The Boys on the Beach
Midge Decter — September 1980
When the homosexual-rights movement first burst upon the scene a little more than a decade ago, a number of people I used to know must have been—as I was myself—more than a little astonished. These were the heterosexuals (in the current parlance of homosexual/heterosexual relations, the “straights”) who, along with me and my family, used to spend summers in a seaside resort community called Fire Island Pines.
In the years that we all summered there, Fire Island Pines was, at a rough count, about sixty percent homosexual. Though we didn’t yet have a name for the phenomenon, the community was distinctly a “new-class” enclave: on the whole young, affluent, enlightened, and breezy in both its styles and attitudes. Most of the houses there—they were high-grade beach shacks really—were informally well-appointed and by the standards of the day expensive. The snobbery of the place, which was considerable, had to do not with old notions of class but with the relative distribution of up-to-the-minute high taste in dress, decor, and opinion. And its denizens, homosexual and heterosexual alike, were predominantly professionals and people in soft, marginal businesses—lawyers, advertising executives, psychotherapists, actors, editors, writers, publishers, gallery owners, designers, decorators, etc. Since included in the estimate that put the heterosexuals at forty percent were hordes of young children and a large number of husbands who remained in the city and commuted to the beach on weekends, the dominance of the homosexuals over the general atmosphere was even greater than the numbers imply. All this was in the early 60's.
What must have been astonishing some years later to the straights of Fire Island Pines was not so much that the homosexual community had given birth to a Gay Lib movement—by the 70's movements were after all a commonplace; everyone was professing to be roused to action about something—as the particular claims this movement was making about the condition of its constituency. Like every movement inspired by the political culture of the 60's, Gay Lib had its radicals, its moderates, and its fellow travelers, each group speaking at a separate decibel level and in a slightly different tone of voice and each addressing itself to a seemingly different set of demands, ranging from the radicals’ vision of nothing less than a complete rewriting of the sexual and social constitution to the fellow travelers’ plea for nothing more than a new spirit of toleration. Nevertheless, through all the variations there ran the same general assertion about the status of the homosexual in American society. This was that for an altogether private preference for sexual partners of his own gender, the homosexual had been hounded from pillar to post. He was discriminated against in such areas as housing and employment; he was held up to ridicule, treated as an object of loathing; he was frequently the victim of violence at the hands of the police and other rough customers; and possibly worst of all, he was made an outcast and pariah by his own family.
Whatever the remedy held to be most essential for overcoming this state of affairs, from revolution down to the simple recognition of the homosexual’s legitimacy as an alternative human possibility, the homosexual community was serving notice that it would no longer sit still for what had become its accustomed treatment from straight society. Homosexuals were no longer to be called “fags,” “queers,” “pansies,” or (how archaic the word seemed even then) “fairies.” They were to be called “gays”—a term implying admission of the unrecognized and unconfessed envy throbbing in the heart of every anxious heterosexual. They were no longer to be mocked in public entertainments. They were no longer to be deemed sick by a mental-health profession caught up in the treacherous confusion between the statistical norm and normality. They were no longer to be kept out of desirable housing or barred from employment—most particularly employment as schoolteachers.
In short, they were no longer, to be forced by social and economic necessity, and above all shame, into living a life of concealment. Henceforth their homosexuality was to be deemed, by themselves as well as others, a perfectly natural inclination among all other natural inclinations. Indeed, throwing off the shackles of a dead and arbitrary if not perverted religious piety and an ugly and oppressive bourgeois sensibility, they were to bring spiritual cleansing to everybody by asserting their preference defiantly, with pride: the process now known to the world as “coming out of the closet.”
All this, as I said, must initially at least have caused a certain bewilderment among the heterosexual former residents of Fire Island Pines. (I say “former” because the Pines, as we called it, has in the intervening years become completely homosexual—world famously so.) Not that we were not aware that certain of our homosexual summertime friends and neighbors lived “in the closet,” or anyway with a high degree of care and discretion, in their other, wintertime lives. Some of these—one, I remember, the superintendent of schools in a high-status suburban town near New York City—were regularly pointed out to newcomers, perhaps in explanation of the noticeably nervous intensity with which they were to be seen cavorting on the beach. Most, however, were quite straightforwardly homosexual the year ’round and everywhere; and in any case, the circumstances under which we came to know and observe them offered not the slightest hint of concealment. Even those who were married men, and turned up each year with their wives and children, were at small pains to conceal their real predilections. (They were for the most part charming and amusing fathers, rather like favorite uncles. And their wives . . . drank. We all, to be sure, drank a great deal—alcohol was in those years the drug of preference of the new class—but the wives of homosexual husbands in Fire Island Pines were like classic army wives or the heroines of Southern gothic fiction, tippling sherry at breakfast and befuddled by dinnertime.) Thus while we were certainly aware of the phenomenon of “closet queers,” our attention was rarely engaged by this aspect of homosexual experience.
It was engaged to the fullest, however, by most other aspects of this experience, at least from the end of May to early September of each year. For the women of the place, left alone with the children in a setting that offered no rigors of housekeeping and on the other hand no forms of recreation but days on the beach and nights of neighborly socializing, it was engaged by little else.
Fire Island is a long, narrow sandspit that serves, for a stretch of some thirty miles or so, as a kind of barrier between the rough and capricious Atlantic Ocean and the southern coast of Long Island. No cars are allowed there. It is, then, a heaven of freedom for small children, given their liberty to roam everywhere, except into the surf, from the earliest possible age. Lolling about on the great stretches of white sand that are the hallmark of the Eastern littoral, the mothers of these children are also offered an unprecedented amount of freedom to turn their thoughts elsewhere. Moreover, since time on the beach is spent by all in that state close to nakedness which is at once both erotically provocative and highly deadening to the provocation, the preoccupation with matters of gender was inescapable and yet lent itself in quality to a good deal of detached contemplation. Added to the natural detachment induced by the bikini, just then newly entrenched in fashion among women and homosexual men, was the absence for the women of any threat—or promise—of erotic charge from most of the males around for most of the time. This combination led to a good deal of easy social comfort compounded by an oddly intent watchfulness.
At least on the part of the women. On the part of the homosexual men,1 whose turf this stretch of beach so incontestably was—anyway, until the arrival of the “daddy boats” each Friday evening somewhat redressed the balance for two days or so—all was open and heedless. I might have said, open and carefree, for the homosexuals appeared to be far less taken up with issues of propriety and social appearance than we were and far more taken up with various forms of play; but carefree was the last word that would have applied to them. Of this, more later.
But did they, too, not go off to the city to earn their livings, like the straight husbands and fathers, and return to us on Fridays? Many of them did. Yet there was always a full complement of homosexuals left behind during the week. I cannot account precisely for this fact. Some were teachers, and so at leisure in the summer. Some were engaged in free-lance professions, such as design, interior decoration, modeling, acting, and possibly they were taking the whole summer, or most of it, off. Some were young men who had recently arrived in the East from their hometowns in the Midwest and were living temporarily under the protection of an older, or anyway more established, “friend.” Some were simply the homemakers, the “wives,” of an enduring coupledom. And many, many were guests, members of an army of transients, arriving, leaving, staying on, making use of otherwise empty rooms, empty beds, and houses on loan while their owners or tenants had to be elsewhere. Each ferry to the island—in the height of the season there were six or seven a day—seemed to bring a full load of these, and carry another away.
In any case, they were around in full force and perfectly content to act out their lives, until bedtime or party-time, before us; and we spent a good deal of our free waking time watching them.
