Letters to the Editor

Published in: January-February 2016 issue.


Time on the Runway

To the Editor:

I read with interest David Masello’s article on showroom models in your November-December issue. I was a successful model back in the homophobic 1950s. I was “discovered” on the corner of 48th Street and Lexington Avenue by Burke McHugh, owner of one of only two large agencies handling men in those days, the other being The Hartford Agency.

Over five years I worked for most of the famous photographers of that day: Irving Penn, Bert Stern, John Wingate, Paul Radkai, et al.—everyone but Avedon, who rarely photographed men. I started working at $25 an hour, a huge sum at that time, which soon increased to $30. Modeling in those days was closed to blacks or anyone else with ethnic looks. The blonds all looked like Tab Hunter, the brunettes like Rory Calhoun.

I found Masello’s assertion that most of the models today are straight somewhat strange, to say the least. I would imagine that fifty percent of the men in Burke’s agency were either gay or bisexual. Modeling afforded an escape from the fear of disclosure that many of my gay friends in the business world encountered. Being deep in the closet was a given if you wanted to keep your job. In retrospect, I was never aware of my effect on people and accepted comments like “Aren’t you in the movies?” from salesladies at department stores as routine. Being thought of as a piece of meat does nothing for your self esteem, believe me.

I quit the biz when I met the man of my dreams on the deck of the Sea Shack in Cherry Grove one summer evening. I didn’t think my lifestyle conducive to a lasting relationship. I was very naïve. Don’t envy the young men in the ads: they have the same insecurities that affected all of us at that age. It’s a highly competitive business today, as it was then. Straight or gay, you don’t stay on top for too long.

Peter Jarman, San Diego


Who Made the Cradle Rock?

To the Editor:

Imagine my shock to read in the Irene Javors review of the biography of Henrietta Bingham [November-December issue] that John Houseman (or Orson Welles, depending on how you read the sentence) was the “author of The Cradle Will Rock”! Neither was. That jaunty pro-labor Popular Front musical of the late 1930s is solely the work (book and music) of Marc Blitzstein. Houseman produced and Welles directed its first staging in 1937.

Eric A. Gordon, Los Angeles


Correction: Jenner’s Gold Medal

A “BTW” item in the November-December issue stated incorrectly that Olympian Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn) was a champion in the triathlon. More than one reader noted that Jenner won the decathlon (in 1976).


Harry Hay in The G&LR: A Response

To the Editor:

Over the last seven years, The Gay & Lesbian Review has been hosting a roundtable of sorts in which a number of writers have been deconstructing the essentialist foundations of 20th-century gay liberation, particularly as articulated by its principal founder Harry Hay, while others like myself have sought a reformulated extension of Hay’s major thesis regarding the nature of homosexuality through gay-centered psychoanalysis. I think what’s at stake is whether gay liberation can make good on its shamanic vision in order to facilitate a psychological revolution supporting a fuller ethical self-realization for all of us, or if it will be forced to continue making enormous compromises due to its own ideological failures of heart. The recent Supreme Court victory for gay marriage presses that issue all the more.

First in this series, Chris Kilbourne and I published an article in the January-February 2008 issue titled “Harry Hay’s Essentialism.” In November 2012, the GLR re-published a piece written by Hay himself in 1995 titled “Birth of a Consciousness.” Next, following the first-ever conference on Hay, held by the City University of New York in September 2012, Jay Michaelson had an essay titled “The Non-Essential(ist) Harry Hay” in March-April 2013. Bryce Way then wrote a letter reacting to Michaelson’s postmodernist critique of Hay titled “In Defense of Harry Hay’s Essentialism,” which appeared in June 2013, and which Michaelson responded to in that same issue. This was followed by a statement from Will Roscoe—an adaptation of his keynote speech at the Hay conference—appearing in November-December 2013 under the title “The Radicalism of Harry Hay.” Finally, Roscoe’s piece prompted a reaction from Philip Lance, “In (Partial) Defense of Harry Hay,” which appeared in January-February 2015.

In our 2008 piece, Kilbourne and I suggest that Hay’s “essentialist” notions about gay men and lesbians are mostly good ideas, especially his historical research unearthing, in our words, the “presence of a ‘homosexual person’ … who has walked the earth since the Stone Age and who did much to functionally organize society and oversee” its spiritual growth. At the same time, we begin to differentiate a psychological experience of gay “essence” from Hay’s more simplistic essentialism, and we highlight the importance of wrestling with the “dark side of the personality that contains our feelings of inferiority,” as well as pointing out the benefits of “identify[ing]an explicit form of homosexual libido motivating gay being and becoming.” We argue that Hay’s lack of appreciation for such interior processes possibly undergirding his own vision of generative homosexual personhood fed a theoretical vacuum in early gay movement ideology which has since been filled on one side by postmodernism and on the other, assimilationism.

