Trendy censorship blights gay and lesbian literature Homophobia underlies the triviality, self-loathing and anti-sexuality of the bulk of new publications.

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

May 24, 1998|By Victoria Brownworth | Victoria Brownworth,Special to the sun

Were Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin writing today, they'd be hard-pressed to land a mainstream publisher. The work of these luminaries of American literature is just too queer. Full of overt descriptions of same-sex love (and, more importantly, lust), devoid of kitsch, camp, celebrity dish, anti-sex polemics or expressions of religious conviction, their work lies at a radical remove from current publishing trends.

And yet, gay and lesbian books have never been more popular - or more numerous. A perusal of one's local bookstore finds a plethora of gay and lesbian books,."Queer" is trendy. But while this explosion of books may seem to be the long-delayed embracing of lesbian and gay writers by mainstream publishers, it is instead an insidious form of homophobic censorship.

Lesbian and gay books may abound, but the subject matter has been narrowly defined by straight publishers to books with either a self-loathing subtext or little literary substance. Inherent in much of this literature is a strong anti-sex message. Two books, "Sexual Ecology" by Gabriel Rotello (Random House, $24.95) and "Life Outside" by New York columnist Michaelangelo Signorile (HarperPerennial, $13) exemplify this trend. Both men were once agents provocateurs of gay politics, promoting the proud use of the term "queer" and advocating in-your-face gay activism. Rotello was editor of the groundbreaking New York magazine OutWeek and Signorile invented one of the most controversial political tactics of recent times: outing.

Yet both writers now sound a neo-conservative call-to-arms with their arguments against gay male sexual behavior that has more than a hint of self-loathing at its core.

Other books preach a sugary "we're-just-like-straight-folks" assimilationist philosophy. One such is "The Lesbian & Gay Book of Love & Marriage: Creating the Stories of Our Lives" by Paula Martinac (Doubleday, $18).

This book, only the most recent of similar titles, is a how-to for lesbian and gay relationships with emphasis on committed, long-term, heterosexual-style couplings.

Determined religious conviction also abounds, as this too mitigates sexuality. "Stealing Jesus" by Bruce Bawer (Crown, $26), despite its provocative/offensive title, is a ponderous academic-style polemic that might well have been titled "Will the Real Christ Stand Up?" A more subtle plea for acceptance than some books, Bawer's argument can nevertheless be reduced to whether his loving, laid-back, gay-accepting Episcopalian Jesus or the mean-spirited anti-gay hellfire-and-brimstone Jesus of Chrisitian Coalition fundamentalism is the real Christ.

The cache of celebrity biographies of nouvelle gay icons like Ellen DeGeneres, Candace Gingrich and Greg Louganis also plead for acceptance while downplaying actual sexuality. Witty mysteries written by lesbian cats (Rita Mae Brown's Sneaky Pete series) or former tennis stars (Martina Navratilova's sports mystery series) avoid polemic altogether.

These are the gay and lesbian books mainstream publishers promote to the exclusion of nearly anything else. More than a hint of irony attends the fact that a literary canon defined by the writer's sexual orientation is now almost totally devoid of sexual expression. Contrast that with Whitman's erotic depictions of young men in "Leaves of Grass," Stein's evocations of her lovers' Tender Buttons" and Baldwin's steamy sex scenes in "Giovanni's Room."

Many of America's most influential writers have been lesbian or gay, among them Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Whitman, Willa Cather, Stein, Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara and Truman Capote. Some of these were originally published by independent presses, because homosexuality was taboo.

No longer taboo, lesbian and gay books now subscribe to a wholly different canon, one based not on literary excellence but on marketability. The "new" lesbian and gay book doesn't declaim innovative American culture; it adheres to a rigidly conservative perspective in which lesbians and gays may declare their love as long as they deflect or defame their sexuality.

Starved for depictions of lesbian and gay culture for generations, queers have yearned to access books about themselves. That fact, coupled with high income levels, has resulted in a cynical attempt to cash in on a lucrative trend.

Imagine books targeting an African-American audience which focused solely on soul food, rap, fashion and sports or which extolled the virtues of acting white. They would be denounced as racist.

The queer book boom evolved from the outgrowth of identity politics as well as from a gradual awakening by mainstream houses that gays and lesbians are book- buyers hungry for same-sex themed books.

But do people actually construct personal identity from drivel?

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