National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, Part 25 This Week: Shining New Light on Corners of Gay History, Part 1

With the floodgates open at last in the wake of the June 1969 Stonewall riots, tons of material began being compiled and disseminated on all things homosexual for as far as history would go. It was as if a light switch was suddenly flipped to “on.”

With the floodgates open at last in the wake of the June 1969 Stonewall riots, tons of material began being compiled and disseminated on all things homosexual for as far as history would go. It was as if a light switch was suddenly flipped to “on.”

Of the many, many things that issued forth, the most prominent, not surprisingly, was evidence of the institutional repression, hatred and cruelty perpetrated against anyone who was either caught in a homosexual embrace, or who even looked like a sissy or fairy.

Throughout history, for example, it was the sissies who were the first to be deployed into quasi-suicidal missions in military campaigns, because they were seen as the most expendable and devalued. The death penalty for sodomy was common, notwithstanding specific exceptions, such as the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Prior to 1969, the public’s awareness of homosexuality in culture had been generally limited to some vague awareness of those degenerate ancient Greeks, the Biblical condemnations (overlooking the David-Jonathan relationship reported in the Books of Samuel) and the cruel fate imposed on Oscar Wilde for being convicted of “the love that dare not speak its name” with his erstwhile lover Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) in 1895.

All references to homosexuality by great gay poets and playwrights like Shakespeare and Walt Whitman were interpreted as something else, and Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” 1912 novella was understood as the pursuit of ideal beauty, not in terms of a same-sex orientation (in post-Stonewall 1971, Luchino Visconti made a beautiful film version of starring Dirk Bogarde and Bjorn Andresen).

Great homosexual literary giants like Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood and E. M. Forster faced the same need to mask the true meaning of many of their works, although in 1947 Williams slipped a homosexual reference into “A Streetcar Named Desire,” concerning Blanche’s recollection of her young husband, a reference that was edited out of the famous film version.

Isherwood also sidestepped the hugely homosexual contexts of his “Goodbye to Berlin” and “I Am a Camera” works that later morphed into the stage and film productions of “Cabaret.”

Forster wrote the gay-themed “Maurice” in 1913, but couldn’t have it published until after his death in post-Stonewall 1971. It also became a beautiful movie after that.

Only after 1969 did both Williams and Isherwood unveil their own homosexuality and the veiled homosexual themes in much of their best work. Williams, who “came out” in an interview with David Frost in January 1970 with his famous quote, “I’ve covered the waterfront,” wrote his first overtly homosexual-themed play, “Small Craft Warnings” in 1972, at the same time he began his “Memoirs” that brought out the central role homosexuality played in his life. By 1976, Isherwood followed suit with an autobiographical work, “Christopher and His Kind,” that put the thoroughgoing homosexual content into his Berlin stories.

Eventually, both Williams and Isherwood, who were friends, published their tell-all extensive diaries and notebooks, with Isherwood’s from the 1960s period coming out only last fall. Williams did not hold back describing his cavorting among sailors on the palisades above Santa Monica during the nightly blackouts in 1943, for example.

Before 1969, the portrayal of “fairies” in the movies were harshly prohibited by the Hays Code, adopted in 1934 to censor American films for morality and in effect until 1968. While gays were a major force in all the arts throughout that era, they were completely hidden from public view. There were tragic outcomes, such as the suicide of a young, handsome leading man, Ross Alexander, in 1937. Starring in 1935 with Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland in the swashbucking “Captain Blood,” Alexander’s homosexuality was well known in inner Hollywood circles, but as with so many gays, he married a woman. His double life drove his wife into depression resulting in her suicide a year before Alexander then took his own life.

Double lives under the threat of exposure and ruin characterized the lives of many in the pre-Stonewall era. The only portrayals that made the screen were “The Children’s Hour” and “Victim,” both in 1961 when the first cautious steps to open the subject up were taken. Both films, however, presented a very troubled and painful view of homosexuality, leading to ruin, blackmail and suicide. “Victim,” a British film starring Dirk Bogarde, was intended as a compassionate argument for ending the laws against sodomy.

Shining the light on the recorded history of homosexuality also showed that from the beginning, same-sex relations were often based on inequalities in age and station, with few cases of long-term sustainability. The earliest case, after all, was an abduction by the greatest of the Greek gods, Zeus, of the prettiest boy among mortals, Ganymede. At least Zeus arranged a good job for Ganymede as the cup bearer of the gods and later honored him by positioning him in the heavens as the constellation Aquarius.

(To be continued).