I've loved the author Patrick Dennis since I was a kid, and first ventured over from the kid's side of the local branch library over to the adult section. My mom was an avid reader, and a woman of good taste besides; she made recommendations of three books that more or less formed the cornerstones of my grown-up literary tastes.
One of them was Dennis's Auntie Mame. Even to a twelve-year-old, it was funny. Dennis built his literary style on a foundation of what I instinctively recognized was high camp—frivolous, artificial, exaggerated, and essentially feminine, despite the fact the author had a penis. (That Dennis had a couple of best-sellers under a female pseudonym really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.)
Dennis was a gay man who attempted—at least at first—to live the straight life. It didn't last. His wife knew about his sexuality; his children learned about it at a very young age, during the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties when his popularity was at its peak. His sexuality infuses all his work, manifesting itself in just about everything he wrote. The titular heroine of Auntie Mame is in essence a big ol' drag queen whose escapades are a rush of sequins, Chanel No. 5, and martini vodka. She's the spiritual mother to Patsy and Eddy in Absolutely Fabulous, and hundreds of other strong-willed, don't-give-a-damn fictional females revered by gay men.
And that's the way most of Dennis's books read—sharp, incisive, pungent, and marked by a thoroughly gay sensibility that increases with every title. It reached an apex in Little Me, in which Dennis and photographer Cris Alexander (who passed away last month, god bless him) essentially assembled a cast of dozens of their gay friends and family (including Alexander's hunky husband, with whom he spent most of a lifetime) to play dress-up and write the fictional celebrity autobiography of a D-list has-been talentless actress. Little Me is a total stitch, and was a best-seller. Surprising, since it's essentially thickly peppered with in-jokes that only its gay audience would recognize.
But as gay-inclusive as Dennis's novels were for their Mad Men era, there's an element of self-loathing that runs through the books as well, tangible and unmistakable. The gay men tend to be effeminate lispers who mince through the pages with limp wrists. They pay too much attention to their looks; they groom too well; they fall in love with straight men and are exposed for the silly fools they are. They live on the periphery of the novels, informing—if not forming—the books' tone, but never amounting to anything much.
I was reminded of this strange, but perhaps understandable, dichotomy when I picked up a copy of Dennis's next-to-last novel, Paradise, this week—the story of twenty strangers in a vacation guest house, on a peninsula in Acapulco that becomes an island after a freak earthquake. I'd loved the book in my adolescence. Loved it. I'd read it over and over again—even more than either of the two Mame books or Genius, which is my favorite Dennis title these days. But I'd not read it since I was twenty, because the copy I owned disappeared while I was in college, and I'd not been able since to find a reasonably-priced replacement.
Someone was offering a low-cost, good-condition first edition on Amazon, though. So I splurged, and settled in to revisit an old favorite. And immediately I was astonished at what a nasty book it was. The characters are mean, and vicious, and seemingly have not a good quality between them to squabble about. The book's lone lesbian is a sexless creature whose only purpose is to spout art-school nonsense and be verbally bitch-slapped by men for her pretentiousness. The gay men are all silly little queens who fall into hysterics over a chipped nail, and who snipe and bitch at each other in ways that aren't just stereotyped, but have been so heavily trod into the ground over the years that they're practically interred. The other characters sneer at them and murmur about 'tatty little faggots' and 'small-town faggotry.' The main gay character attempts suicide after his boyfriend leaves him.
It's depressing, and the book is so cynical and ugly that about a quarter of the way through I found myself thinking, I used to love this book? What the fuck? It's horrible! Why?!
Well, part of the reason is that the book's about who can and can't prove himself in the face of adversity. After the earthquake that strands the book's characters from the mainland, it's up for the cast of unpleasant characters to fend for their lives. Some rise to the occasion and ennoble themselves. Others don't, and have to face the specters of their own failures. It takes some establishing of a bunch of nasty people before that happens, though.
