Showing posts with label Gay Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gay Literature. Show all posts

May 17, 2019

Gay Noir Pioneer



                                                                    
I. Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
ON THE FIRST PAGE of the final book in the Dave Brandstetter mystery series, A Country of Old Men (1991), Joseph Hansen’s eponymous, openly gay detective finds a stranger at his door. His visitor is an old man with
a white moustache and goatee. His tweed jacket looked new, but it wouldn’t button over his big belly. He wore a red-striped cotton shirt, new blue denims, crepe-soled shoes, and one of those shapeless canvas hats sold in drugstores, cheap, so that if you lost it on a trip you wouldn’t mind too much.
The stranger at Brandstetter’s door, a mystery writer named Jack Helmers, is none other than Joseph Hansen himself. The initials are the giveaway, but if you’d ever met Joe Hansen in the flesh, you’d have recognized him immediately in the description, down to the tweed coat and striped shirt combo of which the author was so fond.
It’s an oddly meta-moment in a fairly conservative genre and for a writer as traditional as Joseph Hansen. What follows is odder still. Hansen’s introduction of Helmers into the narrative is completely unrelated to the murder mystery. Its sole purpose seems to be to give Hansen an opportunity to do an autobiographical summing up — a portrait of the artist as an old man.
Ostensibly, Helmers has turned up at Brandstetter’s doorstep to report a death: his own. Apparently, a rumor has circulated that Helmers is dead. He comes seeking Brandstetter’s advice because he and Brandstetter were high school friends in Pasadena 50 years earlier. Brandstetter is now a world-famous detective and Helmers a renowned mystery writer. Brandstetter quickly solves the mystery by reminding Helmers that signed copies of his work would be more valuable if he were dead. “Some collector couldn’t make up his mind to shuck out a hundred dollars for a signed copy of your first novel, so the bookseller used the clincher — told him you were dead.”
Helmers readily agrees with this explanation. On his way out, he tells the detective that he’s finally “written that big novel I always wanted to, fifty years ago,” about their high school years. He complains, however, that “[n]obody will publish it.” Over the course of the novel, other ancient classmates appear at Brandstetter’s doorstep begging him to dissuade Helmers from publishing his opus and embarrassing them with their high school hijinks. This clumsily injected subplot gives Hansen a reason to bring Helmers back and, through him, to take his own leave as a mystery writer in his 12th and final Brandstetter novel.
Through Helmers, Hansen sums up his literary achievements. As Brandstetter recalls, Helmers’s boyhood ambition was “to be the best writer America ever saw.” But, as the years passed and the unpublished novels and stories piled up, “it looked more and more certain to Dave than Helmers was one of life’s losers.” Then, in his 40s, Helmers finds success — not, as he’d hoped, as the author of the Great American Novel but (as Brandstetter observes rather dismissively) as a writer of “detective novels.” Abandoning Brandstetter’s voice, Hansen remarks that the mysteries “were literate, reviewers found something elegant about them, and slowly they built him a readership.” This is a modest assessment — more rueful than self-congratulatory — of a series that Hansen’s Los Angeles Times obituary would call “groundbreaking.” The 68-year-old writer, who had set his sights on being America’s greatest writer, takes stock of his accomplishment and finds it wanting.
The self-disclosure doesn’t end there. Helmers is not only facing professional setbacks but also a profound personal loss. The death of his wife of 50 years has set him adrift in the world. Katherine had always been his sturdiest support and dearest companion. Hansen describes the toll her death has taken on Helmers, including the decay of their home, which has fallen into Dickensian squalor after her death:
The house smelled of cats. The floor was stacked with dusty newspapers. […] Magazines catalogues, books, videotapes, records filled the chairs and sofa, avalanches of unopened mail. Cobwebs connected handsome but dusty hand-thrown pots on the mantelpiece. The empty trays of TV dinners make a crooked stack on the television set. […] Katherine would have been more than upset to see the place. She would have wept.
Most of Hansen’s readers knew that, like his sleuth, he was gay (a word he despised, preferring “homosexual”). It would have come as a surprise to them, then, that this passage was autobiographical. Joe Hansen was a homosexual, yes, but he was married for 51 years to Jane Bancroft, a lesbian artist, and together they had a child.
