It's been fascinating reading the obituaries and remembrances of Gore Vidal in the past week, particularly those that address his sexual identity. The New York Times actually had to make a correction regarding whether or not Vidal had sex with his longtime companion, Howard Austen. (He did.) There have been some interesting pieces looking at his work and life, from Jesse Kornbluth and Christopher Bram, to name two, and I urge you to read them if you haven't. I'm just going to focus on the issue of Vidal's sexuality, which perplexed many.
I was in Las Vegas attending the "Unity 2012" convention of journalists from various minority groups when Vidal died last week, and I couldn't help but think of how Vidal would have hated such an event. Vidal despised identity, particularly sexual identity, ironically even as he helped define it in America. And he hated the word "gay." But he quite liked using the word "fag" to describe himself and others.
Some of the obits describe him as believing everyone is bisexual, but even that seemed to be too much of an identity for him. Vidal believed more in sexual acts, which anyone could conceivably engage in if free of hang-ups and biases (and he said he engaged in over 1,000 of them with both men and women before he was 25), than in sexual orientations.
In 1993 Vidal reviewed my first book, Queer in America, for The Village Voice. The paper appropriately used the cover line "When Worlds Collide." I came from the ACT UP generation, fighting against the kind of invisibility that exacerbated the AIDS crisis. We were all about identity and coming out as gay. Vidal was not just pre-ACT UP; he was pre-Stonewall. Really, his beliefs on homosexuality -- acts vs. orientation -- were pretty 19th-century, pre-Oscar Wilde. He found parts of my book "fascinating" but mostly rejected the premise of a gay movement organized around identity and the idea of an orientation. Still, he always had a keen sense of how self-loathing and homophobia worked. "Signorile does make one valid point," he wrote (and yes, when Gore Vidal, who believed most people had no valid points, writes that you have one valid point, you take it as a great accolade and put it on the back of the paperback edition of your book). "To be within the closet is to admit that to be a fag is the most evil thing that anyone can be."
Even as he didn't believe in identity and scoffed at the idea of a gay movement, Vidal's 1948 book, The City and the Pillar, the novel that scandalized the literary world, was itself a coming-out story and galvanized gay men of the era. It was the first post-World War II novel in which a man is portrayed as comfortable and accepting of his same-sex attraction and doesn't meet some horrible end. Vidal was very much helping to lay the foundations of the movement and the belief that people should be open, even if he would eschew the idea of organizing around identity.
Certainly Vidal didn't shy away from being public about his own sexual encounters with men. And, despite the fact that he didn't like sexual categories, his own life underscored the fact that LGBT people don't have the luxury to refuse labels, because it is our enemies who've defined us in the culture, sometimes with ugly words. That was no more evident than when conservative writer Willliam F. Buckley, Jr., responding to Vidal describing him as a "crypto-Nazi," famously called Vidal a "queer."
I interviewed Vidal several times in the past 10 years, and we talked about how Myra Breckinridge, his 1968 satirical novel that hilariously took on gender norms, was groundbreaking, as well, a story of a transgender person long before that word was used. And yet, he still despised using labels like "gay" or "transgender."
Interestingly, there's a whole new generation of gender-variant and queer people who don't use any of those labels, either. There are many trans people who don't want to label themselves "male" or "female," and there are more and more young people who find "gay," "lesbian" or "bisexual" too confining and limiting. So was Gore Vidal really a relic of the past, or was he way ahead of his time? We'll probably be talking about that for a long time to come.