Fred Lemish states a summation of his character in what is by far one of the most brilliant, borderline pornographic, and uproarious social-sexual satires in human history when he thinks to himself:
I’m not gay. I’m not a fairy. I’m not a fruit. I’m not queer. A little crazy maybe. And I’m not a faggot. I’m a Homosexual Man. I’m me. Pretty Classy.
By today’s standards this statement is not pressingly significant. In an age where gay pride parades have assumed the same social element as St. Patrick’s Day and Fourth of July processions and the ever echoing axiom, “I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it” feels old hat, such a comment seems to mean very little. And yet so important. I will admit that this passage from Larry Kramer’s novel Faggots is not an astounding one to open this essay, however, should one actually read the entirety of the work and eventually read this passage, Fred Lemish’s statement is not only powerful, it is one of the few sentiments not reeking of semen, piss, shit, Crisco, spit, or what other bodily fluid may be produced during the non-stop fuck-fest that is the plot. Few contemporary authors achieve the sexual power that Faggots conveys. In one page twenty men may participate in a circle jerk while others are being physically dominated with leather belts while multiple cocks slide in and out of assholes and the “slurping” is the heavenly opera that creates the background harmony to the hedonistic splendor…and that is merely one page. Contemporary works attempting to pass themselves off as erotic (I will lightly mention Fifty shades of whatever-else publishers scrape the bottom of the bucket for) will approach Faggots and fail miserably in flames for the untapped sexual powerhouse of the work is so great one can become numb from the experience.
…Is there indeed a God who would understand such as:
“Baby I want you to piss all over me!”
Fred Lemish had never urinated on anything before, except perhaps some country grass late at night when he was drunk and no one was looking.
“Or let me piss on you!”
This Fred Lemish never allowed.
Fred stood there helplessly. Why was he inert in requiring action? The guy wasn’t bad looking. Should Fred enter of walk away?
“Or fuck my friend and I’ll suck your come out of his asshole.”
This suggestion Fred recognized as felching. Was he interested in joining a felcher?
“Or I could tie you up. Or you could tie us up. Or either one of us. Or anything else your cock desires!”
The man certainly offered a range of choices. Should Fred? Shouldn’t Fred?
“Are you into shit?”
This exchange introduces the hero of the novel and also introduces us to the satire of homosexual paradigms that governed the late 1970s. Should we consider the actual homosexual community at the time we are observing a liberated, albeit self depreciating race of human beings that had yet to realize its full humanity. Indeed, one of the total effects of Kramer’s novel is to give us the impression of the male homosexual mindset at this time. Before the brave souls at Stonewall fought back against social dictatorship, and the rise of the homosexual political movements that helped gain most of the civil liberties (not nearly enough but the fight continues) gays enjoy today actually occurred, there was perception of self that lingered on in the gay man’s memory. Before these movements and socially defining moments, homosexuality was a disease. Those considered homosexuals were perceived as being less than human or else insane. Any interested in indigestion of the intellect should research the appalling “treatments” to the disorder of homosexuality which included electroshock therapy and chemical or physical castration. As such, the weight of self (I don’t trust the word identity, it possess too many philosophical implications) was burdened by the idea if one was a homosexual there was something inherently wrong about them. This of course does not even begin to consider the religious implications. The fear of homosexuality was often manifested in the charge of sodomy, a charge leveled to any and all sexual acts that did not eventually lead to fertilization. One realizes a conflict if it’s a Saturday night and you’d like a good blowjob, but let’s stay focused. One of most obvious examples of scape-goating was the charge of Oscar Wilde who suffered two years hard physical labor which in the end ultimately ended his life pre-maturely. (Wilde served his time and eventually chose exile in France where he died at the age of 46, a broken man and destitute; the empire looks after its own indeed). The trial of Oscar Wilde is just one of numerous examples of “queer-baiting” throughout human history. It remains the best known example, for many who were discovered before and after him have suffered far worse than a prison sentence. In short, the gay man discovering his sexual self would have most likely encountered a feeling of absolute terror coupled with revulsion.
But it has butts! Like so many butts!
