Los Angeles Times Book Review | October 31, 1999
TO BE A HOMOSEXUAL in 1999 is to stand on the curb during the New York gay pride parade and feel your eyes water, faster than you can stop them, as row after row of openly homosexual police officers march by, in full uniform. Behind them, supporting them, the NYPD marching band: this from a police force whose members, some of them, had been known to turn their backs on their homosexual colleagues in earlier marches. To be a homosexual in 1999 is also to watch as, later in the same parade, a flatbed truck rolls past bearing a banner proclaiming "WWW.RENTBOY.COM." On the platform, a dozen or more dancing hustlers wear only biker shorts or briefs. In due course they liberate themselves from their clothing altogether. They cover their crotches with their hands but offer generous glimpses of the goods. Later, some of them are told by on-duty police officers to leave or face arrest.
It was odd to see these two species, the men (and women) in their NYPD blues and the boys in their birthday suits, marching in the same parade, as though they had anything to do with one another. Odder still was that they had a great deal to do with one another. Some of these homosexual men become gay boys when they take off the blue uniforms after work and go down to the bars in Chelsea. Some of these gay boys become homosexual men when they put on creased trousers and report for their day jobs.
In individual gay men, the tension between the competing identities of ordinary adult citizen and "boy" -- as in, "He's one cute boy, for 35" -- can be energizing and endlessly amusing. Individual people, after all, can have it both ways, up to a point. In the struggle to define the public image of homosexuality in America, however, the two make war. The gay establishment tells heterosexual America: "We are just like you." And the boys, grinning, say just as loudly: "Like you? The last thing in the world we want is to be like you!" For 30 years, the identity paradox -- the uneasy coexistence and sometimes open warfare of the adult culture with the "boy" culture -- has turned the gay rights movement into a battle with itself.
"No book before has attempted to follow the germ of rebellion which began with Stonewall, as it blossomed in other cities into a national political movement," write Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, both of The New York Times, in their introduction to "Out for Good." Having conducted about 700 interviews with 330 people over seven years, they intend, they say, to record "a definitive history of the movement," beginning with New York's landmark Stonewall riots of 1969 and ending in 1987, when the AIDS crisis was in its ghastly full bloom. No book as ambitious as this one can be perfect. On the whole, however, the authors have succeeded in what they set out to do. The story – and it is a big, dense, messy, colorful, kaleidoscopic, exhilarating, depressing story – is told with political acumen, reportorial vividness and narrative flair. The book is a remarkable accomplishment. Not least remarkable is its demonstration that the gay rights movement has been at least as decisively shaped by its internal struggles over identity as by its struggles with its opponents on the outside.
Though some black civil rights leaders huff and puff to repudiate any resemblance between their struggle and the gay-rights movement, the similarities seem hard to deny. Homosexuals faced legal discrimination and Jim Crow-style laws: As recently as 1967, the New York State Liquor Authority forbade bars to serve homosexuals, and one of the first activist campaigns in 1969 sought to "integrate" a Los Angeles restaurant (Barney's Beanery) that displayed a "Fagots [sic] Stay Out" sign. Police harassment was a constant feature of gay life, and a sex arrest often meant the end of a job or a career. (This problem is not yet solved. In Texas a year ago, two men were arrested for having sex at home.) In 1977, citing Leviticus, the Ku Klux Klan called for the execution of all homosexuals.
Particularly in the 1970s, gay churches were burned by arsonists, rebuilt, burned again. In 1973, 32 people died when an arsonist torched the UpStairs bar in New Orleans; one man who survived was notified on his hospital bed that he had been fired from his job as a schoolteacher. There was, and is, a drumbeat of violence, which is a sort of terrorism. Although it is true that homosexuality is not a race and, unlike ethnicity, has behavioral components, it is also true that, since the 1970s, racial discrimination and anti-black sentiment have been driven not by skin color racism, as such, but by fears of a stereotyped "black lifestyle." The supposed "black lifestyle" centers on crime, drugs and idleness, whereas the supposed "gay lifestyle" centers on promiscuity, disease and political extremism; but the aversions engendered by the two clusters of anti-social stereotypes are not so very different.
WHY, then, has the gay movement so utterly failed to attain the gravitas and moral traction of black civil rights? A lot of reasons; and boys prancing around in the altogether must be prominent among them. To the consternation of many straight people -- and many lesbians -- gay men were doing everything in their power to be seen as sex-obsessed party animals. "Gay liberation," say the authors, "had somehow evolved into the right to have a good time – the right to enjoy bars, discos, drugs and frequent impersonal sex." One gay leader is quoted as saying, "Never forget one thing: What this movement is about is f---ing."
The party ended in July 1981, only 12 years after it began. "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals," said a New York Times headline on July 3. Even before AIDS, as John-Manuel Andriote, a Washington-based journalist, notes in "Victory Deferred," urban gay men were infected with diseases -- gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis -- at rates otherwise seen only in Third World countries. By the late 1970s, even before AIDS emerged, one doctor with the San Francisco public health department was warning, "Too much is being transmitted here."
