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John Loughery: A Pulitzer Prize Finalist's History of the 20th Century
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The Other Side of Silence

Interview by Jack Nichols

Only under the most favorable circumstances is a masterful writer drawn to explore mountains of research material surrounding an entire century. That a talent such as Pulitzer Prize finalist John Loughery's has been so employed on behalf of 20th Century gay male history is therefore cause for rejoicing.

Professor Martin Duberman calls Loughery's The Other Side of Silence "a splendid achievement, a beautifully argued and written, comprehensive, subtle and evenhanded book." It is, says Duberman, "all at once deeply informed and entirely accessible—a rare combination in the world of historical writing."

Historian James T. Sears calls The Other Side of Silence "a must read," that's "broad in scope, rich in description, provocative in insight. Sears celebrates Loughery's brilliant prose as "illuminating in a very human manner."

Jack Nichols: What thoughts currently stand out in some principal ways in your own mind now that you've completed this monumental work?

John Loughery: I have two quite different thoughts at this point. On the one hand, my interest in questions of "gay identity" -- my wish to explore them further in my own life, my respect for those gay men doing that – has increased. Whether it's Tim Miller and Douglas Sadownick or the Radical Faeries or the Body Electric people, I live in wonder at all that's taking place. But I also feel more uneasiness now than when I started the project, after widening my circle of acquaintance -- an uneasiness about where we as gay men are headed. The carrot-and-stick approach that society takes with us now -- act as we want you to and we might give you a nibble of the carrot -- is seductive and it doesn't lend itself to probing into the meaning of our experience as homosexuals in a culture that actively hates homosexuals.

Jack Nichols: How do you want your book, The Other Side of Silence, to effect its purposes next to other gay histories?

lough3.gif - 72.67 KJohn Loughery: I've always liked that Orwell line, "Writers write the kind of books they can't find on library shelves." I'd be happiest thinking that someone who isn't engaged with more academic literature and has only the sketchiest ideas about what's covered in my book would learn from it and enjoy it. It's meant for the proverbial general educated reader, not the queer studies professional, and I don't think there are enough books out there for that person, not on gay themes.

Jack Nichols: You have what I'd call a wide view of past and present times. The final sentence in your history reminds readers of "a past in which little has come easy, a vital and contentious present, and a future that is anything but clear." One reviewer talks about The Other Side of Silence as full of fertile passages that speculate on possible futures for American sexuality. What are some of these possible futures?

John Loughery: The only one I'm frightened about is one of increasing homogenization, a future in which gay men don't see themselves as existing for a purpose that might make a difference. To my mind, the implicit questioning of styles of masculinity or degrees of masculinity, the questioning of what actually constitutes a love relationship and what fidelity means, the questioning of dominance/submission roles in sex that gay men are uniquely able to provoke -- that is what I am afraid we are not going to pursue as we make strides toward assimilation. But I worry that it is going to be a somewhat phony assimilation, one that won't serve us well in a crunch. We are not any better off, to any degree that counts, because of "Ellen." A high school teacher is still going to get fired for teaching "Maurice," and the physical violence is as bad as it ever was. For that matter, a pampered fool like Andrew Sullivan thinks we're whiners when it comes to job discrimination. So much for a clearer, progressive future.

Jack Nichols: Tell about some memorable experiences during the long period you've spent working on this 20th Century gay male history. How long did it take you, for example? Also, what were some of the early decisions you made about how you'd approach your subject matter?

John Loughery: It's hard to say how long it took. There was the off-and-on period of just reading gay history, building up my own clipping files over the years, etc. Contract to publication was three-and-a-half years. Two years of that time I did nothing but work on the book, five days a week. The best part was the travel to other parts of the country I hadn't been to before -- Kentucky, West Virginia, the Florida panhandle – meeting gay men of all ages and classes, randomly. That's one advantage of an open-ended narrative history: the go-where-you-will approach.

Jack Nichols: You're a long time resident art critic for the Hudson Review. You've lived two decades with what Walt Whitman would call "a comrade and a lover". You lecture in educational institutions. Your introduction tells how you were reared in Connecticut in a traditionally religious home. What were some of the principal influences that shaped you, and what were just a few of your insights gained growing up that you can now see reflected in your newly published work?

