michaell098300Michael Landweber’s debut novel, We, which will be released on September 1 by Seattle-based Coffeetown Press, has already gotten wonderful blurbs from writers such as Jessica Anya Blau (“a family story…wrapped in a suspenseful, gripping, and totally original sci-fi narrative”), Dave Housley (“a captivating, genre-bending psychological mystery”), and Jen Michalski (“a suspenseful and emotionally engaging novel”). We follow 40-year-old Ben Arnold as he regains consciousness following an accident, only to discover that he is inside his seven-year-old self—and his younger self, whom everyone calls Binky, is not happy about it. Ben would just as soon not be there either, until he realizes he is three days away from the worst day of his childhood—the day his sister Sara was raped, setting into motion the slow, painful unraveling of his family. Somehow, he has to figure out how to get Binky to save Sara.

DoesJesusReallyLoveMe coverWhat was the point of this book, really?

The point was to find stories—mostly stories that haven’t been told, stories that can help illuminate the difficult intersection of the Christian faith and homosexuality.

For those of us who grew up in the church and/or are in it today, stories are an important addition to what’s already out there in terms of theology. I’ve been criticized by some readers for not writing a more traditionally theological book. Well, I’m not a theologian—I’m a journalist. You can go out there and find some academic tome for nearly every point on the theological spectrum on this topic; no need for me to add to that. But what we do need—and what I was capable of adding, as a reporter and a writer—is more humanity and more stories.

DoesJesusReallyLoveMe cover

If I were putting together the soundtrack of my life, I’d pick “Jesus Loves Me” to cover a big chunk of my childhood. As a boy, I believed that song, and I wanted to believe it. “Jesus Loves Me” is straightforward, in the way that children’s songs often are, and faithful, in the way that children can be:

SpitPassion

From Chapter Four: Am I Paranoid Or Am I Just Bi?

Young, awkward and queer, Cristy C. Road takes her readers back to the moment when listening to her favorite band made her feel OK with the world. (Click the title above to see optimal images from her stunning graphic memoir.)

 

 

“We need to talk,” said my mom. I was 14, and this could have meant any number of ominous things. We’d had many “talks” over the years, most of them related to my adolescent misbehavior, which arrived at 12 in particularly worrying form.

We sat together at our breakfast counter, she with a mug of Bengal spice tea, me with a glass of OJ. My mother was, and is, a very pretty woman, with bright blue eyes, skyscraper cheekbones, and an easy laugh. She sipped her tea and took a breath.

“Karen and I aren’t just friends, honey.” Her features tightened, but her eyes met mine, clear and steady. “We’re more than friends.”

I turned fifty years old this year. I was a little kid in the Sixties. A teen in the Seventies. I had my first jobs and graduated from college in the Eighties. I settled down and did my first entrepreneurial things in the Aughts.

When I was a kid, among the biggest insults you could sling at another boy was calling him “faggot,” “queer” or “fairy.” We accepted without any discussion that homosexuality was a trait devoutly not to be wished upon oneself.

*Author’s note: Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise–warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day–I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics and writing a short essay–about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

 

What is one of the worst things that people do to one another?  Explain.

 

 

Every time my mother talks to her brother he reminds her that he is the “sole trustee and executor of the St. George family trust.”

 

When I was a boy I used a magnifying glass to burn insects.

 

I once shot my brother with a BB gun when he was walking into the yard, coming home from school. He spun, looking for cover, finding nothing, while I took aim, and waited, lining up the sights, before I squeezed the trigger. When he cried I called him a faggot.

 

I once burned alive a San Francisco alligator lizard with gasoline then dissected its cooked remains.

 

My best friend is what Nietzsche described as a “free spirit,” and I get pissed at him because he cancels classes, gets in trouble at work, runs out of money, and lounges on his porch drinking beer when he should be writing poems.

 

This classmate of mine and his buddies wouldn’t do calisthenics in PE one foggy day in our freshman year, so our teacher made everyone run the cross country course and I waited for this kid and broke his arm.

 

“Paul Broussard (1964–1991), a twenty-seven year-old Houston-area banker and Texas A&M alumnus, was beaten and stabbed to death in a gay-bashing incident outside a Houston nightclub on July 4, 1991 by ten teenage boys. The youths had driven from the northern Houston suburb of The Woodlands to the heavily gay area of Montrose solely to “beat up some queers,” in the words of one of the convicted teens.”

 

Once, when my wife and I fought, I threw an empty Budweiser bottle at the wall.

 

Sometimes when my mother calls and rambles on about nothing I can’t hide my boredom and desire to get off the phone and get on with my day even though with said rambling it’s obvious that my mother only wants to talk to her firstborn, hear my voice, know that I’m alive, the baby she brought into the world, nursed to viability, watched grow up safe and happy.