We? Them? Was there then no ordinary, unselfconscious individual human connection between the straights and homosexuals of Fire Island Pines? At the time, we would all certainly have said so: neighborliness beyond any question, friendship undoubtedly, and even, in some cases, intimacy. Looking back from here, however—which is, I admit, a perspective that distorts as much as it clarifies—I am not so sure. Simply in order not to wound, there had to have been much in their real attitudes toward us that they left unexpressed, as there had to have been in our real attitudes toward them.
As a rule, for instance, we were not invited to their parties, not their real parties. There were lunches, dinners, cocktails we all enjoyed together, and large bonfire gatherings on the beach, where lobsters and ears of corn would be steamed in seaweed and vast quantities of wine consumed. But the great elaborate celebrations, costume balls really, that were the center of a fierce social competitiveness raging in the homosexual community, we did not attend; or, should a rare invitation be extended to some few of the specially privileged among us, attended only briefly and early.
There would be four or five of these occasions in a season, their hosts vying with one another for extravagance of conception and design and growing successively more “creative” in order that they might be credited with having produced the most unforgettable party of the year. By late August, party preparations were apt to be quite frenzied and take up weeks; one man, I recall, actually constructed a plywood and papier-maché façade for his whole house, transforming its exterior into a facsimile feudal castle with battlements and crenellations. As an aspect of the inventiveness with which they had been undertaken, the parties would have “themes,” always involving the preparation of special costumes. During my last summer at the Pines, for instance, the smash event of the season was a “pink” party: everyone had to come dressed in pink, and a key element in the decoration was hundreds, or maybe thousands, of pink balloons.
We straights followed all these preparations with suitable curiosity, but I do not remember that any of us ever expressed any serious regret at being excluded or ever took offense. We knew without making any point of it that as the night wore on, the entertainment was bound to take a turn we would prefer not to witness.
So it did, in the end, always boil down to a case of us and them.
We ourselves, of course, were not a monolithic group. For one thing, some of us had been better prepared by our city lives for the various modes of homosexual display. To be a member of the literary or artistic or theatrical world, for example, meant that one had come to take quite for granted most of the styles and habits of expression by which homosexuals revealed themselves. We tended to make less of these things, and by the same token to be less gingerly and exquisite in our relation to them, than others. Then too—inevitably—the women among us had a different response from the men.
Among the women, their feelings about homosexual men could often serve as a kind of litmus test of their feelings about men in general. For however the issue was approached—in terms of manners, personal qualities, style, or moral conduct—homosexuality foremost and of necessity raised the specter of sex. Certain of the women, out of a lifetime of pain about their own value as sexual providers, were unequivocally hostile (although, curiously, this did not prevent them from spending a good deal of time with the young homosexuals they went out of their way to cultivate). Others were particularly enthusiastic about the small gentle attentions, such as the holding of doors, placing of chairs, lighting of cigarettes, that homosexual men invariably plied one with and straight men rarely. “They make you feel,” it was said, without any apparent consciousness of what was being betrayed by the remark, “like a real woman.”
Still others professed feelings that were a confusion of private fondness and public bewilderment. Though they knew in their heads that it was the case, deep down they could not really credit the idea that homosexuality was an abiding and serious way of life: given the proper conditions, an effective course of therapy, say (or the right woman?), it would go away.
For all of us, though, whether we acknowledged it or not, being surrounded by homosexuals put our very existence as women on the line. Nobody, not even the most energetically tolerant liberals among us, claimed to be indifferent. Nor did I ever hear an expression of pity for the plight of homosexuals.
With our husbands, the matter was even more complicated. New-class men do not, at least in mixed company, tend to give voice to their feelings toward homosexuals in any of the standard primitive terms of fear, loathing, and abuse that must to this day be heard in the locker rooms and bars of the working class. They have been brought up not to do so; they are too worldly to do so; their schooling and business and professional life have put them in the way of contact with homosexuals whom they would not wish to offend; and besides, the deep influence of the psychotherapeutic world view on the educated has softened the contours of their passions about all forms of human conduct. Many of the straight men in the Pines pretended to be mildly amused. Many—though it was all but impossible to succeed in this—continued trying not to notice. But for the most part, the tension, while given only oblique expression, was noticeable—in a certain edge in the voice, a quick turning of the head to avert the eyes from the sight of a homosexual caress, a not-quite suppressed shudder, in the odd fixed gaze that accompanied the most casual social exchange between a straight and homosexual man, as if the two were transmitting a volume of unspoken messages beneath the ceremonial chatter.
This tension the homosexuals themselves gave a name to. They called it “H.D.,” homosexual dread, or sometimes “H.P.,” homosexual panic, and declared themselves to be vindicated by it. The fact that a straight man felt noticeably uneasy with them, they said, was the sure sign that he was tempted and panicked by his temptation, thus proving that the true number of homosexuals in this world, had they all but the courage to admit it, would be as the stars in the firmament.
In the case of the husbands at Fire Island Pines, the homosexuals were right about one thing. Their uneasiness did contain a large component of fear. The fear of straight men in the face of the homosexual community, however, is not that they will be tempted to join in but that they are being diminished by it, diminished in their persons and diminished in their lives. As women in a full company of homosexual men feel devalued and sexually rejected—that is the very reason certain women, they used to be called “fag hags,” choose to spend their lives in such company—heterosexual men feel themselves mocked. They feel mocked in their unending thralldom to the female body and thus their unending dependence on those who possess it. They feel mocked by the longing for and vulnerability to and even humiliation from women they have since boyhood permitted themselves to endure, while others, apparently just like themselves, showily assert their escape from these things.
They feel mocked most of all for having become, in style as well as in substance, family men, caught up in getting and begetting, thinking of mortgages, schools, and the affordable, marking the passage of years in obedience to all the grubby imperatives that heterosexual manhood seems to impose. In assuming such burdens they believe themselves entitled to respect, but homosexuality paints them with the color of sheer entrapment.
In Fire Island Pines they were in fact being mocked explicitly, not so much by individual homosexuals as by the reigning homosexual fashion. The essence of that fashion was the worship of youth—youth understood not even as young manhood but rather boyhood (and indeed, the straight women among themselves always referred to the homosexuals as “the boys”). On the beach particularly, this worship became all powerful and inescapable to the eye. It was a constant source of wonder among us, and remains so to me to this day, that by far the largest number of homosexuals had hairless bodies. Chests, backs, arms, even legs, were smooth and silky, an impression strengthened by the fact that they were in addition frequently and scrupulously unguented to catch the full advantage of the sun’s ultra violet. We were never able to determine just why there should be so definite a connection between what is nowadays called their sexual “preference” and their smooth feminine skin. Was it a matter of hormones, or was there some constant special process of depilation? But smooth-skinned they were, and, like the most narcissistic of pretty young girls and women, made an absolute fetish of the dark and uniform suntan, devoting hours, days, weeks, to turning themselves carefully to the sun. Nor was this tanning flesh ever permitted to betray any of the ordinary signs of encroaching mortality, such as excess fat or flabbiness or on the other hand the kind of muscularity that suggests some activity whose end is not beauty. In short, year by year homosexuals of all ages presented a never-ending spectacle, zealously and ruthlessly monitored, of tender adolescence.
Clothed, they were slender, seamless, elegant, and utterly chic. The two shops in the Pines that, along with a grocery and meat store, a hotel and two bars, constituted its entire commercial establishment, were boutiques. They were crowded day and night with men going through racks, trying on, viewing themselves in mirrors, consulting one another with that earnest sociability that so often overtakes women on shopping sprees. Next to sun-tan, new clothes were the most constant tribute Narcissus paid to his ageless body. Naked or covered, then, the homosexuals offered their straight neighbors an insistent reminder of the ravages to their own persons wrought by ordinary heterosexual existence. A friend who was visiting the beach for the first time was driven to exclaim, “Look at us—even our feet are fat!”
