IN AND OUT OF THE CLOSET
Gay New York is essentially a work of retrieval. In it Chauncey seeks to recover the lives and lifestyles of those gay men whose past has been hidden from history, whose culture has been forgotten and in part erased or distorted. One of Chauncey’s central claims is that the common idea that same-sex desire was necessarily a solitary, secretive longing that could not be given public expression is a myth, and a relatively recent myth at that. True, queer behaviour was parodied, proscribed and policed, but, in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century at least, it was by no means confined to the closet. The open portrayal of gay men and women on stage in such Broadway plays as Edouard Bournet’s The Captive or in comedienne Mae West’s work is just one sign of the extent to which homosexuality had come to be taken for granted in the city, leading the state legislature to pass the repressive ‘Padlock Law’ in 1927 in an attempt to outlaw this kind of subject matter, although allusions to homosexuality continued to appear in Broadway productions such as Noёl Coward’s Design for Living (1933). During these years drag balls were hugely popular events in New York and were held at major public venues like Madison Square Gardens, Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom or the Astor Hotel. Indeed, anti-gay measures like the Padlock Law were deliberately intended to roll back the increasing visibility of the gay subculture, particularly by targeting the social milieux where gay men and women socialized. After 1933, for instance, it became an offence for gays to gather in licensed public places like clubs or restaurants.
As a result of this legislative onslaught, homosexuals were forced to go underground, to cut themselves off from the mainstream of city life, and to exercise much more care and discretion about the ways in which they presented themselves — in other words, to enter the closet. The growing use of the term ‘gay’ as the most common synonym for ‘homosexual’ was related to this new experience of segregation for it presupposed a rigidly divided world in which heterosexuality was the norm. In the space of a generation ‘the lines had been drawn between the heterosexual and the homosexual so sharply and publicly that men were no longer able to participate in a homosexual encounter without suspecting it meant (to the outside world, and to themselves) that they were gay’ (Chauncey 1994: 22). This had not been true of ‘queers’ or ‘fairies’: these were contrasting, sometimes transitory, gendered personae or styles based upon an individual’s sense of himself as masculine or feminine rather than his choice of sexual partner.
Men who regarded themselves as queer could be intensely hostile to the more effeminate fairies. William S. Burroughs’ early writings are a good example of this frequently aggressive attitude. In a 1955 letter to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, for instance, Burroughs condemns those he calls ‘complete swish fairies’ and wishes to see them all dead, not merely because they are ‘traitors to the cause of queerness, but for selling out the human race to the forces of negation and death’ (Burroughs 1994: 298). Burroughs’ murderous invective shows not only the continuing survival of the older gendered vocabulary alongside the new, more capacious rhetoric of gayness; it also indicates some of the tensions arising from the policing of the closet and a fear and hatred of those self-endangering forms of public display that grated against the boundaries of heterosexual normalcy. As an antidote to the repressiveness of the American scene, Burroughs tended to idealize the sexual liaisons that occurred on his visits to South America and North Africa, applauding the uninhibited ease with which the ‘average, non-queer Peruvian boy’ will ‘go to bed with another male’ and underplaying the cash basis of this type of sexual tourism (Burroughs 1994: 176).
Many of the gay men interviewed in Gay New York regarded the 1930s as a relatively unthreatening time when compared to the virulent campaigns against them in the aftermath of the Second World War. The crude homophobia featured in bestselling crime novelist Mickey Spillane’s work, ranging from the punches and cold water thrown at gay men in I, the Jury (1947) to the depiction of transvestism as the most monstrous symbol of evil in Vengeance Is Mine! (1950), is symptomatic of the worst literary excesses of this period. But other texts from the 1950s provide more complex manifestations of this homophobic impulse. Robert J. Corber has recently shown how the films of Alfred Hitchcock echoed contemporary panics about the threat to national security arising from the presence of gay employees in the US federal government. In his 1951 film adaptation of the novel Strangers on a Train, for instance, Hitchcock significantly moves the narrative’s locale from New York and Connecticut to Washington DC and, by portraying the criminal Charles Bruno as a homosexual, dramatizes the widespread fear that straight men who became entangled with gays were likely to find themselves the victims of blackmail. Moreover, Bruno’s pathology is identified through one of the major medical explanations of same-sex eroticism prevalent in the 1950s: his homosexuality is a form of ‘arrested sexual development’, ‘an unresolved Oedipus complex’ stemming from an emotional overdependence on his mother (Corber 1993: 72). In one shot we even see her manicuring Bruno’s nails.