 

In high school I took this girl out who liked me and I knew that she liked me and I didn’t really like her back but still I took her out and I knew that I could and that I could take her shirt off and I did and I knew that I could and that I could not talk to her afterwards and I did and all of this I knew.

 

The uncle mentioned above, a gay man, suffers the chagrin of most family members for his admittedly pompous behavior. However, these family members repeatedly make light of this uncle’s sexuality and often comment on “how hard” his parents had it, dealing with his homosexuality, never once considering how hard it might have been for this uncle, brother, son, etc., to have “come out.”

 

Last week a college police officer calmly and without any apparent remorse pepper sprayed at point-blank range a group of students who sat on the ground with their arms linked in solidarity.

 

Some estimates say that as many as 78 million—nearly twice California’s population—died as a result of World War II.

 

As the Bachmanns continue to “correct” gay sexuality, I keep teaching erotic writing classes.  These multi-week courses are always a joy.  Writers with a rich range of sexual identities come into a safe classroom where they are actively encouraged to express desire and discuss its importance.  As artists, we ask questions about sexual expression:  Why do so many people think “cunt” is an objectifying word to use in a sex scene when “arm” and “hair” are perfectly fine?  Why is the vulnerability and power of desire, along with all its peacemaking qualities, seen as more denigrating than gunfire?  Why is erotica that is written to bring sexual pleasure, viewed, by many, as immoral or cheap?

There are countless answers.  Here’s an important one:  Many people are ashamed (beyond measure) of their own sexuality, so they project that shame onto those who aren’t.  The sexually attuned human beings of this world are attacked as if we are dirty.  Why?  Because if you make everyone ashamed of their erotic freedom, expression and pleasure, you control a heck of a lot.  And you get to feel superior while you’re doing so.

One of the biggest hurdles for the beginning sex writer is the rejection they often feel in their writing communities.  Suddenly, those who have always been supportive are asking, “But why is this piece of writing just about sex?  Can’t you write about something pure?  This is shallow, this is meaningless, this is frivolous, this isn’t your business.  This is sinful.  This needs correcting.”

Does that string of statements remind you of Michele Bachmann?

We’re in a dangerous time, right now.  We’re fighting anti-queer violence, both physical and psychological.  Religious rhetoric is often frightening to those who are already afraid.  And the message is that all of us, regardless of our sexuality, should be ashamed of human desire, intimacy and sensual connection.  The Bachmanns put sex in a box and say “This is separate to everything else,” which of course makes it easier to control.  But sexual identity and expression are about so much more than the body.  They’re about acceptance, openness and truth.

When debating the power sexual attunement, consider this:  In a multi-week erotica class that I taught in the UK, one of my students came up to me at the end of the course.  She told me how life-affirming it had been for her to write about sex in a supportive community, and how self-embraced and aglow she now felt.  “When I started this class,” she said, “I hadn’t had a period for ten months.  Two weeks ago, I had one.”  She put this down to the fact that she was feeling alive in her body.  Proud and unashamed.

Here’s my take:  When we feel good in our bodies, we’re also likely to feel good in the rest of our selves.  And if we all felt good, there’d be less war.

And where would the politicians be then?

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days of what it means to be a gay writer, probably because June is gay pride month. I suppose I tend to see the idea of a gay writer in two ways as it relates to me, sort of like a chameleon with two independently floating eyeballs connected to one brain—to one instinctual purpose. I can see (I hope to see) myself in one thousand years being pored over by a group of eager young scholars at the University of Olympus Mons on Mars. Each would be an immigrant, a muscular mix of Japanese, Ukranian and Nigerian origins. Each would be between the ages of 23 and 35.

Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of Genesis knows the Bible is riddled with contradictions and questionable behavior written about someone we assume to be an all-knowing and loving God. In the first two chapters alone, the authors can’t agree on what day plants were created, or if man arrived before or after the animals. Throughout the Old Testament, God assists in genocide, He burns people to death, and He orders severe punishments for seemingly innocuous crimes like wearing dissimilar clothing material or being careless with menstrual discharge.

Non-believers often seize upon the Bible’s apparent inaccuracies and atrocities when casting doubt upon God’s existence, and it’s difficult to argue with them. If these are the divinely inspired Words of God, why should there be any mistakes at all? Have such mistakes been placed there to test our faith? Is God’s mysterious behavior a conscious act on His part to separate His true followers from the pretenders? And if so, what would be the point of such a test? Surely God must know well ahead of the rest of us who will succeed and who will falter.

Questions of this nature have plagued man for as long as he could conceive of himself having been borne from supreme beings. Biological at the source, but philosophical in practice, nearly all of us carry doubts about the reasons for our existence. Are we here for some purpose? Is there order to the universe? Are we alone?

We do not want to be alone.

