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The recent New York Times front-page headline "Scientists Say Gay Change Is Possible" left me somewhat bemused.
The election this March of an openly gay Mayor of Paris--the Socialist Bertrand Delanoë--would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That's one reason the American edition of Frédéric Martel's The Pink and the Black (it appeared in France five years ago) is so pertinent: It's the first attempt at a history of the modern French gay movement, without whose achievements the victory of Delanoë would not have been possible. It all began on March 10, 1971. Radio star Ménie Grégoire was moderating her enormously popular chat show before a live audience in Paris's famous Salle Playel. The broadcast's theme that day: "That Painful Problem, Homosexuality," with experts from law, medicine and the Catholic Church. Suddenly interrupting some priestly condescensions, a group of homosexual women rose from the audience, yelling, "It's not true, we're not suffering! Down with the heterocops!" The lesbians stormed the stage, and the control room cut off the microphones and switched to recorded music. The militants' message: "Homosexuals are sick of being a painful problem." The Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR), and with it the modern French gay movement, had been born.
The youthful activists who formed the FHAR had their political coming-of-age in the turbulent student-left rebellion of May 1968 that turned into a nationwide general strike in all walks of life, a gigantic outpouring of social protest against the suffocating atmosphere of de Gaulle's France. And while the young far-left soixante-huitards ('68ers) were initially hostile to "supposedly bourgeois homosexuality," as Martel writes, the May rebellion "contained, in embryo, all the ingredients of sexual liberation, for which it was a dress rehearsal." While the FHAR was initiated by women, it quickly admitted men as "objective allies."
One of the first men to join the FHAR was Guy Hocquenghem, who rapidly became the nascent movement's undisputed star. Hocquenghem's political itinerary was fairly typical of the soixante-huitards. After an "apprenticeship" in the Union of Communist Students when he was a brilliant philosophy student at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he was a leader of the National Union of French Students and--rejecting the heavy-handed Stalinism of the French Communist Party--became by turns a Trotskyist and then a Maoist. By the time of the FHAR's founding he was a prominent member of Vive la Révolution (VLR), a libertarian split-off from the orthodox Maoists that was led by Roland Castro (later a prominent architect and adviser to French President François Mitterrand on urbanism).
After joining the FHAR, Hocquenghem proposed that it put together a special issue of Tout!, the VLR's newspaper, which he coordinated. In the issue, 50,000 copies of which were published in April 1971, were articles titled "Our Bodies Do Belong to Us," "The Right to Homosexuality and Every Sort of Sexuality," "The Right of Minors to Freedom of Desire and Its Satisfactions" and, most important, "Let's Stop Cowering in the Corner." Martel records that "thus the theme of coming out appeared for the first time in France.... The FHAR, 'a saw for cutting up reality in a different way,' in Hocquenghem's expression, had found its slogan."
All this became a public scandal when the Interior Minister had Jean-Paul Sartre, who had lent his name to Tout! as editorial director, indicted for "public indecency" and "pornography"; police seized 10,000 copies of Tout! and the vice squad raided its offices. In the end Sartre, and the gay liberationists, won in court, a stunning victory against the justice system.
The FHAR's general meetings, held in the amphitheater of the École des Beaux Arts, grew rapidly from fifty people to a hundred, to a thousand, and they "marked a momentous time in the history of the evolution of mores in France. They got homosexuals talking," Martel writes. In this heady atmosphere, its air perfumed by hashish smoke, the "militants put revolution into practice: they invented cruising relieved of its furtiveness, and, moving through [the school's] hallways...or on the upper floors and in the attic, they experimented with Fourier's 36,000 forms of love."
In January 1972 Hocquenghem, by then teaching philosophy at the University of Vincennes and already moving away from VLR, published a historic and much-discussed article--"The Revolution of Homosexuals"--an autobiography-cum-manifesto in Le Nouvel Observateur, the influential mass-circulation left-wing weekly; and by the end of the year he'd produced Homosexual Desire, the first theoretical work by an avowed homosexual in France. The book influenced a whole generation of gay liberationists in Europe (and when brought out in the United States two years later by Schocken Books, many American gay intellectuals as well). The FHAR, which had strong anarchist tendencies, imploded by the end of that year, as its meetings were overwhelmed by those who came only for sex, not debate. But Hocquenghem--with his "angelic beauty," his assured platform performances and his gifted pen--had become, as Martel puts it, "a hero," "for many...the one who had 'liberated homosexuals'" and "the emblem of homosexuality in France."
The FHAR was not the first organization of French queers. Arcadie was an austere "homophile" review founded in 1954 by an ex-seminarian, André Baudry; as it gained subscribers, it gradually became a discreet movement, a kind of secretive homo Freemasonry dominated by ultramontane Catholics. Baudry preached "sublimating one's sexual and emotional orientation into asceticism," and he opened Arcadie's parties and dinners with sermons attacking homosexuals who cruised parks and toilets. It was supported by the likes of Jean Cocteau and the right-wing novelist and diplomat Roger Peyrefitte; its members included lawyers, magistrates, military men and government officials--all deeply closeted. But it did conduct the first dialogue with mainstream politicians on behalf of same-sexers and was not without influence. Martel's chapter on Arcadie, "Down with Daddy's Homosexuality" (a FHAR slogan), is fine gay historiography.
