Neil Armstrong was difficult to live with and probably denied Janet, his wife, and his sons what they may have wanted most from him—warmth and love—but Armstrong stumbled into the one place on Earth where what was wanted from him was exactly what he had to offer—a man with an encyclopedic memory, a scientific orderliness to his mind unperturbed by emotion. If he had ever allowed the churning emotions inside to surface and to be revealed to other humans, he wouldn’t be what he needed to be, which was an almost perfect person to command the first flight to the Moon.
The story of mankind’s first flight to the Moon is a big story with a cast of thousands, but this is a smaller story than that. It is a story of Neil Armstrong’s grieving his daughter’s, Karen’s, death from a brain tumor during his time in a test pilot program. It is unclear how he got into this program or how he got out. We are not shown how he achieved any of the other advances he made. We are shown one interview with a panel of senior men asking him questions, but his answers are minimal and bare. Neil moves from test pilot to astronaut-in-training to the Gemini program to the Apollo program to his final test as commander of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon without ever having seemed to do anything to get himself there. He gets letters, people come to see him with news, and he is asked, “Will you do it?” and he answers, with a shrug, “Yes.” Other astronauts are the ones to say, “Golly, gee, you want me? Sure, I’ll do it.” We never see him talk about his goals—what it is all about, this career of his—or what he wants from life. Apparently, this story is the story of his grief for his child, and how, being the person he is, he can’t express his grief and so can’t get rid of it. Others try to help him with it—his wife, his fellow astronauts, his seniors at NASA—but he can’t let go of it. It may be that a gesture he makes toward the end of the stay on the Moon is meant for us to understand as bringing closure, but it is so minimal that it is not clear, and we are left with the realization that Neil Armstrong probably carries this grief with him to the grave.
Armstrong carries this grief against the background of the sixties, the Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon Administrations, and the Space Program which produced the Gemini and Apollo programs and finally the flight of Apollo 11 to the Moon, commanded by Neil Armstrong. There are what seem to be parties at the astronauts’ houses, a cocktail party at the White House, Congressional investigations into accidents and deaths, and moments at which a spacecraft is spinning out of control. But a constant through all this is visual images of the Moon in what seem to be all its phases, floating beyond the trees at various points in the Armstrong’s back yard in Houston, in some other astronaut’s back yard, every nighttime scene, sometimes emphasized by being placed in the center of the screen, and sometimes off to the side. Scenes may end, and then the camera slides up until it captures the Moon. Then we know the scene has ended. These astronauts, the other actors, the director, the characters, all are obsessed with this celestial body. For more than NASA, more than all the business of being an astronaut, what dominates these images is the Moon itself, which is the point. And yet, Armstrong grieves.
It might be said that the narrative swaps off the values of home for the values of work—Neil Armstrong regularly seems to put his job before his family—but that is not so. The director takes both sides of the narrative and twists them so that it becomes impossible to separate them and to see Armstrong’s personal, private story distinct from the immense, public story bigger than any other single story since World War II. Armstrong—the man he is—doesn’t change. And yet, it feels like a tragedy to see him boxed up inside himself as we do, even while what he is doing is changing mankind’s place in the cosmos, and we need him just this way.
The First Man has drawn me in twice to see it, and what it appears to be about is the character of the epic hero. Neil Armstrong is the man needed to complete his epic tasks, but his character causes him to suffer, and the events that formed him are unalterable.
In The First Man, the director brings the two halves of the film together at the point, near the end, when Neil Armstrong is standing on edge of a crater on the surface of the Moon. The audience cannot see Armstrong because he is entirely encased in his white space suit. He opens his hand. What the audience sees in the opening white glove encasing his hand is the small plastic bracelet of beads which we can see spells out K A R E N. It’s the kind of bracelet that hospitals put on hospitalized children to identify them during their stay. Small, white, plastic, a little letter on each bead, which is cube-shaped. They used to be put on newborns. Slowly, Armstrong’s gloved hand, which takes up the whole screen in an IMAX Cinema, opens and the small plastic bracelet slides out of his hand and falls slowly into the black shadow of the crater, falls so slowly that the white color that is the bracelet takes several seconds to disappear in the blackness. At that point, the two halves of the film come together—Armstrong’s grief and the race to the Moon—and for many the race to the Moon is subsumed into Armstrong’s attempt to deal with his grief.
