In 1957, when we were students at a school in Tennessee (I was eighteen), students understood that it was against the law to engage in same-sex sex. You could be arrested, tried, and convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for a felony. What I think we were more immediately afraid of was that somebody might say, “You’re queer,” and report us to the dean of men or to our fraternity brothers. We weren’t afraid of being put in jail so much as we were afraid of being humiliated. While I was a student at this school (I was a student there for only two years), at least one student was expelled from school by the administration, and another student was thrown out of his fraternity and left the university. The college had only thirteen hundred students. (You would think that a school that small would want to keep all its students, even queer ones.) When I first arrived at this school, I heard rumors that there had been a purge of homosexual students the year before. The subject was a lively one among the students and created real fear. I got to the point where I didn’t trust anyone. What if someone discovers I’m queer? I started paying attention to my mannerisms—the way I talked, the way I walked, what I did with my hands. Today, I think we would say I was being careful about the way I presented my gender. One student told me about being very upset that his roommate apparently looked at him in the wrong way in the men’s room. On the other hand, there seemed to be a lot of homosexual sex among the students. There was knowing laughter among the students when the subject came up, and it may have been uneasy laughter, too. The boy whose roommate looked at him the wrong way in the men’s room, hitchhiked all the way across the next state over to go home and talk to his dad about what am I supposed to do now that he has looked at me. The difficulties with all this for most of us was that it was only years later that we realized how awful it was. The college wasn’t much worse than the towns where we grew up, and we didn’t know that our sexuality was something people were supposed to respect, along with our grades and our other achievements.
One student, a year older than I, seemed to me to be clearly queer. His name was Tom. He bought his clothes at Brooks Brothers (this was the fifties, remember) and wore a blue blazer with brass buttons, khaki pants, a rep-stripe tie, and Weejuns. He was charming, smooth, polished, witty, and laughed a lot. He invited us to find him entertaining, and we did. He was a friend of ours, and his only problem was that his dad was rich and so he had too much money. One time, he said, “Oh look, I’ve made this terrible mistake. Would you help me? I meant to buy a bottle of Virginia Gentleman and by mistake, I bought a whole case. Would anybody here help me get rid of it?” He didn’t take himself seriously and like many of us didn’t have goals. I think he probably drank too much and like all of us he smoked. (I did both until I finally quit in 2002.) I think he dreamed of owning a farm in the Virginia horse country.
I forgave him for not taking himself seriously, because I knew that his rich father treated him like shit. Although neither of us talked about the fact that both of us were queer, I understood that was the reason his father abused him. I knew how much that polished, witty exterior of Tom’s cost him. I knew what it was even if we never talked about it. I think Tom saw his role in life was, largely, to entertain us all. And that was tragic.
John D’Emilio, in his important study, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, said this about America in the time when Tom and I were in college:
The harsh reality of oppression shaped the contours of gay identity and the gay world. The condemnations that did occur burdened homosexuals and lesbians with a corrosive self-image. The dominant view of them—as perverts, psychopaths, deviates, and the like—seeped into their consciousness. Shunted to the margins of American society, harassed because of their sexuality, many gay men and women internalized the negative descriptions and came to embody the stereotypes….Whether seen from the vantage point of religion, medicine, or the law, [people thought] the homosexual or lesbian was a flawed individual, not the victim of injustice. (p. 53)
And yet, Tom was not defeated by his culture even though he suffered. He was shy, self-deprecating, laughed gently at himself and his ways, and was generous to his friends. When a friend pressed him about some awful thing that had happened to him, his response was, Oh, well—a kind of stoic acceptance. Then he would throw back his head and laugh.
The school we went to was a liberal arts college owned by a mainstream Christian denomination which pretended to a certain level of sophistication. The school published a well-known literary quarterly that published many of the major writers and men-of-letters of the fifties. Years later, I read Jaime Harker’s extremely interesting book on Christopher Isherwood called Middlebrow Queer. Harker writes of the effect of the Cold War on the literary world of the forties and fifties:
During the 1940s and 1950s, Cold War intellectuals sought to establish the United States culturally as well as politically (and many did so with covert CIA support for key literary journals). The discipline of American studies—established in books by Leo Marx, F. O. Matthiessen, Richard Chase, and Leslie Fiedler—sought to establish a mythic American spirit; critics in the Partisan Review contrasted the freedom of highbrow aesthetics with the niggardly realism of totalitarian regimes. These cultural interventions were marked by an aggressive masculinity; any deviance was denounced as aesthetically compromised and un-American. (p. 5)
Harker also says,
Critics…were equally dismissive of “both women’s and gay men’s creativity,” attributing “shallowness, decorativeness, shrillness, and lack of authenticity” to both; real “culture,” these critics believed, was “made by real men.” (p. 6 )
What the college presented to us as an idyllic time in a Gothic village on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee was actually a swamp of fetid Cold War neuroses, mixing fears of gender nonconformity with class aspirations and sexual confusions and conservative, nationalistic politics. It was an absolute shock to me when, thirty years later, I discovered that the people I had read in the college quarterly literary journal had been paid by the CIA to say the things they said. When I was in graduate school and tentatively exploring the idea of becoming a writer, I read an advertisement from that literary journal. It invited both poetry and fiction submissions for publication, but, it said, it would publish no stories with a homosexual theme. Real men. And these people, whom I tried to honor, were being paid by the CIA.
Both Tom and I escaped this atmosphere, in different ways. When I reconnected with him, fifty years later, he smiled at me, his arms spread wide, welcoming me home, and said, “I have so much to tell you!” He read my books, was really complimentary, said I told the truth, told me stories, and we were both surprised at what Time had done to us. We were able to laugh. He wrote, very near the day of his death, about one of my books, “The book touched me in a personal way that I can’t be clear about. I don’t know WHY? Gay bashing makes me feel crazy—maybe that’s why.” Tom had been damaged at that school in Tennessee—but then he was damaged in Florida, where he had grown up. There wasn’t any single place in America that wasn’t damaging to a person like Tom during those years, and yet he had grace and style and generosity and kindness. He was smart too, and he was strong. The damages were not disabling.
Well, I loved him. RIP, Tom Britt.
John D’Emilio. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Jaime Harker. Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.