One of the few prominent leftists to join Arcadie was Jean-Louis Bory. A member of the French Resistance who fought in the Orléans forest in World War II, in 1945 Bory won the Prix Goncourt for his first novel at the age of 26. A socialist, Bory signed the famous appeal of the 121 writers and intellectuals calling for resistance to France's repressive war in Algeria in the 1950s. Over the years he published a series of novels in which "the latent homosexuality of his characters became increasingly clear," and in 1973 he wrote an unambiguous confessional autobiography. A year before the FHAR's founding Bory had "participated in the first mass-audience radio broadcast" on homosexuality, on which "he rejected any idea of a 'homosexual movement' but defended the fight for freedom, declaring that he was obviously a homosexual and a 'model citizen,' and that the two were necessarily linked in his mind." Bory mistrusted the radical aggressive visibility championed by Hocquenghem, but as a fixture on radio and TV in the 1970s he championed the homosexuals' "right to indifference." In 1977 Bory and Hocquenghem jointly published a book in which they outlined their differing views, later summed up by the philosopher René Schérer, Hocquenghem's friend and mentor: "[Bory] was living within the logic of Arcadie and was fighting for integration and tolerance, whereas Guy always insisted on marginality: he wanted integration with exceptionality, integration within marginality."
Exhausted by his role as the "responsible left's" gay spokesman, Bory committed suicide in 1979. Hocquenghem left organized politics altogether and became well known as a journalist, essayist, novelist and broadcaster, teaching all the while. Since Martel makes him such a central figure throughout the book, it's unfortunate there is no more than a cursory and often reductionist presentation of his thought (for an overview in English, see Bill Marshall's Guy Hocquenghem: Beyond Gay Identity, from Duke University Press).
I have emphasized the early years of French gay politics because they are so little known here, but there's much more in Martel's book, which--dare I say it?--doesn't miss a trick. There are chapters on the changing loci of gay male cruising and gay nightlife; a rich chapter detailing the history of lesbians, whose struggle for identity was primarily within the women's movement, not the gay movement; on the ultimately successful effort to repeal the various laws criminalizing homosexuality, of which France was free from the French Revolution (as of 1793) until Vichy; on the rise and fall of the weekly Gai Pied and other organs of the political gay press; on the contribution gays made to the victory of François Mitterrand and the Socialists in 1981--and their subsequent disillusionment; on the retreat from militancy in the 1980s, the triumph of gay commercialism, the gay ghetto.
But the most impassioned chapters in the book are devoted to AIDS. Martel writes that in the early '80s, gay intellectuals, militants, organizations and the gay press were largely in denial about the threat of AIDS. Even the association of gay doctors was in denial. After Michel Foucault died of the disease in 1984, his partner of twenty-three years, Daniel Defert, and a group of friends launched the association Aides, with two goals: prevention education and care for the sick. The heroic loneliness of Defert and his colleagues as they battled the epidemic is as moving as the refusals they met with in the gay world are appalling. Why was organized gay life in France virtually last in Western Europe to respond effectively to AIDS? The sociologist Michel Setbon has argued that "AIDS as a problem specific to homosexuals placed [gay] organizations on the horns of a dilemma that was painful, if not impossible, to address," given the state of medical knowledge at the time: "Either adopt the epidemiological definition of AIDS as a 'gay cancer' and risk being stigmatized, or deny its reality and avoid homophobia."
The analytical theses at the end of Martel's book, which were widely criticized in the French gay press, may remind American readers of the attacks on the gay movement emanating from the Independent Gay Forum, the network of conservative gay intellectuals founded by the likes of The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan and the National Journal's Jonathan Rauch. Moreover, a condescending bitterness creeps into Martel's tone when writing about liberationist militants, which his assimilationist and reformist politics do not fully explain. When I raised this with Martel, he told me that one of those to whom he dedicates the book, at the time his 18-year-old lover, had been "infected with HIV by a militant." Pity he didn't tell his readers.
I lived in France for much of the '80s and knew a number of the people in this book--Hocquenghem was a valued friend--and find serious factual errors in Martel's work. He writes that Hocquenghem "refused to be tested" for AIDS and "reportedly learned he was HIV-positive only after he was already ill. He supposedly even refused...to be monitored medically." These unsourced statements are entirely false, as Guy's lover and literary executor, the journalist Roland Surzur (who took the test with him), confirmed to me. Martel attacks Hocquenghem for blindly writing as late as September 1985, "How can we believe in a medical establishment that discourages us, that announces nothing but contagion, that marches only to the tune of fear and despair?" These words appear shocking--unless one knows they were written two months after Hocquenghem tested positive, which gives them an entirely different meaning. The first group to emerge from the gay community to fight the epidemic was not Aides, as Martel writes, but Vaincre le Sida, founded by an ex-FHAR activist, Dr. Patrice Meyer. I've discovered other errors and inexactitudes too numerous to list here. Many of those Martel attacks are no longer here to defend themselves; Hocquenghem died of AIDS in 1988.
I think Setbon's view is the right one: Fear of homophobia was the principal cause of AIDS denial in France. But Martel believes the fault lies elsewhere: with "identity politics." He doubts "the advisability of building a political community of homosexuals" and calls for an abandonment of "communitarianism." Yet he was hired as a counselor on gay issues by two Socialist governments precisely because the community, and the gay vote, had become important. And in a democracy, all electoral politics is, to one degree or another, based on the politics of identity.
In the late 1970s, the legendary Socialist Gaston Defferre--mayor of Marseilles for decades and his party's onetime presidential candidate--took a number of real and symbolic steps in favor of same-sexers. Asked to explain this, the leader of the city's organized gays later said, "Defferre's success came from the fact that he always had his Armenians, his Greeks.... When there got to be queers, he had his queers." To get so big they try to co-opt you is half the battle; the other half, harder, is to resist.
