Connect with us

Arts & Entertainment

Ahead of their time

New book explores how 20th century writers put gay issues on America’s radar

Published

on

Gay writer Christopher Bram knew in researching his new book, which involved excavating ancient reviews of the work of prominent queer authors of the mid-20th century and beyond, he’d find ugly instances where homophobia colored the various assessments — he just didn’t realize how unrelenting and vitriolic it would be.

“I just wasn’t prepared for how mean and ugly and vicious the reviews could be of anything gay from the ‘50s well into the ‘80s,” Bram says during a phone chat from San Francisco. “The amount of anti-gay feeling among literary straight people just floored me. Even from people who were more on our side, the amount of condescension and this sneering, snickering tone, it got quite tiring and I only ended up quoting about half of what I found.”

(Image courtesy Twelve Books)

The book, out this month, is “Eminent Outlaws: the Gay Writers Who Changed America” (Twelve Books, $27.99). Bram’s premise is that the work of mid-century gay writers such as Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams and others, on through to later novelists and playwrights such as Christopher Isherwood, Edward Albee, Edmund White, Armistead Maupin, Mart Crowley and Tony Kushner, was a literary revolution that laid the post-World War II groundwork for the modern gay rights movement. Bram, author of “The Father of Frankenstein” (adapted for the screen as the Oscar-winning film “Gods and Monsters”) and eight other novels, says the writers he includes in the book “introduced America to gay experience and sensibility and changed our literary culture.”

It’s a weighty thesis that unleashes an ocean of questions, some covered in the book, others pitched at Bram during this week’s Blade interview. And with Oscar season upon us (they’ll be handed out in Los Angeles Sunday evening), it’s an especially timely moment to consider the seemingly disproportionate contributions of gay writers to the arts. Nearly all the writers he covers have had work adapted to the big screen so their cultural reach is far-ranging and every bit as considerable as their straight counterparts.

Bram was a fan of these writers for decades. About three years ago he was approached by another writer, Sam Wasson, who was researching a book about the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (based on a Capote novel), and contacted Bram for literary context. After riffing on the state of gay life and gay writing in the ‘50s and thereafter in the U.S., it occurred to Bram that while nearly all of the writers he focuses on had been written about, there was no single book that explored how their lives and work — many of them knew each other — overlapped and fit into the cultural norms of the day while also influencing those norms often in shocking ways.

While much of the historical material in the book has been presented elsewhere — Bram says only a few points required fresh interviews — the overall story, he says, is not widely known but should be.

“There were all these little bits and pieces like this scattered jigsaw puzzle, but I really wanted to pull them all together to form one big picture,” he says. “What I did was connect the dots. Nobody had ever told this as a single narrative. There were some simple connections I was able to make, even something as simple and obvious as the fact that ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ (a gay-themed Capote book), ‘The City and the Pillar’ (from rival Gore Vidal) and the Kinsey Report all came out within a few weeks of each other in 1948, which is surprisingly early and yet it became really this powerhouse year where these gay books were suddenly getting all this attention.”

Bram (Photo courtesy Twelve Books)

Bram says it was a uniquely American phenomenon the catalyst of which was the way World War II had “suddenly brought all these people together in the Army, the Navy — they were exposed to this other type of sexuality, to bad language and profanity they’d never heard before and it didn’t take long for this to be reflected in the publishing industry.”

The book is setting gay tongues wagging and even those who’ve yet to read it, say Bram’s premise is intriguing.

Nicholas Benton, a local gay writer and founder/publisher of the Falls-Church News Press who’s written at length about the unique contributions of gays in culture and society, says that although he takes issue with some of Bram’s contextualization and assessments of some of his subject’s supposed lesser works — Benton’s about halfway through “Outlaws” — he calls it “a very important book with a lot of important information in it.”

So did these writers’ homosexuality and perhaps the outsider status it brought it with it make their work greater than it otherwise might have been?