John Loughery: Though there were individuals along the way who made a major difference in my life (teachers, especially), two of the largest influences have probably been my Catholicism and my homosexuality itself. I had a burning image of Catholicism from childhood that involved the idea of service, of seeing the world as more than your own life, you own job, your own needs. The leap from wanting to be a priest -- all right, a nun, there I said it -- to becoming the high school teacher I have been for so long is not so vast. (What a shock in adolescence to discover that Catholicism also represented other, more bigoted values.) And then being gay, of course. If you decide at thirteen that the world is wrong about this one big question of who you might love or lust over, and I knew I was in the right, then you are not apt to be too conformity-minded a person from then on. That's been a saving grace of many gay men and lesbians I've known over the years. I hope my books reflect that interest in opposition to conformity. And I hope they serve -- someone, something.

Jack Nichols: I noticed your continuing keen awareness in The Other Side of Silence of conventional fashions of masculinity or machismo. You speak of gay identities. And of the paradoxes of group identification. Over the last few decades American maleness has undergone some minor modifications, at least. What are just some of these? And what effect on conventional masculinity, do you think, will be the erasure of old taboos surrounding male/male love?

John Loughery: "Minor modifications" they are, with a heavy emphasis on the adjective. Despite the excellent fact that more young fathers today are able to be cuddly-affectionate with their sons and are less preoccupied with arbitrary distinctions between "men's work" and "women's work" -- credit for which, by the way, I think goes to the women more than the men -- I think we are still caught tight in the gender-role trap. And what concerns me is how many young gay men I've met who feel better about themselves only after they have shed the more delicate or feminine trappings of their adolescent gay self and become more butch (via the gym or a new style of clothes or whatever) in their adulthood.

If gay men achieve their "place at the table" only because they don't make room for men who challenge the gender-role patterns, or don't want to do their own questioning of the conventions of masculinity, I don't think we've accomplished much. Seymour Kleinberg was right on the money twenty years ago with his essay "Where Have All the Sissies Gone?" The answer is not to aspire to look like the guys who beat the shit out of us on the playground. Or, let's say, that can't be our only or principal aspiration.

Jack Nichols: In The Other Side of Silence you've sprinkled mentions and stories of lesbian heroines and their works—women like author Radclyffe Hall and activist/editor Barbara Gittings-- in an otherwise male-oriented history tome. The famed historian of the lesbian past, Lillian Faderman gave you a rave review in The Washington Post (Sunday, June 7). What are some of the corners where the liberation of women and gay male liberation connect?

lough4.gif - 73.25 KJohn Loughery: The periods of male-female connection that I'm most conscious of seem to have been in the 1960s homophile period before gay liberation and radical feminism inevitably clashed; the late 1970s after Anita Bryant and the Moral Majority stirred the pot and we had to pull together; and in the 1980s involving AIDS care and activism. Lesbian compassion for gay men at that time and involvement in the political battles and caregiving is just remarkable. I hate to think about the question: would we have done the same if they had been struck down in the same numbers?

Jack Nichols: When you were gathering information, what factors surprised you most?

John Loughery: Having grown up in the Northeast, a middle-class (in my better years) educated gay man -- a New Yorker -- I had a fairly narrow view of gay men. What a healthy shock to meet so many politically conservative gay men, so many bluecollar gay men, so many men with different attitudes toward gay identity, gay rights, our visibility, our style of activism. So many gay men into athletics, more inclined to go to a football game than the ballet. (I'm still very iffy on that one. A football game?) I'll tell you, the "house beautiful queen" myth got knocked over pretty fast on the road. It seems silly now that I harbored any stereotypes at all. My lover and I live in a working-class tenement building in a very diverse neighborhood.

Jack Nichols: Just a few of your own personal favorite events or what-evers of the century?

John Loughery: Favorite personal events of the century? OK: five places I wish I could have been. At the Scopes trial; at one of Alain Locke's literary evenings during the Harlem Renaissance (preferably with Langston Hughes there); behind the wall on the grassy knoll in Dallas; at the first night of the Stonewall riot; in the White House when Nixon was going crazy talking to the portraits on the wall before quitting. That would touch on most of my key interests.

