Gay’s the word

Hugo Williams

  • States of Desire: Travels in Gay America by Edmund White
    Deutsch, 336 pp, £5.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 233 97301 X

You knew that the Mercedes was the ultimate gay motor, but did you know that the Corvette was the poor gay’s Porsche? That the Alfa Romeo and the Datsun 280-Z were ‘bright, snappy cars for gays’ or that the Fiat convertible suggested to a gay trick: ‘I am sporty, unpretentious and above all relaxed’? You could probably have guessed that the LA leather crowd drive pick-ups, jeeps and vans, which they park outside the leather bars to retire to, with trick, when the ‘back-rooms’ are too crowded with ejaculating cowboys. But did you know that the leather and Western neighbourhood of LA was Silver Lake, where the rents are still low enough for these blue-collar workers, some of whom have sacrificed professional careers to enter occupations – telephone or television repairs, Pacific Gas – which they consider to be ‘hot’ sexually? ‘We’ve reduced the things of the material plane to mere symbolical conveniences,’ said Isherwood in A Single Man. ‘The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves.’ ‘A Buddhist vision, really,’ thinks White.

Like their cars, gay Angeleans have to be well-built, if not actually foreign. They expect good mileage out of themselves, and easy handling. Mostly, they have traded in the fuel-guzzling, overly massive bodies of yesteryear for more practical economy models. But even these are expensive to maintain when the owner has to be babied every inch of the way along the Assembly Line at the Bodyworks of the Nautilus Fitness Center, having his card checked and marked at each position by one of the five instructors. Emerging from the Center packed in his gleaming new coach-work, your average super-gay will hop next door to the Baths for a spot of ‘heavy’ or fantasy sex in one of the private rooms. He hangs his minutely-coded clothes like a bait on special pegs opposite his open door and waits to see what will turn up. (Do you know what those slings are for? The cot and the can of Crisco? How about the long tube in the shower? They’re for fist-fucking, my child – which, according to White, is our century’s only brand-new contribution to the sexual armamentarium.)

Policemen, of course, are the pin-ups of the new butch gaydom: ‘The sadistic charm of those phallic billy clubs, powerful thighs straining against blue wool ...’ When two ‘dreamy’ cops were invited to give a slide-lecture in an apartment building about ways of avoiding being raped – it was called ‘Lady Beware’ – the rapt audience was entirely male. At the Academy, a gay LA eaterie, all waiters are dressed as cops and the maitre d’ as a police lieutenant. One young gay took the law enforcement fantasy to its natural conclusion and seduced a speed-cop into chasing him down the freeway. He refused to stop and the cop opened fire. When the wreckage was examined, it seemed the offender had come a moment before the bullet entered his head.

Not all gays are so eager to die for love. Reading States of Desire, one gets a picture of a vast unseen majority of decent-living gays all pulling their weight in the community and beavering away for ever more recognition and approval: ‘In LA many gay groups are supported by leading gay citizens, including the Municipal Elections Committee’; ‘Most rich gays are active in the community’; ‘A Catholic, Italian gay, member of Dignity, the Catholic gay group’; ‘Gay men do their own building, masonry, electrical wiring, plumbing’; ‘Without a doubt many gay men are the worker ants of our reviving cities. They deserve credit for having made our inner cities safe and attractive centers once again.’ One envisages gay bricklayers, with extra-long hods at jaunty angles, bobbing up and down ladders, singing ‘Hey ho, hey ho, it’s off to work we go.’ In fact, these eager-beaver home-improvers come in for a lot of resentment from the traditional inhabitants of the inner cities who can no longer afford to live in them. They are called irresponsible, decadent, profiteering. To be fair, gays are only the most visible element among those citizens who choose to spend their leisure and incomes doing up houses. And it is they who are most often baited by out-of-work straight youths envious of their luxury and apparent freedom. They are the recession’s scapegoats. This is particularly noticeable in San Francisco, where gays come from all over the country thinking that a richly fulfilling and sexual life will be waiting for them. It isn’t. They enter a desperate life of cruising and welfare, and the city is left to struggle by on tourism. To add to the problems, gay rednecks bring their racism here with them, and the city has the highest alcoholism and suicide rates in the country. Disappointment with the ‘gay’ solution is at its most obvious in the gay capital itself.