And so, in ways too numerous to count, we seek spiritual peace. Some of us read only the oldest, pre-Christian writings of the Tanakh. Others follow the iron will of the Catholic church, at least until one day some of them decide there is a way to be closer to God. Some of us move across the ocean, far from the original holy land, and find guidance in a reinvented Christianity with new holy lands much closer to home. We pay enormous sums of money to an organization founded by a pulp science fiction author and try to find the ancient alien inside each of us.

For most of my life, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My childhood attendance at Mass was reluctant, and once I left for college, I swore I’d never go again. But then I married a Catholic woman who gently encouraged me to return. Soon enough I’d fallen back into the routine and gradually became immersed in the community of my church, chairing fund raising events, playing basketball in the school gym, hitting the links with some of those same buddies. On Sundays, the Father would select a story from the Bible, usually the New Testament, and deliver a homily that challenged parishioners to be tolerant of their fellow man. Judging by the various conversations I either participated in or overheard among my friends there, most folks listened politely to the Father and agreed with him on principle because he was, after all, discussing the Word of God. I don’t know many who studied the Word with any level of detail, though. Being a member of the church was simply a fact of life, no different than a native Bostonian being a fan of the Red Sox.

My rejection of Christianity and organized religion in general coincided roughly with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on this very day six years ago. Ratzinger’s positions on homosexuality and condom use caused me to reexamine my own, and coupled with America’s (too) slow acceptance of gay rights, I began to seriously doubt the authority of religious figures whose basis for morality was scripture I already knew contained many structural and moral ambiguities.

I became angry with the Church for what I perceived to be hypocrisy. The Vatican coddled ordained sex offenders but condemned a wide swath of humanity who chose to employ birth control or engage in consensual sex with adults of the same gender. But soon I realized these individual political positions were symptomatic of my larger problem within organized religion, which was to conceal prejudice behind the unassailable rules of a magical supreme being. And it wasn’t just Catholics. Or Christians. Or believers in various Abrahamic religions. It was anyone who brandished spiritual belief as a weapon, no matter the source material.

And once the curtain fell, all the absurdities I’d ignored for years mushroomed into unavoidable obstacles. How could adults in the 21st century, with so much information and contradictory evidence at their disposal, still believe in a magical man in the sky? When did we decide it was acceptable to merge pagan symbols like bunny rabbits and colored eggs with the rebirth of God’s zombie son? Why did Christian Americans, so proudly individual, so unworthy of charity and state support, advocate a spiritual belief system whose core message was eternal salvation? How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist? Even thrive?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt I ever will. But after a period of spiritual readjustment, I realized those answers were not important. The path to personal enlightenment and self-actualization was not to understand why others do the things they do or believe what they believe. And it was certainly not my place to judge others for what they believed.

What matters to me is what I believe. Nothing more.

Every one of you reading this has been blessed with the miracle of life, with consciousness; you are privileged to be a member of the only known animal species on earth capable of asking such questions. But with that privilege comes a curse, the knowledge of your own mortality, and the possibility that life is nothing more than a tiny, accidental mutation of cosmic evolution.

Navigating such a universe is not an easy task, and none of us should be blamed for the paths we choose to peace, as long as those paths don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

When I think of my own path, I think of Genesis 2 and 3, which introduce the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, which opened their eyes to their own nakedness. In return, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and cursed them to a gritty, mortal existence. Their rebellious behavior constitutes our original fall from grace.

But to me, in these opening chapters, the Bible tells me everything I need to know about Christianity. Given the choice between nuanced knowledge and simple bliss, between rebellion and obedience, I’ll take the rebellious knowledge every time. In my estimation, humankind’s questions about the nature of itself, our rejection of the status quo, our ever-upward understanding of our tiny-yet-significant place in this beautiful universe, is the true miracle.

Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day. If we ever manage to get there, ever so humbly, God will be waiting for us, a welcoming smile on his face.

Because in the end, God is us. He’s the best we have to offer.

That any of us have to offer.

You.

Me.

Anyone who aspires to grace.

I should have known that I was gay a long time before I figured it out. As a young kid I was a fan of Charlie’s Angels, The Bionic Woman, and Wonder Woman. I couldn’t see enough Broadway musicals as a teen and took to wearing argyle socks. My favorite movie in the 10th grade was The Little Mermaid and I dreamed of both getting married and honeymooning in Disneyworld. Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” was, and still is, my favorite song to dance to with “It’s Raining Men” running a not-too-distant second.

It wasn’t clear until later that there were millions of others just like me, that I was a walking cliché growing up with gay clues circling all around me; big ones that were the equivalent of head hitting hammers.

I came out in 1994 when I was 20 years old, seven years after I found a man stunningly beautiful for the very first time, or at least the first time I was cognizant of it. Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride made me desperately want to do anything he wished, if he had asked it of me and not Robin Wright. I don’t remember being particularly disturbed about finding a man attractive; it seemed so natural what with his perfect features and all.

