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Gender + Sexuality

Gay Writers' Golden Era and the Power of Voice

Notes on Christopher Bram's 'Eminent Outlaws' and the love that dared to write its name.

Stan Persky 3 Aug

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver. He's the author of many books, including Buddy's: Meditations on Desire, and most recently, Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011). Find his previous articles for The Tyee here.

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Voice of liberation: Gore Vidal, who died this week, got the gay writer revolution rolling.

More than one teenager growing up prior to the gay movement, as I did, at some point believed (or feared) that he had personally invented homosexuality. Certainly, there was scant public evidence that it existed and, if it did, it was sick. Worse, in high school life, the mere suspicion that you were a queer or a fruit or a fag was total social death. That's still true in some North American high schools today.

Once you reached legal drinking age, you could explore a furtive world of gay bars, but they were subject to random, reputation-wrecking police raids. If you happened to be in the military (I did a hitch in the American Navy), you had to operate with the discretion of "special forces" troops and, even then, you flirted with dishonourable discharge if not brig time. It's difficult to convey, a half-century later, what a dirty, dangerous secret homosexuality once was.

So, when Christopher Bram begins his history of contemporary gay writing in the U.S., Eminent Outlaws, with the bold declaration that "the gay revolution began as a literary revolution," it has an odd ring. A revolution sparked by mere words? After all, as gay poet W.H. Auden put it, "Poetry makes nothing happen." Bram's novel claim (offhand, I can't recall anyone else having made it) at first glance seems dubious, but upon reflection, it turns out to be surprisingly accurate.

Much more than the concurrent civil rights, women's, students' or anti-war movements of the 1950s to mid-1970s -- though all generated significant writing -- the gay movement was unusually dependent on books, journalism, theatre, and screenwriting to spread its message, both to others and itself. That was so for a very simple reason. Unlike women, African-Americans, and other activists, homosexuals, except for the stereotyped sub-culture of flamboyant "queens," were mostly invisible to each other, and even to themselves.

The only tolerant sanctuaries available to young gays were to be found in the world of art and a handful of ghettoized occupations. Still, "the love that dare not speak its name," to recall the phrase associated with Oscar Wilde, began, after World War II, to write that name in fugitive books and hastily scribbled notes. Bram’s account, combining social history and literary criticism, "is the history of fifty years of change shaped by a relay race of novelists, playwrights and poets," and their writing, as Bram says, "was the catalyst for a social shift as deep and unexpected as what was achieved by the civil rights and women’s movements."

Surprisingly, "the story of these men has never been told as a single narrative before."

Gore Vidal, catalyst

Bram, 60, is a gay novelist probably best known for Father of Frankenstein (1995), which became the acclaimed movie Gods and Monsters. Given his story-telling talents, it's perhaps not surprising that Eminent Outlaws is thoroughly readable, as well as useful and timely. It brings together into coherent form what had been little more than scattered anecdotes and half-forgotten memories, and it appears at pretty much the right moment. The largely successful struggle for gay equal rights in North America and parts of Europe has now moved into "post-gay" territory, while its history remains within the living memory of an elder generation. (It should be duly noted that in other, darker places of the Earth, homosexuality is still subject to punishment up to and including death.)

Eminent Outlaws is unpretentious, appropriately gossipy (lots of who slept with whom), and while unburdened by literary Theory (with a capital T) is punctuated by shrewd judgments about books and writers. The last may merely be a way of saying that I mostly agree with Bram's opinions about such writers as Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood and Edmund White. Of necessity Bram is selective (he's not writing an encyclopedic survey), he isn't attempting to establish a gay canon (although he's not shy about telling us what he thinks is good), and he properly doesn't attempt to take on lesbian writing in the same era (which requires its own history and historian).

The story, which stretches from just after WWII to the near-present, begins with Gore Vidal, who died this week. In 1946, the handsome young military veteran from a well-heeled, prominent political family (his grandfather was a U.S. senator), precociously published, at age 19, an early WWII novel, Williwaw. It was hardly of the stature of the blockbuster war novels of a few years later, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead (1948) and James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951), but sufficiently interesting to attract the attention of the New York publishing world and to land its author an editor's job. Vidal circulated in the bohemian literary circle of Anais Nin, an experimental writer whose name was associated with that of the scandalous Henry Miller. Later at night, Vidal followed his own scandalous inclinations in the gay zones of Times Square. It was at Nin's salon that he met other young (and gay) writers, including Truman Capote and poets James Merrill and Robert Duncan.

