Archive for the 'books' Category

Books: “Notes on HOMOSEXUAL”

March 29, 2014

dennis
Australian writer, activist, scholar, and educator Dennis Altman (above) wrote one of the first theoretical overviews of gay culture, the groundbreaking book-length essay Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, first published in 1972. On the 40th anniversary of its publication, some of his colleagues at La Trobe University in Melbourne organized a conference to commemorate and chart the influence of Altman’s work. Carolyn D’Cruz and Mark Pendleton compiled an anthology of papers, essays, memoirs, and archival material into a volume called After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation.  The list of distinguished contributors includes Jeffrey Weeks, Karla Jay, Steven Dansky, Sarah Schulman, and Alice Echols (who is, among other things, the Barbara Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California), along with Australian academics new to me. I was pleased to be asked to contribute something to the conference and doubly pleased that my brief personal essay is included in the anthology, which came out late last year. Here’s how my piece begins:

altman homosexual paperback

To consider Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its publication meant, for me, getting out the stepladder and climbing to the upper left-hand corner of my floor-to-(high-)ceiling bookcase, rummaging through the As and descending with a dusty, creased copy of the Discus/Avon paperback still containing a matchstick as bookmark. Contemplating the single stark word emblazoned across the cover triggers a flashback to my adolescence. I’m ten years younger than Dennis, so while he was writing the book, I was attending high school in rural New Jersey near the Air Force base where my family lived. In those days, looking up the word “homosexual” in the dictionary was the only place a gay kid like me could find his existence verified. Just seeing the word in print was as arousing to me as pornography, which was virtually non-existent or at least unavailable to me then except in the mild heterosexist form of Playboy on the magazine rack in certain convenience stores.

Suddenly, in 1971, there it was, a book out in the world with That Word as the title. I didn’t acquire a copy until two years later, when it came out in paperback just as I was coming out in my third year of college in Boston, which was then a hotbed of gay liberation and countercultural thinking. Dennis’s book was among the first of what became a stream and then a deluge of gay writings that I hungrily devoured in my development as a baby gay scholar, cultural commentator, and pleasure activist.

Dipping back into it now, I’m fascinated to be reminded of the things that were important then. (As I write this, the cover story of New York magazine chronicles the history of Ms. Magazine, which was launched the same year Homosexual was published, and it churns up a related stew of sociopolitical and cultural references.) Charles Reich’s The Greening of America! Eldridge Cleaver! Norman Mailer! (“Without guilt, sex was meaningless.” Really?) Dennis’s discussion of popular culture (“The New Consciousness and Homosexuality”) seems so quaint now. When he started writing, gay life was something glimpsed only rarely among the fields of pop music and theater, like four-leaf clovers. Homosexuality found its highest visibility in literature. Those writers brave, savvy, talented, and free enough to address gay experience directly in their work were well-known, countable on two hands, and thoroughly familiar to gay readers with any interest. I’m intrigued to see how much weight Dennis gave to Paul Goodman and Allen Ginsberg as public gay literary figures. These artists, thinkers, and activists were indeed pioneers in their time and they remain admired and admirable historical figures, but my impression is that they are almost completely unknown to the vast majority of gay Americans younger than 40.

I’ve posted the essay in its entirety on my online archive. You can read it in full here. You can order the D’Cruz and Pendleton compilation here.

after homosexual

Books: Sarah Schulman’s THE GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND

May 21, 2012

No book has rocked my world in recent times more than Sarah Schulman’s “The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.” Schulman borrows from urban housing development the concept of gentrification — in which complicated, racially and culturally mixed, financially marginal neighborhoods are eradicated and replaced by areas that are more bland, sterile, upscale, and/or culturally homogenous — to explore the impact of AIDS on the gay world and by extension on American life. The book lays out how difficult, messy, tragic truths have been replaced by falsehoods that are convenient or flattering to the dominant culture.

Schulman is the kind of brave writer and thinker who’s not afraid to exaggerate at the risk of going off the rails, so she does sometimes. But I respect her commitment to writing the way she wants others to. Early on, she lets readers know how she’d like us to consume “The Gentrification of the Mind”: “As a reader myself, I have always most enjoyed books that I can be interactive with. I like to fiercely agree with one idea — and fiercely disagree with the next. That kind of dynamic relationship requires a lot of ideas coming at once, from which the reader can pick and choose. Nothing bores me more than the one-long-slow-idea book, and I promise to never write one.” If you’re not arguing with her, you’re not reading the book right.

To read my review in its entirety on CultureVulture.net, click here.

 

Book: “BAM — The Complete Works”

November 8, 2011

I am thrilled to be in the beautifully produced 382-page glamorous coffee-table book BAM: The Complete Works, edited by Steven Serafin and published by the Quantum Lane Press, in celebration of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 150th anniversary. My contribution is a brief sidebar essay on Laurie Anderson that gets its own spread (pp. 164-165), alongside pieces by the likes of Joan Acocella, Deborah Jowitt, Susan Yung, Roger Oliver, Peter Brook, and Meredith Monk.

Books: LAVENDER CULTURE

May 6, 2010

A response to a random post on Facebook led me to reconnecting with an old friend, Allen Young. From Allen, I learned that Lavender Culture, the anthology of essays about gay culture that he and Karla Jay edited and published in 1978, is still in print from NYU Press. Allen commissioned an article from me about gay theater, and it marked my first appearance in a book. I’ll never forget the thrill of walking into the Brattle Street Bookstore in Harvard Square and seeing the book on the shelf. It was a mass-market paperback from Jove Press (a division of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) back then; the NYU Press edition is a trade paperback, with new introductions by the editors and by Cindy Patton.

I’m touched to re-read my author’s bio from the original edition: “Don Shewey, Cambridge, Mass. Twenty-four years old, formerly an actor and classics scholar, currently a freelance writer, theatre and music critic for the Boston Phoenix, and aspiring playwright. Intensely interested in theatre, literature and my lawyer-lover John. I would like to thank the previous generation of gay activists (whose struggles enabled me to grow up gay free of guilt, shame and despair) and the women’s movement, which changed my life.”

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