Toni Davidson examines the contrasts and connections between three recent books exploring gay experience.
Generations of love, generations ofidentity. A history of struggle. a topography of desire. Through these themes, three recently-published books — Christopher Coe‘s new novel Such ’Iitnes. Footsteps and Witnesses: Gay and Lesbian Lifestoriesfrom Scotland. edited by Bob Cant. and A Queer Reader. edited by Patrick Higgins — share a sense of common purpose, a link that transcends differences in time and place. subject-matter and approach.
In A Queer Reader we learn ofa graffitoed wall in a Roman town, circa 808C. exuberantly declaring that ‘Phoebus the perfume-maker penetrates excellently'. During his famous I885 trial Oscar Wilde speaks to a crowded courtroom of the ‘love that dare not speak its name.‘ In the l970s on Leven beach two women kiss behind steamed-up car windows. In 1982 in a New York bathhouse two intimate strangers wash each other in the showers, a hundred eyes on each and every stroke. . .
What is straight? ‘A line can be straight. or a street. but the human hean. oh no. it‘s curved. like a road through mountains,‘ declared Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire. What is queer? For Freud it was arrested development. For Kinsey homosexuality was ‘an expression of capacities which are basic to humanity‘ but for Anita Bryant. a vitriolic anti-gay activist. it is about recruitment - ‘since homosexuals can‘t reproduce they must freshen their ranks’. For Joe ()rton it was simply a case of ‘when you‘re dead you‘ll regret not having fun with your genitals.‘
Perhaps the central parallel which can be drawn between the three books is that in all of them identity is seen. not as something rigid. simplistic. stereotypical. but as a cultural melting-pot of experience and adaptability. There is a process here. an unstOppable human condition that. whether reflected in Roman graffiti or a lesbian kiss on a Scottish shore. is an integral part of society. Whatever society. in whatever period.
In Footsteps and Witnesses. Bob Cant has traced and recorded first-hand accounts of the lives and tentative loves from twenty-three lesbians and gay men. From earlier this century to the present day. from Aberdeen to Dumfries. the interviewees tell their stories, the fragility of oral history transposed into the relative safety ofthe printed word. The view ofthe past here is not necessarily simply revised — in many cases it is explored. explained and contextualised for the first time. No doubt Leven beach was famous for its necking couples. but no doubt. too, such couples were assumed to be heterosexual. The book takes us back into times and locations in which concepts of gay or lesbian identity were near-impossible to grasp. and yet the episodes
of pain and triumph it recounts perhaps formed the basis for a definition. the start ofa culture countering the assumption of universal heterosexuality. In story after story we read of sexuality being identiﬁed. expressed, then fought for. Not with banners and protest — that would come later — but with the calm assertion of a lifestyle. the determination to live a full life amidst narrow minds and restrictive laws.
What is straight? ‘A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh no, it’s curved, like a road through mountains,’ declared Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire.
A sense of lesbian and gay history and identity came to the fore with the onset of AIDS. In A Queer Reader we read that the activities if not the very identities of those in the male gay community began to change at the time when the New York Times first reported on a disease that was killing young gay men. We read. too. of the volatile nature of identity. On the one hand. the in-yer-face tactics of ACT-UP generates a new sense of a corntnunity uniting to fight a common enemy. and on the other ﬁlm and rock stars are forced by illness out ofthe closet into the often hostile glare of publicity. The test of any identity must be its ability to withstand prejudice and ignorance. and AIDS has brought such pressures tremendously to bear. But the diversity of response. the coalitions forged out of political action and personal pain have strengthened rather than
weakened gay identity. Despite the bumpy transition to safer sex. despite scaremongering along the lines
of ‘there is no such thing as HIV‘. and despite the
statistical ball-games. there is a discernible sense of
evaluation. of taking stock.
The personal odyssey undergone by Christopher Coe‘s characters in Sue/i Times, a delicate but not medicated biography of life and death in the age of AIDS. bears this out. We follow them through an
l idealised. hedonistic lifestyle. a ritualised identity
I more essentially dependent on the present. But as
realism slowly percolates. their lives irrevocably
changed. and the past as well as the future assume increasing importance. Here. history is as personal as it can get. Timothy. coming to terms with the death of his shared lover Jasper, the itnpending death of his
1 friend Dominic and his own HIV+ status. spends
much of his time contemplating these various loves.
‘ setting them in place alongside the events of the early 80s. Willi distant anger he remembers the once- carefree New York bathhouses imposing a nudity ‘dress‘ code on clients. not — as might once have been the case — for heightened erotic tension. but.
' Coe suggests. to facilitate the detection of disease. the unmasked lesions of Kaposi‘s Sarcoma. With ironic humour he recalls a T-shirt which was all the rage in the 70s; a T-shirt. emblazoned with the words ‘50 Many Men. So Little Time‘ that no one wears any more.
The novel‘s edge. the sharpness of its writing. steering it away from sentimentality. depends on Timothy's cuttineg clear-eyed assessment of a life led with little sense of direction. devoted to a man who believed that ‘monogamy is antithetical to the
; homosexual life‘. In what could easily have become
" a book of fragile epitaphs for lost loves. Coe's almost bitter account bears a strangely positive fruit.
In A Queer Reader we read of Anthony Perkins finding a sense of identity and value in his dying
days; in l-‘ootsteps and Witnesses the hazardous road
to identity only underscores the need to let the world
know that gay men and lesbians. too. possess
histories: in Such Times we learn that evaluation. no
matter how late in the day. is always valid and
. worthwhile. and thus Coe's novel becomes not only a
book about the AIDS era but a parable for any
community of people who might face a comparable
threat to their histories. their identities.
i Sue/r Times is published by Hamish Hamilton at f 9. 99; A Queer Reader by Fourth Estate at f I 4. 99 and Footsteps and Witnesses by Polygon at £10. 99. J
The List l7 December l993—l3 January I994 89