In conversations with friends and editors, Vidal discussed the phenomenon of a gayer post-war society and was encouraged to write about it. Nineteen forty-eight, the same year as Mailer published his bestselling war novel, was a sort of annus "mahr-velous," if not mirabilis, for the public discussion of homosexuality. Within short order, Vidal published his unambiguously gay novel, The City and the Pillar; Truman Capote's homo-suggestive debut work, Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared (as did the suggestive Capote himself); an influential essay by literary critic Leslie Fiedler, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey" argued that homoerotic, interracial and intergenerational relationships were deeply embedded in the core of American literature; and perhaps most important of all, sexology researcher Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, which reported that as many as a third of American men had had homosexual experiences. In terms of social impact, it was Kinsey's controversial findings that reached the largest segment of the general public.

Early gay writing and writing about gays had a double function. It told gay readers – the people who bought books by Vidal, Capote and, shortly, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956) -- that while they might be invisible, they weren't just making it up. For gay readers, those early novels had the function of newspapers, presenting dispatches from the front. Second, all of these works provided the occasion for larger circulation mainstream media to talk about homosexuality as a phenomenon and/or "problem," thus generating public awareness. This was one of those instances where all publicity, good or bad, was good publicity.

Vidal's The City and the Pillar, which Bram credits with putting the issue of homosexuality on the literary table, was greeted with mixed reviews, or in the case of the New York Times' lead book reviewer, conspicuously ignored, and Vidal retrospectively regarded it as near career-suicide. Nonetheless, it as well as Capote's book sold enough copies to put them both on the Times bestseller list for a few weeks.

Howling with Ginsberg

Bram next focuses on Allen Ginsberg and his remarkable book of poems, Howl (1956), which announces its Whitmanic scope in the famed opening line of its title poem, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..." Bram rightly emphasizes "what Ginsberg and others have said: this was a coming-out poem. There is nothing coy about the homosexual imagery." It's also a poem about politics, America, culture, capitalism and an emerging "Beat Generation," but as Bram observes, it's the homosexual thematic that tends to be downplayed in critical accounts.

Bram has his doubts about the quality of much of Ginsberg's poetry, but not about his role as a gay public figure. It's a point that deserves to be underscored. I knew Ginsberg ever since I was a teenage aspiring writer in San Francisco and can personally confirm Bram's assessment of how Ginsberg encouraged and supported young gay people. For more than a decade prior to the Stonewall demonstrations -- those several nights of resistance to police harassment by the patrons of a New York gay bar in 1969 that are now seen as the official commencement of "gay liberation" -- Ginsberg was the sole artist, or public figure of any sort, to present himself openly as a gay man, one engaged in cultural and political affairs as much as sexual politics. When people publicly asked him why there were so many homosexual references in his poetry, he replied, "Because I'm a homosexual."

Bram also devotes considerable attention to the theatre world, especially postwar gay playwrights Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, whose writing dominated the American theatre (itself a milieu suffused in a gay ambience) from World War II to the mid-'60s. But not until Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1968) did gay theatre come out, a year before the Stonewall riots. The first explicitly gay play was controversial, even among many gays who regarded its tones of camp and bitterness as a distorted portrait of gay existence. Still, it enjoyed a thousand-performance run.

For those of us living outside New York's theatre district, we only became aware of Crowley's play through William Friedkin’s 1970 film version. Bram offers a substantial and deserved nod of recognition to Crowley, but I recall the movie of Boys in the Band being unfavorably contrasted with a better film the following year, gay director John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), in which Peter Finch plays a middle-aged, middle-class, gay Jewish doctor in England having an affair with a mid-20ish bisexual male artist who is simultaneously involved in a part-time heterosexual relationship with Glenda Jackson. Bram doesn't mention Bloody Sunday, a made-in-England film, probably because it lies outside the U.S.-bounded scope of his book. The movie featured the first ever homosexual screen kiss between Finch and actor Murray Head, a gasp-producing moment that sucked the air out of many movie theatres. Later asked about the kiss, "Why did you do it?" the heterosexual Finch quipped, "I did it for England."

