Once a month or so during the 1970s, I had dinner at Joe LeSueur’s teeny East Village apartment. Dinner was all gay guys, crammed into a little living room. Allen Ginsberg (living nearby) had nailed the issue in an elegy for the poet Frank O’Hara when he wrote of his gift for “deep gossip.” That was the lingua franca of the after-dinner dish sessions at LeSueur’s, bleary data dumps that were actually history lessons, full of information passed only by word of mouth, because the subjects were too marginal or the material too outré.
Yet most of the gossip concerned literary history, or the messy lives and under-the-radar goings-on of gay male poets, novelists, and playwrights. My ears tingled as I learned that W.H. Auden’s lover, Chester Kallman, would step out many nights to walk to the piers on the West Side to have sex with sailors; that Christopher Isherwood was a “chicken hawk” and portraitist Don Bachardy a California teen when they met.
Referring to life, Omar Khayyám was accurate enough about the moving finger writing and, having writ, moving on. But then sometimes there’s the afterlife, when someone snaps open a laptop and writes down a facsimile of what the finger wrote. This reaction time between the life and gossip and its codification as history has been attenuated for gay writers. But proof that this speakeasy is now officially closed for business and open for museum gazing is Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. As Bram’s subtitle promises—and these lives from Vidal through Kushner deliver—gay lib began as a literary movement; the aesthetic was always political, too.
Published 20 years before Stonewall, Gore Vidal’s still-edgy novel The City and the Pillar counted as politics-by-other-means simply by being about the life of a gay man. And just two weeks later appeared Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. Following critical sniping at their first novels, Vidal and Capote retreated, and gay lit with them, to more discreet, coded work. Next up in the mid-’60s was the logically ensuing debate over whether commercially successful plays, such as Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, were truly about gay characters camouflaged in straight bodies.
Bram dates the popularization of gay fiction to Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story in 1982. Calculatedly come-lately, mainstream publishing houses soon signed their own midlist gay authors. The upshot: openly gay poetry, fiction, and theater began garnering the same bling as straight—Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours won a Pulitzer Prize.
The irony is that the march of progressivism that has allowed for Bram to publicly archive this frisson of literary gossip means some of its darker luster is already an intangible. Arguing its current relevance, he goes on to trace kinky sex acts in Sex and the City to Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, the mix of gay and straight characters in Ugly Betty to James Baldwin. Stoned-around-the-edges nostalgia aside, Eminent Outlaws is the next (last?) step in reporting on literary lives that traces back to the gay dinner parties of yore. Few would have it any other way.