I have long embraced the proposition that homosexuals are different from everyone else except in bed--it is oppression and fear that makes them so. Martel insists that "we must do our best to make 'homosexuality' a meaningless term, a word with no relation to reality. Only ever-changing individuals must remain." A noble sentiment--but I'm afraid I think that day is further away, much further away, than he does.
Will Paris become the first large city in France (indeed, the first major city or national capital anywhere in the world) to elect an openly gay candidate as mayor--the Socialist Bertrand Delanoë? Beyond that question, highly symbolic for same-sexers everywhere, the two-stage Paris elections, which take place on March 11 and 18, will have far-reaching consequences. If the left succeeds in winning the City of Light for the first time ever, that could presage a national victory in France's presidential and legislative elections, to be held in May 2002.
The right has maintained hegemony in Paris since the first municipal elections in 1977, when Jacques Chirac--then president of the neo-Gaullist RPR--led the right to victory. He remained mayor of Paris until his election as President in 1995, when he dictated the selection of his successor--the current mayor, Jean Tiberi, Chirac's first deputy mayor for nearly two decades.
But the unbroken succession in this city, dominated for the past twenty-four years by la droite chiraquienne (the Chirac conservative majority), has suddenly and dramatically deteriorated following an avalanche of financial and electoral scandals. Mayor Tiberi is at the center of accusations concerning, among other things, the secret financing of political parties through a highly organized system of corrupt rakeoffs and kickbacks on contracts, filling the electoral rolls with phantom voters, illegally allocating low-rent apartments in city-owned housing (reserved for the economically disadvantaged) to political cronies and the families of elected officials and giving hundreds of no-show municipal jobs to full-time workers for the RPR and its campaigns. These scandals now threaten to undo Chirac himself, a danger underscored by the recent arrest of Chirac's former municipal chief of staff.
Aside from the scandals, the right's management of the city has also been sharply criticized. Paris is in danger of becoming a city-museum: Rents have skyrocketed, and the lack of subsidized housing for low- and middle-income families has forced many of them to move to less costly suburban developments with onerous commutes. While tourism continues to increase, Paris has serious air pollution and has not modernized or improved its public transportation or its noncommercial recreation facilities (especially for the young, hardest hit by unemployment).
All this means the left has an excellent chance of winning the municipal elections. Its leading candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (number two in Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government and the man in charge of the French economy), was forced to withdraw and lost his ministry after being tainted by yet another money scandal. After much internecine maneuvering, Jospin's Socialist Party finally settled on Delanoë. A little-known senator at the time of his designation, with a reputation as an unimaginative apparatchik and Jospin loyalist, Delanoë chose to make his homosexuality public during a 1998 television appearance. His matter-of-fact manner in coming out made few waves at the time, but since then he has enjoyed the media's favor, and--thanks to the Ubuesque situation in which Paris's right finds itself--his popularity has steadily increased in the opinion polls. And he has secured the endorsement of all the smaller parties in Jospin's "plural left" coalition, including the Communists (except for the Greens, who are nonetheless expected to support Delanoë in the second round of municipal voting). Within the city's sizable gay population, Delanoë has broad support, all the more so because, in contrast to his right-wing opponents, he has been a supporter of the pact of civil solidarity (PACS) for unmarried couples. Passed by the left-controlled National Assembly in 1999, the PACS recognizes and gives a large number of social and fiscal rights to domestic partnerships, whether homo- or heterosexual.
The conservative RPR, recognizing that Tiberi was politically bankrupt, dropped him as its mayoral candidate in favor of Philippe Séguin, a former party president and minister under Chirac. But even though Séguin is an RPR heavyweight with a reputation for intellectual honesty, his rigidity and independence (in the past he's feuded with Chirac) render him unsuited for the kinds of concessions necessary to unify the fractious Paris right. Meanwhile Mayor Tiberi, despite being disavowed by the RPR, has maintained his candidacy for re-election as an independent and is running a slate of candidates for City Council. In addition, the two extreme-right parties are running their own slates.
Delanoë's ambitious campaign proposals include making Paris "a model of democracy" (through the creation of neighborhood and youth councils and an official forum for civic organizations, the institution of referendums by petition and, above all, a guarantee of "real financial transparency" in government); building 5,000 new low-income and student housing units a year; ending the policy of "autos first" by building a new tramway to encircle Paris, creating 300 kilometers of new bus lanes, more car-free zones for pedestrians, cyclists and roller skaters, and improved river transport on the Seine; providing more daycare centers and facilities for the aged and handicapped; and doubling the city's cultural budget. He also promises halfway houses for gay kids rejected by their parents, giving gay organizations equal access to the subsidies the city already provides to civic groups, creating a new gay archive/research center and waging aggressive city-sponsored campaigns against antigay discrimination and AIDS.
However, even if Delanoë wins, as now seems probable, giving Paris back its former demographic mixture and improving its quality of life--especially for those of modest means--won't be easy, given a city budget that has been fiscally unsound for many years. Moreover, Delanoë's personal shortcomings continue to raise doubts, including on the left: Can a party workhorse with no management experience, nominated almost by default for his mayoral post, innovatively lead the first city of France?
