The Rise and Future of a Queer Polity of Literature in Six Scenes (part one)
Polity of Literature (47/48)

The Rise and Future of a Queer Polity of Literature in Six Scenes (part one)

In part one of this candid personal memoir, Michael Bronski recalls the birth, life, and future of a queer polity of literature, circa 1964 to 1980.

Polities come and go. They are not permanent arrangements. One surprising finding in the Polity of Literature inquiry is that, while literature may have been a polity for many different groups at different times, the economy and culture of publishing today is deeply anti-political. Literary publishing is sclerotic, hierarchical, and punishing. What polities of literature there were, are now largely gone. They come and they go. Michael Bronski had the unusual good fortune to come of age as a queer in the 1960s, when the literature around queer life was beginning to coalesce, as such, soon to be called “gay and lesbian literature.” Stonewall and after saw the rise of an overtly queer polity of literature that Bronski’s life wove through like a thread through a tapestry. Has it ended? Not Michael Bronski’s life (as this two-part entry in the Polity of Literature series will show), but a queer polity of literature, specifically in American publishing? In this searching, revealing memoir, written for our series, Michael Bronski recalls The Rise and Future of a Queer Polity of Literature. Today we publish the first half of Bronski’s memoir, to be followed in one week by the concluding half. 


Prologue

Twenty-one years ago, after a full career of writing, publishing, and activism in the queer community, I began a second career as a college professor. I was hired to teach the introductory course in Gay and Lesbian Studies at Dartmouth College. I’d never taught before but this seemed like an easy gig. After all, I knew the material. I had lived through it and participated in a great deal of it.

            My students were eager, avariciously interested in queer life and queer topics. We read theory, analyzed history, and discussed the role of activism in the past and today. When I moved the syllabus toward literature, however, all of my presumptions about what they had read proved wrong. Novels I considered the bedrock of contemporary queer literature were unknown to them: Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Leslie Fineberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Edmund White’s A Boys Own Story, or Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories. Even newer queer-themed books from the 1990s, such as Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina or Dale Peck’s Martin and John, were off their radar. What had happened?

            Here is a series of meditations—six brief historical tableaux—explaining to myself what I think changed over those years. The fragmented literary history it contains is less important than is the attempt to understand how literature—of any variety—functions. Does literature help people make sense of their lives or their place as humans in communities? What did this queer writing do for me, first of all, and what could it do for the young people I was teaching? What does literature do for any of us, if anything? How does it create space in the world? How does that space change the lives of queer people or all of human culture?

            Culture, like memory, is riddled with eclipses, incongruities, and fantasies. Politics are hardly any easier to ascertain. What follows is built on a series of paradoxes: the paradox of literature, of the imagination, of the idea and reality of community, of the outsider, of history, and most important of politics itself. One thing is clear: queer literature—even when it is cast as apolitical or beyond politics—is deeply implicated in the politics of the personal, the sexual, the community, and touching on them all, the state. These paradoxes are not Wildean—which tend toward clarity with an ironic perfection—but closer to the speculations of Raymond Williams or Herbert Marcuse, thoughts which are at times counterintuitive on the interplay of culture, identity, history, politics, and imagination.

Image of a white silhouette with the words "Culture, Politics, Paradox, Queer, Identity, Imagination" is in front of faded images of handsome mid-century men.

Scene I

Scotch Plains Public Library (1964-1971)
Queer in the Wilderness

During high school and college I worked as a page in my hometown library. This was an official civil position designated by the state of New Jersey. The library catered to student and middlebrow reading tastes, but it was run by a progressive-minded, flamboyant forty-year-old—her hair a little too blonde, her sweaters a little too tight, her opinions a little too vocal—named Stella Darway. Mrs. Darway was a free speech advocate and ACLU member, unusual in our Republican-leaning town. She pushed the parameters of suburban acceptability.

            Working in the library was great. I was fifteen when I started. My duties included sorting and reshelving books and checking them out; but the staff was small, and Mrs. Darway encouraged me to do more. I recommended books to patrons, set up displays, read reviews, and suggested which books we should purchase. Between Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and the freedom I had to browse endlessly, I came across an awful lot that I found interesting, books I would never find in my Catholic high-school’s curriculum or its library. From 1967 to 1971 I wrote a biweekly book review column for the Scotch Plains Times, our local newspaper, which was mostly social news and advertisements.

