The author and wit Gore Vidal sadly passed away on Tuesday at his home in Hollywood Hills of complications from pneumonia, aged 86.
While many will remember him for his extensive literary output, or his notorious public dsiputes (such as with Norman Mailer), Vidal will certainly be enshrined as an important figure in the recognition of homosexuals in American public life.
His first literary sensation was his third book, The City and the Pillar, in 1948, which drew so much controversy that Vidal became blacklisted in the American press and was forced to write subsequent novels under pseudonyms.
It has been described as the first American novel to deal positively with same-sex relationships, namely with characters Jim Wallard and Bob Ford who both enter into sexual relations quite accidentally.
Vidal was attacked for the portrayal and gained notoriety afterwards that would never shift. From then on he was typified as the great gay writer of his time, however he would often resist the term himself.
Vidal preferred not to be classed as gay, instead saying there was no such thing as a homosexual person, only homosexual acts. Writing for an edition of Esquire magazine in 1969, he wrote:
We are all bisexual to begin with. That is a fact of our condition. And we are all responsive to sexual stimuli from our own as well as from the opposite sex. [...] regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime [...] Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word 'natural,' not normal.
This chimes with how some psychologists through the years have characterised "innate bisexuality". The most famous of them, Sigmund Freud, supposed that all humans are born predisposed to bisexuality but gain other sexualities throughout later psychological development - with bisexuality remaining latent.
For Freud since the pleasure derived from our most base instincts as children, such as being fed or urinating, all contribute to our psychosexual development, any object has the potential to be a source of erotic fulfillment.
From there, it is the supposition of some that the way in which humans express or enjoy themselves sexually is indifferent to the gender of the person from which that erotic fulfillment is derived.
As Vidal says himself, it is the "tribal taboos" that have taken this away, whereas in fact it is a matter of our human condition that we are all responsive to sexual stimuli from whichever gender it should come from.
Patrick Higgins in his book A Queer Reader, which discussed some of Vidal's work, defines homosexuality as the:
erotic attraction of a member of one sex for a member of his (or her) own sex ... an activity or feeling perfectly compatible with erotic attraction to members of the opposite sex.
For Vidal himself the problem for homosexuality is when the word is used as a noun - where it aims to define a person as a certain type. For him this was why the American public struggled to come to terms with homosexuality, and consequently his own fictional work.
Given that for many in the US at the time homosexuality was a disease, Vidal suffered many attacks for trying to explore this expression as perfectly natural. For example in an infamous debate with William Buckley, the conservative commentator, Vidal was shouted down as a queer who wrote pornography.
This hatred reflected much public opinion at the time of Vidal's notoriety, and unfortunately still exists today. But along with the Stonewall police riot in NYC, Vidal cannot be overlooked as one who did so much to raise consciousness and challenge dominant opinion.
He will be celebrated first and foremost for his art and contrarian public persona. But he was a lot more than that, too.
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