Sunday, August 26, 2007

Views From a Window

Published in GCN, April 11, 1981. At 82 Vidal is still alive and kicking, despite recent knee replacement surgery, and despite my occasional disagreements with him I still admire him. He's one of the writers from whom I've learned the most, and he still makes me realize how little I've accomplished.

Views from a Window: conversations with Gore Vidal
edited by Robert J. Stanton and Gore Vidal
Lyle Stuart, Inc. 320pp.

"It's people like that," Tom Lehrer once remarked of Alma Mahler Werfel, "who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years."

It is a sobering thought that when Gore Vidal was my age, he had published seven novels (as well as three murder mysteries under the pseudonym "Edgar Box") and twelve of his plays had been produced on television. His first novel, Williwaw, had been written when he was 19, and his third, The City and the Pillar, published when he was 23, nearly destroyed his career, since it dealt with homosexuality at a time when the sway of the Heterosexual Dictatorship was almost unchallenged. Not only was the boy precocious, but he had guts. It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. And Gore Vidal is still very much alive.

He is by now one of the best essayist/critics we have, perhaps the best, both in the way he handles language and in what he says with it - Matters of Fact and of Fiction (Essays 1973-1976) is simply breathtaking. He is one of the most visible and outspoken of our Elder-Statesman Fags - by which I mean those older gay men of letters who have in recent years become more open about their homosexuality, a group which includes among others Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Christopher Isherwood - and he has been outspoken on the subject longer than most of them. He is a serious novelist whose books appear regularly on the best-seller lists. And of the social and political commentators with regular access to the mass media, he is possibly the most radical.

This access is due I think partly to his witty and patrician manner, which makes him seem less serious than he is, and partly to his very loose links with the Kennedy clan, which for a long time meant he had to contend with interviewers who wanted nothing from him but gossip (and post-mortems) on Camelot. But then, his status as a kind of renegade scion of America's ruling class is one of the things that make him interesting.

Vidal is proof that Marshall McLuhan was right: the presentation of a message carries more weight than the message itself. Vidal lacks the image and the rhetoric the media have taught us since the '60s to associate with radicals; his manner and appearance suggest rather a new appointee to the Reagan cabinet. As a result the Left considers him an elitist, and the Right considers him a fag. (He is of course both.) Yet for years, in person and in print, Vidal has been denouncing the American Imperium, the Presidency, our repressive sex and drug laws, Christianity, racism, and capitalism. (See "The State of the Union" in Matters of Fact and of Fiction for a sample.)

While Vidal may not be as radical as he thinks he is, especially where sexual politics are concerned, he is more radical and daring than many of us young upstarts sometimes realize, and has been doing it far longer. Remember that he was born at West Point to a West Point family; from the age of 10 till he was 16 his stepfather was Hugh D. Auchincloss; and he spent part of his childhood in the house of his grandfather Senator Thomas P. Gore. With that kind of background he should have become an appointee to the Reagan cabinet, if not Reagan himself. It would have been in many ways an easier life, and certainly more lucrative. (Even "this fag thing," on which he has blamed his failure to become President, need not have interfered with his political ambitions if discreetly managed.) But Vidal is an idealist - or as he puts it, "a pessimist - who tries to act like an optimist." And if anything, he seems to get more radical as he gets older.

He is now - according to the newspaper - considering running for Congress from California, and it will be interesting to see how far he gets. Given the nature of politics in general, and our government in particular ("There are no radical politicians close to the top of our system, nor are there apt to be until - a paradox - it's changed," he has said), I suspect Vidal's usefulness would be curtailed if he were elected. Would he be able to function as a working politician without sacrificing his outspokenness? Or would political office be a platform from which he could better draw attention to what needs to be criticized and changed? Vidal himself isn't sure. When asked if he saw himself as a radical, he replied, "In thought, certainly. I'm not so sure in deed." Certainly it will be interesting to see whether a man who calls himself a socialist can be elected to the U.S. Congress. ("I seem to have evolved into a socialist on the grounds that the best countries to live in are those of the northern European tie. This is not opinion but fact; unfortunately, Americans are trained from birth to think Sweden equals socialism equals suicide. The Owners know what they're doing.")

Views from a Window: Conversations With Gore Vidal is a collection of interviews with Vidal from 1960 onwards. Robert J. Stanton, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has also published a book-length bibliography on Vidal, has drawn excerpts from published and unpublished interviews, using sources which range from Fag Rag and the Paris Review to Oui and Mademoiselle. This material he has arranged thematically, and Vidal has gone over the result to add comments and to correct grammar and matters of fact. While this approach sacrifices the chronological perspective one might seek in a collection of interviews spanning almost 20 years (though statements on the same topic made years apart are often usefully juxtaposed), it minimizes the repetition usual in such collections, and adds to the coherence and readability of the whole.