Butts, my unusually dimwitted contester, is the least of your worries. There is, as there almost always seems to be, a greater social problem in the plot of Faggots, the tendency to create the “other.” Recently another essay of mine was published on the website Comicosity thanks to one of my friends who contributes regularly on the site and is currently building a nice career by publishing supplementary material of analysis of various comics and graphic novels. The article I submitted, and which he graciously hosted on his page (thank you Michael again), dealt with the graphic novel Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, and it was the attempt of the essay to demonstrate the way in which the story followed the traditional trope path of “the journey.” I bring this up, because within the journey there is a concept of “the Other World,” and any student of English, psychology, history, or anthropology is perhaps aware of the indications of “the other.” For those who don’t, it is a culture paradigm that dictates the way our cultural understanding operates. There is an “us,” in which the subtotal achievements of our society work together to create a sense of camaraderie (and unfortunately tribal unity), and there is a “them” or “other” which may or may not stand opposed to our interests and way of life. More importantly, the “other” is simply different and often de-humanized to justify “our” behavior when it tends, and it often does, to become violent or anti-social. This “other” concept has been employed effectively over the course of human history to dictate behavior into a particular direction. The Rwandan genocide of the Hutu people, the attempted extermination of the Jews (throughout history, Nazi’s didn’t invent Anti-semitism though they did play their hand in that ongoing game), Eugenics, the entire institution of slavery, the imperialist system of Africa, India, China, South America, and North America,the anti-Muslim sentiment that dominated this country following the September 11th attacks, the Internment camps of Japanese-American citizens following the attack of Pearl Harbour, the cultural imperialist and near genocide of Native Americans, nearly every Christian denomination subscribes to their paradigm insinuating and suggesting damnation for those outside the “know,” and in fact the student of humanity quickly discovers that the concept of the “other” is an undying institution for our public consciousness. As long as there is an alternative party to our society, there will be an “other.” Take note of Boo Boo Bronstein’s reaction to his own self discovery, “I’m going to be a faggot! I’m going to be a faggot!”
The dehumanizing slur employed with self discovery is what is most damning in the text, further demonstrating Kramer’s sharp wit. Rather than defining oneself as a homosexual, Boo Boo (don’t worry I’ll get to the names in a minute) adopts for his title a word rooted in an attempt to deny him any chance at participating in human society. Now the word “fag,” some would immediately protest, has become a word employed by homosexuals themselves as a form of identity much as intellectuals adopted the title for themselves in France during the Enlightenment or Suffragettes in the early twentieth century (inspiring a charming and unforgettable song in Mary Poppins that you may remember assuming you have a soul). What is wrong in assuming such a title for oneself? Kramer’s text demonstrates that power had yet to be assigned to that term. By today’s standards referring to oneself as a “fag” has little social meaning other than homosexual, however, as demonstrated through the long eloquent “fuck-fest” of the novel, it becomes clear that a “fag” is a sexually obsessed, self depreciating, borderline psychotic, druggie that is too concerned with satisfying physical needs than emotional or intellectual ones. Rather than try to build themselves as contributing and productive members of society, the faggots instead choose to fuck until they cannot walk. In which case The Gnome merely has to find you a bump and you may return to your rimming.
It’s no wonder Kramer’s text caused such a controversy when it was released. Not only from straight “purists” disgusted by all the ass-play, but from the homosexual community itself. At the time of publication, the sexual revolution was drawing to a close and homosexuals were coming into a kind of social-identity. Though of course AIDS (or Gay Cancer as it was originally and idiotically assigned in a moment of medical haste) was not but three years away which would create yet another homophobic hysteria in the populace. Many gays became outraged by the presentation of themselves as sex-obsessed heartless humanoids who possessed no other ambition other than orgasms. So intense was feeling around the book that Kramer’s novel was banned even in the one openly gay bookstore in New York where it was released. Today, fortunately, the book remains and is actually studied in universities open minded enough to have a gender and sexuality program. It is encouraging to read testimony of professors who teach, even if it is only snippets of the text, and receive shocked reactions from students. Kramer’s sharp bite at his own community can be felt across the generations. Such is the mark of an astounding author. And such is the mark of great satire.
I promised I would touch on the names, but before we continue on it seems important to demonstrate further how the idea of label becomes important to the homosexual, even today. This leads to me a supplementary work, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. I purchased the short novella because I have, over the years, accumulated a gathering of friends and acquaintances who’s sexual habits and open-mindedness has forced me to confront my own sexual demons and ignorance. Where once there was a locked door bolted shut with rusted nails and paranoia that prevented further introspection, there is now an open closet door. Somewhat. I am not homosexual but becoming aroused or interested in others of the same sex for non-intellectual reasons no longer terrifies me as implication. I wanted to know what all the damn fuss was about. To this day I have never seen the film, and in some ways I do not want to. The writing is brilliant enough. Proulx’s pen works a magic of prose that I never tried of while reading through the whole of the text. Allow me a moment of weakness as I sample a passage for you.
Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire.
