WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER I believed, as many have, that I had personally invented homosexuality. This was prior to the gay movement, when there was scant public evidence that being gay existed and, if it did, it was sick. In high school life, the mere suspicion that you were a queer or a fruit or a fag was social death (which is still true in some North American schools today). Once you reached legal drinking age, you could explore a furtive world of gay bars, but they were subject to random reputation-wrecking police raids. If you happened to be in the military (I did a hitch in the American Navy), you had to operate with the discretion of "special forces" troops and, even then, you faced dishonorable discharge if not brig time. It's difficult to convey, a half-century later, what a dirty, dangerous secret homosexuality once was.
When Christopher Bram begins Eminent Outlaws, his history of contemporary gay writing in the U.S., with the bold declaration that "the gay revolution began as a literary revolution," it has an odd ring. A revolution sparked by mere words? After all, as gay poet W.H. Auden put it, "Poetry makes nothing happen." Bram's novel claim at first glance seems dubious, but it turns out to be surprisingly accurate.
Much more than the concurrent civil rights, women's, students' or anti-war movements of the 1950s to mid-1970s — though all generated significant writing — the gay movement was unusually dependent on books, journalism, theater, and screenwriting to spread its message, both to others and itself. That was so for a very simple reason. Unlike women, African Americans, and other activists, homosexuals, except for the stereotyped subculture of flamboyant "queens," were mostly invisible to one another, and even to themselves.
The only tolerant sanctuaries available to young gays were to be found in the world of art and a handful of ghettoized occupations. Still, "the love that dare not speak its name" began, after World War II, to declare itself in fugitive books and hastily scribbled notes. Bram's account, combining social history and literary criticism, "is the history of fifty years of change shaped by a relay race of novelists, playwrights and poets," and their writing, as Bram says, "was the catalyst for a social shift as deep and unexpected as what was achieved by the civil rights and women's movements." "The story of these men," writes Bram, "has never been told as a single narrative before." The one near-predecessor to Bram's work is Reed Woodhouse's Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995 (1998), a book of feisty and intelligent readings, though less concerned with the social narrative than is Bram's history.
Bram, 60, is a gay novelist probably best known for Father of Frankenstein (1995), which became the acclaimed movie Gods and Monsters. Given his storytelling talents, it's perhaps not surprising that Eminent Outlaws is thoroughly readable, as well as useful and timely. It brings together into coherent form what had been little more than scattered anecdotes and half-forgotten memories, and it appears at pretty much the right moment. While the struggle for gay equality in North America and parts of Europe has been largely successful, moving even into "post-gay" territory, its history remains within the living memory of...read more