Stanton has included material from his own unpublished interviews with Vidal, in which he himself, rather than Vidal, seems to be the subject. "You know about my life," he says at one point, "the poverty, the struggle for education... my numerous working positions, the censorship I encountered..." Fortunately these intrusions are not too frequent. Stanton seems not to understand Vidal at all, and I fear his upcoming Twayne series study of Vidal will be a disaster. But he has done a conscientious job on this book. The effect of Views from a Window is of a prolonged and systematic interview proceeding topic by topic through Vidal's work and ideas, with time taken out here and there for interesting digressions. As one would expect from an interview with Vidal, it is also most entertaining.

Vidal is endlessly quotable, and for those of us who love gossip the book provides one gem after another:

Ah well, poor John Simon - what a nightmare, to wake up in the morning and realize that you are John Simon. (p. 171)

Shortly after I announced that I was contributing $100 to the Angela Davis Defense Fund in Nabokov's name - to improve his image - he responded by assuring an interviewer that I had become a Roman Catholic. It is curious that Russia's two greatest writers - Nabokov and Pushkin - should both have had Negro blood. (pp. 196-197)

Nothing ever remains the same, with the possible exception, as someone said, of the avant-garde theatre. (p. 258)

Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers. The Americans of today are a nation of shoplifters. They knew Nixon was a crook and they liked him until he was caught. (p. 199)

For all Vidal's ability to think and learn, his background is still with him, and his generation shows. A minor example is his dislike of the word "gay," which may be the only thing he has in common with John Simon. "I don't know why I hate that word," he told Fag Rag. "Historically it meant a girl of easy virtue... And this, I don't think, is highly descriptive of anybody." He prefers to use the word "faggot," which is curious since historically a faggot is a bundle of twigs or sticks - even less descriptive, I'd think, than "gay." More commonly in print he has used "homosexualist," which sounds like an athletic event or a division of Scholastic philosophy. Though he objects to the use of "homosexual" as a noun, he has been known to write of "heterosexuals" and "bisexuals." As I writer I sympathize with Vidal's linguistic conservatism, but this is one instance where I don't share it. Any word that annoys John Simon and the Indianapolis Star so much can't be all bad.

Vidal can be annoying when he is congratulating himself on his achievement - which I don't mean to minimize - in writing The City and the Pillar. In 1960 he admitted human frailty: "I remember I read it through once before it was sent to the printer, and I thought that if I ever read it again I'd never publish I sent back a hardly-corrected proof." But generally he has talked as if he had invented the gay novel: "With an axe, I took on the heterosexual dictatorship... The book-chat world doesn't mind a faggot who comes on like a cripple." Jim Willard, protagonist of City, is a cripple: that's the point of the book. Vidal thinks he showed "the homosexual act as being equal to the hetero," and it is true that in 1948 even to mention the existence of homosexuality was considered propaganda, but a central character who "can only live in the past," like Jim Willard, hardly seems to me the way to challenge the heterosexual dictatorship. While it is true that "To tell such a story then was an act of considerable moral courage," it should be remembered that publicity protects as well as destroys; that many fags and dykes of that time went to prison and mental hospitals without Sturm und Drang in the world's book review sections; and that Harry Hay was at the same time exercising his considerable moral courage to organize what turned out to be the Mattachine Society, without book-chat writers watching to debate whether he had succeeded or failed. More disturbing is what I can only call Vidal's growing anti-Semitism. He has often been quick to condemn anti-Semitism in others. But over the past ten years, he has become increasingly concerned with the Jewishness of some of his critics. "I am not a favorite of American middle-class establishment Jews," he told Stanton in 1978, though he is not exactly popular with American middle-class establishment gentiles either. In 1977 he exploded to Dennis Altman:

In the last few months, I have been singled out not only as the National Fag, but as the creator of a new order that means to destroy The Family, the American Empire, Capitalism, and Warm Mature Heterosexual Relationships. This shit is being dispensed, variously, by Norman Podhoretz... Joseph Epstein. ... Alfred Kazin... and what I take to be a Tel Aviv hotel named the Hilton Kramer... All of these fag-baiters are Jews who have swung to the right... (p. 171)

As a rural Midwesterner my perspective on Jewishness is not of course that of an urban Easterner, but this outburst makes me very uncomfortable. Of course Podhoretz et al. "are fools, and dangerous. More to the point, they don't realize to what extent they themselves - the Jews - are hated out there in Goy-land..." But what, really, is the relevance of their Jewishness to Vidal's - justified - complaint? (Though I'd be flattered to have been credited with so much influence.) The shit they are dispensing is echoed by goyim like Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan, and there are Jews - I.F. Stone, Ellen Willis, Allen Ginsberg, and others - who are vocal critics of the American Empire. In Vidal's remarks I hear echoes of the generals he heard, as a boy, denouncing the Jew Franklin D. Rosenfeld. He has not, I think, left them entirely behind.

