Stonewall Experiment; A gay psychohistory'
Cassell UK/USA 1995, 312 pages
This is an
easy, and uncomfortable, book to read. The ease is afforded by Ian
Young's pellucid prose style; the discomfort lies in the sadness
of his account of the betrayal of gay hopes following so soon after
the Stonewall rebellion, and the consequence of that betrayal -
the seeming inevitability of AIDS.
a brief account of the pioneers of gay culture, headed by Walt 'Dad'
Whitman, with his Platonic ideal of male love and comradeship. This
had a profound influence on the Englishman, Edward Carpenter, who
became outspoken in his championing of homosexual emancipation.
He lived openly with his lover, George Merrill, at Millthorpe in
the North of England, and even after Wilde's trial and disgrace,
he remained steadfast to his 'Uranian' ideals, when more timorous
writers kept a low profile. Until virtually the 1960's, writers
fought shy of open expression of gay sympathies, but there were
exceptions in the previous decade - Gore Vidal with The City
And The Pillar, James Baldwin with Giovanni's Room, spring
to mind. Things then started to get more graphic - and even more
depressing and pessimistic - with the works of John Rechy. By the
70's, Young says ".... the mystical/political patrimony of
Whitman and Carpenter had been largely forgotten." The rest
of his book explains how and why.
A 1979 screenplay
by William Burroughs (a relative of the Mr.Burroughs who teamed
up with Mr. Wellcome to form the company which eventually brought
us AZT!) presents an uncannily prescient description of AIDS. "The
hero of the story is Billy, a gay man who is a 'blade runner', a
courier of medical contraband. His attempts to spread the word about
a new medicine are hampered by the atmosphere of distrust and paranoia
generated by the official Health Control as well as by an illness
he has contracted - pneumonia."
the word 'homosexual' was coined by Karl Benkert in 1867, gays had
been persecuted and demonised. In his chapter on 'The Myth of the
Homosexual', Young states:
was thus installed in a rogues' gallery with other mythical creations
of Western diabolism: the Vampire, the Leper, the Witch, the Gypsy,
the Werewolf, the Jew - figures concocted out of the fears, folk
memories and repressed desires of a civilisation, aspects of Christian
society's dark unconscious, its shadow side."
Gays have been
systematically classified as sick by the medical profession, criminalised
by governments and brutalised by police, abused and derided by heterosexuals.
Young draws a parallel between the gay urban ghettos of the 60's
and the plague-stricken city of 'Death in Venice', and has this
Experiment began in the untutored hands of gay people who had had
enough of being second-class citizens, partial people, never fully
human. It was an experiment in reclaiming full humanity from the
medical/governmental establishment. Within a few years, control
of the experiment had fallen into other hands, and the initiators
found themselves in the position of experimental animals. The new
phase of the experiment involved the development of a commercial
gay scene that could be test-marketed as a prototype of the urban
lifestyle of the future."
depicts the cynically commercialised hedonism of the bathhouse and
backroom bar 'culture' which ironically came to symbolise gay 'liberation',
using descriptive passages from novels like Faggots by Larry
Kramer. Other writers extolled the virtue of promiscuity, and even
STD's, as proof of homosexual political commitment; drugs and poppers
became an indispensable part of the gay scene; the Mafia took over
the pornography market; whether a gay man was 'deep' or 'wide' defined
whether he could take one forearm up his arse to the elbow, or two
fists simultaneously. Crisco and nitrite inhalants became the anointing
oil and incense of the new religion.
that led young men to join in these darkly alluring activities had
something in common with feelings that an older writer of the time
recalled encountering in himself as a young man, decades earlier.
'It seemed to me', he wrote, 'that I had passed a threshold, and
that in passing it, I was dimly dismissing something from where
I had come: my land, my past, the traditions of my country. But
these men fascinated me and I wanted to incorporate myself there.
I perceived them as strong, generous and pitiless: beings without
weakness who would never putrefy.' The words are those of the French
author Christian de La Mazi, remembering his emotions when, thirty
years earlier, he joined the Waffen SS."
of AIDS are very moving. His own partner, Jamie, died aged 32, on
World AIDS Day, 1993, as this book was nearing completion. His understanding
and summation of the dissident views of Duesberg, Lauritsen and
others who have never been blinded by the official 'explanations'
for the malady, are quite the best and most comprehensive I have
been privileged to read.
by piece, the stone wall of orthodoxy was crumbling. But the ruins
were heavily defended. Over a decade into the epidemic, the public
was still being told by newspapers and television, and all but a
tiny handful of physicians, that a positive result from an HIV antibody
test showed present and lifelong 'infection' by the virus; that
the virus was certain or very likely to lead to AIDS; and that AIDS
was universally fatal. None of these assertions had been proven.
Yet the psychological effect of believing them could be catastrophic....
In the post-1984 world, a growing number of people considered their
allotted blood 'status' as the key to both their identity and their
In not purporting
to be a "history of homosexuality, the gay movement, or the
health crisis'" but merely the observations of a poet with
a "particular interest in images, verbal messages and psychic
undercurrents...", Ian Young is being modest. His book is all
these and much, much more. Whatever his intentions, he has written
a wonderful book, and Cassell Lesbian and Gay Studies have published
an important one. This book should be read by all those concerned
about the truth and the tragedy of AIDS - gays, lesbians and straights.
They may make what they will of Young's last sentence: "The
Reviewed by Michael Verney-Elliott
Source: Continiuum Sept./Oct. 1995