But something else is going on. Early in the film, Neil Armstrong says, “When you get a different vantage point, it changes your perspective.” What if you had some other one, some being arrive on the Moon from some other planet, and the only artifact he or she found was the small white beaded bracelet with the capital letters K A R E N on it? It makes of Armstrong’s gesture an entirely different thing. Armstrong’s gesture becomes an artifact of our civilization, and while it remains a marker of Armstrong’s relationship with his daughter and more distantly with his civilization, it becomes also an artifact of an unknown civilization. A person finding the bracelet probably won’t know the connection between the owner of the bracelet and where that person was from, but, like the Rosetta Stone, the bracelet will serve as an introduction to his alphabet, his system of denomination, his chemistry and to his language. It may be the beginning of his getting to know us. The plastic bracelet Neil Armstrong leaves in the crater on the Moon is a key to who we are.
Viewed from the perspective of the Earthrise, the photograph brought back from space of the Earth, rising up in the distance beyond the Moon, the Moon itself in the foreground, with its implications of circularity, of rising and falling, of creation and destruction, of life in the empty blackness of space on our tiny beautiful blue marble, the pain in Winter Rain—pain and confusion and bewilderment—that I was writing about in the last posting, Earthrise 10, finds its home on that beautiful blue marble falling through space. As do David, and The Brandenburg Concertos, and a portrait of Maria Therese by Pablo Picasso. These paradoxes are implicit everywhere in our lives on this Earth, including the LGBTQ lives under consideration here. Picasso is believed to have once said,
When I was a child my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you will become a general. If you become a monk, then you will end up as Pope.’ Instead, I became a painter, and wound up as Picasso.
Picasso wasn’t talking about what his paintings are worth, although I think that is what his mother was talking about. And he wasn’t talking about his fame, although I think she was probably talking about that too. She was probably talking about the fact that he was going to be a leader, become the most important, in any field he entered. We don’t know from this snippet what else she thought of, aside from the military and the priesthood. There are actually countries in the world where the military and the priesthood are two of the most frequently-chosen vocations.
It wasn’t the money, and it wasn’t the fame. There are men and women who go for power, but that seems counter-intuitive when applied to Picasso. What did he mean, when he said, wound up as Picasso? How does one get to be Picasso? Since a person would not get to be Picasso by setting out to be rich or powerful or holy or famous, he must have done it by painting.
The most famous political painting in the twentieth century is Guernica, which Picasso painted after the nationalists bombed the small Spanish town of Guernica in 1937. The painting depicts the anguish and anger the painter felt at the murder of the townspeople and animal life of Guernica, the chaos of aerial bombing, and the destruction and dismemberment of the animal life in the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso deposited the painting at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, to remain there until democracy was restored to Spain and the painting could be restored to the Prado in Madrid. In the middle of all his other paintings, there is this painting.
My four books are political novels. This is the way I wrote my political novels.
If I were to write about about a person’s life, emphasizing the unity of it, I would need to de-emphasize the chronology of it. As it happened, what I did was to start off with a brief mention of a wall in our host’s condo in Provincetown, which held a thicket of framed snapshots of men on the beach, all beautiful, many naked, many of whom were now dead of AIDS or moved to Somerville, or Amherst, or who had become the director of some non-profit organization benefitting the LGBTQ community. This was followed by short descriptions of moments like snapshots from Fair Shaw’s memory, beginning when he was three years old, of an intense homoerotic awareness, some even before he could have been aware of a homosexual attraction. Then there follows, for approximately one hundred pages, a sequence of episodes, in which Shaw becomes aware of corruptions in the images at the beginning—his family’s obsession with their class, alcoholism, his own homosexuality, his family’s conservative politics, their religion, during all of which Shaw seeks an answer to the question, which gradually takes on substance as different characters repeat the question in different ways and from different perspectives, How can I be a homosexual and be respected?