Still, what makes Vidal remarkable is the extent to which he has left those generals behind. My disagreements with him are many, but if I am in a position to disagree with him at all intelligently - to know and be able to articulate why I disagree with him - that is due in large part to the influence of his example. If I proudly call myself "gay," it is partly because of Vidal's polemics in behalf of the naturalness of homosexuality, and partly because of his own example: a talented man, successful on his own terms, comfortable with his unorthodox sexuality. If at 30 I look forward to middle age with optimism, it is partly because of men like Vidal (Isherwood is another) whose lives and work show me that it is possible to grow and learn throughout life. It is always a pleasure to read him - fiction, essays, and interviews - to see where the searchlight of his passionate interest has been turned this time, to laugh with him, and learn from him.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


On second thought, I figured this diatribe should be posted separately from the book review.

My blog entry "Gay Christians Say the Darnedest Things" was linked by slacktivist in July, which led to a brief and interesting exchange of comments there. Some commenters complained that I don't enable comments here, a matter which I've mentioned but not really explained before. Reading the slacktivist commenters confirmed my decision. For just one thing: at least one person complained that they couldn't understand why I'd written such awful things, and that I never explained in the entry why I did. If that had come up in comments here, I doubt Mr. Know It All (viz., Moi) could have resisted the temptation to point out where in the post I'd given my reasons. That wouldn't have been as effective as what happened in the slacktivist thread, where other readers pointed out my given reasons in my post. This indicated, if it didn't prove, that it wasn't just my imagination that I'd done so -- that a reasonably attentive reader could have spotted it.

Aside from that, the critiques were mostly ad hominems (He thinks he's so smart! Why does he have to say such awful things?), when the commenters didn't simply jump to the conclusion that I must be an anti-gay fundamentalist instead of a militantly gay atheist. I've been online for more than twenty years, often patiently answering such people point-by-point, and in the past few years I realized that I just didn't feel like wasting my time with such stuff anymore.

One commenter griped, "I find it really annoying myself when people otherwise on my side try to defend it by bashing Christianity / religion-in-general or by spouting nonsense about how religion works." Well, as I wrote in the original post, I find it really annoying when people otherwise on my side try to defend it with misinformation and irrationality. (Just what "nonsense" I'd written was, of course, not addressed: no critic even tried to rebut what I actually wrote. But of course, Christianity is good, so anyone who criticizes it must have something wrong with them.) And the low level of discussion among so many liberals who are supposedly on my side, as in that comments thread, just depresses me more. So does their bad faith, their refusal to listen to others.

-- I'm still not enabling comments here, but as I said in my opening post, you can still e-mail me with your criticisms and comments and I'll try to reply. There's an e-mail link in my profile, and if you can't find that, you can write to me at thisislikesogay at gmail dot com. But as I also wrote in my introductory post: "I also reserve the right to post anything I receive, especially if it's either very helpful or informative, or if it's abusive."

Fiddling While Faggots Burn

Published in GCN in April 1981. Soon after I wrote this I began serious research on Christianity -- the history of the New Testament, the origins of the Jesus cult, and particularly Christian teachings on homosexuality -- in preparation for a projected book, Like Father, Like Son: An Attack on Christianity. I never quite finished it, but I did more reviews on religion-related books for GCN and elsewhere over the years, and the issue still (obviously) interests me.

Homosexuality and Ethics

Edited by Edward Batchelor Jr.
The Pilgrim Press
261 pp
$10.95 clothbound; $8.95 paper

A more honest title for this book would have been Homosexuality and Theology, or at least Homosexuality and Judeo-Christian Ethics. Though its editor, Edward Batchelor Jr., says his intent “is to survey the present state of the ongoing debate among ethicists,” he either couldn’t find or didn’t look for material written from a utilitarian or existentialist or Marxist viewpoint. Perhaps he thought that bringing together Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish writers between the same covers was comprehensive enough. In any case, there is little ethical discussion in its pages, though there is much of the straining at gnats and swallowing of camels which is the stock-in-trade of theologians.