Still, changing the political control of Paris--and ending what Le Nouvel Observateur has dubbed "the corrupt Chirac-Tiberi system"--is a top priority, one that could lead to the right's (and Chirac's) defeat next year. And if this permits one of the world's greatest cities to elect a mayor who is openly gay, why not gamble on his success? Frédéric Martel
Does The Marshall Mathers LP--in which great white hip-hop hope Eminem fantasizes about killing his wife, raping his mother, forcing rival rappers to suck his dick and holding at knife-point faggots who keep "eggin' [him] on"--deserve Album-of-the-Year honors? This is the question before members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), who have, since nominating Eminem for four Grammy awards, received unsolicited advice from a bizarre constellation of celebrities, journalists and activists ranging from Charles Murray to British pop singer (and Eminem collaborator) Dido.
Bob Herbert of the New York Times took the opportunity to deplore not just Eminem's lyrics but the entire genre of rap music for "infantile rhymes" and "gibberish." In a more nuanced report, Teen magazine asked, Eminem: angel or devil? and discovered that 74 percent of teenage girls surveyed would date him if they could. The Ontario attorney general even attempted to bar Eminem from entering the country for violating the "hate propaganda" section of the Canadian Criminal Code.
But the most vociferous and persistent criticism of Eminem has come from an odd combination of activists: gay rights groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and family-values right-wingers like James Dobson's Focus on the Family. They all argue that Eminem's album threatens not only the objects of his violent lyrical outbursts but also, in GLAAD's words, the "artist's fan base of easily influenced adolescents who emulate Eminem's dress, mannerisms, words and beliefs."
In the face of all this attention to Eminem's "hate speech," even the usually taciturn NARAS is doing some public soul-searching. The academy's president, Michael Greene, recently said, "There's no question about the repugnancy of many of his songs. They're nauseating in terms of how we as a culture like to view human progress. But it's a remarkable recording, and the dialogue that it's already started is a good one."
As I have been forced to sit through all this Eminem-inspired hand-wringing over the physical and psychological well-being of faggots like myself, I've wondered just how good that dialogue really is. For one thing, so much of what has been said and written about Eminem has been political grandstanding. For example, Lynne Cheney, not usually known as a feminist, singled out Eminem as a "violent misogynist" at a Senate committee hearing on violence and entertainment. Eminem's lyrics, she argued, pose a danger to children, "the intelligent fish swimming in a deep ocean," where the media are "waves that penetrate through the water and through our children...again and again from this direction and that." Pretty sick stuff. Maybe it comes from listening to Marshall Mathers, but maybe it's the real Lynne Cheney, of lesbian pulp-fiction fame, finally standing up.
GLAAD, for its part, argues that Eminem encourages anti-gay violence, and it has used the controversy over Eminem's lyrics to fuel a campaign for hate-crimes legislation. While GLAAD and Cheney have different motives, both spout arguments that collapse the distance between speech and action--a strategy CatharineMacKinnon pioneered in her war against pornography. Right-wingers like Cheney and antiporn feminists like MacKinnon have long maintained such an unholy alliance, but you would think gay activists would be more cautious about making such facile claims. After all, if a hip-hop album can be held responsible for anti-gay violence, what criminal activities might the gay-friendly children's book Daddy's Roommate inspire? Because the lines between critique and censorship, dissent and criminality, are so porous and unpredictable, attacking Eminem for promoting "antisocial" activity is a tricky game.
Thankfully, GLAAD stops short of advocating censorship; instead it asks the entertainment industry to exercise "responsibility." GLAAD launched its anti-Eminem crusade by protesting MTV's heavy promotion of Marshall Mathers, which included six Video Music Award nominations and a whole weekend of programming called "Em-TV." After meeting with GLAAD representatives in June, MTV's head of programming, Brian Graden, piously confessed, "I would be lying to you if I didn't say it was something we struggled with." Liberal guilt aside, MTV nonetheless crowned Eminem with Video of the Year honors and then, in an attempt to atone for its sins, ran almost a full day of programming devoted to hate crimes, starting with a mawkish after-school special on the murder of Matthew Shepard, called Anatomy of a Hate Crime, and concluding with a seventeen-hour, commercial-free scrolling catalogue of the kind of horrific and yet somehow humdrum homophobic, misogynous and racist incidents that usually don't make it into the local news.
Perhaps understandably, Eminem's detractors still weren't satisfied, but given the fact that Eminem is one of the bestselling hip-hop artist of all time, what exactly did they expect from MTV and the Grammys but hypocrisy and faithless apology? And what do they really expect from Eminem--a recantation? Does anyone remember the homophobic statements that Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and Marky Mark made a decade ago? Point of fact: Marky Mark revamped his career by becoming that seminal gay icon, the Calvin Klein underwear model, and Bach, long blond locks still in place, recently starred in the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde. All of which just goes to show, if hunky (and profitable) enough, you can always bite the limp-wristed hand that feeds you.
Meanwhile, the dialogue among Eminem's fans has been equally confusing. Some, like gay diva Elton John (who's scheduled to perform a duet with Eminem at the Grammys) and hip-hop star Missy Elliot, praise Eminem's album as hard-hitting reportage from the white working-class front. They argue that his lyrics are not only excusable but laudable, because they reflect the artist's lived experiences. This is, as London Guardian columnist Joan Smith pointed out, a "specious defence." Should we excuse Eminem because he is, after all, sincere? Should we ignore his own genuinely violent acts--like pistol-whipping a man he allegedly caught kissing his wife? Others, like Spin magazine, have defended him as a brilliant provocateur. Far from being about realness, they argue, Marshall Mathers is parody, a horror show of self-loathing and other-loathing theater, a sick joke that Eminem's fans are in on. They point to how he peppers his rants with hyperbole, denials and reversals, calling into question not only the sincerity of his words but also their efficacy. For example, he raps about how he "hates fags" and then claims he's just kidding and that we should relax--he "likes gay men."
