The Lonely Man and "Looking for Langston"
Stalking... the neighborhood is dangerous, but we go there we walk the long way, our jangling keys mute the sound of our stalking to be under the sky above or below a man this is our heat radiant in the night our hands blister with feeling a field of flowers blossoms where we gather in empty warehouses our sea falls without the sound or the grace of stars we lurk in shadows we are the hunger of shadows In the dark we don't have to say "I love you" The dark swallows it, And sighs like we sigh when we rise from our knees. I am lonely for past kisses wild lips certain streets breed for pleasure... Romance is a foxhole. This kind of war frightens me I don't want to die sleeping with soldiers I don't love I want to court outside the race, outside the class, outside the attitudes But love is a dangerous word in this small town Those who seek it are sometimes found face-down, floating on their beds Those who find it protect or destroy it from within But the disillusioned, those who've lost the stardust, the moondance, the waterfront, Like them I long for my past. When I was 10, 13, 20, I wanted candy, five dollars, a ride... --- Essex Hemphill, Various poems quoted in Looking for Langston
"...Love is a dangerous word in this small town" says th voice as two leather men meet in a graveyard at night. The kiss each other, their faces hidden in the shadows, the colo of their skin difficult to perceive but defined by thei features. The boots of these men have been treading on dea leaves, looking for a sexual encounter, lurking behind pal statues of unnamed angels. A third man watches as tear stream down his face. A contained sighÜperhaps o frustration, cartainly of lonelinessÜ shakes his fram as the voice speaks to him, itself seeking a place among "the disillusioned, those who've lost the stardust, the moondance the waterfront..."
The gay culture in which the lonely man in this scene fro Looking for Langston is embedded excludes certain peopl systematically through its quest for definition. The man, a a gay man looking for love, finds his words and idea silenced by the dark, which swallows the I love you's an "sighs like we sigh when we rise from our knees." Th darkness is the essence, the force of a mainstream ga culture. It is the strength of an oppressive definition o inclusion and exclusion. Its desire to generalize it members' experience to every gay man's experience determine who is in and who is not; it defines who identifies and wh does not. The two leathermen are not only representative o anonymity and hookup: they represent that which the lonel man is not, their sexuality not only being gay but als white.
The racial dynamics within Looking for Langston are eviden from the first moment at which two black men look at eac other. The white dandy with the oleaginous hair resents it and through a command that carries with it the power of whip while seeming like a tantrum manages to assert th domination that his color allows him. The racial dynami emerges when the white dandy takes out a roll of dollar bill from the headboard of his bed and offers it to the black ma as compensation for his services. The dynamic emerges whe the white dandy walks through a room full of Mapplethorp photographs and caresses them lustfully as the voic highlights his own misunderstanding of their humanity and hi own reduction of these people into wild sexual objects.
Looking for Langston is self-conscious of its blackness an its homosexuality. The dynamics of exclusion and cultura hegemony can be expanded further to describe the reality o the man with desire for men yet alienated from a "ga culture" with which he is supposed to identify if he is t describe himself as gay. Gay culture becomes a weapon o control, one which forces behavior into a pre-determine pattern rather than allowing full self-expression. Lookin for Langston becomes a critique not only of a white notion o black sexuality; it takes on an Urban Gay culture that, i its purported openness and acceptance of difference reall contains within it similar limitations to self-developmen and individual liberty. Social isolation becomes the metho through which urban gay culture exerts its hegemony presenting itself as the legitimate form of homosexuality.
"If you look straight, act straight, and think straight, wh bother being gay?" asks Daniel Mendelsohn in an article fo New York magazine. His definition of gay action an gay behavior maintains that gay culture's forte is to "stan on the margins and throw shade" (29). Its essence lies in style and fashion regardless of purpose; the theatricality of ACT-UP' demonstrations reflecting more of a "gay" aesthetic than th coalition work of an organization like the Treatment Actio Group (TAG) Mendelsohn describes. Mendelsohn emphasizes th role of style in the formation of a Gay Culture, an highlights how
style, whether verbal, sartorial, or social, has bee inextricably linked with urban gay culture pretty much sinc the moment when the word homosexual was first coinedÜno coincidentally, just as Oscar Wilde began offering the worl his glitteringly arch critiques of bourgeois Victoria convention. Ever since, gay culture has played Wilde to th world's London, using style as a pin to prick the certaintie and presumptions of the "normal" universe. You see tha sensibility at work from Wilde and Noël Coward to Larr Kramer and Tony Kushner. [...] And you see it even i everyday gay life, where the emphasis on stylization made th most banal routines like breakfast into tableaux worthy o Vincente Minelli (26).
Mendelsohn equates stylistic edge and kitschiness with "gay" and asserts that "if you take away both the edge and th kitsch, there's not much leftÜand what remains doesn' look all that different from what you find in straigh culture" (28). Membership in gay culture, then, depends o the acquisition, possession or development of an aestheti sensibility somehow absent from the straigh worldÜsomehow connected to sexual desire. Gay culture i restricted to the world of the risqué aesthete and o the loud and out activist. The content of recent novels whic "aren't noticeably different from anything else you see a Barnes & Noble"(29) and with have "moved beyond outla sexuality to focus on topics that connect gay experience t larger social and familial currents"(30) falls in the sam category as the work of TAG volunteers with pharmaceutica companiesÜ elided from gay culture for not living up t the aesthetic standards of Mendelsohn's Gay Culture.
