At the time I started writing my first gay political novel, I had only been out for 24 months, and I was steeping in the literature of gay political theory. The weekend that Charles Howard was murdered (July 7, 1984)—he was the man on whom Bernie Mallett of Ceremonies was modeled—I was reading John D’Emilio’s, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. The existence of D’Emilio’s book—it was published the year before Charles Howard was murdered—suggested what was missing in Bangor, Maine that summer: somebody to write it all down. I was struck, reading D’Emilio, by how impressive his work was in bringing together the history of the gay movement. At that time, I was an academic at the University of Maine, and for the twenty years previous, I had been trained to be impressed by the importance of books. Now I found myself in the middle of the consequences of Howard’s murder, looking around me, and thinking, This is our history. We have to write it down. The idea was daunting and exhilarating, and I never questioned it.
I moved to Boston and started writing right off. I started off writing in the third person (“He was sitting in the chair.”) and the character was a young male. I worked on this for a year. It was all about young-male angst, and it was entirely predictable and boring. But I didn’t know how to make it fresh and new and interesting. Then, out in the city (I walk around Boston a lot) I heard a man talking about himself (“So this is what I did.”) and listened for a few minutes. Ah, yes. I went home, thinking about hearing the man tell another man of something that was happening to him. I could hear the man’s voice, talking in my head. He was talking about this and about that, and then pretty soon I heard him. My chapters took on a style drawn from the person speaking, and when the person spoke, he or she talked about what they were doing at the moment and, then, fairly frequently, they mentioned what was happening in town as a result of Charlie’s murder. Then, a little less frequently, the guy will refer to something happening on the national or international scene. So the person whose voice we’re reading is giving us a pretty rich picture of his life. Here is Marybeth:
The coalition has been at the edge of a split during the last two meetings. The women have a history of the women’s movement. We’ve had our organizations and our meetings for years, and the men seem naive, unpracticed. Their issues have to do with the police and politics, and they’ve tried to override us and define the agenda of the coalition. They haven’t really understood the issues we face, and Mickey has been a part of that. I am tired and impatient, and I don’t feel like trying to undo Mickey’s bad education sitting in a car at eleven at night double-parked in front of his house.
Then on the same page (p. 389 in the print edition), her mind active, she jumps to the governor.
The governor, a Democrat, at his press conference today, was asked this question: What will be the response of the state government to the murder of Bernard Mallett in Cardiff? His answer had two parts. He said that he had always supported the gay rights bill now before the legislature, which would protect the civil rights of gay men and lesbians in matters of credit and housing. He was opposed to including employment because, he said, there were certain employers who, because of religious beliefs, should not be forced to employ homosexuals. He was talking about the Roman Catholic Church and the fundamentalist Christian right. Nobody pointed out that the national Democratic platform specifically included protecting gay rights in matters of employment.
The governor said the matter of the murder was in the hands of the criminal justice system—the police and the courts—and it would be inappropriate for him to comment further. He’s like my mother: You can have this, and you can have that, but you can’t have everything you want. And there are a certain number of things he won’t even discuss.
Every day I come home from work and find Cynthia watching some sporting event from Los Angeles [it’s the 1984 Olympics]. I get in bed with her, run my hand up and down her body and cup her breasts, and then with the tips of my fingers, pull gently on her nipples. I pull her toward me and kiss them.
Then she shifts to what she sees on the screen:
We watch athletic women running and jumping and heaving and swimming and diving before the huge crowds in the stadium. The color of the photography is unnaturally intense, and the red, white and blue of the athletes’ uniforms is as unreal as technicolor. The image the screen presents is of a group of female athletes competing before a stadium of men.
Her mother, the women’s movement, the gay movement, the Coalition, the governor, the gay rights bill before the legislature, Cynthia her lover, the 1984 Olympics, the relationship of women to men. She thinks all the time, and what she thinks about is everything that is going on around her. I started doing this before I thought about it. But if you place a sophisticated young gay woman in a major place in a novel, this is the kind of monologue you are likely to get—intensely aware of sex and of politics on all levels surrounding her. She’s aware of everything. And it seems as if she moves forward on all her interests as the novel moves forward.
