I came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. I was a slow learner as a gay man and I used books to show me the way. You might say that I read my way out of the closet.
Growing up outside Norfolk, Virginia, I was a shy, bookish boy, a good boy, a Boy Scout--literally. I did not learn about gay sex by doing it, heaven forbid, or even from hearing about it. There was no internet back then, no "It Gets Better" campaign. The only gay characters on TV were about mannerisms, not sex or affection, and the rare gay characters in movies were usually evil. I had no choice but to explore my sexuality through books. Luckily there was a lot out there, and I was able to use it in my own private, idiosyncratic way.
This struck home again recently while I wrote my literary history, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. Without knowing it, I'd been preparing for much of my life to write such a book, reading many of the same novels and memoirs read by earlier generations of gay men to discover who they were.
Here are a few of the titles that helped me:
Encyclopedia Britannica (14th edition). When I was thirteen, my grandmother gave us 24 volumes of her old encyclopedia from 1930. There was only one World War, but I didn't mind. I loved the long articles about the Seven Years War or the campaigns of Napoleon. I was that kind of kid.
But I became a different kid one day when I discovered the black-and-white photoplates of Greek statues under the heading "Sculpture." They were all beautiful, but I found more depth and magic in the rectangular bulk of the male nudes than I did in the smoother, rounder female beauties. I enjoyed seeing other boys naked and assumed it was only because there were no girls in the locker room or on Boy Scout camping trips--I thought I was just happy to see anyone naked. Now I knew otherwise.
An End to Innocence by Leslie Fiedler. The title is too perfect. This collection of essays includes Fiedler's most notorious piece, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," where he argues that a dominant theme in American literature is the white hero fleeing civilization in the arms of his black or Indian lover: Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn, Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans. I read it in, of all places, the staff lounge of the Scout camp where I worked. Somebody had left the paperback out; I picked it up and idly began to read. My mouth fell open as I learned that my crushes and curiosities might not be sick or perverse, but were as American as, well, Huckleberry Finn.
Years later I was startled to realize this essay was written so early, in 1948. Not until I wrote Eminent Outlaws did I discover that 1948 was an important date for gay literature, the year of The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal, Others Voice, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, and the Kinsey Report. Homosexuality was in the air, allbeit briefly.
The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal. I didn't get to Vidal's famous gay novel until college. Working in the library one summer (in the audio/visual department as a projectionist), I gave myself a crash course in gay literature, reading anything I could get my hands on. The Vidal novel began well, with a sexy encounter between two teenagers on a camping trip, but it went downhill from there. After years of longing, Jim meets up again with his beloved, Bob, only to find he is straight. So he kills him . (This was the original 1948 edition. Later Vidal revised the story and Jim merely rapes the poor guy.)
This was not the kind of love I wanted for myself, but by now I knew myself and the world well enough to take what I needed from a book and reject what I didn't. Sometimes arguing with a book can be as valuable as accepting it. Besides, I'd already discovered Vidal's essays, which were objective and worldly about sex and almost everything else. They told me what I needed to hear.
Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood. Partly because of his reputation, but mostly because of the movie Cabaret, I was fascinated with Christopher Isherwood in the years after college. I hung around in my college town, in love with my best friend, a straight man. I read Goodbye to Berlin and other Isherwood books, but wished he didn't leave so much unsaid between the lines. Then in 1976 he said it all, in a clear, precise autobiography about his time in Berlin and Europe before the war.
Isherwood included everything here: travel and art, sex and politics. Love remains important, even in the shadow of Hitler. And he did it in prose as lucid as water.
States of Desire by Edmund White. I moved to New York in 1978 and began to go to bars and meet men and even had a few boyfriends. I wrote a short story that was published in Christopher Street, a gay answer to the New Yorker. Wanting me to write more for the magazine, the editor gave me back issues which included essays by Edmund White about his travels in gay America. Later published as a book in 1980, they were a revelation for me in both their matter-of-fact sexuality and their wonderful variety. White built each portrait of a city on the gay men he met there, but went on to evoke the entire city, addressing everything under the sun: work, friendship, politics, religion, and art.
It sounds strange to say now, but the book made clear to me that being gay did not mean a limited, narrow life, but could include all kinds of existence. It gave me a place to stand where I could look out on every other kind of experience and interest.
Books helped me to become the kind of gay man I am. I know it's different for later generations. We now have open representations of gay life and individuals on TV and the internet, in music and theater, on YouTube and Facebook, in good movies and bad movies.
But despite all the modern options, I still meet young, quiet, bookish folk like myself who took the long away around, going through the library to find out who they are. And it's not a bad route.
You get to read a lot of good books and, I like to think, create a more inclusive, flexible, open identity.