Memoirs: Chapter Three
I turn now to the UCLA years (1952-56). These were more congenial than the previous three in high school, in large measure because most of the rowdies elected not to go to college, leaving the cohort of more serious students as my classmates. Their were older students on GI Bill scholarships, strongly committed to making something of the gift of their college years. Because of the effort it took to get there, out-of-state students and foreigners were also likely to be serious.
Having abandoned my earlier interest in the natural sciences, I targeted the humanities, with the aim (ultimately achieved) of making a career by qualifying as a professor in that realm. I began by majoring in classics, then switched to history. Only in my third year at UCLA did I settle on art history, a field previously unknown to me. This major appealed to me not as an artist (here I was only a dabbler), but because of the rich interdisciplinary vistas it revealed. At first I was strongly drawn to Chinese art (and still am), but I ended up becoming a medievalist, a choice responding to a certain muffled spirituality in my make-up.
Apart from my formal studies, I learned a good deal through conversations with advanced students in the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology. Ultimately, I found sociology unrewarding because of its reductive tendency to regard human beings as little more than mirrors passively reflecting contents projected on them by society. In those days of conformity, "adjustment," that is, accepting one's lot, was held up as the ideal. This dismal imperative suppressed human agency. I couldn't go along with this, because active intervention on my own behalf was essential I felt that I must go beyond the constricting setting of Southern California and even the US. This task would call for a big effort.
Of course, with such works as "The Lonely Crowd" by David Riesman et al., sociology enjoyed much more prestige then than it does now. I can't say that I regret the decline of this discipline with its endless platitudes, not to speak of the many studies replicating what experience had already abundantly shown to be true.
I thought better of anthropology. This connection led to my reading of a paper by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was then quite obscure. The French scholar has proved one of my lifelong guides. Recently I began reading him once again. I was impressed by anthropology's ambition to provide a comprehensive description of an entire society - indeed of many societies. Having previously been an enthusiast for Arnold Toynbee, I was drawn to such portrayals. In the last analysis, though, I wanted them to address high cultures. Europe beckoned.
By way of outreach, I continued to assuage my culture-vulture penchants by forming a college humanities club, called “Investigations.” Meetings were not very popular, and I had to dragoon attendees. Such was the work of culture mongering--hard, but somebody had to do it.
Be that as it may, I’ll omit any further recitals of these scholastic details. They were part of my intellectual development at the time, but nowadays not exactly riveting. Instead, I turn to my sexual and social development. I will approach this matter indirectly.
SEX AND FRIENDSHIPS
Some years ago David Halperin, a gay professor of classics at the University of Michigan, decided to offer a course on “How to Be Gay.” This announcement provoked consternation, leading to a hostile discussion in the state legislature. What I think Professor Halperin had in mind was an exploration of the fact that becoming gay is inevitably a process. One does not achieve this identity all of a sudden, emerging fully developed like Athena from the head of Zeus. The AHA! moment simply does not occur, either at the point where one acknowledges one’s orientation to oneself, through introspection, or at the point of declaring oneself (coming out). Instead, there is a complex process of negotiation, extending over some years, in which one gradually adjusts one’s expectations to social and psychic realities. Much as we would like to, we cannot shape our own situation just as we wish, but must work within the parameters of what is possible. All the same, our response must be active, and not just passive and accepting. I will illustrate this truism by discussing two gay circles, one of which became known to me after the fact, the other being one I actually participated in.
In my previous chapter, "Hapless in High School," I have already alluded to the clandestine gay circle in LA High. in my previous chapter, It flourished under my very nose. Only when I got to college did I learn from my friend Chuck McC. of the true nature of this bunch. As it formed something of a contrast to the group that I actually joined at UCLA, I will now say something more about this earlier group, as it formed (retrospectively) a benchmark for my later experiences.
Chuck’s high school circle was essentially democratic. The boys either took part in group sex (generally jerking off) or made themselves available to others, if you will, as fuck buddies. While some members of the group were more prominent than others, there was no clear leader.
Above all, the binary differentiation between confirmed gays (queens) and “trade” (men available for gay sex, but not stereotypical) had not taken place. Some members of the circle probably assumed that they would “turn straight” one day (as Chuck ultimately did). There was a silver lining, for the boys probably felt that, with their ready access to a form of sex that quenched their raging hormones, they were better off than most of their heterosexual peers, who had to be content with mere petting. The situation combined hedonism with flexibility.
How did the pattern prevailing in this group originate? Was it something ad hoc, like the Nicaraguan village of deaf mutes who invented their own sign language? Probably not, in that some of the boys had probably previously engaged in sex play with younger boys in circle jerks and similar gatherings.
