The thing about writers writing about other writers, is that it’s hard not to either gush into fandom or scale back to defensiveness, a combination of the immense admiration and necessary competition that often exists between us. Take a gay literary luminary like Edmund White, a man who has laid bare his soul (and sometimes his crotch) in not just one one, but three different raw memoirs. What is left to ask? What is left to be said?
White, whom I was lucky enough to speak on a panel with at New Orleans annual Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, is brilliant but subdued in person, he’s also a pop culture savvy, wise older man who has somehow flown under the radar in the LGBT world but gained near cult status among fans of literature, queer and otherwise.
The co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex and a slew of novels and memoirs (from Forgetting Elena to Our Young Man), White has earned accolades and a National Book Critics Circle Award for his (7-years-in-the-making) biography of Jean Genet. White was one of the the men who co-founded the seminal AIDS service organization GMHC 35 years ago, alongside his one-time friend and fellow activist Larry Kramer (who White now calls “an asshole,” not an unfamiliar charge).
White told Mark Mascolini, from International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care that there was a certain futility to writing about HIV and AIDS, likening it to making a child swallow cod liver oil. “Nobody wants to read about AIDS. People who have it don't want to read about it because it's depressing. People who don't have it but are susceptible to HIV don't want to read about it because it's bad news. The only thing people want to read about AIDS is the headline that says they've found a cure. You can walk into bookstores and see piles of AIDS book remainders: Nobody wants to read them.”
And yet, White, who has been HIV-positive since 1980 (diagnosed in 1985), often does touch on HIV and AIDS in many of his works, juxtaposing the sexual liberation movement among gay and bi men with the AIDS epidemic, and the years since the two coincided. Still he’s approached both — gay sex and HIV — with reverence but without the treacly sentimentality found in other literary works. In his latest book, Our Young Man (Bloomsbury, which came out in April), we meet Guy, a gorgeous Frenchman who becomes the top of the New York modeling scene and then the darling of Fire Island, using his beauty to deceive and receive. (White, a journalist who worked at Vogue for a decade, nails fashion politics.) And like other works, it spans eras into the age of AIDS.
While White’s own positive serostatus has clearly informed his work as much other literary greats were shaped by their gender or class status, the Princeton professor says being poz hasn’t adversely impacted his career. “I’ve been lucky,” he told me, “since I teach in universities.”
He argues though that living with HIV is still stigmatized. “I think the stigma is lessening among educated people,” White admits. “But it’s still there with everyone else.”
What White has done wonderfully, though, both through the decades of death and literature, and through his long-term relationship with Little Reef author Michael Carroll is keep gay sex in the story. He and Carroll married a few years ago and have been together since 1995, the former act that gave them insurance and inheritance benefits (which White considers a must as he had two strokes in 2012, though he’s recovered). Theirs is a non-traditional marriage though; each man also has another regular sex partner they’ve seen on the side for over a decade and White admits to frequenting — and enjoying — hookups from gay mobile apps. That he’s HIV-positive and talking about sex in a positive light is reason enough that White deserves applause; too often those with HIV are shamed for even thinking of their own sexual needs, much less fulfilling them.
But White is straightforward. Even so, I wonder what will be the impact in a post-marriage equality world on queer sex lives. As the country goes gaga for gay marriage (and the quiet monogamy that is expected of that), I ask the guy who wrote the Joy of Gay Sex at the height of the sexual liberation movement if “sex” today has taken a back seat to marriage in gay public discourse?
“In discourse yes,” White replies. “But in practice no. There are still lots of horny men, married or not, on Grindr or Scruff.”
And you can bet White’s gotten pleasure from a lot of them.