Beauford Delaney’s Closet Was Real
To the Editor:
In his letter to the G&LR [Jan.-Feb. 2004], Paul F. Lorch raises important questions about the painter Beauford Delaney, whose life and work I discussed in a recent article, “Beauford Delaney and the Art of Exile” (Sept.-Oct. 2003).
In reference to my suggestion that Delaney’s love for James Baldwin was unrequited, Lorch asks whether there is “any evidence that their initial connection was not a sexual one or a protracted one at that?” I have wondered that myself, and we will never know for certain, but I believe my version of events represents the most reasonable conclusion. As David Leeming relates in Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney (1998), Delaney was throughout his life rarely able to act on emotional attachments to men he knew (although he did occasionally have brief physical encounters with strangers). Leeming, who also authored a biography of James Baldwin and had extensive access to the writer and his papers, provides no suggestion that the relationship between the two was ever physical. Nor do those of Baldwin’s papers that I have been able to consult.
In addition, Lorch quotes a passage from the autobiography of the poet Harold Norse, who asserts that Delaney committed suicide, while my essay stated no cause of death. Lorch, concerned that those concerned for Delaney’s reputation might have intervened to impose a cleaned-up version of events, asks, “What’s the truth?” In fact, Delaney did attempt suicide on at least one occasion, by jumping off a boat in the Mediterranean in 1961. He may also have carefully plotted suicide while hospitalized in Paris in 1962, and thoughts of suicide frequently plagued him. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that his death was self-inflicted. His physical health had deteriorated throughout the 1970’s; during the entire year preceding his death, Delaney regularly slipped in and out of consciousness. I know of no evidence to support Norse’s claim.
Lorch is rightly worried that even after their deaths, gay artists confront efforts to “[put]them back in the closet where the heirs have decided they always belonged.” But in this case, I think Norse poses a greater threat to Delaney than the painter’s family or friends. Norse’s account, which tells us of Delaney’s “air of being in touch with unconscious forces” and having “the face of a shaman,” uses the same shopworn and vaguely racist vocabulary that Henry Miller employed when he, like so many others, romanticized the artist rather than understanding him. In death as in life, rumors about Beauford Delaney proliferate, often mere reflections of the tellers’ own preoccupations with race and sexuality. Delaney’s story has not yet been fully told, and I hope it will be told accurately; as Lorch suggests, much depends on getting the story right.
— Christopher Capozzola, Somerville, Mass.
Hungary More Tolerant than Claimed
To the Editor:
Alan Brady Conrath’s eagerness to contrast the Czech Republic and Hungary (Nov.-Dec. 2003) results in his exaggerating claims about both. I too have spent a good deal of time in both Prague and Budapest, before and after 1989, and have followed gay publications from both as well. Yes, the Czech Republic is very tolerant, and to a large extent this is probably because of the small influence of religion. (Curiously, Conrath’s major informant on Czech tolerance seems to be from the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren.) But Hungary is not a “deeply Catholic country.” There are many Catholic churches in Hungary, but most are empty on Sunday, and there is a significant Protestant minority as well. Hungary is not Poland, and the Catholic church has little influence today on social issues. Conrath points out that the Hungarian Hattér Society published a report on discrimination that is a “grim recitation of incidents involving gay people as victims.” Such is the business of such an organization. If there is no such publication in the Czech Republic, that does not mean that discrimination does not exist. In fact, Conrath himself cites police raids on bar venues for male prostitution. Yet for some reason that does not count as discrimination.
Least convincing is Conrath’s claim that the use of “buzerant” as a term of general abuse that no longer carries the meaning “fag” is an index of the lack of homophobia. One could make the same claim about the use of “faggot,” “pansy,” and “that’s so gay” in the U.S. today. “Buzerant” is not of German origin but comes from Latin variants of “Bulgarian,” the same root that gives the French “bougre” and the English “bugger.” The Hungarian derivative, “buzi”—”queer”—is in fact an index of tolerance, since it can be used in a neutral context in compound terms: one can be a “lemez buzi” (a record queen) or a “könyv buzi”—a “book queen,” someone mad about books. These usages are positive, rather than derogatory. The term Conrath cites for Hungarian, “meleg,” does not “have the connotation of ‘warm’”; it is the only word for warm. The term was officially rejected by the Budapest City Court not because it was “dangerously misleading for young people,” but because the slang meaning of “gay” was “not appropriate” for an official document. Of course, the move was still discriminatory.
The gay press in Hungary has a vested interest in maintaining that there is a high level of homophobia in the country. On the ground, this is no more apparent in Budapest than it is in Prague. Through most of the 90’s, a good percentage of the gay infrastructure in Prague was geared towards rent boys and foreign tourists. Budapest, on the other hand, had more Hungarian gay life, in part centered on the baths. Some of the baths in Budapest, which were run by the city government, were effectively gay sex clubs, and I would argue that the exposure of all Hungarians to sexual activity in the baths made them more tolerant than many of their neighbors.
— Kevin Moss, Middlebury, Vermont
ILGA’s Role in International Struggles
To the Editor:
I greatly appreciated Mr. Joydeep Sengupta’s article, “How the UN Can Advance Gay Rights” [Nov.-Dec. 03]. Since there is such a paucity of awareness of global issues in our community, it is always nice to see editorial decisions that speak to this lack.
While I found all his references accurate, I was surprised at the absence of any reference to the federation, the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), which was founded in 1978 and now has a membership of over 500 GLBT organizations representing all regions of the world. (Due to homophobia and the successful lobbying of the fundamentalist groups within the UN, ILGA lost its NGO status.) Given Mr. Sengupta’s emphasis on the importance of lobbying the UN, I feel it is important to recognize successful GLBT lobbying that has had a global effect. Besides ILGA’s successful work with the European offices of the UN, it has also effectively lobbied the governments of the Council of Europe to stipulate that no country with anti-gay discrimination laws can join the Council. This effectively prevents them from joining the European Union.
