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The art of conspiracy.

Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy

by Michael S. Sherry

University of North Carolina Press 304 pages, $29.95

THE SO-CALLED "HOMINTERN" was an imagined conspiracy of mid- to late-20th-century gay artists whose works and influence served to destabilize Cold War America--or so it was argued by reactionary pundits. In fact, as Michael S. Sherry documents in his new book, Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy, a bunch of more-or-less paranoid journalists, writers, and political pundits dreamed the whole thing up. That's not to say that the idea of a gay artistic conspiracy didn't have a very real, hostile influence upon an entire generation. The suspicion that gay men and women were out not only to help themselves and one another, but also to undermine core American values, became a fixed idea of the era and influenced the policies of at least one president.

The word "Homintern" may not have been coined by W. H. Auden, as is sometimes alleged; its first appearance is disputed. Naturally, it would be satisfyingly ironic if the queer Anglican poet had invented it. In any case, Auden was among its first users, in an article that appeared in Partisan Review in 1940. For him, the very idea, however, was little more than a campy joke. There was an appealing jokiness in the coinage itself, based as it was upon another term, the "Com-intern," which referred to the much more palpable prospect of Communist infiltration and organization in the West. Just as there were "Communist internationalists," it was argued, there were "homosexual internationalists," a clandestine network that every right-thinking American citizen had a duty to resist.

Much anti-Homintern propaganda was--like its anti-Communist, anti-Semitic, and racist counterparts--slight and off-the-cuff. Innuendo was enough; the facts could follow, made up if need be. In one sense, it's sad to find a prominent historian having to spend time poring over the pathetic bigotry of here-today-gone-tomorrow magazine articles (Time, Newsweek, et al). The subject of the opprobrium--a play by Edward Albee, a concert by Samuel Barber, for example--was in each case a worthwhile artistic product that elicited an absurdly bigoted response from today's perspective. What Sherry documents was a sinister and tenacious reality for gay people before liberation thinking erupted in the 1960's.

Women featured only intermittently in this mid-century madness. The pathological impulses of our detractors required--in this period, anyway--simple, singular targets. The relative invisibility of lesbians let them largely off the hook. (Conversely, you could argue that the dearth of critical attention perpetuated their invisibility.) There were a few exceptions. Lillian Hellman's early stage success The Children's Hour (1934), about two female teachers accused of having a lesbian relationship, was hugely controversial. Hollywood squandered its first attempt at adapting the play; the gay aspect of the storyline was dropped. But Hellman herself was considered suspicious on grounds other than sexual. When she appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, she was asked to name friends with Communist sympathies. Hellman's refusal to play ball led to her being blacklisted by the film studios.

One of the odd things about the Homintern is how quickly the notion of an "international" conspiracy was redefined as an American one. In theory, artists who exercised a baleful social influence from "abroad" (usually Europe) were easy objects of concern. The problem was that you couldn't do much about them. However, American artists on home soil might in turn be subject to these influences. They might then, arguably, be capable of spreading the malignity. And, as they could be watched, followed, and photographed, they were easier prey.

Nevertheless, mythical accounts of foreign influence and its decadence peppered the political rhetoric of the "anti-Hominternists," of which Richard Nixon was implicitly one, starting with his arts-and-Commie baiting crusade during the McCarthy era. Even as president he was still emitting such jaw-dropping lines as this (as we know from the White House tapes): "You know what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them.... Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman Emperors were fags." It hardly mattered that Nixon was unable to connect these odd assertions to his chief areas of concern in American society--the Boy Scout movement (itself a cultural import) and the "fag" presence on TV. One of his sympathetic advisors even pointed out to the President that the Ancients had degenerated without the help of scouting or TV. In 1971, Nixon refused to attend a performance of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, which was to inaugurate the Kennedy Center Opera House. The evening was a big deal. But he had been disgusted by newspaper photographs of Bernstein kissing the performers--not on the cheek, even, but on the lips. Especially corrupt and corrupting was the smacker the Jewish composer had planted on the African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey's lips.

