Reviewed in this essay: Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram. Twelve Books, 2012.
Way before popular television shows like Will & Grace and Queer as Folk, there were a handful of gay American writers who introduced gay lives to mainstream America.
Gay novelists, poets and playwrights of the 1940s and 50s, when homosexual acts were a crime in 48 states in America, laid the groundwork for the contemporary gay rights movement that has resulted in slow but indisputable changes, including the recognition of gay marriage in many states and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which has made possible for thousands of gay soldiers to serve their country openly. That is essentially the thesis of novelist Christopher Bram’s book Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America.
The years following the Second World War had produced a remarkable group of gay writers, most famous among them Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg, who started to write frank depictions of gay experience. Eminent Outlaws begins with these original pioneers and moves through the decades right up to 2010.
This is a big, ambitious work that tries to do a lot. The first few chapters are worrying though. One gets the sense of reading an encyclopedia of gay writers that skims the surface and leaves you yearning for deeper analysis and comprehension. Each of the early chapters focuses on a particular writer and his work. I say “his” as there is not single lesbian writer featured in the book. Bram emphasizes in the introduction: “this book is about gay male writers… lesbian literature has its own dynamic and history. It needs its own historian.” This is probably a smart decision as the book, especially the first half, can be at times unwieldy and meandering. Adding lesbian writers into the mix would have made matters worse.
About halfway into the book, however, something happens. What was reading as a birds-eye-view of gay literature in America, slowly, almost imperceptibly, becomes an engrossing, sometimes funny, often tragic account that reveals the inner lives of these artists; their intense, almost tribal friendships; lasting love affairs; and legendary rivalries.
The book is organized in decades. But it’s not until it reaches the 1980s and 90s—those horrific years in which the lives of so many talented gay novelists, poets and playwrights were cut short—that Eminent Outlaws finds its soul. In these chapters, Bram explores the devastation of the AIDS epidemic on gay writers and by extension on American literature. These chapters are thoughtful and moving tributes to writers who would’ve gone on to have renowned careers had they survived. Allen Barnett, David Feinberg, James Merrill, Melvin Dixon, and Robert Ferro and his partner Michael Grumley, who died within weeks of each other, are few of the countless writers who never got to witness the fruits of the social and political struggle for equality in which they played an important part.
These chapters culminate with the arrival of one of the greatest theatrical events in the history of American theatre, Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s brilliant, six-hour drama about gay lives in the Reagan era. And suddenly, the book that was reading like a tragic chronicle of loss takes the tone of celebration and vindication not only of gay writing but also of being gay.
Eminent Outlaws is Christopher Bram’s salute to the gay writers who came before him, who made his life possible. In many ways, the book serves a similar purpose as Tony Kushner’s benediction in the last scene of Angels in America:
“You are fabulous creatures, each and everyone.
And I bless you: More life.
The Great Work Begins.”
Hassan Ghedi Santur is a freelance writer and radio broadcaster. He is the author of the novel Something Remains. He lives in Toronto.