Why Gore Vidal Refused to Identify as Gay

Why Gore Vidal Refused to Identify as Gay

Illustration by Emmanuel Polanco

Interviewing Gore Vidal for the London Times in 2009, I suggested that had he achieved his ultimate ambition, he would have been America’s first gay president. Vidal retorted, “No, I would have married and had nine children. I don’t believe in these exclusive terms.” Indeed he didn’t: Vidal, who died in 2012, famously believed in gay sexual acts (which, with hustlers, he certainly enjoyed), but not gay people. And he said he was bisexual, although his relationships with women, apart from early fumblings, were nonsexual, though deep with those closest to him, like Joanne Woodward and Claire Bloom. He said he and his partner, Howard Austen, had, for the majority of their 53-year relationship, not had sex. He never came out; the notion of coming out was anathema to him.

In his essays, however, Vidal wrote in favor of sexual freedom and equality and against prejudice. His The City and the Pillar, published in 1948, was one of the first modern gay-themed novels. He was a radical and a maverick, but he was no Pride marcher, and despite his nephew Hugh Steers’s asking, Vidal never took a vocal stand on HIV and AIDS.

Vidal wasn’t “post-gay” before his time; he was a product of a generation of gay men who were wary of defining themselves for fear and other personal reasons. In my book In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master, I analyze how Vidal’s private life and sexuality intersected with his public identity.

The novelist Edmund White believes Vidal’s “no such thing as being gay, only gay sexual acts” dictum matched the theories of Michel Foucault, a friend of White’s. “I think Gore was deeply grounded by research in the classical period,” White says. “In classical Greece, the men really were bisexual and weren’t definitely one way or another. He wanted to run for office. Perhaps his rejection of labels also came from how bitter he felt about The City and the Pillar, which was crucified by many critics. I think that affected how he saw homosexuality generally.”

After his death, the author Adam Mars-Jones wrote that Vidal’s disposition was different from Foucault’s — “more libertarian than radical. It could come to seem positively conservative.” He adds that, post-Stonewall, Vidal “would have made a superb figurehead for the gay movement… with his fearlessness, his media skills, and his sense of entitlement, but he distanced himself sharply from any such role.”

In 1950, two years after the publication of The City and the Pillar and two years before the publication of another gay-themed novel, The Judgment of Paris, Vidal wrote that gay sex was as normal as straight, and that men who had sex with men did not need to be cured. However, “the queen world frightens and depresses me, and in its hysteria I see all the horror of the world brought into focus.”

“Homoerotic” to Vidal meant “lust for one’s own sex, which I certainly did a lot of in my youth. ‘Homosexual’ implies really an organization of one’s life around it, and I never did that and always kept my options open. Needless to say I was immediately categorized with The City and the Pillar when I need not have been, and never regretted it for one minute. I always thought it was my opinion of others which mattered, not their opinion of me. I was less distressed than you might think for being so categorized but always hesitated to categorize anyone else unless they insisted on it.” That was disingenuous: Vidal thought his sexuality had led to his marginalization as a writer and would-be politician — and ultimately led to his failure to become president.

Vidal claimed his “quarrel” really began with “the people who ran The Advocate in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s” when “they started in on ‘gay sensibility’... If there’s a ‘gay sensibility’ there has to be ‘heterosexual sensibility,’ and I’ve never come across it.” Vidal didn’t explain why one would necessitate the existence of the other; some kind of gay sensibility or sensibilities flourished because gay sexual expression was once so proscribed. “Trying to make categories is very American, very stupid, and very dangerous,” Vidal said. Categories ultimately led to the Nazi doctrine of “We don’t like your category.” At one extreme, maybe, but not all categorization leads to mass slaughter. For Vidal, however, “to make a category means a hierarchy of categories, at the top of which is breeders, at the bottom is same-sexualists.” The “generalist, humanist point of view is that you start out with ‘Everyone is a human being capable of good and bad.’ ”

Vidal didn’t “really feel” a gay movement existed: “There’s nothing binding. It’s oppression that’s binding…and that should be fought. I’m not for putting up with shit.” He was, he told his onetime publisher Donald Weise, “perfectly happy to be active politically to get laws changed,” though he harked back to the ancient Greeks for his favored model of sexuality. The Greeks “never had a word for ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’ — the concepts didn’t exist,” Vidal said. “They knew about feminine men and sometimes thought they were funny — more ‘ha-ha’ than peculiar. They certainly knew about lust; they didn’t make a fuss about it. This was a world I understood and was brought up in; it was, sexually, extremely free. Homosexuality was institutionalized, because it was useful for training soldiers — the thieves in Sparta specifically. You also got married to have children... It never occurred to people you would be one thing or the other.”

The word homosexual, said Vidal, was invented in the 1890s and heterosexual in the 1930s: “To create categories is the enslavement of the categorized because the aim of every state is total control over the people who live in it. What better way is there than to categorize according to sex, about which people have so many hang-ups?”

“He didn’t want to be identified as what he called a ‘queer,’ ” his friend Judith Harris has said, echoing other friends. “He wanted to be seen as what he thought of as a ‘normal’ man. Being ‘queer’ meant dressing or behaving in a way he wasn’t. He considered being ‘queer’ a weakness.” Vidal growled disparagements like “fag.” Harris says, “Gore did not want to be shunned by the establishment. He didn’t want to be seen as odd or separate.”

Larry Kramer interviewed Vidal in 1992 (yes, it was quite an encounter). Kramer remarked he’d never seen a headline saying, “Gore Vidal is homosexual.” Replied Vidal, “Because I don’t believe in it.”

“But Gore, you are gay,” countered Kramer. “You’ve lived with a man for 40 years or something, and everyone who knows you personally knows you’re gay. And I think you think of yourself as gay.” Vidal responded that he didn’t think of himself in such categories.

Kramer said he’d rather have Vidal “fighting for your heart — exploring what it means to be a gay man at age 65 in the world today.”

Vidal corrected him: “Sixty-seven... I never thought it was a big deal.”

Kramer implored Vidal, “We just want you, whole-heartedly and full-blown — if you’ll pardon the pun — on our team.”

“I am on your team,” Vidal said. “After all, I’ve been there all along.”

In Bed With Gore Vidal (Riverdale Avenue Books) is out now.