The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture

Edmund White greeted me for our interview at the door of his hotel room with his hand outstretched and a smile on his face. "Would you like some coffee before we begin?" he asked. I said sure and asked how the book tour was going. "Oh, well, I just came from Toronto," he said, shaking his head. "Gabriel Rotello -- have you heard of him? -- he wanted to interview me on TV in a public toilet." He shrugged. "I said, 'No way.' He finally backed off."White's new book "The Farewell Symphony", which follows "A Boy's Own Story" and "The Beautiful Room Is Empty" as the final novel in his semi-autobiographical trilogy, has rankled conservatives in the gay community -- like Rotello, who thought the toilet was where the book's contents belonged. In a commentary piece in the May 27 issue of the gay and lesbian bi-weekly "The Advocate", longtime queer activist Larry Kramer writes that White's latest effort "parades before the reader what seems to be every trick he's sucked, fucked, rimmed, tied up, pissed on, or been sucked by, fucked by, rimmed by, tied up by -- you get the idea. Surely life was more than this, even for -- especially for -- Edmund White."It is impossible for me to believe," Kramer continues, "that this book embodies what AIDS really represents to Edmund or that this is all that becoming [the gay community's] most esteemed and respected writer has meant to him. I found this book an irresponsible piece of work indeed."In our interview, White defended himself against Kramer's attacks -- and offered a controversial historical perspective of the rise and fall of gay culture. "Independent": "The narrator of The Farewell Symphony, which is based on your experiences, calculates at one point that he had more than 3,000 sexual experiences. Why were you so sexually active?"Edmund White: In the early days after Stonewall riot of 1969, sexual freedom was synonymous with freedom for most gay men because they had spent so many years in the '50s and '60s simply trying to find each other and trying to have sex. It was a real problem just finding another gay person.So what now is derided as promiscuity and sort of excessive horsing around of the '70s -- for people who came out of the '50s and '60s it was seen as a kind of a wonderful release and a way of being able to finally get on with your life and fulfill your desires which for so long had been frustrated and stifled."Were there gay men around you who didn't engage in constant casual sex? In New York City?"Oh, no. There were some who paired up and moved to Brooklyn Heights or maybe Philadelphia, but not in New York City. Everyone around me was doing it."When the cause of AIDS hadn't yet been discovered, the narrator wonders, 'Could the disease be contained in sperm itself? If so then we were all lost, since we were bathed, daily, in a sea of sperm.' When sperm was determined to be a carrier of the HIV virus, did you perceive it to be the end of an era?"No. One of the things I tried to show in the book was how gradual it was, that it wasn't an abrupt change. I was one of the six men who founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis along with Larry Kramer and Roger McFarlane and others. I was the first president of the GMHC. We're the only three who are still alive. [Kramer and White are HIV-positive.] In spite of that, I don't think I was fully aware of all the implications of the disease. As it sank in, we realized that we'd have to close the back-room bars and the bath houses. This party, that we'd fought so hard to launch, would now have to be shut down. And it only lasted for 10 years. Someplace in the book I say that never before has a population been put on such a rapid cycle: oppressed in the '50s, liberated in the '60s, exalted in the '70s and wiped out in the '80s. It's very quick. If you think of other populations, like say Jews fighting anti-Semitism, it comes in very slow waves of like a hundred years pro and a hundred years contra. In other words, it's not so wrenching and violent, as our history has been."Larry Kramer wrote in 'The Advocate' that '[gay men] have been the cause of their own victimization' from AIDS. How does that make you feel?" It's loathsome. It's like blaming the victim. It's a way of saying that people might have foreseen such a thing, but in fact there wasn't a single scientist back then who predicted AIDS. They predicted other things, that gonorrhea or syphilis might develop a resistant strain because people were using antibiotics to prevent being re-infected with sexually transmitted diseases. But they didn't predict that a slow virus would pass from the animal kingdom to the human, because no one had ever heard of that before. It was a shock to the medical establishment. It's unfair for him to say that.I think that Larry Kramer's personal style is one of being an Old Testament prophet and denouncing everyone. And I think gentiles generally are so easily intimidated by that kind of Jewish rage that they don't dare to protest."What do you think about gay self-help authors like Brian McNaught, who stresses that he's just like everyone else and not effeminate or promiscuous like the common gay male stereotype?"It irritates me because there's a whole new conservative gay movement with Andrew Sullivan [author of "Same Sex Marriage: Pro and Con"], Bruce Bawer [author of "A Place at the Table"], Larry Kramer, Michael Signorile [columnist for "Out" magazine] -- although he's a more complicated case -- and this guy Rotello. Sullivan and Bawer imagine that if we were upstanding citizens, clean-cut, married and faithful to one another, living in the suburbs and raising our children, that then we would be accepted by our heterosexual neighbors. I think they'd be absolutely horrified. I think heterosexuals are much more amused and tolerant of drag queens because then it's something exotic, something distant, something amusing and so far out that it participates in fantasy and theater.Besides, I think that it's very important to support the most vulnerable members of the community, like drag queens and leather guys, let's say, because until the public is forced to accept them, they won't really accept anybody. Because they actually think almost any gay person, no matter how respectable they might appear, is only a step away from that. I think it's a misguided effort to pass ourselves off as dull or normal.I believe the conservative movement would vanish overnight if there were a vaccine for AIDS. In other words, those particular spokesmen would go on delivering those opinions, but nobody would listen to them. I think the only reason anyone pays attention to them is because they're afraid."In the book, most of the narrator's friends died from AIDS. How does it feel to be a survivor?"Well, I do feel responsible to the past. You feel like you have to represent clearly what did go on and not distort it. You feel like things that would be too obvious to spell out, I do spell out, like in this conversation with you. Because there's no one else around to tell you. If you're one of the last witnesses to an era, then you have to bear witness.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Happy Holidays!