February 14, 2014
February 13, 2014
March 19, 2013
Two outstanding examples of leftwing documentary deserve the widest viewing. Opening yesterday at the Maysles theater in Harlem and playing through the 24th is “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, a study of the oppression of gay men in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay that I would rank at the very top the list of films committed to gay rights, right next to “Before Stonewall” or “The Celluloid Closet.” Just having finished a theatrical run on the West Coast, “Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home” is now available as a DVD or streaming from Cinema Libre Studios, a production company that has a repertory of leftwing documentaries to its credit that is second to none.
Renate Costa Perdomo returned to her native Paraguay from Spain after learning of the death of her uncle Rodolfo Costa in order to understand what life was like for a gay man in one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships. The 108 of the title refers to a blacklist maintained by the state, while Cuchillo de Palo is Spanish for knife made of wood, a derogatory term directed at the “uselessness” of gay men who will never impregnate women, God’s purpose for them as Renate’s deeply religious and deeply homophobic father reminds her every chance he gets.
The moments spent between Renate and her father Pedro Costa, the proprietor of a blacksmith shop inherited from his father, is a reminder that many men and women retain prejudices despite progress made by a powerful and insistent movement determined to win equality. Sitting across the kitchen table from him, she presses him on the disservice he did to his brother by treating him as a sinner. He unctuously replies that he is a sinner too and begins reciting biblical verses. She tells him that it is impossible to have a conversation with him. His response is to shrug his shoulders and smile placidly. One can understand why his wife divorced him long ago and why Renate fled to Spain. While her father was by no means a Stroessner supporter, it is not too hard to figure out why his 35-year reign was facilitated. The population was obviously trained to be passive and obedient by a calculating government and church.
Despite this being her first film, Ms. Perdomo is very adept at developing character and revealing psychological complexity. Despite her father’s obdurate opposition to the idea that gays have a right to live as they please, there is a softer and more likeable side to him that she brings out in comically unproductive kite-flying and fishing expeditions. You can’t help but feel that his homophobia is partially explained by his failure to have ever become an adult. An infantilized Paraguayan male population is made to order for an authoritarian system.
But the most uplifting and dramatically powerful parts of the film are Perdomo’s interviews with men who spent time in jail or prison as society’s sexual outlaws and lived not only to survive but to come out of the closet as well. She also interviews transvestites who knew her uncle well, women who had less to fear under Stroessner in some ways since they never had to worry about losing a job. When you make a living as a nightclub act in drag, there’s little chance that being on a blacklist would cause you to be fired.
Structured as a kind of detective story with Ms. Perdomo digging into her uncle’s past, including a survey of police records, we are drawn into the plot and the circumstances of her uncle’s death. One assessment from a family relative: he died of sadness. Thanks to the efforts of gay activists in Paraguay and everywhere else in the world, such casualties are becoming fewer and fewer.
If you’ve ever visited downtown Los Angeles, you’ve probably seen the Skid Row area that is home to the homeless. In humanizing its denizens, who are bedeviled by drugs and mental illness or both, “Lost Angels” deserves place of honor next to “Dark Days”, the 2000 documentary about homeless men and women living in the train tunnels beneath Grand Central.
Like “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, there was a woman whose creative vision was behind “Lost Angels”. Writer and co-producer Christine Triano was formerly the editor of Alternet, one of the Internet’s higher profile progressive websites.
Departing from the predominantly pro-Democratic Party slant of Alternet, Triano has no use for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who has been spearheading a drive to throw the homeless out of downtown L.A. as part of a gentrification effort that will transform Single Room Occupancy Hotels into lofts for hedge fund managers and web developers. Villaraigosa had hired New York’s former police commissioner William Bratton to “clean up” the city, especially its Skid Row. As Mayor Giuliani’s right-hand man, Bratton had the necessary experience to terrorize the poor through implementation of a “broken window” theory that states that when you crack down on petty crimes, you undermine serious crime as well.
Giuliani’s crackdown was examined in another fine documentary titled “Giuliani Time” about which I had to say:
[Rightwing think-tank analyst Myron] Magnet explains that Giuliani assumed power largely on the basis of the “broken window” theory pioneered by the ideologues at the Manhattan Institute. This posits the notion that petty crimes (or even offenses to bourgeois values) such as street-level drug dealing or panhandling have to be eradicated in order for larger law-and-order values to prevail. Unfortunately, many decent middle-class New Yorkers, who tended to vote Democrat, got suckered into voting for Giuliani because they were fed up with panhandlers, crack vials in their vestibule, etc.
It is clear that Los Angeles voters were suckered into backing Villaraigosa on the same basis, an outcome that was welcomed by The Nation Magazine’s Marc Cooper who crowed:
Villaraigosa’s campaign embodies not just the hopes for a rising Los Angeles progressive politics; it has taken on national significance as well. “LA has become a national bully pulpit in fighting for working families across the country. If we are successful in electing a mayor who can expand the middle class, then it will become a national watershed,” says Martin Ludlow, political director of the County Federation of Labor and Villaraigosa’s former legislative chief of staff.
As a cri de coeur, both of these films will certainly command the attention of anybody with a moral conviction that the oppression of society’s outsiders, whether the gay men of Paraguay or Los Angeles’s down and out, must come to an end. Although the left has a reputation of being weak and divided, the existence of such powerful works of art and advocacy are a reminder that our message will be heard. I especially recommend the website for “Lost Angels” that has links to groups fighting against the eviction of the homeless and other causes on their behalf.
“Lost Angels” is available on DVD from the Cinema Libre Store as well as Amazon and other web retailers.
It’s also available digitally via HULU and Amazon Instant very soon.
May 17, 2012
October 7, 2011
Although the adjective “inspirational” is one of the most hackneyed in the film reviewer’s vocabulary and hence one that I tend to shirk, I could think of no other word that better describes two new documentaries: “The Sons of Tennessee Williams”, opening today at the Quad in NY, and “Elevate” that opens at the AMC Empire in NY on October 21 and in other major theaters around the country thereafter. The first is about gay men in New Orleans who used Mardi Gras as an opportunity for what amounted to gay pride demonstrations long before Stonewall. The second is about Senegalese high school students who win basketball scholarships to prep schools in the United States. While sharing some of the same dark concerns as “Hoop Dreams” (basketball as a problematic ladder up from poverty) and “Lost Boys of Sudan” (African youth dealing with an alienating white bread American environment), it is instead an uplifting story of true grit and the finest movie I have ever seen about basketball.
Joining “Before Stonewall” and “The Celluloid Closet”, “The Sons of Tennessee Williams” illuminates the efforts of gay people to express themselves when the law and a backward society were against them even much more so than today. The film is structured around old home movies and still photos taken by the men themselves and their reflections on the past. Most are now in their 60s and beyond and obviously thrilled at the idea of telling anybody who will listen that they had nothing to be ashamed of. While Hollywood fiction films still tend to the “gay as tragic” motif, documentaries continue to make the case that gay men and women can live happy and fulfilled lives if the bigots would just leave them in peace.
“The Sons of Tennessee Williams” tells the story of “drag balls” in the early 60s that used the cover of Mardi Gras to allow gay men to express themselves. Even if cross-dressing was not necessarily their “thing”, these occasions were opportunities to implicitly “come out” since it was understood by everybody that they were coming at things from a different angle than the heterosexual men who cross-dressed during Mardi Gras in the same way they might have wore more conventional costumes. Of course, New Orleans being what it is, just about everybody enjoyed getting in rhinestone-studded outfits whether they were gowns or cowboy duds.
The cops generally allowed these “krewes” as they were called some leeway but it was understood that anybody caught in a dress after carnival was over would be arrested. The press notes for the documentary describe the origins of this early foray into gay liberation:
In February 1959, a group of gay men in New Orleans decided to have a Mardi Gras ball of their own. Mardi Gras organizations in New Orleans, called krewes, are social clubs comprised of members who celebrate the season together. Each krewe has their own festivities, including parties and parades, usually ending with a formal ball and the coronation of a King and Queen. Everyone seems to have a krewe of some kind to belong to. A full decade before Stonewall, a gay Carnival krewe was founded. They called it the Krewe of YUGA or “KY”. In 1962, “KY” rented a school cafeteria in the notoriously conservative suburb of Jefferson Parish. Securing such a venue for an all male krewe to hold a Mardi Gras ball would not likely raise suspicion. Most krewes were, in fact, made up of an anonymous all male membership. Various personnel from the venue were present at functions like these, however. This would no longer be a private event. “It was a kindergarten, is what it was.”
