Category Archives: Queer … Plus All Those Acronyms
As painful as it is to say—and I write as someone for whom Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was an integral and beloved part of my coming out lo, these 40 years ago—his new memoir, Logical Family, is wan and prosaic and, with the exception of a few chapters, disappointingly dull. In fact, Logical Family highlights (presumably unintentionally) one of the inescapable facts about Maupin as an author: he’s not an especially great writer.
To be sure, he hit that trifecta of perfect timing, excellent luck, and great connections with Tales, and he created characters who were familiar and deeply haimish for anyone who lived in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s—or who simply dreamed of it, as so many of us did. This was, of course, decades before San Francisco was officially taken off life support and declared not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Oz is no more: but it was once, and Maupin both documented and helped invent it.
With that considerable credit being given where it is certainly due, let us be honest and say that Maupin is no prose stylist (I might make an exception for The Night Listener), and that weakness is on display in this memoir. Written in relentless chronology (“I did this, then I did that, and next I did the other thing”), Logical Family never precisely catches fire. There are, to be sure, sparks when Maupin writes, in his concluding chapters, about his parents, but that’s an exception.
More than anything, Logical Family leaves a lot unsaid: How did Maupin make the transition from being the scion of a Confederate-flag-loving, military-worshiping, right-wing family to queer activism? Other than perceiving the need to defend himself and his friends against the homophobic, North Carolingian nonsense he grew up with, did he interrogate and overcome the other ugly phobias and prejudices of his natal environment? (Interestingly, having a queer son or brother seemed to have affected his arch-conservative father and Trump-voting brother not at all—surely that left a mark.) And what really made Maupin so reticent—as a military officer surrounded by men who were either literally throwing themselves at him or who were, at least, available—to lose his virginity? In Logical Family, all that becomes a series of wry anecdotes, but don’t expect Maupin to reflect deeply on his self-constructed closet.
A secondary irritation of the book is Maupin’s awkward name dropping; more than one chapter begins with some version of this: “When my friend, [INSERT NAME OF HOLLYWOOD STAR], invited me….” Yes, I suppose it was important, both for the truth of his history and for book sales, to include those names, but was there really no less self-conscious way to do it? As a case in point, Maupin’s relationship with “Rock” becomes wearying in its superficiality. Hudson is but another anecdote, and there is very little there, there. (Christopher Isherwood, on the other hand, manages to come to life in Maupin’s story.)
What most clearly emerges in Logical Family is that Maupin is a nice guy who avoids controversy, doesn’t dwell on negatives, is generally pleased with himself and his life, and never met a bygone he wouldn’t pat on its back and send on its way. The question then perhaps becomes whether that’s the sort of guy who ought be writing a memoir about his part in one of America’s most important social movements or about his survival of one of history’s great plagues. Maupin is, in significant ways, the grandfather of us all, and he merits respect and gratitude, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish he’d written a better memoir.
Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors is trash. Not the provocative hilarity-inducing trash of a John Waters film or AbFab, but rather the kind of slimy, mean-spirited, exploitative, contempt-for-the-reader trash that you’d expect more in a supermarket tabloid than in a nonfiction title that purports to tell the true story of a series of puzzling murders.
In fact, though Orth never lets the reader forget she was on the Cunanan beat for Vanity Fair even before Versace was killed, the quality of her prose, the toxic levels of lead in nearly every paragraph, the repetition of catch phrases and clichés all belong to the style of The National Enquirer and not to serious crime journalism, which is where Orth appears to believe her book should place her.
To put it more bluntly: what is true in Vulgar Favors comes largely from newspaper clippings and the public record, and what is false is the other 9/10 of the book.
For those interested in a badly plotted novel starring a character based on Andrew Cunanan, Vulgar Favors may do the trick. But Orth has virtually no independent knowledge about the case (though it must be admitted that she solicited an astonishing amount of gossip), or about Cunanan or Versace, which leaves her to her powers of fantasy. To be sure, sustaining invention, even at the dilute level of Vulgar Favors, is a challenge, and yet Orth is so singularly bad at it.
Given that all but nothing is known about why Cunanan did what he did, his motives and motivation can only be ascribed. Orth, however, demonstrates no detectable ability to enter into the psychology of her main character (or any character, including Versace), leading her to populate her book with cardboard cutouts painted with the deft hand of a Jerry Springer or a Maury Povich.