            Being intensely interested in sex (I was a teenager) and homosexuality (I was a homosexual teenager) my job at the library became a queer treasure hunt for hidden knowledge and secret information. I was introverted and felt apart from my peers, on the outside of high school’s many social circles; for me, the library was not just a refuge but a Garden of Eden, birthing whole new worlds, including my queer one.

            I sought out books in a lavender hue. The paperback cover of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, with its young author reclining on a divan, caught my eye in a used bookstore. By accident (?) I discovered A. J. Cronin’s The Spanish Gardener, featuring a queer subtext (well, featuring it for me who read for such subtexts) of love between a man and the young son of his employer. The library was a masquerade ball of books posing innocently on the shelves, waiting to be unmasked at midnight. Some were more obvious, their author’s names and reputations known to me—James Baldwin, Giovannis Room; Mary Renault, The Charioteer; Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar; Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian. Others were mysterious, but equally rewarding: James Purdy’s Malcolm and The Nephew; Brigid Brophy’s The Finishing Touch; Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun; Michael Campbell’s Lord Dismiss Us. Each of these books contained clues, fantasies, even descriptions of a world of homosexual desire. You only had to open the covers and read them.

A reader wearing a pink mask over their eyes reading a book with a pink mask over its eyes.

            I soon discovered the world of the 1960s avant garde. Books from Grove Press, some excerpted in the Evergreen Review, such as Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, John Rechy’s City of Night, Herbert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (each of which Mrs. Darway put on the library shelves) were shockingly explicit in their queerness. She had even recommended the Genet novel to me, obviously overestimating my fifteen-year-old reading comprehension; I found it sexually exciting and mystifying.

            Paradoxically, the deeper I moved into the private world of reading and my sexual imagination, the clearer became the existence of a public queer world, a world of actual men and women whose lives I could now imagine. I was discovering myself in the world by witnessing my private fantasies and desires inside books. Brigid Brophy noted in her study of Ronald Firbank, Prancing Novelist, that writing and reading fiction are essentially masturbatory acts: the imagination immerses itself in pleasurable stories, not as an escape but to conjure new realities. As with masturbation, something comes of it. The invisible world of my queerness lay dormant in these books, waiting to be made manifest. 

            Pre-Stonewall queer books are often positioned as the odd, single title. Memories of the closet suggest that the books too were closeted, solitary, not speaking to or with one another. This is wrong. Literature, even queer literature in the pre-Stonewall era, forms a psychic community. In the decades before Stonewall that community was largely invisible. People witnessed one another through reading and imagining. While some brave folks took the risk of actually meeting one another in public, in the privacy of reading, or the shadows cast by brutal legal prohibitions on queer sex, larger, equally real communities were forming.

            Sociologist Benedict Anderson described this process in his 1983 book, Imagined Communities. Using the example of nations, Anderson wrote that the process of community formation begins (and sometimes ends) with the work of imagining that community: giving it a name, manners, and markers. As with nations, so too with other communities, including that of pre-Stonewall queer readers. Alone, each of us imagined a queer community into existence, acquiring its language, manners, and markers from the books we read in common. When I got to college and met other gay men, I discovered we had read many of the same books; a crucial connection, a starting point. Later, as I researched Pulp Friction: The Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps, I discovered the more extensive but hidden world of pre-Stonewall genre writing, and the invisible communities that formed there.

            These books (both my “literary” list and the pulp genre fictions that circulated under pseudonyms) comprised what literary critic Walter Kendrick called “a secret museum.” Hidden in plain sight among the “respectable” books (and often inside of them) was sexual material too dangerous for a general public, yet always found by those determined enough to search. The censors were right—indecent literature was a threat to the social order. Paradoxically these repressive measures encouraged imagined communities to become more resistant. Our discoveries, our shared experience of reading, made us a community. We were an imagining body politic still in search of actual bodies, seeking out a physical geography of our desires.

Two cardboard cut-outs of couples holding hands stand in minimal landscape.

