(Rolling preface: Even as I write this I find myself thinking of lots of different things to say. This will have to be oversimplified for a reason and is more of a passel of thoughts rather than anything unitary but hopefully there’s something here to build on. It does, however, seem appropriate that I should write this on a day when I’m wearing a favorite T-shirt of mine — the front says “Don’t assume I’m straight,” the back “Don’t assume I’m not.”)
Recently I’ve had a chance to reread George Chauncey‘s excellent Gay New York, his much-honored first book about gay life in that city from the late nineteenth century up through the Great Depression. When I first read it I can’t recall, but it would have been some years after its initial publication; almost assuredly it was the same UCI library copy I’m reading now, so in ways I’m just returning to where I already was, but such is always the case with rereading.
The general interest I have had over the years in issues of non-heterosexuality (for lack of a better term — no one phrase or word seems to sum it up without being either implicitly insulting or limiting) has always been from a position of implicit privilege in a straight-oriented society, namely that of fitting in with the ‘majority,’ whatever that might truly be — sometimes I wonder — but not in fact ‘in the life’ or anything close to it. Reducing things down to dull simplicities, I am a straight guy attracted to women and, allowing for the fact that I’m hardly a perfect character in general, is comfortable enough with my own feelings to not have to indulge in the games of idiot machismo that any number of guys seek to act out because they appear to have nothing better to do. (That I can see said games of idiot machismo play out among gay men as well as straight is its own bemusing story but I’m going to overcomplicate this post enough as it is, so moving on.) For all this, I find the worlds of other sexualities and passions of constant interest, ranging from my confusion at first seeing the scrambled sexual imagery in the poster that came with the soundtrack to Purple Rain to the fact that I think Chi Chi La Rue‘s astounding autobiography Making it Big is one of the most entertaining American ‘small town boy gets famous’ lifestories yet told — among many other things besides.
The title to this blog entry is chosen with this mental place in mind, “Down in the Park” being one of the most notable early songs, originally on the Tubewary Army album Replicas, by Gary Numan. In the liner notes to the reissue of Replicas, where the song appeared and which I happen to be listening to as I type this, he reflects on the themes of the album:
“Replicas is filled with images of decay, seediness, drug addicts, fragile people and the abandonment of morals. The bisexual allusions are partly based on encounters I had with gay men, most of whom were much older than me, who had attempted to persuade me to try things. I was never interested in gay sex, never felt the slightest bit tempted, but the seediness of those situations left an impression which I used in Replicas…In the songs I exaggerated these experiences, invented some others, set them in a scary, futuristic scenario and wrote about them as if it was all based on first-hand knowledge.”
Numan’s experiences are hardly my own, but there’s a regrettable if understandable slew of stereotyping I recognize in his words (which perhaps he does not himself, I’m not sure — they come from his autobiography Praying to the Aliens and could have a larger context I am missing as yet). The equating of issues of sexual non-’normativity’ (I told you I hate the language one has to use) with other ones of collapse, degeneration and so forth is practically as old as literature, perhaps as old as human society. In more recent terms, say Baudelaire on but he has his own roots, the issues of being the flâneur, the spectator, the borrowing of the airs and the clothes and more besides but not actually being part of the Other, however phrased, has been a constant obsession in philosophy and theory and more besides. Tracing it all out means going back to grad school and I’m not about to do that at all; suffice to say that as with so much else in life projections and categorizations reduce individuals to larger schema, and this often happens with our implicit if not explicit participation.
Chauncey acknowledges these factors quite well in his book, which fits in with his general project — perhaps more vitally important then, perhaps less so now — of challenging both oppressive ‘straight’ viewpoints and limited ‘gay’ orthodoxy about the post-Stonewall period, which alleged that essentially everything was universal repression up through the riots. The book’s focus is to eventually argue that such seemingly endless crackdowns were historically situated from the thirties onward, whereas in the period under discussion beforehand various communities thrived in a variety of visible and subliminal ways.
Notably, his own most straightforward discussion of the potential of ‘seediness,’ if not using that word specifically, takes place mostly in a section regarding the use of public toilets, called ‘tearooms’ in slang, with this paragraph:
Men went to the tearooms for a variety of reasons, and their encounters could have radically different meanings for each participant. But the encounters often affected how even men little involved in other aspects of the gay world regarded that world. They reinforced the negative impressions of many men, for they seemed to offer vivid confirmation of the cultural association of homosexuality with degeneracy by putting homosexuality and homosexuals almost literally in the gutter. Even the men most attracted to the tearooms as sexual meeting grounds had to be influenced by a culture that regarded such locales and such practices with disgust.
As a counterpoint to Numan’s romanticized attraction/repulsion this is strong stuff, all the more so because the language is that of the academic Chauncey was then formally becoming (the book grew out of his doctoral thesis) rather than that of the casual reminiscence of something Numan was never directly involved in. The vocabulary conveys enough to suggest without needing to dwell on it further, an approach he takes throughout the book (there’s doubtless something to be said about ‘sanitizing’ [on any number of levels] discussion in an academic context but again, a subject in and of itself). And while Chauncey continues from there to note positive aspects of the tearoom experience as well, his words serve as a salutary reminder — something maybe I’m thinking more about given my post yesterday regarding those many people whose lives play out removed from our experiences — that these times and places did not exist simply to provide random fodder for safely-ensconced imaginations.
But questions of play and agency are endless, as they should be — and it’s interesting to note that Numan himself has been the focus of celebration and reinterpretation via gay fans of his work. Terre Thaemlitz is the most notable example, and his excellent Replicas Rubato album, featuring covers of many Numan songs, is accompanied by a detailed essay regarding his Numan fandom and issues of sexuality and projection. It’s well worth the reading through in full, and like me Thaemlitz has long been taken with “Down in the Park” as a song, for what it suggests and for the pose of its narrator. Chauncey himself discusses parks in his book in some detail as a public ground for social gay life, and somewhere in my head right now there’s a full crossover of details, at least right at this point — so it seems best not to end on a note of exact resolution but rather to let Thaemlitz a final word that in and of itself is not final either:
As inspiration for enacting social change on personal and communal levels, one of the drawbacks of Numan’s language is the manner in which it repeatedly capitulates to notions of contradiction as inherently traumatic. His characters are chronically resigned to disparity and confusion. Furthermore, in terms of politics of representation as it relates to experience, certain problems arise from ambiguities in Numan’s relationship to such traumas as participant or observer (those “little white lies like ‘I was there’” – Down In The Park, Gary Numan ). These ambiguities have at times alienated me from his music, while in other instances have made more palatable some rather tasteless appropriations of identity.