A subsidiary worship was that of the phallus. It took the form in this mixed community of the sartorial claim, made by means of pocketless tight pants and scanty but padded bathing trunks, that the phallus was both ubiquitous in the affairs of men and central to them. Now, contrary to the theories of numerous sex experts and a few female ideologues, women are not much interested in or moved by the phallus apart from the rest of the particular individual man whose accouterment it is. Forced willy-nilly by homosexual fashion to take special prior notice of the male organ, they were inclined to a certain detached ribaldry, of the kind associated in literature with old crones who have seen their share of human foibles and no longer feel implicated. The fierce display of crotch was not in any case addressed to them but to other men, as a kind of erotic, or perhaps only dirty-boyish, promise. Undertaken in imitation of female body display—a kind of surrogate for the feminine show of breasts as a means of seduction—the homosexuals’ proclaimed preoccupation with the phallus had its own mocking effect on heterosexuals.
Beyond issues of body and dress, the homosexuals’ mockery was outspoken and intentional, and included self-mockery as well. I am referring here to the manner of speech, gesture, and home decoration known as “camp.” Camp is a phenomenon that has, as it was created to do, bred considerable confusion among the obtuse and innocent over the years. In essence, it is a style based on the making of a joke, usually a flippant or unpleasant or even macabre joke, at the expense both of the one who makes it and the one—or ones, or whole world—who witnesses it. The mode in which this joke is made is that of the gross exaggeration, to the point of transcendent ridicule or parody, of something cheap, tawdry, ugly, deficient, or painful in order to impose it as something newly acceptable. Thus it is at one and the same time an aggression and an insinuation.
Deliberate overdressing is a form of camp. As is the decoration of one’s home with expensive versions of once-popular cheap mass artifacts, like calendar art and comic strips. As is, for example, the adulation of a figure like Mae West, all by herself an exemplarily ambiguous camp artifact. As are overemphatically mincing manners of speech and usages of words. In general, like the weirdly dressed mannequins in the windows of a number of the most fashionable stores or the grotesquely painted faces and misproportioned bodies of the photographers’ models gracing the pages of women’s fashion magazines, camp involves the transvaluation and assimilation of the aesthetically distressing. The main thing is that it is entirely a homosexual creation, a brilliant expression of homosexual aggression against the heterosexual world.2 Its origin was perhaps the drag queen, the creature got up and painted like a child’s version of a fancy lady, doing dirt both on himself as a homosexual and on the human condition which necessitates a division into two sexes.
Like many intended insults, camp came to be naively taken over by many of its victims. Middle-class suburban audiences have for years been applauding homosexual plays for being profound statements about themselves and their lives: consider the kudos heaped on the works of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and others, for presenting what could only have been homosexual relationships as the deeper truth about love in our time.3 Women have permitted themselves to be rendered breastless, and men to become pocket-book carriers, by homosexual designers. And trend-mongering heterosexuals have embraced camp within their repertoire of taste.
The final mockery was an unintentional one, though possibly the most keenly experienced by the straights. That was the peculiar affluence of homosexual life. As it happened, there were a large number of normally affluent people among both communities. The Pines, as I have already pointed out, was in the main a new-class settlement, and by the early 60's the members of this class were by and large making a good living and some of them were doing considerably better than that. But with only a few exceptions, the homosexuals lived, job for job and income for income, as if they had more money than we did. The difference was subtle and would be hard, especially after so many years, to pin down in detail. It had to do with the feverish shopping I have described; with the cut of their clothes; with the expensive novelty, in constant replenishment, of their furnishings; with their parties; with what must have been the impressive amplitude of their bar bills; with their more extensive and more indulgent leisure; with their ceaseless, as it is now called, “trading up” in houses and building of new ones. Those of us familiar with homosexuals and their lives in the city found the difference even more striking there.
Down the beach a mile or two was an older and far less elegant settlement, called Cherry Grove, which was totally homosexual. Cherry Grove had long been noted, in the homosexual world and the straight, as a key watering-place for homosexual bohemia. Its houses were smaller and crowded together, and its population density extremely high. Its life was devoted to that darker, more outrageous side of homosexuality familiar to the police and lurking in the conventions of the public imagination. It was home to, among others, drag queens in full tarty regalia, bullies with tattooed arms in sailor suits, swishing pansies, and bull dykes with short-clipped hair. In announcement, or warning, of what sort of place it was, the houses themselves were a high display of camp, painted hot pink, lavender, and chartreuse. We would sometimes of an evening tramp there along the sand to have dinner at its good and cheap restaurant, which was also its one bar and dance floor. But after dinner, we would leave; there was a certain disagreeableness, a kind of menace, in the air. (I have only lately read, in a couple of homosexual novels, about what we sensed at the time but did not actually know, that that bar and dance floor would later in the evening become the scene of sexual exhibitions of a particularly gruesome kind.) If the dark had descended by the time we were ready to return home, we would walk along the beach conscious of a great deal of movement and activity—the rustle of comings and goings and meetings and couplings—in the dunes comprising that bit of territory known as the “meat rack.”
The homosexuals of the Pines tended to avoid Cherry Grove. They did not wish to be associated with it, neither with its flamboyance nor, one suspects, with its grubbiness. The homeowners among them were instrumental in imposing rigorous zoning restrictions and rules on their own community to avoid its fate, arguing openly with the heterosexual homeowners that the Pines must at all costs be protected from any possible encroachments of the “Cherry Grove sort of thing.” This was for them most desperately an issue of their own respectability, but it was an issue of plain snobbery as well. Both Cherry Grove and its inhabitants were visibly poorer and tackier and would, they felt, threaten property values.
The point is that even the so evidently lesser of the homosexual communities had an air of sportiness, of freedom from financial care, that the heterosexuals did not feel. This air was based in reality, of course. The money, however limited, that the homosexual had in his pocket was, all of it, for him to spend on himself. No households of wives and children requiring security; no entailments of school bills, doctor and dentist bills; no lifetime of acquiring the goods needed for family welfare and the goods desired for family entertainment, with a margin left over for that greatest of all heterosexual entailments, the Future: no such households burdened the overwhelmingly vast majority of homosexuals. Thus their smooth and elegant exteriors, unmussed by traffic with the detritus of modern family existence, constituted a kind of sniggering reproach to their striving and harried straight brothers. See what you have got yourself into, they seemed to be saying, no wonder you have so much less for yourself—and look it.
Their female companions, for they had a kind of platoon of female companions who specifically belonged to them and decorated their bars and hangouts—the “fag hags” of whom I have already spoken—were elegant and unmussed also. They were, most of them, photographers’ models or young actresses or jet-setters dropping in on what one surmised was an accustomed way-station on their international round of the good times and good places. They, too, were a living sneer at the straight men. For done up to be in every way enticing, they were essentially, and provocatively so, unavailable. Occasionally, out of boredom or perhaps to avoid the trouble of a refusal, one or another of them might surrender to the importuning of a straight man, but if so, there would be little triumph, or pleasure, in it for him. A man might make love to them now and then, but woe unto him if he attempted to touch them in any way or disarray their lacquered hair. They were on hand, everything about them announced, not for the messiness of heterosexual engagement but to decorate, in cool serenity, the homosexual scene. And nothing added more than they to the impression of a great deal of excess, uncommitted, discretionary cash.