Scene II

New York City and Cambridge, Mass (1969-1980)
Oh, Brave New World that has Such Creatures In It

The commuter bus from Scotch Plains to New York City took less than an hour. At college (Rutgers, in Newark, an even shorter commute to the city) I started making the trip more frequently, to see movies and plays or just hang out in Greenwich Village.  After the Stonewall Riot in June of 1969 I had new reasons to go into the city. I attended my first Gay Liberation Front (GLF) meeting that summer at the Alternative University space on west 14th Street, Manhattan. It was like stepping out of a 1950s pulp novel (with its cover of muted grays and greens and the words “A Frank Novel of Life and Loves in a Strange Twilight World”) into a Fellini film on acid (probably Satyricon)—raucous, flamboyant, and a little scary. Alternately serious and loopy, the room’s crazy energy was matched by complicated political discussions that often I could barely grasp. I sat in the back, a quiet New Jersey kid with unhip hair and clothes that I hoped looked vaguely “Greenwich Village.” I never said much. Most of us in GLF, myself included, had roots in the 1960s New Left movements. Heated debates about Radical Feminism, socialism, Black Power, and the Weather Underground raged.

Early portrait of Michael Bronski with lavender glasses drawn over his real glasses.

            Queers today, especially in countries that have shed their legal prohibitions against homosexuality or other “deviance,” might have trouble understanding that this urgent gathering of women and men—simply to talk politics, to strategize, to meet each other, flirt, fight, and bring ourselves out into the open—was a dangerous choice that could put many of us in jail, scandalize our families, or end our careers. The law (especially the police) continued to target queers with draconian prohibitions against any visibility. They were backed by medical quackery, such as electroshock therapy and other violent forms of “conversion,” which threatened our lives. The palpable energy of early GLF meetings was akin to that of other violently oppressed peoples who have finally had more than they can take. It was an exhilarating time and place for me.

            The events at Stonewall in 1969 had changed the emotional and psychic reality of our imagined community. The Stonewall Riot not only made the invisible tangible—it made the tangible erotic, seductive, and thrillingly dangerous. It linked our struggle to other visible political struggles. GLF changed my entire life. I read everything I could find about our new political consciousness. Emboldened, I began writing most of my papers for college English courses on gay themes—Huck and Jim’s homoerotic relationship in Huckleberry Finn (borrowing heavily from Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel); queer themes in the plays of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. (Obvious now, but not to my surprised professors in 1970.) In my column in the Scotch Plains Times, I brazenly reviewed some gay-themed novels, including Gordon Merrick’s explicit 1971 best-seller, The Lord Wont Mind, a potentially reckless, if exciting, move. I wasn’t “out,” at home yet (nor at my library job). An older woman, a mother of three who also worked at the library, complimented me on the review. Maybe she suspected that I was gay and wanted to be supportive? Or perhaps one of her three teenage sons was gay? I thought one was. Most of my energy was spent restlessly building out the imagined community that I required.

            In 1971 I moved to Boston for graduate school and became fully involved in Gay Liberation. I joined Gay Men’s Liberation—the Boston version of GLF. Through GML I began working with the far-Left Fag Rag collective, as well as Good Gay Poets Press, a book publishing off-shoot of the Fag Rag newspaper. The Fag Rag collective was essentially anarchist in structure and intent—we were determined to break rules and to be rude, demanding that sex be restored to its central place in human life as the foundation of a new politics that would make emotional sense to us. For me, Fag Rag was the invisible made visible—the world turned on its head. Cotton Mather, that most fearsome of American Puritan preachers, inadvertently anticipated this in the title of his 1693 analysis of the Salem witch trials: Wonders of the Invisible World. In his book Mather (who like Fag Rag was based in Boston and Cambridge) wrote, “… an army of devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is the center, and after a sort, the first-born of our English settlements…” Truly, the beings of this once invisible world were wondrous and formidable.

Many hands reach up to the glowing words "Fag Rag." The backdrop is the rainbow flag colours.

            The Boston gay world was all consuming. I worked part-time jobs, first as a cook in a fancy restaurant, then cooking in a hippy restaurant, then as a dessert chef. I had a two-year stint as towel boy in the local Club Baths, all the while meeting deadlines to publish my thoughts as part of Fag Rag and the local gay newspaper’s staff. I balanced work with socializing, cruising, writing, publishing, protest, organizing, deadlines, politics, and reading. The post-Stonewall world was exhilarating for a young man who loved to read and write.

            The new queer visibility wasn’t only affirming—it felt and was subversive. Lesbian activist Donna Gottschalk famously carried a hand-lettered sign at an early New York pride march: “I am Your Worst Fear I am Your Best Fantasy.” In that same spirit, we wrote and published Fag Rag, believing that the rest of the world wanted to be tempted. Fag Rag offered a liberating alternative to the humdrum “normal” world. This understanding of queerness as a two-sided psychic force—both a threat and a promise—was at the heart of the post-Stonewall queer world. It was a mediation of W.E.B. Du Bois’  concept of Black double-consciousness (as Du Bois wrote, “this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”) which took double-consciousness and weaponized it. Soon came the literature that would carry our queer double-consciousness deeper into a world that many of us believed was not as “normal” as it pretended to be.

