Even though I didn’t have many extended, free-wheeling conversations with friends about the military’s rules against my serving (I served anyway), still the fact that what I was doing sexually was a crime occupied me deeply. A novel about me during the sixties in graduate school which didn’t show that I agonized over the fact that my culture had set up all sorts of barriers to my living freely and openly in my culture would have been a deeply untrue book. And while I felt the confinements of my culture, I was also aware that I was surrounded by men who were allowed to do exactly the thing I was not allowed to do—have sex with the person I was attracted to—and they were praised for doing what I wasn’t allowed to do.
At the time, my culture was so pervasively hostile to gay matters that I wasn’t even aware that my unhappiness was a consequence of the times I lived in and of the place I lived, and if you had asked me, in some literature class, to propose a plot for a novel set among graduate students in 1964, say, I would not have known to include my feelings about my culture’s condemnations of homosexuality. I would have proposed a novel whose central conflict would have been segregation of the races, or the elitism of my fellow graduate students, or my obtuse professors, or my bigoted, alcohol-ridden family. I would not have known to write about an unhappiness that had its source in my culture’s attitudes toward my sexuality.
Then later, after Stonewall, I began to realize that the way I felt was often a consequence of the way my culture treated me, and a novel about me would be about a man coming to terms with his culture. A novel about me—that is, a novel about a gay man twenty-four years old who was in graduate school—since it had to be about a man coming to terms with his culture because that’s what I was doing during those years, would be a political novel because it would be about a man searching for a way to live in a culture whose rules and laws and regulations and customs and attitudes all were designed to prevent him from in any way having the freedom to live his life.
I don’t think I set out, at the beginning, to write a political novel. What I set out to do was to write about a group of people who all had experienced same-sex desire and who, from the early pages of the novel, felt they were in deep danger because a person they knew had just been murdered. One of the questions the novel addresses is, How do these people respond to their sudden change in condition? (This was Ceremonies, and the year was 1986.) Most of the publishers who saw it later wanted me to turn the book around. Instead of placing the murder at the beginning and then looking at its consequences, they wanted me to introduce the three boys first and then look at the reasons why three boys kill a young gay man. The novel would end with the murder. The publishers wanted me to write a familiar story about the things that made three young men cause a young gay man to die. That’s a good story, and there is reason to write stories that ask the question, “Why did this man make this person die?” But that story does not answer the question which had presented itself to me. What is the connection between me and my homophobic culture? Another way to put this is to say, Having a friend murdered makes me do (or feel or think of) this.
There are many kinds of political novels. Some are about a political question: Should this woman be elected President of the United States? Some come close to being propaganda. Some are about the variety of ways of seeing a political question. But one way, which has been almost totally ignored among gay writers, is to address the question, What is the effect on you of the rules your culture imposes on you? If you are a young gay man who wants to do what his peers are doing—volunteer to go into the Army to fight in World War II, say—you are going to be right up against the political question of gay soldiers.
This is not really a question of Should the Congress pass this law? Or Can I lie about my sexuality so as to take a shower around all those naked soldiers? Or It would be better if all soldiers were blond. But it is about the question, What is the effect on me of my trying to live in this culture? The question of gay soldiers leads directly into the question of self-knowledge, and it leads into the issue of what kind of people I am surrounded by, and who’s in charge here, and how forgiving are they, and what am I capable of? In short, the question of gay soldiers leads directly into the deepest questions of western fiction, western drama, and western philosophy.
If a character wants to go into the Army, and if the novel is set in 1943, the character has to be aware that his going into the Army is against the law. The writer has to give this information to satisfy the bare minimum of the depiction of reality. If he leaves it there—at the point where gay men are understood to be unable to serve in the military—then the restriction may function like a restriction on flat feet among recruits. It’s there, and it’s obeyed and it has effect on the characters, but it is not subjected to examination and doesn’t cause anyone to change their opinion of themselves or to analyze their feelings. That is, it doesn’t reach deeply into the characters in the novel. But what if a writer then has a character who is told at some point he can’t serve in the military and who then asks why?Then the focus of the book must turn to the military’s reasons for the ban and to the effects of the ban on the recruit. And what if the writer announces on the first page of the novel that soldiers who are gay cannot serve in the military? The writer must then spend the rest of the novel investigating what a ban did to the military in the person of a particular lieutenant in Hawaii whose job it was to investigate soldiers accused of homosexuality and to process them out of the service. Or, alternatively, and perhaps even more compellingly, what if the ban is announced on the first page, and then the writer’s attention turns to a married sergeant in Oklahoma who has fallen in love with a member of his platoon. He had not known that he was capable of same sex desire before he fell, like the ton of bricks, for private Oliver.
