I Sing the Body Electric

I’ve been reading a lot of history lately (nothing new there, really; my favorite non-fiction generally tends to be history), focusing primarily on New Orleans and Louisiana for the most part. As I read histories of New Orleans, here and there I find little bits, here and there, about the queer subculture in the long years and decades before Stonewall; little bits, here and there, more of asides in longer narratives than anything else. There were, of course, male prostitutes in Storyville back in the day–generally not housed or regularly employed in the houses, but should a customer be desirous of, shall we say, male companionship, the madams would send a runner down to a gay watering hole a few blocks away in the Quarter and find someone looking to make some quick cash…and they never failed to find someone willing to satisfy the “peculiar tastes” of the john.

Finding this, and other references to bordello activity by reformers protesting their existence and wanting them shut down, as “sodomy” quite naturally piqued my interest. As a port city that was, at one time, the largest port and largest city in the southern United States, a city that was also a blend of many different cultures and so forth, New Orleans clearly had always had havens for homosexuals in those dark times when we were outlaws. As I read other New Orleans histories, I do keep an eye out for these references, and mark the pages in order to find them easily again.

There’s a lot of stories untold there in the past, and I’ve been considering the possibilities of writing more historical-based fiction in New Orleans. I’ve already started a short story about a young gay man who occasionally picks up extra cash by working in one of the brothels at night “on demand,” and I think it has some terrific potential.

Queer people have often been erased by history, just as people of color and women have been, and while I will most likely never write non-fiction (you can’t make things up, which is the primary drawback for me), I do enjoy reading histories that focus on the gay community.

For example, David K. Johnson’s award-winning The Lavender Scare, about the purge of gay employees from the federal government in the 1950’s as intelligence risks (their sexuality left them open to blackmail from foreign spies; at least this was the fear) eventually led to my short story “The Weight of a Feather” (which I am still not convinced shouldn’t have been a novel); and as such, was quite delighted when Johnson released another scholarly look at queer American history this year, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement.

I had, of course, known that “physique pictorial” magazines essentially were the original gay porn magazines; those images still can be found on the Internet.

buying gay

Johnson’s thesis holds that the mailing lists, and sales, of these magazines early on developed a cohesive gay market, and the recognition of said market gradually led to activism and wholesale societal change; that the magazines themselves created a sense of community by letting deeply closeted and frightened gay men know they weren’t alone; there were others like them, and helped them feel seen.

This further extrapolated into films and books, and gradually a gay rights movement.

The book is well written and deeply researched, as was The Lavender Scare (recently filmed as a documentary I am looking forward to seeing), and shed a light on a time I don’t know much about; few people know much about that time. One of the greatest tragedies of the community is how it was ravaged by HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s and 1990’s, until the development of the drug cocktails that first extended life, and eventually managed to make HIV a manageable infection rather than a fatal one; a lot of oral histories were lost as a result, and an entire generation of gay men was not only lost, but deprived the next generation of community elders and mentors.

I’ve been toying, over the last few years, with several ideas for noir novels with gay themes and characters set in the decades before Stonewall, and Buying Gay will, should I ever decide to do so, prove to be an invaluable source of material.

Well done, Dr. Johnson.

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