The attractions steamrolled from there one after the denied other. As an unpopular teen on Friday nights, I would join my parents when they went over to my aunt and uncle’s house to play pinochle. I did not go because I was a fan of watching card games. No, I went because they had the Playboy channel. As I stumbled across it by accident (and it was an accident) that first time while alone in their den, I quickly started to realize that I was more interested in the pool boy than the bored housewife trying to seduce him. I was watching Playboy for the men and got annoyed when there were half hour specials on the playmate of the month. My time was limited; pinochle did not revolve around the Playboy channel’s programming.

Yes, this should’ve tipped me off.

Or maybe earlier when I insisted on singing the entire Annie songbook during one of my parents’ dinner parties…from “Maybe” all the way to “I Don’t Need Anything But You”. As I had stage fright, I performed from underneath the table so I was not able to see what had to be looks of bored desperation on people’s faces.

Or maybe this should’ve raised some rainbow flags…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could never get into watching football and only saw it as a hindrance to eating dinner at a reasonable hour on Sundays. I was obsessed with women’s gymnastics during the Summer Olympics and figure skating during the Winter ones. I grew up watching WWF wrestling because it was chock-full of drama and shirtless men, not because I could appreciate a well-executed piledriver.

I taped General Hospital everyday while at school starting in the 7th grade so I could watch it at night and cried when [spoiler alert] Tania Jones died. I spent days with the theme song to Jem and the Holograms stuck in my head.

There was the time I helped my mother and other women clear the table during a big family barbecue. One of the adult men constructively commented, “Don’t be a fag.” I didn’t realize that helping to clean signified being gay. Though, people do insist that Mr. Clean is gay, don’t they?

I excelled in my 12th grade typing class, a trait I inherited from my mother who used to say that Typing was the only class she got an A in. The captain of the basketball team sat beside me looking on in envy of my speed. His best bud one row back reassured him that it was only typing. “Dude, it’s for girls.”

Three bullies in junior high knew that I was gay before I did. They called me a fudge-packer every time they saw me. I thought this term referred to my over-weight and fondness of chocolate. I didn’t realize until later that they were being remarkably homophobic at an early age. But what did they see in me that I hadn’t yet?

They weren’t the only ones. When I was 15, I spent six weeks travelling on a teen tour with 35 other teens. One night, one of my friends revealed that some of the girls thought that I might be gay. “Oh,” I replied out loud. “Maybe I am,” I kept to myself. I cannot say that my friend was as calm as I was. He was truly offended on my behalf; he seemingly wanted to defend my honor. Was I making a tactical error by not defending it myself?

For a talent show performance that same summer, my friend Deena and I were going to reenact a song and dance number from One Life to Live. When I saw the look in some people’s eyes as we rehearsed on the bus, I quickly realized that if I went through with it, people would not just suspect that I was gay. So we found an alternative that did not involve the use of jazz hands.

In high school, I concentrated my attraction to men on one classmate in particular who had a reputation for being a ladies man. I flirted, I touched in passing, I made inappropriate propositions…all in jest, of course, but not really. I thought I had a chance (I’m not sure at what exactly) because he was in the drama club and chorus. Then one day he confided in me with a concerned tone that he thought I was bisexual. I quickly retorted that I was just kidding, whatever I did or said I was never serious. This shut me up for good with him. The secret I was keeping from myself almost got out.

During my junior year, I was caught in a love triangle except that the two other parties involved were not in love with me. Laurie and Jake were both my best friends yet hardly friends with one another. I convinced myself that I had a crush on Laurie so when Jake and she started dating, I didn’t take it well. I took it much worse when it felt like Jake was abandoning me to spend more time with Laurie. It didn’t occur to me until years later that Jake was the one I had a crush on. I somehow missed that minor detail.

As a frequenter of Broadway, I often passed by certain kinds of unreputable establishments that could be found on 8th Avenue in the theater district. One in particular always caught my attention because its sign above the door read “Cock Around the Clock”. What in denial gay teen didn’t dream about going to a badly pun-named strip club?

One day I had the occasion to be in Manhattan entirely by myself and so decided to take advantage of my solitude and pursue the fantasy. I was ready to see naked men in real life rather than just on pay cable.

I was positively terrified yet excited. I had no idea what to expect once I entered and had no idea what kinds of other men would be inside. I self-consciously opened the door and was confronted by a steep staircase worthy of a Hitchcock film. Once I made my nervous ascent, I quickly bought my entrance ticket and made my way to the “theater”, barely taking in my surroundings.

I was crestfallen when I entered. I suppose that I imagined a beautifully muscular man dancing in a G-string to the hoots and hollers of good-looking men in the audience. It was 11am on a Tuesday. The audience was empty save for the dirty old man up in the corner. The naked performer on stage was sitting on a chair, touching himself with what smelled like Coppertone 8, and he wasn’t the least bit attractive. I had seconds to decide where to sit and so chose the front row, directly in front of him. Anywhere else, I worried, would’ve been insulting.