Familiar with police raids, the men knew that the 1962 ball would break a few laws. They made absolutely sure to be in full drag anyway. “It was a ball, after all, not bowling night.” The police roared in precisely at coronation time, alerted by private citizens of crossdressing men entering the building at night. Krewe members attempted to escape by running into the swamplands adjacent to the school, chased by officers with dogs and flashlights. Many were betrayed by their glittering costumes while hiding in the dark night and tall grasses of Jefferson Parish. They were taken to jail, identified by name in the newspaper and eventually prosecuted with the charge of “disturbing the peace.” The significance is this. The following year the ball was not raided nor was any subsequent ball in the history of these annual events. By 1969, there were four gay krewes legally chartered by the state of Louisiana as official Mardi Gras organizations, holding yearly extravaganzas at public venues across the city. “Society matrons begged for ball tickets from their hairdressers.” New Orleans was the first place in America where gay and straight people came together to publicly recognize gay culture.
Not only does the film celebrate gay culture, it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans a special place. The film has a perfect title since Tennessee Williams, despite his first name, was the city’s poet laureate. It begins with a quote from Blanche Dubois, from his greatest play “A Streetcar Named Desire”. (Streetcars in New Orleans actually had such names.) When asked by her brother-in-law Mitch whether she was being straight with him, Blanche answers: “Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?” How true.
“Elevate” begins in Dakar, Senegal at the SEEDS Academy, where young basketball players from across West Africa come to get intensive athletic and academic training. We are introduced to Amadou, Assane, Byago, Dethie and Aziz as they go through the paces on the basketball court and the classroom.
We also see them at home where you can get an idea of domestic life and family relations in West Africa that is unlike anything I have seen in a documentary before. The warmth and solidarity that family members offer the young athletes is one of the film’s most engaging aspects. With so much emphasis in documentaries about war-torn countries like Sudan or Ivory Coast about cruelty and suffering, these scenes are a reminder that there is more to Africa than doom and gloom.
Once the athletes get off their planes and drive to their new schools in the United States, the contrast with Dakar could not be starker. One school has mandatory chapel services that Assane amiably takes part in despite his Muslim faith. After services are finished, he goes back to his room and prays toward Mecca. At the very minute another athlete Aziz is eying a hot dog in his school’s cafeteria during Ramadan, worrying if there is pork in it, the film cuts back to Dakar where it shows his mother preparing a traditional Senegalese dish in a huge kettle. The contrast drawn between America and Senegal throughout the film is not one intended to be judgmental, only to help one understand the psychological adjustment the young protagonists had to make.
And make them they did. The film benefits from having five of the most likable and engaging young people as you can possibly imagine. Wise beyond their years, they have few illusions about making it to the NBA. They see prep school not as a path toward a McMansion and a fleet of cars but rather one that can get them into an American college on a basketball scholarship and then a profession, like medicine or law.
Much of the film consists of locker-room banter, games on the court, sessions between the athletes and coaches or guidance counselors that are ostensibly mundane. But they take on a highly dramatic character since everything the five young heroes are involved with amounts to stepping stones toward a better life. This is a documentary that takes a seemingly routine business—the lives of Senegalese basketball scholarship students in America—and turns it into high drama. Highly recommended!
August 14, 2010
Like Vanity Fair’s estimable James Wolcott, I am a fan of On the Road with Austin and Santino, a new Lifetime cable show about a couple of fashion designers who go around the country making couture type clothing for plain janes:
The pleasantest surprise of the television year so far is Lifetime’s underhyped and unheralded On the Road with Austin and Santino, teaming two of the most memorable, personality-plus designers from Project Runway, a creative odd couple that make for a terrific matched set. Outfitted in perfect little outfits, Austin Scarlett, diminutive and fey, looks as if he could be the guidance counselor from Glee’s long lost brother, the one who taught her everything she knows about pastels and jewelry selection; Santino Rice, tall, husky-voiced, and spaniel-eyed, has a more loping presence and loose, layered look. But both are quick-witted and droll, and make a helluva comedy duo as they tool around the country in this fashion-makeover road movie on the installment plan. (Santino at least resembles a road warrior behind the steering wheel–to many of the locals, Austin looks as if he landed from Venus.)
The last episode, which can be seen in its entirety here, was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.
It is not just the women who accept the two designers with open arms. Alesha’s husband and her father, who look like they could be cast as Klan members, are thrilled to see them working on Alesha’s gown. The other residents of the small town also give them the red carpet treatment. This is not what we would expect in an ostensibly homophobic small town, needless to say. Whether or not this generous and tolerant behavior was staged or not can of course not be determined, although I am inclined to believe that it was genuine. Admittedly, when you are being filmed you tend to be on your best behavior.
Whatever the case, it dawned on me how gratifying the show was when compared to the truly odious last movie by Sasha Baron Cohen that basically followed the same format as this TV show, but to the opposite effect. The gay fashionista Bruno played by Cohen went to the same kinds of small towns in order to catch locals in some kind of homophobic outrage. When Bruno goes out hunting with some men who look and dress like those in Antler, he tries to shock them into bad behavior by provoking them with outlandish sexual advances. To their credit, they largely remain unprovoked. The real lesson of Borat and Bruno, when you really get down to it, is how generally open-minded Americans are despite this British snob’s attempts to convey the opposite.
All this brings to mind Alexander Cockburn’s recent column about how fed up he is with gay marriage:
I’m for anything that upsets the applecart but why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about. Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of “equality” as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged.
To buttress his case, he followed up with a letter from a gay activist that stated:
As you might know, only 15 per cent of LGBT are in a relationship circumstance where they would marry. Yet this issue has dominated LGBT activism for the past two decades. Along with gays in the military, which served 1.5 per cent of LGBT, these two conservative issues have crowded out progress on consensus economic issues, housing and job discrimination protections, which would appear to be in the interests of the vast majority, those of us who must compete for housing and employment.
That being said, the activist also told Cockburn that he’s “probably gonna tie the knot in the future when it becomes legal again.” He also thought that:
The issue of marriage is just a vehicle. The payload is the state ending discrimination in all of its practices. It is disgusting to me that marriage ended up getting us here, but I think that I can see daylight through Kennedy.
In other words, gay marriage might involve belief in a reactionary institution (I am married myself, for what that’s worth) but it is a means to a liberatory end.
To some extent, Cockburn’s complaint and that of some gay ultralefts is a kind of counter-cultural time machine journey back to 1971 or so when radicalism and life style were inextricably linked, especially in New Left circles. For gays, this translated into rejection of all aspects of bourgeois society, especially its sexual mores. What a disappointment it must be to them to see so many gays jumping on the bandwagon of an institution that symbolizes bourgeois society. Like pressing for the rights of gays to join the military or become Protestant ministers, this would appear to be a wholesale rejection of “militancy”.
Perhaps the same thing could be said about the civil rights movement of the 1950s that focused so much on African-Americans not being discriminated against. By the 60s the Black movement had reversed course and worried less about discrimination and more about the possibility of becoming separated from a decadent bourgeois white society.
History played a trick when it came to gays. Rather than moving from anti-discrimination to militancy (except for the rather modest efforts of the Mattachine Society), it went from the militancy of the early 70s to something much more like an “integrationist” movement today. It is too bad that some on the left cannot accept the movement on its own terms.
Oddly enough, Counterpunch has published far more articles in defense of gay marriage than Cockburn’s contrarian pieces, a sign of the publication’s health, I would say. If only the “vanguard” press could live up to this example, we’d all be better off. Here’s one item to consider:
On a swing through Baton Rouge, Louisiana last week, John F. Kerry made it crystal clear that he doesn’t care much for gay marriage. The intolerant senator scoffed at reporters when asked whether or not he supported the inclusion of a same-sex marriage plank in the Massachusetts Democratic platform. Kerry answered by saying that such a statement does not represent the views held by most party members, including himself.