This first part of Race Point Light establishes the way the book moves forward—a rough chronology setting forth a series of moments that are linked by theme. The idea behind the second part takes Shaw into the US Army, to college, to New York, to graduate school, to the Civil Rights movement, and is something like How do I deal with it? and ends with his proposal of marriage to a woman. In each of these parts, Shaw explores what the culture means by “homosexual”—it’s a sickness, a sin, a crime, a source of great danger, a violation of his vows to his wife, the source of unimaginable hope and pleasure—and tries out various ways of living with it. He tells various people—his brother, various soldiers, a fellow graduate student, a priest, the woman he is about to marry, various psychologists and psychiatrists—all of whom, it was apparent, knew less about the subject than he did. And, it was also clear, none of the adults around Shaw wanted to know about this subject what Shaw knew about it. As he said to himself about his mother when he was an adolescent, She doesn’t want to know what I know.
There is a moment, in the middle of Ceremonies, when a man on a landing of a staircase at the local university, looking out the window at the students crossing campus between classes, says to Derek, What do gays want? Thereafter, the question reverberates through different episodes. It has earlier manifestations, when the Coalition meets the first time and members of the community are invited to come forward and say what they want the Coalition to focus on. Deborah, early in Part 3, suggests an answer, and Dana, in the final episode of the novel, stands in line to vote in the presidential election in November, 1984, a kind of ultimate choice, but she remembers back in June, before Bernie Mallett was murdered, walking in Gay Pride down Charles Street and hearing someone shout, “What do gays want?” and hearing the mass of marchers shout back, “Freedom!” “And when do we want it?” “Now!” But even though they weren’t very clear about what freedom meant, they were clear about wanting it.
But they don’t get it. They get murder and savage beatings. A reader spoke very movingly about Ceremonies—“It was the first gay novel,” she said, “that addressed the lives of working class gay people.”—but that was before she finished the book. Later, she told me, “I didn’t know you were going to end the book that way.” She had not liked my choices.
Of course, a novel, which proceeds through time, has to end at some point, and sometimes that point is the moment of a beating or a murder, a resolution of the stresses of the story. But there are other ways to end a story. Describing the same actions on the same dates, the writer could conclude the narrative with the events in this order: around Halloween in Boston, the School Board meeting, the 1984 election. In paintings, in the fourteenth century, the artist may place one part of the story in the foreground and another part of the story above. A viewer might see the School Board meeting on one side and the 1984 election above, and the events around Halloween in Boston on the other side, and the viewer would see them all at the same time. Guernica works this way. Time, before and after, has nothing to do with Guernica. This exists, and that exists, and they exist in the same moment. The Wasteland works this way.
Some sculptures, some poetry, also work this way. And it is a fine thought to know that pictorial art can function this way. I walk Commercial Street in Provincetown and pass the galleries. The paintings on the walls of AMP exist at the same time as paintings on the Bowersock gallery’s walls. In my mind, they hang together.
The point here is that the graphite drawing of the man’s beautiful body, lying stretched out across the canvas, exists in the same space as Guernica. The beautiful and the horrific. At The Globe theatre in London in 1601, watching Twelfth Night and Hamlet on the same stage, with the same actors, on the same day, it was inevitable that the playgoer would not feel jarred, would, in fact, think that’s the way my life is. Once, a relative read something I had written, and said to me, “Next time, write something cheerful.” I was pissed, but if that were to happen again, I would say, Come back tomorrow. There’s a new show. Or Check out the next shelf, where you’ll find satire. Or On Thursdays we do Comedy. Or this afternoon, for a matinee. We have everything ready. But I don’t know what will happen next time.There are no limits on the subject of novels about heterosexuals or for that matter about homosexuals. What limits there are which exist on the subject of any work of art are merely a matter of taste and therefore may be violated at the artist’s choice and the gallery-visitor’s inclination.
