White’s “My Lives”: Putting the Sex Back in HomoSEXuality
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
In the 1920’s, when foreign-born film directors Erich von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch were considered the best filmmakers at depicting decadence, Stroheim was asked what the difference between them was. “Lubitsch first shows you the king on his throne, then the king in his bedroom,” Stroheim responded. “I first show you the king in his bedroom, so you will know exactly what he is like when you see him on his throne.” Likewise, Edmund White’s autobiography, My Lives, plays fast and loose with the chronology of his life (as its title suggests) and tells quite a bit about his loves, hopeless crushes, sex partners and men who at different times were all three for him so that we will know exactly what he is like as a writer, personality and Queer celebrity.
Not that White has been reticent about describing his own life before, especially with emphasis on its sexual side. Indeed, he’s drawn so relentlessly on himself and his acquaintances, friends, lovers and tricks for material that one could argue the only difference between My Lives and the various books he’s published previously as “novels” is this time he’s using their real names. (At several points in My Lives he actually connects the people in his life with the characters he based on them in the works he presented as fiction.)
What makes My Lives a remarkable book and a must-read for every Queer male interested in the lifelong task of defining himself in relation to his sexuality is the breadth of White’s experience and the spectacular political and social incorrectness of his conclusions. White’s coming of age began in the 1950’s, when the orthodox view of homosexuality had inched forward from unspeakable sin to mental illness — and, like a lot of Queers of his generation, White ran through the usual gauntlet of psychiatrists seeking to “cure” him and turn him straight.
He’s hit virtually every major signpost of Queer history since, from the sudden emergence of “Gay liberation” out of the ferment of progressive and radical Left politics in the late 1960’s (it didn’t all happen at Stonewall, White concedes, even though his letter on the Stonewall riots was the first information many Queers outside New York City had about them); the mad whirls of sex, drugs and disco of the 1970’s; the sudden crash to earth with the advent of AIDS (White buys into HIV as the cause of AIDS and describes himself as “HIV positive” as though that meant something, though he also records that he’s been healthy for over a decade without anti-HIV meds); and the community’s current dull ache as its assimilationist leadership has given up sexual liberation as a goal in favor of joining the military, getting the legal right to marry and in general making our lives as conventional, confined and frankly boring as those of straight people.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a writer whose most significant previous pieces of nonfiction were The Joy of Gay Sex and a biography of Queer outlaw Jean Genêt (product of an arduous research process only complicated by White’s decision to undertake a book on a major French writer when he didn’t yet know how to speak French) defiantly proclaims his own sexuality, past and present, and rejects the sex-hating — or, more likely, sex-fearing — orthodoxy that has grabbed hold of the Queer community in the 21st century. The reviewers who haven’t liked White’s book have mostly zoomed in on the most explicitly sexual passages and particularly his descriptions of his partner’s penises (it does seem odd how often White uses the oddly clinical term “penis” instead of the bawdier Anglo-Saxonisms more common in Queer male writing) and the heartbreak he still feels in his 60’s when one of his thirty-something affair partners cuts him off:
“Here I am, way up in my mid-sixties, still suffering over young men just as I did in my teens and twenties. The spasms come less often and don’t last as long (knock on wood) but the still drive every other thought out of my mind. … Not long ago I was interviewed by a Gay magazine in Boston about the allure of physical beauty. In the next issue a disgusted reader wrote in to deplore that I, a sort of Gay “leader,” had lived so long and learned so little. Was I still mooning over mere physical beauty and scheming to get laid with cute boys? Had I obtained no inner serenity? Had I acquired no elder-statesmanlike dignity? Wasn’t it just a bit repellent that I took no pride in my accomplishments and could find no solace in my wisdom? Was I, in fact, wise? Or was I only one more shallow hedonist, one more unhappy old queen?”
What makes this account even more politically incorrect is that it kicks off a chapter called “My Master,” about the affair he drifted into with “a thirty-three year old actor-writer-director” whom he refers to only as “T,” with whom he had sadomasochistic sex for the first time (though neither of them seemed to take it anywhere nearly as seriously as the hard-core Leathermen of my acquaintance do). By this time White was already coupled with his current partner, Michael Carroll (a photo of him is the last thing we see before we close this book at the end), but not only didn’t that stop him from having the affair with “T.” it didn’t stop him from turning Michael into a confidant over its anguishes, anxieties and joys.
