Excerpt: 'The Gentrification of the Mind' by Sarah Schulman


John Preston

From Chapter Six: The Gentrification of Our Literature

The first gay book I ever saw was called Cylce Suck. It was on a shelf at The Oscar Wilde Bookstore on Christopher Street in 1975, next to some mimeographed pamphlets with titles like “The Woman-Identified Woman.”  From the beginning, I have always known that this is as it should be. Separating distinctions between the sexually explicit and the politically necessary would never made sense. Yet, as I am writing this in 2009, a scandal erupts- first on-line, and then in the mainstream print media., the mail order bookseller mega-monster, got caught in what they called a “glitch.”  In response to right-wing and Christian readers, they removed books with sexual content from their ranking system, thereby ensuring that erotic and pornographic books would not be able to get on best-seller lists. Either deliberately or inadvertently, gay and lesbian books were included in the ban, and so were automatically removed from the Amazon ranking system. This included some editions of all of my books.  The response of the gay community was tepid at best.  A number of spokespeople called upon by the mainstream media, or speaking out on Facebook and various blogs were “shocked” and “outraged” (see above responses to the passing of Proposition 8.) They couldn’t believe this was happening to them. The event was treated as an anomaly, irregular and extreme.  When it was made clear that these exclusions included James Baldwin novels, the outrage grew. How could “literature” be confused with pornography?

For me, Amazon’s actions were consistent with the way gay and lesbian literature has been contextualized in the United States.  It is the surprise of some gay people, and the pretend “mistake” of a media/industry that consistently marginalizes our work as a matter of course, that constitutes the gentrified approach. As disenfranchised people often do the dirty work of the culture, we – gay, lesbian, bisexual (not yet transgendered- but that phenomena is inevitable) writers- gentrify ourselves. In the past, power brokers would not pretend that gay books were included when they are in fact excluded, and therefore susceptible gay people would not think that their work was included when it was in fact demeaned. The public explanation has changed, but the reality remains the same. The truth – that queer sexually truthful literature is seen as pornographic, and is systematically kept out of the hands and minds of most Americans, gay and straight- has been replaced with a false story of a non-existent integration and a fantasized equality, with no basis in lived fact. Truth is replaced by falsity, the false claim that the dominant cultural writer does not have profound structural advantages, replaces the truth that being out in one’s work, sexually honest, and truthful about the lived homosexual experience, guarantees that one’s work will never be seen for its actual merit. The Gentrified Mind becomes unable to see lived experience because it is being bombarded by false stories replacing truth. Even we- the practitioners cannot understand the truthful positioning of our literature. In short, that to be acceptable, that literature cannot be sexually authentic. And, that even though this is a requirement for approval, we look at the highly conditional and restricted approval as a sign of success instead of the failure that it actually is.

In my own experience, the equation of queer literature with pornography is undeniable. Yes, this includes the banning of condom ads on television. Of course, in gay time, “recent” quickly disappears because so many participants are dead, and others have been silenced. It’s hard to have collective memory when so many who were “there” are not “here” to say what happened. Once the recent past is remembered, then the Amazon “glitch” becomes all too consistent. So, here is just one example exhumed from memory.

In 1994, a coalition of Feminists and right-wing politicians in Canada passed a Tariff Code called “Butler” that was designed to restrict pornographic production. Instead, it was applied in such a way that it allowed officials at Canada Customs to systematically detain and destroy gay and lesbian materials at the border. A gay bookstore in Vancouver, Little Sisters, had so much of its product seized at the border, that it could no longer operate. As a result, Little Sisters decided to sue the Canadian government.

My friend, John Preston, had just died of AIDS. He was the author of some iconic leather and S/M novels, many with literary bent.  His novel Mister Benson had been serialized in Drummer Magazine, and created a subcultural phenomenon. Men would wear t-shirts asking Mister Benson? Or asserting Mister Benson!. While he had a less explicit series called Franny, The Queen of Provincetown, John was perhaps best known for his book I Once Had A Master. Since he was newly dead, I was asked by the Little Sisters legal team to come to Vancouver and testify on John’s behalf. And because I was very clear in my opposition to state repression of gay materials, I had no problem agreeing.

The Canadian courthouse was quite shocking to this New Yorker. No metal detectors, no armed guards at rapt attention in every corner. The building looked like a Marriot Hotel with lovely plants, comfortable seating and a coffee bar. But do not be fooled, the Canadian government proved to be a vicious animal with a demure exterior.

Tensions were high in the courtroom the day I arrived. The trial had been going on for weeks and many writers had testified. Patrick Califia, who at the time had presented as female with the name Pat, had been on the witness stand the Friday before and had done so well that the Crown had refused to cross-examine him.  Interestingly, “Pat” – who was known as butch,  had taking the extreme step of wearing a brown corduroy dress, which impressed me. We were, after all, trying to win.  I, and I assume many of the women testifying, had agonized over what to wear on the stand. The only nice dress I owned in 1994 was black velvet – kind of a parody of a dress, and something to be worn to the opera. Anyway, I wore pants. Becky Ross, a Canadian academic testified before me. She wore a dress, but I think she always wore a dress. Anyway, the Crown had been pretty hard on her, asking her to define “fisting.”