I was in London one year and was bemused by what seemed like the limited number of the professional actors we saw. At the Barbican, the actor playing Ariel could be seen playing some heavy part on the TV and some major tragic figure in the Workshop Theatre downstairs. One group of actors seem to be playing all the roles all over London. Helen Mirren seemed to be playing all of them.
On our Earth there are a limited number of us to play all the parts, and a limited number of parts to play of all that have been written. And yet, we seem to like to watch the same shows with the same actors over and over again, or, to change the art form, to read the same books and the same plots. I started writing too late in my life to have written many of these stories—I was 45 when I started—but there are many millions of stories to be written about LGBTQ persons and the same number about other kinds of persons. These are ours, here on Earth. I wanted to write about how painful it was living here, because the knowledge of what happened to us should not be lost. Someone had to write about Charles Howard’s death. We owed him that. A gravestone in Provincetown says, Nelson White, Lost at Sea. LGBTQ persons live many different lives, both comic and tragic, and in one life, epic and lyric. A queer may experience both comedy and tragedy, and there is no need to choose between them. No possibility even.
Today is Sunday. On Thursday, the ashes of Matthew Shepard were interred in the Washington National Cathedral. Matthew Shepard was born on December 1, 1976, and died, tied to a fence near Laramie, Wyoming, on October 12, 1998, his ashes buried October 26, 2018, in the Washington National Cathedral. Charles Howard was murdered on July 7, 1984, in Bangor, Maine. He was beaten, stripped naked, and thrown off a bridge into a small river, where he drowned. These two young men, who died in different parts of the United States, fourteen years apart, in circumstances which were very similar, prompted a response from their towns which was very different. When Charles Howard died, his town largely turned its back on him. When Matthew Shepard died, the times had changed, and his community—and his nation—couldn’t bear the image of the beautiful boy tied to the fence on the prairie, dying. Both young men have had novels written about their deaths.
So for the writer, it is not merely a question of choosing between this subject and that. It becomes a question of what a writer needs to write. The answer is all of it. Every grain of sand. The challenge writers face is the plain difficulty of writing novels about vast areas of LGBTQ lives which have been totally ignored. We are only just getting to the point of defining transgender and have not written many stories in which a transgender person is at its center. We are still writing stories in which the LGBTQ person is coming out. It’s a kind of fairy tale that Bruno Bettelheim analyzes, and we read it over and over for the reasons that Bettelheim puts forth. It is a deeply satisfying narrative for those not yet fully grown. This leaves, for an easy category of stories still to be written, the whole library of stories in which the LGBTQ person is dying. Or learning the cello. Or joining the rebels in whatever revolution they are in on whatever continent. This leaves a story about the gay person who succeeds in the difficult world of big business or who is an archeologist in Iraq in 1998 to be written next, to be given the full treatment of an intelligent, aware, sophisticated narrative in which her story can be told.
What our writers may consider themselves free to write about when they open their computers is the whole range of the human condition. Publishers are known to reject books that will not attract a broad sales. With LBGTQ books, they seek “cross-over books” which will raise their sales and make fat their bottom line. Even LGBTQ writers are frequently known to tell us all that publishing is not a charity and that it exists to make money for the publisher. Well, if we learn the value of books that are not from our community and if others learn the value of LGBTQ books, some of that problem will be solved. We could read each other’s books. Ebooks and print-on-demand will solve other issues. But the first issue to which LGBTQ writers can address themselves is the question, What important LGBTQ novels have not yet been written? and know its corollary answer, I will write that one.
If you were standing on the Moon, you’d have a different perspective. My husband and I saw The First Man last night and, figuratively, stood on the Moon and saw Earth falling through space in front of us—in front of us—Earth with its millions of stories. Earth, and the United States in particular, during the Twentieth Century, has had many victories that have brought us more freedom. Many of these are court judgments, in cases brought by people who considered this or that book to be “obscene.” People wanted to prevent gay writers from writing about some of our subjects.
