By Steven F. Dansky
Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization, By Nicholas F. Benton
The pivotal element of Nick Benton’s thought-provoking and audacious book Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization is disclosed upfront in the subtitle. The subtitle recognizes the existence of the gay sensibility—an idea that continues to generate controversy decades after first proposed in the 20th century. Further, the subtitle asserts the gay sensibility has an overarching purpose for all humankind. For gay men in particular, the proposition of the gay sensibility became the bedrock of identity—the prism through which reality is experienced, perceived, and interpreted.
In 1970, Benton was a founder of Gay Liberation Front in Berkeley, California and a frequent writer for the Berkeley Barb, a weekly underground newspaper. Then in 1972, along with Jim Rankin he published The Effeminist, a short-lived newspaper that urged “gay men to align politically with the goals of the feminist movement to overthrow the influence of the brutal straight male paradigm dominating society in favor of a new paradigm based on genuine gender, racial and cultural equality.”
The key question the early LGBT movement confronted head-on during the 1970s was, “What does it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” The early phases that defined the modern LGBT movement were closely linked with identity politics—the belief that identity should be the principal focus for political struggle. The development of identity politics by LGBT people followed the paradigm and trajectory of other social movements—primarily, the black power and women’s movements—by which excluded and degraded identities were defined, affirmed as valuable, and regarded as politically significant. This classification and the assigning of meanings to identity provoked impassioned debates. People held divergent, often contradictory, views depending on the context to which identity was applied. It was relatively obvious, however, that the politics of identity flourished in its centrality during the 1970s through the 1980s.
The presumption of the gay sensibility has been enigmatic over the course of more than four decades. Yet, it remains unyielding despite criticisms from queer theorists—some even consider identity politics, itself, a debacle. They stress the importance of not assuming an already existing identity, proposing instead a remaking and unmaking of identities, and through performativity to construct and perform an identity. Queer theorists believe that gender is a simply role, emphasizing the difference between being and doing. On another front, assimilationists hold that we’re all the same, and we all want the same things. And bloggist Andrew Sullivan declared, “Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. . . . It is a triumph because it is what we always dreamed of: a world in which being gay is a nonissue among our families, friends, and neighbors.”
Of the gay sensibility, Ned Rorem, author, diarist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, wrote in A Ned Rorem Reader, “The trouble here is that ‘homosexual sensibility’ is a slogan masked as an idea. Until semantics are settled, perpetrators will cram the work of gays into pigeonholes by cutting off limbs. . . . Is there a gay sensibility? Define it, then I’ll tell you if there’s one.”
Gore Vidal asserted, “If there’s a ‘gay sensibility’ there has to be ‘heterosexual sensibility,’ and I’ve never come across it. . . . Once you get the idea that there’s such a thing as a gay sensibility, then you’ve got to say that there’s such a thing as a straight sensibility. It’s just hopeless.”
Tennessee Williams, unquestionably the greatest American playwright, wrote in Memoirs, “Of course, ‘swish’ and ‘camp’ are products of self-mockery, imposed upon homosexuals by our society. The obnoxious forms of it will rapidly disappear as Gay Lib [sic] begins to succeed in its serious crusade to assert, for its genuinely misunderstood and persecuted minority, a free position in society which will permit them to respect themselves, at least to the extent of that, individually, they deserve respect—and I think that degree is likely to be much higher than commonly supposed. . . . There is no doubt in my mind that there is more sensibility—which is equivalent to more talent—among the ‘gays’ of both sexes than among the ‘norms.’”
Ambivalence is most evident when looking at Edmund White’s comments from several sources about the gay sensibility, saying “I don’t think there is one gay sensibility any more than there is a black or Jewish sensibility.” From his book States of Desire, “What we can discuss is the gay taste of a given period. A taste cultivated (even by some heterosexuals).” And in Lambda Literary Review interview he said, “Well, there used to be a lot of debates about the gay sensibility, whereas I would say that there have been successive gay sensibilities which vary according to the era. . . . So it all depends on a particular moment. And there are some people who have the gay sensibility who are straight and some gay writers.”
