Readers’ Thoughts

Published in: May-June 2012 issue.


Pederasty Letter Draws More Comments

To the Editor:

I was enraged and aggrieved by Trevor Duncan’s letter in your Jan.-Feb. 2012 issue, which took up more than one-third of your letters column, as well as by the romanticization of child rape in the original articles he cited (in the Sept.-Oct. 2011 issue’s profiles of Winckelmann and Thoreau). Defenses of “pederasty” should not be given a forum in any civilized and forward-thinking magazine.

I have several dear friends who were used for adult sexual gratification as children. They have struggled all their lives to achieve healthy intimacy and self-care. Particularly for gays and lesbians, who are already told by society that their sexuality is dirty and shameful, the self-hatred produced by sexual abuse can be fatally compounded by internalized homophobia.

The G&LR has written in the past about gay elders’ responsibility to protect the younger generation. All our talk of safe spaces is hypocrisy if our own cultural institutions celebrate the bullies and abusers within our communities, rather than the vulnerable youth.

Jendi Reiter, Northampton, MA


To the Editor:

Trevor Duncan’s letter on the supposedly ignored pederastic history of male homosexuality deserves a reply. He protests the cessation of support for “man-boy love” by the GLBT rights movement, mentioning in particular the rejection of nambla (North American Man/Boy Love Association) in the 1980’s. He argues that male “pederasty” existed in many places historically and therefore we should support it now. But this appeal to history is anachronistic. (I assume that Duncan means by “pederasty” an erotic attraction toward pre-pubescent as well as adolescent boys, given his stance on nambla. Most people would name this pedophilia.)

Societies that institutionalized male pedophilia were not “homosexual societies.” The vast majority of men who dallied with boys in this way also married women and sired families. Often the man-boy amorous relationship marked a temporary phase in the life-cycles of both the man and the boy. The men who did this were not “gay”; they did it because it was approved and because boys were available for this purpose. They would never have contemplated amorous relations with other grown men; that was the whole point of the attraction to a boy: he was not a man. That is why we find a prohibition of sexual relations between adult male citizens in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, even though the former praised the love of boys and the latter accepted a range of possibilities for adult male citizens vis-à-vis their inferiors.

Moreover, virtually all societies that permitted male pedophilia were highly patriarchal. The extreme domination of women by men tends to suffuse other aspects of the social structure such that inequality based on age recapitulates the inequality of gender. This is so even today. Think of contemporary Afghanistan, where the status of women is extremely low, and where Western soldiers have been shocked to observe Afghan soldiers casually rape boys (in the absence of females). In the same society we find the practice of Bacha Barzi (“playing with boys”) in which boys are bought from poor families for entertainment and sexual purposes. Boys are perceived to be the equivalent of women—dependent quasi-slaves to use as one pleases.

In the modern West we live in a very different type of society from those that extolled man-boy erotic relations. Many would argue that a necessary precondition for achieving the modern emancipation of gay men (and lesbian women) lies precisely in the West’s abandonment of male-supremacist ideology. It is no accident that the modern movement of homosexual emancipation arose at the same time as modern feminism, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that it was strongest in those countries where feminism was strongest—the most obvious example being Germany prior to the First World War and in the 1920’s.

In Western societies, adult homosexuality is increasingly accepted because (a) it no longer threatens gender roles, given that men and women lead very similar lives, and (b) it clearly causes no harm. But male pedophilia will probably never be accepted, because so many men attest that they suffered permanent psychological damage as a result of having had sex with men when they were boys, no matter how consensual it was at the time. I don’t doubt that Trevor Duncan’s erotic feelings toward boys are as innate and real to him as are a gay man’s are toward other men. The difference is that he can apparently harm young people if he acts on his feelings. The movement for GLBT emancipation cannot support pedophilia because it would be unethical to do so (as well as politically suicidal).

Steven Spencer, Toronto, Canada


To the Editor:

The letter in your March-April 2012 issue concerning pederasty brought back quite a deluge of memories. The pederast that Edmund White interviewed in States of Desire was one of the circle of friends that I socialized with in the late 70’s. “Bob,” as I’ll call him, “fessed up” after several of us who had read the book pressed him about the complete similarity between him and every detail of the man described in White’s book.

When I look back on those times, I wonder why we were not more disturbed than we were by Bob’s lifestyle. Certainly none of us ever considered reporting him to authorities. I think the reason for this is that we felt we were in pretty much the same situation as Bob. Our criminality was just a matter of degree. Liberation was happening all around us, but it wasn’t happening fast enough or thoroughly enough, and while we were not constantly terrified of being caught and sent to jail, as Bob was, we definitely did not feel accepted by our society. One of our group had recently lost his job for coming out to his employers. None of us flaunted our gayness, and it was supremely important not to appear “femme.”

And we enjoyed hearing Bob’s tales of seduction. From hanging out at school playgrounds (yes, that cliché is true) to courting the parents of his prey, Bob had a profound knowledge of the psychology of those he wished to seduce. He would first manage to make friends with the child and then with the parents, who were always so busy, so preoccupied with money worries, so concerned with keeping their heads above water in various ways, that they welcomed Bob as a “mentor” for their boy.

