In a talk with a small group of Lehigh students, author and literary critic Edmund White recalled the tumultuous decades of the last half of the 20th century, which saw the dramatic rise of gay rights, the growing acceptance of gay literature, and the tragic loss of many members of the gay community to AIDS.
White, who serves on the faculty of Princeton University’s creative writing program, came to campus to offer the latest in a series of events marking LGBT History Month and National Coming Out Day.
An eyewitness to much of this evolution, White chronicled it in a series of published and unpublished books that began with A Boy’s Own Story, which he wrote at the age of 14 while still in boarding school.
“It was a gay novel, at a time when there were no gay novels,” he said. “There were books written by gay authors, and there were paperbacks that were sort of pornographic, sold by certain bookstores, if you knew where to go. But there were no gay novels.”
White continued to write furiously, taking readers along with him as he matured into adulthood. Later books included States of Desire, a cross-cultural examination of homosexuality, The Joy of Gay Sex, and My Lives, an autobiography organized topically instead of chronologically.
Drowning, he turned to writing
“I used to feel that if I didn’t write, I would drown,” he explained. “You can’t imagine how horrible it was to be gay during that time period. It was considered either a sin or a crime or a mental illness. Most people decided to consider it an illness, with the hope that if you went to a psychiatrist, you could be ‘cured.’ Even I thought that, for awhile. “
That life of secrecy and shame ended with the Stonewall Riots of 1969. The violent demonstrations against a police raid of a Greenwich Village gay club have historically been viewed as the defining event of the gay rights movement, he said.
“I never thought that a historical event could change your insides, but that did,” he said. “All these activist groups sprang up and the culture changed. Everything changed.”
Sadly, he noted, many of the activists who led that movement died as a result of AIDS during the 1980s.
“The trajectory was extraordinary,” he said. “Think about it: We went from being oppressed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, to exalted in the ‘70s, to wiped out in the ‘80s. That was the arc of my generation.”
White’s talk was sponsored by LGBTQIA Faculty and Staff Affinity Group, the Office of LGBTQIA Services, the American Studies program, the English department and the Visiting Lecturers Committee.
Other events included talks on gay issues, the campus observation of National Coming Out Day, a vigil in response to recent suicides across the country, the marking of Ally Week, films and a student social.
In addition, LGBTQIA Services is participating in the planning for World AIDS Week from Nov. 28 through Dec. 3.