"Victory Deferred" does not deliver quite what its subtitle ("How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America") promises; its real concern is how AIDS changed gay activism in America. About "gay life in America" -- about the sick and the dying, and about the hearts and lives and tears of homosexual men and women -- Andriote says little. Rather, his book is a comprehensive survey of institutional responses: how care-giving organizations, arising overnight, strained to the breaking point and beyond; how a few hardscrabble AIDS groups became, after the government started spending big money, 18,000 organizations, many of them run by expense account professionals; how, with astonishing success, desperate and outraged homosexuals created what amounted to their own Food and Drug Administration. Andriote is more diligent than literary, and he has a weakness for bureaucratic sentences like, "AID Atlanta was the only gay community-based ASO among the eleven RWJ sites to be selected as the program's coordinating agency." Still, he is encyclopedic and knowledgeable. People who want to know how a community mobilized in the face of an unprecedented crisis will want to start here.
In recent years, as the epidemic has receded toward survivability, homosexual thinkers and activists began to rise from the bedsides of the ill and consider the questions that AIDS had only temporarily suppressed. The boy culture seemed deeply implicated in the health crisis. But was it really to blame? In 1997, a group of activists and academics, calling themselves Sex Panic!, argued that AIDS hysteria and conservative backlash, among gays as well as straights, were reviving sex phobia and repression. Robin Hardy, writing with David Groff in "The Crisis of Desire," takes this view. Hardy was a writer and activist who was HIV-positive but died, still healthy, in a hiking accident in 1995. He left behind an unfinished book, which his friend Groff, a writer and editor, has completed with skill. Sometimes the book rages, sometimes it ponders; to Groff's credit, however, its moods seem to belong to one author, not two, and the writing is never less than accomplished.
For Hardy, gay identity and gay promiscuity are more or less the same thing. The unfettered exploration of sexual pleasure is liberating not just for homosexuals but for everybody, representing "progress toward a society that values pleasure." Before AIDS, he says, "We believed we were at the beginning of a new age in human relations -- and we were." Even today, promiscuous but safe sex is "far more effective -- not to mention affirming -- than strategies of closure, repression, penalization of promiscuity and enforced monogamy put forward by the state and by some of our big-time thinkers." Hardy regrets having HIV, but he does not regret the sex that gave it to him. "Communal sex," he writes, "is to gay men what golf is to, well, other kinds of men: they find beauty and bonding in it."
It must be said that Hardy is, for the most part, more thoughtful than that. But it must also be said that Hardy's vision seems strange to those of us who lead a different sort of life, who put commitment ahead of sex and who consider ourselves no less authentically gay for doing so. One wonders, too, if it isn't childish to condemn medicine, government and society for their indifferent and moralistic responses to AIDS while complaining about the loss of the sex.
TO Daniel Mendelsohn, a classicist and a writer of distinction, falls the task of confronting the paradox that Hardy pushes to one side. "The Elusive Embrace" is that rare thing, a genuinely beautiful essay: a musing meditation on gay culture, on Greek language and myth, on his own family and life, that is not so much written as braided. The voice is intimate, probing, often of a loveliness that brings you up short: "His nostrils were delicate, like snail shells; they trembled when he spoke, if you got that close. I asked him out. His dark hair, when I finally kissed him, was glossy and smelled sweet, like a child's."
Mendelsohn writes: "For a long time I have lived in two places." One place is at the edge of New York's Chelsea, the Mecca of the gay boy culture; the other is in a town an hour away, where Mendelsohn and his friend Rose are raising her young son Nicholas. In the city he is a cosmopolitan who can melt into the anonymous adventurism of the streets; in the town his intimate encounters are with spittle and pediatricians. Why, he wonders, does he never think of straight men as "boys," which is the way he would think of them if they were gay? The answer, in a word: Nicholas. "Children are the secret weapon of straight culture: they have the potential to rescue men from inconsequentiality. Fatherhood has the power to confer authenticity on men; it can be what saves them from eternally being boys themselves."
Playfulness, says Mendelsohn, is what distinguishes gay style from straight style. "Desire and sex are just an expression of an almost willful insistence on constant play," he writes. "Without anyone but yourself to be responsible for -- to wait for -- there is no reason, really, not to play." Yet he is glad to have Chelsea, the playground, to return to between long visits with Nicholas. "You move between two places," he says. "Gay identity hovers between strange extremes."
This will always be true. The boy culture will never vanish, nor should it. Straight men have poker nights and football outings; gay men have dance clubs and the Halloween high heel drag race. But the balance will shift and is shifting already. Any culture is infantilized, necessarily, when its members are denied the power to enter into adult commitments -- to own, to vote, to defend one's country, to marry. Black men, recall, were once "boys," when they were denied the full prerogatives of citizenship and of adulthood. For gay life in America, the epochal change going on just now is the emergence of an agenda advancing not the right to have fun but the right to assume responsibility; to serve in the military, to mentor and rear the young and to marry.
Of those, marriage is the most important. One day America may allow homosexuals to enter into the single most important commitment that adults make, the formal bond to another human being for (one hopes) life. When that happens, gay culture's long adolescence ends. Mendelsohn is right: Children make men out of boys. But so does the bond of marriage. So, for that matter, does feeding your wasted partner, carrying him up the stairs, wiping the vomit from his mouth and embracing him in the darkness. "In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part": These are words spoken by grown-ups.