Edmund White is well aware of his impact on gay literature.
I was lucky because I was able to be there first for a number of things, White tells Sydney Star Observer from New York.
I was able to write The Joy Of Gay Sex in 1977, I was able to write one of the first coming out books, A Boy’s Own Story in 1982, he says.
Before that I was able to write one of the first gay travel books, States Of Desire, which was 1980.
When not enhancing the gay literary canon, White played a part in the 1969 Stonewall riots and helped set up New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the 1980s in response to AIDS.
All of which suggests a long-held plan to make his mark. Not so, according to White.
I don’t really find any special merit and I certainly don’t think of myself as an activist because I’m actually rather lazy and indirect and sort of withdrawn in many ways, he says.
Born in 1940 in the US Midwest, White came out to his mother as a teenager, when the word homosexual was cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness, he writes in his new memoir My Lives.
He then headed dutifully for the psychiatrist’s couch. By 1969, White was living in New York and in therapy to cure his homosexuality.
Just sheerly inadvertently I happened to be at the Stonewall uprising because I was walking past it with a friend and we got involved, he says.
If anything, I was trying to make people behave. I was such a middle-class twit. I think I have sort of stumbled into history. It’s as though someone would happen to be walking past the Bastille at exactly the moment when it was being destroyed.
Seeing Stonewall touch off an international gay rights movement was a turning point for White too.
It actually did change me. In my case, I think being in this exciting ferment, it did make me feel free almost in spite of myself, he says.
Rationally I couldn’t think of any way to justify homosexuality. I was in therapy to go straight. But irrationally and maybe on the level of the soul if you will, I responded with tremendous excitement and enthusiasm to this uprising.
Having worked so earnestly to suppress his sexuality, White performed an impressive about-turn with books like The Joy Of Gay Sex, an unapologetic celebration of gay men for gay men.
I always felt gays had things to teach straights and not the other way around, that we understood more about how to hold on to your ex-lovers and how not to be jealous and possessive and how to mix things like friendship and sex and love or divide them out -¦ over a larger cast of characters, White says.
But I do think that there has been a tremendous push towards assimilation.
I think AIDS was part of that because people were afraid of sexual promiscuity and they wanted to settle down with one partner. And I think the whole marriage and building families [thing], that that’s another pressure toward assimilation.
But White thinks the complete amalgamation of gay and straight is unlikely. The reaction to My Lives is a case in point.
The book includes chapters like My Master, White’s recollections of a recent heartbreak at the hands of a dominant S&M partner 30 years his junior, and My Hustlers, the author’s frank observations on cruising for trade since he was a teenager.
It’s very heavy on sex, which a lot of straight readers complain about, White says.
They say that I’m sex fiend and -˜isn’t it disgusting’. I feel like, for gay men, sexuality is a lot more crucial to identifying them and defining them than sexuality is for, let’s say heterosexual men.
In other words, it’s our sexuality which confers on us a minority status that leads to us sometimes being oppressed, and all that’s very different from what happens to straight people.
Straight people may have their problems, but they don’t come from being straight.
White shows no sign of overlooking the distinction as he prepares to talk about his life at Sydney Writers’ Festival next week.
I think there is a pressure for gays to present themselves, in this country at least, in a very modest, puritanical light, the way everybody else does, he says.
I’ve never really quite gone along with that. I’m too much of an anarchist for that.
For the Sydney Writers’ Festival program visit the festival website.
giveaway The Star has three copies of Edmund White’s My Lives to give away thanks to Allen & Unwin. To win a copy email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us your favourite gay literary work.