“We’re Not Being Accepted; We’re Being Erased”

John Rechy

Christopher Street, published from 1976 to 1995, modeled itself as the gay New Yorker, complete with cartoons meant to be urbanely witty. It was Very Important, Very Serious, Very Literary, and Very Intellectual, at least until its publisher, Charles Ortleb, gave its contents over to every HIV-denialist conspiracy that graced his inbox.

Sometime during its first year of publication, Christopher Street apparently published a rather nasty review of John Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw. I say apparently because I don’t have a copy of that review, but I do have Rechy’s scathing response published in the June 1977 issue. Apparently, the reviewer found Rechy’s book, which documents three days and nights of a hustler, “prurient,” “garbage,” and “pornographic.” It was the “garbage” part that got Rechy riled up. He suggested that the reviewer hadn’t bothered to read the essays interspersed throughout the book documenting “a wide range of subjects relevant to homosexuality-brutality against homosexuals, arrests, entrapment, fag hags, S&M, cops, the Bible, a bathhouse and a park raid, Judy Garland, the gay sensibility, the myth of child molestation, ‘glittering bisexuality,’ and heterosexual hypocrisies, among other subjects.”

Which totally makes me want to read the book.

Anyway, as Rechy goes for the closer, I can’t help but feel that he suddenly turned into a prophet, crying  in the wilderness with pinpoint accuracy:

Now I find a disconcerting political split in the gay world: On the right, we have what I have come to call the “new closetry.” On the left, we have the “new puritanism.” The former is the attitude, perpetuated by some gay periodicals, that to say that all is fine is to make everything be fine. As long as you learn how to set a correct table for a party of six, or even eight, well, then, things are splendid. Soon, “they” may even “allow” us to get married, and then, joy of joys, we can become just as straight, thank you, as bona fide straights!

\On the left, the new puritanism is, oh, so superior to sex. It takes every opportunity to state overtly or imply that gay freedom has little, if anything, to do with the sex act. That is ludicrous. Gay freedom has everything to do with sex. It is not for setting an incorrect table that they bust us daily.

Caught between the new closetry and the new puritanism, we are in danger of being pushed into that gray, ugly middle-class limbo. One should warn against that, against the imitation of straights, against our being absorbed into a relentlessly straight-oriented grayness. We are not being “accepted” that way. We are being erased, our specialness denied — and we are special, just as heterosexuals are special in their own way.

Source:

John Rechy. “Unfinished business.” Christopher Street 1, no. 12 (June 1977): 59-60.

When Ex-Gay Therapy Was Mainstream

One of the more disturbing aspects of LGBT history is the ease with which gay activists in the 1950s and early 1960s sought and valued the opinions of psycological/psychiatric/psychoanalytic professionals. This need for approval was even extended, in some cases, to those who preached that gay people were neurotic and needed to be cured.

The most prominent example of this bizarrely so-called “ally” was Dr. Albert Ellis. He professed unusually libertine views of sexuality, except where homosexuality was concerned. There, he held that anyone who was exclusively homosexual — a Kinsey 6, or who today we would call a “Gold Star Gay” — was, by his circular definition, neurotic. In fairness, I suppose I should point out that he also said anyone who was exclusively heterosexual was equally neurotic, but he saw no need to cure them.

Anyway, because Ellis also defended the civil rights of gay people (what he called “their right to be wrong), he was, especially at first, widely praised as a hero to the homophile community.

Widely praised, but certainly not universally so. In 1959, Jim Kepner (who is often regarded as the first gay press journalist) dissected Ellis’s teachings in the tiny journal ONE Institute Quarterly. This part of his critique reminded me of the criticisms of the ex-gay movement that would emerge less than a decade later:

One can well agree that any exclusive homosexual who goes to a therapist “with a genuine desire to gain heterosexual satisfaction” is obviously either neurotic and maladjusted, as Dr. Ellis says, or very confused by a lifelong barrage of heterosexual propaganda, which may amount to the same thing, or not correctly diagnosed as exclusively homosexual in the first place. Whatever his activity heretofore may have been, if his sex direction and desire were exclusively homosexual, how could he possibly entertain an overriding or “genuine” desire to gain heterosexual satisfactions? Like most “I-can-cure-them-all” therapists, Dr. Ellis leaves himself an escape hatch — any patient who does not ultimately submit to the therapist’s persistent prodding and engage in some heterosexual intercourse (or at least tell the therapist he has done so, as in the case of a few “cured” homosexuals we’ve seen) merely convicts himself of insincerity in regard to his expressed desire to be cured. His case can then be wiped off the books as uncooperative and needn’t spoil the therapist’s perfect record of cures.

Source:

James Kepner, Jr. “An examination of the Sex Theories of Albert Ellis, Ph.D.” ONE Institute Quarterly: Homophile Studies no. 5 (Spring 1959): 40-51.

Some Things Never Really Change Much

Here’s a fantastic find from the December 1964 issue of The Ladder, America’s first nationally-distributed lesbian magazine.