Like all really important questions, the question of gay soldiers can lead eventually to the most important questions of all. Who am I? What role does God play in the universe? Why do we suffer? Could we have had different lives?—all questions asked by Aeschylus and Sophocles.
So, even though political fiction can respond to aspects of life which no other kind of fiction can respond to, and even though political fiction can lead to questions which are the same questions asked by the greatest—and earliest—literature of our civilization, still many people don’t like political fiction. This raises the question of why. First, many authorities are unable to distinguish between political fiction and propaganda. When we read propaganda we come to the end of a novel believing that gay people are good people. In propaganda the writer is manipulating the reader, which is bad. (It is true that all writers manipulate all readers—that’s what writing is—and the difference between propaganda and other kinds of political writing may lie in whether or not it is a dictator or demagogue who is doing the propagandizing.) For myself, I doubt that propaganda is a clearly bad kind of writing. Uncle Tom’s Cabin being the most unanswerable example. Christopher Isherwood has something to say about this issue. It may be impossible, he says, for gay writers to avoid the charge of propaganda. Jaime Harker quotes Isherwood saying, “There are certain subjects—including Jewish, Negro, and homosexual questions—which involve social and political issues. There are laws that could be changed. There are public prejudices which could be removed. Anything an author writes on these subjects is bound, therefore, to have a certain propaganda value, whether he likes it or not.” (p. 14) That is, the depiction of all of the sources of a character’s predicament can sometimes lead to change in the author’s culture, whether that was his goal or not. I think whether “propaganda” is an actionable charge is dependent on another question—does the thrust of the whole novel move toward a fully realized person in a fully recognizable situation.
But, propaganda aside, some people apparently don’t like gay political fiction because of religious beliefs. Ephesians 5.3 says sexual uncleanness is “not to be named among Christians.” British common law held that buggery (anal intercourse) was an “abominable crime against nature not fit to be named among Christians,” much of which language was adopted word-for-word into various American state constitutions. This charge can be dismissed out of hand.
There were also medical sources for a reader’s dislike of gay political fiction. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM-II (1968, 2nd edition, 2nd printing, October 1968) determined that homosexuality was a “sexual deviation” among the “non-psychotic mental disorders,” which didn’t end until the APA voted December, 1973 to eliminate Homosexuality as a name for a condition and to replace it with Sexual Orientation Disturbance and to print these changes in the DSM-II, (2nd edition, seventh printing, July 1974). Readers who believe that homosexuality is a “sexual deviation” should quit reading novels. A novel about a patient and a mental health professional who was also an abusive ideologue seems to me to be a workable subject for a novel.
There were other things going on after World War II. The US was in its struggle with the Soviet Union. As a result of the Cold War, Jaime Harker says, “Cold War intellectuals lumped together and pathologized all novels that touched on gay themes” (p. 14). It was inevitable that the establishment would not approve of a man who they thought endangered the United States in its great struggle with the Soviet Union by writing books that somehow corrupted the manhood of the nation.
On December 24, 2013, I wrote in this blog. “Observe the damage these ‘Cold War intellectuals’ did in the late forties and fifties: […] a critical principle repeated so widely that it became everywhere accepted, that gay novels on serious political subjects can be no more than mere propaganda and not in themselves capable of being interesting and compelling literature. We were told, gay art cannot be “art.” That’s a crime, to have told us that. We’ll never know what literature has been lost to us in the last sixty years because of these ‘Cold War intellectuals.’”