A Major Influence in its Time
My life has been lived more through books and film than through any institutions, such as family or church, but because school is a matter of books and because of the Forties when I was forming while so many existential questions were debated, the books had a skew towards what was respected by scholars and the arts. They weren’t just romantic novels.
At the Portland branch library a couple of blocks away from our house, as soon as I was allowed to go there by myself, I started at one end of the myths and fairy tales section, read through the shelves until I’d read them all and the librarian moved me to the young adult sci-fi, just developing out of the conversion from war to space exploration. "Red Planet Mars," the seed for "Star Wars." From there I took myself to historical novels and the Dewey Decimal category of 700, the arts, in pursuit of ballet.
People criticize me for having my head in the clouds, being unreal, but actually there is an edge where reality is more intense in books and movies. We now know from neurology and clinical psychology just how unreal all our lives can be, over-interpreted by cultural channels and family convenience, edited beliefs about our own relatives and daily practices. We won’t accept anything as reality except what we already know, unless there are special circumstances. We’re now facing the consequences -- those circumstances -- for instance, a psychotic president. But I don’t want to talk about him.
For the last ten years I’ve been exploring the idea of “gay” from my usual non-personal, non-experiential, book-centered point of view. Maybe I keep distance because gay is often conflated with pornography. The first porn I read was Bocaccio’s Decameron, stories told during the time Plague was sweeping Europe and wealthy young people had sequestered themselves for safety. In order to entertain each other, they told dirty stories. The only one I remember was about a man whose wife cheated on him, so he shut up her lovers in a tower made of one room on top of another, each lover in a room, none of them with a bathroom. Eventually they all peed on each other’s heads, which I thought was hilarious.
I was probably ten and only found the book because it was part of a leather-bound set of iconic authors like Shakespeare, good examples of book worship. No one ever read them but me. They were too valuable and had very thin pages that were unpleasant to turn for fear of tearing them. So that was the status of porn in my mind.
“Gay” as a problematic category didn’t really register until “Tea and Sympathy,” (1953), the year I graduated from the 8th grade. Christine Jorgenson had her gender change in 1952. About the same time a new translation of the Bible was published and I decided to read it right straight through. I was fine until I came to Noah’s daughters getting him drunk so he’d inseminate them and the family would go on. I was just beginning puberty in those years and in a sense so was the United States, because the intense adrenaline/ testosterone years overseas for so many men had awakened them to European and Asian culture and values. Magazines like Time and Life that had been dedicated to death and dominance were now exploring the new world we’d created through destruction, including the arts — which approached sexual matters.
Masters and Johnson began their work in 1957. Kinsey had already been working since 1947 when many men discovered that sex wasn’t always “done” the way they’d been taught in Kansas. Some had sat through many a lecture on what was then called “VD” with many ghastly illustrations of affliction. Some had had terrible wounds: their families, if they managed marriage, would not continue through them. Maleness and sons had the high cross-generational value they always have during war and in the repopulation afterwards.
Some say the beginnings of the legitimation of homosexuality started in San Francisco because of the all-male culture of gold-prospecting along the coast. Others link it to the veterans who re-entered civilian life there, gradually finding each other and sharing a hunger for man-on-man intimacy. Their bodies were attuned to pain, strife, and confrontation, so it was a hard-bodied, leather-bound version of sex, Hell’s Fucking Angels. Women rode pillion, if at all.
This is far from the foppish Oscar Wilde lampooning of society and the prancing follies of burlesque. But it had direct access to the bitter existentialism and moral outrage of oppressed and ravaged Europe. In the US maybe the “punk” movement was close, and then the harder versions of rock and roll. None of this is like today's gay films on Netflix where the pattern is the same as for heterosexual adolescence, as much about attachment and bonding as about actual coitus of any kind. In fact, some of the innovations of same sex people are now standard practice in hetero-combinations.
It will be obvious to any gay person reading this that I only know what I find in books. (I’m straight.) But real testimony also can be vivid and sometimes disturbing as people struggle out of the cocoons of stigma. Strangely, it’s also universal, so the appeal of the soft-core “The Fancy Dancer” or “The Fast Runner” or “The Persian Boy” is across adolescents, regardless of orientation or culture. By now, the generous anthropology that came out of wartime awareness of the variety of human beings has morphed into the linguistic complexities of human minds and the Mary Douglas/Eliade/ Lakoff, understanding of metaphor at the core of minds. This is one of our sources of hope for the future.
In high school I had lesbian teachers but thought nothing of it. In college I had gay classmates but even they didn’t know what that meant. (They tell me so now.) HIV arrived just as I started seminary. That means at the same time the tough lovers in San Francisco were suffering combat deaths of a different sort, elusive and irremedial. It changed the survivors forever.
And now the survivors, having created an institution called “Let’s Kick Ass”, (consult Google) is meeting across the country to share stories and figure out what they have learned. More than anything else, they have a sharp understanding of practical compassion and a contempt for failure to act on behalf of the whole. They are an antidote for pantywaist politicians and their oligarchic prompters who are hungry for war again because of the profits. You can watch vids of them telling their stories. It helps despair.