Other writers, however, strive to move away from the realit that Mendelsohn longs for. David Leavitt, in his Introduction to The Penguin Book of Ga Short Stories, articulates what eventually became his ow longing, "a gay literature that, rather than fawning ove angels made flesh, transformed homosexual experience int human drama; a gay literature that was literature first an gay second" (xix). As a writer with many identities h doesn't feel any particular affinity toward the pining fo aesthetic perfection that the widely-available gay novel offered him as he grew up, in which "the obsession with mal beauty is an intrusive element" (xix, author's emphasis) Leavitt describes his longing as a teenager "to read a nove in which the gay characters were neither reduced to subhuman nor elevated to a superhuman level... a novel tha told something like the truth" (xvi). He describes how h becomes more and more conscious of the assumption in popula and literary pre-eighties gay texts that the realms o heterosexuality and homosexuality are divided by a "irrevocable gulf" (xxi). Identifying as gay became not onl "to announce oneself", but to
change one's way of dressing, speaking, thinking; in man cases it required a literal relocation, to San Francisco' Castro district or New York's Greenwich Village, or in th summer, to Fire Island, Provincetown, Key West. Thes neighborhoods became meccas for gay men eager to live free though not always untroubled by the knowledge that in joinin their fellow "tribesmen" they were, in effect, acceptin residency in a realm that was separate and only perhap equal: a realm of bars and pornographic card shops and mor bars and more pornographic card shops. (xxii
Leavitt expresses his own resentment at the idea that i coming out he would be thrust into a culture that caused hi fearÜnot out of internalized homophobia or any othe such pseudo-psychological malady, but out of fear that i coming out he would have to redefine himself completely an sever ties to his family, his heterosexual friends, and th culture in which he grew up.
Identification as gay within the gay urban culture for whic Mendelsohn is apologizing implies the submission of all of person's identities into one "gay" identity, one in whic sexuality becomes a determinant of what should b appreciated, valued and respected. As such, Urban Gay Cultur becomes a colonizing power, one which leaves only lonelines as an alternative to its imperial fist. Its icons must becom the icons of the newly out under penalty of ostracism by th only visible group that could possibly provide support; it cultural practices must become the practices of th colonized. Eventually sexual desire becomes intertwined wit cultural behavior such that the distinction ceases to b drawn between a person's character and a person's sexuality.
The colonialism of Gay Culture differs from more invasiv forms of colonialism, however, in that those who become it subjects eventually become colonialists themselves. Thei identity as members of Gay Culture begins to override thei other identities. Assoto Saint's introduction to the collection The Roa Before Us aids in emphasizing this point, as he describe the debate he had to resolve with the contributors to th volume:
Afrocentrists in our community have chosen the term "blac gay" to identify themselves. As they insist, black come first. Interracialists in our community have chosen the ter "gay black" to identify themselves. As they insist, gay come first. Both groups' self-descriptions are ironicall erroneous. It's not which word comes first that matters, bu rather the grammatical context in which those words are use Ü either as an adjective or as a noun. An adjective is modifier of a noun. The former is dependent on the latter (xix
Saint's most provocative statement comes in later, when h cites Mark Thompson's work Gay Spirit as saying tha "Gay implies a social identity and consciousness activel chosen, while homosexual refers to a specific form o sexuality." Saint concludes the statement, asserting that " person may be gay, but not necessarily homosexual" (xx) Saint concurs with Mendelsohn, then, in that "gay" refers no necessarily to the choice of a sexual object, but also t acceptance of and participation in a Gay Culture. "I am ver proud of my gayness, which is not to be confused wit homosexuality" (xix), Saint says.
This culture that Saint defends, however, is formed aroun the difference created by a marginalized form of sexua desire. Leavitt maintains that the gay culture of the ga ghetto is created by the people who don't live within it straight people who will see the gay person only as ga (xxii). He, however, moves away from Mendelsohn's and Saint' acceptance of this cultural hegemony, of this notion o "gayness", and describes a new kind of liberation, "one tha would allow gay men and lesbians to celebrate thei identities without having to move into a gulag" (xxii).
A similar rejection of that cultural hegemony emerges withi Joseph Beam's introduction to the volum In the Life. Beam describes, more forcefully tha Leavitt, how "clearly, gay male means: white, middle-class youthful, nautilized and probably butch; there is no room fo Black gay men within the confines of this gay pentagon (14-15). The exclusion present in the definition is the sam exclusion that Mendelsohn and Saint posit: there is standard by which things can be categorized into "gay" an "not gay", in which expressions by homosexual men can be lef out of the realm of things gay. The definition converts th world of once marginalized men into a world that can affor to marginalize others.