We’re not supposed to do this sort of thing anymore. We’re supposed to have grown up as a community and settled down into monogamous relationships. We’re supposed to think of Queerness in terms of who we love, not who we fuck. According to the “leaders” of our community, being Gay is supposed to be about love instead of sex. We’re not supposed to have sex — or if we do, we’re supposed to do so in the darkest recesses of the bedroom, carefully and quietly so we don’t disturb the kids we’ve fought so hard for the legal right to adopt, and certainly not with anybody but the permanent partner we’ve fought so hard for the legal right to marry.
Well, balls to that — literally and figuratively — says Edmund White. After describing his French friends’ more, shall we say, unusual sexual proclivities — including a richly comic depiction of how he and some friends rescued philosopher and historian Michel Foucault from the consequences of a bad LSD trip he had in a Gay bathhouse in New York City — White writes that some readers will think “I’m tarnishing Foucault’s reputation by mentioning his bad trip at the baths. On the contrary, I want to suggest how heroic they [Foucault and his other French friends] were. They were intellectuals, but not feeble ones who’d chosen the mind over the body. As the golden age of promiscuity was shutting down, they were leading daring sex lives in which they were collapsing age and class and racial barriers.”
White clearly sees himself as less daring and less brilliant than his friends, but equally committed to combining his intellectual and physical sides. You can’t separate the one from the other, he says in My Lives, not only because sex in its various permutations has provided so much of the raw material for his books but also because you can’t understand the “elder statesman of Gay literature” the disgruntled reader of White’s interview with that Boston paper wanted to experience unless he’s first shown you into his bedroom — or bathhouse, orgy room, streetcorner or parked truck (one of the book’s more unforgettable scenes describes one of the orgies that regularly took place in the Gay parts of New York City in the 1970’s inside truck trailers, often several rented at once and linked by the goings-on outside and under as well as in them) — and confronted you with the depth and breadth of his normal male sexual desires.
And make no mistake about it: these are normal male sexual desires. I’ve often wondered about the reluctance of writers like John Gray (the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus guy) and others who are trying to establish some observable and consistent difference between how men and women respond to and fulfill their sexual desires to look at Queers. It’s good science to isolate a variable, after all; if the hypothesis you want to test is that men are far more casual in terms of when, where and with whom they will have sex, while women are much more concerned about romantic and relationship contexts, the place to test that is among the people whose sexual interests are with their own gender and therefore don’t have to adjust to the demands and needs of the other sex: totally Gay men and totally Lesbian women.
I can’t say for sure about Lesbians, but certainly the Mars-Venus theory would predict that Gay men would be far more rambunctious sexually than straight ones, far more promiscuous (what a loaded word! It sounds like a disease), more willing to create outlets for sex without the complications of love. And they are. Indeed, one of the things I like best about My Lives is it really forces its readers to confront just how randy Gay men are, how frequently driven they are by their sexual impulse, how Gay male couplings can fall just about anywhere on that broad spectrum between casual stranger-sex and lifelong romantic commitment, and how the greatest emotional pains Gay men go through are frequently triggered by a mismatch in those expectations: either we’ve fallen in love with a trick, or we’ve disappointed a partner by having a trick, or we’ve realized a man we thought was just a trick is in love, and how the hell do we get rid of him and end this unexpected and frightening complication in our lives?
Of course, this is a sweeping generalization about human behavior and, like all such generalizations, subject to a wide variety of individual exceptions. Doubtless there are Lesbians out there who are as randy and casual about whom they have sex with, when, where and in what context, as the most stereotypical Gay man — and Gay men who could give straights and Lesbians lessons in fulfilling the expectations of the standard marriage ceremony of “forsaking all others” and staying together “till death do us part.” But for the most part, the rules of marriage as they were invented and promulgated by and for heterosexuals simply do not apply to Gay men. Certainly the options for having your relationship recognized by the state ought to be made available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally — but the social, moral and religious baggage carried by the term “marriage” would only be a burden to most sexually active Gay men. That is the most fascinating moral of Edmund White’s My Lives and the reason why every Gay man wondering how on earth to manage his own sexuality —and finding that, contrary to his expectation, that task is not getting easier as he gets older — should read it.