Eminent Outlaws: The Truth Behind Why So Many Gay Writers Love NYC

| February 3, 2012 4:00 AM
Author: Chris Bram
Publisher: Twelve Books
Publication Date: Feb. 2012

I moved to New York City from a small college town in Virginia in 1978, telling my friends (and myself) that I wanted to go to this big, noisy, dangerous city only because I wanted to be a writer; I thought all writers needed to live for a year or two in the “Capital of the Twentieth Century.” I was there to meet other writers and take advantage of the bookstores, art museums and repertory movie theaters.

Not until a few years later, after I was settled with a boyfriend, did I admit that I had moved to New York for sex and love. I knew unrequited love all too well in Virginia. I needed to come here to meet real gay men who might want to go to bed with me as eagerly as I wanted to go to bed with them. Which I did happily for two years, before I met Draper Shreeve, who is my partner to this day.

For a long time, I believed that my first set of reasons for coming to New York — work and culture — were lies and that the second set — love and sex — were the truth. But while I wrote my literary history, “Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America,” I realized that all of my reasons were good, and they were all true.

A photo of author Christopher Bram in Caffe Reggio on MacDougal Street in 1980, shortly after he moved to New York from Virginia. Photo courtesy of Christopher Bram.

Most of the writers I included in the book came to New York, and they came here for both art and sex. Tennessee Williams moved from New Orleans to break into the theater but also to meet what he called “companions.” Gore Vidal arrived after World War II and discovered both the baths and the publishing world. (One night he went to the baths with a new friend, Truman Capote.) James Baldwin was born here, but he moved from Harlem to Greenwich Village to be around other writers and to meet men. Frank O’Hara came from Massachusetts to work at the Museum of Modern Art and to find a boyfriend. Edmund White arrived directly from college as a playwright and happily pursued men while he found a new career as a novelist.

Many readers will say that there is more to gay life than sex, and there is, but when you are in your 20s and have not yet found a partner, the hunt for love plays a huge part in your life. In the decades before and after gay liberation, you needed to go to a city for that. Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles and especially San Francisco all had thriving gay scenes. But if you were also a writer — or a painter or an actor or a musician — no city provided the opportunities and energy that New York did.

A photo of Truman Capote in 1959. His trajectory from southern schoolboy to renowned author, screenwriter and celebrity began in New York City. Library of Congress/ Roger Higgins for the New York World-Telegram. This image is in the public domain.

Once here, gay artists inevitably met other gay artists. A writers group called the Violet Quill met briefly in the early 1980s; their most famous members are Edmund White and Andrew Holleran. They only met a few times, but they are important for what they represent: the support group.

Many writers relocated to New York from other cities. Tennessee Williams left New Orleans to make connections in New York's theater circles but was also looking for male companionship. Library of Congress/ Orland Fernandez. This image is in the public domain.

Every writer has his or her own support group, friends who criticize and encourage. These support groups are especially important for gay writers, and they are easier to put together in a highly populated, highly literary city like New York than anywhere else.

Times change. Now, we no longer need to go to the city to meet other gay people. The whole country is more open to gay life and the Internet enables us to meet no matter where we live.

And yet the combination of sex and art continues to draw young gay artists to New York. And once here they still hang out together. They do it privately, as friends and colleagues. But they sometimes form more public institutions, similar to the Violet Quill.

A photo of James Baldwin taken in 1955, when the author was 30 years old. Baldwin moved from Harlem to Greenwich Village for both social and professional reasons. Library of Congress/Carl Van Vechten. This image is in the public domain.

Currently, a literary salon called the Wilde Boys meets every month or so in a large downtown apartment. These gay men (and some lesbians) in their 20s and 30s read poetry aloud and listen to guest speakers. They are here for art but they admit they also hope to find dates.

Tennessee Williams and Frank O’Hara would feel right at home.

 

Christopher Bram is the author of nine novels, including “Gods and Monsters,” which was adapted into a film starring Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave. He teaches at New York University and lives in Greenwich Village.

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