“I’m opposed to it being in a platform. I think it’s a mistake,” Kerry huffed, “I think it’s the wrong thing, and I’m not sure it reflects the broad view of the Democratic Party in our state … I’m opposed to gay marriage.”
The senator, who flip-flopped his way through a self-defeating campaign in 2004, can’t get his act together — yet he is still setting himself up for another run in 2008. Supporting gay marriage amounts to electoral death, or so claims Kerry. He must think inflating his political status is more important than standing up for equality.
Indeed Kerry’s statement is the kind of veiled hate speech we were hearing from racist Democrats down South during the civil rights struggles. Fortunately, Dems in Massachusetts aren’t buying Kerry’s line, as they are planning to vote in favor of putting a same-sex marriage plank in their platform later this month. In fact, Kerry is behind the times, as his state’s Supreme Court legalized gay marriage back in May of 2004.
This, of course, is entirely the right tack to take. Hearkening back to Lenin’s “What is to be Done”, it puts the premium on standing up for the rights of a persecuted minority without trying to gainsay the goal being pursued. In illustrating how a “vanguard” functions, Lenin referred to the German social democracy:
Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.
If Lenin advocated that socialists fight for the right of a “bourgeois progressive” to take office in Germany, why is so difficult for some on the left to see gay marriage in the same terms?
Logo, a polling company subsidiary of MTV, asked young gays about their hopes. It found the following:
For one thing, younger gays now expect to stay put: no more running away to be gay. Rather than heading to big cities where gays are more readily accepted, young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America.
That means younger gays fully anticipate, and demand, acceptance from their local communities. At the same time, younger gays don’t see a great need to depart from most cultural norms as expressed by their heterosexual peers; while wishing to be open and honest about their core identities, young gays also wish for the support and purpose of family.
The expectation of a spouse and children is common among younger gays, whereas the research indicated that only about a third of gays 35 and older shared that same desire. Overall, gays polled by the study said their top priority was marriage equality, followed by the environment, health care, and the economy.
Get that? Young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America. They also said their top priority was marriage equality.
All in all, On the Road with Austin and Santino is an expression of these hopes and dreams. Gay youth want to be accepted on their own terms, even in such a place as Antler, Oklahoma. The desire to express one’s sexual identity without negative consequences is entirely normal. The United States is headed inexorably toward significant demographic changes that will help to undermine the reactionary prejudices of many white males living both in places like Antler and in New York City where gay-bashing still takes place. Socialists have an obligation to strengthen every initiative that moves us away from the prejudices that have taken the lives of Blacks, Latinos and gays. Part of this is fighting for gay marriage, a change that would make gay people and straights equal in the eyes of society, whether or not one or another reactionary has endorsed this demand. As is always the case, socialists should not put a minus where the ruling class—or elements of it—put a plus. As Leon Trotsky once said, we have to learn to think.
December 7, 2009
Dr. Samuel Kahn: ardent Freudian
This year I worked with a couple of people on a comic book memoir about my comic life that should be out in 2011, god willing.
That exercise has triggered a Proustian examination of key episodes facilitated more by Google than a Madeline dunked into a cup of tea. Pretty much all of my strange encounters will be covered in the memoir but one slipped my mind entirely. When I was 14, my parents shipped me off to summer camp for neurotic children. Yes, I know that sounds funny but that’s what it was. Just like there are summer camps for fat kids, Jewish kids, rightwing Christian fundamentalist kids, there are summer camps for neurotics. At least there was in 1959.
Around the time I turned 14, my mother became worried that I never smiled. I suppose if she asked me why, I could have told her that I was tired of being bullied by bigger kids in school and by the mindless materialism and conformity that I was growing disenchanted with. I still didn’t have a handle on my malaise, but reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg a year later would help me figure it out. And then a year later, when I turned 16, I went off to Bard College where I became acquainted with 400 other neurotic youth newly liberated by the school that Walter Winchell had called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson”.
My loquacious mother was asking around about what to do with me, especially during the summer when vacationing Jews from New York flooded into our village, bringing their big-city sophistication up with them. We were rubes by comparison. One of these Jews was Kenny Gottlieb, an Amherst undergraduate who was working summers at the Olympic Hotel. Like thousands of other young men depicted in movies like “Dirty Dancing”, the summer earnings as camp counselors, waiters and busboys helped pay tuition and expenses at places like Amherst and Columbia. Kenny’s uncle was Sam Weiser, the owner of a famous occult bookstore in New York that has since moved to Maine. After I became a fledgling beatnik, I used to make pilgrimages to the bookstore to browse titles in Gnosticism, Kabbalah and other “hipster” religions.
Kenny was introduced to my mom by the people who ran the hotel, who were locals like us. Sizing up my situation, he recommended that I be shipped off to Camp Quakerbridge in Croton-on-Hudson that was run by a psychiatrist named Samuel Kahn whose sister owned the Olympic. So in the summer of 1959, I went to summer camp for the first time in my life. Instead of playing pinball machines, fishing for pickerel in nearby ponds or shooting off firecrackers with my hooligan pals, I was going off to be “cured”.
Most of the kids there were Jews like me and seemed to be suffering from the kind of emotional burdens associated with middle-class life as documented in the novels of Philip Roth. Whether they could be described as “neurosis” or not is open to debate but that did not seem to deter the counselors and social worker/therapists who were steeped in Freudian theory and camp director Samuel Kahn’s particular interpretations of the man he studied with.
A typical day might consist of playing softball from 9:30 to 11 followed by a session with “Mrs. Rabinowitz” (I can’t remember any of their names except Kahn’s) who explained to us kids what was wrong not only with us, but most of the human race. Using a blackboard, she went through terms like “ego”, “superego” and “id” to bring us up to speed. When she came to the Oedipal Complex, most of us had trouble wrapping our minds around that. The idea of having erotic feelings toward one’s mother seemed most improbable, especially when you had a look at some of them who came up to visit on weekends.
I didn’t take the lectures that seriously but was happy to get away from my father’s fruit store for the summer. I was expected to put in a few hours a day waiting on customers who asked in thick Yiddish accents “you got some nice tomatoes maybe?”
In early July, having spent about a month there, I wandered over to the main building where I spotted a group of the counselors and other staff members sitting around in a circle while the camp’s drama director walked up and down in the middle. For a few moments, he was talking about things that were troubling him that would not be of much interest to a 14 year old—like a sense of inadequacy, etc. You have to become an adult for such things to get you down, especially in bourgeois society. But what happened next was totally unexpected. The counselor began to sob uncontrollably about his problems, the tears falling down his face. I had never seen a grown man cry, an act that was particularly rare in the self-controlled masculine world of the 1950s.
A few days later, I received an even greater shock. Dr. Samuel Kahn wanted to meet with me, about what I had no idea. We sat on a bench near the main building and he presented a proposal to me. He thought that I would benefit from living with a couple in Croton-on-Hudson who would be able to “rescue” me from the misery my parents were inflicting on me. Although I was happy to be away from them for a summer, the idea of going to live with people who cried in public and whose lives revolved around discussing the superego was not my cup of tea. I called my mom that evening and demanded to be brought home. Since my father’s fruit store was doing a booming business that summer (the Catskills would collapse only 6 or 7 years later), they didn’t think twice about bringing me home to wait on customers.
Just out of curiosity, I did some investigation on “Samuel Kahn” and “Quakerbridge” on the Internet. This is what I came up with. The NY Times reported on December 28, 1981:
Dr. Samuel Kahn, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had studied with Freud, died Thursday at Westchester County Medical Center in White Plains. Dr. Kahn, who was a resident of Croton-on-Hudson, was 84 years old.
He was born in Atlanta and was a graduate of Emory University where he also received his medical degree. Dr. Kahn interned in various New York City hospitals and studied in Vienna.
He was a clinical psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital and served as an associate professor at Long Island University. He was the founder and a director of the Quakerbridge School, a youth camp in Ossining, N. Y.
Dr. Kahn was the author of more than 30 books of psychotherapy, of which the most recent was ”Practical Child Guidance and Mental Hygiene.” Among others were ”How and Why We Laugh,” ”Anxieties, Phobias and Fears,”, ”Master Your Mind!” and ”Thanks for a Better Memory.”