It wasn't only Nixon and his kind that disparaged gay artists. Illustrative of the complex nature of alliances and sympathies across, say, a loose fifty-year period from 1930 to 1980, is the fact that the prominent feminist Betty Friedan felt able, in the 1970's, to characterize sad, sex-addicted gay men as "Peter Pans." The acclaimed novelist Philip Roth has kneed each liberation movement in the crotch in his fictional oeuvre. As a critic, he likewise slammed Albee's 1964 play Tiny Alice for its "ghastly pansy rhetoric and repartee."

The period spanned in Sherry's book is never satisfactorily defined. Perhaps that's because, fundamentally, homophobic sentiment has permeated critical response to the arts (and more) across all time. And it continues to do so. As a result, it isn't clear how, when, or why a rise in rhetoric about an imagined conspiracy took place. How key was Senator McCarthy in promoting it in the postwar period? What about the influence of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, whose Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Female (1953) exposed the breadth of Americans' sexual experimentation and produced a backlash against sexual expression and sexual minorities? Or was it World War II itself that effectively ended what had been a period of growing sexual liberalization?

Homophobia has had just as long a history as homosexuality. Actually, it's arguably older, since the term "homosexual" was coined by Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1869 to describe a pathological condition. The long, depressing history of hostility to gay expression in the arts, equally, hasn't affected only gay people or themes. Richard Strauss' opera Salome was cancelled after one performance in New York following complaints. Was it the link to Oscar Wilde's Salome that did it in? Or the daring dance of the seven veils, an expression of inappropriate female desire?

For conservatives, it has long been dispiriting that the American literary canon--as it unfolded throughout the 19th century, in particular--contains scarcely a single tame work or writer, especially with respect to sexual themes. Nobody has been more suspect than America's self-proclaimed national poet, Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass has time and again been subject to deliberately half-blind analysis to suppress its same-sex undercurrents. And then there's Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Thoreau, Henry James ...

Leslie Fiedler was thus able to argue in 1948 that homoerotic male-male relations constituted the original and defining theme of American fiction. (The key article was winningly titled, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!") But Fiedler's embrace of this tendency--if that's what it seemed--was to be short-lived. In his 1958 article, "The Un-Angry Young Men," Fiedler regretted the bourgeois conservatism of writers who had only "a politics to be flaunted" (one of the "anti-Homintern" writers' favorite terms). Fiedler named Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and James Baldwin in his indictment of flaunting.

Still more shocking is the fact that, in the same year, Patrick Dennis--creator of Auntie Mame, the gayest work that's not about homosexuality ever written--penned a contemptuous account of Tennessee Williams' characters as "woefully unpleasant and decidedly from the wrong side of Queer Street." This is a salutary reminder of how far even gay critics could be conditioned to pander to the assumed values of their readership. Dennis also objected to the "unescorted young men" in the audience "who protest sibilantly that Tennessee Williams is really writing about the norm." (The mention of Queer Street reminds us that the seminal 2004 book by James McCourt of that name celebrates many of the books, films, plays, and music that were targets of "anti-Homintern" polemics.)

The historical reach of such polemics into fairly recent times is evident in Midge Decter's notorious 1980 article, "The Boys on the Beach." This piece about Fire Island, which displayed at times a truly twisted bigotry and implicit sexual jealousy, figures in Sherry's narrative as one of the last big cries of the homophobic collective beast. From another point of view, however, it didn't bring anything to a close. Rather, Decter's bile merely pre-empted the next onset of homophobic invectives, neatly harnessed onto the epidemic that was just around the corner.