The other pre-gay movement literary work of special note is Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964). Bram is particularly good on the transplanted-to-California British-born Isherwood (1904-1986), who emerges as one of the quiet heroes of this narrative. Isherwood's 1939 book of linked stories, Goodbye to Berlin, about the rise of Nazism in Germany, was already understood by gay readers as a gay-inscribed text. But it wasn't until A Single Man, about a day in the life of a gay middle-aged, British-born professor teaching in a California college, still mourning the recent death of his long-time companion, that gay writing produced, at least arguably, a literary masterpiece. Like the later Sunday Bloody Sunday, Isherwood's novel doesn’t succumb to what Isherwood calls the Tragic Homosexual Myth, but instead presents a gay man living an interesting if mundane life that doesn't require a sensationalized denouement to fulfill any imagined moral requirements. Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Times headlined its review of the book, "Disjointed Limp Wrist Saga," which says more about the anti-gay temper of the times than Isherwood's elegant prose.

Bram, as do I, thinks that Isherwood is underrated, compared, say, to his famous friend, poet W.H. Auden. Bram makes a strong case not only for A Single Man, but especially for Isherwood's previous gay-themed novel, Down There on a Visit (1962), as unjustly neglected. Bram also favourably and extensively discusses Isherwood's post-gay lib memoir of 1930s Berlin, Christopher and His Kind (1976), in which Isherwood is able to talk openly about what really happened in the gay bars of Berlin.

Edmund White's beautiful voice

The central literary figure of the post-1969 era in Bram's account of gay writing is clearly Edmund White, a young writer who was present at the Stonewall riots. Writers like Baldwin, Vidal, and Capote were only peripherally involved in the new gay movement, but White and many of his contemporaries could plausibly be seen as primarily gay writers, with respect to the subject matter of their work. Of the older writers, Ginsberg and Isherwood, both of whom embraced the gay movement, were exceptional.

The flourishing era of gay fiction in the 1970s and '80s was dependent, as Bram demonstrates, upon a national infrastructure of gay bookstores, newspapers, and the interest of a literate readership, all of which burgeoned as an organized gay political movement took shape. If at first gay writing was news from the front that assured its readers that they existed, gay writing in the '70s addressed the question of what gay existence meant. Bram tags 1978 as his candidate for gay writing's miraculous year. It saw the publication of Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance, Larry Kramer's Faggots, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City and an early experimental novel by Edmund White.

Kramer's book, a fairly crude satire directed against the sexual promiscuity of gay culture itself, "an erotic novel that denounces sex," as Bram puts it, was the most confrontational of the books that year, and its author soon turned out to be equally volatile, to good and bad effect. I think that, in literary terms, Holleran's Dancer, an elegiac portrait of desire in the all-night gay club-and-beach scene of New York and nearby Fire Island, is the best of these books, though Bram is inclined to award the palm to Maupin, whose Tales of the City began life as a Dickensian serialized novel in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, eventually growing into a best-selling multi-volume saga. As for White, his best work lay just ahead of him.

White had a day job at Time-Life Books and had written a couple of artsy early novels. He "discovered" himself, oddly enough, as the co-author, with his former psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Silverstein, of a sex guide, The Joy of Gay Sex (1977). The book, a follow-up to Alex Comfort's Joy of Sex, was a success, part of the general "Sexual Revolution" of the period, as well as evidence of a large, untapped gay reading market, something proved by the sales of the following year's novels. As for White, he followed up his sex guide writing with a gay travelogue, States of Desire (1980), followed by an autobiographical coming-of-age novel, A Boy's Own Story (1982). Between his early artistic experiments and his commercial writing, White melded the two into a distinctive style, at once beautiful, and yet effective at moving the story along. It was a style that gay readers first, and then others, quickly identified as one of the recognizable literary voices of his generation.

Over the next quarter-century, White's autobiographical story -- to which he added The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man (2000) -- grew into the defining gay Bildungsroman of his generation. His lengthy stay in Paris in the 1980s yielded a massive biography of French gay writer Jean Genet which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award, and along the way, there were volumes of short stories, essays, and memoirs (the best of which, I think, is My Lives (2005)). Although Bram offers some thoughtful reservations about White's sizeable oeuvre, and appears to be more drawn to the work of Armistead Maupin and playwright Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America (1993), I suspect that when all is said and read, White will be judged to be the major writer to have emerged from the gay movement.