Another more accurate title would be Homosexuality and Heterosexual Ethics, considering that of the twenty-five articles, commission reports, and book excerpts included, only one is by an acknowledged (though anonymous!) gay person. Of the remaining twenty-four contributions all assume the primacy of heterosexuality, viewing homosexuality as an inconvenient aberration which, since it exists, must be dealt with. I had the sense as I read that even the most liberal writers felt that Christianity is heterosexual property which their consciences demanded they share with us; and that they were debating how much – how little, rather – to concede to us, like Lot deliberating whether to throw his daughters or his angelic visitors to the Sodomites. Meanwhile we are expected to wait patiently outside while the professionals work it out, not to participate directly in the debate. As if there were no queer clergy or ethicists! Mr. Batchelor himself, shown on the back flap in clerical collar, is chaplain and lecturer in religion at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York; it is perhaps understandable that he preferred to keep things in the club, if not justifiable.

What does Homosexuality and Ethics reveal about “the present state of the ongoing debate among” straight and mostly male Judeo-Christian “ethicists”? I found it instructive to compare the volume under review to The Same Sex, edited by Ralph W. Weltge and published, also by The Pilgrim Press, in 1969 – especially since Mr. Batchelor includes two articles from that collection. Unlike the present volume, The Same Sex was interdisciplinary, including writings by sex researchers and lawyers as well as theologians, and contained pieces by gay activists writing under their own names. Of course Mr. Batchelor may not care about the secular sphere – render unto Caesar and all that, you know – and far be it from me to complain about the book he chose not to compile. In his favor he has included useful source material from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, an area not represented in Weltge, and position papers on homosexuality from various Jewish and Christian religious bodies. But it is my impression that “the present state of the debate” is about what it was in 1969, with the possible exception of Lisa Sowle Cahill’s concluding critique, which raises questions about both sides of the controversy capably, if in technical language. Ms. Cahill’s discussion serves mainly to show, however, on how technically primitive a level the debate has so far been conducted.

If, in fact, Mr. Batchelor had set out to assemble a book in which Christians themselves discredited Christianity as an ethical guide, he could not have been more successful than he has. Four major positions are represented: homosexual acts are (1) intrinsically evil, (2) essentially imperfect, (3) to be evaluated in terms of their relational significance, and (4) natural and good. Each position is discussed by three or four of its partisans. (Does it mean anything that [1] and [2] are given ninety pages of text, while [3] and [4] get forty?) What emerges is that sincere and well-informed Christian scholars cannot agree, not merely on whether homosexuality is right or wrong (or “sinful”), but on what basis a Christian ethic should be constructed. They disagree on the role of Biblical authority and on how much weight should be granted to modern scientific findings about homosexuality. Should a linguistic or legalistic exegesis determine one’s position, or is exegesis itself contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ teaching? Can traditional positions be set aside when tradition is what defines Christianity? (The Jewish writers, by the way, are all – except for the anonymous gay – lined up on the negative side.) The writers represented in Homosexuality and Ethics take among themselves every possible stand, and thereby end up canceling each other out. It is still argued, mostly by the more conservative Christians, that without Christianity or at least some kind of religion we cannot know what is right and what is wrong. What this book shows is that even with Christianity we can’t know: not just about specific cases such as homosexuality, but even about the fundamental principles by which to decide such questions.

Calling for a return to the New Testament does no good either, for it offers as much confusion as does current debate. Is justification by faith alone (Paul) or by faith plus works (James)? Is salvation gained (if it is gained rather than a free gift) by rigorous obedience to Torah (Matthew 5:19-20, 23:1-3, Luke 11:45), or are Christians free not to obey Torah (Galatians 3:10-14, 5:1-15)? Or must one abandon one’s family (Matthew 19:29 and parallels), give up all possessions (Matthew 19.21 and parallels) or simply believe in Jesus and be baptized (Mark 16:16)? Is divorce permitted when a spouse has been unchaste (Matthew 5:31-32), or is it never permitted at all (Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18)? The New Testament reflects early Christian dissension, not unanimity.

Not every Christian looks for an ethical certainty with (to cite Sartre out of context) “the permanence and impenetrability of stone,” but most presumably look to their faith for a reliable guide for evaluating conduct. Whatever their reasons – to get into heaven, to escape Hell, to please God, to do what is right – they want to know what God thinks. What they will learn from Homosexuality and Ethics is what “a broad range of concerned professionals” think God thinks. No wonder so many people are drawn to the fanaticism of the Moral Majority: they are looking for someone who will teach “as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22), no matter how repulsive the teachings.