One of the most spectacularly galling features of Vulgar Favors, however, is Orth’s fulminant, reprehensible homophobia. Or perhaps that is the second most galling aspect of this book, and the first is Orth’s habit, just as she is about to serve up some distasteful, titillating “truth” regarding “homosexual culture,” of announcing that the tidbit in question came from a gay journalist or a gay informant, or a gay friend of Cunanan’s. In other words, Maureen Orth wants you to know that she is an objective reporter of inconvenient truths and has certainly not included such details in her book solely for the pleasure of insinuating something too deliciously filthy to leave out—or because her credentials (such as they are) as a journalist provided the ideal cover for a low-tech gay-bashing.
Her credulousness about gay men’s lives in the United States, and in particular in cities like San Francisco and Miami, would be painful if it reflected naïveté, but this is no act of naïveté.
Rather, it is Orth’s deliberate, malicious, all-engulfing desire to draw every raunchy, seamy detail out to the limits of the fervid homophobic imagination, embellish it, and repeat it at studied intervals as a strategy for reinforcing the idea that there was something insidiously, darkly “queer” about Cunanan’s murder spree—and to imply that all but one of his victims, and especially his most famous victim, were, if not deserving of their fates, at least (amorphously) complicit.
The fact that Orth continuously harps on a supposed seconds-long meeting between Cunanan and Versace in a San Francisco club at some ill-defined moment in the past, which Orth manages to parlay into “met several times,” is an important example. Of course, Orth allows no one to forget it was she who “confirmed” this “fact,” although, in fairness, what she calls confirmation is little more than hearsay. Even if Cunanan and Versace had met, it isn’t clear what relevance that would have to the murders—unless the reader believes, as it is quite clear Orth wishes the reader to believe, that Cunanan was provoked to murderous fury because Versace had infected him with HIV.
Now, Cunanan did not have HIV at his death (though he may have thought he did at one point), and it remains a point of controversy whether or not Versace was HIV-positive, a question that will never be resolved thanks to the legal shenanigans of a flotilla of high-priced lawyers mobilized by Versace’s bloody-minded, image-besotted siblings.
Having introduced the concept, however, it becomes possible for Orth to hint, both subtly and not—that the murder of Versace was a revenge-motivated assassination. (Note the book’s subtitle.) If it wasn’t HIV, then perhaps it was that Versace had involved Cunanan in some sort of circle of boy- or drug-procurement that turned sour, or perhaps it was that Versace had promised Cunanan fame and fortune and then reneged, or maybe it was just that Cunanan was psychopathically jealous of Versace’s success and ostentation and needed to murder the designer as the symbol of everything he desired but could never attain.
Yes, the analysis is just that deep.
Vulgar Favors was written twenty years ago, which still provides no excuse for Orth’s delight in salacious detail and sexual innuendo, nor for her distorted pronouncements regarding gay men’s lives, which she delivers with anthropological, Meadian certainty. Perhaps at this distance, she has developed the strength of character to be ashamed of her book, but one tends to doubt it.
In any event, what becomes clear is that delivering these dispatches from the exotic, repellent—and yet endlessly fascinating—tribes of the sex-mad, fetish-driven, drug-addled homosexual underground, of the depraved and soulless super-rich was Orth’s real purpose in writing Vulgar Favors.
Because this is the space that Orth occupies as a writer—a world in which she deploys words like “lifestyle” and “jet-setting” in blissful ignorance that she is trite, unconscious of her evident envy of those who enjoy great fame and great riches even as she condemns them for moral corruption and shallowness. (For more examples of Orth’s style, look no farther than the breathless, voyeuristic hack job she committed on Michael Jackson in her reportage for Vanity Fair between 1994 and 2005; or her most recent book, The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex, Orth’s slavering exposé of “the big room where the rules that govern mere mortals don’t matter.”)
Vulgar Favors is, to be sure, offensive and scandal-mongering, vacuous and devoid of insight, smutty and sneering, but what elevates the book to the level of tragicomedy is Orth’s clear belief that, in writing it, she was practicing something akin to genuine journalism.
Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me is a slight book, and its breeziness and lack of depth will either strike a reader as charming and flâneur-like or will be irritating in the extreme.
What is called a memoir is actually little more than a commonplace book, including extracts of diaries, snippets of conversation, and notes taken with studied casualness and later transcribed into the text. The low point of this approach comes when Hayes describes replacing Sacks’ typewriter ribbon. Testing the new ribbon, the latter strikes random keys and types nonsense phrases, all of which Hayes dutifully reproduces in a two-page spread. It’s hard to avoid the sense that one is watching a doting mother hang her two-year-old’s incomprehensible fingerpainting in an expensive frame over the family mantle.