John’s books were being persecuted on five counts. The questions I had to address were: Is it violent? Is it degrading? Is it dehumanizing? Does it have literary merit? Is it socially redeeming? If I had had my way, I would have argued that even if the books were violent, degrading etc they still should be available. However, Canadian courts had already ruled on that question, so my only remaining strategy for protecting his books, was to “prove” that Butler should not be applied to him. Not that the law was wrong.

So many years later, this is the same conundrum gay writers faced with the Amazon exclusion. Mark Doty, Larry Kramer and many other principled gay writers noted online and in print that books like Giovanni’s Room and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit were being falsely labeled as pornography. Once again we were forced by a state or corporate apparatus to claim that our literature was different from that dirty stuff, instead of part and parcel with it. But it is the homosexuality that got the books marginalized in the first place. Not their sentence structure.

If my editor will permit me, I would like to reproduce my court affidavit here. It may be the only chance most of you have to learn something about John, and that would please me greatly.

Testimony on Behalf of John Preston– Vancouver 1994

I, Sarah Miriam Schulman, have had an opportunity to review John Preston’s books I Once Had A Master and Entertainment for a Master. After consulting the legal principles by which the Supreme Court of Canada determines whether a book is obscene, I can say without reservation that these books are not obscene.

The first question is whether or not these books “contain explicit sex with violence.” It seems clear that there is no physical violation of characters, only mutually consensual sexual relationships. Furthermore, none of these consensual sex acts result in physical impairment or injury. Nor is there any threat of physical violence in his work, only the pretense of such threat as an essential part of the fantasy surrounding these mutually consensual sex acts. At all times the characters are aware that they are participating in a sexual/emotional interaction by their own choice and motivated by their own desires. Never do the characters appear to be victims of violence or in fear of actual violence. The only violation is a social kind experienced by gay men who are shunned or ostracized by the dominant culture purely because of their homosexuality.

The second question has to do with “explicit sex which is degrading or dehumanizing.” It is without a doubt that the characters in John’s books feel emotionally and sexually enhanced by their relationships. His characters maintain dignity, sense of humor and find an increasing awareness of community and self esteem through their relationships with other men. In fact, their relationships are often positioned as a curative or solution to a feeling of degradation imposed on them by the non-gay world. Their relationships with other men are the very experiences that uplift John’s characters from feelings of ostracization and rejection.  Both books in question suggest that depriving people of information and images of their own emotional/sexual realties is an act of degradation, while affirming these images and fantasies improves their self-esteem, quality of life and sense of social place.

In terms of the “literary merit” of the books, I am struck by their conventional narrative formats. Each story is motivated by the development of a first person character.  Usually he is a gay man with a particular job, sensibility or environment who is motivated by psychological or emotional issues. Typically through his relationship with another man – an intense, personal relationship involving sex and often love, the protagonist resolves or moves beyond his initial interior conflict. John consistently used accepted literary structures of character and description recognized in every college classroom where writing is taught and analyzed.

These relationships are always presented in the context of the narrator’s autobiography. In the story “Pedro”, he recounts growing up in New England, hitch-hiking as a boy as his first strategy for meeting other gay men. This places his work in a specific historic context because he was only able to experience his homosexuality through the anonymity of these seductions. Hopefully, a young man growing up in John’s hometown today would have other ways of living his homosexuality if he wanted them. Some of those changes, that widening of choices and opportunities for gay teenagers, is a result of life long efforts by people like John Preston to bring these experiences out of isolation and into common knowledge. This is the context for the sexual description in John’s work.

In “Pedro” he describes his first experience of being in love and in a couple. Pedro meets the narrator’s parents and brings them gifts. John describes his own transformation from a bookish loner into a lover. And the sexuality between him and Pedro is completely relevant to the development of the story. It is part of his character’s feelings of passion, desire and satisfaction and underlines accurately the tension between his parents’ homophobia and the joy of his sexuality with his lover.

In the story “An Education” John’s protagonist has graduated from college, is working towards a graduate degree in sex counseling and has come to a major city to attend a conference for sex therapy professionals. He goes from stuffy academic conference rooms to the more personally revealing atmosphere of men’s bars. The hypocrisy of his professional position becomes increasingly obvious. Ultimately, through an intense sexual and psychological relationship with a man he meets in a bar, the protagonist is so changed that he is unable, at the close of the story, to resume his professional demeanor. The story is structured in such a way as to juxtapose the banal theoretical comments and cynical attitudes of the sex therapists with the protagonist’s experience of his new sexual relationship as provocative, profoundly transforming and deeply passionate.