The idea of homosexuals as discriminated against in housing and employment, then, must have taken a little getting used to by my former neighbors in the Pines. Nor, for those who lived and who worked anywhere within, or even just near to, the precincts of high-fashion society, would this idea have seemed any less bewildering in the city. Just to name the professions and industries in which they had, and still have, a significant presence is to define the boundaries of a certain kind of privilege: theater, music, letters, dance, design, architecture, the visual arts, fashion at every level—from head, as it were, to foot, and from inception to retail—advertising, journalism, interior decoration, antique dealing, publishing, . . . the list could go on.
I do not suppose, but would not be certain, that homosexuals have established much of a presence in basic industry or government service or in such classic professions as doctoring and lawyering, but then for anyone acquainted with them as a group the thought suggests itself that few of them have ever made much effort in these directions. And that profession over which so much of the recent debate on homosexual rights has raged, namely teaching, may provide a convenient point for the marshaling of opposition to Gay Lib (the question of the corruption of the young), but in the real world this debate is pure abstraction. Homosexuals do in fact teach school, from the elementary grades to the universities; an open-eyed visit to just about any institution of learning, public or private, will supply verification. They always have, what is more, been teachers, and in goodly number. Some of them have indeed seduced their students, or tried to, and others, no doubt the majority, have not. (What is really behind the homosexuals’ charge of discrimination in the school system is something else: the requirement that they be discreet. But that is an entirely different matter.)
Moreover, not only are they solidly ensconced in these after all interesting, and far from low-paid, areas of making a livelihood, but here again, anyone who has known them as a group cannot but be mindful of the fact that where so ensconced, they themselves have engaged in a good deal of discriminatory practice against others. There are businesses and professions in which it is less than easy for a straight, unless he make the requisite gestures of propitiation to the homosexuals in power, to get ahead.
Known them as a group. No doubt this will in itself seem to many of the uninitiated a bigoted formulation. Yet one cannot even begin to get at the truth about homosexuals without this kind of generalization. They are a group so readily distinguishable that, as we came to see in that summertime mingling of homosexuals and straights, they can in a single sweeping glance around a crowded room and with unerring accuracy recognize one another. More than that, whatever one’s theory of the nature and origins of homosexuality, it is undeniable that the homosexual community boasts—or at least did in those years—an unaccountably high proportion of extremely talented persons. Does homosexuality have the effect of releasing talent, or is it that the talented are more inclined to be homosexual? Like the argument about the physiological versus the psychological genesis of homosexuality, the question bores. The concrete reality, however, does not.
Nor is this talent confined to work. There is such a thing, for example, as a unique and entirely characteristic homosexual form of wit. It is difficult to describe and analyze—as is any form of wit—but unmistakable. Its central characteristic is malice, but that does not describe it either, for the malice is of a special kind, brilliantly playful and startling in equal measure. I remember once discovering that a man I had met was homosexual when, in the course of our conversation, he described a certain grand lady we were gossiping about as someone who wears a tiara on her mustache. But except were one to quote from Oscar Wilde, who fashioned his witticisms to be written down and subsequently read, examples would tend to go dead on the page. Suffice it to say that, provided such malice is not trained upon oneself, intelligent homosexuals can be the most naughtily amusing company in the world.
There is also such a thing as characteristic homosexual speech, though many homosexuals I have known do not use it except for momentary effect, as a gesture of comradeship with the other homosexuals present. That mode of speech—it is something of an accent redolent of small towns in the Midwest whence so many homosexuals seemed to have migrated to the big city and something of an inflection suggesting the promise of camp—was the pervasive sound in Fire Island Pines. To this day, even the youngest of the children who spent time there can recognize this speech and identify its user.
So no matter how well we knew them as individuals, we continued unavoidably to see them in the gross, as a collectivity. And far from being the objects of our ridicule, they were the ones who, in those days and nights on the white Atlantic sands, were doing all the ridiculing.
We knew, of course, that in their other, city, life, things were not precisely the same. By the sense of great release with which some of them disembarked from the boats at the harbor landing—greeting their hosts and friends in the attitude of that Byron lady who asked, “Wherefore doth the ravishing not commence?”—one could see that for them their sojourn on the island represented an escape from the tyranny of circumspection. Why else, for that matter, would they have banded together as they had, here and elsewhere, creating summer enclaves for themselves? Even in this consciously proper community, where the gaudier forms of homosexual amusement, if any, were confined within doors, they showed signs of the feeling that they were “coming out.” There on the dock, before one’s very eyes, telltale gestures grew more emphatic, telltale speech grew freer, voices more raucous. Stripping down to their bikinis at once and heading for the beach where the twin kings Sun and Phallus awaited their devotions, they literally commenced to dance.
Dancing was in those days an important symbol of the hampering of homosexual freedom. Forbidden by law to dance as male couples in public, they had devised a form of group dancing—perhaps originally an adaptation of folk dance—in which they lined up side by side, ten or fifteen abreast, and executed in unison a rather elaborate pattern of steps. (By the late 60's, when people on dance floors danced by themselves only in some rough proximity to their partners, did they know that they were engaged in a borrowing from the homosexuals?) This dance, known first as the “hully gully” and later much elaborated upon, they rehearsed assiduously, instructing all newcomers, at the edge of the surf. On any afternoon, groups of them could be seen up and down the beach, going through their paces: step-kick-back-turn. Here at least they could spend their days without concern for the impression they were making. If we, arrayed on the beach with our toddlers, bottles, toys, sand pails, bags of fruit, were inclined to laugh at the deadly earnestness of those rehearsals, it mattered not the tiniest bit to them.
Their very unconcern for our opinion paradoxically attested to a life heavy with such concern elsewhere. While neither poor nor excluded, they were clearly people whose existence was normally shadowed with some degree of disquiet. Moreover, we knew—because our friends among them told us and because to live as a conscious member of enlightened society means to know such things—that they lived in a rather different relation to, say, the police than we did. Any one of them, caught in the wrong attitude in the wrong bar in the wrong neighborhood on the wrong night, might be subjected to humiliations that no record of good citizenship and no amount of high position in society would protect him from. (To people like us, especially in those years of growing political restlessness, such a position was not without its attractions.) I myself had personally known of a case of an eminent figure, in his field among the most highly respected men in the world, who had to telephone a young friend in the middle of the night and ask his assistance in securing his release from the hands of the law. He had, on a street corner in Greenwich Village, solicited a man who turned out to be a plainclothes cop.
The police were not much in evidence in Fire Island. On occasional tours of duty from the mainland, usually in response to some complaint, they might patrol the beach, picking up, or scattering, copulating couples or merely ordering the dousing of a bonfire. In the city, however, they were a presence, if only as a theoretical possibility, in the life of virtually every homosexual. As were other embodiments of authority whom we heterosexuals never thought about except to suppose that they were working for us.
The homosexuals therefore were people who, by our lights and standards, lived dangerously. But we also knew, even from the vantage point of the safe precincts of the Pines, that the danger was to some considerable extent a danger they courted. The eminent man arrested for soliciting later admitted that within the first few seconds of their encounter he had sensed that the object of his attentions was a policeman but had pursued the conversation nevertheless. He had also sometimes gone to that waterfront street in Manhattan where the truckdrivers customarily loitered outside their trucks to receive the ministrations, and the money, of the homosexuals and to mete out brutality in return. Those less brilliantly perceptive about the waywardness of the human heart than he no doubt plunged into whatever dangers they put themselves to in a state of greater innocence about the meaning of their complicity. Many no doubt plunged not at all or moved blindly into their entrapments. Still, even on the evidence of the unharried homosexual life in the Pines, then so respectable as to erect barriers against the flamboyance of a Cherry Grove, the temptations of ugliness were never far off.
