The Reluctant Groom

Edmund White reflects on his life as a writer and activist

Back in 2013, Edmund White got married. Like so many places around the country, his home state of New York began to issue gay marriage licences—but White’s motivation wasn’t activism or even romantic love. His walk to the altar was driven by practical concerns: his longtime partner, Michael Carroll, was going to lose his health insurance unless they tied the knot.

For years, White was a prominent critic of what he called “gay assimiliation,” a widespread campaign to argue for gay rights by portraying gay relationships on the same terms as straight ones: loving, committed, devoted to child-rearing, and monogamous. He dismissed the whole thing as “suburban.” And it’s not hard to understand why. White’s career as a novelist, short story writer, and memoirist has chronicled 50 years of gay life and love, from New York to Rome to Paris. “Suburban” has never been a word used to describe him.

When White showed up at our studio with his husband, Michael Carroll, they had a lot to celebrate: their recent marriage, for one, but also their new books. Carroll had just published his first, Little Reef and Other Stories, and White his twenty-sixth, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. In person, White is a charming, witty, and effortlessly debonair talker. Bon mots and literary allusions drop frequently from his lips, as does a generous anecdote when we learned that he and my grandmother both worked for Time-Life Books in the 1960s.

White also speaks with the insight of a man who has seen firsthand the key moments in the struggle for gay rights over the last half of the 20th century and the first 15 years of the 21st, from Stonewall to the AIDS crisis to gay marriage. While late to embrace the specific cause of gay marriage, the “reluctant groom” (as he once called himself), is finding the institution largely comfortable, as well as legally and economically beneficial. And yet, he is still a sharp and occasionally critical observer of the political and personal struggle for gay rights.

For a long time, you were not in favor of gay marriage. What changed?

We actually got married for very practical reasons, but then of course it’s such a powerful symbol. It has an effect on you even if you don’t want to do it. You begin to feel more trust and confidence that the relationship will go on and more of a genuine sense of commitment and sharing. So I can only praise the thing. But for a long time, I was opposed to what I called gay assimilation. I thought that gays should live in a very exemplary but utterly different way from straight people and that we were the vanguard pointing to new kinds of association.

So rather than mimic a heterosexual, “normal” lifestyle, was being gay an opportunity to create an entirely new and different lifestyle?

Even back in the 1970’s, it was evident that half of all marriages ended in divorce, so it didn’t seem to be an entirely successful institution. Most of us who were openly gay in the seventies were fairly radical in our politics. We had been active in other movements like black liberation, women’s liberation, the anti-war movement. We had a kind of radical mentality which meant that we didn’t just want to imitate this most traditional of all institutions - marriage.

And an institution that for all its virtues — and I say this as a straight married woman — has a long and not always friendly history towards women.

Yes, I think the whole economic and legalistic dimension of marriage haunts the institution. It’s really only in the 19th century that the idea of a companionate marriage, where your husband or wife would be your best friend, came along. Before that, marriage always had to do with economic and dynastic interests.

You said some of the positive aspects of marriage have now permeated your life. What about the negative aspects?

I haven’t really been aware of them. A lot of young straight people who get married think “Oh god, I’m stuck with this for the rest of my life,” but we don’t feel that kind of claustrophobia. We lead rather separate lives. He’s 25 years younger than I am, so he has his set of friends and I have my set of friends. I’m very social, he’s not. I teach at Princeton, he’s a full-time writer.

I was thinking we haven’t really seen many gay divorces yet.

I’m sure that’s going to be a very lucrative profession, gay divorce lawyers. (chuckles)

You’ve lived – and written – through the evolution of gay life over the past five decades, so you have a personal view of one of the most momentous periods of social change in history. I want to look back and put today in context. We talked about how you were living in New York in the sixties, before the gay liberation movement even existed…

In the early sixties, Mayor Wagner closed all the gay bars because he wanted to clean up the city for the World’s Fair. A new bar would open covertly and we’d all flock to it, but within two days it would be raided and closed. Finally, a new, more permissive mayor came into power and we thought everything was cool. But then all of a sudden there was a raid on the Stonewall Inn and for the first time gay people, rather than running away into the night, stayed and protested.

You were there that night, right?