To do justice to the discussions in Homosexuality and Ethics would take a book as long as itself. Since I doubt I have to convince GCN readers that Aquinas, Barth, and the other traditionalists are wrong, I’d like to examine the selection by James B. Nelson, “Gayness and Homosexuality: Issues for the Church”, which calls for full acceptance of homosexuality by the Church and is, in practice, on our side. It seems to me, however, that Mr. Nelson reaches conclusions not warranted by his arguments, however much I may agree with those conclusions.

Mr. Nelson first argues (p. 187) that

Nowhere does the Bible say anything about homosexuality as a sexual orientation. Its references to the subject are – without exception – statements about certain kinds of homosexual acts. Our understanding of homosexuality as a psychosexual orientation is a relatively recent development. It is crucial to remember this, for in all probability the biblical writers in each instance were speaking of homosexual acts undertaken by persons whom the authors presumed to be heterosexually constituted.

Insofar as this is true, it proves nothing. After all, the book under review is organized according to the way each writer evaluates homosexual acts, so this perspective is as modern as it is ancient. Understanding homosexuality as a “psychosexual orientation” does not necessarily predispose one to accept it, either; it can still be perceived as a pathological or deviant orientation. The real question, which Mr. Nelson does not answer, is why the Biblical writers rejected homosexual acts when other ancient cultures did not.

The same question arises with Saint Paul, who set aside much of traditional Jewish teaching (such as the dietary laws and circumcision) but kept, among other things, its prohibition of homosexual acts. Like Jesus, Paul went so far as to argue that it was best to avoid all sexual activity if possible, though Paul did not suggest castration as a means to that end, as Jesus did (Matthew 19:12).

Mr. Nelson does not deal with Paul’s view of marriage as the lesser of two evils (1 Corinthians 7). He concentrates on Romans 1:18-32, the passage in which Paul explains “dishonorable passions” as the result of failure to acknowledge Yahweh:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error [Romans 1:26-27, Revised Standard Version].

Mr. Nelson cites Father John J. McNeill on this passage: Paul “apparently refers only to homosexual acts indulged in by those he considered to be otherwise heterosexually inclined; acts which represent a voluntary choice to act contrary to their ordinary sexual appetite” (p. 191). Even if this interpretation were valid, without “our modern psychosexual understanding” Paul could not have understood homosexual activity except as the perverse behavior of heterosexual persons, so he must here have been referring to all homosexual acts, not to “only” a certain category of them – what other category could he have recognized? Nor is such a voluntary act necessarily wrong, since Paul extolled chastity, which is surely “a voluntary choice to act contrary to their ordinary sexual appetite.” One might, for example, choose to have sex with a person of the “wrong” sex out of love for that person.

But this passage can also (and probably should) be read as a polemical sermon explaining “dishonorable passions” as a non-voluntary consequence of refusal to worship the “true” god. (Even then it remains the bigoted statement of a lying hustler.) The important thing is that Paul took it for granted, did not need to prove, that homosexual acts were “dishonorable,” “shameless,” “impurity.” If, as Mr. Nelson writes, “It is difficult to read into Paul’s words at this point the modern psychosexual understanding of the gay person…,” that is hardly surprising. Paul thought the Holy Spirit spoke through him, and probably considered authoritative the understanding he expounded. The “modern psychosexual understanding” he most likely would have called the working of a “base mind.” “Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve them who practice them” (Romans 1:32). If Paul gives us “a description of homosexual lust … but hardly an account of interpersonal same-sex love – about which Paul does not speak” (p. 191), that is probably because Paul would not have recognized the sexual expression of same-sex sex love as anything but lust.

Mr. Nelson says that Paul “looked at the Gentile world and saw idolatry but also saw homosexual practices and the prevalence of venereal disease – and he linked them firmly together” (p. 192). That linkage was no more inevitable, and no less bigoted, than the same conclusion drawn from the same sort of evidence by Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell in our own time. The implication of the passage from Romans, and of Mr. Nelson’s explication, is that those who do not worship Yahweh are all “filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, [and] malice” (Romans 1:29) – which is simply a lie. Certainly, “The moral climate of Hellenistic Rome was marred by various forms of sexual commerce and exploitation” (p. 191); the same has been true of every Christian society, but no Christian would blame that fact on Christianity. Yet Christians have never hesitated to blame pagan abuses on paganism; Paul was simply the first to go on record. And Mr. Nelson agrees with him: “The idolatrous dishonoring of God inevitably results in the dishonoring of persons, and faithfulness to God will result in sexual expression which honors the personhood of the other” (pp. 192-193, italics added), he says, which is a bigoted libel of all non-Christians and a whitewash of the many abuses committed by Christians.