THE QUEENS' CIRCLE
I turn now to the main theme: the gay circle I joined at UCLA. The fluidity of identity characterizing the high school circle (which had of course disbanded) yielded to a fixed personality type, that of the queen. For many the new guise proved a lasting one. Most of the individuals who had come together in the UCLA circle continued to see one another regularly after graduation, evolving into a social amalgam they called “the Loved Ones” (an ironic reference to the Evelyn Waugh novel). I was a peripheral member of the group, but once I moved away in 1956, had no further relations with it.
At UCLA the daily gatherings of the circle were charged with powerful underlying currents of cynicism and acerbity. These corrosive solvents surely reflected internalized homophobia, a condition difficult to escape in those years of conformity. Turned inwardly, the negativity served to consolidate the norms of the group. And in fact much of the dishing was of each other, and of other gays who did not conform to the circle’s norms.
Internally, a hierarchy was generally recognized. What was this hierarchy based upon? First, it depended on looks and “endowment." They were all size queens. While most didn't have much to offer in that department, this deficiency did not prevent them from making catty comments about the skimpy "meat" of men they saw. So looks mattered most, facially and in terms of genitalia. Grotesquely, this criterion was called "standards." In fact the group had only the faintest idea of what might actually constitute standards.
Only with great difficulty could a homely person occupy one of the higher spots in the pecking order. Under exceptional circumstances this status could be achieved by marshaling the resources of the second and ultimately decisive resource. That was the ability to dish and give attitude. We did not use the term at the time, but attitude was indeed the key. It emerged in the verbal sallies that qualified (dubiously) as wit, and in the hauteur of a challenging gaze that ostensibly summed up the confrontational stance of the group. "She for he" put downs were common.
Under circumstances less benign than the 1950s college setting, group members would have been repeatedly beaten up. Their bravado was hollow - but as it was never put to the test, they could continue to nourish their illusions. And of course to keep “camping up a storm,” the latter-day gay version of the venerable bohemian practice of “épater le bourgeois.”
The solidarity of the group, such as it was, was reinforced by a pervasive scorn and belittling of outsiders. Sometimes these targeted individuals were the subject of “reading” in which their pretensions to heterosexual normality were ostensibly exposed as a sham; they actually were gay, but were just not willing to acknowledge it. In reality this process of reading was counterproductive, because in applying it across the board, the pool of desirable males would inevitably shrink. Thus tarnished, the object of this scorn, could no longer serve as a sexual object. We did not want to sleep with people like ourselves. By the way, such ascriptions were not always inaccurate. I remember scoffing when I heard that Rock Hudson was gay. I should not have.
By now it will be clear that the Loved Ones could not boast many positive features. Puffed up and preening because of their sense of being special, the members had little incentive to change their ways. Yet the group showed one remarkable distinction, one that would have been less likely before and after: it was salt-and-pepper--that is, it consisted of about ten black members and ten white members. In that era of the Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education and the rise of the civil rights movement, the times were achangin.’ Even in liberal Southern California, though, there were many who remained uneasy about “race mixing.” We played on this uneasiness. It was another way of skating close to the edge.
A serpent was loose in this Eden, compromised as it was, in the form of the Vice Squad of the Los Angeles Police Department. By and large, this insidious organization did not operate on the UCLA campus. But when members ventured out into the city for sex, they faced the likelihood that eventually they were going to be arrested. I do not know of any of these men who escaped this fate. Their prissiness and attitude availed them naught when they were entrapped in this way. Evidently, the cops were particularly hard on black guys who were found with white partners. As I noted, racial animosity lurked just beneath the surface in the LA of those days. Probably it still does.
Unlike the high school circle, there was no intragroup sex, as all the members of the band were “sisters.” To have sex with each other would be incestuous.
Functioning as a kind of pseudo-family, the group carefully controlled admission, and those who did not measure up were either relegated to a suppliant position on the fringe, or excluded altogether. I was one of those men assigned a marginal status.
My polar opposite was Victor S., an überqueen, who affected long hair, heavy make-up, and gender-ambiguous clothing. He majored in French, naturally. Victor’s high-pitched shrieks were a startling ostinato punctuating the gatherings of the group, which regularly occurred in one of the school’s cafeterias. Eventually, the college authorities forced Victor to clean up his act. In retrospect it seems that he was ahead of his time, a prefiguration of later trends in advanced gender bending. But that is not the way he was received in those days. This strange creature was basically antisexual rather than gay. All the same, Victor expended a lot of energy putting down other gays as being less brave than he was for not being proud and open, and failing to conform to his peculiar criteria. In short he was a scold. Nonetheless, Victor served the group as something between an idol and a mascot. He symbolized our defiance.
