Today in Gay History: James Baldwin Didn't Understand 'Homosexual'

8.2.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

Black and gay, this author challenged labels.

James Baldwin, born today in 1924, was an openly gay black author. How he felt about these dual identities changed over time. Certainly he saw them as potential liabilities, arbitrary labels that came with externally prescribed "penalties," and for years he struggled to make sense of it all.

This self-exploration's certainly evident in his books. In 1956's Giovanni's Room, an all-white affair featuring an American expat not unlike Baldwin himself, the titular Giovanni is openly gay and a murderer, but was his homicidal instinct innate or coerced? Homosexuality and pure love's uplifting qualities, meanwhile, are extolled in a later novel, 1968's Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, and are treated with sympathy and empathy both in 1979's Just Above My Head, which also uses fiction to explore real life complexities of racial and sexual divides.

These books, Baldwin's art, reflected his life. They alleviated his life. "[Art is] very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important." Emmanuel S. Nelson notes, "[To Baldwin] suffering can lead to redemptive self-knowledge, to a more humane understanding of the self and the Other."

Baldwin's own real life began in poverty in Harlem, but armed with his talents, as well as his experience living in self-imposed exile in Paris, where he fled to get distance from the "race problem" in the States, the author rose to the top of the literary and social ranks. He became an "exception" and therefore a "leader," a label Baldwin rejected. "I was a 'Negro leader' because the white man said I was a 'Negro leader'," said Baldwin, who also rejected the "homosexual" summation. "…Those terms, homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual are 20th-Century terms which, for me, really have very little meaning," he said in a 1965 conversation with journalist James Mossman and fellow author Colin MacInnes, part of the wonderful collection Conversations with James Baldwin. The idea of homosexuality came from panic born from the "mortification of the flesh."

Later, in 1969, Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch asked Baldwin if he thought homosexuality was a disease, to which he replied, "This is one of the American myths. What always occurs to me is that people in other parts of the world have never had this peculiar kind of conflict." He went on, "If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it says about homosexuality."

It was white America's sexual self-consciousness that prevented so many from experiencing the transcendental, gender-blind power of love. It was this anxiety, he said, that fueled racism — black men were see by threatened whites as "a phallus," he said — and homophobia, too. "Straight men" flew into a panic over the allure to gay men, whom they tried to cast as parodies of women. All of this worry and sexual hand-wringing just limited us, said Baldwin.

"If one's to live at all," he said in 1965, "one's certainly got to get rid of labels." But Baldwin wasn't so self-serious not to have a bit of fun with the categories and restrictions that marked his life and work. In a famous exchange captured in the video below, Baldwin was asked whether the trifecta of being black, gay, and poor, hindered his career. The gregarious and mischievous Baldwin, who died in 1986, replied, "No. I thought I had hit the jackpot! It was so outrageous, you had to find a way to use it!”

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