The reader is given prose that is as sweet on the tongue as honey, and perhaps the great feat of Brokeback Mountain is that we see two human beings falling in love surrounded by a combination of words that makes us drunk. But enough fawning. Brokeback afforded a new generation of readers and, as is often the case, audiences, a glimpse at the new social identity of homosexuals. The tragedy being there was still the Boo Boo reaction. The characters of Ennis and Jack begin what originally is the basis of any relationship, a purely physical affair, until it eventually deepens into love. Proulx then works what is perhaps the most over employed and, by this writing, hammed up trope an author can attempt: the forbidden love affair. Following the literary standard of Courtly Love, stolen from the tomes of Medieval poetry, the forbidden love affair can only operate effectively in the instances when the reader is: young and newly discovering the power of love, there is an element in the text outside of the romance that helps progress the plot (much like adrenaline being pumped into a dying heart), or else the reader possess little actual care for motivation and simply wishes to enact fantasy through the text. Proulx takes the second option. With the coming years Brokeback Mountain is unlikely to be remembered as a powerful literary document (were it not for the prose I doubt it would survive at all), but nevertheless it is an effective human document because it does not “ham-up” the forbidden romance, instead it attempts to tackle it directly.
“I doubt there’s nothing now we can do,” said Ennis. “What I’m sayin, Jack, I built a life up in them years. Love my little girls. Alma? It ain’t her fault. You got your baby and wife, in Texas. You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there”—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment—“grabs us on like that. We do that in the wrong place we’ll be dead. There’s no reins on this one. It scares the piss out of me.”
Rather than build a dramatic romance, Proulx examines the reality of contemporary homosexual society outside of an urban environment. Which is damn frightening. Homosexuals have been subjected to “queer bashing” and even instances of psychological and physical torture. Being gay or a “fag” as enemies are so often to say in the midst of repugnant laughter, is no longer a mental disorder, but the lingering fragments of the “other” continues to dominate. Proulx then uses this tendency of society to create the “other” to reveal the conflict of modern gay men. Throughout the text Ennis and Jack carefully avoid the word “gay.” During the passages describing the initial, and note the only detailed account of their physical actions, we see a resistance even to touch upon this.
As it did go. They never talked about sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”
Proulx succeeds in capturing something powerful in the mindset of contemporary homosexuality, the desire to define oneself before others may define you. Kramer’s novel follows along the same sentiment.
“Everyone is so silly. Everyone wants too much. Being gay isn’t fun anymore.”
It can be troublesome identifying yourself with a particular group or following. My regular conflict is declaring myself an atheist when the word skeptic is taking on more and more relevance. If I am an atheist I must hold myself to the standards of men such as Percy Shelly, Christopher Hitchens, and Carl Sagan which, some good ol boy said it best before me, are pretty damn big shoes to fill. I consider it an honor to share the same intellectual sentiment as men such as this. However for every intelligent and rational minded atheist, there is always an asshole. I will not mention names, suffice to say certain pompous and self promoting behavior seems detestable and sends me clamoring to the title of skeptic instead. Such is the case with homosexuality. Being gay, “isn’t fun,” because the society in which you operate defines you and your behavior before you can even begin to understand what being gay actually is.
This concept of the “other” is not an outdated institution as I demonstrated with the long (even by my standards) list of historical facts, that can be easily checked by scanning your local history books. Even today the concept of “others” is employed for odious justifications. The most recent example appears in the case of Scott Esk, a prospective representative from Oklahoma (why must they always be from the south, it’s becoming embarrassing) who has listed among his political ambitions to make divorce in his state more difficult, abolish gun licenses, disregard necessary organizations such as the EPA or FDA, punish abortionists for “murder,” but the most odious of this man’s claims is his consideration that homosexuals should be executed. Citing Leviticus, one grows tired of constantly rolling one’s eyes after hearing that phrase; Mr. Esk believes that he would be “totally within the right to do it.” It becomes clear as one reads about simple minded idiots like this, one who somehow finds supporters as pathetically minded as them, that the idea of the “other” for the homosexual community is alive and strong. Within America today there exists a cultural battle in which those who feel their way of life is being threatened quickly escalate their rhetoric into dim and brutish behavior because they lack the mental ability to frame logical sentences. Now should their opponents be praised however as great masters of prose. We have all suffered through facebook battles between individuals who apparently are so uneducated that they honestly believe you is spelled “u.” In our society today, there is a struggle between alternative perceptions of what this country’s moral and political values should be. While most of us would be content to allow this fight to remain in the hands of the extremists on either side butting heads until both are worn away or too disoriented to cause any further damage, those who are willing to enjoy the liberties attained from the political system should be on guard from such lunacy. Esk is unlikely to actually attain a position as a representative, but should he be, it would be an implication that we have allowed ourselves to turn a blind eye to the malicious hunger to create “others” and profit from their persecution.
