I have sometimes been called (wrongly) a homophobe. But let’s start with the word “homosexual.” The “homo,” per se, has nothing to do with homosexuality. It comes from the Greek “homos,” the same, as it does in homonym, homogeny, homologous and various others involving sameness. So “homosexual,” means same sex practitioner. It can even refer to dogs or other animals having sex with one of their own kind. It does refer to two men or two women having sex with each other. Until fairly recently, this was considered wrong, but not anymore, hence even same sex marriage is by now almost universally, legally practiced. If you doubt it, just ask the Supreme Court.
This opens the question of what is, or is considered, “normal.” Essentially, normal is what a large number of people practice, and is not considered immoral. In fact, it has nothing to do with morality or immorality, but only with frequency. If it is ever revealed that a large enough number of people have sex with animals (think D. H. Lawrence’s “St. Mawr” and horses), something called zoophilia will then become normal. To be sure, it appears as of now fairly rare compared to homosexuality, but that could change, if only farm boys would speak up. All that it takes is for the onus to become removed, and a thing becomes okay. Consider bikinis or nude beaches or legalized marijuana.
This is where mea culpa comes in. A very famous critic who used to be my friend and I would amuse ourselves by outing famous persons who were widely considered heterosexual. Uncloseting, to coin a word, seemed piquant. But closetedness in former days was prudent and excusable, practiced by some highly respectable persons. Think of such people as (in some cases I merely surmise) Leonardo da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Thomas Mann, Ravel, Manuel de Falla, Saint-Saens, Henry de Montherlant, Nikolay Myaskovsky, Michael Tippett, Michael Redgrave. Perhaps also the delightful Mompou. Some were married, like Leonard Bernstein, and (I suspect) my admired Lennox Berkeley. And surely others.
This is comparable to ferreting out clandestine Jews, unavowed for similar reasons.
Despite much progress in this area, anti-Semitism won’t quite go away. To no avail does one say “Some of my best friends are . . .” here fill in blacks, gays, Jews--it proves nothing, and it does not exculpate you. I am reminded of that great French writer Jules Renard noting, “We are all anti-Semites. A few of us have the courage or coquetry not to let it show.” Very cannily put, note even the alliteration on C in French as in English.
For whatever it is worth—not much—I have always had gay friends. One of them was the very clever young Donald Lemkuhl, who called me Nina Simone and disappeared into England (more about that anon) and left me wondering what became of him. He did have the makings of a poet, but not enough discipline. Of course, if you are in the arts, believe it or not even as just a drama critic, you must come into contact with many homosexuals, although you don’t end up believing with Gore Vidal that everyone is really bisexual.
But why are so many in the arts gay? There are numerous explanations much debated, though surely in large part because in the arts there is no homophobia, and there is even gay pride. Homosexuality may, for instance, have something to do with excessive love of your mother leading you to emulation. Example: Kevin Spacey used to show up at events with his mother as his date. Growing up without affection for sports, being of a delicate physique and loving theater—dressing up, role playing on and off the school stage--all these may be inducements. Perhaps even reading too much Oscar Wilde. When I briefly taught at a Southern university, the only library copy of the sole available Wilde biography was heavily annotated by my one flagrantly gay student.
Homosexual friendships, whether or not declared as such, are the stuff of myth and literature. Think only of the story of Damon and Pythias, or Schiller’s famous poem, “Die Buergschaft.” Think also of great unrequited loves, such as A. E. Housman’s unreciprocated adoration of the straight friend Moses Jackson. But there are so many enduring homosexual relationships as Auden’s with Chester Kallman and especially Britten’s with Peter Pears. I recall hearing how shocked the great Scottish string player William Primrose was when staying with Britten and spotting Britten’s and Pears’s slippers side by side under the same bed.
At first glance one may be surprised by how many great all-male affairs take place in England. Think E. M. Forster and Maurice and all those complicated relationships in the Bloomsbury group. England, despite the country’s until fairly recently stiff penalties for homosexual incidents, has been a thriving land of homosexuals. As a lovely American former girlfriend of mine remarked about her affair with an English duke, scratch any Englishman and out comes the homosexual. With the duke—Charlie, as she referred to him—when in bed together, she had to do all the work, his heart was not quite in it.
Why all that homosexuality? I think it is because until recently the sexes grew up separately from each other, there being no coeducation in Britain, so that schoolboys had to be sexually boys with boys. I must admit though that during my one-year stint at a British public school I saw no direct homosexuality, but that may have been because, as a foreigner, I did not become intimate with anyone.
There is also not infrequently a tendency among homosexuals to feel superior to “straights.” The wonderful German writer, Erich Kaestner, admonishes gays in a poem not to feel proud “just because you do it from behind.” Which reminds me of two prominent members of Hungary’s classical music scene who had long been living together suddenly breaking up. After some years, however, they resumed their relationship. As the Budapest wits would have it, the pair must have said not let’s start from the beginning [in Hungarian, from the front] but let’s start from the back.
Interestingly, though I can recall various other kinds of jokes, I can’t come up with a single homosexual one. Have there not been any? Have I repressed some? Have they been inferior? I don’t know; I do know that the two persons I would most have liked to meet, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, both were gay. Coward I came close to one night backstage at “South Pacific” on Broadway. I had gone back to congratulate an acquaintance who, as standby that night, had splendidly played the lead. There I crossed paths with Coward going to make peace with Mary Martin, with whom he had had a falling out in London at his “Pacific 1860.”
Although I don’t collect autographs, I would have made an exception for Coward, but all I had with me was Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” which I considered a little too suitable. When, much later, I met Bea Lilly and told her about this, she said I should have gone ahead: Noel would gladly sign anything famous as if his own.
Once or twice in my life I have been accosted by homosexuals. Once when teaching in Seattle, while gazing at a store window. “You should have slapped him,” someone later told me. “Not at all,” I answered, “I felt rather flattered.” Quite recently, a well-dressed, middle-aged man on a Metro North train chose to sit opposite me although there were plenty of empty seats all around. After a while, he smiled and laid his hand on my knee. I withdrew my 92-year-old leg, but was too old not to feel a bit flattered.