There was another kind of unease, however, having little or nothing to do with the heterosexual world at large, that hung like a cloud over beach and bar. In this case the discomfort—if that is the word for it—was an endogamous one, revealed in their relations to one another. For despite the continual partying and visiting, dancing and celebration, and despite the sense of liberation bred in all of us at the recognition that we were literally cut off from our ordinary lives by a body of water, there was, if I may be forgiven the pun, strangely little of gaiety among the homosexuals. We, with all our domestic trappings and woes—among a fairly wide circle of summer friends, for instance, only three marriages, my own included, have remained intact and God knows how many of our children were subsequently carried off in the hurricane of the 60's—seemed far more open to our pleasures.
For one thing, while most of the homosexuals lived, like us, as couples, even if only temporarily, the flirtation among them was fierce and endless. And contrary to popular opinion, real flirtation, as distinct from the aimless, merely sociable, kind, is not nor is undertaken to be much fun. As any adolescent can tell you, it is a means of testing one’s attractiveness to others and at the same time of negotiating the relation of relative power with one’s steady companion of the moment. The homosexuals’ flirtation was of this sort, addressed as much to the neglected partner as to the person, or persons, being flirted with; it lent to the gatherings in which it was practiced the anxious air of a high-school prom, in which everyone must either be a winner or a loser. There were scenes galore, jealous quarrels, people storming off in a pet, or getting even, or growing soddenly, self-pityingly drunk in a corner. All this was followed, the next day, with conferences, discussions, and hours upon hours of confidences, some of them poured into the ears of sympathetic heterosexual women, after which the whole process would begin all over again.
In fact, the reminders of one’s high-school years were powerful in more ways than this. The attention to clothes, for example, and the preoccupation with, and ranking by, physical beauty had about them the qualities associated with teen-age girls: the same uncertainty and neediness and ruthless determination to please coupled with a coldly triumphant insensitivity to those fallen behind in the race.
Being purely voluntary and without external sanction, even the most enduring of homosexual connections must bear the freight of a certain adolescent anxiety—what has nowadays for the same reason taken hold among the heterosexuals and goes by the name of “the meaningful relationship.” Nowadays, too, there is a heterosexual institution, ostensibly created for social pleasure, that must be as glum with the burden of adolescent purpose as were those gay bars in the Pines: I mean the singles bar. But then, in any case, nothing seemed more singular than the disjunction in homosexual gatherings between the appearance of well-heeled good health and high spirits and the underlying atmosphere of a potentially explosive petulance. Within seconds, fooling around could turn to nastiness, and nastiness to profound gloom.
We, of course, also had our scenes and wreaked injuries upon one another, but in a different way. Among us the aggression was more local and more predictable, usually the result of practiced marital squabbling in which certain individuals could be counted on to assume their accustomed roles. With the homosexuals, it was general and free-floating. Being by inclination highly promiscuous—promiscuity is after all the natural condition of young males undomesticated by women, and homosexuals are after all, no matter how much they wish not to be, still by definition males undomesticated by women—they had to view every flirtation as the possibility of a real betrayal, even if it did not eventually go anywhere. So jealousy and sulking were endemic.
This brings us to the rather delicate matter of the homosexuals’ sex lives. Since we had no hangouts of our own, we shared their bars with them. And since everybody drank, or made an effort to, especially after sundown (among other things, there was little else to do), we were witness to a good deal more of their after-hours existence than straights are normally in a position to be. Those evenings, summer after summer, left me with more than a little skepticism about the much-vaunted volume and intensity of sexual activity among them, highly promiscuous though they might by inclination be. For if there was unease in the early hours of social encounter, of meeting and dancing and flirting and finding and pairing off, this was as nothing compared with the tension of the late-night atmosphere, when the witching hour drew near to return home and to bed.
I have made much reference in these pages to bars and alcohol, yet I have not begun to convey how very central to homosexual society in those days were the substances of grain and grape. Some significant part of the night, every night, was spent by them in some significant degree of drunkenness. It was not necessarily rowdy. In fact, it was very little rowdy, but rather that steady, insistent drunkenness whose purpose is to do away with the impact and immediacy of all experience. Alcohol is the great killer of time, and as such, the great solvent of waste. Perhaps for this reason it is, in sufficient quantity, an almost universal instigator of self-pity. Perhaps for this reason, too, it is a usually reliable slackener of sex.
Anyway, everyone has always known that getting drunk both eases inner resistance to engaging in sex and, for men at least, severely reduces the possibility of doing so. As Shakespeare long ago said, it “increaseth the desire and taketh away the performance.” Thus a roomful of drunken men, which is what each of those homosexual bars nightly became, is not to be counted a territory where lust has triumphantly planted its flag.
To be sure, I did not follow those men home or to their meetings among the dunes, there to see what transpired. But there were certain patterns one could see, patterns strongly suggesting that many homosexuals were less than fully enthusiastic about the crucial end term of their way of life. They so often managed to quarrel, as Victorian ladies managed to have headaches. They so much stayed together in large groups, and their parties went on so late. No doubt the groupiness and late parties sometimes spelled orgies. It is frequently forgotten about orgies, however, that while they are collectively rituals of faceless lust, for the separate individuals who take part in them they also offer the possibility of a high degree of inner dissociation from what is happening to one, a kind of masturbatory waking dream. Moreover, the homosexuals’ orgies were—and from the testimony of current homosexual literature, continue to be—accompanied by, if not dependent on, the large-scale ingestion of drugs whose twin effects are the loss of self and the sudden but transitory acquisition of potency.
The most telling pattern of their resistance to going to bed was that of the walk home. In the Pines, which was, like all of Fire Island, entirely soft sand, moving about was facilitated by means of connecting wooden walkways laid out like tiny streets throughout the settlement. At one, two, three o’clock in the morning, homosexual couples could be seen straggling their way home from the evening’s entertainment, one groaning under the weight of the other who had passed out and could not manage to move on his own feet. On any moonlit night, a glance through one’s window would have provided a repeated series of such visions.
It seemed evident to me then (and it seems to me still, despite vociferous declarations to the contrary) that whatever the attractions of the homosexual life were to those who adopted it, the simple pleasures of the bed, the pleasures awaiting those straggling homecomers, were far from foremost.
But, it will be objected, cannot the same be said of the attractions of heterosexual life? Is not the history of our century, not to mention the century preceding, strewn with the human rubble of a great battle to overcome sexual distaste, from the devotees of the sex manual to the radicals of the Women’s Lib movement (who were in those years gathering fury in the wings)? The answer is that whatever disciplines it might entail, heterosexuality is not something adopted but something accepted. Its woes—and they have, of course, nowhere been more exaggerated than in those areas of the culture consciously or unconsciously influenced by the propaganda of homosexuals—are experienced as the woes of life itself.
Particularly under the aegis of their new movement, homosexuals have spoken a great deal about “accepting” their homosexuality. But accept it—in the sense of acknowledging the comedy of one’s entanglement with a reasonable amount of good humor and getting on with one’s business—is precisely what they have never done. On the contrary, they have, during the old Fire Island days figuratively and later literally, in every possible way made a gigantic issue of it.