This of course leads us to yet another essential text: Sappho was a Right-On Woman a Liberated View of Lesbianism. A philosophical and social manifesto, this work by Sidney Abbot and Barbara Love, catalogs the psychology and sexual politics of what it meant to be a lesbian in 1972. Should one read the text it becomes clear women did not come out on top higher than men.
Living in an environment that is hostile or indifferent, Lesbians find themselves floundering for validation. They feel alien, uprooted—no longer able to count on acceptance from anyone or in any place. They feel they don’t count, don’t exist, in a system whose social institutions and resources do not include them. […] Sooner or Later, the lesbian begins to see her carefully constructed and valued seclusion as forced upon her. Isolation drains her will, her convictions of the rightness of her love, even her passion and feeling.
Abbot and Love’s manifesto carefully outlines the philosophical conundrum of being a creature outside of society’s grace. As we read, we discover that homosexuality was a game of drama in which a part must be played and never broken. Should a woman come forward, revealing her true self she would be met often with rejection from society indicating a loss of job, lack of familial support, and general exile from supposed friends.
Where does this leave us? It would appear then that being a “fag” or an “other” is an unfortunate condition to find oneself in, particularly should you desire something more out of life. Rather than a perception of the self that leaves only self loathing and hedonistic distraction, all of us as human beings desire at our most inner core, to feel some kind of connection to other human beings. The graphic novel Fun Home, apart from being one of the most well written literary documents and memoirs I have expierienced, garners the same recommendation I have previously made for the novel Animal Farm. It is not a question of should one read Fun Home, but when. The graphic novel operates as an autobiography tracking Alison Bechdel’s life from her early days as a child growing up to her current age, all the while unraveling the façade of her father’s closeted sexuality. Bechdel is gay and the main theme working throughout the text is parental connection and support. Her father being a closeted gay man(or at least bisexual), and a femme to boot, can be seen working against his sexual impulses (rather poorly) thereby creating a disharmony within the familial unit. Bechdel follows her own sexual discovery until eventually coming out. The graphic novel ends with a powerful mutual conversation in which both parties understand one another and the author recognizes the gift her father ultimately gave her.
What is remarkable about the graphic novel, apart from the intricate psychological and literary power of the writing that would make Tolstoy weep and Freud smile(yes Freud smiling, it isn’t that hard to believe is it?), is that the sexuality expressed is not self loathing, for the most part. Like many gay people, Bechdel does retract somewhat at first from the knowledge of herself, but upon the realization, she is unapologetic. The presentation of homosexuality is not self loathing or maniacl, it just is. This is not to suggest that Bechdel does not struggle with her sexuality, for that conflict runs throughout the entire text, and continues in the sequel to the book Are You My Mother?, but that struggle never pushes her sense of self to the point that she feels less than human.
I promised I would touch upon the names in Faggots and so it seems appropriate to end this essay with them. Kramer’s Faggots floored me. Reading the text would require long breaks for one can only encounter so much sensual stimulation for so long. The characters in the text however, despite their eccentricity and erratic activities, never push themselves so far that they completely lose their humanity, even if they perceive themselves as somehow less than human. Who could forget a text with characters like Randy Dildough, Bruce Sex-toys, BLT, Leather Louie, The Gnome, Canadian Leon, Billy Bonner, Boo Boo Bronstein, Midnight Cowboy, Feffer, and our troubled Hero Fred Lemish. The latter soul, who is the central figure of the novel, attempts throughout the text to find love, as the saying goes, in all the wrong places. In Turkish bathouses, in a bar called the Toilet Bowl, and finally on Fire Island where the faggots of the greater New York Area converge for a massive love-in. The effort of Fred Lemish ultimately fails, yet despite the failure Fred achieves a kind of satisfaction.
I’m a Homosexual Man. I’m me. Pretty Classy.
Despite the rampant fucking, Faggots is a crucial novel for any interested in the study of human culture. It transcends the homosexual self and attempts to understand why “the other” is assigned and accepted, both to outsiders, as well as to the group it is assigned. Kramer’s work shocked and offended the homosexual community upon its release, but there were those who understood the effort and praised the work. Stained with shit, and piss, and semen, spit, and Crisco, and sweat, and, yes Philadelphia, even love, Faggots is Kramer’s love letter to his own community. And what’s the point of love if you can’t have a little fun along the way.