There are many passages in Race Point Light which exhibit the same kind of wide-angle focus. This is Fair Shaw, the narrator of Race Point Light:
In the summer we rented a house at Pawley’s and invited my parents and Cornelius and his family to come down to the beach and visit us—Cornelius and Henrietta never came to Michigan. The visits were brief, and everybody was on his best behavior, but Cornelius was not interested in Ann Arbor or our life there, and Henrietta played the perfect Southern woman by arriving with already baked hams and roasts and never allowed a personal remark to pass her lips. We had landed on the moon, the country was in the middle of the largest political scandal of its history, half a dozen of its most important political leaders had been assassinated, the United States was headed for the most catastrophic military defeat in its history, their brother and brother-in-law was queer, and none of this ever crossed their lips. Cornelius spent his energies attacking our father, who had had a heart attack and was now an invalid. He imitated Daddy’s slow shuffle around the room, mocking his helplessness and inviting Naomi and me to laugh with him. He said, “My father is ruining my mother’s life.”
“I think they pretty much share the responsibility for whatever has happened to them, Cornelius.”
The fact is we are going to have to live with the category “political novels” because “political” is one of the things humans are. We organize ourselves as sports enthusiasts, athletes, scientist, teachers. And politicians. And so we write and read books about and for sports enthusiasts and all the others categories. Gay people, because we are gay, are interested in writing or reading political fiction, because we ourselves are political people. That is unavoidable, even if there is a particular LGBTQ man or woman who doesn’t give a shit whether Hillary wins on Tuesday. The politicization of LGBTQ people began when the rest of humanity decided to condemn people into same-sex sex and into different ways to express gender. Even at this moment, we are subject to laws which restrict our participation in the political body, and if we participate at all, we are taking political stands about ourselves. It has always been true that coming out is the most political thing gay people can do. We don’t have to come out, but even if we don’t, we live in a culture where the power of the state is being used against us. That means our lives have been politicized and we have no choice but to know that.
At the end of Adam in the Morning, after the last of the fighting has stopped, Bo and Andrew and Joseph and Billy and Gus and Mitzi are all sitting on the high stoop next to the Stonewall. Bo is talking.
“Well, look, guys. You may have heard that Belle wants to have a baby, which requires some help from a man, and she’s asked Andrew and me, and so Andrew and I need to talk, but I’d also like to hear what the rest of you think. You’re our gang, and I want to know what you think about gay men doing this. Are you our family? Do gay men have families? We have a lot to talk about.”
“When does she need to know?” Andrew asks. He rests his head against my abdomen.
“She didn’t put any deadline on it. I said we’d give her our answer in the next day or two, but it will surely take longer than that.”
“What are you going to say?” Billy is twisted around, looking up at me.
“I don’t know. It would change our lives. So would having Mitzi move in, and so would setting up a shelter for street kids.”
“So would setting up a gay newspaper.”
“I’m not sure I want my life changed,” Andrew says.
“Are you going to tell them,” Billy asks, “or are you leaving it to me to tell them that you are thinking of running for political office?”
There may come a time when enough laws are changed and when enough hearts and minds are changed so that the need to separate us from the rest of the population with laws and political and judicial judgments dies away and it is no longer necessary for us to come out. But even when that time comes, it will still be true that our past has been deeply political, and to understand our past we must research and write and read political history—both fiction and non-fiction—about gay people, just to be able to understand ourselves. What is happening in this little scene, the guys all sitting together on the steps, dirty and bloody after the fighting, talking slowly, quietly about themselves and about the future, which also includes the past.
Many of the characters in my four novels ask, eventually, How did I get here? They say, I was a quiet regular guy doing my job, and now I am on the front pages of the newspaper or being interviewed on TV. How did this happen?
It happened because Charlie Howard was gay. And some straight boys didn’t like that and threw him in a river, where he drowned. Then you, because you knew Charlie Howard and you were a friend of his, felt anger at the way he died and why he died. So you came to the church on Monday night and you started wearing a button that said, “Another friend of Charlie Howard.” And eventually the newspapers noticed how many people were wearing buttons that said “Another friend of Charlie Howard.” They wrote an article about it, and somebody gave them your name when they wanted a photographer to take a picture of someone wearing Charlie’s button. That’s how it happened.
Looking back on it, there is no place in that chain of events where you had a choice. You were who you were. You were gay. You were a friend of Charlie Howard’s. You were angry that he was murdered. Your anger led you to wear a button. And now here you are. And there was nothing you could do about any of that. There was no moment where you could say, Now, if I do A I will end up on the front page of the newspaper, but if I do B I can go on with my obscure regular life. You didn’t really have a choice except to deny Charlie, and you couldn’t do that. You just couldn’t do that.
Remember Charlie Howard when you vote on Tuesday.
John D’Emilio’s, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Jamie Harker. Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.