If we are going to start recognizing the relationship between the UN and the LGBT movement at home, we must also recognize the global nature of our own movement as well.
— Harold Kooden, New York (former ILGA North American Regional Representative)
The Quest for Diversity at Conferences
To the Editor:
As executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, which organized the Lambda Literary Festival held in Provincetown on October 10–12, I read with interest Samuel R. Delany’s “Alphabet Soup in Provincetown” (Jan.-Feb., 2004). I’d like to point out that the “young black L who had co-directed the Fire and Ink Conference of black GLBT writers” noted in “Alphabet Soup” is our own Lisa C. Moore, who is the editor of the LLF’s Lambda Book Report.
Like Delany, I agree that it would have been good to have more diversity at the Festival. Lisa Moore addressed this concern in her closing remarks, and it has been a topic in the post-Festival questionnaires and in discussions with our board of trustees. Some difficulties in achieving this goal might have been in the location: even in a world where travel is easy, it can be costly to travel to Provincetown, and resources for subsidizing travel and presenters were limited. Still, that the task may be difficult only means that we should pursue it with ever more fervor. Certainly, the lessons learned at this Festival will play a role in our efforts to make sure that the next Festival will be, in Delany’s words, “significant in a different way.”
— Jim Marks, Washington, D.C.
Executive Director, Lambda Literary Foundation
Remembering Aldyn McKean
To the Editor:
It occurs to me that the tenth anniversary of the G&LR coincides with the tenth anniversary of the death of a man who lived an extraordinary and pioneering life, one that (like so many others) has been insufficiently remembered.
Aldyn McKean, who died at the end of February, 1994, aged 45, was known to Harvard as John B. McKean, Class of ’70. He hailed from Lewiston, Idaho, the last and most brilliant of three sons, a preemie delivered by Caesarian (and not incidentally his mother Nancy’s favorite), a star from earliest childhood at everything he attempted from skiing and volleyball to performance. With his strong lyric tenor voice and knack for corny accents, he began delighting audiences at an early age, (if giving querulous pause to his father Herb, a sternly Republican lumber executive).
Aldyn, whose piercingly Caribbean-blue eyes were but one highlight of a maximum-appeal physical package, played the romantic leads in H.M.S Pinafore & Princess Ida for Harvard Gilbert & Sullivan Players. He simultaneously got caught up in the anti-war movement, joined SDS, and was arrested and expelled for abetting the 1969 student occupation of University Hall. (I never learned how he broke the news to Nancy and Herb.) He stuck around Cambridge as a firebrand in both SDS and Progressive Labor, yet another Harvard Marxian, until in the summer of 1970 he took his revolutionary fervor to the extreme, enlisting for duty in Vietnam as an SDS infiltrator, on errand to a Vietnamese mole who never materialized. (He kept a carbon copy of the letter informing his parents that he’d made Soldier of the Day during basic training.) Aldyn was shelled at Pleiku, and eventually landed a desk job where he could help other enlisted men outwit the Army. He also sang in a rock band with a grunt friend of Lebanese extraction named James Assaid (pronounced Acid) whose nickname was Tab. They copulated with a lot of Vietnamese girls-for-hire, smoked the village weed and toured the beaches.
Returning stateside, Aldyn acquired a van in the Bay Area and was crossing Utah en route to Idaho when three hitchhikers he picked up began to beat him with his own tire iron as they called him “faggot.” He bailed out of the moving van (from the wreck of which, less than a mile down the road, the police subsequently hauled the wicked three), and, recuperating in a small Utah hospital, was to gaze upon his gorgeous male nurse and decide that his attackers had been right. He came to NYU to study acting, hunked up, changed his name, thinned his eyebrows, and, as a charming, talented, stunning and openly gay man, stepped into a world that before 1973 had barely existed. It was full of fabulous adventures, and it eventually cost him his life.
But not before he had lived it with a unique blend of intelligence, passion, commitment and zest, performing in a Broadway musical, consulting in suave Armani at international telemarketing seminars, dolling up as Carmen Miranda on Fire Island, and singing the high line in an always-in-demand duo that he performed for years with his partner, me, providing the low line and concertina accompaniment. Warbling the likes of “Sidewalks of New York” and “The Bowery,” we started on the streets of Little Italy and worked our way up via Central Park and friends’ parties to the Harvard Club. (The only flesh we ever blended was our vocal cords.)
He was a founding member of ACT-UP, put his body on the line at dozens of street actions; appeared on CNN and Nightline to articulate with equal clarity the needs of the AIDS-affected and the inadequacy of government response; never stopped singing or roller-blading, and was becoming a globally admired icon of long-term survival when he was hospitalized for the first time in October 1993, rallied, went west to spend Christmas with Nancy and Herb and his brothers’ families, and died alone in his 14th Street apartment two months later. Aldyn’s most significant relationship having ended amicably two years earlier, and his ex having moved to Holland, it fell to three or four close friends to minister to his last needs and dispose of his effects.
ACT-UP gave him a hero’s burial. On the day he liked to call “a command—March Forth,” hundreds of friends and fans accompanied his ashes from the Friends Meeting House, past his apartment and down 14th Street to Union Square. His troops formed human chains across one intersection after another while the procession passed, lit at each end with a dozen homemade torches. Frail Nancy was wheeled, while Herb and the two brothers and their kids walked beside her. There were placards with his magnified photograph borne aloft, and a wide banner up front reading: “Aldyn Mckean, 1948-1994 / A Great Hero in the Fight to End AIDS / Honor His Life—Take Action.”
— Stephen Mo Hanan, New York City