Sep 19, 2014

The Gay Werewolf of Steppenwolf

When I was an undergraduate at Augustana College in the early 1980s, I took three German classes with tall, gray-haired, constantly-scowling Professor Weber, who was obsessed with demonstrating that homosexualitat did not exist in modern Germany.

Stefan George, Thomas Mann, the Physical Culture Movement, Robert Musil, Magnus Hirschfield, the Kit-Kat Club of Berlin between the Wars?

"Posh!  Nonsense!  About friendship and the nationalist ideal, not homosexualitat!"

He would allow no discussion of current campus favorite Steppenwolf  by Herman Hesse: "Posh!  Nonsense!  A book of monsters!  Fit only for the Late-Late Show!"

So of course, I had to read it.

The cover illustration of two nearly-naked women nearly turned me away.

As did the clueless school librarian who kept trying to point me to the music section, insisting that the book was about the rock band Steppenwolf.

But finally I managed to get a copy.

I saw immediately why Dr. Weber forbade the class from discussing it.

The protagonist, Henry Haller, feels depressed, friendless, and alienated from the world he no longer understands -- what adolescent hasn't felt like that?  Especially gay adolescents.

The source of his alienation: he is a werewolf, a man with two natures, one civilized and stable and heterosexual, the other wild.

Wild, savage, untamed, homoerotic.

While wandering aimlessly through the city, he sees an advertisement for "Magic Theater -- not for everybody." (Or, in this Spanish sign, "for lunatics only.").

 Maybe in the Magic Theater he will find a way to reconcile his two natures.  Or maybe it will lead him to oblivion.  He resolves to seek it out.

En route, he meets two people.  Hermine nurtures his "civilized" side, introducing him to the pleasures and constraints of heterosexual normalcy, including sex with women.

Seductive saxophonist Pablo offers him a "walk on the wild side."

(In the 1974 film version, Henry is played by Max von Sydow, and Pablo by Pierre Clementi).

Eventually Henry kills his "civilized side," and Pablo announces that he is ready for the Magic Theater. He walks inside, through a narrow corridor into the future.

For the gay men of my generation, it sounds precisely like your first visit to a gay bar.  You circle the block a few times, then park, and walk slowly, terrified, to that door marked "Magic Theater: Not for Everybody."  Your future lies behind it.

Hesse envisioned several other close male "walks on the wild side," in Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and Magister Ludi (1943).  

See also: Death in Venice; and Male Nudity in German Class;

Sep 18, 2014

Fall 1982: Do You Have Anything Gay?

I "figured it out" during the summer of 1978, but my real "coming out" was on September 25th, 1982,  a Saturday night during my first year in grad school at Indiana University.

As an undergraduate at Augustana College, I had worked hard, very hard, to find gay people, and I found a few -- my ex boyfriend Fred; the priest in Des Moines with three boyfriends; Professor Burton, who held handcuff parties for campus hunks.  You had to go through word of mouth, through a friend of a friend of a friend.

Now I was at a vast university with 40,000 students, and as far as I could tell from conversations and signals and interests, every single one of them was heterosexual (I had not yet met the 5 Gay Men of Eigenmann Hall).

My friends, classmates, and coworkers all, without exception, maintained the "what girl do you like?" whine of my childhood.  I had to leave Playboy magazines on my desk and think of logical reasons why I didn't have a girl on my arm every second.

My classes were as empty of gay references as they had been at Augustana.  Every writer who had ever lived was heterosexual.  Every poem ever written was written from man to women.  The Eternal Feminine infused all our lives.

And, as far as I knew, this was the way life was everywhere and for everyone.  A vast emptiness, hiding, pretending, unyielding silence.

That Saturday night I had been watching Silver Spoons and Mama's Family in the 13th floor tv lounge of Eigenmann Hall.  At 9:00, my roommate Jon said "Let's go to the grad student mixer.  I'm hot to get laid tonight."

I had no interest in getting laid.  At least, not as Jon understood it.  But I walked with him across the vast, silent campus, past empty buildings, past towers of Indiana limestone erected by heterosexuals long ago, to the Memorial Union, where a party for heterosexual grad students was in session.

Then I said goodbye and went to the campus library.  There were uncountable millions of books in the vast stacks, rooms as long as a football field, but only two listed under "homosexuality" in the card catalog: the memoirs of Tennessee Williams, and Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess, about Shakespeare's romance with the Dark Lady of the sonnets.

I walked alone down Kirkwood Avenue, past student bars and little Asian restaurants and hamburger stands.  Just before the Baskin Robbins closed at 10:00, I stopped in and bought an ice cream cone.  Two scoops, strawberry on the bottom and Rocky Road on the top.  30 years later, I still remember that ice cream cone.