I think this is the only point in the book where White comes close to acknowledging that ‘Gay’, as the nationwide teen culture it was ten years ago, just might be on the wane. According to him, it is still sweeping America like broad lapels. In fact, the whole thing peaked round about the Bicentennial and is now shrinking to its original membership (who are breathing sighs of relief). It came in on David Bowie and glam-rock, unisex, disco and women’s lib, short hair and Andy Warhol. Kids arriving in New York from the outback needed a quick code to bridge the gap from hick to sophisticate. Greyhound got them to the bus station and Gay took them on from there. Butch and fantasy sex and the new straight image seem to be signalling a rapprochement with the opposite sex, the ultimate darkness. This leaves States of Desire as something of a period piece. Even the word ‘gay’ sounds rather dated, like ‘Hey, man’ and ‘Far out!’ No doubt the Nineties will see a revival, but then gays will probably be called ‘serious’ or ‘rich’ or ‘realistic’ or something.

White reminds me of Harris, one of his subjects, from Salt Lake City. Harris is a gay religious who thinks that gays are the lost tribe, the holy 144,000, the elect whom God has hidden by putting them under a yoke of suffering until he is ready to deliver them from the straights (especially Mormon ones). In the coming cataclysm, Harris will lead the gays to victory. The only price he must pay for his position as leader is total chastity. (This is Mormon law also. Unmarrieds wear special underpants, visible beneath trousers, to aid celibacy.) There are a few straights masquerading as gays, and if Harris went to bed with one he would be infected by evil: ‘If I sleep with a son of Satan I will defile the temple.’ Harris knows all this is true by various signs. One is the constant palpitation of his heart, which is the ‘quaking’ mentioned in the Old Testament as signalling the presence of God. Another is his arm. When this falls asleep it is because the spiritual arm is rising up to touch heaven. Rich, no? But only a metaphor away from White’s own vision of the day enlightened singles finally clash with those poor deluded families and their ‘unsatisfactory arrangements’.

White sees himself as socially radical but culturally conservative. He is a Texan and admires the ‘Texan’ virtues: courage, strength and a muted range of emotions. No doubt he learnt this preference from his father. ‘A man doesn’t say “I love that building,” he says “I like it,” ’ the youthful White was told when he inadvertently gushed a little, travelling with Dad in New Mexico. One wonders what his father would have said about the time Edmund bunked with Grandad, when the two made ‘passionate, unending love all night’. In the morning, White overheard his grandfather saying: ‘That Eddie is such a sweet boy, we just hugged and kissed all night long.’ He was about to put his head in the gas oven when he heard his grandma’s reply. ‘Well,’ she cooed, ‘isn’t he the sweetest thang.’ White concludes that gay love must have been regarded like this in the 19th century. What could not be named was unknowingly tolerated.

For Guy Hocquenghem, mentioned in the book as the author of Homosexual Desire, not naming things is the essence of sexuality, which is not so much a biological drive as a verbal code in which social tensions are inscribed. Shame, submission, domination, expiation are feelings instilled in the animal child through language, just as the genitalia were eroticised when they were given names which were then not allowed to be mentioned. Such social tensions obviously played a part in White’s researches. ‘Sex with strangers is the code that replaces chit-chat,’ especially when there happens ‘one of those breaks in understanding which awaken desire’. My favourite of these concerns another Texan, a failed actor, a giant with jug ears and meal-packing hands. This hunk took the author back to his house one night and the two of them got into a fantasy in which ‘Oh, I won’t spell it out. Suffice it to say he was the handsome stud, I his twelve-year-old son and at one point he was in nothing but boots and hat.’ The most charming attribute of this hulk was apparently his way of exclaiming at the vital moment: ‘I’m fixin’ to come.’ As White says, ‘of course it was all learned in New York, where he had worked as a hustler.’

White himself is a novelist, and the gay world appeals to him as a metaphor for creativity. ‘The nature of gay life is that it is philosophical,’ he hazards. ‘Like Nietzsche, though in a different sense, we could speak of the “gay science” that obligatory existentialism forced on people who must invent themselves ...’ But I don’t see that gays invent themselves any more than anyone else does, unless you call joining a gay vampire club or the Flaccid Penis group – anti-male, anti-erection, pro-lesbian – inventing yourself. The last chapter of the book, called ‘Self-Criticism’, is appropriately short. In it, White acknowledges only a ‘peculiar alternation between socialism and snobbism’ as a fault, which he tries to explain. I found this not at all annoying or even noticeable. The annoying thing about the book is its assumption that gays inhabit some exotic Edge City denied to the rest of us – ‘I feel that I am less insulated than my straight counterpart (I sometimes try to picture that poor hypothetical devil)’ – and that they have a monopoly on Fun: ‘Gay life – rich, messy, promiscuous – will never please an ideologue: it’s too untidy, too linked to the unpredictable vagaries of anarchic desire.’ Think about your gay friends. It’s sheer wishful thinking, isn’t it?