The meaning of those undeniable marks of dread that collected around the boundaries of the homosexuals’ actual erotic life, then, is that for many if not all of them homosexuality represented a flight from women far more than a wholehearted embrace of men. This was understood in her bones by every heterosexual woman on the beach. For some it was a source of comfort, for others, of discomfort ranging from vague to acute; but that we were, to put it mildly, unwanted added a certain tone to all of our summertime experience.
The fact that the homosexuals’ flight from women was accompanied by a good deal of female imitation pointed neither to sympathy with nor flattery of the female principle. For that aspect of the female being imitated through homosexuality, in dress, manner, and even in some of the attention to domestic detail, was femininity in its unformed and unrealized condition: in other words, girlishness. Now, girlishness is femaleness before it has incorporated the possibilities, and the dangers, of reproduction. Women who sustain this condition into their adult lives are expressing hatred for their destined role as the messengers of mortality—it being women who principally teach the lesson that to be human is to be born, to grow old, and to die. And men who seek to appropriate the advantages of girlishness—i.e., homosexuals—are most of all expressing their refusal to receive that message. It was homosexuality that Simone de Beauvoir succeeded in describing so brilliantly when she wrote in her famous woman-hating book, The Second Sex:
The little boy would like to have sprung into the world like Athena fully grown, fully armed, invulnerable. To have been conceived and then born an infant is the curse that hangs over his destiny, the impurity that contaminates his being. And, too, it is the announcement of his death.
The desire to escape from the sexual reminder of birth and death, with its threat of paternity—that is, the displacement of oneself by others—was the main underlying desire that sent those Fire Island homosexuals into the arms of other men. Had it been the opposite desire—that is, the positive attraction to the manly—at least half the boutiques would long since have been out of business, half the alcohol (and latterly, the drugs) would have remained unconsumed, and gay bars might, even under the watchful eyes of the police, have been reasonably sociable places.
Not surprisingly, therefore, like their relation to the question of family in general, their relations with their own families back on the mainland were by no means simple. The gay activists now claim that the attitudes of the homosexual’s family toward him are possibly his greatest source of pain and that the censoriousness and rejection of those who are supposed to love him unconditionally dog him for all of his days. Undoubtedly many of the homosexuals I knew in Fire Island had been subjected to hysterical family scenes (though, as many heterosexuals who had made unexpected or unhoped-for decisions in life could have told them, this was hardly an experience unique to them). Undoubtedly a number were turned away or banished for some period of time before an agonized and never quite complete reconciliation took place. But even here the picture was considerably more complicated than current propaganda would have it.
There was, for one thing, the matter of all those maternal visitations. For some reason, Wednesday was the day that mothers came to visit. Perhaps a few came also on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the Wednesday noon ferry to the island had been dubbed the “mama boat” and from it each week there disembarked a company of middle-aged and elderly women, come to spend the afternoon with their sons. Rarely was one of these women either youthful- or stylish-looking, and they walked along the wooden planking in their city clothes and shoes with that alien and yet proprietary mien one sees in immigrant women on their way to a PTA meeting. These visits had a ritual quality, not likely, even in deepest privacy, to have been productive of emotional confrontations. The conversation was for the most part ritual as well. To us heterosexual women, frequently invited to take part in the afternoon’s socializing, the mothers spoke not without pride of the beauty of their sons’ houses and the success of their careers. They also referred, without the slightest suggestion of irony or euphemism, to the young men designated in mother-parlance as “my son’s roommate.” To the homosexuals they were affable, perhaps a bit too noticeably and unerringly so, responding with a practiced patience to the slightly edgy, slightly peremptory queries and requests that constituted the major part of their sons’ transactions with them. Whatever was in their hearts—and it was difficult not to believe that in the depths of those organs some of them at least were consoled by the knowledge that they would never have to surrender their little boy to some other woman—they held their peace.
Beyond these midweek afternoons, mothers played a significant role in the homosexual community, for they were, after therapists, the single most frequently alluded to subject of conversation. Particularly in the hours of quiet confidential conversation, they were a never-ending focus of reminiscence and complaint; and in the accounts given of the mothers’ rivals, the therapists, they of course figured prominently again as source material. This constant querulous reference to mothers in their absence, combined with the somewhat nervous peremptoriness in their presence, more than any other characteristic of homosexual life surrounded it with the atmosphere of unrelinquished, and unrelinquishable, adolescence.
Fathers did not visit, or did so only very rarely. Nor were fathers ever talked about, except as an occasional detail, an accompanying small point of fact, in one or another saga of some mother. Perhaps it was that the fathers had been less able to reconcile themselves than the mothers, for Freudian and other reasons, to the homosexuality of their sons. Perhaps, as certain of the psychogenic theories of male homosexuality have held, the absence of the father was itself in the first place the cause of the son’s condition. In any case, fathers both as a fact and as an issue had been very largely ruled out of whatever connection to family the homosexuals had. Thus clearly the relation between heterosexual fathers and homosexual sons was one of rejection.
But, the question fairly asks itself, who was after all rejecting whom—the father who could not bear his son’s homosexuality, or the son who had declared with his whole being that he could not bear his father’s heterosexuality?
At the end of our fifth summer in the Pines, we decided not to return there any more. There were a number of reasons for this decision, but prominent among them was the fact that the balance between the homosexuals and the straights had clearly begun to tilt. The former were growing ever more numerous and concomitantly ever less circumspect both in their public demeanor and in their private behavior toward us. It is hard to know how or why this happened; possibly the political mood that was to erupt into gay activism was already brewing beneath the surface of homosexual life, or possibly the community was simply giving way beneath the pressure of the sheer new numbers of young men opting to be homosexual.
In any case, our once friendly neighbors were beginning to indicate to us in all sorts of ways—from a new shrillness of voice to the appearance of drag costumes in the afternoon to a provocative display of social interest in our teen-age children—that the place was getting too small to contain the tastes and wishes of both communities. How the older homosexual residents of the Pines, they who had worked so hard to maintain its sense of propriety, felt about all this I was never able to discover. However they did feel, within a few years Fire Island Pines was to become a renowned center of intense and open homosexual expression, and by the end of the decade one by one the last of the remaining heterosexual families had backed off. So I lost contact with the place, and was reminded of it again only when a number of homosexual tracts and novels, part of that vast outpouring of confessional literature that seems nowadays to accompany every rights movement, persuaded me that were I to return, I would hardly recognize my old haunt.
These tracts and novels also persuaded me that I would hardly recognize my old homosexual friends as well. First of all, in their rage to “tell all”—a literary impulse that hovers uncertainly for the homosexuals, exactly as it does for the Women’s Libbers, somewhere between aggressive exhibitionism and a plaintive appeal for pity—the new homosexual writings betray a great falling away from the talent and wit that were so characteristic a mark of their predecessors. Gay Lib “literature” is now characterized by an earnestness and callowness and crudity that are the very last qualities one who knew them would have associated with homosexuals.
Several years after the summers I have been describing, I was working at Harper’s magazine and we were demonstrated against by representatives of a coalition of gay-rights organizations. We had published an elegant and thoughtful essay by Joseph Epstein discussing the tangle of his feelings and attitudes toward homosexuality and toward the then-new question of homosexual rights. In response, this coalition staged a sit-in in our office. They arrived with the inevitable platoon of TV cameras and reporters and, having had their moment in the sun of the media, settled down for a rather rude daylong visit. Two things astonished me, based upon my background of experience in Fire Island Pines, about that sit-in. One was the drab and unprepossessing appearance of the demonstrators; no gathering of homosexuals I had ever seen had been so without dash and high taste. The other was the humorless unimaginativeness with which they had adopted the political gesturing of others. The homosexuals I had known, were they ever to have engaged in so unlikely a borrowing from the repertoire of militancy as a sit-in, would have found some witty and arresting way to adapt it. (One feature of the demonstration, however, came as no surprise at all: by late afternoon, their confrontation with us had evolved into an outpouring of confidences. They spoke of their therapists and their mothers.)
