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July-August 2004: harbingers (out in their time).

This issue completes a kind of trilogy of historical themes. The last two issues brought us from ancient times through the 19th century, while this one spotlights 20th-century lives, mostly artists and writers, who began to explore what it would mean to live openly as a sexual nonconformist. I'm calling them "harbingers" because they created such a life at a time when there were no models of "gay identity" in our sense. People like Andre Gide, Amy Lowell, Christopher Isherwood, the Beat poets, and others discussed in this issue, all in very distinctive ways, came to think of themselves as sexual outsiders who occupied a separate--and even a legitimate--place in the social order.

Prior to that there was only Oscar Wilde, who hovered over the early 20th century as an admonition of what can happen when you play out your gay identity in a society that's not ready for it. On the other hand, Wilde was seen to have gone down heroically, telling the truth about himself and defying bourgeois convention in order to live out his authentic nature. The fact that he was also an artist would have enduring consequences for subsequent generations. To the extent that Wilde carved out a gay "identity," it was that of the aesthete: the writer or painter whose illicit sexual orientation was tied inseparably to his identity as an artist. Accordingly, one's deviant sexuality was justified by one's aesthetic sensibilities, which in turn might be associated with a range of unorthodox behaviors and beliefs. Thus, for example, Amy Lowell adopted the pose of a cigar-smoking gender-bender who gave public readings of her not-so-thinly-veiled lesbian poetry. Andre Gide, who actually met Wilde in the early 1890's, adopted the aesthete's strategy of melding his life and his art, using his own life as the model for an artistic and sexual freedom that he explicitly advocated in his work. But he rebelled against Wilde's coy obliquity when dealing with sexual matters, adopting an openness that qualifies Gide as the first person to "come out" as gay.

The fact that both Lowell and Gide were born into great wealth--and one could add Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Proust--is surely no accident; clearly their wealth protected them from the kinds of official harassment they would otherwise have faced. Doubtless there were many contemporaries who engaged in homosexual acts in the unseen corners of society, but the first "out" gay men and lesbians were essentially aristocrats who saw themselves as artists rebelling against bourgeois narrow-mindedness. (Gide's main argument for gay rights in Corydon was that eras of great artistic flowering, such as Athens and Renaissance Italy, tended to tolerate homosexuality.) This model for "how to be gay" persisted for generations to come, imbuing gay culture with aristocratic and aesthetic affectations that can be observed even today.

Wilde's notion of "feasting with panthers" was to find sex in the hidden recesses of lower-class London, a demimonde in which lurked callboys and opium smokers who seemed to exist for the pleasure of the rich. It was this world that a later generation of writers began to explore, not as voyeurs but as active participants. Jean Genet and Jean Cocteau, who had the advantage of being French, dove headlong into this world and wrote about it with a candor that blurred the boundary between the novel and the memoir. It was the Beat poets, notably Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, who brought this world, this image of the self, to the U.S., writing openly, defiantly, about their sexual escapades. Their model of the "sexual outlaw" would find widespread expression in the emergent gay culture of the 1970's.

Now there were two identities--the aristocrat and the outlaw--neither of which would provide a satisfactory model for the large numbers of people who would eventually come out as gay after the 1960's. Perhaps the most prescient writer in this respect was Christopher Isherwood--discussed here on the occasion of his hundredth birthday--whose 1963 portrait of a sensitive but otherwise unexceptional gay man in A Single Man may well be the first such portrait in English. It may be significant and telling that Isherwood was still dealing with a single man, albeit one whose longtime lover had just died. The image of the gay person as fundamentally isolated and alone was perhaps the last gloomy stereotype to die.

One way to chart the history of gay liberation in the 20th century is to see it as a progressive democratization of the ability to be open about one's sexuality. At first the province of aristocratic aesthetes and later of sexual outlaws, the concept of a "gay identity" has ultimately devolved into the more broadly palatable model we have today. However much political radicals and cultural conservatives bemoan this development, it has made it possible for vastly more people to come out honestly about their sexual orientation, which is no longer an event worthy of either a novel or a trip to the slammer.
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Author:Schneider, Richard, Jr.
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Previous Article:Comrades in each other's arms.
Next Article:Democrats waffling on marriage amendment.

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