            Working on Fag Rag and at Good Gay Poets (while also writing hundreds of articles for Boston’s Gay Community News) I began to recognize that we were a small part of a much larger wave of social change. Fag Rag was not alone. San Francisco’s Gay Sunshine was slightly more literary in its orientation; Sebastian Quill (also from the West Coast) and New York’s Mouth of the Dragon had similar missions. Each group was small and local, but together our cultural reach was international. Even with no “office” (Fag Rag borrowed space from radical organizations such as the Indo-China Peace Campaign or Red Book, the radical bookstore, until the late ’70s when we got our own ramshackle room at the back of the Gay Community News offices) we regularly shipped bundles of copies to London, Amsterdam, Toronto, and elsewhere. Passed hand-to-hand, these copies traveled even deeper into the world than we would ever know. In 1972 there were fewer than twenty-five gay and lesbian newspapers circulating in the U.S. Ten years later there were at least ten times that, and by 2002 there were many more hundreds, including those on the Internet.

Fag Rag offered a liberating alternative to the humdrum “normal” world. This understanding of queerness as a two-sided psychic force—both a threat and a promise—was at the heart of the post-Stonewall queer world.

            The contrast to pre-Stonewall is shocking and chastening. In the 1950s only the most committed gay and lesbian activists circulated any publications, largely in secret. The Los Angeles-based Mattachine Society (a homosexual rights and advocacy group in which former Communist Party member, Harry Hay, had a leadership position) was the largest, and they sent their publication, One, to several hundred mostly-anonymous subscribers—in plain brown envelopes. A generation later, at Fag Rag, we were shipping openly, cheaply, and internationally to thousands of subscribers. In the 1970s, new technologies of typesetting, inexpensive paper, and copy-shop printing allowed social-change groups like ours to print newsletters, newspapers, pamphlets, and books at a low cost. Alternative distribution networks emerged to bring these publications to radical bookshops, food co-ops, neighbourhood community centres, and some larger bookstores in university towns.

            Thus, the material infrastructure of a queer polity of literature began to assemble itself. Gay and lesbian newspapers, including the Detroit Liberator, The Gay Blade (in Washington, DC), and lesbian feminist journals, such as Dykes and Gorgons and So’s Your Old Lady, circulated widely, shaping political discourse and consciousness. Print-runs were often small, but these blazing points of light were augmented by a plethora of Left “alternative” papers such as Boston’s Free Press and Atlanta’s Great Speckled Bird, which formed a huge network of publications—soon called the “underground press”—that often focused on sexuality and gender issues.

            With a few exceptions, mainstream book publishers were still uninterested in queer content. The queer books that mattered in the early 1970s were published by community-based small presses, (many of them started by the founders of the earlier newspapers and journals). Daughter’s Inc. published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle in 1973, the same year that Women’s Press Collective published Pat Parker’s Pit Stop. In 1978 Fag Rag Books published Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: A Radical View of Western Civilization and Some of the People it has tried to Destroy. The anarchist, sex radical, Harvard-trained historian and professor, Charley Shively, and I edited and assembled that book on my kitchen table; life and politics were intimately connected. We were creating a new home—away from the homes and institutions that had ignored, chastised, or rejected us. Writing and reading queer literature and then circulating it into the “normal world” were the instruments by which we built it.

            In Marxism and Literature Raymond Williams elucidates his concept of “structures of feeling”, with which he speculates on the emergence of otherwise-surprising historic, social, and cultural shifts. With the term “feeling” he means to “emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of ‘world view’ or ‘ideology’… [because we must] be concerned with meanings and values as they are actually lived and felt” (Williams, Marxism, p. 132). Such feelings encompass ideas, thoughts, and conjectures that are half-formed (developing or half-imagined) on the way to clearer articulations. They are kin to the “imaginary politics” that literature is capable of birthing.

            The post-Stonewall queer world was, indeed, shaped by “structures of feeling”—sexual feelings, feelings of fear, feelings of joy, solidarity, relief upon emerging from the pain of repudiation or abuse. The sexual, emotional, and creative bonding in this world was not so much “adhesive” (to use Walt Whitman’s language) as it was a manifest form of the personal and community-genitive idea of Eros (to use Freud’s language). We felt our way along this journey erotically, even as we created a new political ideology, resonant with Hannah Arendt’s ideas about exile and belonging. The state of up-rootedness, of being exiled from a homeland—or in the case of queers, a home—can be devastating. But it also clears the ground for building new identities and new communities.

