Sex, Drugs, Muscles

Review of Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life.

In this entertaining but superficial read, Michelangelo Signorile assails the gay circuit's obsession with the body. The hectoring passion is there, but the analysis mostly isn't.

LIFE OUTSIDE: THE SIGNORILE REPORT on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life fulfills the first rule of contemporary publishing�to entertain. Michelangelo Signorile knows what sells�sex�and he knows how to tell a popular tale with great panache.

In this, his third book, he tackles the gay "circuit parties" with all of the exploitative sense of a local newscast during a sweeps month. Readers of his column in OUT magazine will find the arguments familiar. He maintains that the sex, drug, and steroid world of overpumped gymbos, his "cult of masculinity," defines what it is to be a gay man today. His logic is that even though only a small percent of the total, perhaps tens of thousands, are part of the circuit, the buff image has become so ubiquitous that it has become defining. And, to Signorile, that is bad. We have to change.

He sees the gay press and its ads as playing a major role in promulgating this image. But in fact the press runs of the gay media are so tiny, both locally and nationally, that the vast majority of gays never see them, let alone read them on a regular basis. He blithely ignores the far greater impact of mainstream advertising and its increasingly homoerotic content.

He also assumes that a new stereotype drives out the old, when it fact it is merely added to the mix. It is the media which fixates on the "new," while much of society continues along with the old, only slowly and partially incorporating elements of the new.

Like the voyeurism of tabloid TV, Signorile lingers luridly on the circuit, giving us page after page of glistening pecs and drugged frenzy. He gives short shift to the positive alternative. Simple page count is one indication, about a 2:1 ratio. So is where he evidently spent his time. It appears that evil is, as always, more fascinating than good. Thus we read a detailing of seemingly every hour he spent at a White Party in Palm Springs, while the second part of the book lacks a similar weekend accounting of life among what he would have us become.

A book often says as much about its author as it does about its subject. Signorile's world view is shaped by the gay ghetto of Chelsea. He has been at the fringe of the circuit and one suspects that in his heart of hearts he would like to be among its stars. But the reality of advancing years, genes, and marriage deny him the possibility.

So he speaks with the voice of a convert, always the most fervent of opponents. He has tasted the sin and by doing so claims righteous rejection of it. If Larry Kramer was a Jeremiah of AIDS in castigating the community, Signorile is a Jeremiah lite. His denunciation is that of a kid with his nose pressed against the window of the party to which he was not invited. It is one of pique, not righteous indignation.

Signorile pities "the lonely old queen" and notes that "a proclivity for rejection is indicative of deep unhappiness." Yet he is not willing to make the same judgment of gymboids whose self-abusive behavior likely stems from those same deep seated feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps because he identifies with one and not the other, he is unwilling to view them with the same degree of objectivity.

He is amazed to discover that there is gay life outside of the ghetto. But, like many Manhattanites who gaze across the Hudson, his discovery is shallow, of short duration, and without a great sense of local context. He is a jet set anthropologist who stops in for a speaking engagement and in a day or two thinks he has come to understand the locals.

Signorile largely ignores what to this reader would have been fascinating questions to explore: a look at the psychological and societal underpinnings of anorexia/bulimia, the straight counterpart the gymboid syndrome most closely resembles, the surge of homoerotic content in mainstream media, the extent to which gymboids are the attempt of a generation to create its own differentiation.

Or the premise that growth of the party circuit was in part a result of the war mentality (where moral/sexual standards are loosened) of fighting AIDS. But what then is the impact of the "armistice" of protease? Wouldn't that logically lead to the decline of the circuit?

Signorile writes with great force and conviction. Were the argument decide solely on the craft of his words he would win hands down. But the contest isn't so simple. Ideas do count for something, and so does proof of assertions. By those measures his book is far less convincing.

It is perhaps best to approach much of it as closer to fiction rather than scholarship. Still, despite its significant flaws, it is essentially a kind hearted book, and a great, fun read. Enjoy it, but don't take it too seriously.

Gay Life Remembered

Originally published in 1993.

Jeb and Dash offers an unrivaled look at the life and thoughts of a gay man living in the Washington, D.C., of the 1920s, putting us much in the debt of the surviving niece who edited his diaries.

Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945 (Ina Russell, ed., 1993) is an important and stunning book. It is fact, the diary of a gay man in Washington, D.C., two-thirds of it set in the 1920s. But it often reads like a novel thanks to the skillful editing of Ina Russell.

The work is enjoyable on two levels. One is simply as a superbly told story. The other is in capturing our history, a window to our scantily documented past. The truism that history is written by the victors explains the rarity of our written record, for gays and lesbians have seldom been victors in the eyes of society. So then, Jeb and Dash assumes an importance simply because of its singularity, its voice amidst an ocean of silence.