Jack Nichols: Your book tells about how America's gay male and lesbian community rose with magnificence—in many cases-- to the challenges of the AIDS crisis. What civilized, truly mature behavior—compassionate behavior there has been shown by our communities en masse. Yet you are also aware that there are those gay men who still—in 1998—suffer the self-esteem drawbacks, the self-doubts caused by society's anti-gay taboos. Could you discuss this a little?

John Loughery: My favorite topic. There is so much to be grateful about, so many markers of our progress to celebrate. But -- and such a major "but" -- there is a grave danger that in noting all that has gone well for us that we don't have the opportunity or the inclination to explore the dark side. How could there not be a dark side? But no one wants to hear about it, not straight society or gay society or even the troubled individual himself. So you were branded a misfit when you were young, so you're made to feel less than equal, less than moral and deserving, in more subtle ways as an adult, especially by your family. "Get over it," that's the line. It's a catastrophic line. So much psychological baggage never gets worked through and the result is a compromise, a fierce struggle to fit in as an adolescent and as an adult. It's a ruinous course.

Jack Nichols: Do you think it might be possible that as discrimination and prejudice disappears gay support institutions—as such—might do the same—and people would just meanderingly meet where the mainstream mostly swims? Or is there something inherently communal among gay males?

John Loughery: That is certainly a possibility. Uniquely subcultural institutions -- places to meet, support structures, etc. -- only exist because mainstream institutions and venues did not allow for the needed interaction. Do I welcome the dissolution of our own turf? No, not entirely. As we've comes at a price.

Jack Nichols: You are credited by reviewers for having woven an inclusive tapestry of motivating forces that have brought this soon-to-be-over century into the present. What are the most colorful threads?

John Loughery: I love thinking about those moments we perceived, at one point or another, in one particular light and then discovered how much more there was to that moment. The chapter of my book entitled "Queer in Camelot," for instance, is about the early 1960s -- a heightened sexual time for straight America (JFK, James Bond's babes, etc.) and a period, as it turns out, of straight curiosity about the contrasting mode of gay life. That curiosity leads to an openness that benefits gay men. But it's also a nervous time, all those men who wouldn't blink in a crisis still proving that they're "real men," and the anti-gay crackdowns are renewed. Only this time the queers are not so divided or passive. More bars, more parties, pickets and speeches. The genie won't go back into the bottle. Those are colorful, connecting threads.

Jack Nichols: Which instances of bigotry stand out most when you survey this century?

John Loughery: The most psychologically debilitating aspect of the research on this book was in meeting men who were anywhere from twenty to forty years old in the 1950s, that time when gay visibility made homosexuals easier targets but the sense of unity and the safeguards (such as they are) were not yet in place. I was very depressed hearing some of those stories -- being humiliated in unspeakable ways by the police, constantly fearing for your job, the endless socially acceptable jokes about queers, the "forced" marriages -- and I was merely a listener. I think any gay man who made it through the postwar period in one piece is a hero. In my version of "The Divine Comedy," everyone who served on the Johns Committee in Florida, with the Boise witchhunt crowd, vice cops everywhere, gets a special circle of hell. Presided over by Roy Cohn. I have a few paragraphs on him in the book.

Jack Nichols: Which instances of gay triumphs shine through?

John Loughery: We tend to think about the larger, organizational ones. I like the smaller moments. My chapter "Hunted" tells about men like Bob Milne who was harassed to no end by the New York City police and eventually jailed. In his indignation, he devoted the next ten years of his life to working with the Mattachine Society. Harris Kimball was disqualified from practicing law for being gay in the 1950s. He fought it in the courts until that ruling was changed -- twenty years later. Frank Kameny loses his government job; to their amazement, he won't go away. Still hasn't. Those are the "gay triumphs" that shine through.

Jack Nichols: Your book talks about Harlem and great African Americans who were gay. What surprised you in your research about minority gay identities?