There I was, an uncomfortable 17 year old wearing a toggle coat from the Gap, khaki pants, with a book in hand watching a stripper at “Cock Around the Clock”. It was not exactly the moment dreams are made of. Shortly after my arrival, the man put on his G-string (there it was), stepped down from the stage and approached me. Oh God, he sat on my lap.

“I’m just here to observe,” I insisted in a panic. It didn’t even occur to me to bring singles.

“That’s ok,” he reassured me without getting up. “Don’t be so nervous.” He gyrated a bit. “How’s your book?”

I ran. I got up in a flurry spitting out apologies, and fiercely made my way to the exit and flew down that hellish stairway back to the safety of daylight. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t be gay. I wouldn’t be gay. I would stop thinking about men. I would make sure of it.

I should have known; it didn’t stick.

I grew up before Ellen came out on prime time and passed the baton to Will & Grace who helped bring homosexuality to the mainstream. This was before Tom Hanks barely kissed Antonio Banderas, before there were Angels in America, before three drag queens Abba’d their way across the Australian Outback and before Rosie O’Donnell pulled the ole bait-and-switch.

I wouldn’t dare suggest that I grew up in a difficult environment. Compared to many, I had it easy. It’s just that homosexuality was not yet discussed openly and if so, it was certainly never done so in a positive manner. My only gay role model growing up was Jack Tripper and so that doesn’t count.

Yes, certainly, somewhere in the midst of all this confusion I realized that I was gay. I just wasn’t ready to accept it yet. If only I knew then what I do now, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time.

All of that being said, one cliché didn’t take; I never cared much for Barbra.


At first Steward occupied the booth on Wednesdays and weekends, Webb the rest of the time. But as Steward established himself as the superior craftsman, customers in search of tattoos began abandoning Webb in favor of Steward. In retaliation, Webb put the word out that Steward was homosexual. “In those days,” Steward later wrote, “you had to keep it hidden. Otherwise [you either risked a beating, or else] would be bartering blowjobs for tattoos.” (Faced with a sudden influx of “barter-boys,” Steward simply told them they had the wrong man, and directed them across the street to a grotesquely ugly and alcoholic tattoo artist named Shaky Jake.)

Why did you write Sam Steward’s biography? It’s not often one runs across a biography of an unknown person.

As a writer with an interest in American art and culture of the 1950s, I kept bumping into Steward’s name. In other people’s biographies, social histories, cultural histories, oral histories, monographs, and memoirs. And I already knew the name Phil Andros, his pen name, through my reading of gay pulp fiction and gay pornography of the 1960s and 70s. So when I suddenly realized that Steward and Andros were one and the same I got very excited.

 

What did you hope to do?

At first I simply wanted to know what had happened to his papers after he died. It took me about a year to track them down. But when I finally gained access to those 80 boxes of material that no one else had ever seen – well, I realized that even though Steward was far from a celebrity, his life was of cultural importance. Simply put, the scope and magnitude of his work as an underground writer was amazing – and so was the life he had lived. It was at that point that I realized I simply had to write about him.

 

Why?

Biographers rarely come across such exciting subject matter. Steward’s voice was fresh and unique, and – more important – his life experiences were unlike anything that has ever been written about up to now. Most important to me as a biographer was the fact that he was entirely, obsessively truthful about everything he had done. His papers consisted of a massively detailed confession. The fact that he had kept such phenomenal records of his experiences – sexual and otherwise – gave me the raw material for an incredibly story.

 

Did you have any particular personal reason for writing the book?

Well, partly to satisfy my own curiosity. Not just about Sam, but about the texture and trajectory of gay lives in the mid-twentieth century. Steward describes his various moments of sexual self-realization as few others have done, and he does so in the context of a particularly toxic and hateful period in American culture. His diaries in particular are amazing for that reason alone. I hope that someday they are published in their entirety.

 

Do you think Steward’s life story is typical of the lives that gay men lead during the 1950s?

No, that would be an enormous generalization. But at the same time one sees that there was not much room in American society for a homosexual man to live a settled domestic life with another man. Steward was sexually active with a very large number of men throughout his life, and he had very few intimate sexual relationships. Partly that was his own personality, and partly it was determined by the society in which he lived. A lot of my work in writing Sam’s life story consisted of figuring out to what extent his life story was shaped by the circumstances in which he lived, and to what extent is was shaped by his essential nature. Through him, though, I think one gets an incredible view of what men were getting up to sexually during that period. Because, as you’ll see when you read the book, many if not most of the men Sam had sex with lived as heterosexuals.

 

Did Steward think of himself as “gay”?

The word “gay” came into usage to describe some of the men who engaged in homosexual activity starting in the 1930s, but it only became a preferred term of self-identification among homosexually-identified males in the mid-1960s. I don’t think Steward ever cared for the term.

 

How would Steward have described himself?

I think he would have described himself as primarily homosexual in orientation and activity.