Hansen never fully recovered from Jane’s death. The precise and ghastly description of Helmers’s house was a snapshot of the home Hansen had lived in until he was forced to move out after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. One might wonder why he chose to eulogize his marriage to Jane in heterosexual drag. This may have been because Hansen was ever sensitive to the seeming strangeness of a marriage between two gay people that wasn’t a cover for the homosexuality of either. In a rare comment about his private life, he told Out magazine, “Here was this remarkable person who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. […] So something was right about it, however bizarre it may seem to the rest of the world.” He never spoke publicly at all about his child — and, significantly, Helmers and his wife are childless.
Through his Helmers mouthpiece, Hansen also rails at the publishing industry. Helmers is upset because no one will publish the autobiographical novel he mentions to Brandstetter. In real life, Hansen had written two such novels by 1991, when A Country of Old Men was published, and he had found no takers for either. Both would eventually be published by Dutton: Living Upstairs in 1993 and Jack of Hearts in 1995 (Living Upstairs would win a Lambda Literary Award for best gay fiction). He had already written the third installment in what was to have been a 12-novel bildungsroman, but Dutton passed, as did everyone else. So, while Helmers’s bitterness may have been premature, it foreshadowed Hansen’s real distress at the rejection in his old age of the series of novels designed to be his masterpiece — his last chance to be the Great American Novelist. But he had always felt underappreciated. As his obituary in theGuardian noted, “although he was an admired writer, he felt that the success due to him had not quite materialised.”
Unlike the typical bitching of most writers, there was considerable justice in Hansen’s complaint. He never achieved the commercial success of, say, his contemporary Tony Hillerman, though he was a better and braver writer. The problem was that Hansen’s detective was a faggot and many straight readers would simply not read a book about one of those people no matter how good the reviews were. Hansen understood this, but it still embittered him. He can hardly be blamed for that.
On the other hand, Joseph Hansen mattered in a way that Tony Hillerman and the other noir writers of his generation did not. For some of his readers — the gay ones — Hansen provided more than a few hours of entertainment. We read his books as if our lives depended on them.
II. Fadeout
In the summer of 1977, a 22-year-old gay man picks up a paperback detective novel called Fadeout, published seven years earlier, by a writer named Joseph Hansen. He was given the book by an older gay friend, with a cryptic smile and the words, “I think you’ll like this.” Now, sitting in his sweltering Sacramento apartment, he opens the book.
In Fadeout, a man named Fox Olson drives off a bridge in a storm, his car plunging into the river below. Olson has a life insurance policy with Medallion Insurance. But Olson’s body has not been recovered, and without proof of death, Medallion will not pay the claim. The company dispatches Dave Brandstetter, its best death claims investigator, to determine whether Olson is really dead.
The book begins with Brandstetter on the bridge that was the site of Olson’s apparently fatal accident.
Fog shrouded the canyon, a box canyon above a California ranch town called Pima. It rained. Not hard but steady and gray and dismal. Shaggy pines loomed through the mists like threats. […] Down in the arroyo water pounded, ugly, angry and deep.
Brandstetter is carrying what seems to be a near-suicidal burden of grief. He drives across the bridge “with sweating hands. […] Why so careful? Wasn’t death all he’d wanted for the past six weeks? His mouth tightened. That was finished. He’d made up his mind to live now. Hadn’t he?” A few pages later, he reveals the source of his grief: “Bright and fierce, he pictured again Rod’s face, clay-white, fear in the eyes, as he’d seen it when he found him in the glaring bathroom that first night of the horrible months that had ended in his death from intestinal cancer.”
The young reader’s pulse jumps: Rod?
Brandstetter is grieving the loss of his male lover of 20 years. In chapter six, we get the whole story in flashback. Brandstetter, recently discharged from the army at the end of World War II, enters a furniture shop on Western Avenue in Los Angeles to buy a bed. He sees, across the crowded room (as it were), a young salesman, short and dark, with a dazzling smile. “‘I want you,’ Dave thought and wondered if he’d said it aloud because the boy looked at him then, over the heads of a lot of other people. Straight at him. And there was recognition in the eyes, curious opaque eyes, like bright stones in a stream bed.” The young salesman, Rod Fleming, sells Brandstetter a ridiculous white wicker bed, which he ends up sharing with Brandstetter until his cruel, painful death six weeks before the action in Fadeout begins.
Hansen actually finished writing the book in 1967, but because it involved homosexuality, he didn’t find a publisher until 1970. Why? Because in 1970, Brandstetter’s relationship with Rod Fleming would have exposed them to prosecution in the 49 states — excluding only Illinois — that criminalized gay sex between consenting adults; because in 1970, the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its diagnostic handbook. Any publisher who put out a novel featuring a homosexual protagonist could have been assailed as promoting criminal conduct or mental deviance; the book might even have been banned. This is especially true since Brandstetter was presented neither as a criminal nor as mentally ill, but as a hero, at a time when most novels featuring homosexuals — e.g., Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963) — tended to treat them, at best, as troubled and rootless men or, at worst, as pathological.