But the real reason I liked the novel so much, I remembered, is because it contained the first gay sex scene in a novel that I ever encountered. Yes. Typical, no? I encountered better sex scenes in John Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw not very long after. But the gay sex in Paradise was the first. When I ran across the passages this last week, I nodded with a rush of memory and nostalgia, "Ah, yes."
Now, Paradise's sex isn't that explicit. It's not explicit at all, in fact. Basically what happens is that there's a wealthy gay guy (runs a boutique decorated with pink silk, acts in exquisite productions in his community theater, worries about his manicure when he attempts suicide later on), who is sugar daddy to his cheap whore of a boyfriend (former bus boy, muscular, dumb, predatory). While the sugar daddy is showering, the cheap whore comes on to a Mexican room service waiter. He lets his robe slip off him, slowly. His hand traces over his skin, flushed warm from the Acapulcan sun. "Hhhhhot," he says.
The waiter places his hand on the whore's skin. "Si, señor," he agrees. "Hhhhhhot."
And that's about it for the sex scene. No, really. The whore then gives the waiter a Hershey Bar as a promise of things to come, and nothing more happens.
But for twelve-year-old me, reading that scene for the first time? I was like, GOD DAMN!
There's also a scene later in the book in which the wealthy faggot (hey, if everyone in the book can call him that, so can I) picks up a pornographic novel that's all the rage among his 'artistic' friends. It's about a romance between a cowboy and an Indian (not a Native American . . . we weren't there yet in 1971) and the glimpses we get from it are all about a thick shaft rising from between copper loins, and the heroes declaring their love for each other. That kind of thing. It's very brief, and now I realize it's obviously a parody of Gordon Merrick novels (Merrick had come out with his first breakout book just the year before Paradise hit the shelves) but still. To a horny twelve-year-old? NICE!
Now, I was actually having sex at twelve, and I don't recall whether that took place before or after my reading of Paradise that same year. It didn't matter. What was not so important to me as a kid, encountering these brief glimpses into gay sex in novels, was not the sex itself (though I do remember masturbating over it, hhhhhot as it was), but the fact that for the very first time in a book, I kind of saw myself included.
I read a lot as a kid. I've been a lifelong reader. I read a lot about kids who stumbled on magic objects, in my youth, or kids who had fantastic adventures when their guardians were absent from the house for weeks and months at a time. I was not one of those kids. When I ventured over to the adult side of the library, I started reading about grown-ups whose only impulses were male-female relationships based on true, 'normal,' heterosexual love. I sensed rather early that I was not one of those, either.
The gay characters in Dennis's novels might have been tatty, and small-minded, and more obsessed with their ascot scarves and manicures that I like today, but boy, in an era in which gay men got very little representation at all, I was ready to take what I could get. Even if it was Uncle Arthur in Bewitched. And that's why I thrilled to those sex scenes, brief and silly as they were. For the very first time ever, I could see some reflection of my own life, my desires, perhaps my future, in the pages of a published book. That meant a lot to me. And hey. Maybe it meant in the future that I, too, could have my own hot Mexican waiter.
Of course, these post-Will and Grace days, we take representation for granted. We have task forces that chide networks when they don't have enough gay characters on their TV shows. We have an abundance of excellent literature aimed at gay and lesbian youth, and all kinds of literature for all kinds of young adults in which non-heterosexual relationships are accepted and common. For someone who grew up with only a few glimpses of 'small-town faggotry' and copper loins as a guidepost, I think the change is remarkable—and welcome.
I'm curious about my readers, though, since I know I have a wide range of ages who check in. Whether on TV, in the movies, or between the pages of a book, what was your first childhood or teen encounter with fictional gay characters, and how did they affect your own vision of yourself? Were you happy to see them? Horrified at the way they were portrayed? When you revisit that material now, how does it make you feel? Let me know how you feel in today's open forum—I'm really interested in your experiences.