On the front page of the New York Times of July 27, 1910, there appeared a story about the sale of a house in a white neighborhood to a Negro. It begins: “Up in Kingsbridge Terrace … in which none but Caucasians have ever lived, there is threatened an invasion of negro families and great is the disgust of property owners thereat.” The whole story is slanted. It implies the Negro is unsavory and his presence a threat to accepted social values. The unmistakable slant reflects a popular attitude of that era, propped up by certain phrenological studies which “proved” Negroes were subnormal.

“On the front page of the Times of December 17, 1963, there appeared a story about homosexuality. It is titled “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern.” This story also is slanted. It implies homosexuality is unsavory and a threat to accepted social values. It too reflects a popular attitude of an era, nurtured by certain psychiatric and psychoanalytic studies which “prove” homosexuals are sick.

Since the first story quoted was published, the Times has become foremost among newspaper defenders of the Negro’s rights and dignity. The old “studies” that fostered the attitudes expressed in that early story have been discredited. Will the editors in 2011 regard the slant of the second story with the same embarrassment as current editors must regard the slant of the first? Will the psychiatric and psychoanalytic “studies” become as obsolete as their forerunners in phrenology?”

The Times editors of 2011, we can assume, probably would have looked back at both stories in embarrassment. Speaking more broadly in our culture today, I can only wonder who will look back in 2061 on today’s events with similar embarrassment.

Source:

Philip Gerard. “Symptom of The Times.” The Ladder (December 1964): 9-12.

John, Passing

Penn Station concourse, 1962 (Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey)

I’m not much of a poetry guy. Too often, I find I don’t have the ear for it. But I ran across this several years ago, and every Valentine’s day I’m reminded of it again. It’s from the February 1962 issue of ONE magazine, the nation’s first nationally-distributed gay magazine.


John, Passing
by Vincent Synge

Steve, you say your name is, from Columbus, somewhere,
Going through New York on your way to somewhere else.
Oh New York is my home, I offer, smiling secretly
At the handsome aspirant who is really no longer
An aspirant but — John, passing — in one of his legion disguises.

Only last week you were Tim from Maine’s lumbering woods
Ending your vacation days here — Steve, you say.
Oh, yes. You’ve chosen that temporary name, John, passing.
But before we start, and you leave, admiring the neatness of my petite bedroom,
Let me make another plea as I did when you, John, passing, were here as Milo,
A hundred Bobs, Franks, Georges, Bills and one Sylvester ago.

Stay.
John, passing.
Stay.
So I may stop days and weeks searching you,
Finding the many different names you answer to and faces you wear.
So we can weld an iron home from this swirling world
And fend from reality’s cruel sunlight
So loneliness’ deep ulcers can have end and justification in you
And what’s left of this savagely confused pattern can bring a happier existence.

Pause.
You needn’t answer.
I’m sorry.
I’ve embarrassed you.
Steve you say your name is.
We’d better get on before you’re late for your train.

Who Says the Daughters of Bilitis Were So Stodgy?

On October 4, 1961, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco for using the word “cock-sucker.” Del Martin, DoB’s co-founder, wrote about it in the DoB’s newsletter The Ladder:

In the beginning was the word — a four-letter word (or so we were told). A comedian was arrested in San Francisco for using it in his night club act.

In the end the four-letter word turned out to be ten letters. It grew as the talk grew. So now it appears that the word (which pertained to a certain aspect of homosexuality) is a hyphenated word. No one has come out with the word since for fear of drawing the same penalty as the comedian, so we can only conjectures as to what it was. We just can’t be cocksure about it at all.

She’s not finished —

Be that as it may, the arresting officer was highly incensed by its usage. “I don’t want my children to hear that,” he decried.

Now that was a very sensible and sound argument indeed and should hold up well in the courts. The act appeared as part of a night club show, to which only adults, 21 years of age or over, were admitted. So we are left wondering just what age the officer’s “kids” are — 25, 33 or possibly 40? And how long does the officer expect to protect his “kids” from the facts of life? Is he quite certain that his “kids” haven’t heard the term before — and are protecting him?

Source:

Del Martin. Editorial: “The Four Letter Word.” The Ladder (November 1961): 4.

“Disinterested Friendship”

Walt Whitman’s Calamus, which first appeared in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass,  extolled “the manly love of comrades.” That expression (indeed, much of Calamus) today is seen as the key to understanding Whitman and his sexuality. Whitman couldn’t publicly declare his sexuality, so he turned to poetry.

There are obvious reasons for Whitman’s reluctance to openly proclaim his sexuality, what with sodomy being a severely-punished felony. There is also a less-obvious reason: the English language simply didn’t have the words to covey the idea yet. Homosexuality won’t make its first English appearance until 1894. These two facts together hindered just about everyone from discussing same-sex relationships directly.

Occasionally, though, such hinderances were overcome, if you knew how to spot it. For example, here’s the beginning paragraphs of an article from December 1855 that appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine:

DISINTERESTED FRIENDSHIP.
BY A BACHELOR.