'That's why the world is so unhappy'

The concluding sections of Bram's account are understandably more diffuse than the earlier part of the book. There's a substantial survey of the politics, culture and sheer horror of the AIDS epidemic as it affected the gay community. Much of the literary side of the story is given over to the political and theatrical activities of Larry Kramer, the author of Faggots, whose "manic, high-octane, punching-in-all-directions voice," as Bram describes it, for the next several years outshouted everyone engaged in the Gay Men's Health Crisis, to recall the name of the New York AIDS organization that Kramer helped found at the outset of the epidemic. Nonetheless, Bram gives Kramer his due as a crusading gay journalist, political activist, and the author of The Normal Heart, the widely-seen AIDS play that galvanized public attention about the illness that struck like a plague.

There's also an epilogue to bring us up to the present. In Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance, one of the characters advises writers to "keep the chapters short... no one has a very long attention span anymore, and that’s why the world is so unhappy." If that was true in the ditzy disco days of the late 1970s, you can imagine what the state of mind of the digitalized present is like.

Gay readers moved on from novels to Facebook and YouTube, just like everyone else. The gay bookstores mostly shut down (but so have other bookstores). The gay newspapers that survived became less political, more social, and the Gay Pride parades have become ethnic celebrations, fully integrated into the local tourist industry. If the gay movement started out as a revolutionary proposal about human relationships, its success has mellowed it into something closer to the Rotary Club. What most gays wanted, it transpired, was what everybody else wanted: marriages, mortgages and good credit ratings. It can be argued that homosexuals are almost the only category of Americans who take marriage completely seriously these days. No wonder gay marriage drives "social conservatives" crazy. Finally, somebody with more Family Values than thou. Still, gay normality is better than the terrifying period prior to gay equality.

Although the initial reviews of Eminent Outlaws were generally favourable, they struck me as slightly grudging in their praise. One New York Times reviewer granted that Bram's book deserves "a prominent place" in the window of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the first gay bookstore in New York, but cattily added, "alas, the store closed in 2009 -- once vitally necessary, now made obsolete by its own success." The implication is that Bram's book is similarly unnecessary.

I'm not quite sure why there's less generosity than might be expected. Perhaps it's because Bram isn't a professional literary historian, or that he doesn't offer up the sort of theory that is currently found in Cultural Studies programs. No doubt, there are plenty of quibbles and criticisms that can be offered. I think Bram should have spent some time on the impact that foreign gay writers (both contemporary and historical) had on North American gay writing. And you can argue into the rainbow sunset about which writers Bram ought to have paid attention to: my candidate for overlooked gay writer is Dennis Cooper, a controversial experimental writer who explores Marquis de Sade-type subject matter that a lot of people find more than distasteful. But writing is not merely a matter of taste, but a question of quality and importance, and there’s a case to be made for Cooper.

A social transformation chronicled

There are other cavils that might be offered. I think there should be quite a bit more about non-fiction. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts, the first openly gay journalist in America, probably reached more readers with his And the Band Played On (1987), a frontline account of AIDS, than many of the more esoteric theatre events Bram covers. And shouldn’t there be a mention of editor Boyd McDonald's series of homebrew homosexual "folk pornography" anthologies that were published under the heading of "Straight to Hell" for a decade or more, beginning in the 1980s, prior to the widespread availability of commercial gay porn? Yes, I suppose so. But the point is, Bram covers most of the ground, and does so intelligently.

Now that the story is mostly history, how does it feel for those who remember it as life? Well, in one sense, for those of us who were participants, it turns out that an adolescent’s imagining of having personally invented homosexuality is not so far from the truth. Those isolated teenagers -- and a thousand books, a thousand demonstrations, and a million like-minded agemates -- really did invent a different kind of public homosexuality that significantly changed American society. But it's also true that the past is Another Country (to recall the title of a James Baldwin novel) glimpsed from across the River Styx.

To have lived through, within a single lifetime, the transformation of the understanding of the concepts and realities of women, black people, and gays must be something like what it felt like to live through the Reformation in the early 16th century. Or perhaps gay writing of this particular period is akin to the writing of Eastern European dissidents before the collapse of communism. Once the regime changed, there was gradual freedom and attention turned to normal life. There are still books, movies, and even TV sitcoms with gay characters, but there is less necessity for specifically gay writing, and there is a general diminishment of a public attention span that makes serious reading possible. What remains is what Wilde said about moral or immoral books. There's no such thing, only books that are well-written, or badly-written.  [Tyee]

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