National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, Part 8 This Week: Tennessee Williams Vs. William Burroughs, Part 2

It is instructive that as late as 1977, gay playwright Tennessee Williams recoiled at the discovery his fellow gay writer William Burroughs was as amoral and radically hedonistic as he professed to be in a memorable exchange between Williams and Burroughs published in the Village Voice that spring.

It is instructive that as late as 1977, gay playwright Tennessee Williams recoiled at the discovery his fellow gay writer William Burroughs was as amoral and radically hedonistic as he professed to be in a memorable exchange between Williams and Burroughs published in the Village Voice that spring.

Burroughs, a heroin addict and central figure of the so-called Beat Generation writers that included Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, epitomized the “postmodern” philosophy grounded in anger and a rejection of all convention, including all laws and prevailing concepts of right and wrong.

There is no “right thing” to do, as Williams suggested in the exchange, Burroughs insisted, only individual desire. Following the urges of such desire is the only way to be real. Williams was startled and couldn’t believe his ears.

From the standpoint of an effort to figure out what really happened to homosexuals in America following the magnificent explosion of open self-affirmation that attended the early days of the Stonewall Era, the 1977 Williams-Burroughs exchange functions as a sort of Rosetta Stone. It is the key to unlocking and sorting out how the gay liberation movement went from the highest of the high positive social force to the pit of an AIDS Dark Age, the lowest of the low, within the course of barely a decade. The implications for today, and the movement going forward, are also profound.

That someone as perceptive and street-savvy as Williams was truly surprised by Burroughs’ revelation in that exchange, as late in the gay liberation process as 1977, was indicative of the confused state of the movement, and few people even to this day are aware of this distinction, much less of its significance.

With the outburst of post-Stonewall gay liberation in 1969 came an unprecedented opportunity for homosexuals to massively increase and intensify the unique contributions to a just and compassionate wider society that it is innate to our disposition to provide. Homosexuals’ creativity, suddenly bolstered by a new level of self-affirmation and esteem, was poised for unleashing on the world its greatest gifts.

Williams represented that creativity. An active, happy and practicing homosexual since the days he plucked chickens in California and worked as a doorman in New York prior to his 1945 breakthrough as a playwright, Williams lived a lively and adventurous gay life, but no matter how much he caroused, he did not compromise on his commitment to his creative work.

He never abandoned, even in his roughest patches, his routine of hard work, writing prolifically for lengthy, unbroken periods every single morning. He often said his creative work was his life, and was amazingly prolific. He did not define himself by his homosexuality, but by his work.

But the counter-cultural ethos that swept over the post-Stonewall gay movement was entirely otherwise. It quickly became grounded entirely in the pursuit of unrestrained gay sex, urged people to “turn on, tune in and drop out” of their creative pursuits, and progressed rapidly to an astounding level of promiscuity and excess.

Efforts by myself and others in my “Effeminist” gay liberation current of the early 1970s, including my literary slug fests with Burroughs’ pal Alan Ginsberg on the pages of the Berkeley Barb, were overwhelmed.

By 1977, at the time of the Williams-Burroughs dialogue, there was only one voice in the wilderness cautioning that there were emerging, dire consequences to the urban gay scenes’ descent into a wanton, unbridled, obsessive, drug-induced, unending orgy of impersonal and extreme sex.

By 1977, the AIDS virus was already spreading among gay men in these environments, with an average 5.5-year incubation period to surface with so-called “gay cancer” symptoms in the summer of 1981.

Larry Kramer, who in 1969 wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the film version of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” was writing his biting novel, prophecy and critique of what the gay movement had devolved into, entitled, “Faggots.”

The book was reviled by the forgettable leaders of the gay movement, including its political leaders, none of whom said a word of caution about what the prevailing “gay lifestyle” had become.

“Faggots” was written as an unyielding challenge to urban gay men to take a hard, critical, self-reflective look at what they had descended into, written in the form of a brutally explicit novel about the behavior of such men in the Manhattan of that day. Tragically, its accounts were generally not excessive, compared to the actual reality, and it was incredibly prescient.

Among other things, it has its characters saying things like, “Faggots don’t want to know about success. It reminds them of what they’re evading.” Its sub-stories of young teenagers coming from rural areas to find themselves, to seek creative success and romance, being dragged into the middle of intense sequences of unrelenting drugged sexual activity with no regard for consequences or human emotions is painful to read, even had the resultant AIDS epidemic that killed most of them not to have resulted.

But even Kramer couldn’t see that coming home to roost only three years later.

(To be continued).

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