Victor Banis, The Grandfather of Gay...

9.26.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

'I'm the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of.'

Banis had written for a few of the underground gay magazines before 1966. They were mostly small pieces, like poetry for One Inc and a short story for Adolf Brand's Zurich-based Der Kreis, but censorship and self-doubt had held him back. Besides, he didn't want to peddle in the stereotypes and pathetic gay characters being floated at the time. While some small publishers printed gay books, they were mostly tales of woe. Banis often cites Grove Press's 1963 publication John Rechy's sad gay hustler tale City of Night as an example. The literary establishment was too obsessed with homosexual drama.

"If you think about the gay literary establishment, even today, AIDS was a godsend to them — they could write books about guys falling in love and still have their tragic ending," Banis says. "They've never gotten past those damn tragic endings."

Banis wanted to create something lighter and more free. He was ready to roar, and he let The Why Not spill out of him. It took only a few weeks to get a draft completed. But getting it published was a different story: No one wanted to touch gay fiction, especially something proud and pro-sex, and The Why Not amassed dozens of rejections before one empathetic editor suggested Banis try Earl Kemp at Greenleaf Classics.

If you ask Banis, the gay rights revolution isn't "pre-Stonewall" or "post-Stonewall," it's pre-Greenleaf and post-Greenleaf. And it was Kemp—a straight man who wasn't that interested in sharing a gay story, or even improving gay rights—who was the catalyst. As Kemp explained to me, he was terrified of gay men and had never met one until Banis and his then-lover, fellow writer and sometimes collaborator Sam Dodson, took him out on the town. "I was terrified of meeting Vic. The thought of being alone with a known, active gay person was more than I could handle," Kemp wrote in an email exchange. "For the first time I saw gays, in big numbers, just being themselves." But before that Kemp simply saw in The Why Not a good manuscript—and something that would sell. His decision to publish the book changed gay culture forever. Kemp is, according to Banis, "one of the unsung heroes of gay publications."

The Why Not was an instant hit. Of course there was the erotic element inherent in all pulp paperbacks. "Obediently, mechanically, my sex hardened, reaching out for him," reads one passage from the book's first chapter. But as titillating and novel as that soft-core action was, the book's appeal was just as rooted in its intimate, honest look at the queer experience. As an example, here's a narration that may ring familiar to many contemporary gay men: "This present arrangement had been Walt's idea. It had been his suggestion, when their relationship as lover ended, that they remain friends instead, roommates." Or maybe this: " 'Why can't I be hung?' he thinks, instinctively clasping his inadequate genitals in hand.… Nice fanny [though], something to be thankful for."

Tags: Art & Books
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