He is survived by his wife, Karen; two daughters, Dr. Janice Kahn of Island Park, L. I., and Susannah of Ossining, N. Y.; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Of even greater interest was a website called http://quakerbridgecamp.com/ that has a bunch of the good Doctor’s musings. The first one that caught my eye was called “Acting Out” – Homosexuality and Bisexuality, a talk he gave exactly 52 years ago to this day. He explains:
A passive homosexual is one who can be made into an active homosexual by special circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances he prefers heterosexuality, but supposing he would get drunk and be locked up in a room with a homosexual, he would have homosexual relations. When the drinks wear off, he again prefers heterosexuality. The largest numbers of homosexuals are the passive unconscious homosexuals. These don’t know that they are homosexuals and they are the ones who get mentally sick. The way to find out whether one is a passive unconscious homosexual is to interpret the dreams. Many times these dreams are symbolic so that the individual himself cannot interpret the dreams and hence, may not recognize his homosexuality or the kind it is. Once in awhile a passive unconscious homosexual may have an overt homosexual dream. This may happen, but it is not so common. These dreams may or may not be remembered. The exact situation may happen to females.
The first time I got an inkling how stupid this was from the comedians Jack Burns and Avery Shreiber who did a skit called “The Conventioneer and the Cabdriver” around this time on television. Burns played the conventioneer as a thick-necked Rotarian from someplace like East Jesus, Nebraska who was in NY for a convention. Shreiber, the cabby, was taking him to his hotel and answering his anxious questions about the visit. Somehow, the conversation turned to ballet dancers that the Rotarian heard thrived in New York. He told the cabby that if any of them ever got smart with him, he’d punch them out. Everybody understood how stupid he sounded, even if the reference to gays was only veiled. 10 years later, with the Stonewall rebellion, most intelligent people in the U.S. would have nothing to do with the prejudices of the conventioneer played by Burns or by Dr. Samuel. As backward as American society can seem sometimes, I have to remind myself from time to time that we are making progress.
July 10, 2009
Despite aspiring to speak for the Iranian left, which in its view is reducible to Ahmadinejad and the forces that support him, MRZine has come under attack again and again by the Iranian left, both in exile and in Iran itself. The pro-Ahmadinejad tilt is mainly the contribution of the editor Yoshie Furuhashi who became converted to the Ahmadinejad cause before assuming control of the online publication at the time of its launching exactly 4 years ago.
To some extent comrade Furuhashi’s attachment to Ahmadinejad transcends politics, as indicated by this comment she made on Doug Henwood’s listserv a month after MRZine debuted.
Today is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inauguration. Rostam Pourzal made a tough deadline and delivered a great article in time for it. Now, it’s featured on the homepage of, together with (what I think of as) a handsome photo of Ahmadinejad.
Like Furuhashi, Rostam Pourzal is an unabashed supporter of Ahmadinejad. In June of 2006, he wrote an article for MRZine defending the Iranian government’s crackdown on International Woman’s Day on the basis that no women were beaten–only arrested. He cites a correspondent from Tehran who was an eyewitness:
In [sic] two different occasions, I saw two groups of protesters, each about four or five, who were arrested and driven away in vans. In one occasion, a woman protestor who was resisting arrest was treated roughly by a female officer, but I saw no beatings, and no use of batons and gas against the protestors.
This is most reassuring that there were only arrests and rough treatment. I can see Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff smiling benignly from their clouds in Marxist heaven over this revelation.
Pourzal’s article was so outrageous that it prompted an open letter by members of the Iranian left in exile that posed the question:
Let us assume for a moment that the report in the email received by Pourzal is correct, and that the demonstrators were not hit by batons but by flowers. Shouldn’t one consider any effort by the state to stop a peaceful demonstration by women in a park an act of aggression? Isn’t this unnecessary violence?
With the political crisis developing in Iran since the elections, MRZine has effectively functioned as a propaganda arm of the Iranian government, even more openly than in the past. If you read the comments at the bottom of the offending articles, you will find Iranian leftists expressing their outrage but none supporting the editorial position of the zine. This is typical:
I live in tehran and for the last 30 years I have felt the brutal and fascist nature of Islamic state. Is MR in supporting position of Islamic state? My comrades brutally sentenced by Islamic State, some times for translating MR materials! I don’t konow why you are not supporting Iranian Left? and Are you supporting a Fascist-Islamist regime?!!
farhang | 06.22.09 – 2:59 pm | #
Today, there’s a very useful article by Saeed Rahnema, a Professor of Political Science at York University in Canada, on Znet titled “The Tragedy of the Left’s Discourse on Iran” that hones in on MRZine:
The most bizarre case is the on-line journal MRZine, the offshoot of Monthly Review, which in some instances even publicized the propaganda of the Basij (Islamic militia) hooligans and criminals. The website has given ample room to pro-Islamist contributors; while they can hardly be considered to be on the left, their words are appreciated by the leftists editing the site. One writer claims that the battle in Iran is about “welfare reform and private property rights,” and that Ahmadinejad “has enraged the managerial class,” as he is “the least enthusiastic about neo-liberal reforms demanded by Iran’s corporate interests,” and that he is under attack by “Iran’s fiscal conservative candidates.” The author conveniently fails to mention that there are also much “corporate interests” controlled by Ahmadinejad’s friends and allies in the Islamic Guards and his conservative cleric supporters, and that he has staunchly followed “privatization” policies by handing over state holdings to his cronies.
During the 1979 revolution, the late Tudeh Party, under the direction of the Soviet Union, was unsuccessfully digging deep and looking hard for “non-capitalists” among the Islamic regime’s elements to follow a “non-capitalist path” and a “socialist orientation.” Now it seems that MRZine magazine is beginning a new excavation for such a breed among Islamists, not understanding that all factions of the Islamic regime have always been staunch capitalists.
While it is tempting to look at the MRZine editor’s passion for Ahmadinejad in psychological terms, it is more profitable to approach it politically. To begin with, it must be stated that Comrade Furuhashi likely turned her attention to Iran because she had become frustrated with the slow pace of politics in the U.S. After a brief experience with the antiwar movement and membership in Solidarity, she found to her dismay that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were continuing despite her best effort. And even bigger pill to swallow was the fact that American workers continued to remain politically passive. I can commiserate with her after spending the past 42 years of my life banging my head against the wall trying to foment a socialist revolution in the U.S. That being said, I’d prefer to take up bird-watching rather than propagandize for Ahmadinejad.
For those trying to get a handle on MRZine’s editorial direction, it must be stated that the pro-Ahmadinejad tilt is likely inspired by the line of two Marcyite groups, the Workers World Party and a recent split that goes by the name of Party of Socialism and Liberation. It should be said that these two groups are indistinguishable politically and probably split over who would run the show, an outcome generally associated with the corporate world rather than Marxism-Leninism. The term Marcyite is a reference to the founder of Workers World Party, one Sam Marcy who split with the American SWP over its support for the Hungarian revolution in 1956 preferring to back Soviet tanks.
The two strands come together in an MRZine article titled “An Open Letter to the Anti-War Movement: How Should We React to the Events in Iran?” by Phil Wilayto that has all the earmarks of a Workers World piece. Although Wilayto represents himself as an independent, he did write for their newspaper in the past. The MRZine article has the Workers World/PSL approach down pat. You dredge up some evidence that imperialism is opposed to some government and then work overtime to prettify it, whether it is run by Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. Here’s a sample of his mechanical approach:
This is from a June 25 story in USA Today: “The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, records and interviews show, continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President [George W.] Bush.”
That story, published 13 days after the Iranian elections, explains that the U.S. Agency for International Development, which reports to the U.S. secretary of state, had for the last year been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to “promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran.”
Pretty clearly, that’s internal interference. After all, imagine how Americans would have reacted if Iran had allocated millions of dollars to “promote democracy” in Florida after George W. Bush stole the 2000 presidential election?
Speaking only for myself, I don’t allow U.S. support for dissident movements to guide my thinking on various governments. The U.S. backed Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and I opposed the Soviet government nonetheless. But in the case of Cuba, I support the government and oppose the dissidents. If this is too complicated for others to understand, I recommend a remedial course in Marxist dialectics.