But to address the important points of Stephen W. Foster’s letter [in March-April issue, responding to Mr. Duncan’s letter]:

1. The comparisons between gays rejecting pederasts and Mormons rejecting polygamists is entirely specious. While there is probably some degree of seduction and pressure brought to bear on women who enter a polygamous marriage, that pressure is nothing compared to the power that an unscrupulous adult can wield over a child. People in polygamous relationships are adults and can at least put up a fight against coercive forces.
2. Rejecting a criminal element of our society is not “airbrushing” at all. Is Mr. Foster recommending that the Catholic Church continue to airbrush the crimes (call them sins if you prefer) of the child molesters in its organization?
3. Yes, men going after boys is a homosexual activity, just as men pursuing girls, or women chasing boys, is a heterosexual activity, but I hope that our society never embraces any form of adult-child sex.
4. Mr. Foster’s references to Trotskyites, Stalinists, and Orwell’s Big Brother are just more red herrings. If you want a political comparison, how about this: taking sexual advantage of a child is fascist in the
5. The statement that “pederasty had once been the dominant or even exclusive form of male homosexuality” requires some heavy qualification. Even in ancient Athens, not everyone thought it was such a jolly good thing.
It has been decades since I’ve seen or heard from Bob, and those of that group who are still in touch usually joke about him with comments such as “I wonder what jail he’s in,” if we talk about him at all. With acceptance comes responsibility. If I knew Bob today and he was still pursuing boys, I hope I would turn him in.

John DeMoss, Topeka, KS

Editor’s Comment:

The decision to publish the original letter by Trevor Duncan, an admitted pederast whose letter arrived hand-written from prison, was a tough call, as readers can imagine. I went ahead because Mr. Duncan confined his claim to a historical argument about the prevalence of pederasty in many past civilizations and what he sees as our denial or neglect of this fact in academic and general discussion. He seemed to go out of his way to avoid making the leap to a justification of pederasty on this basis, though doubtless one could infer such a justification, as did some letter-writers.

I agree with much of what they said, but I also think this distinction is important. Surely Mr. Duncan is not wrong when he asserts that pederasty has become a radioactive topic in some circles, whether for good or ill. By the same token, the assertion that pederasty has been widely practiced in past civilizations is an empirical claim that seems quite defensible. But even if it turns out to have been very widespread indeed, this provides no more of a moral justification for pederasty than does the existence of slavery in the past. Protecting the young from exploitation of all kinds is one of the great achievements of modern civilization.


Kameny’s Later Achievements Noted

To the Editor:

I think John D’Emilio mostly gets it right in his essay on Frank Kameny [March-April 2012], but there are two areas where he is less informed and/or sells the man short. I say that as someone who knew Frank fairly well from the late 1970’s onward.

He underestimates Kameny’s importance “after the mid-1970’s.” Kameny grasped quite well the limitations of a single individual and he sought to “institutionalize” his worldview of gay activism through his service on the boards of many organizations. He was quite vocal in doing so, and in holding people accountable, and as a result often alienated the leaders of those organizations, who subsequently eased him off of those bodies. Frank continued to be an active presence in local organizations and helped to train multiple generations of activists who went on to work for the national organizations based in Washington in the 1980’s and 90’s.

D’Emilio mentions but does not seem to grasp the importance of the one-on-one work that Frank did throughout his life, from answering the Mattachine phone in the middle of the night—long after it had ceased to be anything but an incorporated entity and that phone number—to his self-described “paralegal” activity on security clearance for government employment and the military. Often adding Kameny to the case was enough to get officials to change or drop the charge because they knew what they were in for.

I agree with D’Emilio that many of the changes that have occurred within the LGBT community would have occurred if Frank had never lived; but I think that the timing and the shape of those events would have been very different without Frank. While no man is indispensable, Frank Kameny came as close as humanly possible to being so. The community is much, much better off because of him.

Bob Roehr, Washington, DC


Face It: J. Edgar Was a Whitewash

To the Editor:

With regard to the review, “The Man Who Kept Secrets” [March-April 2012], it is difficult for me to restrain myself from saying that I feel horror that people accept [director Clint]Eastwood’s film as having any value at all. Andrew Holleran’s review includes a line, “J. Edgar is the saga of a mama’s boy.” That is the hoary theory that makes this film so banal and unbelievable. Rather, J. Edgar Hoover’s career is the saga of an American Stalin. Most of the screen time is given over to Leonardo DiCaprio [as Hoover], while very few of his many victims are depicted, so the viewer is never caused to relive the terror that he inflicted in that paranoid era. Is no one still alive who remembers living in the era when even the most innocent feared Hoover’s FBI? Worst of all, Eastwood’s film leaves the impression that this despicable human being should be remembered as a national hero.

