07 May 2008

Five Favourite Revolutionaries: Andrew Holleran

I have been a full-time fag for the past five years, I realized the other day. Everyone I know is gay, everything I do is gay, all my fantasies are gay. I am what Gus called those people we used to see in the discos, bars, baths, all the time—remember? Those people we used to see EVERYWHERE, every time we went out, so that you wanted to call the police and have them arrested?—I am a doomed queen. […] But let me assure you, my novel is not about fags. It is about a few characters who just happen to be gay (I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true). After all, most fags are as boring as straight people—they start businesses with lovers and end up in Hollywood, Florida, with dogs and double-knit slacks and I have no desire to write about them. What can one say about success? Nothing! But the failures—that tiny subspecies of homosexual, the doomed queen, who puts the car in gear and drives right off the cliff? That fascinates me. […] It was those whom Christ befriended, not the assholes in the ad agencies uptown who go to St. Kitts in February! Those people bore me to DEATH! […] THAT is what I want to write about— why life is SAD. And what people do for Love (everything)—whether they’re gay or not.

— Andrew Holleran

Because by and large LGBT people are born within the heterosexual family, we must consequently re-learn what it means to be ourselves within the social and cultural norms of gayness, once we achieve an acceptable escape velocity from heteronormativity. This is a rather old-fashioned perspective, for nowadays many in the LGBT community are wrapped up in homonormativity, a resurgent parallel structure of propriety that, contrary to popular opinion, is not really new as much as newly fashionable. Bourgeois gay teens proclaim their sexualities and take their cute boyfriends to prom, baby dykes are senior class presidents, and everyone is supposedly OK with gay.

While the class and geographical dimensions of this normalization of lesbian and gay identity are relatively limited, the perception is that this acceptance is the new norm. After all, we had Will and Grace, didn’t we? IKEA produces commercials for us, don’t they? Political candidates are willing to mention us without a sneer, aren’t they (even if they still do nothing tangible for us)? Nowadays, in short, many LGBT people seem to want to be the asshole who goes to St. Kitts in February.

In any event, for many of us still, our experience actually hews to the older model, of learning gayness from peers and lovers, from crafting personae from the raw material of our foundational standpoints of alterity and anomie with like-minded fellow travelers away from the family, in the cauldron of the gay ghetto. For the two generations of gay men and lesbians after Stonewall, moving beyond the social and cultural practices of the bars and closed societies into the light meant also producing different kinds of cultural production, literature, and arts that reflected new meanings of gayness, new codes of behavior and experience that assimilated the political principles of Gay Liberation but also spoke to a deeper, quotidian senses of what gayness meant.

Andrew Holleran was one of a group of gay writers who began in the seventies to delineate a literary universe for the post-Stonewall gay man. While gay literature predates the riots that form the Procrustean bed of the contemporary LGBT moment, typically that literature was not written for lesbians or gay men specifically, but oriented towards the heterosexual reader as audience, for convincing potential straight allies that we deserved pity, not punishment (the lesbian pulp fiction of Ann Bannon is a notable exception in this regard). Holleran and other lesbian and gay writers of the seventies began to break with this receptive strategy, and to write from a position inside the gay world, to offer lesbian and gay readers literature written from the perspective of gayness not as illness or alterity, but as epistemological centre.

I first read Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance, his classic of gay ghetto love and life, in college, when I began devouring gay writing in an effort to learn not only what it may mean to be gay, but also to consider the artistic reflection of experiences I was now integrally a part of that were grounded in gay difference, not a mimesis of heterosexual norms. I knew many doomed queens then, and in some ways I too was one as well. The melodramatic antics of our young undergraduates were taken, in part, from the literary construction of a gay subject that focused on questions of satellite cultural norms and values (tragic love, sex, cruising, drama, camp), as well as the learning of gay descriptive vernacular that was reflected in the real, live gay people around me. While Kramer’s politics were sharper, Mordden was funnier, and White more seriously literary, Holleran seduced with the beauty of his language, his hypnotic and dreamy passages describing what heretofore had either been mundane or horrifying. Holleran’s writing gave beauty to the sites of our lives: the gay bar, the cruising strip, the one-night stand, the lonely hours alone in apartments in the city.

As Holleran aged beyond the Manhattan/Fire Island scene, his work continued to resonate. Ground Zero is perhaps the most beautiful literary memorial to the lives of the men lost to HIV disease, and The Beauty of Men and In September, the Light Changes both wryly capture the bittersweet yet empowering nature of aging in a gay culture that still largely considers 40 to be social and sexual death. Characteristic of his oeuvre is the focus on language, on description, on the dreamwork of gayness; on creating, through words, the materiality of a gay sensibility that may not exactly match individual experience, but works towards giving the gay world a schematic infrastructure of meaning and emotive power that is portable, malleable, and relevant.

I may not be a regular traveler to Fire Island (in fact, I have never been), but the detailing of the norms of a particular gay urban world in Holleran’s writing has given me an aesthetic sensibility that is useful beyond simple transparency of experience. A modus of description that figures my own life and experiences within a communal aesthetic standpoint: a collective that while fractious and contested, is also mine. This aesthetic and literary project was, in the seventies, revolutionary. No one thought it would sell, for one. As one of Holleran’s characters observes, “Those things may be amusing to us, but who, after all, wants to read about sissies?” In the end, it turned out that the gay literary universe begun by Holleran and others was able to rise above such marginal utilitarianism, and not only by the simple fact that, of course, it is sissies that want to read about sissies, but also by giving the gay world the cultural clothing it needed to begin to see itself as whole, specific, original, and not simply derivative— a distinct standpoint in conversation with heteronormativity yet unique.

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