Wilayto also adopts a stratagem that is found in Workers World articles when dealing with characters like Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. The author finds evidence to make them look irresistible. In the case of Ahmadinejad, this most frequently takes the form of hailing his populist measures that benefit the poor. This we are led to understand trumps democratic rights, a kind of paternalism generally associated with Stalinism of the 1940s and 50s.
It is a bit more difficult to put a spin on the question of personal freedom, especially when it comes to women and gays. Ahmadinejad has a most unusual position on the latter, stating to a Columbia University audience:
In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you we have it.
Wilayto implicitly tries to finesse this question by referring to Iran’s generosity in enabling sex change operations:
Subsidies for food, housing, gas, public transportation, airline seats, movies, arts, books, fertilizers, vacations, and sex change operations. (That’s right. Iran has the highest number of sex changes operations of any country except Thailand. Subsidized by the government.)
This enthusiasm for subsidized sex change operations has been expressed by Furuhashi and the Workers World Party in the past as well. On her blog, Furuhashi calls attention to “Changing Sex, Changing Islam” and finds encouragement in a newspaper article that states:
One early campaigner for transsexual rights is Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who was formerly a man known as Fereydoon. Before the revolution, under the shah, he had longed to become a woman but could not afford surgery. Furthermore, he wanted religious guidance. In 1978, he wrote to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the leader of the revolution but was still in exile, explaining his situation.
The ayatollah replied that his case was different from that of a homosexual and therefore he had his blessing.
Workers World is even more breathless in an article that warns gay activists to stop protesting the treatment of same sexers in Iran:
Today, Tehran offers more rights to transsexuals than any other government on the planet, including low-cost government loans for surgery and free hormones. Khomeini made the initial decision and it has since been reconfirmed by many other Iranian clerics.
This credulous support for sex change operations must be challenged and fortunately an excellent documentary on the matter called “Be Like Others” can be seen on Youtube in its entirety. It makes three essential points as it monitors the progress of several men scheduled for sex change operations:
- They opted for surgery because life for transgender people is a living hell in Iran. Harassment by thugs on the street or potential arrest by the morality police forces them to go through the procedure.
- After the surgery, they are victimized by their new identity and can not find jobs. One interviewee makes her living as a prostitute utilizing the “Islamic temporary marriage license” to permit her to have sex with a john for about an hour.
- All suffer serious depression of the kind that causes many transsexuals in Iran to commit suicide.
I urge you to watch the entire movie, starting with part one below:
If you don’t have the time, at least have a look at this article which encapsulates the lessons of the movie quite effectively:
Filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian has long been fascinated by gender issues, so when she read a New York Times story about how the Iranian government was dealing with homosexuality, she was completely transfixed.
Iranian-born herself, the New York-based filmmaker learned that in Iran, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. But the government has provided a way out for the nation’s gays and lesbians: a sex-change operation. Fully paid for by the state, the procedure would allow these people to conform to Iran’s theocratic standards of sexuality.
Eshaghian decided she had to interview some of those involved in this gender-reassignment program. The result is a devastating documentary called Be Like Others. Shot in verité style, the film captures the pain and brutality of a regime that is pushing sex-change operations as the path to a final solution to homosexuality.
What was nearly as surprising as the revelations in the film is the fact that Eshaghian didn’t have to go undercover to get her story.
“It’s a very public phenomenon,” she says. “These sex changes are legal and are endorsed by the leading clerics. It’s embraced. I asked for a press permit before I went. After a month, I was given the OK. Officially, I was allowed to do what I needed to do. It’s not like I was doing a film on nuclear strategy — they don’t see it as an openly political issue. The rest was what you have to do with any documentary: spend a lot of time gaining trust.”
What her film reveals is a culture so steeped in hatred of gays and lesbians that it deems a sex change preferable to simply accepting differences in sexual orientation. The shift in policy came more than two decades ago, when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious decree) declaring sex changes permissible for “diagnosed transsexuals.” Be Like Others introduces us to a number of the people who have been given this label. Some have accepted their fate, and feel the sex change to be a way to avoid further persecution; others are clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but have agreed to it simply because of intense outside pressure. One young woman laments that her boyfriend seems uninterested in her now that she’s no longer a man.
Full article can be read here.
Finally, I advise you to check out the film’s official website here.
May 6, 2009
May 2, 2009
In my review of Paul Buhle and Harvey Pekar’s “The Beats”, I referred to Robert Duncan’s essay “The Homosexual in Society” that appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics in 1944. This seminal gay liberation document certainly deserves to be available on the Internet and so I have scanned it in from Duncan’s “A Selected Prose” that was published in 1990.
A word or two about Dwight Macdonald is in order. He was a Shachtmanite who eventually dropped any pretensions to Marxism and embraced a mixture of anarchism, liberalism and pacifism. He was also bitterly anti-Communist and even hooked up for a while with the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom. When the 60s radicalization began, Macdonald reverted to the radical politics of his youth to some extent and became part of a cadre of high-profile intellectuals who opposed the Vietnam War (Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy were two other notables.)
The inclusion of Duncan’s essay in Macdonald’s journal in 1944 opens up some interesting avenues for research. As far as I know, the Trotskyist movement was pretty bad on gay issues. Cannon’s group was worse than Shachtman’s—at least that is what I would suspect. If Macdonald was open-minded enough to challenge the prevailing homophobia on the left, you have to wonder what else was appearing in the pages of his magazine.
Leon Trotsky supposedly once said that “Everyone has the right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege”. This remark reportedly delighted Macdonald. I can only say that at least on the gay question, Macdonald holds up very well.
Duncan’s essay anticipates many of the gay liberation themes that would be articulated after the Stonewall rebellion, despite a certain defensiveness expressed in terms of his disapproval of the “homosexual cult” and “camp”.
The Homosexual in Society
Originally appeared in Politics, I, 7 (August 1944). The revisions were made in 1959. The expanded version was first published in Jimmy & Lucy’s House of “K,” 3 (January 1985).
Seymour Krim has urged me to reprint this early essay as “a pioneering piece,” assuring me “that it stands and will stand on its own feet.” At the time it was printed (Politics, August 1944) it had at least the pioneering gesture, as far as I know, of being the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved; but my view was that minority associations and identifications were an evil wherever they supersede allegiance to and share in the creation of a human community good—the recognition of fellow-manhood.
Blind lifeliness—what Darwin illuminates as evolution—has its creative design, and in that process a man’s sexuality is a natural factor in a biological economy larger and deeper than his own human will. What we create as human beings is a picture of the meaning and relation of life; we create perspectives of space and time or a universe; and we create ideas of “man” and of “person,” of gods and attendant powers—a drama wherein what, and who we are are manifest. And this creation governs our knowledge of good and evil.
For some, there are only the tribe and its covenant that are good, and all of mankind outside and their ways are evil; for many in America today good is progressive, their professional status determines their idea of “man” and to be genuinely respectable their highest concept of a good “person”—all other men are primitive, immature, or uneducated. Neither of these perspectives was acceptable to me. I had been encouraged by my parents, by certain teachers in high school, by friends, through Socialist and Anarchist associations, and through the evidence of all those artists, philosophers and mystics who have sought to give the truth of their feeling and thought to mankind, to believe that there was an entity in the imagination “mankind,” and that there was a community of thoughtful men and women concerned with the good of that totality to whom I was responsible. The magazine Politics represented for me during the Second World War an arena where intellectuals of that community were concerned, and I came to question myself in the light of the good they served.
It was not an easy essay to write. As a form an essay is a field in which we try ideas. In this piece I try to bring forward ideas of “homosexual,” “society,” “human” and, disguised but evident, my own guilt; and their lack of definition is involved with my own troubled information. Our sense of terms is built up from a constant renewed definition through shared information, and one of the urgencies of my essay was just that there was so little help here where other writers had concealed their own experience and avoided discussion.