            Arendt often described a form of postwar cosmopolitanism whose practitioners belonged to the world, not to any specific nation. In her 1943 essay “We Refugees” (about the plight of Jews who find themselves alien in every nation where they seek refuge), Arendt argued that it is useful to cast oneself as a “conscious pariah,” refusing all of the usual avenues toward assimilation or acceptance. She noted that “[A]ll vaunted Jewish qualities—the ‘Jewish heart,’ humanity, humor, disinterested intelligence—are pariah qualities.” Similarly, queers constructing non-biological, extended-family kinship networks in the 1970s could count on appearing alien to “normal people” who comprised the nation from which they had broken. Analogies between groups are always insufficient (and in any cases involving the Holocaust, potentially disastrous). Yet, there is an echo here about the nature of resistance and creativity—the need for enemies and opposition, to birth something truly new.

            This something new—writing, theatre, music, art—was a full-fledged, evolving culture and enormously generative. In numerous ways it resembled what anthropologists describe as “folk culture.” Unmediated by social, expected, and consumer norms, it is an expression of shared beliefs, experience, language, and traditions.

A large illuminated sign reads "SECRET MUSEUM this way."

            The doors of the Secret Museum were open. This vibrant, boundary-pushing culture was my salvation, as it was for many queer people. At its heart was agency—that our actions as queers waited on no one. Our feelings alone gave us the authority to act. We had faith in good works, faith in the belief that same-sex desire was nurturing and valuable. By writing and publishing our good works we could make the unseen explicit. We took control of making our own culture—a folk culture—at the same time as we were learning how to actually do it. Many of us learned the skills of writing, editing, typesetting, layout, silk screen, rudimentary printing, marketing, and distribution. The means of production were within reach, and eagerly seized. More than becoming visible, we became independent.

            Ironically, our increasing success brought less and less scorn from those we counted on to be our enemies in the realm of the “normal.” Instead, American queer pariahs (building our own communities in what would come to be called the “gay ghettos”) began to look like a market—and a very lucrative one at that. As Donna Gottschalk had predicted, normal society’s “worst fear” was becoming its best fantasy. 

Scene III

Out in the World (1969-1980)
Gay Bookstores: There be Dragons

The first gay bookstore I ever visited was New York’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. It was still in its original location, 291 Mercer Street, where it had opened in November 1967, eighteen months before the Stonewall Riot. By the mid-1990s there were scores of LGBTQ shops selling queer books in the United States. Every major city had at least one. I visited Oscar Wilde soon after Stonewall, around the time of my first GLF meeting. Later, when the store moved to Christopher Street in 1973, I became a frequent visitor. When Glad Day Book Store, originating in Toronto, opened a Boston branch in 1979 (in the same building as the Gay Community News and Fag Rag offices) I worked there for a short time. After Glad Day closed in 2000, the manager, John Mitzel (a mainstay at Fag Rag and Gay Community News) opened Calamus Books, where I become a semi-permanent fixture. In the 1970s and ’80s gay and lesbian bookstores opened in most U.S. cities, some as commercial shops, and others as part of LGBT community centres, peaking in their ubiquity in the 2000s, just as Internet book sales began to undermine their economic model.

Lavender-hued bubbles coming out of the front door of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.

            While “gay” or “gay and lesbian” bookstores were new, queer bookstores had long been familiar to me, and (in Times Square, anyway) as common as stamp dealers or hobby shops. As a teenager I had frequented the soft-porn sex shops along New York’s 42nd Street, every one of them brimming with books and magazines. They were nestled among the grind movie houses—once glamorous film palaces of a past golden age—in Times Square, some of which were beginning to screen XXX sexploitation films. Amid the piles of remaindered magazines and cast-off paperbacks, I could always find a goldmine of queer literature, if I wasn’t kicked out for “looking too young”.

