13 December 2010

Book Review: The Gay Metropolis

Kaiser was a founder and former president of the New York chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He has taught journalism at Columbia and Princeton, where he was the Ferris Professor of Journalism.

I will admit that this book took me 14 years to read. My first college professor, who I was very close to, read this book when it first came out and insisted that I read it when I visited him once unannounced -- when in town. I bought the book and then carried it with me wherever I lived.

I don't think I would have appreciated it had I read it 14 years ago. I remember when I was a teenager still, he told me once that he was so "in the club" that he was out. He was in a committed long term relationship with a woman so this was even more perplexing to my young and delicate mind at the time. But, he was the father figure every gay should have. He told me about a 'slut phase' which I thought didn't apply to me. Me: "I didn't go through a slut phase." Him: "Yet."

He was gentle, steered me away from straight guys, towards Spinoza and supported my Vajrayana Buddhism, and towards an understanding of my self that resolved the conflicts that bring about self-hate in every minority. But the fruits of his planting would not come to bear until well after his death.

I found two themes running through reading Kaiser's book. One was that I couldn't put the book down. The other was that I had difficulty picking it up. To the latter, I think there is some resistance to the fact that I couldn't put it down. I grew up when AIDS was first named. I remember my mother telling me some scientists believed that people got AIDS by having sex or mixing blood. In my mind I thought of two guys naked in bed and contracting AIDS when scabs on their knees touch.

But, inescapably, my social and cultural milieu did in fact shape my understanding of myself, just in time for my gentle professor's intervention. It did not occur to me until after reading this book how powerful one authority figure (who was not gay) could be in being a positive, affirming role model. I talked to him for hours about my crushes, gay sex, religion, philosophy, politics, etc.,. It never occurred to me in my precocity how exceptional this time with him was. But it was enough to reorient me from potentially very destructive paths to which I can only thank him that we made contact.

I mention all of this because this book puts all of that in context. No one, anywhere in the world, who identifies as gay, can truly be untouched by modern American gay history. Additionally, I think it shows how, in some ways, there are parallels and in some ways, there are differences. Most of the repressive actions of the Philippine government towards gays and sexuality are actually reactions to directives by the Catholic hierarchy that have been indirectly adopted from American puritanism -- as opposed to some universal Catholic attitude towards gay politics.

This is true if we look at Brasil, Argentina or Spain and how the Catholic response there has been articulated differently and how the civil government provides for same-sex marriage and other gay civil rights protections. Of course, now after Benedict spoke on the lesser-of-evils with condoms, it will be curious if the CBCP sticks to its guns against condoms (like evangelical Protestant American preachers) or will let the RH Bill become law without threats of criminal reprisals or ecclesiastical nuclear bombs.

Every time I picked up Kaiser's book, I felt like I was transported back in time from the late 1930s until the 1990s. Part of the thread that weaves my life was exported from the US. I came to understand my professor's joking 'yet'-s about my protests to a slut phase. Instantly, the history of modern American gay culture allowed me to see, a previously, unorganized set of experiences which, in my mind, I had grouped all as gay but without further disposition or organization. This is something that my helpful professor friend/mentor was able to easily see and try to help locate me in but I was too resistant or other-focused to receive consciously then. I don't think I would have appreciated the book if I had read it when it was first new. I think I needed more time to develop and mature from when he offered it to me. But I'm glad I bought it and held it until this time, when I could appreciate it.

Okay. So I will leave you with two sets of images that I thought appropriately sum up some of the feelings I felt while reading the book.
The other leitmotif of the sixties was a feverish violence, which peaked in April 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis. The assassination of John and Robert Kennedy bracketed King's. After Bobby's killing, John Updike wondered if God had withdrawn his blessing on America. William Styron remember this decade as an era when 'one of those liberal well-intentioned people would say, 'You don't mean, do you' -- and James Baldwin would interrupt and say, 'Yes, baby, they're going to burn your house down.' (144)



The version I read was a 416 page paperback published by Houghton Mifflin (September 1997), ISBN-13: 978-0156006170. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was at abebooks.com.

2 comments:

  1. i love your book reviews on gay fiction and nonfiction books! :D Keep it up! San mo pala ito nabibili? Where exactly in manila?

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