“One of the features of being a gay person is you can’t help but have an alternate perspective on life,” Benton says. “A straight man walks in the room, sees the hot secretary and that’s all he can think about. A gay man comes in and notices the drapes clash with the rug. I mean obviously that’s an oversimplification, but gay sensibility has something to do with seeing the plight of people who are often invisible to the mind of a straight person … we bring an alternate perspective.”

Bram has a slightly different take. He says, “One would like to think (being gay) would create more empathy but maybe what we can say about homosexuality is much like what we say about religion — it makes the good people better and the bad people worse … for gays, that could mean being overly bitchy, negative or hypercritical of others or full of self pity that doesn’t turn to empathy, it could affect them in many different ways.”

Others say these writers helped America shed some of its Puritanical squeamishness toward sex and “grow up.” Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” especially, is shockingly bold for its time. It’s amazing it got published in 1955.

“In the case of Williams, he was inestimable in helping to hammer the nails in movie censorship in post-war America,” says Drew Casper, a film expert and professor of critical studies at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. “Whether his adaptations came through strong or diluted, no mistaking his championing the importance of sex in the lives of his characters, often as a way for them to touch God. Sexuality is an important concern in gay life and relationships, so when gay writers take pen in hand, sexuality is a concern.”

Gay author William J. Mann, who has a bounty of novels and non-fiction Hollywood-themed books to his credit, says he’s “a huge fan” of Bram and “can’t wait” to read “Outlaws.” Mann calls the topic “fascinating” and “great.”

“The role of the arts is always to push what’s expected or what’s understood and certainly when you read the works of James Baldwin for example … you have this real sense of ground being broken and getting people to really understand the wider experience of humanity in a way that the world is much more than just your own little sphere of existence,” Mann says.

Bram says the writers he covers deserve enormous credit — whether it’s Vidal’s cheeky handling of transsexuality in “Myra Breckenridge” or Kushner’s sophisticated handling of the AIDS crisis in “Angels in America” — for getting gay topics on the cultural radar.

“They got the stories out there,” he says. “Homosexuality became a subject that straight and gay people could finally talk about and once people were talking about it, other people started talking about it too. It’s an example of where art did a better job than activism. ‘Boys in the Band’ was made into a movie in 1970 and it played in every major city in the country with prominent actors just a year after the Stonewall riots. In my group of friends at the time, none of us had heard of the Stonewall riots, but we’d all heard of ‘Boys in the Band.’”

Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Out & About

LGBTQ+ Theater Festival returns for Black Pride

African American Collective Theater hosts ‘What That Mouth Do . . .’

Published

on

Washington’s African American Collective Theater (ACT) will host “What That Mouth Do…,” the latest installment of a program that has become an annual spring tradition in Washington, D.C., starting on Sunday, May 26 at 4:30 p.m. at Undercroft Theater. 

Guests will get to witness more than 25 talented, local “ACT’ers” – some familiar faces, some new – present Readers Theater-type performances of short LGBTQ+ themed plays. Audiences can choose either show or attend one, break for dinner, then rejoin for the other.

Additional information and tickets are available at a-act.org.

Continue Reading

Calendar

Calendar: May 24-30

LGBTQ events in the days to come

Published

on

Friday, May 24

Center Aging Monthly Luncheon with Yoga will be at 12:00p.m. at the Reeves Center at the D.C. LGBTQ Community Center. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ+ adults! Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of choice. For more information, email [email protected]

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Happy Hour” at 7:00p.m. at DIK Bar. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ+ community, including Allies, together for delicious food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

Trans Support Group will be at 7:00p.m. on Zoom. This group is intended to provide emotionally and physically safe space for trans* people and those who may be questioning their gender identity/expression to join together in community and learn from one another. For more details, email [email protected]

Women in their Twenties and Thirties will be at 8:00p.m. on Zoom. This is a social discussion group for queer women in the Washington, D.C. area. For more details, join WiTT’s closed Facebook group.

