Edmund White | Critical Review by Paul Bailey

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Edmund White.
This section contains 2,308 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Edmund White with Ryan Prout

Critical Review by Paul Bailey

SOURCE: "Gay, Straight and Grim," in Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 1980, p. 964.

In the following review, Bailey discusses White's States of Desire, and how the book deals with the issue of bigotry against homosexuals.

I was living in America when Anita Bryant, a mediocre warbler of what are known in the music business as "inspirational" songs, began her campaign against male homosexuals in Dade County, Florida. In the spring of 1977, Bryant and her followers, united under the banner "Save Our Children", convinced the citizens of that clean, well-lighted place that they had several devils in their midst—in their schools, to be precise. As a result of Bryant's efforts, an ordinance which granted homosexual men and women certain basic freedoms was chucked out in the polling booths by an overwhelming majority. Later that year, similar ordinances were abrogated in Eugene, Oregon, Wichita, Kansas, and St Paul, Minnesota.

No less a person than the Almighty, it was revealed (on television, on radio, and in innumerable magazines and newspapers), had called upon this chanteuse of the chapel circuit to rescue the youth of America from the evil attentions of those hordes of limp-wristed pedagogues. God had spoken it seemed, and she was but obeying His instructions. I wondered at the time, and am wondering still, at the amazing limitations of the Holy Father's omniscience as revealed to Miss Bryant. Hasn't He heard about lesbians? Does He really believe (wrong word—know) that homosexual school teachers are interested only in seducing their charges? Is He unaware that heterosexual women indulge in fellatio? Has the diligent Linda Lovelace toiled in vain?

Anita Bryant's dangerous opinions have been widely disseminated throughout the United States. Her much-publicized antics have had an effect, however, that she probably never took into consideration when she laid her plans in the early days of 1977. She could not have known then of the success awaiting her nor that it would cause the homosexuals of America to unite in a way that they had not been united in before. She rapidly became the most conspicuous of the many public enemies of those she chooses to call perverted, and her position remains unchallenged in 1980; the dumbest hick in Hicksville is acquainted with her every utterance, her every move.

Edmund White's notably sane and sensible book is a response to the preachings of Bryant and her kind. States of Desire recounts how White travelled across America in search of people who would talk to him openly and honestly about the quality of their lives. He found them in Texas, in Oregon, in Kansas, in Georgia. He even found them in Salt Lake City. It was there, in the shade of the Mormon Tabernacle, that he chanced upon a man lacking those attributes of sanity and common sense so refreshingly apparent in the majority of the men he interviewed. "Harris" as White calls him, is visited by the Angel Michael, who tells him things that are distinctly at odds with what God tells His friend Anita.

Michael has let it be known to "Harris" that God first created woman in man—in Adam, prior to the departure of his rib. This creature is The Homosexual.

Harris's great secret is that gays make up the lost tribe, the holy 144,000 who are superior to straights: the elect. God, who needed to hide his true people, put them under the yoke and has made them suffer over the centuries. But soon Armageddon will come and the gays will conquer the straights (among whom the Mormons are especially evil). After the battle has been won, gays will be quickened and will live here on earth in bliss—all the gays who have ever existed. A few of the gays will go to heaven. The straights will all be damned.

You only have to read the Bible properly, "Harris" asserts, to discover the truth of Michael's message:

Christ and his disciples were all gay … Jacob was gay, Esau straight…. When the Lord tells Rebekah that "Two nations are in your womb" (Genesis 25:23), He is referring to the straight and the gay…. When Christ says in Matthew 19:5, "The two shall become one flesh," he is referring not to straight marriage but to the androgynous homosexual body….

This sad, deluded human being lives chastely, out of fear that a heterosexual, "a son of Satan", masquerading as a homosexual, might tempt him into bed: he would then be "infected by evil" and would lose the chance to lead his brothers to victory in the coming cataclysm.

Edmund White writes about "Harris" with sympathy and tact. He is a shrewd questioner and an expert listener, a respecter of individuality. Unlike some of the men he questioned and listened to, he does not find it necessary to sit in judgment on his fellows. While in San Francisco, he visited David Goodstein, who publishes The Advocate, a magazine which contains a large number of advertisements from hustlers, as well as articles on Isherwood, Genet, and other notable writers and artists. Goodstein sounded off to White on the subject of Castro Street, in the heart of San Francisco's gay ghetto:

The Castro Street group is a really rough culture. Their relationships are brief, they don't work but live off welfare, they hang out like teenagers, they drink too much, they take too many drugs, they fuck day and night, they are scattered—and of course radical politically. They act like kids in a candy store…. I oppose the gay obsession with sex. Most gay men have their lives led for them by their cocks. In return for ten minutes of pleasure they design the rest of the day.

It's alarming stuff, as White points out, coming from the owner of a paper that encourages male prostitutes to list their attractions in its pages. White goes on to say that he is always suspicious of those who denounce others for having too much sex. "At what point", he asks, "does a 'healthy' amount become 'too much'?"

Goodstein's notion that homosexual men are obsessed with sex is echoed, more elegantly, by Alfred Kazin in his autobiography New York Jew, when he expresses disgust for the gay life of his beloved city. (What was he thinking of when he was, as he confesses, following girls with pretty asses through the streets of Manhattan—Kafka?) Kazin's intolerance upsets me because he has been on the receiving end of intolerance himself, and knows where ignorance and bigotry lead. He must understand, as benighted Southern Baptists like Anita Bryant do not, that most homosexuals do not choose their desires. He must appreciate, as a man of imagination, the misery experienced by people who consider their feelings to be natural, but who are castigated by society when they try to satisfy those feelings.

