Get Straight on Renault’s Gay Men
To the Editor:
Mary Renault’s The Charioteer is one of the great gay novels—a superbly crafted love story, carefully observed, satisfying, and very beautiful. But it is misrepresented in your “Brief” review of History’s Queer Stories, by Natalie Marena Nobitz, in the January-February issue. Apparently the reviewer, Dale Boyer (or the author of the book) has not read The Charioteer well enough to know who the main characters are.
True, there is a conscientious objector named Andrew in the book, but he is definitely not the protagonist, and he certainly does not ”[carve]out the space he needs to be gay.” Instead, he has an apparent nervous breakdown and retreats into monastic-like asceticism and denial. In sharp contrast to Andrew, the actual protagonist, Laurie, is a thoughtful but dynamic character—a soldier who has been heroically wounded at Dunkirk. Much of the book concerns his slow recuperation in a hospital (a scene Renault knew well, having served as a nurse in just such a post-Dunkirk military hospital).
But mainly this is a love story of the highest order, and the necessary second protagonist is a naval officer, likewise severely wounded at Dunkirk, and these two men do carve out a space in which to be gay. They are very unlike each other, but love triumphs, and as the novel ends they bravely set off into the sunset to create some sort of mutual “marriage” together. Very few gay novels had a happy ending back then, which was pointed out in Boyer’s review. The Charioteer is a major work that deserves the deepest and most careful treatment in your pages.
Richard J. Gibson, DeLand, FL
Prof. Emeritus, Jacksonville University
To clarify: One of the important characters in The Charioteers is a conscientious objector (that character is not Laurie, the protagonist). However, as author Nobitz notes, Laurie “fails to feel pride in being a soldier.” She also says of him and another central character: “Both Laurie and Alec are acutely aware of the stigma that accompanies their sexuality, but refuse to identify with its negative stereotypes.” It is in this sense of consciously opposing and objecting to prevailing societal notions regarding war, masculinity, and sexuality that I was making the larger point that only outliers and nonconformists like Laurie are able to carve out the space they need to be gay. I apologize if my summary misrepresented this.
Dale Boyer, Chicago
The Ageism of Sex Research
To the Editor:
Thank you so much for the great articles on alternative sexualities in the March-April issue. I have taught lgbtq studies for the past thirty years at a university in Florida. However, in contrast to my previous experience of students in their late teens and twenties, this fall I will be teaching a course called “Sexualities in Modern America” to an adult learning class at the University of Illinois. Most of the students will be past sixty years old and formerly associated with the university. The course is envisioned as a forum for older Baby Boomers to talk about the vast changes that have taken place in our understanding of sexuality and gender over the last fifty years.
The articles provide a great resource of ideas and concepts for this class. I was particularly impressed by Sebastian McGaughey’s article on “neopronouns,” which highlighted the central role of language in an understanding of sexuality and gender. Rayyan Dabbous’ image of sexuality as a hot mountain spring flowing to the ocean accomplishes what volumes of lit crit studies have tried to do. Also, his comments about Freud “turning in his grave” over the relational bias in our understanding of sexuality and the profusion of sexual labels are spot on.
However, if our understanding of sexuality has a relational bias, it also has a strong temporal bias. This is demonstrated in Carl Streed Jr.’s otherwise excellent article [on the search for unrecognized sexual orientations]. Why do most, if not all, studies assume that sexuality is a temporally fixed, stable force in the human psyche? Or to put it more simply, why is the sexual subject
almost always a twenty- to 45-year-old individual? I am a 69-year-old man, and over my lifetime there have been enormous changes in my sexuality. I find it condescending and even insulting to assume that as one gets older, one is seen as less of a sexual subject. I am very much a sexual being as I was at three, twenty, or forty years old.
I am also tired of work on sexuality that tries to incorporate gender, race, ethnicity, class, region, and disability in the analysis but omits age. (The one exception I have found is Lynda Johnston and Robyn Longhurst’s excellent 2010 book Space, Place, and Sex: Geographies of Sexualities.) I guess it is understandable, since most of that work is written by people in graduate school, in tenure-track positions, or mid-career.
I look forward to my class next fall. While probably most of my students will not connect with me in terms of sexual identity, they will be my peers with respect to the recent history of sexuality in America.
Fred Fejes, Boca Raton, FL
The Prehistory of “Bate Brothers”
To the Editor:
I enjoyed reading Jason Armstrong’s account of “solosexuality” [in the March-April issue], if only because I learned several new terms that haven’t yet crossed the Pacific. But I was surprised that he didn’t mention the development of J/O clubs in response to AIDS in the 1980s (there’s an account of one in my recent book Unrequited Love). The website for the New York Jacks tells me there are currently 24 such clubs around, although I suspect a couple are defunct. I’d be curious how many of these know they are “bate brothers,” although the sole women’s club listed would presumably avoid that term.
La Trobe University, Australia
Last Word on “the Great Cover-Up”
I enjoyed Steve Spencer’s article on changing attitudes toward male nudity. What was lacking in his essay, however, were some direct quotations from heterosexual men who admit that their awareness of gay male sexuality provoked them to want to cover up, or with high school or college officials willing to reveal that the creation of private stalls was due to this relatively new sexual discomfort.
On this topic, here are two brief excerpts from my autobiography Left, Gay & Green: A Writer’s Life. From my high school days (late 1950s): “Showers were obligatory after gym class, and the challenge for me was to ‘look good’ down there (a nice size) and yet not be obviously erect. It took a lot of concentration to accomplish this.”
And from my time in college: “Columbia had a requirement for graduation that strikes me as unusual—you had to know how to swim. (That requirement is still in place!) Fortunately, I was already a decent swimmer and passed the test. We did not wear bathing suits in the swimming pool in those days, a practice that was also common in YMCA swimming pools. Being poolside with a lot of naked young men presented a challenge to me, just as in high school.”
Allen Young, Royalston, MA
An observant reader pointed out that it was stated in “The Two Eds,” by Martin Duberman (Jan.-Feb. 2020) that Chicago is “some eighty miles west of Rochelle.” In fact, Chicago is east of Rochelle (or, to state it more conventionally, Rochelle is eighty miles west of Chicago).
Another eagle eye noticed an error in March-April’s “BTW” column, in an item titled “A Crucible Moment,” where it was reported that Whitefield Academy was in Smyrna, Georgia. The Whitefield Academy in question is actually in Louisville, Kentucky.