From the other side of the homophobic divide, so to speak, perhaps the most troubled and troubling American representation of homosexuality from within the closet is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1957). Despite the success of his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room was turned down by Baldwin’s American publishers because they were afraid that the book would make him known as a black homosexual writer. It was only taken up in the United States after having initially appeared in England. Giovanni’s Room is the story of a young white man’s struggle with his desires as he looks back at the devastating consequences his irresolution has had upon the other people in his life. At first the narrator implies that it is the sheer complexity, the disordered multiplicity of his passions that leads him to betray himself and the men and women who have loved him. ‘I am too various to be trusted,’ David confesses by way of explaining why ‘the great difficulty is to say Yes to life’ (Baldwin 1990: 11). But more is at stake than a failure of commitment, for David’s self-interrogation takes place under the shadow of his lover Giovanni’s impending execution for murder.
In a crucial passage, David queasily describes the gay bar, ‘a noisy, crowded, ill-lit sort of tunnel’, where he was introduced to Giovanni. Or, more precisely, he describes its clientele, ‘les folks’:
Occasionally one would swoop in, quite late in the evening, to convey the news that he – but they always called each other ‘she’ – had just spent time with a celebrated movie star, or boxer. Then all of the others closed in on this newcomer and they looked like a peacock garden and sounded like a barnyard. I always found it difficult to believe that they ever went to bed with anybody for a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them. Perhaps, indeed, that was why they screamed so loud.
(Baldwin 1990: 29-30)
Superficially, this description resembles the anathematization of the ‘fairy’ that we found in Burroughs’ early writings and elsewhere in the novel David expresses disgust at the ‘fairy’s mannerisms’ that he sees Giovanni starting to adopt (139). But David’s desire lacks any point of lasting affirmation and his denial, condemned by Giovanni as an inability to love, is the product of a complex set of displacements, terrors that he scarcely knows how to articulate. For, on the one hand, David both hates and fears women, often remembering or positioning himself as a vulnerable small boy in their presence; while, on the other, the love that he can never fully acknowledge is a love of black men: the brown-skinned Joey who was his first lover or the ‘insolent and dark and leonine’ southern Italian barman Giovanni (31). This gives a special tone to Giovanni’s final accusation that David cannot embrace the physicality of the other, that he wants ‘to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love’ (134). And so, at the end of the novel, when David tries to visualize Giovanni’s murder of the bar-owner (‘a silly old queen’) who has dismissed him, the scenario that David imagines is coloured by his own curiously involuted homophobia. The ‘blackness’ that ‘comes and goes’ before Giovanni’s eyes brings to mind the ‘cavern’ that opens in David’s mind, ‘black, full of rumor, suggestion, of halfheard, halfforgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words’, after he has slept with Joey (14, 146—7). Lucidity and self-hatred go hand in hand here: the more David sees, the more he is trapped by a revulsion at his own deepest desires.
Baldwin’s own views about homosexuality provide an instructive counterpoint to Giovanni’s Room. In an early essay on the gay French author Andre Gide written in 1954, for example, Baldwin sought both to transcend the reduction of homosexuality to mere sexual behaviour, whether natural or not, and at the same time to insist that the division of the world into ‘two sexes’ was an unavoidable fact with which everyone must in some way come to terms, ‘no matter what demons drive them’. What Baldwin saw as the compulsive promiscuity of gay life (‘a meaningless round of conquests’) ultimately seemed to him to be as dehumanizing as the superficial commodification of sexuality manifested by ‘the breasts of Hollywood glamour girls and the mindless grunting and swaggering of Hollywood he-men’ — not forgetting ‘the heroes of Mickey Spillane’. For Baldwin humankind’s greatest need was ‘to arrive at something higher than a natural state’, to strive towards the ‘genuine human involvement’ of love and friendship that must necessarily include ‘communion between the sexes’ (Baldwin 1985: 101—5).
