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uch has changed about gay love and sex since Edmund White wrote the book on it in 1977. The Joy of Gay Sex, written by White with psychotherapist Charles Silverstein, offered advice for gay men on everything from cruising hustlers to coping with societal shame. It touched on performance anxiety, lubricants, guilt and the art of the threesome. But perhaps its most radical suggestion was that gay love and sex need not be monogamous.
Since that auspicious beginning, White has authored novels that deal with similar subject matter, and the arc of his work traces the evolution of gay life. From A Boy's Own Story (1982), which dealt with the pressure to hide one's sexuality, to The Farewell Symphony (1997), about a gay man whose friends have all died, White's books have often hovered — sometimes uncomfortably — between fiction and historical record.
My Lives is White's first shot at straight biography, and he holds little back. His graphic accounts of his prolific sex life and disregard for many of the tenets of the HRC-led political movement seemingly render him a product of another era. And yet, as he's quick to point out, amidst all this talk of marriage and adoption and military service, one need only go to the internet to find gays still dabbling in sex like it's 1977 all over again. — Will Doig
After three decades of writing novels that most people assumed were fairly autobiographical, why suddenly release a memoir?
Oh, because the others aren't. I was very sexual and intellectual as a kid, and the boy in A Boy's Own Story is very shy and timid. I made him that way because I wanted people to be able to identify with him — teenagers, especially. It wasn't some calculating commercial choice; I was just as astonished by the success of that book as I have been by the failure of others. I just wanted him to be more representative, so I evened out the rough edges of my own personality. In this book, however, I permit myself to be as eccentric as I really am.
Do you think straight people have a tamer view of sex than gay people?
I think they do. The book came out in England last September and got a very mixed reaction. Alan Hollinghurst raved about it, and [psychotherapist and author] Adam Philips wrote a wonderful piece about it in the London Review of Books. But a couple reviews were really, really bitchy, as the English can be.
|Edmund White in New York City, 1972|
Does it embarrass you to write so graphically about what you've done sexually?
[Laughs] I get really kind of offended and embarrassed in person, and I've always been able to hide behind the "it's only a novel" alibi. I think some people, though, have this Sunday-manners notion of fiction, because books started off as sacred tomes, and there's still that aura about it. The same person who can swear a blue streak will say, "Wow, you sure use a lot of foul language in your books."
But for me, the sacred part is the truth. Freud felt that most people think about sex at least half the time, but it doesn't show up in fiction as often as you'd think. The reason I don't think this book deserves to be in back of the porno store is that I don't think anyone would get aroused by it. Pornography has to be written according to very strict rules, with no variety of language, no metaphors, and no stopping to reflect, because you've got to keep that hand moving.
You're in an open relationship now. Is there pressure on gay couples today to be monogamous?
Yeah, now we all supposedly want to adopt and whatnot. And yet, you go online and see millions of people talking about doing crazy things. So it seems to me there's a lot of hypocrisy now. Michael and I have a totally open relationship. We've been together eleven years and we really love each other, but we're both kind of slutty — he less so than I am, because being twenty-five years younger, he's more conservative. But he's totally unmoralistic. I think we both feel there's such a thing as morality, but it has almost nothing to do with sex.
Is your relationship with Michael also sexual, or is it more like companionship?
It's mainly companionship. It has been sexual, but we're more like best friends.
Do gay people today really want marriage and lifelong monogamy, or are they seen as just a ticket to social acceptance?
You'd probably know better than I, but I think that a lot of people do fool themselves into believing they really want that. Let me say that I do think there are some gay people who are nest-builders and that's their nature. They get hooked up quickly and really like shopping for the living room furniture more than anything else. For them, sex is just a way of cementing and honoring that relationship. But I think a lot of people — they're called promiscuous but that word has negative connotations, so let's say they're adventuresome — they really need and want new adventures all the time.
That used to be trendy, but today it's looked down upon to some degree. Nest-builders are the new "good gay."
I remember [in the '70s], a good friend of mine had a lover he was faithful to, and he used to complain that they never got invited to parties because they were considered so dull. It just wasn't in to be faithful. It was considered very boring, like you were imitating straight people.
You devote a whole chapter to your psychotherapy. Do you still go?
No. I did for a while when T [one of his lovers in the book] dropped me. I mean, when you're an atheist, what do you do?
Therapy is like religion for secular people.
It's just a way of getting things off your chest. Your friends get so bored about hearing how you're miserable in love.
Would you say therapy has been a defining feature of your life?
Yeah, for better or worse. It made me question myself so much, which I don't think is good for a writer. You're supposed to obey your instincts, and I've managed to do that finally, but it took a long time to get there.
When I try to list today's great gay novelists, it's hard to come up with any names. It seems like today's gay icons are all fashion designers and whatnot, like Marc Jacobs is the new voice of gay.
Oh, I think there are a lot of great gay writers, including very young ones, but they're almost completely ignored by the gay community. It's not that there are no great gay writers, it's that there are no great gay readers. Gay writers have sales figures like poets do; it's an esoteric world.
Why are gay people not consuming this stuff? Are we all just watching Queer Eye instead?
And going to the gym, I suppose. I don't know. I think gay people are just as dumbed-down as the rest of America. Maybe more so. It used to be, gays would all stand around in their tight Brooks Brothers suits, drinking martinis and having opinions about everything. That was what it was to be gay — at least, to be middle-class and gay. If you were working-class and gay, you went roller skating, or dyed your hair blonde and worked as a waitress. Now there's no pressure on anybody to read or have an opinion. There's pop culture, and there's a gay slant to pop culture, but high culture? Forget it. n°
To buy My Lives, click here.
©2006 Will Doig and Nerve.com.