Throughout Insomniac City, in fact, Oliver Sacks is constantly performing Oliver Sacks for the delectation of his amanuensis Hayes; and Hayes never stops elbowing the reader to say, “Isn’t Oliver wonderful? Doesn’t he have a brilliant mind?” Anecdotes about “the great man” abound, but they remain sterile.
On his own, Hayes eccentrically tools around New York having “experiences,” offering $20 bills to homeless people and chatting with strangers, the quintessential ecotourist in other people’s existences.
The glimpses that Hayes offers into his and Sacks’ intimate relationship are tantalizing but vague, with a kind of maidenly lack of specificity that is out-of-place in a book whose entire purpose for existing is the relationship between the two men. Hayes is, after all, the reason that Sacks ended a period of celibacy that spanned more than 30 years, about which the public is evidently going to learn nothing more in this lifetime. Sacks doesn’t say much about it in his autobiography, published shortly before his death, and Hayes follows suit.
There would have been no need for pornographic detail, surely, but a bit more candor about the late-in-life relationship of two men, one of whom was nearly 40 years older than the other, would have been both useful and appropriate.
Instead, Insomniac City feels oddly and, one suspects, deliberately de-gayed to serve the needs of its high-end mainstream publisher and of its hip and urbane “New Yorker” public who are surrounded by gay people but really don’t want to talk about them all that much.
Hayes is too in love with his own beautiful little phrases to focus on substance, and, apart from noting that the prose is ornate, a reader might be forgiven for wondering why so much air has been pumped into the spaces between the words.
In the end, Insomniac City feels very much like “Oliver Sacks: The Souvenir Program,” pretty, superficial, and forgettable.
After Orlando, we weren’t all “#JeSuisCharlie.”
We weren’t all “#WeAreParis.”
The hashtags #WeAreGay and #WeAreLesbian, never mind #WeAreQueer or #WeAreTrans, never “trended.”
The Eiffel Tower, the White House, Facebook profiles didn’t get painted in the rainbow colors of the gay-pride flag.
There was very little #GayLivesMatter (6,920 hits for that hashtag online; 588,000 for #JeSuisCharlie”; 414,000 for #BlackLivesMatter).
Let me be clear: I don’t actually wish for any those things.
I am deeply ambivalent about—no, I’m completely appalled by—the way social media turn tragedy into a brand that people can wear, for a time, like a designer label. Until that fashion goes out of style.
And I understand that #BlackLivesMatter has a genuine social agenda, whereas #GayLivesMatter, to the extent that it exists, is nothing more than a virtual slogan. There’s no comparison really. I don’t argue otherwise.
But it is one week later, and the attack on queer people at a nightclub in Orlando is already fading from the media. Cecil the Lion got more time.
Republicans have succeeded—I think we have to acknowledge this—in shifting the discourse from queer bashing to “terrorism.” They’ve managed to whitewash and straightwash the 102 victims so that they are simply “human” and no longer queer, no longer brown.
Or they were brown alone and “only some” were gay, as Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) put it three days after the attack. Because that would have made things worse. Or better. I can’t tell.
We have to admit that Trump’s message that he will stamp out “radical Islam”—and, thus, would be best for the gays (though he promises to undo marriage equality and opposes all federal anti-discrimination legislation)—has won him voters among gay people.
But still. It is one week later.
I don’t want everyone to “BeOrlando.” Rainbow colors on everything wouldn’t make me feel better, wouldn’t make anyone feel better, wouldn’t bring anyone back, wouldn’t heal the wounded, wouldn’t make gay bars feel safe again, wouldn’t make life feel safe again, wouldn’t take away the sting of hearing over and over how we deserved to die/deserve to die porque la Biblia dice así….
So no, I don’t want memes or hashtags or gay-flag profile generators. I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone into doing those things now, and I don’t think less of anyone for not doing them sooner.
All I’m saying is that I noticed.
My rhetorical question for Tuesday morning: If Omar Mateen had been inspired to kill queers by the teachings of the Westboro Baptist Church rather than by the teachings of ISIS, would we be calling the Orlando massacre an act of “terrorism”?
The United States of NRA want us to believe in terrorism because that makes us feel scared. We’ll accept the lack of gun regulation—hell, we might even buy a gun. We’ll accept unfettered
spying intelligence-gathering on American citizens.
Anything, in fact, as long as it doesn’t require addressing why so many Americans hate—hate women, hate queer people, hate transgender people, hate black and brown people—enough to kill them.
The media and too much of the public—dragged along by the idiot rhetoric of self-serving politicians—continue to insist that Islam and Muslims are the problem.
They refuse to acknowledge that the real problem was hating queer people.
Because, in a lot of cases, that would require them to bomb themselves.