In the course of the proceedings, someone hurled at us the challenge, “Are you aware of how many suicides you may be responsible for in the homosexual community?” Suicides? At that moment, the charge was merely an expression of inarticulate anger where argument had failed, but the cry behind it was something to be filed away for further reflecting upon. Clearly, turning their condition into politics was having some sort of profound effect on homosexuals.
The true nature of that effect would take some time to become clear, distracted as both they and the rest of us got to be by all the noise of political demand and legal argument. Before that point, however, there was the predictable literary barrage I have already mentioned. And equally predictable, the reception of this barrage on the part of all the important cultural institutions of the country grew ever more piously accepting. On both sides, naturally, the goddess of commerce quickly entered to receive her accustomed full tribute. In addition to the articles, tracts, and novels, magazines devoted to photographic genuflection before the altar of Phallus exfoliated before one’s eyes on the newsstands; each week, as it seemed, produced a new one. The shops and department stores whose wares and decor had long whispered to the initiated that they were heavily under the influence of homosexual taste began now positively to shout the message—and to assume an ever more commanding position among the clientele of the fashionably aspiring new class. Homosexuality, like negritude and womanhood, had become a full-scale “market.” Even TV dramas, the incomparable barometer of the winds and pressures of American liberal thought, featured episodes in which homosexual characters revealed themselves and achieved full recognition and understanding.
Where the culture goes, particularly those aspects of the culture that attain to market status, there also goes science. So it was that representatives of the psychiatric profession hastened to strike homosexuality from its official catalogue of illness; no doubt a vast body of research confirming this new omission is soon to occupy a major share of attention at scientific meetings.
In short, in less than a decade’s time, homosexual activism had moved from angry defiance to the perhaps disappointing discovery that so far as American liberalism was concerned, it was beating down an open door. If that first angry defiance seemed out of keeping with the spiritual dimensions of homosexuality as one had come to think of them—somehow at once too solemn and too tacky—the spectacle of homosexuality at liberty added new depths to those dimensions.
This new spectacle is one that has been depicted in a significant way by a recent book, the best single report, if indeed not the only valuable one, on the present-day condition of the homosexual community: Edmund White’s States of Desire.4 The book is the account of its author’s journey from city to city in the United States, where he both observed and participated in the homosexual life of each, from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle to Minneapolis, Kansas City, and several others, to his own place of residence, Manhattan. White is for one thing a gifted and cultivated writer, far more suitably and recognizably a representative of the kind of homosexuals who were my neighbors in the Pines than the others claiming to be today’s spokesmen for homosexuality. Though he is quite frankly an adherent of Gay Lib, and frequently interrupts his narrative with passages of outright polemical preachment, he manages to provide a vivid and persuasive picture of both the individuals and communities he is observing. He also succeeds in showing us the differences among the various communities—the lazy, laid-back life of homosexual Los Angeles as against the striving, competitive, upward-bound life of homosexual New York, for example—while at the same time evoking the tone and touching the experiences common to all. (He also provides vital evidence that, liberation or no, the homosexual sensibility still lives: not a character is introduced without a detailed and knowing description of the cut, color, and quality of his costume; nor is a single indoors occasion, from the quietest to the most squalid, presented without a prior survey of the furnishings and color scheme.)
Whatever their social and economic differences, three elements, as revealed in White’s account, run like a red thread through the life of all the homosexual communities he visited. They are drugs, sado-masochism, and suicide. The use of drugs appears to have become a commonplace accompaniment to the everyday social exchange in these communities, replacing alcohol—though that, too, continues to be consumed in heroic quantities—as the medium for holding off, or dulling, dread. In this again, as once with alcohol, the homosexuals are merely carrying to the extreme what is also a current fashion among “advanced” heterosexuals.
But the extreme is a very great one, the old dialectical transformation of quantity into an entirely new quality. Drugs, moreover, seem to offer no hindrance to actual sexual performance (or so anyway their users insist) but on the contrary, rouse and speed that performance to a point of almost insensate repetitiveness. Under the new protection of pills and powders, the old straggling drunken couples of Fire Island Pines have become perpetual rovers, restlessly cruising the gay bars, discharging themselves with casually chosen partners in the back rooms and gardens that are, in White’s telling, an almost universal provision of homosexual hangouts for such purposes, and just as restlessly moving on again. If States of Desire is even only halfway accurate, the old perpetual flirtation has been superseded by a new hot, quick, and thoroughly instrumental series of consummations. As would be necessary, as it were administratively, under such a dispensation, a fair proportion of these consummations must now be achieved in public or semi-public places: in addition to back rooms and gardens, parks, beaches, clubrooms, washrooms, and social gatherings. In other words, the once rather special preferences of a rather special tawdry corner of homosexual low-life have now moved into the mainstream.
Drugs, then, have helped to bring to full fruition the kind of promiscuity that is implicit in the homosexual’s flight from women. Without indulging in those high cascades of rhetoric about commitment and mental health that have in our time so damagingly solemnized the discussion of sex, one can say that a chemically-driven obsessive sex life is in its way no less an escape from sexual connection than a chemically inhibited one. The statistics here are more than impressive. In a study of homosexuals in the San Francisco area, conducted by two researchers from the Kinsey Institute,5 half the men claimed to have had sex with at least 500 different people. To have had, say, fifty lovers would be a wide range of experience; to have had more than 500 bespeaks the obliteration of all experience, if not, indeed, of oneself.
That many homosexuals are nowadays engaged in efforts at self-obliteration becomes increasingly apparent. There is the appalling rate of suicides among them, suicides attempted and suicides successfully committed—the phenomenon, suggested in that long-ago confrontation at Harper’s with gay activists but not then fully comprehended. My interlocutors were living with the possibility of suicide as others live with the possibility of ordinary misfortune or unhappiness, as something bound at any time to touch a certain number of people, oneself perhaps included. Short of outright self-murder, there is the other quite literal obliteration, through surgery, of the most fundamental ground of one’s identity, namely, one’s gender. Transsexual operations cannot be very numerous in relation to the size of the homosexual population, but they have become numerous enough—and what is more important, commonplace enough in the public mind—to be a significant sign of something. They, too, have come to represent a possibility, extreme but ever-present, for doing away with an existence that has become hateful.
Most of all, however, there is the extraordinary, growing assimilation into the everyday homosexual world of the twin pathologies of the need to brutalize and the need to be brutalized—the newly ubiquitous S-M. The extent of these pathologies, or if you will, this pathology, is a matter of some controversy. During the filming of the recent movie Cruising, a kind of hymn to the excitements, and cinematic potentialities, of homosexual sado-masochism, members of the gay-rights movement sought to enjoin the project. The movie, they angrily declared, in its single- and bloody-minded preoccupation with erotic horrors and murder, created an altogether distorted picture of homosexual life, one calculated to rouse the passions of the straight world against that life. The practices so lovingly dwelt on by the camera were engaged in by only the smallest minority of homosexuals, who are for the most part far more gentle and “caring” of one another than are heterosexuals. (As we know, the activists lost the battle; the picture has been shown everywhere, though if it has aroused any passions, they must as yet have remained too deep for words.)