Kilbourne and I also propose that to accomplish Hay’s project for “freeing the Spirit of Man” would take utilization of a gay-centered psychoanalytic theory and practice like that pioneered by psychologist Mitch Walker, who had teamed originally with Hay to co-found the Radical Faeries. Starting before his alliance with Hay and continuing since, Walker has been concerned to create a comprehensive methodology for homosexual self-actualization by synthesizing Jungian and Freudian theories with gay liberation principles. Of particular note is his series of groundbreaking articles starting with 1976’s “The Double: An Archetypal Configuration,” hypothesizing a same-sex “soul-image” resident in all psyches and charged with genitally electric “eros” in homosexual people, serving as the primary internal inspiration for gay love and creativity. Also key is Walker’s articulating, in Gay Liberation at a Psychological Crossroads (2009), how virtually all homosexual people have been severely traumatized in childhood by heterosexist parenting, the persistent legacy of centuries of genocidal bigotry. From Walker’s perspective, the full toolkit of psychoanalytic techniques and inner-work practices may be necessary to more fully dislodge the corrosive effects of anti-gay hate on the development of healthy homosexual identity, as well as on the quality of our intellectual discourse.

Hay’s republished piece describes how an initial eruption of radical gay activism heralded by the 1950 Mattachine Society was usurped by a “second wave” of assimilationists, “the hetero-imitative Robert’s Rules of Order opportunists,” whose strategy dropped ideas of gay revolution in favor of “fitting into” straight society, thereby “wast[ing]First Mattachine’s golden dream of brotherhood” and undermining the “cultural minority” thesis. Despite the still-vital quality of his gay vision, Hay fails here to appreciate that psychological dynamics may well be involved in Mattachine’s historical implosion, especially how assimilationism could very well entail adult re-enactment of earlier parental rejection.

In his 2013 essay, Jay Michaelson described his experiences at the CUNY conference, saying that he was “unnerved” by certain participants who exhibited reactionary sentiments against those queer people who weren’t fitting into classic gendered categories. Although he acknowledged that any such prejudice at the event was not the fault of Harry Hay, who died in 2002, he criticized Hay’s thought for “contain[ing]significant essentialist elements,” ridiculing Hay’s claim that gay men have an innate capacity for the felt mutuality of “subject-subject consciousness,” when “it is laughable to assert, in the context of gay bars, gay spas, gay ghettos, and gay gyms, that gay men regard one another as subjects rather than as objects,” and when mainstream gay culture “is among the most male-objectifying societies since ancient Greece.” In his later response to Bryce Way’s letter, Michaelson further argues that “essentialism marginalizes any people in the in-group who do not possess its essential characteristics, denigrates the out-group, and omits from history all those who do not fit into its neat categories.”

To the extent that essentialism has been and can be misused as an exclusionary ideology, it seems to me Michaelson is making a valid point. Yet he shows little understanding of why identifying inherent qualities in the state of being a same-sex-loving person has been so motivating for gay liberation, and fails to appreciate how the painful consequences of homophobic trauma might well have contributed to some of the more emotional attitudes at the Hay conference, including his own! From a gay-centered psychological perspective, we might ask, How could the first-ever “academic” conference about such a homosexually transgressive personality as Hay not activate all kinds of trauma-sourced hurt-rage, lurking beneath any particular content, among all who attended? Actually, Michaelson in his GLR statement does briefly acknowledge such suffering, but only when he disdainfully writes that “one cannot help but notice the role played by the woundedness of the fairy-as-outsider, a status many queers simply do not experience today.”

This is where I think Michaelson grossly underestimates the baleful effects of two millennia of barbarous homophobia and heterosexism, an insidious internalized toxicity that none of us, no matter how young, is yet free from, especially in the unconscious. I myself still struggle daily with my personal version of this homophobic distress after growing up as a gay Jewish kid in the Bronx of the 1960s, and any unaddressed weaknesses in my own discussion (perhaps like not including analysis of my own motives for moving in an essentialist direction) are, I am sure, ultimately rooted in that difficulty. Such a psychodynamic appreciation might also shed light on Michaelson’s own ferocity against gay essentialists. It turns out that in his earlier 2011 book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, Michaelson is quite open about how he struggled for about ten years with life as a closeted homosexual while practicing Orthodox Judaism, such that the situation caused “pain so deep that it endures even today … although I have adopted a public rhetoric of acceptance and confidence.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to recognize how the skewing aftershocks of such suffering could still be operative in his unconscious psyche and affecting his thinking about being gay.

The situation is made even stranger by further reading of God vs. Gay?, where Michaelson, in distinct contrast to his GLR writings, directly defends the essential nature of being gay, asserting that “sexuality is not just sex; sexuality is at the essence of who we are as human beings.” And in explaining the variety of sexual identities, he admits that “most people (including myself) do experience their sexuality as essentially homosexual or heterosexual.” Such apparent contradictions in pronouncements could suggest a defensive dissociation in reaction to excruciating internal conflict, and it might help explain how Michaelson could support Hay’s introduction of “eros” into dialogical philosophy but then assiduously avoid putting the words “homosexual” or “gay” in front of “eros,” thus negating his own homosexual libido as well as that of his readers.

