“City of Night” by John Rechy (1963) is the first gay book I ever read. Rereading it upon its 25th-anniversary republication by Grove Press, I was struck by how far homosexuality has come into the mainstream since then and how much it hasn’t.
“City of Night” was a major breakthrough into the underworld of male hustlers and drag queens, a gaudy, hysterical, boozy, pill-popping stream of kinky characters focused through the sensibility of Rechy’s narrator, himself a blend of loner, sex-compulsive, self-hating, self-denying, straight-identified, compassionate, honest, age-fearing “youngman” prostitute. It is the honesty about his narcissism, his depression and his sexual promiscuity that lifts Rechy’s writing to art. Like so many books, “City” got attention because of the sex, but it’s really about the soul, and it holds up remarkably well 25 years later, although it hardly represents the whole gay world.
What stands out is what a Big Deal homosexuality was--and is. What a Big Deal that some men wanted to dress up like women. And everybody is so bitchy to each other and so harassed by the police. Diversity was considered a crime instead of a blessing. Since then, we’ve learned that there are other ways of being normal. Haven’t we?
Kinky sex is mainstream now. Geraldo Rivera meets the National Enquirer in your own living room. (“Sexaholics--are you one?”) Drag is mainstream now--Boy George, mannish women’s clothing. Even drugs are mainstream--all this hand-wringing on the evening news day after day. Marijuana may be legal some day, like liquor, but not before all this denial of realities. People like denial, I guess, sexual and otherwise.
There are normal characters in “City of Night,” something I’d forgotten because we tend to remember flamboyance and weirdness more than ordinariness. Novels also have to be more intense than life to make an impact, certainly the impact that “City” made in the early ‘60s.
Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood tried to make homosexual characters ordinary with “The City and the Pillar” and “A Single Man,” in 1948 and 1964 respectively. Gays of course aren’t (and weren’t) only drag queens and hustlers; they’re upright citizens. Do most people know this even now? Maybe they don’t. Isn’t “faggot” still the biggest put-down word around?
In 1971, I published “Something You Do in the Dark” with a mainstream press (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), taking enormous risks with my academic career, with my family. (To this day, my dear sister asks me, “Are you still queer?”) But I was going to change the world with my book. I ached to show that homosexuals had feelings, that all the queer jokes, laws and social hatred were cruel, the punishment far exceeding the “crime.”
Whether I knew it or not, my book showed a big change in sensibility: no longer gays as weirdos and “characters, people worthy of any mistreatment, any denigration, any loss of job, but people who were oppressed and who had every right to react with rage at the vice squads and other institutions of the heterosexual dictatorship.”
My book did not sell all that well, but many people have told me it helped radicalize them into a new way of thinking about their homosexuality. I doubt many non-gays have read it.
In 1978, Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer From the Dance” appeared and was widely read, capitalizing on the Gay Liberation Era, seeming to catch the spirit of hedonism of disco clubs and Fire Island tea dances and gym-enhanced youth and beauty. But this “liberated” novel very much showed its traditional gay roots--in the deaths of its major characters (in a world of tragic queens and handsome, aloof studs) as well as in the fact that Andrew Holleran (not his real name) only recently allowed his picture to appear anywhere. Out of fear, that’s why.
In the 1980s, Quentin Crisp got attention for his writing and his stage performances as an aging dandy or queen, while Armistead Maupin got and gets attention for his “Tales of the City” books, good-natured, humorous books that sell very well, but at times get the kind of critical dismissal that is often the fate of books that merely make people have a good time. Sometimes time makes up later for the easy dismissals--Noel Coward comes to mind. Sometimes it doesn’t.
The protests and legislative changes that made homosexuality, if not admirable, at least not the target of the grosser oppressions of the past became more and more mainstream news. Pop entertainers could even capitalize on their “bisexuality,” giving the masses a cheap thrill without any of the real cost of being Out There.
Meanwhile many gay writers couldn’t get their books reviewed, certainly not in the New York Times or The New Yorker or most of the mainstream press, not without blatantly bigoted reviews that will seem stranger and stranger the more the taboo dies. Indeed, has there ever been another minority that contributes so much to the mainstream society--literature, music, art, social services, medicine, and every other way--that has been so despised?
With the advent of AIDS, surely there has come a realization in the population at large that gays have been there all along, contributing enormously to the very society that hated (hates?) them--movie stars, Broadway directors, designers, politicians, and on and on. You’re not valued until you’re dead. How like life!
AIDS is taking not only thousands of lives but sometimes seems to threaten to take us back to the killing taboo of “City of Night’s” era, a taboo that made some of us so fierce in our determination to destroy it during these last 25 years. Is the heritage of death and darkness, of sex as destruction instead of the liberation and happiness we knew it could (and can) be going to re-assert itself?
As many of us die off--Robert Ferro (“The Family of Max Desir” and “Second Son”) already dead of AIDS, others diagnosed and counting the days--where are we going? What will become of the literary movement I’ve been able only to hint at here? Will we return to our days as sexual pariahs?
I don’t think so, however sad and dramatic the cycle of re-birth and death (again) in my generation has been. For one thing, this time the self-hatred of the old days has been replaced by a great deal more brotherly love and caring. And also there is no going back once you’ve tasted freedom.
When the mainstream finally flows, who gets the attention and the money? Who gets the big advances and the movie deals? The people who worked to kill the taboo about homosexuality and took the risks when it really mattered? Hardly. Young whippersnappers, like David Leavitt, who, alas, is good, as well as inept; young writers like Michael Chabon, who isn’t even gay. Newsweek prematurely canonizes the uneven Edmund White, while the John Rechys and other pioneers are shoved to the side. Not fair.
But time has a way of rectifying some literary injustices, and as Randy Shilts has taught us in “And the Band Played On,” if you want to shape the way people view the history of a movement, you’d better write it yourself. And so that’s what we’re doing.