Michael S. Sherry: In the 1950s and 60s, were gay artists emblems of national pride or signs of a homosexual mafia?





[Michael S. Sherry is a professor of history at Northwestern University. This article is adapted from his Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy, to be published this month by the University of North Carolina Press.]

In the mid-20th century, gay figures created much of modern American culture — the sounds of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, the words and moods of Stanley and Blanche in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, the songs and dances of West Side Story. If there was a gay moment in American culture, it occurred then as much as now, despite recent attention to television programs like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and queer people like Ellen DeGeneres and Tony Kushner. Uneven across fields, the gay presence was sufficient to disturb many observers, who imagined a vast "homintern" — a homosexual international conspiracy in the arts parallel to the Comintern, or Communist International, in politics. Homintern, a word probably invented in jest by gay men but seized upon by their enemies, alternated with terms like "homosexual mafia" to conjure up a queer menace.

America's global conflicts — World War II and the cold war — magnified and defined the contributions of queer artists and shaped a Lavender Scare in the arts. In turn, the disruptions of America's cold war, culture, and society in the late 1960s fractured the homintern discourse. When anxieties about America's cultural empire peaked, with artists deployed as cold-war weapons alongside astronauts and diplomats, so too did scrutiny of the queer artist. When anxieties subsided, so too did scrutiny.....

How could gay men have been so important in the arts, and so defining of American identity, when America was so homophobic? Was midcentury America really so homophobic (a term not then in use)? Perhaps, but only if homophobia is seen not as static and unidirectional, but as brimming with contradictions and with the attitudinal push and pull — fascination, dismay, disgust, even admiration — that Nixon expressed. [HNN Editor: In the article Sherry recounts the musings of Nixon about gays that were caught on tape.]

Although gay men's prominence in midcentury culture was recognized and argued over at the time, the subject has been little examined, in part because of an assumption, stubborn even among scholars, that homosexuality was unmentionable at the time. Most Americans still believe that the "closet" was real, ironclad, and silencing of all talk, whereas insofar as it existed (the term was not used in the 1950s), it mainly silenced queer voices, not other voices. Homosexuality was often discussed, even shouted, in the 1950s — in Congress, by medical experts, in intellectual commentary, in scandal journalism, and even in Hollywood film, despite its ban on explicit labels like "homosexual." Insofar as gay men and lesbians shattered a silence on homosexuality in the 1970s, the silence was largely their own, not that of others.

Scholars of midcentury culture have much else to attend to, of course: America's aspirations to cultural hegemony, the shift from modernism to postmodernism, and the dynamics of gender, race, and religion. But the queer presence figured in all those developments, not just as an issue by itself. Much history barely notes that gay people and controversies over them inflected midcentury culture. Yet this was also when Alfred Kinsey's studies unleashed debate about homosexuality and when gay people played major roles in cultural life.

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