The Literary Roots of the Gay Revolution

Reviewing Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America | By Christopher Bram | Twelve Books | 371 pages, $27.99

In April of 2011, the pollster Nate Silver of The New York Times observed that four polls in eight months found majority support in the United States for same-sex marriage. Prior to 2010, Silver wrote, just one survey had found a majority of Americans feeling that way. In other words, at some time in 2010, more Americans agreed that gays should have the right to marry than felt otherwise.

It was an astonishing fact. As recently as 1989, more than 70 percent of Americans opposed the idea of homosexual marriage, with barely more than 10 percent believing it was a good idea. Perhaps no other effort for civil rights in US history, and few other political causes in general, could match such advancement in public opinion.

How did the homosexual cause achieve such feats? The novelist Christopher Bram argues that gay writers played no small part in this success. “The gay revolution began as a literary revolution,” he writes. The author of Father of Frankenstein, the book that was adapted into the acclaimed film Gods and Monsters, Bram writes with great affection for the brave writers who introduced gay characters and life into the wider culture.

Eminent Outlaws observes that World War II helped transform the way that gays were seen in American life. The war packed young males together in unprecedented numbers, allowing them to see that homosexual tendencies weren’t as rare as previously described. A popular war song called “My Buddy” captured the sentiment: “I miss your voice and the touch of your hand, my buddy.” Former military men who were gay often stayed in port cities like San Francisco and New York rather than return to the bigotry and isolation of home.

Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and others were far less coy about their sexual orientation than others had been in the past. They had company in their openness. The Kinsey Report was published in 1948; The Gallery, by John Horne Burns, was published in 1947, featuring a chapter about a gay bar in Italy; Calder Willingham’s End as a Man was released the same year, with its frank discussion about gay life in the military. “The topic was in the postwar air,” as Bram puts it.

Denying the talents of writers like Vidal and Capote was impossible, so critics often simply overlooked their gayness. But when those critics didn’t keep mum about the writers’ obvious subtexts, they were forced to treat homosexuality as a theme taken seriously by legitimate authors.

Once the late 1960s hit, sexual expression of all sorts became more normalized. Homosexuality was not exempted from this development. The Stonewall Riots and the related Gay Liberation movement birthed alternative magazines that provided gays with a sense of community, as well as outlets for their literary work.

According to Bram, gays were increasingly being accepted after Stonewall—until AIDS hit. The disease was so intertwined with homosexuality that it was originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. “Antigay politicians now used the disease to resist campaigns for tolerance and equality,” Bram writes. While AIDS and the associated public reaction certainly did reverse the normalization of gay life, it did invigorate gay writing, as Bram documents. Works like Angels in America, a play by Tony Kushner, brought the problems of AIDS and homosexuals to mass audiences.

Bram does a terrific job in cataloguing the lives of these important figures, from Vidal to James Baldwin to Michael Cunningham. He reveals their often tortured interior lives. His examinations of the works themselves are original and thoughtful. Eminent Outlaws is entertaining and informative, packed with interesting gossip and opinions.

What the book fails to do is demonstrate that the gay writers under discussion changed America in any significant way. Not until halfway through the book does Bram tell us why these authors matter: “[T]his early gay presence, often between the lines, was excitedly noticed and seized upon by audiences of gay men and woman.” Perhaps, but that fact is not demonstrated. The only thing Eminent Outlaws proves is that gay writers did exist, and that some of them became major cultural figures. Exactly how these writers changed the country’s social and political mores is left unsaid. Instead, it is simply assumed. But how many Americans read Gore Vidal’s novels? How many could pick Edmund White out of a lineup?

Yes, artists are the antennae of the race, as Ezra Pound famously put it. But in an age when actual antennae were on top of televisions in every home in the country, writers could not compete for impact. None of this is to say men like Capote had no influence—surely they did, as a pebble thrown into a lake creates ripples. But what exactly their influence was is never revealed in Bram’s book. Certainly the book’s subtitle is never justified. He makes a provocative claim that storytelling “played a larger role for us than it did for the civil rights movement or even the women’s movement.” But no evidence is provided for this claim.

Equally questionable is Bram’s decision to exclude lesbians from his literary history. He explains this decision as resulting from a need to “simplify an already complicated story,” and the fact that lesbian literature had “its own dynamic and history.” Yes and no. Certainly the history of gay American men and women, and gay men and women writers, is not identical. But the strands reinforced each other, and cannot really be separated in any meaningful way. When it comes to homosexuals’ struggle to achieve mainstream acceptance, lesbians have been as important as gay men. Surely Gertrude Stein and Susan Sontag mattered as much as Gore Vidal did—in fact, it would be worth exploring why early lesbian writers were often been more explicitly political than their male counterparts. Bram’s decision feels like a literal attempt to write lesbians out of their history. Including them would make the story more complicated, yes, but it would also be more accurate.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor. Tags: , , , ,