Then too, the writing of the essay was a personal agony. Where we bear public testimony we face not only the community of thoughtful men and women who are concerned with the good, but facing the open forum we face mean and stupid men too. The involved disturbed syntax that collects conditional clauses and often fails to arrive at a full statement suggests that I felt in writing the essay that I must gather forces and weight to override some adversary; I have to push certain words from adverse meanings which as a social creature I share with the public to new meanings which might allow for an enlarged good. In the polemics of the essay it is not always possible to find the ground of accusation unless we recognize that I was trying to rid myself of one persona in order to give birth to another, and at the same time to communicate the process and relate it to what I called “society,” a public responsibility. I was likely to find as little intellectual approval for the declaration of an idealistic morality as I was to find for the avowal of my homosexuality. The work often has value as evidence in itself of the conflict concerned and of the difficulty of statement then just where it is questionable as argument. I had a likeness to the public and shared its conflicts of attitude—an apprehension which shapes the course of the essay.
I feel today as I felt then that there is a service to the good in bringing even painful and garbled truth of the nature of our thought and feeling to the light of print, for what I only feel as an urgency and many men may condemn me for as an aberration, some man reading may render as an understanding and bring into the wholeness of human experience. Reading this essay some fifteen years later, I need courage to expose the unhappiness of my writing at that time, for I am not today without conflicting feelings and have the tendency still to play the adversary where I had meant only to explore ideas. In preparing the text then I have eliminated certain references that were topical at the time but would be obscure now and have cut where economy was possible without losing the character of the original; but I have not sought to rewrite or to remedy the effect.
[Robert Duncan's footnotes for the 1944 publication of this essay have been indicated by asterisks and set in a typeface different from the rest of the text. Duncan also added footnotes when he made revisions to the text in 1959. These notes have been indicated by numbers.]
I propose to discuss a group whose only salvation is in the struggle of all humanity for freedom and individual integrity; who have suffered in modern society persecution, excommunication; and whose intellectuals, whose most articulate members, have been willing to desert that primary struggle, to beg, to gain at the price if need be of any sort of prostitution, privilege for themselves, however ephemeral; who have been willing rather than to struggle toward self-recognition, to sell their product, to convert their deepest feelings into marketable oddities and sentimentalities.
Although in private conversation, at every table, at every editorial board, one knows that a great body of modern art is cheated out by what amounts to a homosexual cult; although hostile critics have at times opened fire in attack as rabid as the attack of Southern senators upon “niggers”; critics who might possibly view the homosexual with a more humane eye seem agreed that it is better that nothing be said.1 Pressed to the point, they may either, as in the case of such an undeniable homosexual as Hart Crane, contend that he was great despite his “perversion”*—much as my mother used to say how much better a poet Poe would have been had he not taken dope; or where it is possible they have attempted to deny the role of the homosexual in modern art, defending the good repute of modern art against any evil repute of homosexuality.
(* Critics of Crane, for instance, consider that his homosexuality is the cause of his inability to adjust to society. Another school feels that inability to adjust to society causes homosexuality. What seems fairly obvious is that Crane’s effort to communicate his inner feelings, his duty as a poet, brought him into conflict with social opinion. He might well have adjusted his homosexual desires within society as many have done by “living a lie” and avoiding any unambiguous reference in his work.)
But one cannot, in face of the approach taken to their own problem by homosexuals, place any weight of criticism upon the liberal body of critics for avoiding the issue. For there are Negroes who have joined openly in the struggle for human freedom, made articulate that their struggle against racial prejudice is part of the struggle for all; there are Jews who have sought no special privilege or recognition for themselves as Jews but have fought for human rights, but there is in the modern American scene no homosexual who has been willing to take in his own persecution a battlefront toward human freedom. Almost coincident with the first declarations for homosexual rights was the growth of a cult of homosexual superiority to heterosexual values; the cultivation of a secret language, the camp, a tone and a vocabulary that are loaded with contempt for the uninitiated.
Outside the ghetto the word “goy” disappears, wavers, and dwindles in the Jew’s vocabulary as he becomes a member of the larger community. But in what one would believe the most radical, the most enlightened “queer” circles, the word “jam” remains, designating all who are not wise to homosexual ways, filled with an unwavering hostility and fear, gathering an incredible force of exclusion and blindness. It is hard (for all the sympathy which I can bring to bear) to say that this cult plays any other than an evil role in society.2
But names cannot be named.3 There are critics whose cynical, backbiting joke upon their audience is no other than this secret special reference; there are poets whose nostalgic picture of special worth in suffering, sensitivity, and magical quality is no other than this intermediate “sixth sense”; there are new cult leaders whose special divinity, whose supernatural and visionary claim is no other than this mystery of sex.4 The law has declared homosexuality secret, inhuman, unnatural (and why not then supernatural?). The law itself sees in it a crime—not in the sense that murder, thievery, seduction of children, or rape are seen as human crimes—but as a crime against the way of nature.* It has been lit up and given an awful and lurid attraction such as witchcraft was given in the 17th century. Like early witches, the homosexuals, far from seeking to undermine the popular superstition, have accepted and even anticipated the charge of demonism. Sensing the fear in society that is generated in ignorance of their nature, they have sought not understanding but to live in terms of that ignorance, to become witch doctors in the modern chaos.
(* “Just as certain judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from original sin and racial predestination.” Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust.)
To go about this they have had to cover with mystery, to obscure the work of all those who have viewed homosexuality as but one of the many ways which human love may take and who have had primarily in mind as they wrote (as Melville, Proust, or Crane had) mankind and its liberation. For these great early artists their humanity was the source, the sole source, of their work. Thus in Remembrance of Things Past, Charlus is not seen as the special disintegration of a homosexual but as a human being in disintegration, and the forces that lead to that disintegration, the forces of pride, self-humiliation in love, jealousy, are not special forces but common to all men and women. Thus in Melville, though in Billy Budd it is clear that the conflict is homosexual, the forces that make for that conflict, the guilt in passion, the hostility rising from subconscious sources, and the sudden recognition of these forces as it comes to Vere in that story—these are forces which are universal, which rise in other contexts, which in Melville’s work have risen in other contexts.
It is, however, the body of Crane that has been most ravaged by these modern ghouls and, once ravaged, stuck up cult-wise in the mystic light of their special cemetery literature. The live body of Crane is there, inviolate in the work; but in the window display of modern poetry, in so many special critics’ and devotees’ interest, is a painted mummy, deep sea green. One may tiptoe by, as the visitors to Lenin’s tomb tiptoe by, and, once outside, find themselves in a world in his name that has celebrated the defeat of all that he was devoted to. One need only point out in all the homosexual imagery of Crane, in the longing and vision of love, the absence of the private sensibility that colors so much of modern writing. Where the Zionists of homosexuality have laid claim to a Palestine of their own—asserting in their miseries their nationality; Crane’s suffering, his rebellion and his love are sources of poetry for him, not because they are what makes him different from his fellow-men, but because he saw in them his link with mankind; he saw in them his share in universal human experience.5
What can one do in the face of this, both those critics and artists, not homosexual, who are, however, primarily concerned with dispelling all inhumanities, all forces of convention and law that impose a tyranny over man’s nature, and those critics and artists who, as homosexuals, must face in their own lives both the hostility of society in that they are “queer” and the hostility of the homosexual elite in that they are merely human?
For the first group the starting point is clear, that they must recognize homosexuals as equals, and, as equals, allow them neither more nor less than can be allowed any human being. There are no special rights. For the second group the starting point is more difficult, the problem more treacherous.
In the face of the hostility of society which I risk in making even the acknowledgment explicit in this statement, in the face of the “crime” of my own feelings, in the past I publicized those feelings as private and made no stand for their recognition but tried to sell them as disguised, for instance, as conflicts arising from mystical sources.6 I colored and perverted simple and direct emotions and realizations into a mysterious realm, a mysterious relation to society. Faced by the inhumanities of society I did not seek a solution in humanity but turned to a second outcast society as inhumane as the first. I joined those who, while they allowed for my sexual nature, allowed for so little of the moral, the sensible, and creative direction which all of living should reflect. They offered a family, outrageous as it was, a community in which one was not condemned for one’s homosexuality, but it was necessary there for one to desert one’s humanity, for which one would be suspect, “out of key.” In drawing rooms and in little magazines I celebrated the cult with a sense of sanctuary such as a medieval Jew must have found in the ghetto; my voice taking on the modulations which tell of the capitulation to snobbery and the removal from the “common sort”; my poetry exhibiting the objects made divine and tyrannical as the Catholic church has made bones of saints, and bread and wine tyrannical.7
After an evening at one of those salons where the whole atmosphere was one of suggestion and celebration, I returned recently experiencing again the aftershock, the desolate feeling of wrongness, remembering in my own voice and gestures the rehearsal of unfeeling. Alone, not only I, but, I felt, the others who had appeared as I did so mocking, so superior in feeling, had known, knew still, those troubled emotions, the deep and integral longings that we as human beings feel, holding us from archaic actions by the powerful sense of humanity that is their source, longings that lead us to love, to envision a creative life. “Towards something far,” as Hart Crane wrote, “now farther away than ever.”
