“I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E.M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjöld… Did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who was as responsible as any man for winning the Second World War? His name was Alan Turing and he cracked the German’s Enigma code so the Allies knew in advance what the Nazis were going to do—and when the war was over he committed suicide he was so hounded for being gay… The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there—all through history we’ve been there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do that, and until we organize ourselves block by neighborhood by city by state into a united visible community that fights back, we’re doomed. That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers?”
– Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart
Sometimes I feel like I’m doing things all wrong. I’m 22 and I just moved to New York City; such a “hipster and artsy” move to make, no? I’m young, shouldn’t I make the most of it and “enjoy” it? I suppose this translates to: being generally noncommittal job-wise, trying crazy things, and dating/sleeping around. I mean, I’m down for the first two, but the third? This is where it breaks down, since I’ve been dating the same person for four years and moved in with him upon moving to the city. We have an IKEA bed together. There’s no turning back after that, right?
This anxiety is made worse because the gay community is especially noted for its promiscuity and noncommittal attitudes. I think, generally, we’re in a time where people, both gay and straight, are looking to settle down later in life and the general advice is to “go crazy” in your twenties. But the pressure definitely seems to be a bit harsher in a community that literally made open sexuality a political platform in the ’70s and ’80s.
If you asked a non-LGBT person what they thought were some of the dominant traits of gay people (and gay men, in particular), I’m sure promiscuity/unconventional sexual habits would come into play in the conversation at some point. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that trait, but what else do they mention? Do they mention empathy? Do they mention strength? Do they mention creativity?
By which one of those traits would you rather be defined?
For me, it comes down to focus. What do I want to focus on as my main “thing”? How do I want others to see me, or remember me? The “sex” in sexuality is definitely important (don’t I know it), but should it define us exclusively? Isn’t sexuality more than just “sex”?
That’s a lot of questions, I apologize, but I think they are questions worth raising. They are questions Larry Kramer has raised his whole life, especially in his play The Normal Heart, set amidst the hysteria and confusion of the onset of the AIDS crisis. Sex was the political imperative among the gay movement at the time (and it’s not a far reach for today’s, either), which became an issue for some as the reality of AIDS began to settle in, along with the realization that it was probably being transmitted sexually. The very act the gay movement aligned with its liberation and revolution, became the means by which its members were killed off in droves.
Nicholas Benton has a lot to say on this topic, and this is where he becomes particularly controversial in the dynamics of gay politics. He published one hundred columns under the title “Nick Benton’s Gay Science” as a reference to the 1882 book by Friedrich Nietzsche simply titled “The Gay Science.” Nietzsche’s title refers to the “science” of writing poetry (a common phrase at the time), while Benton’s covers topics of gay identity and history, repudiating the 1960’s “hedonistic” counterculture that influenced the burgeoning gay rights movement. Benton draws a clear line in the sand between his gay science and Nietzsche’s, contending that the philosopher’s anti-socialist, pro-individualist, “will to power” thought and policy first played a role in European fascism, and then gave way to modernism and post-modernism currents, mixing with the works of Ayn Rand, the Structuralists, and others to create anarchism and nihilism, which merged with libertarianism and radical hedonism to bring us the emerging 1960s counter-culture (confused yet?).
I’m not claiming to be a pro on the history of philosophy in the twentieth century; it’s very interesting to me and I want to learn more, but the nugget I wanted to grab from all this was Benton’s belief that these philosophical currents negatively influenced the young gay rights movement in the 1960s, leading to the influence of the Beats and French philosopher Michel Foucault (of whom he is not a fan). He believes these forces “hijacked and almost killed the LGBT movement in the earliest days of the post-Stonewall era… Tirelessly expounding a relentless demand for excess, for pushing beyond the limit against social convention, its proponents drove sex from romance to mechanical excess in the major urban centers, converting a happy, burgeoning LGBT community into a string of financially-lucrative businesses catering to what Foucault… and his kind pushed as the revolutionary nature of unbridled sexual excess” (Benton 44).
Okay WOAH that’s a lot. But, essentially, he sees the “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” movement of the ’60s, along with the politicized sexual excess called for by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Foucault, as forces that enabled urban centers to become hotbeds for exotic infectious diseases. Anybody who fought against the excess were “angrily decried as reactionary and homophobic by leaders of gay organizations who were often owners or friends of owners of these sex-related businesses” (44). Kramer’s works can attest to this, as well (The Normal Heart and his novel Faggots, too). These queer influencers put sex at the forefront of the movement, and while they certainly cannot be the sole blame of the AIDS epidemic, it’s hard to argue that they did not contribute to an unsafe environment through which such a horrible disease could spread with ease. And kill tens upon thousands of young, beautiful souls.
Which brings me back to Benton’s core gay identifiers, and the underlying belief in the ability and preciousness of gay souls. His three suggested aspects to help define gay identity are by no means an imposition, but rather, an attempt to “raise questions and propose hypotheses out of which a more universal sense of gay identity may emerge, if not immediately, perhaps over decades or longer” (Benton 133). We are unique, but not superior; we are different than straight people in our “non-dominant social-sexual position” that I mentioned in the previous post. Benton asks (as do I), “What is at the core of that? If it can be found, wouldn’t that help to define a positive identity for gay people, generally?”
A positive, purposeful, substantive identity for LGBT people—is it possible, or no? Must it forever be linked to mindless, mechanical sexual excess? Or are Benton’s ideas of gay identity—notions of sensibility, alternative perspective, and constructive non-conformity—a fuller lens through which to view ourselves? Our forefathers are the likes of Tennessee Williams and Aristotle; I wonder what they would think?
[Benton, Nicholas F. Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2013. Print.]