Some thirty years later he was to push these ideas in a still more radical direction by arguing that our capacity for love had been wholly distorted by the false ‘American ideal of masculinity’ with its dead-end oppositions: ‘punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white’. To be called a faggot was to be ‘told simply that you had no balls’. Against this divisive and destructive logic, Baldwin argued that ‘we are all androgynous’ since ‘each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white’ (Baldwin 1985: 677—90). This formulation should not be confused with the old nineteenth-century notion of homosexuality as a ‘third’ or ‘intermediate sex’ in which male and female elements commingle in the same person. Far from being a special case, Baldwin identifies androgyny with the human condition per se. Indeed his essay, originally entitled ‘Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood’ (and subsequently re-named ‘Here Be Dragons’) was partly inspired by the gender-bending personae of performers like Boy George and Michael Jackson, figures who might be thought to play upon or externalize what is for Baldwin our unrecognized inner being. But the danger in Baldwin’s endeavour to deconstruct the category of homosexuality is that the very possibility, not to mention the value, of a specifically gay identity can all too easily be elided. Elsewhere Baldwin did speak of the need to bear ‘a kind of witness’ to ‘that phenomenon we call gay’; yet, as Kendall Thomas has shown, this insistence has often been ignored in some of the attempts selectively to lay claim to Baldwin’s cultural and political legacy since his death in 1987 (Thomas 1996: 56).
To move to the creative world of Andy Warhol is at once to enter a lighter, airier, apparently less serious domain, an oeuvre that seems deliberately to eschew hard moral judgments and to concern itself instead with style and pleasure. In that sense Warhol’s work is frequently closer in spirit to that of Boy George and Michael Jackson and indeed the Factory, Warhol’s New York production base in the 1960s, was a place that brought members of the worlds of art and pop together. To be sure, there was always a puzzling and much darker side to Warhol’s art: controversy still surrounds the possible meanings of his early Disaster Series from around 1963 — multiple images of electric chairs, race riots and car wrecks — and Warhol’s bleak 1981 series of Self-Portraits in drag remain among his most haunting and disturbing representations. But certainly in the 1960s Warhol’s name also quickly became a synonym for everything that was daring, outrageous, yet also fun.
One of the key terms deployed to make sense of Warhol’s art during this period was ‘Camp’. Like ‘drag’ or ‘queer’, the word ‘camp’ has a primarily gay provenance. At the turn of the nineteenth century it originally meant affected, theatrical or effeminate, and to say ‘how very camp he is’ was effectively to identify someone as a homosexual. While it retained this core meaning, by the 1960s the use of the term had broadened (and acquired a capital ‘C’) to signify a distinctive set of cultural preferences or a kind of taste, a highly aestheticized way of looking at things. Probably the single most influential account of this sensibility appeared in Susan Sontag’s 1964 ‘Notes on “Camp”’, an attempt to pin down some of the more elusive features of a contradictory phenomenon that seemed to resist systematic analysis. Sontag associated Camp with the artificial, the extravagant, the frivolous, the stylish, the playful. But the inherent complexity of these attributes means that none of them can be allowed to stand without qualification. For example, to say that Camp is typically ‘anti-serious’ is only half-true; rather, the serious element in Camp is always punctured by its own excesses; hence the paradox that in Camp ‘one can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious’ (Sontag 1966: 288).
While Sontag suggests that ‘homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of Camp’, she denies that there is any necessary or intrinsic connection, on the grounds that ‘if homosexuals hadn’t more or less invented Camp, someone else would’ (291). Yet one of her own most acute insights tells against this assertion. Early in her article, Sontag observes that Camp recognizes an ‘unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex’. This is why the figure of the androgyne is so highly prized by the Camp sensibility, but also why there is ‘a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms’: the overblown he-men and sex goddesses of the Hollywood film industry. In other words, Camp refuses to take at anything other than face value precisely those figures whom James Baldwin took to be symptoms of the modern American malaise. In Camp gender differences increasingly approximate to the condition of display or masquerade. Instead of looking for the inner truth behind appearances, ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks. . . not a woman, but a “woman” ’ (279-80).