 

Why would he use such deliberate terminology?

In writing Steward’s biography I’ve tried to evoke the world before gay liberation — a world with different understandings of homosexual activity, where understandings are demonstrated by word choices. For example, homosexuality was at that time considered a form of “perversion” — but if you called a gay man a pervert today, he’d probably punch you in the nose!

 

I see.

Sam had a poet’s sensitivity to language, and he was a pioneer in writing positively about his own homosexuality and the homosexuality of others. He did it through careful word choice – just as Kinsey did. Throughout the book I try to demonstrate how well Sam did it.

 

To many younger people this is all going to seem very strange. Speaking of which, how do you think Steward’s life experience will inform the minds of the younger generation?

In his journals Steward reflects over and over again on living in a society that wants either to deny that homosexuality exists or else to condemn it as bad and wrong. In his writings Sam gives us his life experience (and the experiences of other men around him) as they are collectively attempting to reconcile their essential sexual orientation – something, after all, that they were born with — to a seemingly endless variety of pressures to conform: spiritual, legal, professional, and social pressures. Conflicts of this sort remain with us to the present day, but they are nothing like as terrible as they used to be. For that reason, I think that anyone who has ever questioned his or her sexual identity – or cared about someone else going through that struggle – will find much in this book that looks and feels familiar.

 

You write in your book that Steward never had a long-term partner and that he never even lived with anyone.

Yes. He did have people stay with him briefly, but for the most part he lived alone.

 

What do you make of that?

Well, I think that like many writers and poets, he was essentially a solitary person who shared the best of himself through his writing. I think he cherished the moments of intimacy he achieved through sexual activity; but I also know he was most comfortable on his own. Many artists and writers are like that; they need time and space to be left alone with their thoughts, and are most comfortable (and productive) in solitude.

 

Do you think he was incapable of living with another person?

I think he had a series of early life experiences that shaped his personality, and that perhaps made prolonged intimacy with another person very difficult for him. But I know he longed for that intimacy even though it was difficult for him to manage. He lived with that paradox.

 

Steward sounds like a sex addict, but you never describe him as one. Why not?

I thought it might be better to let readers draw their own conclusions about how much sex is enough sex. Plus – I am not anti-sex!

 

Why not just say he was a sex addict or sexual compulsive?

Because who is to decide such things? Shouldn’t they be left to the individual? Moreover, in Steward’s case, sex was not just a pastime; it was his vocation. Exploring and describing his own sexuality in full – that was really his life’s work. Saying “Steward had too much sex” is like saying “Madame Curie handled too much radium.” It may be true, of course, but in saying so, aren’t you missing the point of everything they did, everything they stood for?

 

Do you have any tattoos?

No.

 

Are you partnered?

Yes. I am a partnered gay man. My partner values his privacy however, and so do I.

 

Let’s talk about the writing of the book. What was the most difficult part?

Selling it to a good publisher.

 

Why?

It was hard for editors to imagine a market for the book. Even my current editor, when I finally found him, felt that he was taking a risk.

 

Did he tell you so?

Not in so many words. But I sensed that if I didn’t deliver something extraordinary, the book contract would simply be cancelled. That sort of thing happens pretty frequently these days.

 

How was writing the book difficult?

Well, at first there was no clear roadmap to Sam’s life apart from a brief, elliptical memoir he had published in 1983. And while the pulp pornography he had written was extraordinary, pulp pornography is not something that is often discussed in literary biography. Given the perceived obscenity of the subject matter, I really wasn’t sure it could be.

 

Were you worried that the book would come across as salacious or titillating?

Yes. The question of tone was really what made writing the book so difficult. I was dealing with highly inflammatory subject matter that could so easily have bored or disgusted people – even those who are sympathetic to homosexuality.  And of course not everyone is.

 

How did you find the right tone?

I rewrote the book endlessly. Also I edited it down from an original draft of 1600 manuscript pages to the current 550.  And I just happened to be in group therapy during those years with a therapist named Will Swift, who is also coincidentally a biographer.  Together in my group of about ten guys, we would sometimes discuss the most difficult moments in Sam’s life, and discuss as well some very touchy and controversial issues such as sexual addiction and sexual compulsivity.  Each of the ten men in the group had a different viewpoint, and it was good for me to hear all of them.

 

Were you worried that readers and reviewers would think you were simply gossiping about a person’s private life?

Well, in one sense I was lucky:  my writing about Sam’s sexuality could never be interpreted as a betrayal, because he himself had fought all his life (and against terrible odds) to be honest about his sexuality in his writing.  Moreover, he had devoted so much time and energy to reflecting upon his sexuality and noting down all its particulars.  In that sense he was the perfect subject for an intimate biography. After all, he made his entire personal life transparent for his future biographer.  Most writers and public figures don’t do that; they protect themselves from that kind of intrusion.   So – if the book is ultimately considered remarkable, it’s in large part because I had the most remarkable of subjects. You can’t read Sam Steward’s life story without coming to a whole new understanding of American society and culture during the middle years of the last century. And you can’t read it without coming to a whole new sympathy for the lives and daily experiences of gay men.

