This is an easy, and uncomfortable, book to read. The ease is afforded
by Ian Young's pellucid prose style; the discomfort lies in the sadness
of his account of the betrayal of gay hopes following so soon after the
Stonewall rebellion, and the consequence of that betrayal - the seeming
inevitability of AIDS.
Young gives a brief account of the pioneers of gay culture, headed by
Walt 'Dad' Whitman, with his Platonic ideal of male love and comradeship.
This had a profound influence on the Englishman, Edward Carpenter, who
became outspoken in his championing of homosexual emancipation. He lived
openly with his lover, George Merrill, at Millthorpe in the North of England,
and even after Wilde's trial and disgrace, he remained steadfast to his
'Uranian' ideals, when more timorous writers kept a low profile. Until
virtually the 1960's, writers fought shy of open expression of gay sympathies,
but there were exceptions in the previous decade - Gore Vidal with The
City And The Pillar, James Baldwin with Giovanni's Room, spring
to mind. Things then started to get more graphic - and even more depressing
and pessimistic - with the works of John Rechy. By the 70's, Young says
".... the mystical/political patrimony of Whitman and Carpenter had
been largely forgotten." The rest of his book explains how and why.
A 1979 screenplay by William Burroughs (a relative of the Mr.Burroughs
who teamed up with Mr. Wellcome to form the company which eventually brought
us AZT!) presents an uncannily prescient description of AIDS. "The
hero of the story is Billy, a gay man who is a 'blade runner', a courier
of medical contraband. His attempts to spread the word about a new medicine
are hampered by the atmosphere of distrust and paranoia generated by the
official Health Control as well as by an illness he has contracted - pneumonia."
Long before the word 'homosexual' was coined by Karl Benkert in 1867,
gays had been persecuted and demonised. In his chapter on 'The Myth of
the Homosexual', Young states:
"The homosexual was thus installed in a rogues' gallery with other
mythical creations of Western diabolism: the Vampire, the Leper, the Witch,
the Gypsy, the Werewolf, the Jew - figures concocted out of the fears,
folk memories and repressed desires of a civilisation, aspects of Christian
society's dark unconscious, its shadow side."
Gays have been systematically classified as sick by the medical profession,
criminalised by governments and brutalised by police, abused and derided
by heterosexuals. Young draws a parallel between the gay urban ghettos
of the 60's and the plague-stricken city of 'Death in Venice', and has
this to say:
"The Stonewall Experiment began in the untutored hands of gay people
who had had enough of being second-class citizens, partial people, never
fully human. It was an experiment in reclaiming full humanity from the
medical/governmental establishment. Within a few years, control of the
experiment had fallen into other hands, and the initiators found themselves
in the position of experimental animals. The new phase of the experiment
involved the development of a commercial gay scene that could be test-marketed
as a prototype of the urban lifestyle of the future."
Young unflinchingly depicts the cynically commercialised hedonism of
the bathhouse and backroom bar 'culture' which ironically came to symbolise
gay 'liberation', using descriptive passages from novels like Faggots
by Larry Kramer. Other writers extolled the virtue of promiscuity, and
even STD's, as proof of homosexual political commitment; drugs and poppers
became an indispensable part of the gay scene; the Mafia took over the
pornography market; whether a gay man was 'deep' or 'wide' defined whether
he could take one forearm up his arse to the elbow, or two fists simultaneously.
Crisco and nitrite inhalants became the anointing oil and incense of the
"The impulses that led young men to join in these darkly alluring
activities had something in common with feelings that an older writer of
the time recalled encountering in himself as a young man, decades earlier.
'It seemed to me', he wrote, 'that I had passed a threshold, and that in
passing it, I was dimly dismissing something from where I had come: my
land, my past, the traditions of my country. But these men fascinated me
and I wanted to incorporate myself there. I perceived them as strong, generous
and pitiless: beings without weakness who would never putrefy.' The words
are those of the French author Christian de La Mazi, remembering his emotions
when, thirty years earlier, he joined the Waffen SS."
Young's descriptions of AIDS are very moving. His own partner, Jamie,
died aged 32, on World AIDS Day, 1993, as this book was nearing completion.
His understanding and summation of the dissident views of Duesberg, Lauritsen
and others who have never been blinded by the official 'explanations' for
the malady, are quite the best and most comprehensive I have been privileged
"Piece by piece, the stone wall of orthodoxy was crumbling. But
the ruins were heavily defended. Over a decade into the epidemic, the public
was still being told by newspapers and television, and all but a tiny handful
of physicians, that a positive result from an HIV antibody test showed
present and lifelong 'infection' by the virus; that the virus was certain
or very likely to lead to AIDS; and that AIDS was universally fatal. None
of these assertions had been proven. Yet the psychological effect of believing
them could be catastrophic.... In the post-1984 world, a growing number
of people considered their allotted blood 'status' as the key to both their
identity and their fate."
In not purporting to be a "history of homosexuality, the gay movement,
or the health crisis'" but merely the observations of a poet with
a "particular interest in images, verbal messages and psychic undercurrents...",
Ian Young is being modest. His book is all these and much, much more. Whatever
his intentions, he has written a wonderful book, and Cassell Lesbian and
Gay Studies have published an important one. This book should be read by
all those concerned about the truth and the tragedy of AIDS - gays, lesbians
and straights. They may make what they will of Young's last sentence: "The
experiment continues." *