W.H. Auden, who has been called the last unquestionably great poet born in England, liked the word "Homintern." He may even have invented it, as a joke on the laws against homosexual love-making. The word implied a mythical underground, an international gay resistance movement modelled on the Communist International (known as the Comintern), the real organization that Moscow operated from 1919 to 1943 for purposes of infiltration and espionage.
This week, when Canadian judges and politicians endorsed same-sex marriage and gays passed another milestone of acceptance, I thought of Auden and the Homintern. The gay sensibility, a crucial aspect of the arts for decades, has been quietly fading into history. Its enemies called it a coterie or a cult, but on its best days it was far more capacious than that. It was (and its remnants remain) a distinct culture, vast and impressive, the seedbed of much that was best in the poetry, music, dance, fiction, design, and drama of its time. It lingers, but its unique qualities are disappearing as gays blend in with what we once called straight society.
Bigotry isolated gays, muffled their ideas, and forced them to create a private social region, a place of refuge and consolation with its own language and its own tone of life. Anti-gay bigotry has in recent times been rejected by most of the West, and not a moment too soon. But while making homosexuality respectable we are inevitably closing the door on an unforgettable period in cultural history.
The gay sensibility smuggled into the arts an alternative account of life, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes paranoid, often defiant. It played a life-enhancing role in all Western countries, and in Canada deeply affected every cultural institution from the Stratford Festival to the National Ballet. For many years it was both omnipresent and unmentionable.
Auden became the exemplary figure. He was a proper Englishman, a believer in strictly regulated working hours and "payment of all accounts by return of post," which he called the basis of middle-class morality. But his sexual taste made him an outsider, necessarily suspicious of policemen and politicians. Sexuality pulled him into a daring, secretive atmosphere; and that was where much of his poetry was born.
Academics who work in the recently established field of queer studies have two favourite words of praise, "transgressive" and "subversive," which mean roughly the same thing: challenging to restrictive norms of society. This attitude created, among many other things, Pop Art.
Now enshrined in all the museums, it first flourished among the drag queens, high-society dropouts, hustlers, drug users, and would-be superstars who clustered around Andy Warhol.
In the spring issue of Art Journal, the publication of the U.S. College Art Association, Marc Siegel argues that homosexual society's open-ended desires and queer forms of glamour were absolutely central to Warhol's achievements. Siegel writes: "When American fags are gossiping amongst ourselves and we want to confirm that someone is one of us, we might say, 'She goes to our church.' " Warhol, he insists, went to the gay church and can't properly be understood except in relation to the 1960s gay scene, a community unified by resistance to "respectable, heterosexual, middle- and upper-class society" and by its commitment to "experimentation with other ways of living, thinking, working, being."
I remember seeing the point of this clearly when, having visited Warhol at his Factory in the mid-1960s, I saw his film, Chelsea Girls, a double-screen experiment depicting the gay scene through the lives of a few young men. In Chelsea Girls, Warhol displayed a certain life that had emerged in New York in the 1960s. He examined his subjects lovingly, prizing their gestures, their expressions, their vocabulary. They were his people.
Tennessee Williams, whose characters and images brought the American theatre and cinema vividly to life 50 years ago, said in a letter written when he was 28 that "I have only one major theme for my work, the destructive impact of society on the sensitive non-conformist individual."
A sense of looming tragedy hangs over his most famous creations, from Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire to Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As a homosexual Williams felt himself automatically defeated by society's disdain. That made him the poet of the defeated. But at the same time he enjoyed the intensity of his outcast state. As a young man he wrote a poem --
I think in places known as gay,Williams once wrote that he mainly knew people shattered by day-to-day experience -- "close to cracking. That's my world, those are my people. And I must write about the people I know."
in secret clubs and private bars,
the damned will serenade
the damned with frantic drums
and wild guitars.
The way he depicted them, often thinly disguised as heterosexuals, drew a response that proved the gay sensibility could speak to everyone. Of course that sensibility had to be transitory, a passage in history; it had to slip away eventually. But those who loved it, and learned from it, will say goodbye to all that with a certain ambivalent regret.