National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, Part 28 This Week: History’s Record of Variables In Homosexual Identity

Reviewing the long historical record of matters concerning same-sex erotic attraction in the West that’s come to light in the years since Stonewall, there are two important overarching summary points to be made.

Reviewing the long historical record of matters concerning same-sex erotic attraction in the West that’s come to light in the years since Stonewall, there are two important overarching summary points to be made.

The first is the pervasive way in which homosexual identity shapes every aspect of a gay person’s life, expressed through the qualities I’ve identified as “gay sensibility,” “alternative perspective” and “constructive non-conformity,” whether they are “openly gay” or not.

The second is the historical divergence between expressions of same-sex erotic attraction. On the one hand – amid the silence and darkness of civilizations since the ancient Greeks, with no mass media, no investigations exposing patterns of abuse within the corridors of power and silence – the attraction is expressed through dangerous, marginalized and only sometimes sanctioned sexual acts. On the other hand, it is expressed in the myth of Ganymede and the writings of Plato on the subject, with homosexual passions directed to the care, uplifting and cultivation of the creative powers of the subjects of such love.

On both points, I defer to our great Patron Saint, Tennessee Williams, to comment through his writings.

On the subject of homosexual identity, he remarks through a soliloquy by his character, Mrs. Venable, in the opening section of “Suddently Last Summer,” speaking about her late homosexual son, Sebastian:

“It still shocks me a little to realize that Sebastian Venable the poet is still unknown outside of a small coterie of friends, including his mother. You see, strictly speaking, his life was his occupation…Sebastian was a poet! That’s what I meant when I said his life was his work because the work of a poet is the life of a poet, and vice-versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet. I mean you can’t separate them…

“I mean – well, for instance, a salesman’s work is one thing and his life is another – or can be. The same thing’s true of – doctor, lawyer, merchant, thief! – But the poet’s life is his work and his work is his life in a special sense.”

In this 1958 play, Williams still identifies homosexuals with “poets,” just as the great gay poet Walt Whitman did in the 1900s, and also the seminal influence on Williams, the brilliant but tragic gay poet Hart Crane. Williams, in fact, thought of himself primarily as a poet, growing up writing poetry and in what he called his “nomadic period,” prior to his breakthroughs into greatness, there was an entire time when the only book he carried in his possession contained only Crane’s works.

When he died accidentally in February 1983, Williams had prepared a speech for delivery to students in New York in which he reiterated that he would want, primarily, to be remembered as a poet.

The identity of the poet, a.k.a. homosexual in Williams’ meaning, is permeated through and through him or her, coloring everything about one’s internal soul and sensibility, and every creative contribution one makes to the world.

On the subject of the historical divergence of same-sex erotic behaviors, there is considerable evidence of abusive, transient, fleeting, depersonalized and dangerous encounters, ranging from systematic rape by persons in power, including Roman emperors and clerical and other potentates, military leaders, prison guards and slave owners, to the hundreds of years of legal male prostitution in Roman religious temples and on street corners, exploiting differences in power and wealth, and leaving the exploited in the dust, at best.

But on the other hand, while there is no clear evidence of those homosexuals who followed the guidance of Socrates, Plato and Diotima, it can be imagined they became a dominant, if closeted, influence in the shaping of Western Civilization.

While permeated with the soul of the “poet” defining everything about them, homosexuals focused their lives and passions on elevating the objects of their attraction to higher domains of social sensibility and behavior. The pursuit of the “good” in the Platonic sense was described by Tennessee Williams in a more modern, vernacular sense.

Writing in 1947, he said, “Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion, and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.”

The “good” to Williams, just as with Plato, lies in the cultivation of compassionate, creative potential for the general good, based on an “obsessive interest in human affairs.”

In the silence of history, a preponderance of homosexuals channeled their passions to such objectives, especially in the context of the patterns of brutal abuses that characterized common society. We see these sisters and brothers in the forging and maintenance of institutions and practices of compassion, morality and purpose.

To be continued.