Warhol’s preoccupation with fashion, image and glamour can be traced back to his childhood when he collected signed photographs of film stars and celebrities. But it was given added impetus during his formative, post-college years as a commercial artist hired by luxury department stores like New York’s Bonwit Teller and was then carried over into his paintings, films and, later, his journalism. Hence, among many others, the potentially unlimited repetition of silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn Monroe [Twenty Times], 1961) or Twenty-Five Coloured Marilyns, 1962) and Elvis Presley (Elvis 1, 1964). As in Warhol’s famous canvases of multiple Campbell Soup cans there is a provocative mixing of genres in these works. Publicity stills, product design and news photographs were absorbed into painting in such a way as to muddy the usually clear-cut distinction between consumer culture and high art. Moreover Warhol’s preferred techniques had the effect of foregrounding the constructed quality of the image: starting from photographs that he would first carefully modify or enhance, Warhol would prepare a coloured image on canvas and then overlay this with a silkscreen print that reproduced the details from the original photo; but the lack of perfect fit between canvas and silkscreen created a discordant sensation, as though the blocks of paint had been misapplied. Here gendered identity looks as if it has been poorly simulated or hastily assembled, an impression that is heightened by the garish and metallic colours Warhol used. In a sense, artifice and desire are being put into contradiction in the Marilyn Monroe portraits. ‘Marilyn’s lips weren’t kissable,’ Warhol once observed, ‘but they were very photographable’ (Warhol 1977: 54).
In the popular magazines of the period, the vocabulary of Camp allowed columnists to refer discreetly to Warhol’s gayness, or at least to label him as unconventional or eccentric in his cultural tastes. Reviewing his latest New York exhibition in December 1964, for example, Newsweek dubbed Warhol ‘Saint Andrew’ and placed him at the head of a ‘new hip world of blurred genders’ (quoted in Whiting 1997: 183). But this was just the beginning. As Warhol moved into film-making between 1968 and 1972, the gay content of his work became more overt (or one might say that his work became more Camp): his 1972 movie Women in Revolt! starred three transvestites in the lead roles playing ‘women in varying degrees of “liberation”’ and in 1975 Warhol produced a series of portraits of black and Hispanic drag queens called Ladies and Gentlemen (Warhol 1977: 54). Drag queens occupied an important place in Warhol’s imagination:
Among other things, drag queens are living testimony to the way women used to want to be, the way some people still want them to be, and the way some women still actually want to be. Drags are ambulatory archives of ideal moviestar womanhood. They perform a documentary service, usually consecrating their lives to keeping the glittering alternative alive and available for (not-too-close) inspection.
(Warhol 1977: 54)
Warhol was enormously impressed by the ‘very hard work’ required of ‘boys who spend their lives trying to be complete girls’, work which he saw as centrally concerned with the imitation of a fantasy — hence his droll one-liner on the paradoxes of desire: ‘I always run into strong women who are looking for weak men to dominate them’ (54—6). Nevertheless, according to the logic of Warhol’s position, drag queens are by no means an indispensable part of the show. For if drag queens were sometimes preferable to ‘the real girls we knew’ who ‘couldn’t seem to get excited about anything’, because ‘the drag queens could get excited about anything’, once ‘the girls seem to be getting their energy back’, then ‘real ones’ could be brought back into his movies again (Warhol 1977: 55). On this view, gender is very much a question of performance and gendered identity is largely a matter of whoever performs best, of who has the most style.
In her ‘Notes on “Camp”’, Sontag argues that the ‘flamboyant mannerisms’ associated with Camp are ‘gestures full of duplicity’, operating on two levels: ‘a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders’ (Sontag 1966: 281). Put like this, Camp can be read as an ostentatious strategy of dissimulation or concealment, a way of signalling that one is ‘passing’ among straights while simultaneously having the last laugh on them. But Warhol’s use of Camp was marked by a tendency to dissolve identity into a deceptive play of surfaces, cultivating a blank or disengaged persona that made the very idea of a self more elusive than ever. Reflecting on his visit to the Paris fashion shows in 1981, Warhol noted that ‘all the really straight-looking [male] models are gay, and all the really gaylooking models are straight’ and, after discussing this with a friend, decided to ‘start telling people that despite how we look and talk, that we’re not gay. Because then they don’t know what to do with you’ (Warhol 1989: 369). In Warhol’s hands Camp becomes more than an insider’s joke, it becomes an elaborate double bind in which to trap the unwary by both publicly flaunting and impassively denying his gayness at one and the same time.