I don't know if Eminem really likes gay men, although I'd sure like to find out. What is clear from listening to Marshall Mathers is that he needs gay men. When asked by MTV's Kurt Loder about his use of the word "faggot," Eminem said, "The lowest degrading thing that you can say to a man when you're battling him is to call him a faggot and try to take away his manhood. Call him a sissy, call him a punk. 'Faggot' to me doesn't necessarily mean gay people. 'Faggot' to me just means taking away your manhood." Of course, using the word "faggot" has this effect only through its association with homosexuality and effeminacy, but there, really, you have it. Homosexuality is so crucial to Eminem's series of self-constructions (he mentions it in thirteen of eighteen tracks) that it's hard to imagine what he would rap about if he didn't have us faggots.
Eminem is, in his own words, "poor white trash." He comes from a broken home; he used to "get beat up, peed on, be on free lunch and change school every 3 months." So who does he diss in order to establish his cred as a white, male rapper? The only people lower on the adolescent totem pole than he is--faggots. This strategy of securing masculinity by obsessively disavowing homosexuality is hardly Eminem's invention, nor is it unique to male working-class culture or hip-hop music. Indeed, Eminem's lyrics may be more banal than exceptional in the way they invoke homophobic violence.
Marshall Mathers reworks the classic Western literary trope of homosexuality, which manifests itself as at once hysterical homophobia and barely submerged homoeroticism. It reflects the kind of locker-room antics that his white, male, suburban audience is well acquainted with. So too were Matthew Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and the perpetrators of the hate crimes MTV listed (who were, not so incidentally, almost all white men), and, for that matter, the Supreme Court, which recently held in the Boy Scouts' case that homophobic speech is so essential to boyhood that it's constitutionally protected. Herein may lie the real brilliance of Eminem as an artist and as a businessman. In a political culture dominated by vacuous claims to a fictive social unity--tolerance, compassionate conservatism, reconciliation--he recognizes that pain and negativity, of the white male variety in particular, still sell.
So does Marshall Mathers deserve Album of the Year? Well, I probably wouldn't vote for it, but if it does win, that would be perfectly in keeping with Grammy's tradition of rewarding commercial success. And where might a really good dialogue on homophobia, violence and entertainment begin? It might look at why The Marshall Mathers LP proved to be so pleasurable for so many, not despite but rather because of its violent themes. It might start by seeing Eminem not as an exception but as the rule--one upheld not just by commercial entertainment values but by our courts, schools, family structures and arrangements of public space. As Eminem says, "Guess there's a Slim Shady in all of us. Fuck it, let's all stand up."
We have many male authors known for loving women, fewer known for loving men. Love that is not overtly homoerotic--resolutely heterosexual, in fact--can take on an intimacy and purity untroubled by sex, even if still troubling for its intensity, its incoherence and frequent confusion, violence or aggression, its exclusionary quality. And so it is no surprise to find it so often in novels of war, or the military. In the last half-century American practitioners of this form have included Heller and Mailer, Ward Just, Tim O'Brien and, perhaps most overlooked, James Salter, who is interested in more than the camaraderie among men in uniform but also its inverse as well, the case of the solitary, perhaps a newcomer breaking in. Here is his description of the fighter pilot Robert Cassada from his new novel of that name:
It was his beauty, of course, a beauty that no one saw--they were blind to such a thing.... By beauty, nothing obvious is meant. It was an aspect of the unquenchable, of the martyr, but this quality had its physical accompaniment. His shoulders were luminous, his body male but not hard, his hair disobedient. Few of them had seen him naked, not that he concealed himself or was modest but like some animal come to drink he was solitary and unboisterous. He was intelligent but not cerebral and could be worshipful, as in the case of airplanes.
"They" and "them" are his colleagues, the men of a fighter squadron stationed in Germany in the 1950s. The men--Dunning, Isbell, Wickenden, Godchaux, Phipps, Dumfries, Ferguson, Harlan, Grace--lead restless, incurious, exalted lives, flying every day in the skies above Western Europe, waiting for the conflict that never comes. So conflict comes from within and among the men, who are arrogant, competitive, bored, cussedly suspicious yet trusting, too. They are not alike. Major Dunning is a Southerner and former college football star; Harlan is a rustic, an overgrown farm boy. Wickenden, or "Wick the prick," Cassada's nemesis, was "born in the wrong century. The cavalry was what he was made for, riding in the dust of the Mexican border with cracked lips and a line edged into his hair from the strap of a campaign hat." Cassada is from Puerto Rico, which leads Harlan to wonder what he's doing in the US Air Force. "Puerto Rico's part of the United States," replies Godchaux.
"I don't know. A long time."
"I must of missed hearing about it."
The banter may not recall Catch-22--while sharp, it is seldom witty--but Salter's particular genius is for the inexpressive man. He saves his tenderest regard for Cassada, about whom there is "an elegance...a superiority. You did not find it often." It is perhaps his gravest mistake, for to a reader with less invested in the project, Cassada is the least present, most flattened out, of all the men, the one who never steps out of the page despite being so beautiful or unforgettable as all that. Cassada, which is a revision of an early, out-of-print novel, The Arm of Flesh, should instead be titled Isbell.