Like the other liberals represented here, Mr. Nelson believes that sexuality is appropriately expressed only in committed, presumably monogamous, relationships. But marriage and its analogues are no guarantee against loneliness, “selfish sexual expression, cruelty, impersonal sex, obsession with sex, and against actions done without willingness to take responsibility for the consequences” (p. 201). Nor does the range of behaviors commonly called “promiscuity” exclude trust, “tenderness, respect for the other, and the desire for ongoing and responsible communion with the other” (ibid.). A truly radical examination of sexual ethics seems beyond Mr. Nelson’s powers, and he is probably the most liberal, the most accepting, and the best-informed writer in this collection.

In conclusion, then: Edward Batchelor Jr. has not achieved even his limited objectives. His selection of material is limited and probably biased against acceptance of homosexuality, and is a step backward from previous collections – not only The Same Sex, but also Gearhart and Johnson’s Loving Men/Loving Women and Oberholtzer’s Is Gay Good? (Mention should also be made of Alan Soble’s Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings [Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1980], an anthology which comes much closer to doing what Mr. Batchelor claims he set out to do.) To a Christian reader seeking “the necessary resources for reflection and determination,” one or all of those predecessors is recommended by me. To a non-Christian reader, the scripture-treading and equivocation exhibited in Homosexuality and Ethics mainly serve to confirm the ethical bankruptcy of Christianity, and that even the best Christians are mainly fiddling while faggots burn.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Now, More Than Ever

Now that the Democrats have shown conclusively that it is useless to vote them into office, there remains the question of 2008. I've encountered a surprising number of liberal Dems who apparently believe that Bush will be running again. "I want to see him defeated in 2008," they tell me grimly. So much for "reality-based"! (These are the same sort of people who believe that the US didn't torture or commit aggression before the Bush regime.)

Given the unappetizing Democratic front-runners so far, the only way out would seem to be to vote Republican. But I'm not sure I could do that, no matter how tightly I held my nose. It was disgusting enough to vote for Kerry in 2004, and that left me feeling so dirty and humiliated that I shudder to think how I'd feel after pushing the button for Benito Giuliani. Despite the rationalizations of the critics of third-party candidacies, I'm not willing to give my vote to anyone now in the running. (I voted for Nader in 2000, and am unrepentant, despite the yammering of "reality-based" libs who continue to blame Nader for Bush's seizure of power. Bush stole the election, you dimbulbs. But "dimbulb" is really too kind: these people are liars. Very often they acknowledge Bush's coup when I remind them of it, then return to attacking Nader. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.)

If we're going to indulge in Realpolitik, we might as well admit that national elections are firmly in the hands of big money, and that no candidate who runs at that level is going to be an acceptable choice. I was beginning to think that, for the first time in my life since I became eligible to vote in 1970, I was going to stay home in November 2008.

But then, just this morning in fact, hope came knocking. I remember this candidate from the 1990s, but had thought he'd decided to retire to private life. (Evidently I should have gone to sf fan cons, where "Why Choose the Lesser Evil?" t-shirts and campaign rallies have apparently been featured in every Presidential election year. [So sez Wikipedia.]) Of course, nowadays I'm not so sure that Cthulhu wouldn't be the lesser evil himself; but I'm willing to face that possibility.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Dark and Stormy Night

This review was published in GCN on April 14, 1981. The answer to my offhand question in the body of the review is that "Vincent Virga" is not a pseudonym. Virga is a successful book designer and picture editor, and he went on to write two more novels: A Comfortable Corner (1986), about a contemporary gay male couple troubled by one partner's alcoholism, and Vadriel Vail (2001), another historical gay romance, but one that I found unreadable. He also compiled Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States (1997) with the Curators of the Library of Congress and Alan Brinkley.

Since Gaywyck appeared there has been a steady flow of gay male romances (to say nothing of lesbian romances, published sometimes by corporate publishers but mainly by Barbara Grier's Florida-based Naiad press). Some of these have included the male equivalents of bodice-rippers, to judge by their cover scans on Amazon. Few have come up to Gaywyck's standard. I guess this sort of thing is harder to do than I'd have guessed.

by Vincent Virga
Avon Books
$2.95 paper

The cover should tell you as much as you need to know about Gaywyck. In the background a gloomy mansion crouches beneath lowering, foreboding skies; in the foreground a darkly handsome man in formal dress rests one hand (the other grasps a walking-stick) on the shoulder of a fragile, apprehensive-looking blond youth while waves crash on the rocks around them. “He was so innocent … until he fell captive to the brooding master and sinister secrets of GAYWYCK” – if that isn’t enough to send you into paroxysms of laughter, you have my sympathy. Go on to the magazine rack, pick up the latest issue of Honcho or whatever, and do not reflect on experiences which are beyond your understanding.