I won’t bother to attempt to define obscenity here, but it is important to note the cases—rather like always remembering what Brown v. Board of Education was about and when it happened and what resulted from it. These obscenity cases are, for readers and for writers and taken together, our Brown v. Board of Education, a bedrock, unarguable statement of our right to write and to read what we wish, that our lives, in literary form, are protected by the Constitution. These cases are important because, for a long time, we were not allowed to write anything that could be considered “perverse” and the very suggestion of a homosexual relationship in a novel was enough to get the novel defined as “obscene” and therefore unpublishable and beyond the protection of the First Amendment. This is no longer the case, but the effects of the centuries of censorship of LGBTQ literature are still strong enough to call people who are not gay themselves to refuse to read books that they may have heard about, because they have heard about its subject.
In my life, the first documented case of governmental censorship of literature was of James Joyce’s great novel, Ulysses, published in Paris by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co. and published in the US by Random House. The case is called United States v. One Book Entitled “Ulysses,” and the judge was a federal district judge named, wonderfully, Learned Hand. The case was decided in 1933, twenty-four years before I graduated from high school, and when I bought my first copy, Random House had bound into my copy Judge Hand’s decision liberating the book. It made a huge impression on me. It was my first novel by James Joyce, and it was my first legal decision by anybody. It had been charged with being obscene. And whenever I wanted to I could read Judge Hand’s decision saying it was not obscene. This decision was later affirmed by Judge John M. Woolsey of the 2nd Circuit. What came out of this censorship case was that the government had to look at the book as a whole and not merely at the writer’s use of one obscene word. The Judge ruled: “Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.” And that included the word fuck. And suck. After this one, cases were brought against Lolita and Tropic of Cancer, as well as many many others. Ultimately, all of these books were freed to be published. When Faggots was published, no one cared very much. That’s where we want it to be.
While the right to read anything has been expanding over the whole of the United States, another movement has been going in the other direction during the last century. Courts are not supportive of the idea of banning books, and our Constitution gives them many ways to protect literature. But the anti-literature folks have found other means.
Gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer people have suffered through centuries in which they were neither allowed to write about their lives nor read about them. This is less of a problem now, but it is still a problem. The literary review of the school I originally went to, later published announcements inviting submissions of poems and short stories. The announcement said that No story with a homosexual theme will be accepted. The consequences of centuries of censorship remain with us. Were some intelligent creature to land on the Moon and find Karen’s bracelet and then be able to translate texts from the Library of Congress, for example, in addition to centuries of literature about heterosexual men and women living on Earth, now, in 2018, they would find a mere sixty or eighty years of a literature devoted to all the other kinds of people who don’t think there are only two genders or only one gender object choice, a literature largely thinned out by censorship and self-censorship, composed of stories about what it was like to be gay and to live on Earth in 2018. The censorship is real and has had real consequences.
There are different kinds of censorship. Censorship may operate through the publisher. Publishers, as they tell us over and over, are in the business of making money, and they have a complex formula by which they measure whether a book will make money. Those that aren’t predicted to make money are rejected. On the other hand, a book that the publishers agree will make money goes through the editing process a few times and then is printed, perhaps, for a 100,000 copies. Another publisher, not demanding as much at the bottom line as publisher number 1, decides to publish ten books, each of which has to be edited at least once before it is printed for 10,000 copies. Notice that publisher number 2 is offering the reader a far greater variety of books than publisher number 1. But a publisher, trying to decide whether to publish one book and sell 100,000 copies or ten books and sell 10,000 each, notes that the overhead for the one-book-at-100,000 copies is one-tenth the size of the ten-books-at-10,000. Savings at scale. And what gets left out is the minority like ours that doesn’t have 100,000 book purchasers to make our books financially viable for either of the big publishers. What is the minority to do that only has 5,000 members, of whom only 3,000 are serious book readers? The only solution, for the publisher, is to buy only books that are crossover books—books that appeal to both gay and straight and therefore together make the sales necessary to keeping the publishing house in the black.
