National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 39: Beatniks & Hippies Vs. Progressive Gay Pioneers

The problem is that almost all gay history or criticism written since Stonewall in 1969 has been from the post-modern perspective, where all social reality is defined in terms of pleasure and power facets resulting in many downright errors, if not lies, concerning some basic facts.

Among the handful of notable exceptions are Rictor Norton, who in his book, “The Myth of the Modern Homosexual” (1997), systematically demolishes the post-modern so-called social constructionist dishonesty of Michel Foucault and others.

Another exception is Tennessee Williams. In Williams’ case, notwithstanding those who’ve tried to interpret his work from the post-modern point of view, in his amazingly prolific writings from the 1960s until his death in 1983, he often wrote directly about the homosexual condition, and never let go of his signature world view defined by the polarities of cruelty and compassion, both notions rejected by post-moderns (for them, cruelty is subsumed by power and compassion by pleasure).

In his late 1970s efforts like “Vieux Carre” and “Something Cloudy, Something Clear,” for example, Williams drew from his own experiences as a young homosexual to speak directly to the particular struggles of the homosexual to retain self-respect, sensitivity, integrity and creative work against the impulse of carnality-for-its-own-sake.

Such was the dominant unwritten morality of the homosexual back then, the Platonic struggle to elevate both the self and the beloved in the context of a love of beauty and creativity, against the gratification of the mere sexual act, itself. It was not so much an either/or, as a tension, to a greater or lesser degree, between the two that defined homosexual lives.

Among other things, post-modernism has completely distorted essential components of gay history prior to Stonewall, painting a picture of a monolithic, linear movement that never, in fact existed that way.

For example, in the early 1950s, the Beat poets of the Village in New York, the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, had nothing in common with the organizers of the seminal gay rights organizations like the Mattachine Society. The Beatniks were angry, sleazy, dirty, self-indulgent anarchist hedonists living on the fringe, known for their disgusting abuse of women many of whom, in the name of “free love,” they forced into prostitution.

The emerging early gay rights movement was an extension of the legacy of FDR and the New Deal, and pro-labor, pro-socialist currents, carried on following FDR’s death by his homosexual wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, her promotion of the International Declaration of the Rights of Man through the United Nations, the Henry Wallace presidential campaign of 1948, and the likes of Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood. It also had a religious component, as mainstream urban Protestant and Jewish congregations touted the progressive values of this current.

In San Francisco, for example, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual forged important gains for gays in the mid-1960s, and served as the pathway for my own coming out as a seminarian.

But make no mistake, there was no love lost between the Beats and the progressives founding the modern gay rights movement in those days, contrary to the official histories of the current post-modern era.

The Beatniks stood for demolishing all moral benchmarks restraining a purely carnal pursuit of sexual pleasures. Anger against society (Ginsberg’s “Howl”) was tempered only by unbridled sexual excess.

In the 1950s, right wing elements operating through covert channels established during World War II unleashed a “domestic pacification” operation to blunt the influence of the progressive movement, especially among the young. It involved the mass dissemination of LSD and other drugs (such as heroin in urban ghettos).

In the early 1960s, anti-progressive writer Ken Kesey was formally identified with this effort, and he played a seminal role in promoting mass LSD use in that era, an effort that peaked with the “Summer of Love” in 1967, when millions of young people were recruited into the ranks of the mewling, marginalized moral degenerates of the Beats. These hoards of “hippies” flooded into the cities and seized control of the gay movement, sending it on its tailspin into the boundless sexual excesses of the 1970s that became the context for the emergence of the AIDS epidemic.

One of the more patently absurd claims of post-modern gay history mythology is that gays engaged in their wild excesses during the 1970s because they’d been pent up for so long. Actually, hardly anyone out in urban America had serious limits in the previous decade, and anyone new to the scene was too young to know any long history of repression. So in fact, it was the angry “hippie” repudiation of any social limits, period, that insisted on excessive sex as a revolutionary mantra.

A seismic shift occurred in American culture as a result. The marginalized became the mainstream. The “hippies” brought with them hedonistic, insensitive post-modern thought and a new right wing resurgence in the name of radical individualism, anarchy and the Reagan revolution.

(To be continued).