In interviews Salter has dismissed The Arm of Flesh as a "failed book," and he says the same in his preface to Cassada. Admitting that the new venture might be "a mistake," he cites "the appeal of the period, the 1950s, barely a decade after the war; the place, the fighter bases of Europe; and the life itself." Cassada, then--in words that I have seen repeated in every notice--is "the book the other might have been."
I think in fact it is the same book, although better turned out for some crucial changes. The Arm of Flesh is a novel in alternating voices--seventeen altogether--some of which are hard to figure out, others appearing only briefly, even once. Several could be cut entirely, as their narrative distracts from the general thread, which is about the ordeal of two pilots (one whose radio is out) trying to make it home in terrible weather, while interspersed are episodes from lazy days on base and elsewhere. Cassada is told in the third person, but the structure is much the same--if the two books are laid side by side, one sees in Cassada a succession of loose little chapters that more or less correspond to an individual voice's narrative in The Arm of Flesh. Major Clyde is now Dunning. Lieutenant Sisse from the earlier book does not appear at all in the second. In The Arm of Flesh Cassada never speaks with his own voice. In both works his words are reported to us through the perspective of others; and so he is always at least once, often twice, removed from a reader.
"Something was usually beginning before the last thing ended." This is Isbell, and the words seem to me to be the key to the book. Cassada is a new arrival at the wing in Giebelstadt, but the rivalries, the ennui, the excitements of a life in the air, at speed, have been going on as long as men have been assembled to fight. Salter, who was a pilot himself in Korea--with the advantage, unlike many of the pilots in Cassada, of actually having seen combat--has written of this elsewhere, in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir Burning the Days. A pilot, it seems, becomes obsessed with doing something remarkable, with being remembered and spoken about even after he's gone. "In the end there is a kind of illness," Salter writes in his memoir. "A feeling of inconsequence, even lightness, takes hold. It is, in a way, like the earliest days, the sense of being an outsider. Others are taking one's place, nameless others who can never know how it was." Cassada is driven relentlessly to prove himself; his immediate commander, Wickenden, thinks he has a death wish. Isbell, who grows to love Cassada, acknowledges his own part in stirring him up. "It was true [he] had sometimes opposed him. It had been essential to. It was part of the unfolding." Earlier we have learned of Isbell's mysticism, his sense of his role among the men as "biblical." "It was the task of Moses--he would take them to within sight of what was promised, but no further. To the friezes of heaven, which nobody knew were there."
In this kind of outfit, Cassada never stands a chance. It is he who is one of the pilots in trouble as they try to reach home. The other is Isbell. The bond between the two is the strangest in the book, yet critical to its success. I don't think Salter has convinced us that it is true. Isbell is decent, perceives Cassada's isolation; pencils himself in to fly with him once, on an early morning training mission over Germany. It is a matchless day, the kind fliers dream of. They hardly speak.
The earth lay immense and small beneath them, the occasional airfields white as scars. Down across the Rhine. The strings of barges, smaller than stitches. The banks of poplar. Then a city, glistening, struck by the first sun. Stuttgart. The thready streets, the spires, the world laid bare.
Afterward Isbell's body is "empty," his mind "washed clean." Cassada asks about a city they flew over, Ingolstadt. "It's not as great as it was this morning," Isbell replies.
"You could say that about everyplace," he commented.
It was true, Isbell thought, exactly. He felt a desire to reply in kind. It was not often you found anyone who could say things.
It is worth reprinting Salter's original language from The Arm of Flesh. The speaker is Isbell:
"The whole world's like that," he said.
A chance remark that entered my heart. I didn't know what to say. Suddenly he was not what he seemed--as wise as a schoolboy who knows sex--he was entirely different. Yes, I thought. The whole world is. And early we rise to discover the earth. I felt a sudden desire to bequeath him my dreams, to offer them up. All of the searching is only for someone who can understand them.
This seems to me rather better, nearly perfect, in fact. While terseness can suggest all the things that must remain unspoken in life, a writer striking at the essence of character must occasionally open himself up, like a pilot his engines. Earlier in the same passage, in The Arm of Flesh, we have the measure of Isbell that is stripped from its revision in Cassada--excitable, aroused, ready for risk: the risk of loving a fellow flier: "We stealthy two. Streaming like princes. Breathing like steers," he thinks while aloft. Over Stuttgart:
Watch out, Stuttgart. Watch out. We're at God's empty window. We can see everything. The thready streets. The spires. It's all apparent. We can stare through the roofs. Right into the first cups of coffee. Your warm secrets, Stuttgart. Your rumpled beds.
None of this is in Cassada. None of it says much about Cassada, but it says everything about Isbell. The end of the chapter is the same in both books, except for the following sentences from The Arm of Flesh: "He could have told me what he was going to be. I might have believed him." And later on, when the two men's mission has met its tragic end, a lengthy Isbell monologue is sharply cut, in which his obsession with Cassada again comes to the fore: "There is so much I almost told him. I can't understand why I didn't. I was waiting for something, a word that would fall, an unguarded act." Of course, there are no unguarded acts from the embattled Cassada, but more surprising is the sense--retained in Cassada--that the young pilot actually had something to say. Both versions ascribe uniqueness to him, the phrase "the sum of our destinies." Yet Cassada doesn't even pretend to understand Isbell in those moments when their communion is said to be greatest: "You amaze me, Captain.... We're talking about two different things. I don't know. I just don't understand, I guess."