Moreover, Fadeout did more than introduce readers to an openly gay sleuth; it tells what can only be called a gay story. Olson, as it turns out, was not killed in the car crash; rather, he staged the accident so he could run off with his boyhood lover, Doug Sawyer. Sawyer has just returned to Los Angeles from France, where he had lived since the end of World War II. Their reunion is cut short when Olson is murdered and suspicion falls on Sawyer. It’s up to Brandstetter to clear him. In the course of his investigation, he and Sawyer begin a relationship that will carry through the next three books. All of this is presented unsensationally, as if men loving men was the most natural thing in the world. 
Fadeout was a big risk for its publisher, Harper & Row, but it paid off. The book was a critical success and sold well enough to launch Hansen on his career as a writer after 20 years in the literary wilderness. Soon, he would be garnering the kind of reviews for which most writers would kill the family dog. The Los Angeles Times: “[T]he most exciting and effective writer of the classic California private eye novel working today”; The New Yorker: “[A]n excellent craftsman, a compelling writer”; The New York Times: “Hansen knows how to tell a tough, unsentimental, fast-moving story in an exceptionally urbane style”; National Review (!): “After Ross McDonald, what? The smart money is now on Joseph Hansen.”
Clearly, many critics and readers thought Fadeout was more than a novelty act. They were right. Hansen deserved the accolades the reviewers heaped upon him. He is a superlative writer, possessed of a singularly clear, vivid, often poetic style that gives the reader an almost physical pleasure. Some examples: “A disbelieving smile dug lines around her face. She had television teeth” (The Man Everybody Was Afraid of, 1978); “In a wheelchair rode an old party in a tattered picture hat. Across blanketed knees lay a rifle” (Gravedigger, 1982); “The waterwheel was twice a man’s height, wider than a man’s two stretched arms. […] Moss bearded the paddles, which dipped as they rose. The sounds were good. Wooden stutter like children running down a hall at the end of school. Grudging axle thud like the heartbeat of a strong old man” (Death Claims, 1973).
Hansen’s Southern California is a clash of the bucolic and the suburban, a lost Eden where the ghostly scent of plowed-over orange groves haunts the raw streets of ticky-tacky housing tracts. His descriptions of this landscape are as precise and skillful as a master painter. “The shopping center was a cry of light against the hulking darkness of the hills. Its signs were crisply lettered sheets of milky plastic, its shopfronts naked glass, the interiors ice-white fluorescent. Brave but lonely” (Death Claims).
He has a crisp way with dialogue, too, often borrowed from the Chandler playbook of well-placed wisecracks — as when Brandstetter orders a fancy beer in a redneck bar and the lady bartender snaps back, “Dear God. Where do you think you are honey, on board of the Concorde? […] We got three kinds of beer — West’s, and West’s light, and West’s the expensive one” (The Boy Who Was Buried This Morning, 1990). Characterization is also deftly managed, particularly when it’s clear Hansen likes the person. One his more appealing figures is a cross-dresser named Randy Van who turns up in Skinflick (1979)Nowadays, we would recognize Randy as transgender, albeit without surgical modification, but the word was not in popular usage when the book appeared. Still, Hansen’s take on her is remarkably sympathetic. At one point, Randy says, about a beautiful woman: “God to have a body like that.” Brandstetter replies, “What’s supposed to be wrong with the one you’ve got?” Randy says, “It came from the wrong outfitter.” Hansen describes Randy studying the same woman’s “pert breasts,” “[w]ith thoughtful sadness.” And when Randy is forced to dress up as a boy, he complains, “I feel ridiculous in these clothes.”
But Randy Van is one of the few queer characters who gets consistently sympathetic treatment from Hansen. For, although Brandstetter himself, as an out gay man, was a revolutionary figure in crime fiction, he was also virtually without a community and so cast a fairly jaundiced eye on most of his fellow homosexuals.
III. The Old Guard
One of Hansen’s lesser known works is A Few Doors West of Hope (1998), a brief biography of Don Slater, an activist in the pre-Stonewall “homophile” movement. Working out of an office on Los Angeles’s Skid Row, Slater published ONE, the first gay periodical to be sold openly in the United States. In the mid-1950s, the magazine engaged in a long legal battle over the Postmaster General’s attempts to suppress it as obscene. That fight culminated in a one-page Supreme Court decision in which, as Hansen writes in Hope, the court concluded that “ONE magazine was not in fact obscene, but was an exercise of American free speech.”