Saturday, May 25

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Brunch” at 11:00.am. at Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ+ community, including Allies, together for delicious food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

Black Trans Pride Forever will be at 2:00p.m. at the Westin Washington. This will be  an afternoon filled with celebration, empowerment, and community. This event is a safe space for all Black Trans individuals to unite, share their stories, and support one another. From workshops to performances, there will be something for everyone to enjoy. For more details, visit Eventbrite

Sunday, May 26

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Dinner” at 6:00p.m. at Federico Ristorante Italino. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ+ community, including Allies, together for delicious food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

AfroCode DC will be at 4:00p.m. at Decades DC. This event will be an experience of non-stop music, dancing, and good vibes and a crossover of genres and a fusion of cultures. Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased on Eventbrite

Monday, May 27

Center Aging: Monday Coffee & Conversation will be at 10:00a.m. on Zoom. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ+ adults. Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of their choice. For more details, email [email protected]

“TRANSEND: Transgender & Nonbinary Support Group” will be at 4:00p.m. at the Pride Center of Maryland. This event will be a safe space to discuss hot topics, education and incentives while enjoying food. This event is free and more details are available on Eventbrite

Tuesday, May 28

Pride on the Patio Events will host “LGBTQ Social Mixer” at 5:30p.m. at Showroom. Dress is casual, fancy, or comfortable. Guests are encouraged to bring their most authentic self to chat, laugh, and get a little crazy. Admission is free and more details are on Eventbrite.

Queer Book Club will be at 6:30p.m. on Zoom. This month’s read is “Immaculate Misconception: A Story of Biology and Belonging” by Gwen Bas. For more details, email [email protected]

Wednesday, May 29

Job Club will be at 6:00p.m. on Zoom. This is a weekly job support program to help job entrants and seekers, including the long-term unemployed, improve self-confidence, motivation, resilience and productivity for effective job searches and networking — allowing participants to move away from being merely “applicants” toward being “candidates.” For more information, email [email protected] or visit www.thedccenter.org/careers.

Genderqueer DC will be at 7:00p.m. on Zoom. This support group is for people who identify outside of the gender binary, whether you’re bigender, agender, genderfluid, or just know that you’re not 100% cis. For more details, www.genderqueerdc.org or Facebook!

Thursday, May 30

The DC Center’s Fresh Produce Program will be held all day at the DC Center for the LGBT Community. To be more fair with who is receiving boxes, the program is moving to a lottery system. People will be informed on Wednesday at 5:00 pm if they are picked to receive a produce box. No proof of residency or income is required. For more information, email [email protected] or call 202-682-2245. 

Virtual Yoga with Charles M. will be at 7:00p.m. on Zoom. This is a free weekly class focusing on yoga, breathwork, and meditation. For more details, visit the DC Center for the LGBT Community’s website.

Continue Reading

Television

‘The Voice’ crowns first LGBTQ winner

Asher HaVon is from Selma, Ala.

Published

on

Asher HaVon (‘The Voice’ screenshot)

So, the LGBTQ pundits and culture watchers were … wrong. Or at the very least, anticipating “history” way before its time. After frustration over “American Idol”’s inability to crown an LGBTQ winner, they held high hopes for a new competing star-making vehicle, “The Voice.”

In 2011, the Advocate burst with excitement saying “There’s no need to wait on NBC’s new vocal competition, The Voice. The show boasts four gay contestants — two men and two women — heading into the battle round, where they will be coached by the likes of Blake Shelton, Cee Lo, Christina Aguilera, and Adam Levine. And while a couple of them might be eliminated in the next few weeks (in the battle round, teams of eight are whittled down to four when teammates face each other in a sing-off), chances that there will be a lesbian or gay singer competing to become the first ‘Voice’ are strong.”

Well. Not so strong. All of the LGBTQ contenders were eliminated. As were others over the years that even included a young trans man singing with his father as one of the show’s few duet contestants. “American Idol” did end up crowning an LGBTQ winner in its 18th season.

