Book review.


Ian Young, 'The Stonewall Experiment; A gay psychohistory' Cassell UK/USA 1995, 312 pages ISBN 0-304-33270-0.


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 new religion.

"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 to read.

"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." *

Reviewed by Michael Verney-Elliott
Source: Continiuum Sept./Oct. 1995