Beginning in the early 1960s, Hansen became one of the most prolific writers for Slater’s magazine — which, for reasons of internal bickering in the movement, became the magazine TangentsTangents was a serious periodical dedicated, according to Slater’s oddly euphemistic mission statement, to “promot[ing] among the general public an interest in, and understanding of, the problems of variation.” Hansen authored such articles as “Suicide and the Homosexual,” which sought to disprove the canard that gays were more likely to commit suicide than straights. His association with the magazine continued until 1969, when it began to die a slow death. The end was hastened, Hansen writes, by the appearance of The Advocate, which he describes as
a smudged bi-weekly tabloid for gays, with a thick, pink-paper advertising section that peddled sex, classified and unclassified. And while readers probably skipped the wretchedly written and predictable articles, they loved those pandering ads, with their blurred muscle-boy photos, and phone number come-ons. Circulation boomed.
Relevant to his later career as a crime fiction writer are two points. First, Hansen was genuinely and courageously a gay activist when such activism was massively risky. Second, his political consciousness was formed by the homophile movement, the old guard that preceded Stonewall. After Stonewall, a mutual antagonism developed between the newly emergent gay liberation movement and many of the older homophile activists. The gay libbers, heirs to the hippies and inspired by the black power and antiwar movements, rejected the conservatism of the homophiles, while the homophiles were appalled by what they considered the gay libbers’ exhibitionism and militancy.
Hansen identified with the old guard. This is nowhere more apparent than in the fourth Brandstetter novel, The Man Everybody Was Afraid of. In that book, Brandstetter’s work takes him to the coastal California town of La Caleta (possibly Santa Barbara), to investigate the murder of the local right-wing chief of police. Charged with the murder is Cliff Kerlee, a Los Angeles gay activist who had recently relocated to La Caleta. Kerlee had had a highly publicized run-in with the chief before his death over Kerlee’s campaign to force the sheriff to hire gay officers.
Here’s Hansen’s description of the demonstration Kerlee staged at La Caleta’s City Hall: “A lot of the lads had muscles, but they minced. There appeared to be chatting and laughter. At a guess, high-pitched. Someone pirouetted. A shriek would have gone with that.” Later, Brandstetter is talking about Kerlee with a man named Richard T. Nowell, a veteran of the homophile movement who has retired to La Caleta. Nowell describes how he spent years in “our mousy little office with our mousy little magazine, minding our business, getting things done,” when, “all of a sudden, here came the clowns.”
The television people went mad. Naturally. I mean, anyone making a total ass of himself is bound to raise ratings. And everybody always knew homosexuals were a bunch of overgrown little girls painting their faces and getting themselves up in mommy’s best organdie. What more could the media ask for? Never a five-minute serious discussion. But screaming queens? Ha ha! Isn’t it killing?
This contempt for the younger generation of gay men is threaded through Hansen’s novels, in ways that would have been condemned as homophobic if expressed by a straight writer. A particularly offensive example appears in Early Graves, Hansen’s 1987 “AIDS novel,” in which a serial killer is stalking and killing men who are dying from the disease. Every one of the victims is depicted as indulging in sleazy, promiscuous sex, and their murderer, it’s revealed, is himself an HIV-positive gay man seeking revenge on those who may have infected him.
Hansen also appears to have been incapable of imagining a gay relationship between equals. Brandstetter has three gay friends who are recurring characters in the books. Each of them is an older, wealthy, white man living with a much younger, financially dependent partner. The younger men are described mostly in terms of their physical attractiveness — they might as well be rent boys.
This troubling dynamic also characterizes Brandstetter’s own final relationship. Following the end of his affair with Doug Sawyer, Brandstetter becomes involved with Cecil Harris, a young African American more than 20 years Brandstetter’s junior. Hansen’s treatment of Cecil verges on the fetishistic; he is unfailingly introduced as “the young black” with whom Brandstetter “shares his bed.” More than once, Hansen sets a scene in darkness, where all Brandstetter can see of Cecil are his teeth and the whites of his eyes, a disturbingly cartoonish racist image. Cecil is also often depicted as weepy and over-emotional, while Brandstetter is cool, stoic, and in control. Although Hansen clearly intends the relationship between the two men to be loving and intimate, it often comes across more like that of a white sugar daddy and his kept, brown-skinned boy.