 

What is Steward’s greatest achievement, in your opinion?

He created a lifelong sexual testament, one which took many forms: data and statistics; diaries and journals; fiction; visual art; journalism. It is only when you see the whole body of work together that you really understand what he was getting up to.

 

What did you like least about writing Steward’s life?

I experienced a lot of sorrow for him and through him, particularly in his later years. He was a very lonely man for much of his life, despite being popular and loved. There were weeks and months during the writing of the book that I was profoundly depressed by what I was experiencing daily on the page. Sam endured a lot of rejection during his life, particularly as a novelist and writer. By the time the gay liberation movement came along, nobody of the younger generation wanted anything to do with old guys like Sam. Younger gay men saw the gay men of the previous generation as closet cases and cowards. It wasn’t true, of course, but that’s how they saw it.

 

What about his emotional development?

I think Sam was emotionally damaged by the early childhood experience of losing his mother and being essentially abandoned by his father. Added to these traumas was his inability to fit into the small-town world around him or to be the angelic little boy his adoptive aunts wanted him to be. He realized and wrote about this later in life: he knew he was in many ways a very closed-off, narcissistic person. He also knew that his narcissism and his alcoholism were linked, and that the alcoholism made the narcissism worse.

 

You write a lot about his alcoholism.

Yes. It’s very much part of his personality. Like many alcoholics, Sam was aware of his self-destructiveness even as he was self-destructing, and he wrote about it very well, particularly in describing the drinking years.

 

Do you feel that his sexual activity was self-destructive?

Well, I guess I would have to say that, at the very least, his compulsion to have sex so much – and with so many strangers — and often in ways that resulted in physical harm to his body – used up an awful lot of his time and energy. Particularly after he got sober. In a way, he substituted one compulsion (sex) for another (drinking). The compulsive nature of his sexual activity – he was constantly seeking out anonymous sex – really kept him from getting on with his writing. It was repetitive and time consuming, and he would get lost in sexual pursuit in the same way a drinker gets lost in the bottle. He didn’t just lose whole weekends having sex – he lost whole month-long vacations!

 

How is that kind of sexuality self-destructive?

Not so much self-destructive as deeply distracting. You have to remember that Sam was a very gifted literary novelist whose first novel received a glowing review from The New York Times. And he was a wildly popular professor whose classes were always oversubscribed. If he’d wasted less time on drinking and anonymous sex he might really have become famous. On the other hand, the written record he has left behind of his sexual activities is so utterly extraordinary and so utterly unique that I can hardly say that I’m sorry he chose to spend so much of his life having sex. Because he did it mindfully. That’s one very big difference between the drinking and the sex. The drinking led nowhere. The sex led to the writing about sex, and the record-keeping, and the art, and the photography….

 

What do you like best about Steward?

Well I’d like to say it was his sense of humor, which was wonderful, but really it was his honesty. Sam really told the truth about everything. He could take the most painful, the most deeply personal things and simply lay them out for his reader. There’s a rare clarity to his writing. You could easily overlook that kind of clarity, or take it for granted. But believe me, it’s rare – particularly when the subject is sex. And Sam did it every time.

 

 

I was watching The Joy Behar Show and Ted Haggard’s wife, Gayle, was on there promoting her book, Why I Stayed. For those of you who don’t know, Ted Haggard was at one time the hugely successful evangelical pastor of the New Life Church, which boasted thousands of members.  Then a homosexual feller named Mike Jones came out and said that he and Ted used to check into hotels, do railers of tweak, and bang each other.

It was news heaven for the media.

A blessing if you will.

Everything that Ted built up over the years went to hell in a handbasket at record speed. In short, Haggard was yanked from the Jesus podium and promptly let go by the church shot-callers. As we know, Christianity doesn’t like anything gay. No gay thoughts. No pro-gay dialogue. And definitely no gay poking. Ted is a homosexual—or, at the very least, engaged in homosexual activities. So, the church elders dragged him to the curb like a trash can and even kicked him out of the state until the Gay Devil burning inside of him simmered down or split all together.

So his wife wrote a book about what went down.  Then she went on television, doing the publicity rounds.  She seemed like a nice women and blamed Ted’s gay ways on a sexual encounter he had as a child with a male relative. She said that studies show that homosexuality is created by conditioning and experience. So in essence, if your folks, friends, or billboards tell you enough times that you’re gay, then you’re probably going to turn out gay at some point in your life. Or, if you happen to mingle with people of the same sex enough times, one fine day you’ll wake up, look into the proverbial mirror, and realize that you are a full-blown homosexual.

Poof.

Presto.

Gay magic.

