Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Teeman Multitudes

The Daily Beast has an article up, "How Gay Was Gore Vidal?"  The author, Tim Teeman, is apparently a successful British journalist, the kind you cannot hope to bribe or twist, with an upcoming biography of Vidal due to be published later this year.  The article is, well, painful.
Vidal said he was bisexual, but his family and friends say he was gay. Vidal adamantly believed “gay” referred to a sexual act, not a sexual identity. 
Oh, no.  No, no, no.  First, I'm not sure Vidal ever said he was bisexual.  He did talk and write of having copulated with males and females, and maybe that's what Teeman means.  But as far as I know Vidal never labeled himself sexually, at least for the record.  (Readers, correct me if you know otherwise.)

Vidal did not believe "'gay' referred to a sexual act, not a sexual identity."  The word Teeman has in mind, I suspect, is "homosexual," which Vidal insisted referred only to acts, not to persons. "Gay" does not equal "homosexual."  In this he followed Alfred Kinsey, whose research into sexual behavior Vidal supported and aided.  Nor would Vidal have used the term "identity" in this context; that's a post-70s usage, which has led to immense confusion.
On "gay," Vidal told Fag Rag in the 1970s,
I prefer the word faggot which I tend to use myself. I have never allowed, actively, in my life the word “gay” to pass my lips. I don’t know why I hate that word ... Also, I mean, historically it meant a girl of easy virtue in the 17th century. They’d say: “Is she gay?” Which meant: “Is she available?” And this, I don’t think, is highly descriptive of anybody. It’s just a bad word. You see, I don’t think you have to have a word for it. This is what you have to evolve. These words have got to wither away in a true Hegelian cycle.
Vidal wasn't the only fag of his generation who hated the word "gay."  (Just as gay men of my generation hated "queer" when it was reclaimed by younger people in the 90s, and a few years later younger queers rejected "gay" because they knew it only as a homophobic schoolyard slur.)  Christopher Isherwood was another, though he eventually grew accustomed to it as he made common cause with the post-Stonewall gay movement.  There were a number of reasons for this distaste, but since Teeman can't even get Vidal's words right, he can't shed much light on his reasons.

Teeman condescends to Vidal as a man of "his time," but he's too ignorant of even recent history to be taken seriously.  Writing of Howard Austen, with whom Vidal lived for over fifty years, Teeman writes "For most of their lives together, Vidal referred to Austen as his friend," and adds, "This was no 'friendship,' but, as I sketch in the book, a deep, enduring relationship."  "Friend" was queer code for "boyfriend" in those days (you can see this in Isherwood's writings) and for quite some time afterward, and not everyone even now would agree that a friendship, even a non-sexual one, can't be "deep" or "enduring."  It looks like Teeman's upcoming book will have some hot dish, but he too is a man of his time, and it's a time of shallow, sensational, ill-informed tabloid writing.