Hansen’s obituary in the Guardian quotes him as saying that while he admired Ross Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer, “it bothered me that his detective never had any personal life, and he never changed. My joke was to take the true hard-boiled character in an American fiction tradition and make him homosexual. He was going to be a nice man, a good man, and he was going to do his job well.” If, by giving him a personal life, Hansen meant that Brandstetter has friends and lovers, then he succeeded. What he did not give Brandstetter was an inner life.
Of course, the private eye’s psychological opacity is part of the hard-boiled tradition. Neither Philip Marlowe nor Mike Hammer were navel-gazers; they were men of action, not men of reflection. But, truthfully, what was there for them to reflect upon? They, and other classic noir PIs, were standard, early-20th-century, straight, white American men. If they lived on the fringes of respectable society, it was as a matter of temperament and choice. But Brandstetter is queer. His outsider status is imposed on him by a society that has pathologized and criminalized a basic aspect of his humanity. One would expect him to have some thoughts about this — to reflect upon his decision to live openly as a homosexual in a hostile society and to talk about the internal and external resistances he was forced to confront and overcome in order to do so.
But, no. Dave Brandstetter never engages in this internal monologue. He is simply presented in the first book, Fadeout, as an open and unconflicted homosexual. Moreover, Hansen confers upon Brandstetter great wealth, movie star looks, and fame. There is, then, never the possibility that Brandstetter’s homosexuality will be anything more than a minor inconvenience. Fundamentally, Brandstetter is a fantasy figure created by Hansen out of his own very different experience of being gay in the world. (One senses Hansen’s very real anguish that his years in the literary wilderness had permanently marked him, as Brandstetter says of Helmers, as “one of life’s losers.”)
One cannot judge Hansen too harshly for giving Brandstetter advantages that Hansen never had; he’s not the first novelist living in writerly austerity to create such a compensatory character. But Hansen’s decision to omit the doubts and conflicts that a homosexual of Brandstetter’s generation would certainly have had to resolve in himself renders him, ultimately, a two-dimensional figure.
IV. And Yet
And yet, Dave Brandstetter and his creator, Joseph Hansen, are, if not heroes, often heroic. Chief among the values of Hansen’s generation of activists was dignity and respectability. The gay libbers cared little for dignity and nothing for respectability; they were in-your-face revolutionaries — long-haired androgynes who staged kiss-ins at politicians’ offices and organized the first Gay Pride parades. But the old guard? They were the men and women, dressed in coat and tie or skirt and gloves, who politely picketed the White House in the early 1960s carrying placards with messages like “U.S. Claims No Second Class Citizens — What About Homosexual Citizens?” and “An Inalienable Right The Pursuit of Happiness — For Homosexuals Too.” They were not revolutionaries; they were American citizens. There is no question that they were as courageous as the gay libbers, if not more so, but what they wanted was a seat at the American table, not to overturn it.
Brandstetter embodies the virtues of this first wave of activists. He is dignified, rational, responsible, and persistent. He’s a professional who’s good at his job, the best. He does not rail against injustices but quietly sets out to correct them. He identifies with people of color, albeit somewhat paternalistically. He is protective of the weak and the young. He treats women as his equals, and you are hard-pressed to find a hint of misogyny in the series. Above all, Dave Brandstetter is a decent human being.
Joseph Hansen shared that quality of decency with his creation. Indeed, had he not had such qualities within himself, he would not have been able to so persuasively imbue Brandstetter with them. Hansen could be difficult and tetchy, but he was also a loyal friend, a generous teacher (he taught for years at UCLA extension), and fundamentally a kind man. It also bears repeating that he was a superb writer; maybe the best noir mystery writer of his generation. While the quality of his books varies, as do the books of all writers, everything he wrote is worth reading, which isn’t something you can say of most writers.
Sadly, all but his first two Brandstetter books, Fadeout and Death Claims, are out of print. This has less to do with the quality of the books than the question of who holds the copyrights. It’s not clear if Hansen left a will when he died in 2004. Unless he named another beneficiary, his copyrights would have passed to his son, from whom, at the time of his death, he had been estranged for many years. Neither he nor his executor, if there was one, may even have known where to find his son. In any event, and for whatever reason, most of the books are out of print, which is a great loss to American literature.
But all may not be lost. Hansen once told a friend he’d gone to see a psychic who “predicted I’d be famous,” and then added, with a rueful laugh, “Posthumously.”
Let’s hope that prediction comes true.
¤