Meanwhile, are there no older homosexuals alive who can give personal accounts of gay parties at J. Edgar’s house? Stories from the gay grapevine may be suspicious or false at times, but what other tales about the gay lives of famous people have proven totally false? I am one degree of separation away from the gay J. Edgar Hoover: an African-American friend told me that when he attended one of Hoover’s gay parties, the host asked my friend’s lover, a white airline executive, “Why did you bring that n—-r here?”

The film barely touches on Hoover’s extensive catalog of evils, on his secret police state, much of which still survives. Fortunately, most people sensed that the movie was a failure. I’ve waited for so long for a movie exposing a very dark time in our history and one of its most vicious actors at the helm of the U.S. equivalent of the KGB. Instead, we got this distortion that will stand in the popular mind as truth. Who was behind this gross distortion? Is it that Eastwood is a right-wing ideologue, or was he afraid to get on the wrong side of the FBI? And what about the openly gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black—why would he be involved in this whitewash?

James Eilers, Oakland, CA


The Way We Were in ’62

To the Editor:

I would like to comment on issue [Jan.-Feb. 2012] that contains Part 1 of a wonderful interview with Edmund White.
While I am a great admirer of Mr. White, I completely dispute his sweeping generalization when he writes that his novel “has a historical dimension in that it starts in 1962, long before Stonewall, when no gay person, no matter how intelligent, was self-accepting.” I am a self-acceptng homosexual from before 1962. From the time I was thirteen in 1948, I knew I was gay and never once regretted it.

I met my partner Bill in 1957 when I was 22. Shortly after we began to live together, I was drafted and, after six months of basic training, was sent to Germany for eighteen months. Bill wrote to me two or three times a week. Let me quote at length an especially brilliant letter from 1959:

March 2, 1959

Dear John,

I was greatly pleased that you like the shirt. I would love to see you in it. It seemed to me to be just right for you.

The photos you sent remind me always so vividly of what I am missing. I read recently in some magazine of a fellow whose hobby is photography and whose favorite subject is his wife of whom he has taken thousands of pictures. I can understand why he would do so because every picture I see of you seems to illuminate a facet hitherto unnoticed and shows the limitless possibilities there are in coming to understand more of you. It is so true that each of us is constantly changing and no one is just now what he was even a moment ago (I think I unconsciously paraphrase Thomas Mann) and I remember how when we were together literally hundreds of times I suddenly became conscious of something about you that I hadn’t seen before and how this consciousness produced a sudden surging of love while at the same time it brought about a realization that even if we were together an eternity there would be more of you that I had yet to learn. The melancholy, of course, is soon recognized for what it is, namely the old ever-impossible desire of man (like Dr. Faustus) to know everything and whose pride is injured by recognition of his finitude. Therefore I discard as much of the melancholy as possible and rejoice in the prospect that I will never cease to find in you new lights and shadows and an infinity of new understandings will cause love to expand and add new luster to it.

Forgive me these pseudo philosophizings but there is something in me that responds so deeply to you that I keep wanting to bring it out but I never seem able to capture the reality and beauty of it in words. Maybe it will be better expressed by me in the language of silence and unspoken communication when we are together again face to face.

Well as I started to say, the snapshots are delightful. I especially like the one of you in fur hat and field jacket with left hand in pocket and the determined set of your face. I only regret that the focus is not clear enough to see the expression around your eyes in more detail.

— Bill

Within a year of my return from the Army in 1960, he took me to meet his family in West Virginia and Michigan. They were all Southern Baptists originally from Lone Mountain, Tennessee. I was lucky enough to meet his mother before she died in 1962. He told me she said on their last visit together, “I am so glad you have John.” An aunt who was a hillbilly and chewed tobacco declared to all in 1961 that “John is Ike’s wife.” (His family called me “Ike.”)

Bill told me several years ago that the night he met me in 1957 he said to himself, “this is the best thing that ever happened to me and it still is.” On his last day on May 7, 2011, almost 54 years later, he said to me, “John I have never been happier.”

We both often said, “Thank God we are gay. If we weren’t we would never have met each other.” Neither of us has ever suffered from a moment of self-loathing. And the reason is simple: because we loved ourselves and above all we loved each other, right from the beginning in 1957, and I am happy to say just about everyone we know, straight or gay, came to know that as well.

John V. Hilton, New York City


Goldwyn the Muddler, Not the Quipper

To the Editor:

In the March-April 2012 issue, Allen Ellenzweig asks [in a theatre roundup called “Love in Marriage in Two NYC Debuts”], “Wasn’t it Sam Goldwyn who quipped to a screenwriter that if you want a message, call Western Union?” The answer is: No. It was the playwright and humorist George S. Kaufman. Goldwyn was noted not for quips but for mangling English and muddling concepts. When told that the hit play The Little Foxes, which he had just bought for the movies, was problematic because it dealt with lesbians, Goldwyn is reputed to have replied, “So what? We can always call them Bulgarians.”

Laurence Senelick, Professor of Drama and Oratory, Tufts University, Medford, MA



The name of a contributor in the March-April 2012 issue was consistently misspelled. Gabriel Sylvian (not Sylvan) was the author of an artist’s profile on Korean poet Gi Hyeong-do.