I don’t know about this. Now, I don’t have any data to support my claim, but I’ve always felt people were either born gay or straight. Some may be born with a little bit of both stirring up inside of them. This may be a generic answer to a very complex puzzle. Sure. I can see that. Still, in my experience, homosexuality has nothing to do with conditioning or experience; it just is what it is: some folks are attracted sexually to the same sex and others are not.  Period.

I was raised in a very liberal household. My folks were in their teens when I showed up. They saw the Beatles, Hendrix, Supertramp, Alice Cooper, and countless other happening acts in concert. We burned incense, danced long into the night, went to Dodger games, and backpacked Yosemite. I was raised in thick Let-It-Be smoke. The “gay issue” that so many people get riled up over wasn’t an issue at all.

It should go without saying, but homosexuals are human beings and should be treated accordingly. This country—with its archaic laws in regards to same sex marriage—is cruel, boneheaded, and anti-human.

Peace and love, right?

But why be so harmonious?

We’ll have none of that.

Lord no.

Ironically, the very mindset that Ted fostered and peddled to thousands of people turned on him and turned his life upside down.

Anyhow, this got me thinking: when did I know I was straight? The 1st grade. Sure, I didn’t know what gay or straight meant at the time, but what I did know was that Miss Metheny was a stone cold fox and that I wanted to do things with her. What those things entailed, I hadn’t a clue. But it was something inside of me. A calling. A burning feeling in my gut. A feeling that would become very familiar to me and would follow me through the years and land me in some very, uh, curious positions.

I would find myself gazing at poor Miss Metheny. Her beautiful sea-blue eyes and pretty hands. Her nice clothes and silky blond hair. She smelled good and had a soft voice that said nice pleasant things. I wanted to marry her. Mrs. Metheny Romero. She’d marry a fantastic kickball player, a voracious reader, a builder of mud volcanoes, and a pretty darn good guitar player in the making who would not only grow up to learn how to play Beatles jams, but be able to switch musical gears, fire up the amp, and rip Iron Maiden and Sabbath cuts note for note. Oh, yes, Miss Metheny! How about that, toots! Yeah!

I didn’t feel this way about Mr. Lopez, who taught in the room next door. In fact, I thought his large head and hairy hands were downright ugly. The things he said were harsh-sounding and void of melody. He dressed horribly and smelled like a trash heap in comparison to the edible scent that whipped around Miss Metheny’s beautiful head. He did nothing for my eyes or my thoughts. That fire in my gut that Miss Metheny sparked was replaced by sour milk.

It was set in stone. I was straight. All day. All week. Forever. So, I guess, Gayle Haggard is right: that early experience with Miss Metheny sealed it for me. No dudes. In those early years, they were only good for football games, riding bikes, and stealing their father’s Playboy magazines.

“Oh, my god. That’s ugly.”

“It’s a girl weenie.”

“My brother calls it a cooter.”

“My cousin says it’s a pussy.”

“Oh! My mom calls our cat Pussy Willow! Sick!”

The next year Mrs. Jordan came my way. She wasn’t as pretty as Miss Metheny, but she also had a soft voice and pretty eyes. She smelled good, too. Not the spicy aroma that moved off of Miss Metheny, but like flowers. An acre full of fresh blooming flowers.

Then Anna came along. She had long hair, soft Chicana-brown eyes, and full red lips.

Then Rhonda. She was funny and sprinkled with freckles.

Then Julie.

Then Janna.

Later on, Soft Damn Kisses showed at my door.

Then Too Much Drama stopped by to terrorize me.

Then I Fuckin’ Love You Baby snatched my hand and showed me her feathered bed that overlooked the ocean.

So on and so forth.

As the years went by, men would assume a different role and would become very beneficial to the cause. We ditched football for pool. Ditched the bikes for cars. Ditched the magazines for the real thing. Brothers in arms. Bar dogs. They’re names changed from Eric to Dickhead, James to Jerk-off. We gathered in insatiable packs. We coiled and whispered like tree vipers. Played in rock bands. We got drunk, said lame shit, and woke up in strange, perfumed beds.

Sorry, Pastor Ted.

Sorry, Larry Craig.

I don’t snort lines and my stance isn’t wide.

These days I find myself single again. It’s a trip. I’ve been out of the hustle for over ten years and don’t know quite what to do. Do I pull the same contrived crap I did when I was twenty-five? Hang out with some of the old gang that have found themselves wearing the same shoes as me? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think I’ll sit this one out for a bit. Relax and run in the early desert morning. Meditate and munch on my Fiber One bars. Maybe, this time around I’ll lower the amp a tad and play some soft blues in a dark bar that serves colorful martinis. Pick up my trusty acoustic guitar and strum Carly Simon tunes. Perhaps I’ll hop in my truck, take a long drive up the coast, and keep some notes on what comes my way, see what the day brings.

Yeah, that sounds good.

Real good.

Thank you, Miss Metheny.

You stone cold fox.