In Burning the Days--the eponymous chapter of which, thirty pages long, is a true anticipation of the story told in The Arm of Flesh and Cassada--Salter invokes briefly a pilot named Cortada: "He was from Puerto Rico, small, excitable, and supremely confident. Not everyone shared his opinion of his ability--his flight commander was certain he would kill himself."
And that's it for Cortada. Another cipher, with too much in common with Cassada to be a coincidence. Salter has kept the story of both men to himself, which is why a reader turns more attentively to the lonely and appealing Captain Isbell, standing between the men and Major Dunning. It is no surprise, of course. Failing to attach ourselves to the protagonist for whom the book is named, we look elsewhere, and find our longing met in the author's substitute.
The end of Cassada is beautiful. It is only four pages. Isbell and his family are leaving Germany; they are on a train along the Rhine, his daughters rambunctious, his wife solicitous, Isbell alone with his thoughts, which include Cassada. For the first time he senses himself as the romantic figure readers have seen all along, joining the ranks of the eternals, "the failed brother, the brilliant alcoholic friend, the rejected lover, the solitary boy who scorned the dance." Isbell is Salter; and one turns to Burning the Days, where the author takes his own solitary farewell to the flying life:
When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment--deeper than anything I had known--to all that had happened. I had come very close to achieving the self that is based on the risking of everything, going where others would not go, giving what they would not give. Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too reliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.
"I would have given anything, I remember that," Salter adds, remembering the pilot's terror ("none of it mattered"), including separation from his leader. Isbell mouths nearly those words in remembering a Cassada who "stands before him, fair-haired, his small mouth and teeth, young, unbeholden." In Burning the Days Salter recalls a beloved figure from West Point who fell in the war: "He had fallen and in that act been preserved, made untarnishable. He had not married. He had left no one...he represented the flawless and was the first of that category to disappear."
Reading Salter's memoir, or recollection, as he prefers to call it, one senses that much of his life has been a mourning. The list of the dead is long and unfolds over pages and pages--many are pilots, men Salter flew with--and it becomes easy to see what he hopes is evident from his preface to Cassada: "the fact that it was sometimes the best along with the worst pilots who got killed." All of Salter's novels--including The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years--are beautiful elegies in which a survivor tries to go on, somehow make sense of it all, knowing the task is futile but that perhaps peace can be achieved. Why should his memoir be any different? Cassada will take a few hours to read, in which time there is exquisite suspense, some lovely sentences, a tender portrait of a hero--Isbell, I still believe, not Cassada--and a lot of shoptalk about flying. But the flying talk is better, more exactly described and sustained, more rapturous--"exalted," to use a favorite Salter word--in Burning the Days, and the memoir has the advantage of tracking the two held-apart strands of Salter's emotional life--the chaste love of men, the unsatiable desire for women--more closely than is possible for a book about fighter pilots. The following sentence sounds like Isbell recalling Cassada, but in fact it's Salter standing in the wreckage of all who have died: "You are surviving, more than surviving: their days have been inscribed on yours."
In their hunger to take back the White House, the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons have swallowed the mellow prose of Texas scripted for them by George W.'s handlers--but at the state level, the antigay hate campaigns of the Christian right are picking up steam. "In 2000 there have been and are more gay-bashing initiatives on the ballot than ever before," points out David Fleischer, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force organizer for state and local politics.
In Nevada, an amendment to the state Constitution banning same-sex marriage, backed by the Southern Baptists (who have pledged $1 million to pass it) and the Mormon Church, won 60 percent approval in the latest polls. In Nebraska, an even worse measure bans civil unions and even legal status for domestic partnerships, which threatens benefits afforded to same-sex couples by private companies doing business there (like Qwest and Wells Fargo). In Maine, the Christian Civic League (a Gary Bauer spinoff) and the Christian Coalition are spending heavily to defeat ratification of a gay civil rights law already passed by the legislature. The progay forces are woefully underfunded in all three states.
But the most critical battle is in Oregon, which has seen forty antigay initiatives (four statewide, the rest local) in the past twelve years. This year's Measure 9 is a viciously broad version of the "no promo homo" amendments Jesse Helms has been trying to pass in Washington for years: It bans public school "instruction of behaviors relating to homosexuality and bisexuality...that encourages, promotes or sanctions such behavior." Sponsored by professional antigay crusader Lon Mabon and his Oregon Citizens Alliance--who were behind the previous referendums--this thought-police measure would have a devastating effect on the ability of the state's schools and colleges to teach about HIV or antigay discrimination and menaces the livelihood of openly gay teachers. Mabon makes it quite clear: He has said that the measure is designed to defund "any place that there is a cultural diversity program or multiculturalism or AIDS education [in which] homosexuality is presented as being normal and acceptable.... Any AIDS education like what occurred at Portland State University or at the local level could not be done. Any speakers that come in, if they are homosexuals, they could not stand up in front of a class or an assembly and talk about a pro-homosexual lifestyle."
Mabon-sponsored referendums aimed at banning civil rights laws protecting gays were defeated in 1992 and 1994, but it will not be so easy this time. In previous years the gay-bashing measures were the only controversial ones on the ballot, and a broad-based progressive coalition fought back effectively; this year, there are twenty-six different ballot questions, and the official guide mailed to every voter is 400 pages, the size of a telephone book. Moreover, there are seven other initiatives of major concern to progressives: two antilabor "paycheck protection" measures; three on tax and budget cutting; and two anti-environmental proposals.