            The contrast between the furtiveness and forbidden sexual excitement of 42nd Street, and post-Stonewall’s out-and-proud “gay” stores was clear. While some of the patrons and materials may have been similar, the venues’ intentions had changed—where Times Square shops peddled sex, “gay and lesbian bookstores” sold enlightenment. The shift reflected not only our social progress, but also our increased sense of cultural entitlement and power; and it largely served those queers who already had some margin of acceptability and accessibility, particularly white, middle-class gay men. The growth of the gay and lesbian bookstores (no one called these businesses “queer”) occurred in tandem with the proliferation of gay and lesbian commercial and non-profit organizations—gay legal advice, gay counseling, gay health clinics, community centres, travel agencies. They were all part of a new wave of institutional infrastructure that Stonewall and “Gay Liberation” had unwittingly unleashed. In 1974, Time magazine (a publication that spots trends at least a year after they happen) wrote, not incorrectly, that “the love that dare not speak its name now can’t keep its mouth shut.”

            Queer lives were increasingly on display. Hollywood took advantage of new artistic freedoms.  John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy stunned audiences with its depictions of male homosexuality and sex work, followed a year later by William Friedkin’s even more explicit Boys in the Band. In 1980, Friedkin (having won the Oscar for Best Director for his massive hit, The Exorcist) released Cruising, his shockingly verité depiction of New York’s gay leather scene. From the other end of the film world, artists and avant garde auteurs brought the gay underground out of the galleries and into urban theatre chains, garnering reviews in the “respectable press.” Paul Morrissey’s 1970 Lower East Side comedy of bad manners, Trash (produced by Andy Warhol, and featuring members of Warhol’s Factory) was lauded as a revelation. There was industry buzz for its star, the cross-dressing (later, transgender) Holly Woodlawn, and calls for Woodlawn’s Best Actress Oscar nomination (in vain). By the mid-1970s, low-budget dramatic films by gay directors (such as Christopher Larkin’s 1974 A Very Natural Thing and David Buckley’s 1975 Saturday Night at the Baths) were playing in first-run commercial theatres. Gay sex had moved from the bedroom to the billboard. A huge sign loomed over New York’s Sheridan Square, advertising the “Men’s Country Baths” with their colourful logo and “COME!” Gay was not only hot, it was marketable.

“Art, if its object is to undo repressions, and if civilization is essentially repressive, is in this sense subversive of civilization.”

            Before Stonewall, homosexual readers mostly turned to the same books that I had found as a teenager: Mary Renault, Gore Vidal, or James Baldwin. But after Stonewall, the blossoming of newspapers, magazines, poetry chapbooks, and novels (mostly published by small or community presses) changed everything. It didn’t take big numbers. The average print-run of a Good Gay Poet’s book was between three- and five-hundred copies. Readership was much larger—the books were passed from hand to hand, shared in collective-living situations, and kept on the shelves of gay community centres. Their social and literary power resided not only in their artistry (which varied wildly in quality) but in the political impact of their very existence. As Norman O. Brown (taking a cue from Freud) argued, in Life against Death: “Art, if its object is to undo repressions, and if civilization is essentially repressive, is in this sense subversive of civilization.” Much post-Stonewall literary production embodied exactly this kind of subversion in both tone and intent.

            By 1975 several glossy, gay lifestyle magazines—Blueboy, Mandate, InTouch—were sold on city newsstands. The Advocate, a Los Angeles-based magazine that grew from one of the earliest gay newspapers (The Los Angeles Advocate, founded in 1967), circulated nationally as a “general interest” gay magazine. The old physique magazines of the Times Square bookshops had evolved, or else were approaching extinction. In The Advocate, and elsewhere, book reviews, celebrity profiles, and travel tips were all packaged with tasteful male beauty. Gay visibility spread rapidly into mainstream popular culture, much faster than did judicial or legislative change. The U.S. Supreme Court did not decisively repeal sodomy laws until 2003, even though many states had already done so. Today, twenty-nine states still have no laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in housing or the workplace. The paradox is that popular culture evolves faster, and in deeper, more complicated ways, than does the systemic change that ought to follow from it.

            With the successful marketing of gay content came the growth of a physical infrastructure—a network of queer places that could be mapped and visited, or be included in the gay travel guides that had recently moved out of the mimeograph underground into glossy, commercial circulation. Queer consciousness, which had become public and embodied by the post-Stonewall activism of the 1970s, began to gain its material infrastructure. A world was built that could become a home: the so-called “gay ghetto.” But this home, especially its commercial outposts, was also a target.


Visit ArtsEverywhere next week to read part two, which covers the period from 1971 to today, and includes a selected bibliography of essential non-fiction texts on the theme of queer literature both academic and pulpy.

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