Over the decades pre- and post-Stonewall Rebellion, numerous authors associated the gay sensibility with camp, advancing the idea that it was exclusively about aesthetics—the nature of art, beauty, and taste—a totally apolitical rendering. Susan Sontag, in her well-known essay, “Notes on Camp,” went so far as to dissociate camp entirely from the gay sensibility; albeit, while conceding that homosexuals were the main camp-followers. She wrote, “While it’s not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap. . . . Nevertheless, even though homosexuals have been its vanguard, Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste.” Camp, she suggested was the “solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”
Up to the present, there is no widely accepted upon definition of the gay sensibility; or an agreement that it even exists; once again from Rorem, “Is there a gay sensibility? Define it, then I’ll tell you if there is one. Does God exist? Define him, and I’ll tell you if he exists.” And if the gay sensibility does exist, do we need it anymore? In view of the assimilationist-driven trend, writer and critic, Daniel Mendelsohn, posed the following question about the gay sensibility. “What do you have to be ironic about? You’re living in a co-op with your husband in Greenwich Village. You’re part of the dominant culture. And that’s the really interesting question right now: is it coherent to maintain the outsider mentality, the subversive mentality, that has traditionally been part of the gay outlook. . . . [T]his is a traditional problem of assimilation. Can you still hang on to what makes you special, even as you assimilate?”
Defining and securing the gay sensibility is Benton’s central undertaking in Extraordinary Hearts, a collection of one-hundred essays, outlining our raison d’être and mission. He disentangles the intractable puzzle that has to be solved, the Gordian knot of the gay sensibility, by isolating the gay sensibility from sexual orientation: “‘[D]ifference’ is what I call a ‘gay sensibility,’ and it is more pervasive for one’s personality than sexual orientation, usually preceding it. This, and not sexual orientation alone, is the central, defining feature of homosexuals.” This idea informs each-and-every-essay—the gay sensibility is the modus operandi, a method among others, by which humankind can evolve toward “universal rights and democratic values . . . against the tyrant.” The tyrant is “brutal straight-male dominion” that prevents “the empowerment of those otherwise subservient.”
Benton is fearless—he names, names. He believes the early gay-male faction of the LGBT movement was seized, and he accuses Michel Foucault, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, among others, of highjacking what had the potential to be a progressive movement. Energized by post-modernism and the hedonist counterculture, the movement turned from life-affirming values into “a dominant obsession with self-centered, pleasure-seeking sexual acts. No love, no romance, no relational commitments, but sheer carnality for its own sake.” Benton recommends mostly writers and poets: Christopher Isherwood, Larry Kramer, Walt Whitman, and Tennessee Williams; but, he also acknowledges those who fought for social justice: Nancy Davis, Barbara Gittings, Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lilli Vincenz.
The essays in Extraordinary Hearts are a core-curriculum, and many are heart-wrenching and painful to read.. When Benton writes about what he terms the AIDS Dark Age, the “descent into the hell of radical hedonism,” there’re truths and half-truths, and he falters on a tightrope of victim-blaming versus personal responsibility. Randy Shilt’s And the Band Played On, published in 1987, was the first major account of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and it contains chilling quasi-biblical narratives of innocence corrupted—naïve young men lured by San Francisco pleasure-seeking degenerates into unspeakable debauchery. Benton asserts that Foucault visited S&M gay bathhouses in San Francisco nearly day in the fall of 1983, knowing he had AIDS. There have countless discourses on pathology, criminality, perversion, and promiscuity perpetrated against LGBT people. But, make no mistake about Benton’s theories or intentions—this is a man who has devoted his life to social justice. Many of us are survivors of the countercultural madness that gripped us prior, and during, the outbreak of the epidemic. We shoulder intolerable grief, having lost loved ones, family, political heroes, creators and mentors. Benton yields to the ultimate truth—“[T]here was no one to tell us, no historical precedents, no guidelines, for defining who we are and what our purpose on this planet is.”
Despite several missteps along the way in Extraordinary Hearts, Benton emerges as a singular cultural mentor and pathfinder to be taken seriously. The essays are repetitious; of course, a book is a different genre from a newspaper column where a message can be insistent week-after-week. Benton offers these essays as a refrain. After all, this is someone with a message. Ultimately, this collection is far more complicated than a clarion call against one ideology in favor of another. It’s visionary. The reader is summoned to consider an end to power dominance—a terminal rebuke to a death-dealing patriarchy—favoring instead empathic and relational, life-affirming creativity within a community invigorated by soul-searching.
For more than 50 years, Steven F. Dansky has been an activist, writer, and photographer. He was a member of Gay Liberation Front, NY; a founder of Effeminism; a frequent contributor to the Gay and Lesbian Review; publisher of Christopher Street Press; and a founder of OUTLoud: Oral History from LGBTQ Pioneers.