With all the negativity that festered in this UCLA group, why would anyone want to join? Well, it was the only game in town, or so it seemed at the time. Otherwise, one was condemned to a desert of loneliness in which one had only straight acquaintances with whom one could not really discuss one’s feelings. All the same, the apprenticeship this group provided to an emerging gay person was seriously damaging.
To what extent was the UCLA queens group typical? At the time I did not know any other such circles, so that I could not judge from personal experience. However, the late John Grube, a Canadian scholar, interviewed a good many older men of this period. His research indicates that such circles--replete with hierarchy, rule enforcement, and constant bitchiness--were common, probably the norm.
Later I acquired some evidence of my own of the prevalence of the corrosive banter and putdowns, for in 1968 I saw Mart Crowley’s dismal play “Boys in the Band” on off-Broadway.
Here is how one character dissed another in the play. “You’re a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve go left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you’ll always be homosexual as well. Always Michael. Always. Until the day you die. “
Note the date: 1968. The Stonewall riots happened one year later, signaling a new era in which gay pride would supplant gay shame. It was about time.
THE MATRACHINE SOCIETY
Above, I implied that the UCLA queens group was the only game in town. Maybe that was so for our college campus, but it was not true for the larger world of the city in which we lived. In 1951, a year before I went to college, Los Angeles gave birth to the first successful US gay-rights group, the Mattachine Society. To be sure, these folks had some issues of their own: they were much too respectful of the views of psychiatrists, for example. Still, the Mattachine Society signaled the rise of a new type of homosexual assertion, one based on pride and not marinated in self-pity and internalized homophobia as the UCLA group regrettably was.
I did not participate in the rise of Mattachine in those days, because ignorant UCLA queens warned me to stay away from it. But no matter, for later I was to become friends with the heroic band who started the movement that redeemed gay people--with Dorr Legg, Don Slater, Jim Kepner, and Harry Hay. I would not have missed this company for the world. And their cause was destined ultimately to triumph, putting the self-hating faggots our of business. A very good thing.
BECOMING AN ART HISTORIAN
It was stimulating to monitor these developments. All the same caution became my watchword. Retreating into the closet was a necessity if I was to make a career as a college professor. But in what field? Arriving at UCLA I opted for classics. Not having done Latin in high school, I quickly realized that that would be a long road with uncertain prospects at the end. So I switched to history. Those opting for that major were encouraged to have a related minor. I decided to try art history--and was immediately captivated. I had not realized that such a field actually existed. (Some don't acknowledge it even today--or else they opine that it should not exist.)
In my general enthusiasm for the visual arts I even toyed with the idea of becoming a painter. I knew just what kind I would be. I would practice a West Coast version of Abstract Expressionism, the New York School that had risen to prominence with such figures as Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, and Franz Kline. Probably, I thought, De Kooning with his brilliant colors and slashing brush strokes would be my model. Early in 2012, I went to the huge retrospective of De Kooning, the Dutch-American painter, at the Museum of Modern Art. I hated his (to me) misogynistic works collectively called "Woman" and found the later Alzheimer-blighted canvases pathetic. But the big abstractions of the late 'fifties still seem to me right on target.
At things turned out, I was never to take a studio course in painting, satisfying myself with a few amateurish experiments at home. I rightly judged that the academic path of art history was best for me. Why then did I decided to emphasize the medieval period?
Several factors converged. First, the overall society kept hammering at the idea that we would be stronger in our battle with world communism if we had an ideology of our own. That, it seemed, must be Christianity. (This was long before the fad for ersatz Asian religions spawned by the Counterculture.) The Catholic scholars Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, who regarded the works of Thomas Aquinas as the answer to everything, were widely acclaimed as sages, even by non-Catholics. I had several goes at reading the works of Thomas, but always got bogged down. For their part, the Luce publications promoted their own version of this pro-Catholicism. Clare Booth Luce was an enthusiastic convert to Roman Catholicism.
There was also a “lite” version, if you will, in the form of Anglo-Catholicism, which was actually high Episcopalianism. This was the tendency that T. S. Eliot, once my idol, championed. For his part, the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, then much in vogue, seemed to favor it in making religion a major factor in the unfolding of civilizations.
I knew that I wanted to become an art historian, so choosing medieval art seemed a good way of fulfilling these spiritual aspirations.
Two other factors were more serendipitous. At UCLA I had a charismatic professor of art history, Carl Sheppard, whose main field was the middle ages. While he never published much, Sheppard was a spell-binding lecturer. His other field of interest was modern art. I was interested in that too, and the affinities many detected between the medieval and the modern seemed genuine.
Finally, there was a not very honorable motive, though a a lesser one. Showing an interest in Catholicism and the middle ages annoyed my parents, who remained staunch atheists.