National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 78: Conceived In the Shadow Of Tennessee Williams, Part 1

The new book by openly-gay Christopher Bram, “Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America” (2012), his 11th and best one, makes an enormous contribution to an appreciation of gay writers in the post-World War II period. “Eminent Outlaws” is full of history, including love stories, and anecdotes about a gay literary scene that was seminal in the emergence of gay liberation, beginning before the war, actually, and chronicling the slow, painful emergence and social acceptance of openly gay topics and story lines in their works.

Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Isherwood, Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Armistead Maupin and Tony Kushner are among those featured.

Admittedly beyond its scope of work, it differs from what I am addressing in this series. I seek to provide a more three-dimensional context for these and other figures in a profoundly uneven gay movement buffeted by wider social forces.

The touchstone for my work is an article by James Grauerholz in the May 16, 1977 Village Voice that involved a conversation between Tennessee Williams and William Burroughs.

In the summer of 2010, I was at my condominium pool reading “Conversations With Tennessee Williams” (1986), an anthology edited by Albert J. Devlin, when I stumbled onto it, and a light went off, more like a nuclear explosion, in my head. My own understanding as an early gay pioneer and of the subsequent unfolding of the movement, including the AIDS crisis, suddenly broke forth with angelic music.

I quoted the exchange in Number 7 of this series. In it, Williams is stunned to discover that Burroughs repudiates the notion that there is any such thing as “right” or “wrong” in human behavior.

The depths of Burroughs’ nihilism and amorality genuinely startled Williams, and I recalled afresh the powerful influence of Burrough’s worldview in the early gay liberation movement.

There were three trends that fed into the gay liberation movement in the post-Stonewall era.

The first was the colorful, courageous and enormously talented work of Williams and Isherwood (my favorites) and early founders of the gay movement, including my friends, the late Frank Kameny and Lilli Vincenz and others aligned more broadly with the causes of civil rights and justice.

The second was entirely different, a 1960’s countercultural “paradigm shift” fueled by radical anarcho-hedonist theory and practice, expounding “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.” This “revolution” repudiated the progressive values-based work of earlier periods in favor of postmodern and post-structural nihilism and radical hedonism. Ginsberg, Burroughs and others fell into this current, which had an influential and ultimate cynic as a leader, Michel Foucault.

The third current was made up of those of us who saw “gay liberation” as a world-historical opportunity to assert a new offensive against the male-dominated cultural paradigm, including its preoccupation with the subjugation of women, children, workers and other exploited peoples in its lust for expanding territories through tyranny and war.

We aligned with radical feminists and for want of a better term, called ourselves “effeminists.” We drew on the tradition of the earlier gay movement, seeing ourselves as its new cutting edge.

But the anarcho-hedonists swept like a tsunami over the gay movement. Free and frequent impersonal sex was not only sanctioned in urban centers, it became a veritable imperative. Anyone preferring romance and respect for persons was assailed as “sex negative.”

In this context, I observe these things about “Eminent Outlaws:”

First, Winston Leyland did not “found” Gay Sunshine, the nation’s first gay liberation-based alternative newspaper, in 1970. It was founded by a collective in which Leyland was a member, as was I. I wrote the editorial for that newspaper’s first edition, quoted in part in Don Teal’s “The Gay Militants” (1971). If the collective had any leader, it was Konstantin Berlandt (1946-1994). After the first few editions, Leyland effectively hijacked Gay Sunshine from the collective against its will, something not hard to do in those disheveled days.

Second, Bram’s contention that “gay liberation did not create gay promiscuity” does not take into account the anarcho-hedonist paradigm shift, which changed the very nature of promiscuity.

Third, writing about the first news of AIDS, Bram states “In terms of what was known about the illness at the time, (Larry) Kramer was overreacting. Yet he turned out to be right.” That odd contradiction is the popular dig at Kramer. How can someone be “overreacting” when he is “right?”

Fourth, Bram says of Tennessee Williams’ death that he had “died as a writer” years earlier. This conventional wisdom is now being challenged by Williams scholars who are finding tremendous creativity in Williams’ later works, including one he was working on at his death, “In Masks Outrageous and Austere.”

It was not Williams who changed, or declined, but the wider culture, no longer interested in his compassionate truth-telling. It became far too jaded to appreciate him.

To be continued.

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