What Century Is This Anyway?

By White, Edmund | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), June 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

What Century Is This Anyway?


White, Edmund, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Just when you thought it was to be lulled into the romantic notion of monogamy, EDMUND WHITE, acclaimed novelist, journalist, and creative writing professor, launches a full frontal attack of the mere thought of being sexually faithful to only one person

In the 1970s, the early triumphant years of liberation bracketed by Stonewall and AIDS, no gay man would ever have imagined that two decades later there would be an issue of The Advocate dedicated to a serious discussion of monogamy, of all loopy things.

In those years young gays in New York, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., thought monogamy was something heterosexual and historic, a practice that was neither possible nor desirable for gays to imitate.

We noticed that straights were faithful for a variety of reasons, none relevant to us. Marriage was an economic pact in which fidelity was essential to maintain a stable home for kids and, in more traditional societies, to ensure the purity of bloodlines--only the wife's chastity could assure the father that the children he was raising, and to whom he would pass on his property, were really his, The family was primarily an economic institution, and monogamy guaranteed that it would remain a closed corporation.

For us gay guys, however, who couldn't marry each other or propagate with our lovers and who seldom stood to gain anything material from our affairs, sex was based on spontaneous attraction and love on nothing but affection.

We also couldn't help noticing that the 19th-century ideal of the bourgeois companionate marriage--in which the faithful husband and wife are each other's best friend, helpmeet, coparent, and sole sexual partner--hadn't worked out all that well. My generation watched our parents, then our friends and brothers and sisters, separating at a faster and faster rate until 1 out of every 2 marriages ended in divorce.

Not only did we observe, that the marital ideal was a flop, even for those straights who had been carefully coached on how to make it work, but we also thought it was hopelessly dreary. We'd seen the loneliness of the suburbs, the alcoholism and mental disorders of family members--or, what was almost worse, the long-suffering colorlessness of neighbors, their persistent but never critical depression. We'd known firsthand the domestic violence perpetrated by Daddy in his cups as well as Mom's pledge to foster soul-killing conformity.

We suspected that most of the straight couples we knew weren't having sex at all, an abstinence suggested by a general corpulence in which food had replaced fornication. We learned early and repeatedly that even if we wanted to pull up a chair, there was no room for us at the groaning suburban table and that we'd never be considered virtually normal. When we confessed our perversion to priest or parent, we were attacked not so much because we lusted after other men but because we lusted at all. Sexuality was the problem, not homosexuality. Hadn't all our relatives abnegated their sexual ambitions in the interest of stability, gardening, dinner, career?

Imagine our delight when we finally left Kalamazoo and were set loose on Manhattan! Suddenly the streets were thronged with other gay refugees, and the self-evident way to celebrate all this, well, availability was through delirious, riotous promiscuity.

Simultaneously many straight men and women were also kicking over the traces. I remember that when a heterosexual scabrous magazine, Screw, reviewed my 1980 States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, the critic said, "What Mr. White doesn't seem to understand is that the cities where he has detected gay life are also the the only places in puritan America where straight life is happening in pleasurable abundance."

Promiscuity, no matter how much fun, never replaced the need for intimacy, but we felt that closeness could come in many forms and that it could be experienced with several people. …

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