In his “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the storied homosexual Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) penned a work for popular audiences that held specific significance for his “Uranian” (a term for homosexuals in his day) brothers and sisters. The original 1889 version had more explicit homo-eroticism than later rewrites but the message was clear, either way.
Wilde made frequent forays into the urban subculture of London, to mingle among young male “panthers,” hustlers and prostitutes generally the social heirs of the street urchins Dickens wrote about 50 years earlier in “Oliver Twist.” From that vantage point, in “Dorian Gray,” Wilde signaled extreme caution, warning in the way only a homosexual with first-hand experience of being entangled in such “pleasures” could, against the dismal consequences of the “New Hedonism,” embodied in the philosophy of his novel’s character Lord Wooton.
Wilde wrote with a strong ring of truth about the dangers of groundless hedonism’s descent into jaundiced depersonalization, addiction, deceit, cruelty, disease and death.
Wilde struggled for true romance with his younger lover Bosie against the pitfalls of the the urban homosexual underworld. His was a common struggle for homosexuals. Contending with such tensions, homosexuals commonly took their satisfaction from their creative work.
In the 1950s, urban underworld culture was promoted by right-wing elements to stymie a burgeoning morally-grounded progressive movement (that included many gay pioneers). It involved a mass proliferation of LSD, elevation of Beat Poets onto a national platform, and the message of “Dorian Gray’s” hedonistic Dr. Wooten.
For Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg, social dichotomies were not between capital and labor, rich and poor or white and black, but between the “uptight and the turned on,” the “square versus the hippie,” the “Birchite versus the faggot individualist” (“The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,” 1993). No striving for economic or social justice, only the pursuit of “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
Gay icons Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood were not impressed. Williams, speaking through his character Ms. Goforth in “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” (1961) said about beatniks: “They’re writers who don’t write, painters that don’t paint. A bunch of freeloaders…That’s why I’m not so sympathetic to them. Look, I made it, I got it because I made it, but they’ll never work for a living as long as there’s a name on their sucker list.”
Isherwood, in his diaries of the 1960s published last year, wrote of meeting LSD “guru” Timothy Leary in 1967, and described him thus: “He really is a fake. The smile on his face was so slimy that you could hardly bear to look at him.”
Attending a Leary “Psychedelic Celebration” the next day,” Isherwood wrote, “A lot of it was ass-licking the younger generation, telling them how great they were and how free. Leary sneered at the oldlings and somehow tried to pass himself off as an honorary young man. He appealed to all the young to ‘drop out, turn on, tune in,’ which means, as near as you could tell, drop all obligations imposed on you by your elders, take pot, acid or whatnot and thus tune into the meaning of life. What as so false and pernicious in Leary’s appeal was its complete irresponsibility. He wasn’t offering any reliable spiritual help to the young, only inciting them to vaguely rebellious action, and enticing them without really involving himself with them.”
Months later, in July 1967 during the so-called “Summer of Love” when “hippies” took over American culture, Isherwood wrote, “10,000 or maybe 100,000 hippies are expected to descent upon California in the near future, and this, say certain doctors, may start a series of epidemics, because the hippies have syphilis, gonorrhea and hepatitis.”
That was horribly prescient of the entire next decade, when “hippie free love” hijacked the gay liberation movement and set social behaviors on a path to the AIDS epidemic.
By 1971, gay author Edmund White (“City Boy,” 2009) reported that in the explosion of impersonal sex in New York, San Francisco and other inner cities, contracting a venereal disease, the “clap,” monthly was common.
In bathhouses, back rooms, and the trucks at the West Village piers, what public health expert Gabriel Rotello in “Sexual Ecology” (1998) called “core groups” of compulsive disease-compromised homosexuals formed an environment conducive to the introduction of new viruses and germs.
Michael Callen wrote in “Surviving AIDS” (1990) that as a young, effeminate gay man arriving in New York, “Since becoming sexually active in 1973, I racked up more than 3,000 different sex partners…I had also contracted, many more than once…hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis non-A/non-B (now C), herpes simplex types I and II, venereal warts, amebiasis, including giardia lamblia and entamoeba histolytica, shigella flexneri and salmonella, syphillis, gonorrhea, non-specific urethritis, chalmydia, cytomegalovirus and Epstein-Barr virus, mononucleosis, and cryptosporidiossis.” He died from AIDS in 1993.