It is the fashion to marry. It is the fashion to abuse those who do not. It is the fashion with many who do, to regret that they ever did what can not be undone. But this fashion belongs to the occult mysteries of an institution which was the first of the “Know Nothing” order ever established. Those of the uninitiated are the wiser who mitigate their curiosity, and choose rather

“To bear the ills they have,
Than fly to others which they know not of.”

I am a bachelor, and, of course, am not in the fashion. I am an old bachelor, and my habits are fixed —- fixed as fate, for, of course, I shall never marry now. Since I did not marry when such an act could be carried to the credit of juvenile indiscretion, I shall not verify the coarse proverb, that “There is no fool like an old fool.” My experience has been ample and various enough. I am too old to turn over a new leaf. The common destiny of the race seems to sweep all, or nearly all, into the hymeneal vortex. If I have escaped, is it the wrong I did in escaping that encourages bitterness and calumny against me? Or is it envy that incites the married multitude to speak with affected pity of the unmarried ? Do they really despise my loneliness, or, under assumed contempt, do they conceal covetousness of my negative felicity? It is commanded, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” I don’t. But do not they covet my no wife? They talk of the delights of mutual confidence. But can there be no mutual confidence unless one of the parties wears flowing drapery, and the other is encased in bifurcated continuations? Can not there be friendship — can not there be even love under broadcloth — love of a man for a man, I mean?

To deny it is preposterous. There is my old friend James Hayden. I am sure he loves me. I am sure I love him. I am sure he is disinterested, I am disinterested, we are disinterested. There is none of the pounds-shillings-and-pence selfishness of housekeeping between us. There is none of the selfish management and jealousy of the loves of the sexes. We were schooled together. When I was puzzled he telegraphed relief. When he was pauled I signaled the word that unlocked him. We transacted business together. If I lost, his winnings made it up, and vice versa. He never betrayed or took any advantage or preference of me. He never deceived me, and he never will. What husband can say that of his wife ? What wife can say it of her husband?

There is only one venture in which we have not shared. He took a wife. Here could be no joint-stock interest ; and I wanted none. I pitied his weakness, and resolved to make allowance for it, though with some misgivings. It is safer to rust one than two. Yet never has my confidence been betrayed; and I am not jealous of James’s wife, though she is of me. …

The story goes on. The writer has a sister whose husband leaves her. She goes after him, leaving her five children with the bachelor to raise. He does his best, but then hires a governess. She becomes the children’s mother figure. By the end of the story, the bachelor and the governess marry. And it turns out that the governess is actually James Hayden’s niece; he engineered her employment and their subsequent marriage.

So, all’s well right, in that nineteenth-century Victorian way?

Yes it is. Because, as the former-bachelor exclaims concerning James Hayden’s machinations:

Ubiquitous James Hayden ! Why did he drop in just then? Simply to walk down in the city with me, as he has done daily for — no matter how many years. It is well he is not a woman. Had he been female, one of the best old bachelors who ever lived — your humble servant, to wit — would have been nipped in his twenties, if not in his teens.

Source:

“Disinterested Friendship, by a Bachelor.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 12, no. 67 (December 1855): 41-44. Available online here.

Natural Born Rebels

Equality March 2017

Equality March, Washington, D.C., 2017

To equip myself emotionally for the present, I’m reaching back to the past. In 1954, when the gay rights movement was first struggling to figure out what the hell it needed to do, early gay-rights activist Jim Kepner was miles ahead of everyone else. The big argument of the day was this: Were homosexuals a minority (i.e. distinct from others, with a culture, history, etc.) or were they just people who were exactly like everyone else except for their sexual practices?

Kepner fell in the first group, simply because, as he saw it, homosexuals, in order to survive, had to be rebels. They had virtually no other choice if they wanted to be true to their nature. In March, 1954 of ONE magazine (the nation’s first nationally-distributed gay publication), he wrote an essay that mirrors exactly how I’ve been feeling the past year:

Therefore, homosexuals are natural rebels. Born or made, they are constitutionally incapable of being sincere conformists. They may try desperately, as many in fact do, to conform in little things, to put on the show of being just like everyone else; but in the basic “facts of life” they are inescapably different, and through all the veneer of normality with which they may seek to cover themselves, they must suspect that this one essential difference colors their outlook on all other matters. …And if one reads any of history, he is likely to come by the opinion that the world owes as much to the rule-breakers as to the rule-keepers. He will then become a rebel in principle. He will seek his own standards of good and true and beautiful and just, or may even reject standards entirely. Liberty will become his aim and cause; conformity his enemy.

He continues, most critically for me, today in the age of Trump:

“It should barely be necessary to state that I am interested in defending my right to be as different as I damn please. And somewhere, I’ve picked up the notion that I can’t protect my own rights in that quarter without fighting for everyone else’s.[Emphasis mine]

Hello World

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

— Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)

So, let’s begin…