Among those who should understand those emotions which society condemned, one found that the group language did not allow for any feeling at all other than this self-ridicule, this “gaiety” (it is significant that the homosexual’s word for his own kind is “gay”), a wave surging forward, breaking into laughter and then receding, leaving a wake of disillusionment, a disbelief that extends to oneself, to life itself. What then, disowning this career, can one turn to?
What I think can be asserted as a starting point is that only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, churches, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance. To hold this devotion every written word, every spoken word, every action, every purpose must be examined and considered. The old fears, the old specialties will be there, mocking and tempting; the old protective associations will be there, offering for a surrender of one’s humanity congratulation upon one’s special nature and value. It must be always recognized that the others, those who have surrendered their humanity, are not less than oneself. It must be always remembered that one’s own honesty, one’s battle against the inhumanity of his own group (be it against patriotism, against bigotry, against—in this special case—the homosexual cult) is a battle that cannot be won in the immediate scene. The forces of inhumanity are overwhelming, but only one’s continued opposition can make any other order possible, will give an added strength for all those who desire freedom and equality to break at last those fetters that seem now so unbreakable.
In the fifteen years since the writing of “The Homosexual in Society,” my circumstances have much changed. Life and my work have brought me new friends, where the community of values is more openly defined, and even, in recent years, a companion who shares my concern for a creative life. Distressed where I have been distressed and happy where I have been happy, their sympathy has rendered absurd whatever apprehension I had concerning the high moral resolve and radical reformation of character needed before I would secure recognition and understanding. It is a kinship of concern and a sharing of experience that draws us together.
The phantasmic idea of a “society” that was somehow hostile, the sinister affiliation offered by groups with whom I had no common ground other than the specialized sexuality, the anxiety concerning the good opinion of the community—all this sense of danger remains, for I am not a person of reserved nature; and conventional morality, having its roots in Judaic tribal law and not in philosophy, holds homosexual relations to be a crime. Love, art, and thought are all social goods for me; and often I must come, where I would begin a friendship, to odd moments of trial and doubts when I must deliver account of my sexual nature that there be no mistake in our trust.
But the inspiration of the essay was toward something else, a public trust, larger and more demanding than the respect of friends. To be respected as a member of the political community for what one knew in one’s heart to be respectable! To insist, not upon tolerance for a divergent sexual practice, but upon concern for the virtues of a homosexual relationship! I was, I think, at the threshold of a critical concept: sexual love wherever it was taught and practiced was a single adventure, that troubadours sang in romance, that poets have kept as a traditional adherence, and that novelists have given scope. Love is dishonored where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust.
It is my sense that the fulfillment of man’s nature lies in the creation of that trust; and where the distrusting imagination sets up an image of “self against the desire for unity and mutual sympathy, the state called “Hell” is created. There we find the visceral agonies, sexual aversions and possessions, excitations and depressions, the omnipresent “I” that bears true witness to its condition in “Howl” or “Kaddish,” in McClure’s Hymns to St. Geryon or the depressive “realism” of Lowell’s Life Studies. “We are come to the place,” Virgil tells Dante as they enter Hell, “where I told thee thou shouldst see the wretched people, who have lost the good of the intellect.” In Hell, the homosexuals go, as Dante rightly saw them, as they still go often in the streets of our cities, looking “as in the evening men are wont to look at one another under a new moon,” running beneath the hail of a sharp torment, having wounds, recent and old, where the flames of experience have burned their bodies.
It is just here, when he sees his beloved .teacher, Brunetto Latini, among the sodomites, that Dante has an inspired intuition that goes beyond the law of his church and reaches toward a higher ethic: “Were my desire all fulfilled,” he says to Brunetto, “you had not yet been banished from human nature: for in my memory is fixed . . . the dear and kind, paternal image of you, when in the world, hour by hour, you taught me how man makes himself eternal. . . .”
“Were my desire all fulfilled …” springs from the natural heart in the confidence of its feelings that has often been more generous than conventions and institutions. I picture that fulfillment of desire as a human state of mutual volition and aid, a shared life.
Not only in sexual love, but in work and in play, we suffer from the dominant competitive ethos which gives rise to the struggle of interests to gain recognition or control, and discourages the recognition of the needs and interests which we all know we have in common. Working for money (and then, why not stealing or cheating for money?) is the “realistic” norm, and working for the common good is the “idealistic” exception. “I have always earned my living at manual labor,” an old friend writes. And his voice breaks through, like a shaft of sunlight through an industrial smog, the oppressive voices of junkies and pushers, petty thieves and remittance men of social security with their need and misery set adrift of itself. Oppressive, because these are sensitive young men and women I am thinking of, some of them the artists and poets of a new generation. The sense of this essay rests then upon the concept that sexual love between those of the same sex is one with sexual love between men and women; and that this love is one of the conditions of the fulfillment of the heart’s desire and the restoration of man’s free nature. Creative work for the common good is one of the conditions of that nature. And our hope lies still in the creative imagination wherever it unifies what had been thought divided, wherever it transforms the personal experience into a communal good, “that Brunetto Latini had not been banished from human nature.”
1. 1959. At a round table on Modern Art held in San Francisco in 1949 a discussion emerged between Frank Lloyd Wright and Marcel Duchamp where both showed the courage of forthright statement, bringing the issue publicly forward, which I lamented the lack of in 1944. Wright (who had been challenged on his reference to modern art as “degenerate”): “Would you say homosexuality was degenerate?” Duchamp: “No, it is not degenerate.” Wright: “You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly or is greatly in debt to homosexual-ism?” Duchamp: “1 admit it, but not in your terms … I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual—so it happened, but it does not involve modern art itself.”
What makes comment complicated here is that, while I would like to answer as Duchamp does because I believe with him that art itself is an expression of vitality, in part I recognize the justice of Wright’s distaste, for there is a homosexual clique which patronizes certain kinds of modern art and even creates because, like Wright, they believe both homosexuality and the art they patronize and create to be decadent and even fashionably degenerate.
2. 1959. The alienation has not decreased but increased when the “Beat” cult projects its picture of themselves as saintly—junkies evoking an apocalyptic crisis in which behind the mask of liberal tolerance is revealed the face of the hated “square.” Their intuition is true, that tolerance is no substitute for concern; but their belief that intolerance is more true, dramatizes their own share in the disorder. “Goy,” “jam,” and “square” are all terms of a minority adherence where the imagination has denied fellow-feeling with the rest of mankind. Where the community of human experience is not kept alive, the burden of meaning falls back upon individual abilities. But the imagination depends upon an increment of associations.
Where being “queer” or a “junkie” means being a pariah (as it does in beat mythology), behavior may arise not from desire but from fear or even hatred of desire; dope-addiction may not be a search for an artificial paradise, an illusion of magical life, but an attack upon life, a poisoning of response; and sexual acts between men may not mean responses of love but violations of inner nature. Ginsberg (who believes the self is subject to society), Lamantia (who believes the self has authority from God), and McClure (who believes the self is an independent entity) have in common their paroxysms of self-loathing in which the measure of human failure and sickness is thought so true that the measure of human achievement and life is thought false.
But this attitude had already appeared in the work of urban sophisticates like Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy where there was an observable meanness of feeling. Robert Lowell’s “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed” expresses in the realism of neurotic inhibition what Allen Ginsberg’s “Creation glistening backwards to the same grave, size of universe” expresses in the surrealism of psychotic exuberance. “Mother your master-bedroom/looked away from the ocean” and “O Mother . . . with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the pickles of Newark” dramatizes with the difference of class the common belief in oedipal grievance.