I was there by accident. I was so bourgeois and square and repressed and I was deep into therapy, trying to go straight. I was ruining everybody’s life, including the two women I was engaged to, one after another. But I was walking with a friend, and all of a sudden we got swept up in the exciting activity. And even though I was so repressed and brainwashed and middle class and wanted them all to stop protesting and go home – even I got caught up in it and felt the kind of exhilaration people must have felt when they took the Bastille.

We look back and see that as the epochal beginning of the gay liberation movement, but I don’t suppose you thought so at the time.

No, in fact it seemed fairly comic, like so many things in gay life at the time. I thought to myself, this will be the first funny revolution, because we would say things in imitation of slogans like ‘Black is Beautiful.’ We would say ‘Gay is Good’ and that seemed like such a riot to us, we would fall down laughing.

As though this whole nascent movement was a spoof?

Exactly. There was a little one-block-long street in the neighborhood called Gay Street. Most people didn’t know about it, and when the police came down Christopher Street, we all dashed along Gay Street and came out behind them, kicking like in a chorus line! (laughs) It was very funny, but it had serious and important consequences. Soon after that, I moved to Rome for a year. And when I came back, everything had changed. Now there were not one, but a hundred gay bars and discos and everybody was out in the streets. I used to think of the gay community as being very small, but suddenly it seemed like everybody was gay.

That was in the 1970’s, which was a golden age. By contrast, in the 60’s, you were working at Time-Life Books, during the Mad Men era. What was it like to go from Time-Life Books down to the Village and the bar scene? Was it like putting on a different identity?

It was like Superman. You wore a coat and tie during the day and you’d make up stories for your office mates and friends. Let’s say you were going out with a 6’3“ blond boy – you’d talk about going out with a 5’6” blond girl, and invent her name. It made you very good at lying, because not only did you have to invent plausible stories, you also had to remember them – which was the hard part! So you’d write down notes about all the lies and fictions you’d created.

You’d actually write them down?

Yes, so you’d remember them and not get mixed up. I mean, if you wanted to have a personal life and if you had straight friends who were confiding in you, you had to tell them something! But you couldn’t tell them the truth because then you’d get fired. So you made up all this stuff.

This must have been great training for a novelist.

Perfect training for a novelist! Proust says the same thing. He says that all those lies that gay people make up are major training for their imagination.

By the time you came back to New York, it was the 70’s and everything had changed. You write about that time when the men you were friends with and slept with were writers and artists. It sounds like an incredibly sophisticated, beautiful crowd.

At that time, the city was very edgy and dangerous, so the rents were low and living was cheap. Lots of bohemian people could afford to live in New York because it was so dangerous and nobody else wanted to. I was robbed lots of times, either at gunpoint or my apartment was sacked. But at the same time, there was the flourishing of gay life in this golden age of promiscuity that came after the Stonewall uprising and before the advent of AIDS. There was a new self-acceptance that hadn’t yet been trampled by fear of AIDS. And there was a real devotion to high culture in a way that’s since vanished from the world. The admission ticket to being gay in those days was being cultured. You had to have read lots of things, or at least pretended to. You had to go to the opera, you had to have opinions about this and that, you had to have traveled in Europe. There was pressure to be a very civilized being.

And that’s different now?

Oh yeah, now all you have to do now is go to the gym and be cute. (laughs)

Of course, being cute was important then, too.

At that time, a gay man had to be as beautiful as a woman and as successful as a man. On Fire Island, you’d see these beautiful boys with big muscles wandering around, and then you’d find out they were brain surgeons or lawyers or CEOs. There have always been pretty boys, but these were very accomplished pretty boys. That double burden was difficult for many people to sustain. It was as though you were running in a race that nobody ever won because you were getting older every year and maybe weren’t as rich as the next person, and you had to be both successful and beautiful.

Do you think the stereotype of the artistic gay man is related to that nexus of sexual promiscuity and appreciation of beauty?

Well, it’s interesting. In the fifties, when I first came of age, the artists were Abstract Expressionists, and they were all hairy-chested macho straight guys who were always getting drunk at the Cedar Tavern and beating each other up. All the Abstract Expressionists were straight. There wasn’t a single gay one, and they had great scorn for gay people. They thought gays were only decorative and could never be real artists. But then with Pop Art, a lot of people emerged like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly – and they were either bisexual or gay. Probably more bisexual, since several of them were married. But gays from the fifties on were always haunted with the bad reputation of being frivolous and not really deep, not understanding the great moments in life like marriage, divorce, adultery, childbirth and so on. As though we were somehow marginal. As a young novelist, I suffered from that feeling. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to go straight was so that I could write about it, because it seemed to me that gay life wasn’t a worthy subject to write about. All that has evolved now.