It would be bootless to enter into any debate about what constitutes a minority and whether whips, chains, knives—and clenched fists used as instruments of anal penetration—have or have not become a regular feature of homoeroticism. We do not have the numbers either to confirm or to deny. Moreover, the question of whether S-M has become a majority, or still remains a minority, taste is somewhat beside the point. Which is, that unquestionably the pathology has grown and spread far beyond its former confinement to the realm of mere kinkiness.
The whip, once a kind of dusty literary curiosity in flyblown pornographic bookstores, has now become the centerpiece of an open and lively trade in clothing and paraphernalia. In the so-called “leather shops,” anything but dusty and flyblown and evidently sufficiently profitable to have proliferated in all major American cities, homosexuals dress themselves in the garb of storm troopers and equip themselves with all manner of coated mail. In one of the collections of essays about homosexuals, a New York doctor who practices among them discusses at some length his experience in repairing torn rectal tissue, torn by knuckles. Such may be only a small part of his practice, but his tone is matter-of-fact, as if in the expectation that his readers will take this aspect of his expereince for granted. And Edmund White, invaluable cicerone, is equally matter-of-fact about the possibility of S-M wherever he takes us; along with drugs, and the never-absent din of disco tapes, it is an accepted presence in all the homosexual neighborhoods and communities he surveys. In some of those old hangouts in Fire Island, one learns both from novels and non-fiction reports, public exhibitions of the use of the fist are now an accustomed feature of the nightly floor-show. Even without confirming statistics, heterosexuals are entitled to assume that sexual violence of a fairly grisly kind has come into relatively wide use. If nothing else, this is attested to in the latest homosexual fashion that has substituted the black leather jacket for the see-through shirt and the short stubby crew-cut for the coiffure.
Nor is the new wave of domination and bondage entirely without its comic moments. Gay Power, Gay Politics, a brilliant TV documentary about the homosexual takeover of San Francisco aired last spring, devotes several minutes to the lavish Halloween street ball that has become a San Francisco institution. As one might expect, the costumes were gorgeous. As one might also expect, given both the atmosphere of Halloween and the ever deepening resentment of the San Francisco straight community at the homosexuals’ defiant display of power over their city, there had been threats of violence against the celebrants. The police stood guard on street corners. The homosexuals had set up a volunteer motorcycle squad of their own to fend off any invading hoodlums. One of these volunteers was interviewed, and when asked what he normally did for a living, he answered, “I am an S-M consultant.” Later in the program he was seen escorting the camera crew through a shop specializing in chains and other more recondite implements of torture and with the utmost good humor sharing the expertise that had won him his consultancy.
If sado-masochistic display is some new form of camp, meant to twit and at the same time to horrify the enlightened heterosexual world, it appears to have failed. For if the response to the provocations of Gay Lib has proved anything, it has proved that the mentality of those who are bent on being “liberal” is capable of an almost total selectivity of perception. What the possessors of this mentality do not wish to see, even in film close-ups, they simply do not see.
How many deaths have resulted from the practices implied by the implements of S-M, therefore, the world will probably never permit itself to ascertain. But what is undeniable is the increasing longing among the homosexuals to do away with themselves—if not in an actual physical sense then at least spiritually—a longing whose chief emblem, among others, is the leather bar. In the leather bar both the brutalized and the brutalizer announce a common and mutual loathing of the flesh and especially of the self, the spirit, that moves it. Lying spent in a pool of blood, one’s own or one’s partner’s, may be the ultimate posture in which to declare an escape from the past and the future, and almost, if not perfectly, from the present.
A homosexual friend, when questioned about whether the scenes of the leather bar in Cruising, scenes of an almost unbelievably relentless degradation, were truthful, said they were much exaggerated. Because, he explained, while such places are always packed with masochists, there are usually never enough sadists to go around. Which brings to mind one of the most brilliant of all jokes:
Masochist: Beat me.
What indeed has happened to the homosexual community I used to know—they who only a few short years ago were characterized by nothing so much as a tender, sweet, vain, pouting, girlish attention to the youth and beauty of their bodies? Whose obsession was adolescent play, and whose safety valve for that obsession was alcohol? Whose primary pleasure was in dress and decor and all things that covered their world with a sparkling if ambiguous surface?
They have “come out,” as the saying goes, with a mighty and terrible bang. No longer allowed to hint, to insinuate, to keep private counsel—for hinting, insinuating, keeping private counsel are now politically forbidden marks of repression—they have lost their lightness of touch, and with it, whatever lightness of heart it made possible. Having been defined, or defined themselves, as political victims, they must turn their way of living into an ideology and stand four-square behind it. In other words, thanks to Gay Lib, what was once a strategy of flight, tricky and absorbing, has been transformed into a tactic of frontal assault. Homosexuals in this new time may be relieved of the old need to be vigilant and deceitful, to resort to that form of bohemian resistance described by James Joyce as “silence, exile, and cunning.” But to judge from all their current forms of self-directed violence, their new dispensation has brought them anything but relief on a number of other scores. Take San Francisco, where they have not only laid claim to but achieved a vast measure of open power; where in order to insure her election Diane Feinstein, the present mayor, was made to offer them a public apology and promise them her special friendship; where spokesmen for Gay Lib control banks and major businesses; and where the atmosphere is so hospitable that thousands of new homosexual immigrants seek haven there each year. With each succeeding level of acknowledged public influence, San Francisco homosexuals have produced an even more voluminous and active underlife. The freedom to rise, it would seem, is also very much the freedom to sink.
Then there is that fearful detail: not enough sadists to go around. Having to some extent succeeded in staying the hand of the cops—in New York, they now annually play softball together—can it be that they feel the need to supply for themselves the missing ration of brutality? Having to a very great extent overcome the revulsion of common opinion, are they left with some kind of unappeased hunger that only their own feelings of hatefulness can now satisfy?
One thing is certain. To become homosexual is a weighty act. Taking oneself out of the tides of ordinary mortal existence is not something one does from any longing to think oneself ordinary (but only following a different “lifestyle”). Gay Lib has been an effort to set the weight of that act at naught, to define homosexuality as nothing more than a casual option among options. In accepting the movement’s terms, heterosexuals have only raised to a nearly intolerable height the costs of the homosexual’s flight from normality. Faced with the accelerating round of drugs, S-M, and suicide, can either the movement or its heterosexual sympathizers imagine that they have done anyone a kindness?
1 There were also homosexual women at the Pines, but they were, or seemed to be, far fewer in number. Nor, except for a marked tendency to hang out in the company of large and usually ferocious dogs, were they instantly recognizable as the men were. Oddly, or perhaps not oddly, once we came to know who they were, they were more likely to keep away from straight women and stay by themselves. One summer, however, one of the “mommies” was seduced by, and moved herself and her children in with, the leading lesbian of the place, a former policewoman. This was the only incident I can remember that produced general shocked disapproval among the heterosexuals.
2 One of the more astonishing cultural moments in recent decades was the essay, “Notes on Camp,” by Susan Sontag. The essay became world famous; indeed, it sealed Miss Sontag’s reputation as a thinker and critic. In it, she spends many thousands of words eloquently dissecting her subject, à la française, with notions and concepts of a subtlety barely articulable and then dismisses as inessential the only important thing to be said on the subject: that camp is of the essence of homosexual style, invented by homosexuals, and serving the purpose of domination by ridicule.
3 Marion Magid was perhaps the first writer to make this point in “The Innocence of Tennessee Williams,” COMMENTARY, January 1963.
4 Dutton, 336 pp., $12.95.
5 See Homosexualities, by Alan P. Bell and Martin Weinberg (1978).