April 18, 2018

The 80's Changed Gay Literature Forever

Since I've read or seen every work mentioned on this article I could talk about them for a long time but I think Michael Cunningham does a way better job than I🦊          
   “Clemens and Jens embracing in my hall, Paris,” (2001) by Nan Goldin. Gay literature changed in dramatic ways with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic.credit an Goldin

 

By Michael Cunningham
ANDREW HOLLERAN’S 1978 novel,“Dancer From the Dance,” was not the first gay novel I read. It was, however, the first gay novel everybody read.

At any rate, it was the first gay novel every gay man I knew seemed to have read. It was the first Big Gay Literary Sensation.

Although “Dancer From the Dance” centers on two gay men named Malone and Sutherland, it’s as much a story about New York City’s gay life in the 1970s as it is the story of Malone’s and Sutherland’s own lives. It’s the story of going out dancing six or seven nights a week. It’s the story of having sex in parks and bathhouses and back rooms and, really, just about anywhere. It’s the story of packing Speedos, sunglasses and not much else for weekends on Fire Island.

It’s the story of youth and beauty and money and drugs.

But overarchingly, it’s the story of a new queer future. It’s a story about jumping the white picket fence; fleeing house and garden to join a battalion of remarkable creatures dreaming up a sexy, shimmering new world on the Isle of Manhattan, where glamour and freedom had been promoted from intoxicating distractions to primary virtues.

In Holleran’s New York, life generally proved to be free and glamorous until it wasn’t anymore. For some, looking back, the house with the front porch and the flower beds didn’t look quite as baleful as it once had.

[Spoiler alert:]

Both Malone and Sutherland come to bad (if ambiguous) ends, in the general tradition of the time, whereby gay characters were allowed onto the bus of narrative as long as they were thrown off again before the bus reached its destination. 

That said, Malone and Sutherland float away as much as they expire — their departures are more like that of Ophelia in “Hamlet” than they are like that of Tennessee Williams’s Sebastian Venable, hacked to death and eaten by village children. 

The first edition cover of Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer From the Dance” (1978) about gay life on Fire Island.

CreditWeichia Huang, courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers
Some of us loved “Dancer,” and some of us didn’t. We argued over its merits. Was it serious literature, or did we just want it to be serious literature because when we read it, it read us back? Were Malone and Sutherland genuinely tragic figures, or were they merely ciphers, in tragedy drag?

No one, however, argued about the book’s fidelity to the reckless, riotous life lived in certain (white, well-favored) circles on Planet Gay. In the mid-to-late-70s, the party was on. And here, courtesy of Holleran, was not only the first novel about the party, here was a novel that chronicled the party’s capacities to transport us to great heights, and (or) to hollow us out like Halloween pumpkins and dump us on some autumnal beach. 

We had no way of knowing, then, that it was also the last significant book about the party. Three years later, in 1981, the first report of Gay-Related Immune Deficiency appeared.

The AIDS epidemic didn’t mean the end of dancing, or sex, or drugs. It didn’t have much effect at all on the general interest in youth, beauty and money.

But it’s putting it mildly to say that this new guest, the silently grinning one standing by itself in a corner, dankened and befouled the atmosphere.  
Starting in 1981, it was shock upon shock upon shock. One particular shock, only one of many, did stand out from the rest.

President Reagan first mentioned the word AIDS in public in 1985, after about 8,000 people had died. The Food and Drug Administration was slow to accelerate its protocol for testing new drugs, which takes up to 10 years, in spite of pleas from people with AIDS who were willing to risk any adverse side effect because, without treatment, they’d be dead within two years. Which is, one has to admit, the ultimate adverse side effect.

It was impossible not to receive the message. Gay people and intravenous drug users — those most at risk at the time — had been deemed expendable.

The dilemma of the self-hating homo looking for love in all the wrong places paled — it paled for some of us — in the face of a plague about which no one in power seemed to give a damn. It paled as nights spent in hospitals replaced nights spent on the disco floor. 

The mordant (if all too true) tale of gay men enjoying themselves to death made way for the (all too true) AIDS-era tale of gay men fingered randomly by death.

ANY ATTEMPT TO name the noteworthy narratives about gay life since 1981 would involve too many omissions. Let’s confine ourselves to a play that wasn’t the first gay AIDS play I saw, but was the first gay AIDS play almost everybody saw: Tony Kushner’s 1991 “Angels in America.”

In “Angels in America,” the party is over, though the fabulous queer future has not been called off. Devotion to freedom and fleshliness live on, albeit under this new and unanticipated shadow. 