One has become so accustomed to the idea that the gay and lesbian world began with Stonewall that it comes as a shock to read entries, thoughts and observations written perhaps even before our parents were born, which sound freshly contemporary.

The fact is that there were gays and lesbians long before Stonewall. And they had developed patterns of association, a sense of community, even a common sense of oppression. What they had not developed was a systemic way of linking those small groups together, communicating, or creating a historic record of their existence. And so for us they ceased to exist. But now with this diary, we can reclaim some sense of the past and recognize the long traditions upon which our community is based.

It is perhaps one of the great ironies that the catalyst for reclamation of gay history is a straight woman. Ina Russell inherited the diaries from her uncle in 1965, all fifty years of them. They stack taller than her.

She skimmed a few primarily to confirm her belief that he was gay, and looking for things about the family. Once Jeb moved out on his own that meant the traditional Sunday journey back for dinner and the faithful journal entry that night. She says that perhaps she wasn't ready then, didn't have the "maturity" then to edit the diaries, and besides, there was no way they would possibly have been published.

"In the late eighties you could tell, I don't know if everybody could tell but I could tell that gay issues were going to be very up front, that I really had a good shot at getting them published," said Russell. So she began the task.

Fifty years of diaries, with each day devoutly entered save for when struck by the direst of illness. Each beginning with the weather, and breakfast, and ... Clearly the raw material needed some pruning.

"I wanted to do a love story. He was a one man man," said Russell. "He was a romantic. He slept with a lot of people but that was irrelevant."

C.C. Dasham - Dash - was the center of Jeb Alexander's life and the book. He was an obsession for Jeb from first glance, to their six month affair a few years later, and for decades more until Jeb's last breath. Reading the diary I sometimes wanted to reach into the pages, grab him by the ever present lapels and shake, bellowing, "get a life, get over him and go on."

"Boy gets boy, boy loses boy, boy sulks forever," is the way Russell put it. She found it both frustrating and charming. But that was part of the reason she decided to end the book in 1945; after all, sulking as a literary device can only go so far.

She changed names to offer some cover for possible survivors and family, and made minimal use of composite characters to make the story line easier to follow. But the voice of Jeb Alexander sings through. Russell says she "surprised, not quite so much surprised as gratified that they (the diaries) were sometimes wonderfully lyrical and well written. I was afraid that they might not be."

Jeb and Dash is packed with the names of places which at least some of the gay set frequented. A little digging turned up continuities that remind us how small our community is, even across time.

It is a recognition of continuity: Cruising Lafayette Square (which faded only long after Stonewall) and Dupont Circle; the persistence of panhandlers and bums; and watering holes where the friends of Dorothy gathered.

Hammond's in Georgetown was a regular haunt for Jeb. The owner retired in the late 1940's and the place became the Georgetown Grill, a gay bar which survived into the 1980's, until that owner decided to retire. We had lost sight of the fact that the place had a gay clientele even before it was known as the Grill.

Krazy Kat in 1920 was a "Bohemian joint in an old stable up near Thomas Circle ... (where) artists, musicians, atheists, professors" gathered. Miraculously the structure still stands, five blocks from the White House, as a gay bar called the Green Lantern.

Jeb was typical of many gay men in first repressing his sexuality, then embracing it in stages. His pattern seems so contemporary - discovering a cruising area, his first brief affair and inevitable broken heart, eventually working into a pattern of friendships, a sense of community, and greater self-acceptance.

These first excerpts are taken from a few weeks in 1920, the summer of his twentieth year. They are filled with the melodramatic hyperbole that only a highly romantic youth could have penned.

Wednesday, 25 August: I have at last found a friend, a lovable, handsome fellow, a realization of the friend I have dreamed of during all those lonely nights while I walked alone through the streets. Above all, our friendship is mutual. It has burst into full blossom like a glowing, beautiful flower. It happened like this: I went to Lafayette Square and found a seat in the deep shade of the big beech. It is the best bench in the park. A youth sat down beside me, a youth in a green suit with a blue dotted tie. He has beautiful eyes and sensuous lips. He wants to become a diplomat, but is devoted to music. Earlier tonight he had been singing at the Episcopalian Church, and is taking vocal lessons. His name is Randall Hare.

We strolled down to the Ellipse, where we sat affectionately together on a dim bench. Later we came to rest in the moon-misted lawns near the (Washington) Monument. With an excess of nervous caution I gazed about, watching for some prowling figure. "We are safe," Randall whispered. And he was right. Nothing disturbed us and we lay in each other's arms, my love and I, while the moon beamed from a spacious sky and the cool night breezes rustled our hair. The black trees stood like sentinels against the silvery grass. Afterwards we lay close together and gazed at the stars above, becoming fast friends, exchanging confidences. Ah, happiness! As [Oscar] Wilde said, Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!