The books are united further by the through-line of John’s life. He is always referring to his daily routine in Maine, meeting friends for dinner, remembering incidents about his family, noticing his own ageing process. It is rooted, always in the personal. In this way John’s books have now become historical documents about rituals, language, sex acts, fashions in clothing and appearance that describe a sector of gay male life before the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Every interaction is set within a particular context reflective of that time. Whether it is Provincetown at its height or The Mineshaft before it was closed by the New York City Police Department, the seductions, the sex, the friendships are all particular to a disappeared era. This alone merits their preservation.

But even more important to this work is John’s fascination with and devotion to men. He was willing to risk repression and isolation as a writer in order to honestly depict and express this depth of feeling. And by placing his own desires within the context of everyday life, John’s books move towards a normalization of homosexual love and passion. Given the hostility surrounding his work, these actions were visionary, prophetic ones- based more in a freer future than in the emotionally denying real world in which he worked.

In the final chapter of I Once Had A Master, John discussed his own work in the context of contemporary political discourse on writing about sexuality and the body. The self-consciousness and ability to grasp intellectually complex social and aesthetic questions places this essay in the realm of literary theory. He reveals the meaning of his books to his larger community, the dialogue between himself and his readers about his work, the social context in which it appeared, and how he wished it to be viewed. These concerns make clear that John considered his work to be of literary merit and that, in fact, it was also viewed that way by his readers and publishers.

John Preston’s depictions of sexual power dynamics between lovers do contain social commentary. While Pat Califia’s depictions highlight women’s social and political inequality and the role that sexual play can have in re-enforcing a sense of equity, power and self-esteem, John Preston’s male characters refrain from the classic heroic male behavior codified in literature. They do not bully, violate or conquer women, children or other weaker men. Instead they bring their desires and abilities relating to sexual power purely into a consensual arena. These gay male characters can use their sexual imaginations to mitigate oppressive practices aimed at them from a prejudicial dominant culture. Given these dimensions to Preston’s work, it is confusing to note that other books of more challenging sexual content such as the internationally recognized classic The Story of O by Pauline Reage and The Beauty Trilogy by Ann Rice, are available in Canada while John’s work was singled out for restriction.

The actual testifying did not go that well. Once I got on the witness stand, the Crown claimed that I was not qualified to be an expert on “Harm.” I said that as someone who has experienced “Harm” for being a lesbian, and especially for being a lesbian writer, I was quite expert on the matter. I argued that “homophobia is a social pathology that causes violence and destroys families.” I said that gay and lesbian books are a mitigating force against homophobia and therefore are socially beneficial and the opposite of “harm.” The Crown claimed that I was not qualified to make this statement because I am not a sociologist. They won, and I was forbidden from addressing that issue in court.

This was the first indication I had of our judge’s conceptual limits. As we moved along, I came to learn that Milord did not know what “deconstruction” meant. And later he revealed a puzzlement over the meaning of the word “enema.”  Oh no, I thought. If he never heard of enema or deconstruction, we are doomed.

The Crown read out loud a passage from one of John’s books describing nipple torture. It was a bit surreal. Then he asked me if this was “degrading or dehumanizing.” I did my best.

Through the rest of the trial the government repeatedly made clear their view of any gay sex. They had seized a lesbian anthology called BUSHFIRE because it included the line “she held me tightly like a rope,” which they said was “bondage.” They had also seized a book called STROKE, which was about boating.

In the end, after many more years and courts and dollars, Little Sister lost their case. The judge ruled that Canada Customs officials had, and still have, the right to decide which materials are not suitable to come into the country. Interestingly, they quickly ratified gay marriage, while continuing to retain the right to insure that no married gay man will ever go looking for MISTER BENSON.

Those two days in court made it crystal clear to me that in the minds of many people, homosexuality is inherently pornographic. And there is nothing that has occurred in the subsequent three presidential terms that has created any other kind of context. The best proof is in our contemporary placement and treatment of sexually truthful gay literature. That John Preston was invited to give a keynote address at OUTWRITE, the now defunct lesbian and gay writers’ conference, was a sign of the prominent and central role of sexually explicit content in gay literature when it was controlled by the community.  Now, that gay presses and bookstores have been gentrified out of existence, first by chain stores like Barnes and Nobles, which are now being out-sold by, gay literature is at the mercy of the mainstream. Many of the male writers with primary gay content who are rewarded and accepted by the mainstream create characters that are inadvertently palatable to heterosexual liberals. We all love David Sedaris, but he doesn’t write explicitly about his Master. Other, smarmier, highly rewarded works show gay men who are alone, betray each other, commit suicide, who have demure and coded sex.  The few men who manage to get published at the highest levels with sexually true materials, like Edmund White, still remain on the outside of the straight literary power elite.

Chapter republished with permission of the author. Copyright © Sarah Schulman 2012.