Remembering Three Who Made a Difference

Published in: March-April 2024 issue.

WE CONTINUE here a G&LR tradition, namely Martha E. Stone’s annual tribute to notable LGBT people who died during the previous year. But rather than try to do justice to the many noteworthy individuals who left us in 2023, let me focus on three who were figures of national importance and renown: Minnie Bruce Pratt, Ned Rorem, and Charles Silverstein—all three of whom contributed to this magazine at various points over the years. Please note that this issue also includes an obit for Amber Hollibaugh, and previous issues have run expanded obits for Michael Denneny, Doris Grumbach, Robert Patrick, and Urvashi Vaid.

Ned Rorem, who died on November 18, 2022, at the age of 99, was an American composer whose œuvre includes operas and orchestral works, though he was best known for his songs, of which there are over 500. While not a fan of Modernism and atonal music—he assailed its exponents as the “serial kill-ers”—his music was highly inventive in its own right. For example, his Air Music, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1976, limited each movement to a specific combination of instruments. His best-known opera was a 2005 rendition of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Of his three numbered symphonies, the Third, from 1958, is still performed.

            Unlike many composers, Rorem was also a wonderful writer, producing treatises on music history and an impressive output of memoirs. We may wrestle with the question of whether instrumental music can be “gay,” but Rorem’s writings remove all doubt and provide an amazingly honest account of the life of a sexually active gay man long before Stonewall, much of it spent in Paris as a young man before his return to the U.S. in 1957. The books of memoirs spanned forty years, starting with Paris Diary in 1966 and ending with Facing the Night in 2006. (The title of his Final Diary of 1974 proved premature.) For all his sexual explorations, he spent most of his adult life with his partner James Holmes, with whom he lived in New York City and Nantucket.

            In the year 2000, Ned Rorem wrote three original articles for The G&LR—quite a coup for this magazine!—which ranged across a huge swath of musical history and culture. The subheadings of the first essay make this point: “What does Music Mean?”; “Music and Politics”; “American Song at the Millennium”; and “Aaron’s Songs at the Centennial.” The second essay, titled “Music and Society,” considered the position of women and minorities in classical music and the state of composition at that time. Among the many issues covered in the third essay is a meditation on whether a “gay sensibility” can be discerned in music and the other arts.

Minnie Bruce Pratt, known primarily as a poet, left us on July 2, 2023, at the age of 76. She was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1946—two facts that underscore the accident of time and place. First, she came from the Deep South—Selma, no less—and all that that implied for a middle-class white girl growing up in the Bible Belt, albeit one who was destined for college and a life far away from there. Second, she was an early Boomer who came of age in the era of antiwar protests and countercultural tides and especially feminism and LGBT liberation, two movements of the 1970s that greatly influenced her life and work.

            That was the decade in which Pratt came out as a lesbian and left her husband and two children to pursue a career as a writer and activist. In 1977, she cofounded WomanWrites, a conference for feminist writers, and, in 1984, she cofounded LIPS, a lesbian affinity group based in Washington, D.C. Her first book of poetry, The Sound of One Fork, came out in 1981, followed by several others, including Crime Against Nature in 1990. She also wrote a steady stream of essays on issues of gender, same-sex love, and LGBT liberation. Her 1995 book S/HE explored her intense, twenty-year relationship with novelist Leslie Feinberg (Stone Butch Blues).

            A poem by Pratt that ran in The G&LR (March-April 2007) is about a suburban married man who carries on a secret gay life in the city, which begins: “Nail polish off, PATH jacket on, he’s ready to leave behind/ the clothes that fit his secret self, the people who know him weekends.” Her poem in March-April 2004 mourns the loss of gay men to AIDS, switching the focus from the U.S. to Africa, where she sees an “Anglo-American/ conglomerate chief executive watching men’s bodies piled/ on one side of the scales, the price of gold rising on the other.”

Charles Silverstein, who died on January 30, 2023, at the age of 87, was a psychiatrist who became an activist after the Stonewall Riots and used his professional standing to make a difference when it counted. In the early 1970s, homosexuality was still listed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, which sanctioned the use of cruel and invasive methods for “curing” homosexuals. Dr. Silverstein was among a handful of professionals who spoke out against the APA’s position, notably at a 1973 national conference that became a watershed for change. By the following year, homosexuality had been delisted from the APA’s all-important Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

            Of the many books that he published, the first was co-authored with Edmund White: The Joy of Gay Sex, in 1977, an illustrated guide to sexual positions and possibilities. His other books include Man to Man: Gay Couples in America (1982) and Gays, Lesbians and Their Therapists: Studies in Psychotherapy (1991). In 1976, he was the founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Homosexuality, the first scholarly journal on this topic in the U.S., which is still going strong.

            Dr. Silverstein was a friend of this magazine who occasionally offered advice and counsel on psychiatric issues. He was interviewed for the March-April 2012 issue, whose theme was LGBT psychology, in a piece titled “Stopping the Madness.” In it, he discussed the strategies that allowed a small group of gay psychiatrists to shame the APA into ending its policy of stigmatizing LGBT people as mentally ill. In later years, he helped guide the APA to a position of actively opposing “therapies” aimed at changing people’s sexual orientation.