John Loughery: I am eagerly awaiting Barbara Smith's study of that question. She has been at work on her book on African-American gay and lesbian life for as long as I was on mine. But what struck me, as a white outsider looking in, was both how much of it ("minority gay identity") there was, and how little there is that corresponds to white notions of gay identity. Of course, the role of family and especially church is different for many black gay men, and so the nature of identifying with "gay" will be different. But my perspective is suspect, not being a member of a racial minority in this country. I will say this, another book I am eagerly awaiting is a biography of Alain Locke being written by Jeffrey Stewart. If he covers Locke's homosexuality in detail, it will be a great, meaningful story. Locke was black intellectual on top of the identity issues in the 1920s.

Jack Nichols: What does The Other Side of Silence do, in your mind—or what is its larger job—is it the development of some particular kind of awareness through presenting 20th century gay male history?

John Loughery: Yes. I would hope someone reading this would, on the one hand, feel that the story of gay male life in America in this century is just that -- one of the great, fascinating, textured stories of our time, no different in magnitude from the Jewish story in America, lough2.gif - 63.73 K
Loughery (right) with his lover of two decades, Tom.
or the story of the South, of Italian-American experience, or whatever. It has its own shifting contours. It has conflicting meanings. But beyond that, there are unresolved questions to think about because being "gay" doesn't have the same concreteness that being Jewish, Southern, or Italian-American does -- ostensibly -- to people who accept those terms. I am made nervous by the "we are just like everybody else" thesis. Having been treated as I was from age five to age twenty, based on perceived key differences, how could I be like everybody else? Certain things about "otherness" have been seared into my soul. I have different notions from my relatives, let's say, about what it means to be a man, a lover, a citizen, a spouse. I want more time spent pondering what those differences might mean. But I don't know if that's going to happen. The great rush to be liked -- on majority terms -- is almost unstoppable in the late 1990s.

Jack Nichols: You seem to have a good hold on the characteristics of the people you describe in The Other Side of Silence. No one in your worldview is either all bad or all good, but often even their negatives become somewhat positive. You make room for a leader's ago, for example. Is that so?

John Loughery: Yes, that's true. Pure good and pure evil is pretty rare. As an individual, I'm not as tolerant as I could be. I think you have to try to see all sides as a writer, though. Roy Cohn, on the other hand, challenges all of my Quaker leanings. There was pure evil if we've ever seen it. A man to hate. Despicable precisely because he knew better. But, now that I think about it, maybe meritorious as the ultimate warning: you want to avoid the taint of victimization, you want establishment approval at the highest levels -- ECCE ROY. That could be a mantra for gay men in the corporate world.

Jack Nichols: You got important information from the members of SAGE. Tell me about it and about your feelings about SAGE.

John Loughery: A great organization staffed by great people with many interesting members. The late Donald Vining, author of "A Gay Diary" and a man very helpful to me in my research, and a few other SAGE members taped so many interviews with other SAGE members in the 1980s that were vital for my purposes. Lots of leads there in the SAGE oral history collection.

Jack Nichols: Talk about "creative resistance".

otherside.jpg - 18.57 KJohn Loughery: "Creative resistance" means something different in every decade, appropriate to the changing needs of gay men and lesbians at the time and to the strategies and even the aura of the day. It was creative resistance when Jim Kepner and Dorr Legg started to amass great gay libraries in the 1950s. It was creative resistance when Randy Wicker sensed that we were moving into the media age in the early 1960s and devoted himself day and night to get press coverage of gay life, dragging reporters all over New York and lining up gay friends to appear on radio talk shows. The first pickets and pride marches were instances of that. It was creative resistance when Peter Staley and his ACT UP friends chained themselves to the balcony of the Stock Exchange to protest the pharmaceutical companies' indifference to the lives of impoverished AIDS patients. It was creative resistance when Gore Vidal wrote "The City and the Pillar" in 1948 and when Mart Crowley wrote "The Boys in the Band" in 1968 and when David Feinberg wrote "Eighty-Sixed" in 1988. I honor all of those people. We all should.

The Other Side of Silence--Men's Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History by John Loughery, Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1998, 507 pages, $35

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