"It's very shrewd of the right wing," says Paddy McGuire, who ran the Clinton campaign in Oregon in 1992 and 1996 and is now chief of staff to the secretary of state. "For $100,000 you can put damn well anything on the ballot--9 is the only one of these measures where signatures were mostly gotten by volunteers, while the others were gathered by paid workers at $1.50 a signature. It's going to take around a million bucks to defeat each one of them--that's $5 to $6 million we won't spend to elect progressives to office." The strategy to sap progressive energies through referendums was the brainchild of Bill Sizemore, the 1998 Republican candidate for governor. Sizemore has turned his strategy into a lucrative business: He runs Oregon Taxpayers United--which is funded by wealthy GOP conservatives and the oldtime timber barons and fronts for the ballot measures--and on the side he runs a signature-collection firm that rakes it in for petition drives.
"We're stretched thin," worries Josh Kardon, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden's chief of staff. "The governor [liberal Democrat John Kitzhaber] is tied up fighting off the two measures aimed at his budget. Wyden's tied up trying to raise money for state legislative races--we're in spitting distance of taking back one or both houses. Because we're so diluted, trying to explain in a short time why Measure 9 is bad for kids is going to be tough."
All the more so because "we have less than half the staff the campaign that defeated the 1994 antigay referendum had, when they spent $1.7 million," says No on 9 campaign manager Kathleen Sullivan; by mid-September the group had raised only $300,000. Both the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council are putting major resources into 9's passage. The No campaign does have strong support from the PTA as well as the state AFL-CIO, whose president, Tim Nesbitt, points to "an alliance between Lon Mabon and paycheck protection, which the OCA has endorsed." As the state's leading Democratic pollster, Lisa Grove, points out, "Passage of 9 would have implications beyond Oregon--if they can win here, they'll try it elsewhere." Money for TV ads is desperately needed. To contribute, make out checks to: No on 9, PO Box 40625, Portland, OR 97240; or log on at www.noon9.org.
Let's give up some applause for Dick Cheney for affirming in deed, if not words, that homosexuality is perfectly consistent with traditional family values. The decision for a Republican candidate for the vice presidency to have an avowed homosexual at his side through virtually every hour of his campaign is a bit risky. It means taking on the forces of intolerance on the right wing of his party, a wing that at one time included Cheney and, more prominently, his wife.
However, now that Cheney has granted his lesbian daughter a major role in his campaign, is it not time for the candidate to distance himself from a Republican platform that would deny equal rights protection to all homosexuals? Evidently homosexuals can be reliable workers, and it should be illegal to discriminate against folks like Mary Cheney simply because of their sexual orientation.
"I think of her as sort of my aide-de-camp," candidate Cheney said in paying tribute to his daughter Mary in an interview last week with the New York Times: "She keeps all the paper flow coming to me; everything sort of funnels through her. More than that, she knows me. She has no qualms about telling me when she thinks I'm wrong, or when I need to do something. Mary will always come in and lay it right on me. My experience over the years is that's invaluable in a campaign. Everybody wants a good relationship with the candidate--not everybody will level with you. Mary levels with you."
One would accept such excellent skills to be valuable to any employer not biased by prejudice against gays. Yet anti-discriminatory laws are needed precisely because not all employers have had the opportunity to learn from their own offspring that homosexuals are indeed normal people.
Given that Mary Cheney is proving so valuable in the campaign, would Cheney, the person who'd be next in line to become commander in chief of the armed forces if George Bush wins, still stick to his oft-expressed view that homosexuals not be allowed to serve in the military? Would his daughter be more inclined than heterosexuals in the military to undermine morale by acting in indecorous ways?
The Republican platform declares that homosexuality is "incompatible" with military service and even stands "united" with the Boy Scouts in that organization's avowed policy of excluding gays. Does Dick Cheney believe that the Girl Scouts are amiss in not following the example of the Boy Scouts, and would he be in favor of excluding his own daughter from playing a role in that organization?
These questions are not intended to be cute or to pull the candidate's chain. They go directly to the hypocrisy in which we treat homosexuals as dangerous freaks unless we happen to be friends with, or related to, one.
Ignorance is the essential ingredient in hate. Dick Cheney probably didn't know his daughter was gay when he compiled one of the most viscously anti-gay voting records in Congress. He was one of only 13 representatives in 1988 who voted against funding for AIDS testing and research at a time when that was conveniently thought to be an exclusively gay disease, and one of only 29 that same year to vote against a Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
Perhaps he would vote differently now that his daughter, whose judgment he trusts in all important matters, has determined that she is indeed a homosexual. Should a woman of such sound thought and strong moral principles not be the best judge of her essential sexual nature? Or should we continue to be guided by the bigotry of legislators and religious proselytizers? It is still against the law in Texas to perform homosexual acts; does Mary Cheney have to retreat to Colorado to legally make love?
Yes, it would be best if such decisions could be left in the private realm, as the Cheneys now ask in refusing to discuss their daughter's sexuality. But it's too late for such niceties because the hate-mongers and their respectable allies in the Republican Party have for decades exploited homosexuality as a hot political issue. It is they who have thwarted every legislative effort to grant to homosexuals the same rights afforded all other citizens.
One can understand why Mary Cheney does not now want to become a poster woman for gay rights. But she is, by her father's witness, living proof that being gay is perfectly compatible with leading a moral, public-spirited and fully enriched family values life. She is a role model that even the political right might be forced to respect.
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