Monday, September 13, 2021

It's My Culture and I'll Cry If I Want To

In a similar vein, I came across this video clip today, of a famous speech from Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart.  I've actually wanted to write about this speech for a good many years.  It has always annoyed me, and the passing of time hasn't made me hate it less.

Ned Weeks, Kramer's alter ego in the play, declaims:

I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskj√∂ld . . 
Even granting Kramer a shitload of poetic / dramatic license, this is absurd.  The names will be familiar to gay men of Kramer's generation and mine that followed his, the rote list of Illustrious Homosexuals rattled off to prove that taking it in the butt didn't mean you couldn't achieve in other realms. It wasn't entirely an invalid pursuit, because there was a relentless drumbeat of propaganda aimed at erasing non-heterosexuals from history, and it was important to rebut it.  Much of our counterpropaganda was dubious at best, and there were always gay cynics who declared that it should in honesty include famous but less inspiring figures like, say, J. Edgar Hoover. The important point is that these men do not constitute a culture, certainly not in the singular. They come from numerous cultures, and they made their achievements in a heterosexual context.  Kramer's decision to list them is ironic, given his own fierce culture-of-therapy individualism.

Ned goes on: 

Bruce, did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who was as responsible as any man for winning the Second World War? His name was Alan Turing and he cracked the Germans’ Enigma code so the Allies knew in advance what the Nazis were going to do—and when the war was over he committed suicide he was so hounded for being gay. Why don’t they teach any of this in the schools? If they did, maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself and maybe you wouldn’t be so terrified of who you are. The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual.

This is shamefully dishonest on many levels.  Yes, Alan Turing did play a role in breaking the Nazis' secret codes, but he was only one of many people, most of them heterosexual and many of them women, engaged in that great project.  (Kramer was never much interested in women.)  Ned compresses the events leading up to Turing's suicide irresponsibly: Yes, Turing was not just "hounded" for being gay, he was prosecuted and convicted under British law for having sex with another male.  But how would teaching this fact "in the schools" have prevented Turing's suicide (which is how it's written here), or have made Bruce feel better about being gay.  Knowing the history of gay men's suffering is as likely to inculcate despair as "real pride."

As for "a culture that isn't just being sexual," Ned continues:

That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers?

This is malignant bullshit. First, neither Ned nor Kramer was "one of the men who fought the war" -- any war.  As an affluent, privileged gay man, Kramer had no interest in activism and despised gay activists until AIDS struck.  As the Wikipedia article on Kramer puts it, 

There were politically active groups in New York City, but Kramer noted the culture on Fire Island was so different that they would often make fun of political activists: "It was not chic. It was not something you could brag about with your friends ... Guys marching down Fifth Avenue was a whole other world. The whole gestalt of Fire Island was about beauty and looks and golden men."

Even when he became an activist of sorts, Kramer tended to frame his work in personal terms, especially in attacks on then-New York City mayor Ed Koch, and in denunciations of gay men's sexual culture, of which he was an active participant. It never seemed to occur to him that he was attacking himself.  Like the more conventionally recognizable antigay bigots of the religious Right, his jeremiads described himself as much as others; possibly even more.  In his twilight years he continued and amplified his hypocrisy, attacking other gay men for supposedly engaging in "meaningless sex" while complaining that they weren't having it with him.

Notice that when we know anything about the erotic lives of the men Ned/Kramer extols in his monologue, we know that they mostly consisted of the same kind of behavior he attacked in his contemporaries.  Far from the respectable, soft-focus fantasies Kramer concocted (inaccurately) about the monogamy of lesbians, those men patronized rent-boys, bathhouses, bars, streets, and other cruising places.  Oh, Henry James may have been the exception: it's not clear he had any erotic life at all beyond fantasy.  The rest of his list sometimes found long-term partners, but weren't monogamous with them any more than Kramer was with his.  Ned's speech probably gratified queasy straight audiences with its denunciation of gay sex, but even in The Normal Heart he (like his author) haunted the baths when he wasn't on Fire Island.  But that doesn't count as defining himself by his cock, I guess.  And as we now know, being a real soldier won't protect a man against AIDS.

Throughout history down to the present, most gay-ish men haven't been high achievers, and there's no reason why they should have been.  (If not for AIDS, Kramer himself would probably have gone down in history as a minor playwright and Hollywood scriptwriter.  Not a wasted life, but not Alexander the Great either.)  When I read Ned Weeks's speech again after seeing the National Theatre clip, I was reminded of a similar coattails-riding you'll observe among fundamentalist Christians: they may be barely literate, but they "belong to a culture" of famous, highly learned and accomplished Christians.  They know very little about them, have never bothered to read their works, but they are validated because C. S. Lewis was a distinguished college professor and scholar.

Maybe I should stress that I situate myself in gay history.  I'm aware of my predecessors, and I'm dependent on and grateful to the work of scholars who've broadened and deepened our knowledge of the erastai/eromenoi, arsenokoitai, sodomites, buggers, sapphists, inverts, hijra, llamana, katoey, jotas, maricones, marimachas, toms/dees, and others whose lives make up the history.  It's not a simple unitary history, it's a big hot mess, which Kramer's simplifications dishonor and diminish. He accused queer theorists of erasing gay history, but that's another of his lies: most of the work that has begun to fill out our knowledge over the past forty and more years was done by scholars who at least pledged allegiance to queer theory.  You can no more do justice to our lives by denying our sexuality than by centralizing it -- but then why not centralize it?  Gay people who say we're just like straights except for what we do in bed are reducing us to our sexuality, and also pretending that we are all alike when we are as various as straights.