3. 1959. That even serious socio-sexual studies are curbed is shown by the following letter written by an eminent poet when I wrote in 1945 asking if I could attempt an essay on his work in the light of my concept that his language had been diverted to conceal the nature of his sexual life and that because he could never write directly he had failed to come to grips with immediacies of feeling:
“… I am very sorry but I must ask you not to publish the essay you propose. I’m sure you will realize that the better the essay you write, the more it will be reviewed and talked about, and the more likelihood there would be of it being brought publicly to my attention in a way where to ignore it would be taken as an admission of guilt.
“As you may know, I earn a good part of my livelihood by teaching, and in that profession one is particularly vulnerable. Further, both as a writer and as a human being, the occasion may always arise, particularly in these times, when it becomes one’s duty to take a stand on the unpopular side of some issue. Should that ever occur, your essay would be a very convenient red-herring for one’s opponents. (Think of what happened to Bertrand Russell in New York).
“I hope you will believe me when I say that for myself personally I wish I could let you publish it, and that anyway I hope the other essays will be as good as you would like them to be.”
My own conviction is that no public issue is more pressing than the one that would make a man guilty and endanger his livelihood for the open knowledge of his sexual nature; for the good of humanity lies in a common quest through shared experience toward the possibility of sexual love. Where we attend as best we can the volitions and fulfillments of the beloved in sexual acts we depend upon all those who in arts have portrayed openly the nature of love; and as we return ourselves through our writing to that commune of spirit we come close to the sharing in desire that underlies the dream of universal brotherhood. Undeclared desires and private sexuality feed the possibility of sexual lust which has many betrayals, empty cravings, violations, and wants to void the original desire.
That this eminent poet was not wrong in speaking of his professional vulnerability were his sexual nature openly avowed can be verified by the following passage from a letter of an eminent editor after reading “The Homosexual In Society” concerning my poem “Toward An African Elegy” which he had previously admired and accepted for publication:
“… I feel very sure we do not wish to print the poem, and I regret very much to decline it after an original acceptance. I must say for the record that the only right I feel in this action is that belatedly, and with your permission, I read the poem as an advertisement or a notice of overt homosexuality, and we are not in the market for literature of this type.
“I cannot agree with you that we should publish it nevertheless in the name of freedom of speech; because I cannot agree with your position that homosexuality is not abnormal. It is biologically abnormal in the most obvious sense. I am not sure whether or not state and federal law regard it so, but I think they do; I should not take the initiative in the matter, but if there are laws to this effect I concur in them entirely. There are certainly laws prohibiting incest and polygamy, with which I concur, though they are only abnormal conventionally and are not so damaging to a society biologically.”
Both these men are leaders in just that community of thoughtful men and women I imagined; both have had and deserved highest honors as literary figures; and, while I believe one to be mistaken in his belief that sexual forthrightness is not a primary issue for the social good; and the other to be as misled by the unhappy conventions of his thought as by the atmosphere of guilty confession that he gathered from my essay; both, like I, are concerned not with the minority in question but rightly with what they consider the public good, an intimation of the human good. Much understanding yet is needed before men of good intentions can stand together.
4. 1959.1 find myself in this passage accusing certain “critics,” “poets,” and “new cult leaders” of what I might be suspected of in my poetry myself. “Suffering, sensitivity, and magical quality” are constants of mood; divinities and cults, supernatural and visionary claims, and sexual mystery are all elements in subject matter that give rise to poetic inspiration for me. In recent years I have had an increased affinity with imaginative reaches of religious thought, searching gnostic and cabalistic speculation for a more diverse order.
The Demon of Moral Virtue exacts his dues wherever he is evoked. Where we seek the Good he urges us to substitute what will be men’s good opinion of us. I may have felt then that I might redeem my sexuality as righteous in the sight of certain critics, if I disavowed my heterodoxy in religious imagination as wicked or deluded.
5. 1959. The principal point is that the creative genius of a writer lies in his communication of personal experience as a communal experience. He brings us to realize our own inner being in a new light through the sense of human being he creates, or he creates in us as we read a new sense of our being. And in Melville, Crane, and Proust I saw their genius awaken a common share in homosexual desire and love, in its suffering and hope, that worked to transform the communal image of man.
Professors of literature do not always have minds of the same inspiration as the minds of writers whose work they interpret and evaluate for consumption; and an age of criticism has grown up to keep great spirits cut down to size so as to be of use in the self-esteem of sophisticated pusillanimous men in a continual self-improvement course. Thus Freud’s courageous analysis of his motives and psychic dis-ease has furnished material for popular analysts like Fromm to be struck by how normal their psyches are compared to Freud’s, how much more capable of mature love they are.
Homosexuality affords a ready point at which a respectable reader disassociates himself from the work of genius and seeks to avoid any sense of realizing his own inner being there. Some years after my essay, Leslie Fiedler, whom I take to be heterosexual, was able to gain some notoriety by writing about homosexual undercurrents in American literature, playing, not without a sense of his advantage, upon the cultural ambivalence between the appreciation of literature as a commodity of education and the depreciation of genius as it involves a new sense of being, and upon the sexual ambivalence in which the urbane American male can entertain the idea of homosexuality providing he is not responsible, providing he preserves his contempt for or his disavowal of sexual love between males.
6. 1959. But there is no “explicit” statement here! What emerges is a “confession” (analyzed further below) instead of what was needed and what I was unable to say out. While I had found a certain acceptance in special circles of homosexuals and opportunities for what Kinsey calls “contacts,” this was a travesty of what the heart longed for. I could not say “I am homosexual,” because exactly this statement of minority identity was the lie. Our deepest sexuality is free and awakens toward both men and women where they are somehow akin to us. Perhaps the dawning realization that we are all exiles from paradise, and that somehow goods have their reality in that impossible dream where all men have come into their full nature, gave rise to and a thread of truth to the feeling of guilt that prompts this voice.
7. 1959. I am reminded in the foregoing passage of those confessions of duplicity, malice, and high treason made before the courts of Inquisition or the Moscow trials. “Society” appears as the merciless “hostile” judge; what I meant to avow—the profound good and even joyful life that might be realized in sexual love between men— becoming a confession that I had “disguised,” “colored,” “perverted,” “celebrated the cult” and even in my work exhibited objects of alienation from the common law. Some remnant of Protestant adherence suggests there was Holy Roman wickedness, “divine and tyrannical as the Catholic Church has made.”
Might there be a type of social reaction to which “confession” of “witches,” “Trotskyites,” and my confession as a “homosexual,” conform? In the prototype there is first the volunteered list of crimes one has committed that anticipates the condemnation of church or party or society. Then there is the fact that what one confesses as a social “crime” has been held somewhere as a hope and an ideal, contrary to convention. The heretic is guilty in his love or his righteousness because he has both the conventional common mind and the imagination of a new common mind; he holds in his own heart the adversary that he sees in the actual prosecutor. Often there was torture to bring on the confession, but it enacted the inner torture of divided mind. “Names cannot be named” I exclaim in this essay, and perhaps akin to that felt necessity is the third phase in which “witches” and “Trotskyites” eventually named their accomplices in heresy, throwing up their last allegiance to their complicity in hope.
The Jungian revival of alchemy with its doctrine of the nigredo and the related surrealist cult of black humor or bile has complicated the contemporary sense of a belief that in some phase the psyche must descend against its nature into its adversary. It is an exciting idea just as a great destruction of the world by war is an exciting idea. Part of the force which “Beat” poets have is the authority which we give after Freud and Jung to the potency of crime.
“Being a junkie in America today,” Ginsberg writes, “is like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.” This leads to humorous comment, like the parody of Marx, that “Marijuana is the opium of the people,” or that “Opium is the religion of the people.” But the revelation of Ginsberg’s formula is that in taking to junk he is trying to become like a Jew in Germany. He cannot realize in his Jewishness a sufficient extreme of persecution (even he cannot quite believe in racial guilt—the American idea of the melting pot as virtue is too strong). The “fuzz” cannot live up to the projection of wrath that might externalize inhibition as rank and unjust punishment and satisfy his guilt without calling his need to account. So he takes up “the angry fix.” “Holy Burroughs” and heroin addiction will surely test the frustrating tolerance of a liberal state and reveal beneath the “Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo.”