Why Gore Vidal Refused to Identify as Gay


By Tim Teeman

'Trying to make categories is very American, very stupid, and very dangerous.' Gore Vidal’s refusal to identify as gay was consistent with a man who worshipped ancient Greece, but was out of step with the times in which he lived.

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.