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LGBT History Month: Edmund White, the most boss gay writer of his generation

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Continuing to celebrate some of the folks that came before me this month, I’d like to shout out someone who’s maybe only come to Philadelphia to speak at the Free Library or Giovanni’s Room to push a book. Well, knowing him, while he was here, he probably did some cruising and went to the Bike Stop. But Edmund White is one of gay culture’s treasures and points of pride. Not only is his rap sheet of published novels long and impressive, but so is his versatility with the pen, as he’s also an accomplished cultural critic and biographer. White is the kind of member of the queer community that ends up being so important – a man of the mind with great wit, urbane taste-making capabilities, diversity of experience and a seemingly bottomless supply of piss and vinegar. White’s always been a little bit of a troublemaker, but always with words, rarely with pomp or bombast.

Born in 1940 in Ohio, his parents divorced when he was young, and he split his time between Cincinnati and the outskirts of Chicago. He later attended the University of Michigan where he studied Chinese, but it was in Illinois that the fire was ignited within him to understand his proclivities toward the same sex. From an essay he published in 1991 called Out of the Closet, Onto the Bookshelf, White wrote: “As a young teenager I looked desperately for things to read that might excuse me or assure me I wasn’t the only one, that might confirm an identity I was unhappily piecing together. In the early 1950s, the only books I could find in the Evanston, Illinois, Public Library were Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (which suggested that homosexuality was fetid, platonic and death-dealing) and the biography of Nijinsky by his wife (in which she obliquely deplored the demonic influence of the impresario Diaghilev on her saintly husband, the great dancer—an influence that in this instance had produced not death but madness).”

In 1962, he went to New York. He took a job with Time-Life Books and worked so that he could fulfill desirous fantasies, and who could blame him? When you’re 22 and red-blooded, you want to get laid—a lot—and what better place to get secretly gay-laid than in New York City? In the early ’70s, he and a half-dozen other gay writers started meeting in each others’ apartments and sharing work: the Violet Quill consisted of Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferro, Felice Picano, George Whitmore, Christopher Cox and Michael Grumley. His first two novels—and let’s not forget The Joy of Gay Sex (1977)—appeared in 1973 (Forgetting Elena) and 1978 (Nocturnes for the King of Naples), but it was the first two installments of what he called an autobiographical tetralogy that became transcendent staples of the queer canon. A Boy’s Own Story (1982) and The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) are outstanding accomplishments that, perhaps even unknowingly, served as the exact piece of writing he sought when he was finding his way towards a gay identity. They are books that read with sex appeal, humor, strength of character and a determination to not let perceived vices fuck with our life goals.

A Boy’s Own Story, born the year I was, is easily my favorite piece of queer non-fiction of all time. And without the set of challenges that came before him, White wouldn’t have been ambitious enough to crank out such an erudite document of that moment in his life, nor would he come to inspire young, scared gays like me into a life of letters and the cultivation of an intellectual defense arsenal.

Not only has White been an inspiration as a wordsmith, but he’s also considerably helped shape how we think about “gay culture.” In 1983, he moved to France, and when he returned to America in 1990, nearly all of his gay contemporaries, peers and mentors were dead from AIDS. And while we’ve pushed gay culture and writing within a gay community past notions of “the plague,” for the most part, White’s always championed gays who’ve made a coherent contribution to society and just happen to be gay: “Some . . . think that it’s unconscionable to deal with anything [other than AIDS]; others believe that since gay culture is in imminent danger of being reduced to a single issue, one that once again equates homosexuality with a dire medical condition, the true duty of gay writers is to remind readers of the wealth of gay accomplishments. Only in that way, they argue, will a gay heritage be passed down to a post-plague generation.”

It’s a little foolish, but today, it’s nice to think that, even in the smallest way, I’m doing my part, too.


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