“Angels in America,” however, is no gimlet-eyed critique of homo high jinks. The play celebrates queerness and queenliness — as it encompasses different ethnicities, different social classes — but no one dances the night away, no one gossips idly over brunch. Fire Island might as well be on another planet entirely.

The protagonists in “Angels in America” are confronted not only by homophobia and self-destruction but also by their own natures, by love’s power and love’s failure, by censorious religions and callous politicians, by racism and classism. And of course by a virus even deadlier and more indifferent than Reagan or the F.D.A. — just to name a few.

Ironically enough, “Dancer” ends with the demise of its primary characters, whereas “Angels” ends with lives continuing on.

If we open this segment of the ongoing gay story, then, in 1978, with an ambitious tale of gay self-destruction, we wriggle through the wormhole of 1981 and emerge in 1991, with an epic about gay men who refuse to be destroyed. 

Narrative is an act of witnessing, a part of the historical record. If anything, “Dancer” seems more tragic today for all the tragedy its author could not possibly have foreseen. One can only wonder if aging and jadedness would have felt less catastrophic had we been able to see just slightly beyond the horizon, where the hooded soldiers were already mounting their skeletal horses.

Even at the height of the plague, youth still vanishes, parties still get down to ash and wine-spills, and we still seem to care about it all.

But fabulousness survives as well, from “Dancer” through to “Angels.” The final lines of “Angels,” spoken to the audience by one Prior Walter, who is surviving AIDS, are:

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

And, it would seem, the great work continues.

March 31, 2017

Controversial “Christ was Gay” by Christopher Marlowe


A controversial document in which the playwright Christopher Marlowe reportedly declared that Christ was gay, that the only purpose of religion was to intimidate people, and that “all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools” is to go on show online for the first time.

The so-called “Baines note”, a star item in the British Library’s Renaissance manuscript collection, offers tantalizing evidence about the private life of Marlowe, one of the most scandalous and magnetic figures of the Elizabeth period.  

 Christopher Marlowe. Photograph: Alamy
Compiled in May 1593 by the police informant and part-time spy Richard Baines, it claims to record a conversation between the two men in which the playwright airs a long list of what Baines describes as “monstrous opinions:


Richard Baines to the Privy Council
Shortly before Marlowe's death, the informer Richard Baines made the following accusations against the playwright in a note to the Privy Council, the group of advisors who worked closely with Queen Elizabeth.
[One Christopher Marly]
A note containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God's word:
"That the Indians, and many authors of antiquity, have assuredly written of above 16 thousand years agone, whereas Adam >> note 1 is proved to have lived within six thousand years.
He affirmeth that Moses was but a juggler, >> note 2 and that one Hariot>> note 3 being Sir Walter Raleigh's man can do more than he.
That Moses made the Jews to travel 40 years in the wilderness (which journey might have been done in less than one year) ere they came to the promised land, to the intent that those who were privy to many of his subtleties might perish, and so an everlasting superstition reign in the hearts of the people.
That the beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe.
That it was an easy matter for Moses being brought up in all the arts of the Egyptians to abuse the Jews, being a rude and gross people.
That Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest. >> note 4
That he was the son of a carpenter, and that if the Jews among whom he was born did crucify him, they best knew him and whence he came.
That Christ deserved better to die than Barabas, >> note 5 and that the Jews made a good choice, though Barabas were both a thief and a murderer.
That if there be any God or any good religion, then it is in the Papists,>> note 6 because the service of God is performed with more ceremonies, as elevation of the mass, organs, singing men, shaven crowns, etc. That all Protestants are hypocritical asses.
That if he were put to write a new religion, he would undertake both a more excellent and admirable method, and that all the New Testament is filthily written.
That the woman of Samaria >> note 7 and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly.
That Saint John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom; that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma. >> note 8
That all they that love not tobacco and boys are fools.
That all the apostles were fishermen and base fellows, neither of wit nor worth; that Paul >> note 9 only had wit, but he was a timorous fellow in bidding men to be subject to magistrates against his conscience.
That he had as good a right to coin >> note 10 as the Queen of England, and that he was acquainted with one Poole, a prisoner in Newgate, who hath great skill in mixture of metals, and having learned some things of him, he meant through help of a cunning stamp-maker to coin French crowns, pistolets, and English shillings.
That if Christ would have instituted the sacrament with more ceremonial reverence, it would have been in more admiration; that it would have been better much better being administered in a tobacco pipe.
That the angel Gabriel was bawd >> note 11 to the Holy Ghost, because he brought the salutation to Mary.
That one Richard Cholmley hath confessed that he was persuaded by Marlowe's reasons to become an atheist."
Among them, Marlowe casts doubt on the existence of God, claims that the New Testament was so “filthily written” that he himself could do a better job, and makes the eyebrow-raising assertion that the Christian communion would be more satisfying if it were smoked “in a tobacco pipe”.

