Writing about identity can be like maneuvering through a minefield even when considering contemporary figures who have discussed the subject themselves. But the enterprise becomes even more difficult when it's the identities of historical figures that we're attempting to understand, and without a doubt, the discussion of sexual identity or sexual orientation is the area of greatest contention.
The late, great Gore Vidal believed that there is no need for such fuss. To him, the answer was simple: There is no such thing as a homosexual, Vidal haughtily insisted, only homosexual acts -- in which he freely, and unapologetically, admitted his participation. He wasn't ashamed of such acts. But just don't try to call him "gay."
Growing up, I held Vidal in a kind of awe. I believed that he was so brilliant, so erudite, so cultured -- far more than I could ever hope to be -- that he must have been right on this subject, and that my own gut-level adherence to a more rigid sexual essentialism must have been wrong or, at the very least, simple or naïve, the expected worldview of a working-class kid with a state university education. I thought that Vidal, to the manor born and a student of St. Albans and Exeter, must have understood things better than I. My "betters" didn't concern themselves with such limiting constructs as "gay" or "straight," I told myself. Maybe, I thought, I should learn from them.
Indeed, I turned to Vidal when writing my biography of Katharine Hepburn, Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn. The great man proved surprisingly generous with his time, responding well to my line of questioning: Was it possible that Hepburn (and Spencer Tracy) existed somehow outside our contemporary, binary understanding of sexual orientation? Vidal helped me see the fluidity of sexual desire and the complexities of public and private identity, especially among people in the arts. Our conversation helped me better understand the difficult-to-categorize Hepburn and Tracy.
Yet I discovered at the heart of Hepburn's story a deep-rooted gender conflict, as well as considerable homophobia. For all the lofty discussion of enlightened sexual fluidity, I couldn't ignore the internalized self-loathing that I'd discovered in my subject's life, as well as in Tracy's. Hepburn and her lover of the 1930s, Laura Harding, balked at being called lesbians. Why? Because lesbians were lower-class "others." Tracy cultivated a macho image but would get very drunk and call in Scotty Bowers, Hollywood's favorite male madam, to come over for sex late at night, and, shamefaced, he would never speak of it the next day. (Bowers has written about this in his memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars.) So the story of Hepburn and Tracy could not simply be explained away as some worldly-wise, sophisticated sexual fluidity, the kind of utopian pansexuality that Vidal believed existed as the basic human condition. Rather, it seems that these were two nonheterosexual people who simply could not accept a very essential part of themselves.
And, as it turns out, the same appears to have been true of Gore Vidal.
Tim Teeman is a young, extremely bright journalist, the former longtime Arts Editor at The Times of London and most recently their U.S. correspondent in New York. His new book, In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of An American Master, out this week from Magnus Books, does what I (and probably Vidal himself) had always considered impossible. Teeman has not only satisfactorily explored and considered Vidal's sexuality but made an excellent case for why such consideration should matter to historians, and indeed to anyone trying to understand the complicated process that goes into self-identity. Teeman told me in an interview:
I think there's an innate prudishness on the part of people when it comes to talking about sex. In terms of literary figures, there's the added sense that it reduces them in some way. There's a notion that in talking about someone's sex life, it reduces their achievement, or what we should know them for.
Yet understanding Gore Vidal's sexuality, what he did sexually, expands our understanding of him. Gore himself made his sex life weirdly central because he never came out, never said the word ["gay"]. Why didn't he say it? He had a 53-year relationship [with a man] which he never acknowledged until very late in his life. Why is that? And he published a gay novel [The City and the Pillar] in 1948, one of the first gay-themed novels, which is still quite extraordinary to read, and quite explicit. He loved that book because it brought him onto the national stage, but he also hated that book latterly because it kept him from ever becoming president or a politician. He felt The City and the Pillar made his name but destroyed it too.
As for Vidal's contention that there is no such thing as gay people, only gay sexual acts, the thinking seems incredibly modern. Indeed, Teeman says:
Lots of us today might think, "Wow, he is so cool. He's post-gay before 'post-gay' was a thing." People thought Gore must be onto something intellectually. And there's no doubt that Gore really did believe intellectually that categories of all kind were defunct, that he really did not believe in "gay" and "straight." So anyone in the 2010s who believes in that, you've got your hero. But Gore also believed that because he was, on some level, I'm afraid, an old-school closet case who felt saying the word would count against him.
In Gore's generation, "gay" meant one thing: It meant you were without power. It meant you were on the margins. It meant you were not being taken seriously. It meant you would not be beside President Kennedy in Camelot. Instead, you would be an outcast. That's what "gay" meant to Gore Vidal. So whatever intellectual stuff he believed around the defunctness of categories, he also believed this.
I asked Teeman how Vidal had managed to pull this off, how he'd been able to convince so many people that he had the answer, and that their view of sexual identity was facile and naïve. Teeman told me:
When Gore took to the TV, that voice, that bearing -- you weren't ever going to face that down. He had about 6 million historical or literary references at his disposal. He would chop you at your knees. He would destroy you in one sentence. The thing to admire about him perversely is that there was no way that anybody was ever going to type Gore Vidal.
But I really do believe that he genuinely believed in the idea that there were no gay people, only gay sex. But Gore led a fully "gay" life.
Also, the intellectual cushioning shouldn't disguise the fact that Vidal did not say anything publicly about HIV and AIDS, which you'd expect a leading gay public figure of his time to do. The shocking thing, as Teeman reveals in the book, is that Vidal's nephew, Hugh Steers, died of AIDS. Hugh begged Vidal to get involved in the fight against the appalling prejudice and government inaction of the time, to say something, but he didn't. Says Teeman:
HIV and AIDS were just not in Gore's focus, which was all about history and empire and the Constitution. Yet to his great credit, whatever his own feelings around his own sexuality, his writings about sexual freedom and sexual equality is consistent. From 1965 on, he wrote about that and never backed away from that.
But was there no empathy with the modern gay rights movement? Teeman told me:
He knew figures like Harvey Milk and Randy Shilts, and I came across a copy of Shilts' book The Mayor of Castro Street in Gore's house. But they spoke a language of liberation and equality that was just kind of alien to him in a very fundamental way. I don't think it was self-hatred, really. But he did hate fairies, as he called them. He hated fags. It was homophobia. A homosexual's own homophobia. He saw homosexuals as the others. Truman Capote was a homosexual. Gore wasn't, in his mind. He hated gays who were gay.
When I suggested to Teeman that all of this made me think of the way that Roy Cohn is portrayed in Tony Kushner's Angels of America, he told me that I wasn't the first person to make the comparison:
I think it's valid. I think Gore really believed similarly, like Cohn, that the homosexual was "other." The homosexual was not him. The homosexual had no power. Yet both Vidal and Cohn had power. They intimidated people. They bestrode their stages. Yet while Vidal believed what Cohn believed, where he is so different is that he used his writing power for the good. He never acted against [gay rights or gay people] the way Cohn did. He never paraded a woman. He never did any of the pantomime of the closeted celebrity. He just never said the words that we would have liked him to say. But he was so himself, so contrary, so unwavering. You could argue there is absolutely something exemplary and heroic about that. He was not going to be boxed in by anybody or any group. He was truly complex, truly individual, and I hope the book reveals and recognizes how that came to be.