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Edmund White: Looking Back
by Andrew Davis

This article shared 4432 times since Wed Apr 18, 2007
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Esteemed Chicago-bred author and critic Edmund White has lived a life as colorful as his works, which include a four-book series about his life as well as the '70s classic The Joy of Gay Sex ( which he co-wrote with Dr. Charles Silverstein ) . White sat down with Windy City Times at RL Restaurant ( before an appearance at Northwestern University that benefitted the Oak Park-based agency Chances by Choice ( ) , which helps HIV/AIDS-affected children ) , and candidly talked about his works, friends and seropositivity.

Windy City Times: How is it coming back to Chicago?

Edmund White: A lot of things have changed. My mother lived in [ the Gold Coast ] ; she grew up on Chestnut Street and then moved to 1400 N. Astor. My sister, my mother and I lived in Evanston, and then I went to boarding school in Michigan. I never really lived here after that, except for a summer here [ or ] a month there.

WCT: What were your impressions of Chicago back then?

EW: Well, I was born in Cincinnati, and my parents are both [ native ] Texans. Chicago seemed like the most glamorous city. I was in New York City a couple of times, but Chicago I knew. Chicago was not only glamorous, but was a very gay city.

I remember when I was just starting college and was here. I would go down to Oak Street Beach, and meet people—and that was very exciting. I was 18 or 19.

There was also cultural life. We'd go to the Lyric Opera and right around the corner here was a movie theater that showed European movies. There were gay men and fashionable people. I remember going to a party on Astor Street when I was about 19 and meeting people with funny accents and who seemed very aristocratic; all of that was very exciting to me.

WCT: And you deserted Chicago for New York City. [ Laughs ]

EW: I know! Well, after I graduated from college, I followed a classmate whom I was in love with to New York.

WCT: The things we do for love...

EW: And he didn't even like me—but, eventually, he did. I won him over with sheer persistence, and we lived together for seven years. He's still one of my best friends.

WCT: You call it persistence. Some people might say obsession.

EW: That's right; that's probably the real word. But being obsessed led me to being persistent. I got a job and an apartment; he wanted to be an actor and had no money. That worked out well for me. I set my trap.

WCT: I wanted to ask you about The Joy of Gay Sex. If you had written that today, how would it have changed?

EW: Oh, you'd have to take AIDS into account. The book came out in 1977, four years before the first AIDS cases were announced, so we were in the midst of gay liberation ( which had begun in '69 ) . The '70s were called the golden age of promiscuity.

The Joy of Sex was a huge success, so the same publishers wanted to bring out The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex in matching editions. We liked the idea politically; [ selling ] a book about gay sex above the counter in a regular bookstore seemed like a radical idea. The other thing was that Dr. Silverstein ( who was actually my shrink ) and I realized that gay men don't have that many problems in understanding each other sexually, because they're both members of the same sex, just like lesbians don't. However, gays have a lot more problems regarding psychological adjustment, coming out, dealing with family and other things.

WCT: Would you still include chapters about cruising or threesomes, or do you think we've become too inhibited?

EW: I think there's a lot of hypocrisy now. All you have to do is to go to and Manhunt, and find lots of people cruising who want to go bareback or party with crystal meth. We talk about how puritanical we are, but I think that's [ only ] some gay people. Some are conventional; they want to marry and adopt children and spend 20 years together and be totally faithful, I suppose. But I think there's a lot of promiscuous sex going on that people don't acknowledge, which is dangerous.

There are a lot of problems that come up, partly because people pay lip service to the idea of fidelity.

WCT: I want you to take me back to the day you found out you were HIV-positive.

EW: I had a Swiss lover who was very squeamish about health, and who was phobic about germs. We met in '83, and always had safe sex. In 1985, in Europe at least, the HIV test was available. We went to a doctor in Zurich who had to send the test results to America to be analyzed. You had to wait six weeks, so I had to come back from Paris to Zurich to [ find out ] .

So we were about to go in, and my friend said, 'Let's skip it.' And I said, 'No, we have to find out. But I'll tell you what's going to [ happen ] : You're going to be negative, I'm going to be positive, and you're going to be very nice about it— [ but ] I'm a good-enough novelist to know that you're going to leave me in six months.' And it all happened exactly like that.

WCT: I'm just stunned right now.

EW: [ Laughs ] Well, novelists keep imagining 'What if?' [ scenarios ] . I kept thinking that he loved me, but it was like a death sentence in those days. I thought I was going to die within a year or two, [ and ] I don't think he was quite ready to take care of someone who was dying. Plus, I met him on the rebound; he had a lover who dumped him for a young pretty boy named George who had just been one of Rock Hudson's lovers—and the young boy infected this art dealer. And then I didn't die; I just kept going on and on.

Some people react [ to finding out they are HIV-positive ] in a very manic way and they decide to do everything they would've done in a long life within two years, even if they have to do it badly. However, I wasn't that way; I just pulled the covers over my head and said, 'Fuck it.' Eventually, I realized that I was what they call a 'slow progressor,' [ which describes ] someone who gets worse very slowly. So, even though I was diagnosed in 1985, I'm sure I was positive by 1980, when I was living in the fast lane in New York and had 50 partners a week...

WCT: Is that an exaggeration?

EW: No, because I lived a block from the best baths in New York and went there two to three times a week. It was a different time then.

WCT: When you came back to the United States from Europe [ after living there from the early '80s to the middle '90s ] , the emotional landscape had to be very different.

EW: Yes. Hundreds of my friends had died [ of AIDS ] . Only three members of the Violet Quill [ a group of seven LGBT writers that formed in the mid-'70s ] are still alive today [ White, Felice Picano and Andrew Holleran ] .

WCT: I've heard so much about Fire Island [ in the '70s ] . What was it really like?

EW: Again, it was a capital of promiscuity. People were young, beautiful and rich. It was a very competitive and faintly unhappy place. It's a race nobody can win. You're always going to see someone who's younger, richer and more beautiful. It was full of people like Calvin Klein, David Geffen [ and others ] .

WCT: What are your feelings about outing?

EW: I think that [ gay ] people who are in politics and who are hostile to other gays should be outed. All those happy government people who are against gay marriage, gay adoption [ and ] gay rights and who are themselves gay? That's so disgusting.

With other people, it becomes more questionable. Like I was a good friend of the lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop, but she was violently opposed to being identified as a lesbian—or even as a woman. She would never be allowed her work to be published in women's anthologies; she wanted to be taken as Shakespeare and Dante—and why not?

Other friends of mine are still in the closet, including some leading painters. I was talking to a friend who was the lover of two of these painters the other day. I said, 'How come they stay in the closet and we're broke?' He said, 'Honey, look at you and me; we're broke. They're millionaires.' It pays to stay in the closet. It certainly does for Hollywood actors.

WCT: Although more actors are coming out.

EW: But not the A-list stars [ yet ] .

We live in a culture that's so gossip-oriented; we feel like we need to say every last little thing. People ask me when I'm going to out Jasper Johns, our most famous living painter. Well, I know him very well; I've stayed with him in his house in the country. Half the time he goes to the neighborhood bar, gets roaring drunk and brings home a woman. I would say that he's bisexual but he leans more towards women. [ Unfortunately, ] some gays don't like to hear that people are bisexual.

This article shared 4432 times since Wed Apr 18, 2007
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