But a small minority like ours is out of luck if it can’t get enough of our own to make the necessary purchases. If you write your book well, on a subject that many LGBTQ people want to read about—AIDS, for example, or marriage equality—and many people who are knowledgeable about novels say that it is a very good book for LGBTQ people, and yet the publishers won’t publish it—this is censorship-by-bottom line. The publisher uses his demand for a return on his investment—which is his right—as a reason for his refusal to publish your book. His or her refusal to serve a small minority is a kind of bigotry. And it is definitely a kind of censorship. The books that get published are attractive to the largest demographic in the country—white straight people—and contain nothing that will discomfit the sensibilities of the white straight people who may be enticed into reading a gay book, and don’t contain a homophobic white man who is from a “good family” and with degrees from an Ivy League school. The large majority of our community is out of luck, at least as far as the big publishers are concerned. When I had completed my first novel—Ceremonies, about the events surrounding the murder of Charles Howard—I submitted the novel to a person who was said to be the biggest and best gay literary agent in New York. She had heard about my manuscript and asked to see it. She read it and said, “This is a wonderful novel.” Then, without pausing for breath, she said, “But no publisher in New York will publish it.” We discussed this for a while—my contributions to the discussion mainly focussed on the idea that I had thought that it was the job of agents to persuade publishers that they should publish “wonderful” books. Her contribution focussed on that fact that she didn’t think it was a “cross-over” book. Other publishers complained that there were no straight characters “so you’ve only told half the story.” I kept insisting that I didn’t write my book for straight people or to appeal to straight people or to answer the needs of straight people. I had written my book for LGBTQ people, but they refused to publish it.
We actually have more options as LGBTQ writers and readers than we have ever had before. It could be said that we live in a golden age of publishing. On our computers on which we write our books, we can create ebooks on which readers who want to can read our books. An iPad Mini 4 is lighter (.65 lbs) than a printed Race Point Light (1.9 lbs in print) and uses less paper from forests, for those of us who are realizing that there is not an unending supply of trees on Earth. And, brand new to my awareness is print-on-demand, a technology that has been around for thirty years, but is just getting to the point of being available to an LGBTQ writer, at home in their workroom. A print-on-demand book, like the ebook, cuts out the big publishers entirely. It is a technology that allows you to buy a copy of a book, on line, and the company on the other end will print one copy for you, skipping the 10,000 copies that may usually be printed and shipped and stored and shipped and then distributed to bookstores around the country. Even print-on-demand is better for the planet than regular printing. If your book only attracts five buyers, then only five copies are printed, and the Earth is only short one tree rather than a forest. The big New York publishers have concealed from the reading public the fact that when a single reader wants to read a single book, he or she must join with 10,000 other people who are all predictably going to want that particular book. This is a system designed for people whose reading tastes are similar to those of a large crowd.
Two points here: Adriana Books, which publishes Ceremonies, Race Point Light, Winter Rain, and Adam in the Morning, in both ebook and print-on-demand form, and many other similar publishers, free the writer from the chokehold the big publishers have had on what I can read and what I can get my friends to read, and correct the error that has developed in the publishing industries that is bad for the Earth. That is, paper books and their massive use of the earth’s resources. The effect of these two changes, which are linked together, is to make our books more interesting, more diverse, and cheaper and kinder to the Earth. Now there is a greater chance that the record of our lives in fiction, freed of the control of the giant publishers, will be more complete than it has been in the past, and will include the private grief of LGBTQ people like Alec Argento and Fair Shaw and the little group who knew Charles Howard and described with the same care in our novels as The First Man describes Neil Armstrong’s grief for Karen. I write for a press free of the constraints that gay books—all but those by the most powerful voices—experience. Big bookstores have reduced the space they devote to us down to one shelf. This series, the Earthrise essays, has been an attempt to push back.
This is the eleventh—and last—in a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.
Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976
Damien Chazelle, Director. The First Man. Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, released October 12, 2018