On the evidence of States of Desire, Edmund White is the ideal person to challenge Alfred Kazin, James Dickey, Norman Mailer, and the other fag-haters of the American intelligentsia. What he demonstrates in his book is that there are many homosexuals who find it possible in spite of all the obvious difficulties, to function ordinarily and positively in parts of America not noted for their acceptance of gayness in any of its manifestations. He is splendidly and necessarily critical of those of his own kind who, in the service of a dubious masculinity, accuse the effeminate of betraying the gay cause. Their bogus butchness he regards with dismay—that aggressive hairiness, that determined maleness, has little to do with being a man. Men can afford to be feminine, to be vulnerable. They do not have to be seen, as it were, displaying their credentials. They do not need to flex imaginary muscles.

Edmund White has reason to feel dismayed by aggressive machismo. He writes of his Texan father:

What he wanted in a son was someone brave, quiet, hardworking, unemotional, modest. I can remember once travelling to Mexico with him after I'd spent a year with my mother; I embarrassed him by being a know-it-all and by admiring the cathedrals with too much enthusiasm. He drew me aside and said, "A man doesn't say I love that building, he says I like it. Don't talk with your hands…." He also told me that I should never wear a wristwatch, smoke a cigarette, or put on cologne—those were all sissy things. Men have pocket watches, smoke cigars, and wear witch hazel.

Edmund White is pleased to admit that he has been a sissy. His honesty about this aspect of his character, as indeed about others, is to be commended. He refrains from doing a whitewash job in order to satisfy sympathetic liberals. He even writes in defence of the men who frequent leather bars, who work out their sado-masochistic fantasies with obliging partners. These men, he argues, do not ignore the violent nature of much sexual activity. By releasing the violence in private, they are free to present to the outside world a peace of mind, a serenity, denied to the inhibited and repressed. White's argument makes sense to me. The lineaments of gratified desire are not restricted to the missionary position. How humane Mrs Patrick Campbell was when she observed that homosexuals were perfectly all right so long as they did not perform in the street and frighten the horses. The fulfilled fantasists are frightening no one but themselves. It is not only the horses who are safe with them.

If I have a serious criticism to make of States of Desire, it is that in its entirely admirable determination to stress that homosexuals are succeeding in living well in the United States, it somehow contrives to ignore the thousands who are not. I am thinking of the poor blacks and hispanics in the big cities, the comparatively fewer poor whites. I recall a visit I paid two years ago to a gay bar in the shabbiest district of Oakland. The drinkers there, who included a pair of frantic hustlers, had desperation in common. The laughter was hysterical, and unnerving. Suddenly, a large, powerfully built black entered, and immediately launched into an aria of hatred against the police. "Those bastards have stole my husband", he shrieked. "They've run him in because they want to ball with him." The aria proceeded, becoming more explicitly obscene as he related each indignity his lover had endured. The words "my husband" were repeated constantly. Baldly accounted for, the scene sounds ridiculous, and indeed it did veer on the farcical—yet the man's lament was genuine; it had about it the urgency, the panic, the confusion of unbearable pain. James Baldwin has described such unhappiness, since from childhood he has been a frequent witness to it.

And I am thinking of those men and women who take their lives. In the rich and conservative state of North Dakota, where I lived for three years, there are frequent suicides—mostly married men in their late twenties and early thirties. The strain of having to conform, of having to play the role of devoted husband and doting father, causes them to accept death as the only possible solution to their problems. I met the parents of a young man who had killed himself. Their grief was unendurable because, had he told them, they would have supported him. But he could not tell them.

While living in North Dakota I took part in a forum on homosexuality. The other speakers included a psychiatrist from New York, and a lesbian counsellor and social worker from San Francisco. All who were involved felt that they were opening doors, helping to banish ignorance and prejudice, and—it was to be hoped—rescuing some distressed young people from possible self-destruction. My only regret is that I announced, with I suppose a certain smugness, that Britain was at last displaying tolerance and understanding towards homosexuals, that the bad old days were gone for good.

I was wrong—or, at least, not totally justified in my confident assertion. Since the unmasking of Anthony Blunt, a new wave of hysteria has broken out: the hoary cliché about homosexuals being untrustworthy has been expressed in a hundred different ways. The editor of The Times has entered the lists with a lengthy homily on the decline of the family. The News of the World has recently demanded of its reporters that they act as agents provocateurs at the YMCA hostel in Bloomsbury—no doubt they were young and handsome, not the usual flabby Fleet Street soaks. In the Sunday Express Sir John Junor has described a distinguished living writer as a "nancy", a word much favoured by the bigoted. And a serious magazine, the Spectator, has seen fit to publish an article, by Richard Ingrams, of unequalled odiousness, in which the satirist compares the long-lasting relationship between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to the anti-semitism of Richard Wagner. Britten's music is now diminished for Mr. Ingrams as a result of his discovery that Britten was gay.

"Gay", in fact, is a word that Britten would never have used about himself. It is not one that I care to use either—for reasons other than pedantry. Life is, by and large, a fairly grim business, for everybody, and terms like "gay" and "straight" tend to trivialize what should be grave concerns. Still, I appreciate why the word is used, and why it has—in its new form—taken its place in the language. Edmund White uses it confidently and proudly, with no apologies for its limitations. It contains a great deal of information about life in America, about those hundreds of good and decent human beings who are surviving in the face of superstition and intolerance. One final, niggling observation: White refers to the bigoted as "homophobes", who practice "homophobia", but doesn't "homophobia" mean "fear of the same"? It is a fear, a morbid and unhealthy fear, of difference, of a deviation from an obligatory norm, that such people suffer from. They are the truly diminished, and the diminishers.

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This section contains 2,308 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Edmund White with Ryan Prout
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