National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, Part 6 This Week: “Who Are We, Really? (Part 3)”

Assessing contemporary so-called “gay culture” from the standpoint of “who we are, really,” it is stunning to consider that two people among those most responsible for the shaping of post-World War II American culture, including the era’s gains in civil rights, were both proud, if discrete, homosexuals: Eleanor Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams.

Assessing contemporary so-called “gay culture” from the standpoint of “who we are, really,” it is stunning to consider that two people among those most responsible for the shaping of post-World War II American culture, including the era’s gains in civil rights, were both proud, if discrete, homosexuals: Eleanor Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a delegate to the newly-formed United Nations following the death of her husband and the end of World War II. She headed the committee that drafted the incredibly progressive Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the entire U.N. in 1948. In its preamble, it affirms “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” It was created, it says, “to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition.” The entire world bought into these concepts.

A world weary from war and shocked by the depravity of a Nazi Germany society gone mad, subjecting millions of Jews and others (including homosexuals) to death in concentration camps, readily embraced the formation of the post-war United Nations to put humanity on a better course. Eleanor Roosevelt was a tireless pioneer in this effort, and the Universal Declaration in its entirety (including International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Civil and Political Rights adopted later) set the cultural tone that resonated globally in the post-war years, and were instrumental in helping to spark the impassioned push for civil rights in the U.S., including for racial minorities, women and homosexuals.

Eleanor Roosevelt was one of us, as was well known in her time by those close to her, and even many in the media and public life, who respected her and her lesbian partner’s privacy until her death in New York City in 1962. She was comfortable with her homosexuality even as it was hidden from the general public while her husband was alive and for 17 years following his death.

Tennessee Williams was the poetic and scriptwriting voice of this same sentiment in the post-World War II era. As a homosexual man, I consider him my hero. His gritty plays, unforgiving in their honesty, challenged the conscience of the nation, depicting as they did, the plight of women and minorities, especially in the south, and of homosexuals, too. His plays won major awards and were made into movies. His first big breakthrough, coming right at the end of World War II and in the context of the founding of the United Nations, was “The Glass Menagerie,” and it was followed by “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and such follow-ons as “Suddenly Last Summer.”

“Menagerie” and “Suddenly” both spoke to the heinous practice of surgical frontal lobotomies of the brain widely performed on unruly children in that era, as had been done to Williams’ own sister. Those plays helped to end that terrible practice.

As his works hit the Broadway stage, were turned into movie hits, and were then performed by drama departments on college campuses all over the U.S., they evoked a sensibility that spurred the student civil rights activism of the early 1960s, including the courageous efforts of thousands of college students from the North busing in to register newly enfranchised African-American voters in the South.

Williams was, like Eleanor Roosevelt, also proudly homosexual, although that did not become public until, in the wake of the gay liberation surge that followed Stonewall in 1969, he “came out” in a big way, beginning to write his memoirs in 1972 that told of the depths of his gay spirit and lifestyle.

I believe he did that partly in response to a written appeal by an early Berkeley Gay Liberation Front friend and collaborator of mine, Mike Silverstein, who wrote a passionate letter published in the Gay Sunshine newspaper in 1971, entitled, “An Open Letter to Tennessee Williams” (reprinted in “Come Out Fighting: A Century of Essential Writing on Gay and Lesbian Liberation,” edited by Chris Bull).

Eleanor Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams, these towering pillars of American post-World War II culture and values, transformed the wider, even global, culture, and I believe their homosexuality had a lot to do with that, as I will discuss more later.

By contrast to this, today’s “gay culture” is a parody of what it really means to homosexual, more like a social marketing charade. It is a consequence of the massive intervention into the emerging gay liberation movement by the reactionary peddlers of radical hedonistic “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” designed to derail the impact of the homosexual sensibility on wider society in the post-Stonewall era.

(To be continued).