Fiction of Desire

10.21.2007

By Steve Weinstein

In the years following Stonewall, a group of writers that included Edmund White, Felice Picano, and Andrew Holleran began to meet informally in New York City. Galvanized by the charged atmosphere of the times, they forged a new consciousness of gay identity and a new way of expressing it. Now these lions of gay literature are tackling the final closet: aging.

Picano calls it 'the dirty little secret of gay life,' albeit one that he and his peers are ready to expose. 'I think it's absolutely necessary,' he says. 'The more we start addressing it, the better off we'll all be.'

If anyone is prepared to examine a topic that's been ignored or unpopular, it's the writers who revolutionized the way the world perceives gay men. Many of us saw ourselves reflected in (and sometimes reconstructed ourselves to conform to) the heroes of A Boy's Own Story, Dancer From the Dance, and Tales of the City. So it's only fitting these same authors, who have chronicled their lives in autobiographical fiction and memoirs, should continue to do so as they grow old. Aging may end up being as groundbreaking a subject as gay liberation -- or AIDS, the other epochal event in these men's lives. 'Our community hasn't had public images of getting older,' says Charles Flowers, who heads the Lambda Literary Foundation, which promotes LGBT writers and editors. 'It's still very much a youth culture.'

The fact is, this generation, having experienced the worst of the AIDS epidemic, had never, as Flowers says, 'imagined itself getting older.' After these writers lost most of their friends to AIDS, the last things they anticipated worrying -- or writing -- about were issues like long-term care, retirement, or needing (as opposed to being) a caregiver.

Just as they did when they were younger, however, these writers are using their craft to describe their experiences. Whether in work, dating, or sex, they are insisting on remaining visible -- and desirable. Each of them brings a unique perspective on these key issues, ranging from Picano's sunny reminiscences to Holleran's moody elegies.

At age 67 the dean of these literary lions in winter, Edmund White has just released a novella that revolves around the difficulty of growing old gracefully. 'It's easier to age as a straight man,' he said. 'Women worship money and power. Look at all the cute young women living with Hugh Hefner. You don't see Gore Vidal surrounded by young men.'

Indeed, the overarching theme of Chaos is old age in the face of what White calls the 'Peter Pan complex: always wanting to be the youngest in the room.' But White, who has made a career of intertwining the twin erotic urges of sex and artistic creativity, gleefully admits to maintaining a healthy sexual appetite well into his 60s. Although he makes fun of S/M as the 'last effort of the old to look sexy' in his memoir My Lives, the guy who made the term 'cornholing' part of the cultural landscape in his first book openly discusses his predilection for water sports in his late-in-life memoir. And he can joke about being put on a pedestal as a 'gay leader' when he sees himself as 'only one more shallow hedonist, one more unhappy old queen,' still 'scheming to get laid with cute boys.'

Maybe White's self-deprecation comes to him so easily because he sees the writer's role diminished in a world where letters compete with iPods and YouTube videos. 'Gay writers were once the only visible spokesmen for the gay community,' he says. 'Now there are gay politicians. We used to be asked about AIDS; now there's a huge army of AIDS experts.'

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