Sunday, 5 September: During the ride back (on the streetcar) Randall had his hand lying on mine, and a girl across the aisle made an audible remark about it to her companions. But Randall in his melodious voice said, "We should worry," and kept his hand on mine. He said, "Be glad she noticed, so she won't be shocked the next time she sees it." He said there was not reason boys should not be demonstrative toward one another, as girls and Frenchmen were.

Sunday, 12 September: On this day I realized complete disillusionment. My "friendship" with Randall Hare was a fabrication! Friendship indeed! We went to Washington Cathedral. As we left the beautiful open air service and strolled together across the lawns, we had an unpleasant exchange with some rudeness on his part. I became somewhat stammering. Randall said scornfully, "What have you been believing? Did you think that when I wasn't with you I was singing!" I replied, "I did think that, and I feel deceived." He leaned back looking disgusted. "If I wanted a clinging vine I'd find - a woman." End of my friendship with him! I shall never find real friendship, never!

Randall Hare is one thread running through the diaries. Jeb is alternately attracted to and repelled by Randall who always seems so sure of himself and able to get it. He embodies the compromises many gay men made until very recently. In his youth he is a perennial in Jeb's accounts of cruising, then marries a woman for cover and has children, and continues to indulge in his voracious appetite for men, including the enduring object of Jeb's desire, Dash.

Over the course of years we meet a limited cast of characters. Isador is the most flamboyant, a proud, true queen who paid the price, as this entry shows.

Sunday, 7 January 1927: A cloudless day. Patches of snow on the walks. Isador arrived in a cab to pick up his belongings that had been packed by those magnificent Christians of the Young Men's Christian Association. I watched the scene from inside the lobby door. The packages and bags had been placed outside. Brindle, the malignant desk clerk, stood on the sidewalk with his arms crossed. The cab pulled up and Isador emerged, wearing a brown suit with a tan handkerchief tucked in his pocket, and a tan felt hat. Brindle pursed his lips as Isador, attempting a futile jocular conversation, began to load his possessions into the back seat of the car. He got in front with the driver and as they pulled away, his eyes met mine through the glass of the door and he waved vigorously, calling, "Thank you, Jeb dearest." Brindle turned around. My heart sank when I saw the expression on that reptilian beast's face.

Brindle wiped his feet on the mat. "I didn't realize that Mr. Pearson was a friend of yours." I replied, "He is a classmate in my art history class at George Washington University. We share school books." "Can't you share with someone less unnatural?" My voice shook, but I told that reprehensible beast, "I consider it a valid economy to be sharing books with Mr. Pearson."

Waiting for the elevator took an eternity. I found myself imagining that I was helping Isador put this packages in the cab, until the details became so vivid that it almost seemed that in fact I had helped him. And after all, there is no benefit in having two of us evicted from the Y. It is bad enough for something so humiliating to happen to one.

Hans appears to have been briefly a lover of Jeb and later a friend. He is involved with the theater in Washington. At the depths of the depression and unable to find work, he returns to his native Germany to disappear in the Nazi crackdown on homosexuals.

There is Nicky, once the lover of a successful older man, who attempted suicide when he was named in divorce proceedings by the man's wife. He is later drafted and lost in action off the coast of New Guinea in the Second World War.

There are tiny peeks at parties in apartments and private homes where the most vibrant gay social life flourished. But Jeb was more a recluse who seldom allowed himself to be dragged onto the faster track.

"If only Isador had written a diary," laments Russell, "we would have a much broader picture of gay life in D.C. ... I can tell, though I don't get to look at it much, that there was a much rowdier, bawdier subculture, more freewheeling than this particular little look at it." She says that Isador was much too busy having fun and so didn't write a diary.

Jeb's story is a quieter one, more of the daily routine of life than of the weekend flings. And in this day - no, eon - of AIDS, the closing paragraph of the diary is bittersweet, both sobering and consoling, a commentary we do well to remember.

It reminds us that neither loneliness nor heartbreak is new, nor is our persecution, nor our capacity to form communities, and survive. Above all, it is a testament to our endurance. Memory is often our only defense, our only celebration of those we have held dear. So bear witness, treasure your past and speak it, for that is what keeps it alive.

Monday, 31 December 1945: (I) walked in the rain to Crescent and got a seat at the bar. Houndstooth blustered in, bundled against the rain. We talked and had a good time. So many boys in the bar tonight, back from the war. Without saying anything to Houndstooth, I drank a silent toast to the memory of dear Hans, who has simply disappeared, and to sweet Nicky, who will never come back because he is a skeleton at the bottom of the Pacific. It hurts to think about them. When the clock behind the bar struck midnight I banged a salt shaker against my glass to make noise, and together old Houndstooth and I sang "Auld Lang Syne."

Permission to excerpt was generously granted by the editor and publisher.