Following Michaelson’s postmodernist salvo, Bryce Way wrote a letter to the editor that attempted to differentiate between “naïve” and “sophisticated” essentialism, but Michaelson in his response opines sarcastically that, “given same-sex eroticism among Samurai, Spartan Warriors, and Hitler Youth, perhaps militarism is one such category” of essential gayness. Michaelson’s smear implying that a theory of essentialism could include such overt aggression goes hand-in- hand with his remark that essentialism “is universally condemned among scholars.” In reality, a living essentialist tradition surely exists in gay letters; just a few examples would include Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality & Civilization (2006), the works of Raja Halwani, Walker’s aforementioned Gay Liberation at a Psychological Crossroads, and recent papers such as “Gay/Queer Dynamics and the Question of Sexual History and Identity” by Chris Bartle (Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 62, 2015).

It would seem that the author of the next piece in the GLR’s roundtable, Will Roscoe, would be uniquely positioned to carry on Harry Hay’s “shining, golden, pulsating dream” of gay consciousness, as he had a close alliance with Hay starting in 1979 and edited Hay’s collection of writings, Radically Gay (1996). In that book’s afterword, Roscoe observes that “social constructionism … is not a stance that lends itself to unequivocal statements of the value and joy of Gay being,” noting that Hay is “the only contemporary Gay thinker who could be said to offer a unified theory of Gayness,” and concluding that postmodernism “offers at best a politics of resignation.”

This more essence-appreciating version of Roscoe seems still present in the early part of his more recent GLR statement, but then the discussion splits off into a postmodern defense of Hay and Michel Foucault, the first modern philosopher to argue for a “deconstruction” of essential homosexual personhood, where Roscoe attempts to show that these two prominent gay figures sound not so different from each other. However, Roscoe has to “paraphrase” Hay’s voice to make the congruence seem to work. He concludes “that what really separates Foucault and Hay is not constructionism versus essentialism. These are two versions of social constructionism.”

In contrast to Hay, Michaelson, and Roscoe, psychotherapist Philip Lance is more attentive in his more recent article to the historic role of gay-affirmative psychology in expanding the horizon of gay liberation and helping individuals within the gay movement “to achieve individualized personalities.” However, Lance ultimately shows that he is just as influenced by the postmodern denial of the possibility of homosexual essence when he concludes that “this analysis remains within a social-constructionist paradigm: homosexuality is understood not as a natural object but as a linguistic device.”

In conclusion, and depending on which side of the roundtable discussion you were sitting on, this entire literary sequence could suggest that Hay’s ideas about same-sex shamanic potential “triggered into being by our lovely sexuality” do not epistemologically hold up to postmodern scrutiny, where they can be characterized as at best expedient fictions and at worst a colonialist power play excluding more than it includes. The discussion may subsequently conclude that the once-revolutionary project of gay liberation now flounders, with little to offer younger generations of homosexuals but queer deconstruction and/or military-and-marriage assimilation. Yet from a gay-centered perspective, this conversation may suggest that the dialogue is just beginning about what homosexual love, identity, and freedom could mean now and into the future, as we are only starting to acquire the psychological tools required to meaningfully analyze all aspects of the homosexual dialectic, including those cancerous elements of internalized homophobic toxicity masquerading as “deconstruction” of our abiding gayness.

With both Hay’s take on essentialism and postmodernist critiques being exposed as possibly warped by trauma effects, a new “reconstructive” strategy can be considered for gay liberation, based on each homosexual’s individuating subjectivity, and arising from a here-and-now encounter with gay feelings, thoughts, sensations and intuitions. Then it could be possible to more usefully build on Hay’s core insight: “At the instant of the eye lock, it was as if an invisible arc of lightning flashed between us, zapping into both our eagerly ready young bodies total systems of knowledge. … Now through that flashing arc of love, we two young faeries knew the triggered tumult of Gay consciousness in our [physical existence].”

I think what a post-Hay, post-postmodern appreciation of gay essence could provide is a practical homosexual depth psychology to help understand, moment-by-moment, how that “flashing arc of love” actually happens, whence the “zapping” came, and how to “trigger” this experience of the same-sex soul double and its alchemy not just in gay people but in all who love homosexual feelings, all who look forward to freedom from the collective constraints of ubiquitous heteronormativity for the sake of better self-becoming. So yes, I suspect there is something essential in gay liberation that would contribute to the remaking of us all as further-healed and more progressive, so long as we can mind the nefarious (de)essentializing tendencies of persistent internalized homophobia and heterosexism.

Douglas Sadownick, Los Angeles