There were gay bars in Omaha, and even in Rock Island, dark closet bars with nondescript names and no windows, where you entered through the back so no one could see you.  But surely Bloomington was too small for such a place.

 I stopped into a weird eclectic bookstore called the White Rabbit. No gay books -- it was illegal to display them openly, as Fred told me when I found his secret bookshelf two years ago.  So I bought a novelization of the 1980 Popeye musical starring Robin Williams, set in the port town of Sweethaven:

Sweet Sweethaven!  God must love us.
Why else would He have stranded us here?

A church tower had a cross that lit up white at night, and I looked up it and prayed "Why did you strand me here?"

I wandered for a long time through quiet residential streets, houses where heterosexual husbands and wives were asleep, their children in the next room surrounded by "what girl do you like?" brainwashing toys and games.  I walked past a public park, but was afraid to go in.  After dark, monsters roamed through the dark swaying trees.

It occurred to me that I was one of the monsters.  After all, being gay was illegal in the United States.  I was a criminal.  (Actually, Indiana's sodomy law was repealed in 1976.)

Somehow I found myself at a small, nondescript building on College Avenue.  The sign on the marquee advertised "Adult Books."

I knew about gay pornography, magazines featuring naked men - Lars told me about it during my brief modeling career, and I saw some in Omaha.  But surely regular adult bookstores wouldn't stock any. wouldn't hurt to check.  The most they could do is call me a "fag."

Screwing up my courage, I walked through the glass door, past a sign advising me that the materials could be sold only to police officers, physicians, lawyers, and scholars with a legitimate professional interest.  Ok, so I was a grad student working on a research project.

The room was brightly-lit, glaring with hundreds of images of naked women, their private parts on full display.  There was a blow-up sex doll hanging from the ceiling.  There was an aisle of lubricants, shelves of erotic candies, sex games, bondage costumes...and an obese man in a t-shirt behind a little counter, eating french fries and drinking a fast food soda.

 I found it incongruous, almost bizarre, that he was watching Love Boat on a small portable tv set.

He didn't look up as I approached.  I cleared my throat and asked in a stilted, halting voice, "Do, you have, gay?"

That was the first time I ever said the word "gay" to a stranger.

Without looking up, he jerked his thumb toward a rack in the back, by the bathroom, near the sign for "movie booths."

I expected some clandestine porn or, at best, some mimeographed newsletters.  But I found big, bold, glossy magazines: In Touch, The Advocate, and Christopher Street.

News articles!  Movie reviews!  Advice columns!  Cartoons!  Celebrity interviews!  Travel guides!

Donelan, Tom of Finland, Ethan Mordden, Quentin Crisp, Querelle, Making Love, the Stonewall Riots, Noel Coward, pink triangles, Howard Cruise, Felice Picano, Gay American History, Harvey Milk, Castro clones, Allen Ginsberg, homophobia in the military, Harry Chess, Jerry Mills, gay pride marches, pro-gay Senators, Christopher Street, Peter Berlin, bar etiquette...

Gay havens like West Hollywood, the East Village, the Castro, Dupont Circle, and Fire Island.

Maybe Bloomington was dark and closeted.  Maybe Rock Island.  Maybe even Omaha.  But somewhere, over the rainbow, gay life was bigger, louder, and more open than anything I had ever imagined.

See also: The Gayellow Pages; and Prince Charles is Gay.

Bring on the Spider-Men

I'm not a big fan of superheroes in general, and Spider-Man is at the bottom of my list.  I walked out on the first movie (2002) starring Tobey Maguire, and I've never seen The Ultimate Spider-Man, in spite of its 10 Ultimate Hunks.

So the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Night (2011-2014) was not high on my must-see list.

It was one of the most expensive musicals in history, riddled with production accidents (Spidey has a lot of web-swinging to do).

It was panned by critics, who complained that it combined the worst set-pieces of the 2002  with pretentious Greek-chorus stuff, and ignores Spidey's comic book origins.

It was certainly heterosexist, with Mary Jane being captured and melting into Spidey's arms every five minutes.

But it has something that the comic book never had:  multiple Spider-Men.

You need a lot for all the stunts, and because they keep getting injured.

Spider-Men include man-mountains like Matthew Wilkas (top photo), Reed Kelly (left), Adam Ray Dyer (below).

Jake Odmark, Justin Matthew Sargent, Matthew James Thomas, Marcus Bellamy, and on and on and on....

And the Spider-Men's costumes seem particularly bulge-worthy.  Apparently being bitten by a radioactive spider adds considerable bulk beneath the belt.  How many can you count in this curtain call of four Spidermen sans mask?

How about now, with nine Spidermen strutting their stuff on Times Square?

New productions are being planned for major cities in America and Europe, so you may yet have a chance to gawk at your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Men.