Tuesday, April 3, 2012

booknotes: in search of gay america + art and sex in greenwich village

In March, I read two books about the gay and lesbian subculture of the 70s and 80s: Neil Miller's In Search of Gay America: Women and Men in a Time of Change (Atlantic, 1989) and Felice Picano's Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: Gay Literary Life After Stonewall (Carroll & Graf, 2007). Both of these accounts straddle the line between history and memoir, or in Miller's case journalism and memoir. Like so many highly personal accounts of the recent past, these books will serve as fascinating primary sources for future historians who not only want to know what happened within the queer subculture of the late twentieth century, but what those individuals involved in that subculture made of it. How they understood the political and cultural tensions that eddied around their lives, what political battles held meaning for them, what cultural trends were celebrated or mourned, and what they saw when they looked toward a future for gay and lesbian culture and politics.*

In Search of Gay America is a book that grew out of Miller's travels throughout the United States interviewing gay and lesbian folks about their lives. He's particularly interested in relatively levels of "outness" in rural, suburban, and urban areas, as well as different geographical regions -- are queer folks living in Minnesota more or less likely to be out than those living in Missouri? Alabama? Massachusetts? What are their connections to both the queer community and their local community? Do they live openly with a partner, or go away to the big city once a month to party at the gay bar or women's center? If they attend church, are they open about their sexuality and if so how did the congregation react? Aware that "gay America" is often imagined as existing solely in urban locales, Miller purposefully sought out interviewees in more rural locations, as well as talking with people in such iconic queer spaces as San Francisco.

His portraits are memorable and contain a healthy diversity -- though I doubt his sample would stand up to any sort of statistical analysis. We meet gay dairy farmers, lesbian homesteaders, a lesbian minister put on trial for her relationship with another minister's ex-wife, and a gay mayor of a small town in Missouri, and even such high-profile queer folk as Armistead Maupin and Susie Bright. For obvious reasons, I enjoyed the chapter on sex-positive lesbians and the porn wars, in which Miller adopts the bemused tone of an outsider trying to understand the complex dynamics of a turbulent family reunion. While he falls into some unfortunate stereotypes of 1970s lesbian identity (i.e. that until the 80s most lesbians were content not to have much sex), his account does highlight the way in which gay male and lesbian subcultures were so divergent at that point (in the mid-80s) that Miller himself struggled to find mutual points of reference.

Art and Sex is Picano's anecdotal history of the Gay Presses of New York, beginning with his own SeaHorse Press (1977) and moving through the consolidation of GPNY (1981) into the late 1980s. It's a rambling narrative, mixing highly amusing -- and often pointed -- snapshots of his interactions with various authors, artists, and other members of the gay literary scene in with a more chronological assembly of factual details. The overarching narrative is one charting the movement of queer literature from the margins to the (slightly more) mainstream: from a time when you had to know the bookstore from which to special order titles, to a time when major publishing houses were seeking to re-issue gay classics. One of my favorite anecdotes involved a bookseller of the old guard who refused to stock a GPNY title because he deemed it not gay enough. This same bookseller was also extremely lax about his accounts, and when Picano called him up about the outstanding balance essentially told Picano he should be grateful the bookstore was willing to stock his titles at all. While Picano doesn't explicitly make the connection between this interaction and the mainstreaming of queer culture (at least in New York) post-Stonewall, it is clear that there has been a generational shift in expectations between when the bookstore owner set up shop and Picano began publishing -- no longer were publishers of "gay" literature held hostage in quite the same way to the whims of distributors.

Picano also, inevitably, touches on the way AIDS ravaged his circle of friends and acquaintances during the 80s, and to a lesser extent writes about the tension between gay (male) presses and the underground lesbian presses, particularly as they connected to the broader subculture of lesbian-feminist separatism. He writes with frustration about the double-bind he experienced when literary events he organized would be accused of lacking female representation -- but the women he asked to participate would refuse on principle because the event was not organized by their own people.

All in all, I'd say Miller's book is of more general interest than Picano's, but that both will be of use to anyone with either a casual or scholarly interest in first-person narratives of queer subcultures in twentieth-century America.

*I'm using "gay and lesbian" quite deliberately because for the most part both authors are dealing specifically with gay and lesbian-identified people, not a more polyglot group of queer folks. Their framework is rooted very much in the political identities of the 70s-90s, not the increasingly fluid understandings of sexuality that have seeped into our twenty-first century identities (Jack Harkness would be proud!).

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