From the opening sentence of the narrative – “I resemble my mother physically”-- to the closing one – “Bells tolled, the sea continued, our love endures” – Mr. Vincent Virga had me in his spell. Robert Whyte, the novel’s narrator, is the son of a doting mother whom he resembles physically and a strict, distant father in late 19th-century New England. At the age of seventeen he is hired to catalogue the library at Gaywyck, the Long Island estate of the fabulously wealthy Gaylord family. Donough Cormack Gaylord, scion and sole surviving member – or so Robert is told – of the clan, lives there with his old tutor Julian Denvers, his old music teacher Everard Keyes, various other retainers, and “the dark sexual secrets of his past,” as it says here on the back cover. His mother, his father, and his identical twin brother Cormack Donough Gaylord all died in mysterious circumstances. Robert soon finds himself drawn tenderly to his employer, who reciprocates, but their tentative courtship is interrupted by Robert’s frequent illnesses and Donough’s business trips. This gives Robert time to uncover the dreadful Gaylord family secrets – assault, murder, incest, madness – without which no Gothic romance would be complete. In the end all the mysteries are unraveled, and with no impediments remaining to their love, Donough and Robert are free to live happily after, which they do, as the Epilogue reveals, for nearly seventy years.

I should confess that the only Gothic romance I’d read hitherto was Clara Reeve by “Leonie Hargrave” (a nom de plume of Thomas M. Disch), which I also recommend for its gay-related content but which, like Gaywyck, is as much a joke on the genre as an example of the genre. But Gaywyck, like Clara Reeve, is more than a tour de force. Vincent Virga (another pseudonym?) does more, it seems to me, than touch all the bases of a conventional genre of pulp romance. But that is for people who know the genre to say.

What I can say is that Mr. Virga writes pretty well – I did not, as I so often do, find myself mentally rewriting half his sentences for him – and he has written a novel about gay men which is fun to read, which is nice for a change. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Gaywyck is Politically Correct, since our heroes are too good-looking and wealthy, it at least eschews misogyny and machismo. It even has a reasonably credible happy ending. That alone is enough to make me wish Gaywyck had been around when I was in high school. One could, I suppose, ask for more, but for now I’m counting my blessings.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

What Is "Community"?

I just got out of an interesting gay chat room discussion, which is something of an event in itself. The availability of cheap Internet access that doesn’t tie up your phone line makes it possible for many gay men to log in to a chat site, then leave the program running in the background while they work on other things, hoping that Ryan Philippe or Hugh Jackman will send them a private message. In chat rooms where, a few years ago, something like actual conversation sometimes could be found, there is now mainly the drone of log-in announcements:
hotstudt6969 has entered.
hotstud6969 has exited.
stuffmewithUrbig1 has entered: masc/musc only, stay away creeps!
hotstud6969 has entered.
And so on. As a relative newcomer to these things, compared to men who used IRC and America Online in the 1980s, I can only describe changes I’ve observed since 1998 or so. But it does seem to me that there’s been a decline in main-room conversation, as opposed to “private” conversations primarily consisting of sex talk or arranging personal encounters. There has always been a certain amount of social pressure against main-room chat, which for various reasons won out over time. Which doesn’t mean that main-room conversation doesn’t still sometimes happen, and I’m pleased when I find it.

Tonight’s discussion, which was already in progress when I logged in to my local room, was about a popular topic: “community,” and specifically whether there is a gay “community” in our mid-sized college town. My first question was how the others were using the word “community.” Many people think of “community” as requiring a high degree of homogeneity and lockstep consensus, with little internal conflict – a definition that would rule out the existence of communities of any kind.

One of the chatters, a graduate student, insisted on “physical community,” ruling out “virtual” communities. He saw the Internet as having damaged, if not destroyed, “physical” gay communities, by which he apparently mainly meant bars. It is true that two local gay bars have closed in the past year, but we still have two remaining. Both the graduate student and another participant, both of them in their mid-30s, seemed to think that there had been gay communities before, but now that guys could interact online, they had no interest in meeting real people face to face.