It isn't valid to suggest that wide-scale changes in American social attitudes would readily leave GLBT people free to declare their sexuality, in the arts or anywhere else. It all depends on where and when you have in mind. In Hollywood, the closet remains powerful, whereas for the theatre director or author, homosexuality may only rarely constitute an impediment. For a leading actor or actress, however, it usually will be. Classical music, meanwhile, is evidently a special enthusiasm of Sherry. A long chapter on Samuel Barber uncovers a good deal of homophobic critical sentiment. I liked very much the section devoted to the opening of the Metropolitan Opera with Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, a work designed to flamboyant excess by the Italian Franco Zeffirelli.

To the gay reader, it is instructive but galling to encounter so much evidence of how dominant and rampant homophobic comment has been in American society and culture. "Homosexuality is Stalin's Atom Bomb to Destroy America" (1953) might have been an amusing headline had it not been so widely believed. It appeared in a magazine called Physical Culture--perhaps an unlikely place for a "crusade against the evils of homosexuality." Anecdotal homophobia could be still cruder. The composer Edgard Varese told his aspiring juniors bitterly: "Use your arse as a prick garage and New York is yours."

Prose in academic reference books can be woefully uneven nowadays. There are relatively few slips here, even if the names of Cyril Connolly, John Ashbery, and Ian McKellen are misspelled. There are some unlikely readings, however. Kirk Douglas, researching for the film Lust for Life, may have felt Van Gogh had "a tremendous homosexuality problem." But this was--and is--far from universally agreed upon with respect to the Flemish artist.

There's also some rather tendentious intellectualizing. When Sherry says, "For none was queerness the sole identity," one reacts, common-sensically: "Why would anyone think it would be?" Some texts, too, are naturally just awkward to shoehorn into the category of homosexual works. The gay-authored West Side Story (1957, written by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim) may be beguiling and perhaps at times ambivalent, but it's a heterosexual story through and through. It has much more in common with its source, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (another straight text by an arguably gay author), than it does with, say, Mart Crowley's iconic celebration of limp-wristedness, The Boys in the Band (1970).

It's a familiar if sometimes trite game to play: "Who has been overlooked?" But there are so many significant figures that have been neglected by Sherry in this book. Where are Paul Goodman, Paul Cadmus, Truman Capote, Hart Crane, Christopher Isherwood, Paul Bowles, George Platt Lynes, William Burroughs, Djuna Barnes, Coleman Dowell, Nabokov's Pale Fire, Glenway Wescott, James Schuyler, John Rechy, Thom Gunn, Little Richard, and Hubert Selby? None is more than glanced at.

Sherry would have been better advised to focus on a single area of cultural activity or a narrower chronological period. There are also some uncertain moments of daring historical sweep, or possible ignorance, such as this reference to pop music in the 1970's: "Nor did rock 'n' roll show a queer face, aside from glam rock and similar offshoots." But glam rock was a dominant element of rock music from the outset. A single brief and slighting reference to disco is another giveaway, as disco and the 70's culture it epitomized were hugely influential upon social mores of the time. And central to disco, of course, was gay culture.

Increasingly, America doesn't have a singular culture, even as its cultural "guardians" continue to attempt to define or contain such a thing, whether it's The New York Times or "picks" on Amazon. Equally, more than ever, there isn't a singular gay culture. "Anti-homintern" criticism, then, can be interpreted as a reactionary but doomed attempt to pronounce and circumscribe such a culture. It's to our shared credit and advantage--in the U.S. and beyond--that we now experience such a diversity and proliferation in the representation of gay themes, characters, and forms of sexuality.

Still, and for this very reason, there's very little we can generalize about. Sherry boldly announces that gay men in today's America don't want to camp it up along to Judy Garland. (Or even as Judy Garland). That's just not true. And, even if it were, thank goodness nobody told Rufus Wainwright. Go Rufus!

Richard Canning, author of the AIDS fiction anthology Vital Signs and editor of Between Men, a collection of gay male fiction, teaches at Sheffield University, England.
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Title Annotation:ESSAY
Author:Canning, Richard
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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