Baines added a personal note, apparently aimed at watching government officials: “All men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped.” A few days later, Marlowe was stabbed to death in Deptford, south London, in circumstances still regarded as suspicious.

The document has been in the collection at the British Library since its founding in 1753 and has often been consulted by scholars, but this is the first time the public will be able to examine it in detail.

Curator Andrea Varney told the Guardian: “There’s nothing quite like being able to look at the real thing, and this will let students and readers from all over the world get close to Baines’s original report. The manuscript itself is over 400 years old and fragile, so digitisation really helps.”

The document and accompanying transcript are being made public in the latest phase of the British Library’s Discovering Literature project, aimed at students, teachers and the general public. Some 2,000 documents are now online, accompanied by 370 background essays and other resources. Four million visitors have visited the site since its launch in 2014. 

One of the biggest attractions to date has been a late 16th-century play text calling for tolerance towards refugees. It is seemingly in the handwriting of a man even more famous than Marlowe, albeit somewhat better behaved – William Shakespeare.

In the centuries since his violent death, Marlowe has been celebrated as gay icon whose works explored the realities of homosexual desire while it was still deeply dangerous to do so. Alongside the Baines note, the British Library has uploaded scans of the director Derek Jarman’s notebooks for his avant-garde film of Marlowe’s Edward II (1991). The play focuses on Edward’s love for his favourite male companion, Piers Gaveston; Jarman’s take on the story is nakedly political, featuring references to contemporary battles over gay rights.

The library is also making available resources on other contemporary writers, among them Ben Jonson and the poets John Donne and Emilia Lanier.

Varney said: “So often we focus only on Shakespeare, but there are a whole world of other people out there, many of them just as brilliant. It’s about opening a window on that.”

The Baines document itself is highly contentious, with some scholars arguing that Baines was a fantasist, and that his “note” was a put-up job designed to get Marlowe, who was arrested at almost exactly the same time, in even more trouble with the authorities.

Charles Nicholl, whose 1992 book The Reckoning examines the shady circumstances surrounding the playwright’s death, said: “The one thing you can say for certain about it is that the note was designed to incriminate Marlowe. These are pretty dangerous and wild utterances that he is making.”

Nonetheless, Nicholl added, the document has a rare power: “It does sound like Marlowe; it’s almost as if he walked into the room. After all this time, that’s still rather shocking.”

The documents are available at bl.uk/discovering-literature

The information here is from the Guardian below:

August 6, 2011


 
The independent editorial Lethe Press today announced the U.S. publication of a new anthology of stories of gay-themed fiction in English signed by 29 writers of Latin origin.

Titled "From Macho to Butterfly: New Gay Latino Fiction", the anthology contains stories by the parading "divas challenging bad guys or teens seductive sensual," but also "not powerful youth questioning their sexuality," said the publisher said in a statement.

Edited by Charles Rice-Gonzalez Puerto Rican and New Yorker Charlie Vazquez is the first collection of stories of gay-themed fiction created by Latinos is published in English in this country since 1999.

"The stories are vibrant and varied, and are clearly connected with the signal was lost in which we live," added the editorial stories that contain 'experiences and emotions of our day. "

The scenarios in which pass the stories are as different as a nightclub in Los Angeles, a beach in New York, the New York borough of the Bronx, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the border between Guatemala and Mexico en route to the United States, or bakery in Kansas, among others.

The authors involved in the collection are David Caleb Acevedo, Miguel Angel Angeles, Ricardo Bracho, C. Adam Cabrera, Bronco Castro, Johnathan Cedano, Edouardo Booh, Ben Francisco, Danny Gonzalez, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Anthony Haro, W. Brandon Lacy Campos and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes.

Also included texts Jimmy Lam, Miguel M. Morales, Bryan Pacheco, Alfonso Ramirez, Guillermo Reyes, Charles Rice-Gonzalez, Alex G. Romero, Chuy Sanchez, Edwin Sanchez, Rick J. Santos, Jesus Suarez, David Andrew Talamantes, Justin Torres, Benny Vasquez, Charlie Vazquez and Robert Vázquez-Pacheco.
 


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