You’ve written about taking part in some of the early gay consciousness-raising groups. Is that when you began to feel you could be both gay and a novelist?

Yes. These meetings were very Maoist in the sense that you’d take a theme – for instance, self-hatred as a creative person. Each person would give his testimony, which could not be challenged by anybody else. You had the right to say whatever you had to say and everybody listened. Then at the end, you tried to derive some political action that could come out of all these temoignages, these witnessings.

The personal is political.

Yes.

We talked about the generation of gorgeous and accomplished gay men in the 70’s. And then came AIDS, and so many of them were the first to go.

That’s right. Partly because they were radical in their politics and experimental in their sexuality - urban New Yorkers in the midst of all of this available sex. They died and were often replaced by much squarer, middle class people. In general, middle class gay people became much more powerful, whereas in the seventies, they had no reason to come out. I mean, if you owned a grocery store in Toledo, why would you come out? You would only earn the wrath of your neighbors. But suddenly, if you were ill or your partner was ill, you had a reason to come out and combat AIDS. So a lot of those radicals of the seventies, who were radical across the board in all their politics, were replaced by much more conservative people.

You’re being polite. In print you call them the “dull normals.”

(laughs) You have too good a memory! I was actually echoing an English wit, who once said “the party was full of dull normals, who were all dull normaling around.”

This puts your initial opposition to gay marriage in a larger context. You must have felt the “dull normals” are here and we’re all supposed to mimic suburban lifestyles?

I recently wrote an article about gay marriage for The New York Review of Books. I was mainly reporting on the whole battle against Proposition 8 in California and the Supreme Court decision. In one of the books I reviewed, the two heterosexual lawyers — who represented the gay side in the court case on Prop 8 — concluded by saying, “Now we can see that gay people are just like everyone else, that they too are good members of the community and go to the PTA,” and blah blah blah. And I thought, wait a minute — I’m not sure that’s the gay world I’ve been fighting for. But on the other hand, it’s almost frivolous to object because gay marriage has substantial economic benefits. I had a stroke two years ago and was in the hospital, and my partner Michael wanted to visit me, but people kept trying to kick him out. They’d say, “Who are you?” and he’d answer “I’m his fiance,” because we weren’t married yet. Being New York, they accepted him, but in other places, that has frequently been a problem.

So the legal protection marriage affords is wonderful, but what about that dream of free love and the promiscuous, hedonistic lifestyle?

It still goes on, but on a hypocritical level, because it goes on through the internet and Grindr. Everybody’s cruising like crazy, at least in big cities. They claim they’re married just like their neighbors, and that they’re faithful and responsible citizens. But they’re all on the internet til 3 in the morning, trying to find new sex partners. Men being men. I think men by nature are fairly promiscuous.

Is it simply that gay men are remaking the institution of marriage? Are their partners fine with all this?

It depends. I teach at a university and socialize with a lot of graduate students who are gay. I was very close to one couple in their 20s and one of them felt he was too young to commit himself to an utterly faithful relationship and the other one wanted only that. So they broke up. And then the promiscuous one said to me, “It’s sad that I broke up with Josh because he would have been such a good father for our children.” That’s what he was looking for! A good parent for their future adopted children. All that seems so strange to me. Very new age.

I was just talking to a professor who said he worries about his gay students because many of them are using apps like Grindr without suitable precautions. They’re walking blindly into places and assignations where they could be in danger. They don’t have the same techniques for spotting possible danger that we had in the old cruising days. In all my 50 years of cruising, I was robbed once or twice by hustlers, but never beaten up, never had a knife stuck in my ribs. And I must have had thousands of contacts with people. I had a pretty good radar for spotting possible problems and backing out if I could see somebody wasn’t quite dependable.

You maintained that lifestyle through and beyond the decade of AIDS, even when a lot of medical experts urged gays to become celibate until the disease was figured out.

Yes. The very first meeting where I ever heard a doctor talk about AIDS was in 1981 in the apartment of Larry Kramer, who eventually became the big leader of Act Up. This doctor, [Alvin] Friedman-Kien, was himself gay and a professor at NYU. He was treating early cases of AIDS and said, “We don’t know what causes it or how to stop it, but my suggestion is you all should be celibate.” Well, to say that to a roomful of case-hardened gays who were in their 20s and 30s just seemed utterly preposterous. We consoled ourselves with the false notion that it took multiple exposures to become infected. Of course, later we found out it only took one.