This was funny to someone like me, who remembers the Gay Liberation movement's hostility to bar culture; gay bars have been under attack by various gay community members ever since, for various reasons, but bars remain important “community” institutions for better or worse. I welcomed chat rooms for the opportunity they sometimes gave, to have conversations that weren’t drowned out by loud dance music, without cigarette smoke that clung to clothing the next day, and no need to buy drinks (alcoholic or otherwise). For many men, I realize, those were positive factors: the loud music meant that they didn’t have to converse beyond “Do you come here often?” and “Do you have a place to go?” The alcohol made it easier to pretend that they weren’t in a room full of homosexuals, and that if they did go home with someone to commit deviant acts, it was the booze that did it, not them.

The graduate student insisted that if you didn’t have more than two people present, there was no “physical community.” (Would an orgy count, I wonder?) He was careful to make it clear that he didn’t blame the Internet (apparently because it’s not a person), but he didn’t like my suggestion that the Internet had supplied what many gay men had always wanted – the ability to find sexual partners without having to be in a physical space with other gay men. Such facilities have always been with us: adult bookstores, tearooms, highway rest stops, and the like. The Internet is probably preferable to such sites, being free from physical harassment – even verbal harassment by homophobes has been rare in the chat site I’ve used, though apparently it does happen.

One person claimed that the Internet made it possible for men to delay their self-identification as gay. I’m not so sure of that either, and I don’t know how anyone could tell, let alone whether a shorter delay is necessarily desirable. I suggested, in fact, that maybe public spaces like bars were better off if men who didn’t want community stayed away. The graduate student claimed that the Internet somehow distorted public gay space; as someone who’s spent a lot of time in such spaces, I have always felt that they were distorted by the closeted. The other thirtysomething declared that public gay spaces shouldn’t cater to the wishes of the closeted, but though I’m sympathetic to that idea, I don’t see how you’d make it work. Commercial sites like bars, reasonably enough by their standards, consider the money of a closet case to be as good as that of an openly gay person. Non-commercial sites like discussion groups or student associations have a commitment, also quite reasonable, to try to make people feel welcome. Most gay people (including those of us who later become openly gay) feel frightened on their first visit to a gay space, and so gay organizations try to make themselves as non-threatening as they can. Uncloseted gay people are a minority within a minority, needed to keep public gay sites in operation, but also seen by the closeted as dangerous – we might “out” them, simply by the fact that we exist. And admittedly, we are often impatient with the fears of the closeted, much as we try to draw them into our institutions. This ambivalence creates a tension that has always been with us, and which isn’t going to go away in the foreseeable future.

But back to “community.” Despite the graduate student’s dislike of “virtual” communities, all communities are virtual to some extent. In all but the smallest towns, members of communities don’t know everyone else, or want to. The “physical” nature of their communities lies in the accident of living in an extended physical space, not in face-to-face contact for extended periods of time, let alone in the absence of conflict over values and goals. Much of their “community” comes from reading a local newspaper, listening to a radio station; when they vote for local politicians, they are not all in the polling places at the same time, and most debate over issues does not happen face-to-face. This is even more true in larger cities, let alone at the state or national level.  (Since my interlocutor was a graduate student, I should have asked him if he'd read Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, a standard work on the topic of how communities construct themselves.)

The graduate student asked me accusingly if I thought face-to-face interaction was unimportant. Of course I think it is important, but not because you can’t have “community” without it. And in fact, much of tonight’s complaint about the Internet glossed over the fact that in practice it’s a stepping stone (or gateway, if you want a different metaphor) to face-to-face interaction, if only the sexual. The graduate student’s insistence on the presence of more than two people was meant to address this, but he never quite clarified it. In our city, there are plenty of gay friendship circles, cliques, and the like. Some of them use the local chat room to touch base with each other on weekend mornings, comparing notes on the bars or parties where they saw each other the night before. I’ve also seen invitations to parties and other gatherings issued in the main room.

So I’m not sure that the Internet’s effects, even in the “aggregate” (a word the graduate student used frequently) are at odds with face-to-face interaction and contact. The problem I see is that many if not most gay men don’t really want “community,” even virtual, with each other. And who knows? Maybe they’re right. Another contradiction we’ve never begun to resolve is that on one hand, we want to find others “like us”, so we can feel at home and safe, without being judged; on the other, we want to be accepted by straight people, and to fit into our families and larger communities as ourselves, not seen as fundamentally and essentially “different.” (Even though we notoriously knew we were “different” from a very early age.) Until we sort out questions like this, we aren’t going to be able to figure out what role gay communities should play, whether they are “virtual” or “physical.”