maupin, author of the beloved novel Tales of the City.

In Virginia prior to beginning his trip, Doyle had served in a volunteer role as editor of the gay community publication Our Own Community Press in 1979 and 1980. This experience provided him an entrée to meet with writers, editors, and publishers of gay newspapers during his road trip, including the popular Lone Star weekly magazine This Week in Texas. Doyle’s memories of these meetings offer a fascinating window into the development of institutions that would prove crucial in building the cohesiveness of queer communities in cities large and small.

Since Doyle was just a few years out of the closet, the attractive, introverted young man took every opportunity to explore his sexuality. In retrospect, there is a poignancy to Doyle’s accounts of the many carefree connections he forged just as the worldwide HIV pandemic was about to explode. In San Diego, for example, Doyle enjoys a tryst with a handsome, enigmatic physician named Brad Truax. Seven years later, the doctor—a pioneering figure in California’s response to the HIV crisis—would die from AIDS-related complications.

The book also recounts a much deeper love affair, one which would come to define Doyle’s life: his passion for LGBTQ music. It would eventually lead him to dedicate 15 years to producing the local radio program Queer Music Heritage and the ensuing online archive of the same name. “It was always important for me to play lyrically gay music,” he observes. “If an artist sent me a CD that contained one lyrically gay song, well that was very likely the one I would pick to play. Our voices needed to be heard—not just by others, but also by ourselves.”

OutSmart spoke to Doyle about his new book, his epic 1981 road trip, and his plans for the future. 

OutSmart: When did you rediscover your diaries from 1981, and what was your emotional response upon re-reading them?

JD Doyle: Well, I always knew they were in a file in my office closet, but I had not really looked at it until about six years ago. Now that I am a historian, I started thinking that my accounting of this time had some “history value,” and that I should do something with it. I don’t believe anyone else has made available writings about that time just before the AIDS crisis hit us.

What surprised you most about revisiting this period of your life?

Probably the way I looked at my sexual life. I was already out for about three years, in Norfolk. But while I was active there, I certainly was not experiencing how very easy it was to meet folks in many different cities. I was alone on the trip and had to force myself out of my box. I guess I looked good enough and was the new kid in town, so I got noticed.

Has focusing on that seminal time in 1981 changed how you view the narrative arc of your life and your psychological development as a gay man?

I have always considered myself an introvert, and being the editor of the gay newspaper in Norfolk before the trip certainly forced me to interact with more people than I had been accustomed to. The cross-country journey only amplified this. I had to figure it out on my own, and the trip was successful. While that was not my objective, it put in motion one of the biggest changes in my life—my move to Houston.

What do you hope that readers of your book will take away from the experience?

An understanding of those times in our culture.

Do you have plans for future books or memoirs?

After I decided to turn the journal into a book, the process has taken five years to get this far. I have learned so very much about publishing, and I still have a lot more to learn about promotion and marketing. And there are still plans for an e-book and audiobook, which will be a huge time commitment. From doing radio, I developed the skills to do the recording, but still, the amount of time required will be considerable. And I have no trouble filling my time already with my efforts to preserve our history. I feel like I am on a treadmill with all the things I want to do.

JD Doyle’s book 1981—My Gay American Road Trip: A Slice of Our Pre-AIDS Culture is available on Amazon at amzn.to/3pqziXf.


JD Doyle’s new book hit the Internet on July 1, and the first launch event will take place on Thursday, August 24. There will be a reading and Q&A, followed by book signings. The book can be purchased at the event (credit cards only). 

What: JD Doyle Book Launch Event
When: August 24, 6:00-8:00 p.m.
Where: Houston Eagle Upstairs in the Phoenix Room.

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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