Beam's frustration with the restrictive representations o male homosexuality in literature is summarized in the openin lines to In the Life: "All the protagonists are blond all the Blacks are criminal and negligible" (13, author' emphasis). The same dynamics of racial exclusion emerge i both gay writing and writing by the heterosexual mainstream the same set of power dynamics wherein the only place for th black man is either as sexual object or as subordinate to th life of the gay men (the white men, the stylistically awar men). Beam summarizes the types of literature available t him as an employee of a gay, lesbian and feminist bookstore Giovanni's Room,
...literature by white gay men who fell, quite easily, int three camps: the incestuous literati of Manhattan and Fir Island, the San Francisco cropped-moustache-clones, and th Boston-to-Cambridge politically correct radical faggots. Non of them spoke to me as a Black gay man. Their words offere the reflection of a sidewalk; their characters cast ominou shadows for my footfalls (13)
The lonely man in Looking for Langston finds as muc of a reflection of himself in the sidewalk of the graveyar as Beam finds in the narratives of white gay men. He sees i the encounter of the two leather men as much of a reflectio of his own desires as Leavitt finds in Dancer from th Dance and in The Family of Max Desir, th narratives of gay men looking for physical perfection.
"I want to court outside the race, outside the class, outsid the attitudes/ But love is a dangerous word in this smal town," says the voice as the two leathermen exhale the smok from their cigarettes and kiss each other. The disillusione lonely man has been walking, wandering aimlessly, kickin cans on the street, not wanting to go to any of the place where he has ended up. The lonely man is thinking of hi quest for love in a town where "those who seek it ar sometimes found face-down floating on their beds", wher "those who find it protect it or destroy it from within. This small gay town of darkness is where the disillusione have lost everything, "the stardust, the moondance, th waterfront"Üit is now something in their past, somethin which he longs for.
The illusions of the lonely man are pushed away by th culture of the hookup, the culture of anonymity, laden wit the style of the leather jacket, boots and carefully-trimme hair of a well-hung Death. A hookup in a graveyard happen naturally, almost mechanically in this settingÜsam setting where angels wrapped in fog will later talk of no leaving injured soldiers, only casualties. "This kind of wa frightens me," says the voice as the angels cast in plaste loom over the two leather-clad hunters, soon to be wounded i the cultural war between the Hookup and Romance, hidden in foxhole. "I don't want to die sleeping with soldiers I don' love," says the voice, tears streaming down the lonely man' cheeks. Courting outside the race and the class and th attitudes is not something that has its place in this realm This Gay world of Gay hookups does not understan thatÜit is not part of it. Those who define the world o gayness in which Looking for Langston is embedded d not consider the search for romantic love; the darkness o that world swallows its expression and mutes it with a sigh the same sigh of the rising fellator in the alleyway.
As Looking for Langston opens into the wake fo Langston Hughes, a voice announces that "a person does no elect to oppose his society: one would much rather be at hom among compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. Similitude of ideas, of customs and of background determin comfort, the voice says. Can a black man find comfort in th world of gay men defined by white customs and white norm without sacrificing his own customs and norms? Can homosexual man find comfort in a Gay Culture defined by styl and trendiness without sacrificing his own customs and norms?
The influence that the mainstream, the gay white mainstream has in defining inclusion and exclusion determines th success of the black man and of the homosexual man in findin a place within the world of "gayness". That influence lessen when members of groups that are systematically excluded fro that definition find each other and gather to have thei reality included in the definition or to create a alternative definition that may or may not include th original. The definition of Gay Culture that Mendelsohn an Saint articulate in terms of aesthetic trends and concern places the etymology of gay over the ethnology of a ga community. Those men that nowadays identify as gay cannot s easily be categorized as critics of the bourgeois. Thei definition looks back to the times of the dandy to define gay culture, neglecting in that process the cultural an ideological spectra that now recursively re-define ga culture on a daily basis.
Looking for Langston is, amongst other things, manifestation of that need for a broader definition of Ga Culture. It rejects the impersonal and polyandrous sexualit that other works of fiction about and by gay men emphasiz and present as an only reality. It condemns the ways in whic Gay Culture systematically exoticizes the non-white ye consistently ignores the cultural expressions of black men It emphasizes the need for the excluded and marginalized t join and establish their own environments. Looking fo Langston emphasizes that a Gay Culture defined in terms o Wilde and Crisp cannot continue to speak for all gay men i it does not start defining itself in terms of Baldwin, Hughe and Hemphill.
Beam, Joseph. Introduction. In Th Life: A Black Gay Anthology. Ed. Joseph Beam. Boston Alyson, 1986. 13-18.
Leavitt, David. Introduction. Th Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories. Eds. David Leavitt an Mark Mitchell. New York: Penguin. xv-xxviii.
Looking for Langston. Dir. b Isaac Julien. Featuring poetry by Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugen and Hilton Als.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. "We're here, we'r queer, let's get coffee." New York Sept. 30, 1996 24-31.
Saint, Assoto. Preface. The Road Befor Us: 100 Gay Black Poets. Ed. Assoto Saint. New York Galiens, 1991. xvii-xxiv.