Coming Out Within/Between The Pages
|by Paul Harris
A few months ago The Publishing Triangle, an organization of lesbians and gay men who work in the publishing industry, produced a list of the "100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels" ever published. If part of the intention behind the project was to ignite conversation about gay and lesbian literature then the organization can claim a home run. Articles discussing the merits and otherwise of the list appeared all over. Heh, even some gay bar rags published a paragraph or two. Most people would have had little problem with the vast majority of the choices made. There were of course some stupid choices that made little sense to any ordinary mortal not sitting on the panel. While no one would argue that Little Women, To Kill A Mockingbird, or The Turn of the Screw lack merit, to pretend that any of them is either gay or lesbian is plainly ridiculous.
I suspect their respective authorsLouisa May Alcott, Harper Lee, and Henry Jamesare either revolving in their graves in anger, or laughing their heads off in amusement.
Some of the choices seemed political. Did Larry Kramer's personality cost his novel, Faggots, a place? And if so, did such small-mindedness influence other decisions? When one of our authors, Michael Cunningham, can win the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, but can't wind up on a list of 100 novels one has to question the criteria by which the esteemed panel judged the novels. There were no places either for David Leavitt (The Lost Language of Cranes), Dale Peck (Martin and John), Leslie Feinberg (Stone Butch Blues) or Jewelle Gomez (The Gilda Stories).
That the list made so much of an impact though shows the importance that literatureour literaturehas for many of us. Recently I asked a cross-section of gay men and lesbians which books, either fiction or nonfiction, had been most important to them when they were coming out.
Many of the men chose The Best Little Boy In The World by John Reid (now better known to us as Andrew Tobias). Mark Rutherford, a psychotherapist in West Palm Beach, sums up most people's reaction to the book: "It made me feel less alone and like someone else out there in the world had at least some of the same feelings and experiences that I did." Lawyer Michael Jahnke had this to say, "It just hit close to the heart, about how a boy starts to feel out of place growing up (not fitting into societal "norms"), and then realizes there is nothing wrong with him after all." The book also had an impact upon recording artist David Hall (of Dave Hall and The Corridors) who surreptitiously read the book in the Sociology stacks at the University of Vermont. "From that book I learned that one could get into the best schools, be a real, honest, good person and be gay. Before reading this book, I felt I was destined to a life of furtive and unsatisfying rest room-type encounters."
A novel that the learned panel adjudged to be beneath them was Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner. The novel has now sold over 10 million copies and for many people coming to terms with their sexuality in the 1970's was an important book. Donn, an administrator in his forties and ironically now a stalwart member of the New York chapter of Front Runners was originally attracted by the paperback's cover. "The cover was highly erotic to the teenage me at the time and it was the only positive thing I had ever read. At that time, I think I had seen the films Boys in the Band and That Certain Summer, with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen as lovers. Holbrook's teenage son comes to visit, and Sheen has to disappear, but the kid finally figures it out and it ends with Holbrook crying alone. Even thoughThe Front Runner does not have a happy ending, up until the end, it was just normal. It wasn't in The Front Runner where I first heard of homosexuality, but it was the first fiction that treated it as normal and told me that there were others like me. Eventually I would find out how many. At the time I did feel as if I was the only one, and the book was sort of my secret gay friend, when I didn't yet have any."
A novel that the Publishing Triangle did list, Andrew Holleran's Dancer From The Dance, was important to Larry Hobson, an art director and graphic designer. "It had the deepest impact of all the gay writing (and there was a lot) that I read at that time. It accurately described the gay scene that I came out into in the mid 70's. I had been married for eight years and divorced for one before coming out. I really wasn't prepared for the world I was entering: the extreme physicality, the lack of commitment or sense of future, but also the charm of the fantasy and the escape of the seemingly endless partying and the real friendships sometimes found in seemingly casual couplings. It was one of those books that, when you read it, cause you to say to yourself, 'This writer has lived a life like mine.'"
If there were only a few books available for men back in the seventies the situation for lesbians was even worse. Jan, a teacher in her forties had to "read the dictionary and encyclopedia to look up definitions about lesbian and homosexual and sodomy. Then I read the play The Children's Hour, by Lillian Hellman." The majority of lesbians I interviewed mentioned The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. One, Lenore Beaky, now a university teacher, told me that she read the book in the university library stacks "because she didn't want to be seen taking it out."
Many people turn not to the novel, but to nonfiction to tell them more about themselves and their ilk. Matthew, a thirty- eight year old chef, came out in his early thirties after having been married for six years. He mentioned several books to me.
The first was Paul Monette's Becoming A Man. "This book really told my story in a lot of ways. I felt like I could relate to so much of what he was saying. His writing was articulate and the book spoke to me about love and relationships in a way that I found very encouraging. About halfway through the book, knowing that he had died not long before I read it, I mourned his death as if I had known him personally."
The next book he mentioned was Martin Duberman's Cures. "This book was so interesting to me even though I hadn't experienced the horrific therapy experiences that the author went through. I could still relate to all of the anguish and frustration which he captured so well in his story."
Matthew also mentioned Richard Isay's Being Homosexual to me, a book that I too can recommend. Richard Isay is a gay psychiatrist and his book was recommended to Matthew by his therapist. "It is a collection of case studies of gay men in Dr. Isay's treatment. I gave this book to my parents to read after coming out to them, and I think it helped them begin to understand that there was nothing abnormal (clinically speaking) about being gay."
Robert Galloway was a student at the Christian fundamentalist Oral Roberts University when he first started exploring the book shelves in the Library. His first book was The Gay Mystique where "I learned that, as I suspected, New York was the center of Gay life, and that the oppression against gays was real and that political activism was perfectly appropriate. When I actually did come out five years later, Loving Someone Gay helped me get through the roller coaster ride. Thank God for it."
Loving Someone Gay by Don Clark has now gone through a number of editions since it was first published and was of use to some of the other people that I contacted. For Jamie, an insurance underwriter in his late forties, it was where he "first learned about internalized homophobiaor regular homophobiafrom this book, and it really opened my eyes to the problems I had in life. It gave me permission to feel good about myself."
Paul Harris lives in New York City. He is an occasional contributor to Letters from CAMP Rehoboth. Copyright Paul Harris Inc. 1999
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 9, No. 13, Sept. 17, 1999