Lance Loud: Rage Against the Dying of the Light
Last night I caught a rerun of the 2002 PBS documentary about the life (but mostly about the death) of Lance Loud, “A Death in An American Family,” and was surprisingly moved. I don’t think there’s any question that he was a shallow, superficial, bitchy, pop-culture whore, but it was helpful to see that that’s not all he was. In my email this morning are a number of messages about Lance and his life, all of which have the basic them: “Was Lance Loud a tragic queen?”
He was certainly fairly miserable in his personal life, as must anyone be who spends 20 years as a meth addict, loses his ability to write, never manages to sustain a love relationship beyond the cold light of morning, and is crippled by periodic bouts of clinical depression. He lived, in a way, like a character from Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (or maybe just one of the characters from Faggots).
But he was beautiful and charming and vivacious and was willing to screw anything that walked (or, perhaps more accurately, to get screwed by anything that walked, which is partly how he ended up the way he did).
And, while anyone who watched the series (or the “final chapter” documentary) had to recognize that Lance wasn’t especially bright or even witty (more goofy than anything), he had some talent for music and for journalism (he’s said to have been a great interviewer), and perhaps he had a talent for being famous. Though, in fact, like a lot of gilded gay boys who get caught up in the false promises of a certain stratum of queer life in NYC and Los Angeles (Alan Helms’ Young Man from the Provinces comes to mind), he thought he was narrowing in on fame when the only thing he was actually offered was notoriety. I don’t think he realized the bait-and-switch had taken place until he was near death.
But last night’s documentary reminded me of dear, dead friends like Micheal Milligan, a dancer who was so like Lance in many ways (though he was neither famous nor notorious). He lived, not to put too fine a point on it, for beauty, and I’ve no one left in my circle who is as funny, as outrageous, as stylish, or as highly cultured (in the best sense of the phrase). Like Lance, he privately nursed his injuries and his depressions and the emotional deprivations of his upbringing. He ingested too many drugs, had too much sex w/people who didn’t mean anything to him, and simply refused (at least as official policy) to take anything seriously.
Dying, of course, rather demands to be taken seriously, and so Micheal sobered up in time to die and so, apparently, did Lance.
Sure, Lance did a certain amount of whining about how life didn’t turn out as he’d hoped. So did Micheal. But, while I may find it difficult to bear, I think it’s unfair to dismiss such complaints as a personal failing, because part of what is being said is that a promise was held out to them that was never fulfilled. And I think that’s a legitimate complaint. In part, that promise is the siren song of urban queer life: Being young and beautiful is a sufficient purpose for a life. Good drugs and invitations to the right parties are enough. Celebrity is enough. Access to hot men is enough.
Why shouldn’t you believe it? Who wouldn’t want to believe it? And then, when it turns out not to be true, whom do you sue? Some gay boys never figure it out, though they’re not alone in that — there are also plenty of straight boys who won’t grow up. And in part the lie is the standard lie of American middle-class life, which doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in its ability to fuck with your head. But I still say there’s a version of that tragedy that is unique to and endemic among urban fags. It’s why Sutherland (back to Dancer from the Dance) says queens are doomed. It is doom, if you can’t recover from the broken promise.
Or let me put it another way. I don’t think we have to succumb to being doomed queens or tragic queers; by now, if you can’t see another model for gay life, you just aren’t paying attention. But I think many of us still groom for doom. If you want something to replace superficiality and glitz, you have to dig for it. If you want to age with dignity, you’ve got to be fearless in carving that niche out for yourself. If you want relationship, you have to be a warrior whose quest is for others who possess more genuine gravitas than genuine Givency.
None of that comes to us as the milk of the (sub)culture; in fact, quite the opposite.
So I can’t dismiss Lance as just a “whiner.” Instead, I think he’s an indictment. How did we let someone so handsome, so original, so charming, so promising turn into a drug addict who killed himself with sex? There’s no doubt that Lance had free will and agency and all of that, and there’s no doubt that he failed himself. But if there’s such a thing a gay culture, it failed him, too. That’s the thought that has me pensive today.