Why Gore Vidal Refused to Identify as Gay
By Tim Teeman
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.