Book review

‘Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America’

The Times

March 17, 2012


Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America
by Christopher Bram 

A few weeks ago, in my neighbourhood gay bar, a 26-year-old teacher from Texas, in New York for a few days, asked where he should go out. Well, I said, if he hadn’t already, the Stonewall obviously.

What was the Stonewall, he asked. The Stonewall Inn, where the riots happened in 1969, foundation point of the modern gay rights movement: that Stonewall. He shook his head, nonplussed. I gave him directions, perhaps a little too sternly.

An awareness of gay history was one of those things, 20 years ago, that came with your first kiss. In the days when even the most basic equalities were denied, the lessons and inspirations of history, those who battled before you, were touchstones. In a more equal age, their examples have faded. They must not. The battle over marriage equality, the appalling homophobia in the GOP caucuses in the US, the tragedies of gay teen suicides: all show that, despite the presence of gays in prime time, the lessons of gay history are still vital and necessary.

In Gay Life Stories, the historian Robert Aldrich has amassed a series of pen portraits of figures from history known or reputed to have been gay: Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, immortalised in stone carvings dating from 2,400BCE, staring into each other’s eyes; the Old Testament tale of loyalty and love between David and Jonathan; Sappho. In the early tales Aldrich accepts that we don’t know if the protagonists were gay, but their stories embody a freighted same-sex intimacy.

This dutiful and dry compendium embraces figures as diverse as Oscar Wilde and Frederick the Great. There are no startling revelations, but Aldrich includes people you may not have heard of — a Japanese lesbian writer called Nobuko Yoshiya — and his choices become eclectic. Del Martin, one of the leading lesbian activists of contemporary times, who died in 2008 having finally married her partner Phyllis Lyon (before gay marriage was made illegal again in California), sums up the bravery and resourcefulness of Aldrich’s subjects in times before gay rights, even categories of sexuality, were enshrined: “We’ve had to invent our lives as we went along.”

A similar principle underscores Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, novelist Christopher Bram’s history of gay writers who, long before gay-themed movies and TV, shone torch beams out of the collective closet. Bram’s focus remains on the high-literary world: Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Truman Capote and Christopher Isherwood, moving to the Beats, then writers such as Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, and post-liberation standard-bearers such as Tony Kushner, Armistead Maupin and Michael Cunningham. The book is at its most fun when it gets gossipy: Vidal and Capote’s sortie to a gay bath-house, for example. The past proves the richer area of study. Bram is clearsighted about his subjects: they were writers, and if they wrote revolutionary novels, such as Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, they were trying to rise above the pack.

Bram says, “This is not an all-inclusive, definitive literary history”, and it feels like a tour of personal favourites. One must query the absence of modern writers such as Dennis Cooper, or the lack of consideration given to the novels of John Preston. But his conclusion is resonant: we should not only never forget the work of these literary pioneers, we should read them, maybe over a drink, at the Stonewall.