- "Look Baby, I Know You":Gay Fiction and the Cold War Era
It is easy to write the history of queer studies in the academy as a triumphant march toward progress, from the crude identity politics of gay liberation to the subtlety of postidentity queer theory, which deconstructs identity categories, critiques normativity, and embraces a wide range of marginalized sexual practices. Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Eve Sedgwick figure prominently in such a narrative, a postmodern trinity for an increasingly diverse queer praxis. Certainly, given the explosion of queer studies in the last twenty years, this narrative feels at least useful, if not true. Queer studies continues to thrive in interdisciplinary conferences and publications, and queer studies programs are still being established at universities across the country.
Both Michael Sherry's Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy (2007) and Bertram J. Cohler's Writing Desire: Sixty Years of Gay Autobiography (2007) benefit from a larger acceptance of the study of sexuality. Gay Artists in Modern American Culture uncovers a forgotten Cold War gay renaissance; Writing Desire traces the evolution of gay autobiography in the twentieth century. Both are deeply indebted to history, describing shifts in gay life from the 1950s to the present. The fact that both include "gay," not "queer," in their titles marks a divergence from queer theory, particularly regarding identity politics. The books, then, suggest what has been left behind in queer theory's grand march across the disciplines.
Sherry's book is a thorough historical revision of one of the most repeated truisms of the Cold War—that gay people were [End Page 191] persecuted, closeted, and miserable (and desperately in need of gay liberation). Sherry argues convincingly that gay visibility was high in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He discusses musicians and writers, including Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal. The primary focus of his investigation, however, is not the gay artists themselves, but the cultural perception of—or more accurately, panic over—those artists. Sherry explains, "Americans created modern anti-homosexuality in part by examining queers and queerness in the arts. They bequeathed to us images of gay people as curiously both silly and sinister, protean and perverse, creative and corrupting, invaluable and insidious: as both outside and inside American life. Gay people contributed to those images, albeit rarely from a position of power" (2). Indeed, the genealogy of homosexual panic this book traces is depressingly familiar in an age of Proposition 8 and "gathering storm" hysteria; some new version of "I am shocked, shocked, to discover that there is gambling in this establishment" comes along every twenty years or so, with new outrage and dire warnings of a homosexual fifth column.
"Homintern" is one of the terms Sherry resuscitates that highlights the complicated relationship between gay artists and the larger mainstream culture. "Homintern," as Sherry tells us, was a coinage by W. H. Auden, a play on "Comintern" (42). It was, for Auden's circle, clearly a joke; homosexuals were almost universally vilified and criminalized, and they had neither the political organization nor, in the 1930s, the inclination to carry out a guerrilla campaign against straight culture. The campiness of a term like "Homintern," however, was completely lost when it made its way into mainstream criticism. Critics warned, unironically, of a nefarious lavender menace undermining the masculinity and virility of American culture.
Sherry focuses primarily on the arts, and the prominent role that gay artists—in literature, in music, in drama—played in those first "culture" wars between the USSR and the US. Sherry admits that he is dealing with a paradox. He gives Jeff Weinstein's answer to the question, "Is there a gay sensibility in the arts?" as an articulation of the problem: "No, there is no such thing as a gay sensibility, and yes, it has an enormous impact on our culture" (238). That same paradox structures his...