You all thought it was ok as long as you never slept with the same person more than once?

Even experts used to say foolish things like limit the number of your partners, or know their names. What earthly good would either of those strategies do? It was really an expression of American puritanism. People wanted you to have less sex. I was the first president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which is still the world’s largest organization to combat AIDS, and eventually, after we figured out what was going on, we’d say it was safer to have sex with ten people at an orgy using condoms than to have unsafe sex with your husband.

But at the time, sex was killing people. If you thought you had to choose between sex and death, wouldn’t you choose to give up sex?

It turns out, no. (laughs) It was too much a part of our lives. For my generation, in the fifties and sixties, we hadn’t had much sex. We didn’t have many opportunities for meeting other gay people since all the bars were closed, since it was illegal to cruise, since you’d be fired if anybody found out on your job, since you’d be pushed out of your apartment if your landlord knew you were gay. It was criminalized. So for people of my age, gay liberation meant sexual liberation. And then to have all that disappear and somebody blow a whistle ten years later was just intolerable. So we played Russian roulette with our health. In my own case, I found out I was HIV-positive in 1985. Fortunately, I was what they call a “slow progressor,” which means you’re infected and your T-cell counts are going down, but so slowly that by the time mine were dangerously low, the new medications had come on stream.

But you couldn’t have known that right away. You must have thought it was your death sentence.

I did. When I found out in 1985 that I was HIV-positive, I thought, “Oh, I’ll be dead in a year or two.” Some gay writers have responded to the news that they were positive by going into a burst of activity. But others, like me, just became depressed and pulled the covers over their heads. I just didn’t want to do anything. Eventually I realized, “Oh my god, I guess I’ll go on living — so I’d better do something.”

Are you saying it wasn’t all just about pleasure? That there was a politics to the choice of a promiscuous sexual lifestyle?

And a romance! Everybody assumes that anonymous sex must be very cold-blooded and yet some of the most ecstatic nights I’ve ever spent in my life were with somebody whose name I didn’t know. After all, it only takes a short while to have sex, and then you talk to the person all night long. I’m still very close friends with somebody I met in my early twenties who was so doggedly optimistic in everything he said that I finally said to him at the end of the evening – it was dawn – I said, you must be a Christian Scientist like me. And he said yes, how’d you guess? And I said, well, one of the main tenets of Christian Science is that we don’t believe in the existence of evil. Anyway, there are these intense moments of communion that often follow what’s called “pick-up sex.” A lot of that was lost, although probably many young people are still going on with it.

It sounds like the dream of a world filled with love.

There was a tremendous sense of camaraderie. It was very small world of out gay people, and a small world of people in the arts, and we all did know each other. We all lived in Manhattan within a few blocks of each other, and we’d constantly encounter each other. You’d find out about things happening — ’you must come see this play, and you must see the new John Waters movie, and you must…"

But wasn’t it also a new kind of model, a dream of what it might be like if there were no limits on love? You’ve written about the difference between the way heterosexual couples break up and the way gay couples break up. You said gay couples usually manage to stay friends.

I think it’s because the model for a gay affair is the best friend. And so you go on being friends with him even after you’ve broken up. Whereas, I think in straight couples, there’s so much more jealousy and probably passion and certainly possessiveness and a feeling of incomprehension across the gender barrier. What do they say, sperm are cheap and eggs are dear? That women are very careful of the number of their encounters.

I would have put it differently. Instead of biology shaping human relationships, maybe it’s the long history of marriage as an institution. In heterosexual married relationships, maybe the model is a market economy in which some things are scarce. So that if you lose somebody’s love, you’ve lost your…

You’ve lost your meal ticket.

And this valuable thing, love, is gone for good. Whereas you’re suggesting…

That’s it’s not so much a commodity. Anti-Oedipus, a book written in the seventies by Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, was very important to us because it suggested there were many options for a life of pleasure, and that we were wired to have multiple exposures to it. And to not just put all our eggs in one basket.

So to speak.

That’s right. That’s right. (laughs)

Edmund White on the Politics of Promiscuity

Writer Edmund White looks back over 50 years of gay love and liberation.  Although married, White has resisted what he calls “gay assimilation”.  He talks about the politics of gay sex and promiscuity.

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