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|
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.
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.