National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 22, This Week: Breaking the Silence About Those ‘Friends of Dorothy’

In fairness, it can be argued that the great American illustrator Norman Rockwell’s cover art for the April 3, 1933 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, entitled “Springtime,” was not as deliberately a coded affirmation of a “gay awakening” as some might presume.

In fairness, it can be argued that the great American illustrator Norman Rockwell’s cover art for the April 3, 1933 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, entitled “Springtime,” was not as deliberately a coded affirmation of a “gay awakening” as some might presume.

The magnificently tender rendering of a young adolescent boy in a field listening intently as a tall, feminine green fairy whispers in his ear could have been meant to reflect an awakening of a more general nature associated with the onset of spring.

But since his death in 1978, there has been a growing awareness of Rockwell’s social consciousness and the often subtle ways it manifested itself in the 322 separate Saturday Evening Post covers, and other works he drew over many decades.

That social consciousness, combined with the overwhelmingly dominant social definition of “fairy” in the American vernacular of that era being an effeminate homosexual, and the clear need for any conversation about homosexuality to be heavily coded and invisible to the untrained eye until the late 1960s, make the case for the Rockwell “Springtime” illustration to be perhaps one of the most important representations of gay identity ever, along with Donatello’s bronze statue of an effete, Goliath-slaying David, circa 1440.

But the persisting, perhaps eternally-destined ambiguity about the Rockwell work underscores the hidden nature of gay culture until recently. Growing up as a gay lad in the post-World War II period, I never met a self-identified gay person until I was in my mid-20s. Liberace notwithstanding, I’d never knowingly seen one on TV or in a magazine, either.

I grew up in a California coastal town of 50,000 north of Los Angeles. My “gay awakening” came more than two decades after Rockwell’s representation. I knew I was “different” from my earliest days as my interests took me to places totally unfamiliar to my family: my interest in newspapers, in the U.S. presidents whose names I memorized, in classical music and my special empathy toward my struggling, abused mother.

At the onset of my adolescence, I developed a special relationship with another boy my age. For a year-and-a-half, we were famously inseparable, taking long bike rides, founding a junior high newspaper (that I recruited him into) and sleeping over at each other’s homes.

As a result of the Kinsey reports about sexuality published in the late 1940s, the term “homosexual” began in the1950s being used outside professional circles for the first time. One night my brother asked about the the term at our dinner table, and I felt my face burn with an intense blush. The same thing happened later in a college classroom when someone asked about the movie version of Tennessee Williams’ play, “Suddenly Last Summer,” and our teacher made a disparaging comment about homosexuals.

I loathed my gayness. Whenever the notion was suggested, it was in an overwhelmingly negative way. Acting it out was simply not an option. I vowed to take my secret to the grave.

If five or seven percent of the species is naturally born with a gay sensibility, then from the dawn of civilization, and all around the globe, imagine how many have faced similar conditions as mine in my youth, but for their entire lives.

The silence began to be broken very slowly with the emergence of modern electronic mass media: radio, the movies and TV.

Coded representations were permitted rarely, allegories usually involving spunky misfits battling tyranny. J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” smashed stuffy British convention with the depiction of a leader among homeless boys, aided by a fairy. Barrie’s Peter maintained his youth and puckishness by contrast to the “normal” boys he rescued, who in the final chapter are followed into their boring, mediocre, “normal” adulthoods.

Misfits also conquered evil in the classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” with Dorothy played by a young Judy Garland. She later became a wounded misfit in her own right, thereby a gay icon. Gays adopted the term, “Friends of Dorothy” as a coded reference to their own kind.

Women in the movies and on TV who struggled to break the mold of straight, white male-dominated culture, resisting conventionality with their own strength and suffering as a consequence, became champions to those of gay sensibility, the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball.

Little did I know as an adolescent gay boy that I was swooning to the songs of a gay Tab Hunter and a gay Johnny Mathis and drawn to the young star my age in “Old Yeller,” a gay Tommy Kirk, to a pajama-gaming gay Rock Hudson and causeless rebels gay James Dean and gay Sal Mineo. Little did I know, and not find out for many years, that two hours away, my aunt was renting her house to the creator of “Cabaret,” the famous gay writer Christopher Isherwood and his young gay partner, Don Bachardy.