If They Mated: Carson and Gypsy
To the Editor:
I was glad to see David Kaplan’s piece on Tennessee Williams’ friendships [in the Jan.-Feb. 2015 issue], including his friend Carson McCullers, who is claimed to have had a crush on Gypsy Rose Lee and to have consummated a sexual relationship with her.
I have written a play about McCullers (produced in New York City in 2002) as well as a yet-to-be-produced movie, and I’m currently working on a novel about her. Having devoted much the last fifteen years to her life and work, I believe that there is no evidence that she ever had sex with a woman. Yes, she fell deeply in love with women. However, my many investigations and extended conversations with filmmaker Dan Griffen reveal that McCullers only made one claim to consummation with a woman. She told her gay cousin Jordan Massey that she had had
one night with Gypsy Rose Lee, with whom she shared a collective house in Brooklyn.
But wouldn’t we all make that claim? She never shared this information with anyone else, which was very much out of character for her. I have come to understand that McCullers was not gay. If she were alive today, she would probably be classified as transgender. She would also be in AA and on anti-depressants and therefore would have been better positioned to live past fifty.
Sarah Schulman, New York City
First Gay ‘Novel’ Sets Arbitrary Limit
To the Editor:
The question of “the first gay novel,” which was raised in the Nov.-Dec. issue 2014 and revisited in a survey in the GLR newsletter, is not as cut-and-dried as it
appears at first glance. I would argue that the theme of homosexual love, which can even be a religious or spiritual quest in some ages, transcends any particular genre and must be seen in the larger scope of Western literature.
Homoerotic themes appear to have developed as a theme starting with our first accounts of storytelling. They can be found in the works that many of us read as our first literary experience, Mark Twain’s accounts of the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, which also include the former’s escapades with Jim. There’s a sense in which the “first gay novel” can be interpreted as the first such book that any individual reads—the book that first exposed him or her to the possibility of same-sex love.
Homer’s Iliad may well have set the stage via the love of Achilles for his companion Patroclus in what seems to be a homosexual affair between the two heroes. Achilles’ emotional response upon seeing his lover dead sends a fury through his bones as Achilles swears revenge. That ancient Greece had its share of homosexual themes in storytelling is scarcely news to GLR readers. Here’s how Plato said it in the Symposium: “If there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city.” Going back even further in time, anyone who has read the poetry of Sappho will recognize a figure who by present standards would be an out-of-the-closet lesbian.
Leaving the ancient world, we have to travel all the way to the Renaissance to find any positive depictions of homosexual relations (notwithstanding Chaucer’s satirical portrayal of a homosexual bond between the Summoner and the Pardoner). Both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were probably “gay” by today’s standards, especially the latter, who wrote the following unambiguous lines of poetry:
My lover stole my heart, just over there
—so gently!—and stole much more, my life
And there, all promise, first his fine eyes
on me, and there his turnabout meant no.
He manacled me there; there let me go;
There I bemoaned my luck; with anguished
watched, from this very rock, his last
as he took myself from me, bound for who
Certainly I’m not arguing that a vote for E. M. Foster or James Baldwin as author of the first gay novel is in error. My point is that by reading and writing about same-sex love today, we are invoking a muse that is also eternal. It’s clear to me that a homosexual muse among artists and writers has been present since our first accounts in human history. To show that this gay muse also takes shape in many works in contemporary genres, such as the novel, thus comes as no surprise. I would even include works such as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund, and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, all of which develop homoerotic themes as an experience with different levels of psychological intrigue that may be narcissistic, erotic, or spiritual.
If gay writing is inspired by an eternal muse, then pegging the first gay novel may be a fool’s errand, as this muse (like any other) has found its way into a wide range of forms throughout literary history. Trying to identify “the first” might do an injustice to earlier writers, or writers in other genres, who developed their work while inspired by the same intention, namely to craft their experience of homosexual love.
Robben Wainer, New York City
How Religious Dissent Is Stifled
To the Editor:
You raise an important point in your BTW column [Jan.-Feb. 2015 issue] when you say that Facebook’s suppression of ads for the book The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision illustrates “the peculiar immunity of religious ideas from the free speech protections that apply to every other realm of life.” Traditional religious ideas do get enshrined and exempted from the usual rigors of public debate. But what about alternative religious ideas?
Far from receiving “peculiar immunity,” Christians like me who believe that Jesus may have been queer find our sincerely held religious idea is suppressed as “anti-Catholic,” “blasphemy,” “offensive,” or even “hate speech.” The debate often gets framed as if our religion is nothing more than free speech that desecrates religion. Meanwhile our religious images and texts are deprived of customary protection granted to mainstream religions. Overtly LGBT-positive religious images and ideas tend to be silenced or ridiculed.
LGBT-affirming Christians have had to put up with garbage, and aren’t we religious too? A powerful example is included in this same issue of The GLR: the 1973 photo of Rev. Troy Perry standing in the rubble of the burned-out Metropolitan Community Church in L.A., where he had dared to preach God’s love for all people, including sexual minorities.
To give you an update on this story, Facebook eventually reversed its decision and “resurrected” the ads following pressure from the LGBT media and the rank-and-file community.
Kittredge Cherry, San Francisco