Defending F. Holland Day’s Gayness
To the Editor:
I am not a scholar of F. Holland Day, but I am disappointed to read in Philip Clark’s review of Patricia J. Fanning’s Through an Uncommon Lens: The Life and Photography of F. Holland Day (G&LR, May-June 2009) that, despite her “intimate knowledge of Day’s papers and possessions,” she “hems and haws at acknowledging Day’s sexuality, finally making the unfortunate decision to ignore it almost completely.” According to Clark, the book’s “discussion of Day’s sexuality is dismissed as ‘prurient speculation’” and allows only a “perceived homoeroticism” when discussing Day’s Arcadian woodland images of male nude youths, many from the immigrant slums of Boston.
I must be counted among the “prurient speculators,” for in my book The Homoerotic Photograph (Columbia University Press, 1992) I discussed Day’s work at some length and concluded, as I think anyone with a set of eyes would, that his work may be about many things, but his images of human beauty that touch the erotic are exclusively aimed at men. Pictured most frequently are young men, partially draped or nude. If you cannot perceive or admit the homoerotic character of these images, then I submit you are engaging in a subterfuge or being intellectually dishonest.
This does not allow us to categorically conclude that Day was homosexual, although his associations, intellectual and spiritual interests, and self-presentation tend to lead us in that direction. We can draw inferences based on what we see, on the context of the times in which Day lived, and on an understanding of what was permissible or impermissible to acknowledge in writing or in public speech in the Victorian era—and certainly in the period after the trials of Oscar Wilde, when men of classical tastes, to borrow a euphemism appropriate to Day himself, rightly feared public exposure.
It is also pertinent to note that even in his own time there were observers who hinted at the character of Day’s private obsessions. The renowned Pictorialist critic of this period, Sadakichi Hartmann, discussed Day’s “peculiar gift to render everything decorative. Sensitive to a high degree … he can only satisfy his individual code of beauty by arranging and rearranging his subject with all sorts of accessories [emphasis mine].” A less sympathetic critic, carping that Day was hardly the person to represent himself as the Christ in his photographic re-enactments of the Passion, called Day “the leader of the Oscar Wilde School” of photography.
Finally, it is significant that the Norwood Historical Society of which Fanning is the archivist resides in the F. Holland Day House. I can’t help but sense that Fanning may feel she is the keeper of the flame, an eternal light which would be put out if one were to admit things of the kind that used to be “banned in Boston.” An unnecessary hidebound tendency does not encourage free inquiry, and characterizes as “prurient”—as decent but mean-
spirited a word as any an old-school Boston Brahmin might use—an honest inquiry into the deepest private character of a man who was undoubtedly a great artist, a creative thinker, an eccentric spirit, and a generous soul.
Allen Ellenzweig, New York City
Legal Equality Now, Public Opinion Later
To the Editor:
I’d like to comment on the letter from Rev. Mark Shirilau in the July-August 09 issue of the Review, in which he says that homosexuals need to have the approval of the heterosexuals (specifically in the case of gay marriage) in order to be happy—that just having the legal right to do so is not enough.
I hope other readers will give their reaction and thoughts. I am not sure this is what Harry Hay and those who followed his thinking on the “outsider” view of homosexuals in society were saying, but I can be sure that it is not the view that the ONE people had, who came out of early Mattachine Society (the Harry Hay–Dale Jennings crowd). They were followers of the Kinsey–Hooker thinking and sought only to be left alone, to have no laws controlling our lives. We just wanted privacy, the government out of our bedrooms; we did not care whether or not the rest of society “approved” of us.
I wonder if there is a parallel in the black civil rights movement. In the beginning the main effort in the fight for equality for people of color was desegregation, an end to legal segregation. That is different from seeking “integration” in the sense of mainstream society’s acceptance. The first problem that both blacks and homosexuals faced was laws controlling our lives. It was not just societal attitudes and rules saying that black and white Americans could not attend the same schools or eat at the same restaurants or ride on the bus or train; there were laws enforcing segregation in the South under Jim Crow. Once the laws were removed, at least the possibility, if not always the reality, of racial integration could follow.
As I write this, some new tapes of Richard Nixon have come out in which he muses that abortion is not a good thing, except in some circumstances, such as to prevent the birth of a child whose parents were black and white. I don’t think many people realize just how terrible was the thought interracial sex, much less marriage, for much of the public in 1970, who feared for the children having a black and a white parent. That is why Barrack Obama is such an important phenomenon: evidence of a generational change for the better that can be replicated in the struggle for GLBT rights.
The importance of advancing legal equality irrespective of public attitudes can be seen in the current struggle for marriage equality. All Americans have legal rights as persons and as citizens, but they belong to many different religious organizations, or none at all, and choose to follow a set of beliefs peculiar to that institution. We have a right to demand equal marriage rights from our government, but we do not have the right to demand acceptance of our marriage by religious or other institutions that do not approve.
Billy Glover, Bossier City, Louisiana
Name of Kenyan Tribe Corrected
To the Editor:
I read with interest, and enjoyed, the International Spectrum column, “Out in Kenya” [by Jesus Ramirez-Valles], but I was puzzled by the reference to the minority ethnic group the “Lou.” Kisumu is a well-known home of the “Luo,” but despite having studied and lived in Africa for a number of years, albeit not in Kenya, I had never heard of the “Lou.” Just thought I would check that there wasn’t an accidental transposition of the letters by spell-check.
Charles W. Gossett, PhD, Pomona, CA
Editor’s Note: The author of the column has confirmed that “Luo” is the correct name (spell-check is innocent). We regret the error.