That was then … and this is now. After 25 seasons, “The Voice” has crowned Asher HaVon its winner. It is no wonder, as Asher’s vocal tone is hypnotic, rich, and blows through your auditory senses. Listening to him hit certain notes in his vocal runs can bring you to a flood of emotional tears. At least, it did for me.

It did for coach Reba McIntire as well. 

The significance of Asher HaVon’s win goes beyond just a queer identity. It is adorned with a depth of representation and visibility. When Asher stepped on stage, he brought culture, diversity, history, and identity. 

Like many incredible vocalists, he comes from a church foundation. Reba McEntire was a wise coach choice, relating to a broad reach of American sensibilities. She is one of the rare entertainers who is beloved by fans across the broad political spectrum. She is traditional, but an ally. 

In a bit of irony, there is a segment of his hometown that still are keeping his LGBTQ status in the closet. The Selma Times-Journal brags about his “historic win,” but when they write about it, they are referring to the fact that he is the first winner from Alabama. They do not mention his LGBTQ identity at all.

Not sure how they could miss it. Asher presents in full-beat makeup with gorgeous nails to diva quality eye makeup and lashes. His costuming was never anything less than fabulous. His song choices placed him in a pantheon of LGBTQ-worshipped goddesses that included Adele, Beyonce, Whiney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, Tina Turner, and Donna Summer. He was not only courageous to take on their groundbreaking hits, but did so with the talent to impress with his own versions of them.

As Asher stands on stage, he also represents a proud black man living in the spirit of America’s civil rights movement. He truly does represent Selma, Ala., and its fight for equality significance is part of his DNA and his history. In 2015, when President Barack Obama visited the city, Asher sang for him in front of a crowd of 200,000 at the famed Selma Bridge crossing.

While the significance of that event is not lost on him, Asher calls it one that he “will never forget”, he tells the Montgomery Advertiser that “The Voice” “is different because it is the Asher HaVon that most people never got a chance to see. I am free. I am walking in the authenticity of who I am, while sharing my gift. That means so much more to me than any other experience than I’ve ever had in life.”

While Asher carried his legacy, the history he represented, and his authenticity into every performance he gave over the show’s run, it was his pure talent that put him on top.  It was so impressive that it even broke through the show’s premise of four celebrity coaches battling it out for a win. Under that guise, each of the coaches pleads with America to vote for their protégés.

Asher had most of them pleading for him instead. He initially received three “chair turns” at the outset where Chance the Rapper, Dan and Shay, and Reba were the celebrities campaigning for him to pick them. John Legend was the hold-out. Asher, ever the diva connoisseur, had already picked Reba in his mind and would have picked her no matter what anyone else had said.

Legend, later in the season, shared that he received a phone call from his dad who declared not only that he was rooting for Asher, but that Asher was “THE” voice of the season. Both Legend and Chance declared Asher to be “the best vocalist on the show” several times in their feedback statements.

While Asher’s win and authenticity should bring a source of joy to LGBTQ fans, it also is a big boost for his coach and main champion, Reba McEntire. While the show has put a full-throttle on Reba as the “queen of country” and showered her with adoration, she has had some difficulty in wowing many of the auditioning singers onto her team. Asher represents a significant win for her, as well as her being also the coach for first runner-up Josh Sanders, when she starts the next season against Gwen Stefani, Michael Bubble, and Snoop Dogg. The latter two are newcomers and Stefani boasts only one previous win years ago, but a loss in her one previous match-up against McEntire.

For the future Voice contestants, Reba has some serious creds to play. 

For the rest of us, in the LGBTQ community, in the dance clubs, and in the hearts of ones needing a new diva to love, Asher has arrived.

Asher HaVon and Coach Reba perform Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s ‘On My Own’ during ‘The Voice’ finale.

******************************************************************************************

Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including The Los Angeles Blade, The Washington Blade, Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.

He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.

He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] 

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular