To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Gore Vidal – Writer & Essayist
by Christopher Bryant
The first book of Gore Vidal’s that I read was Myra Breckinridge. A tutor on my Master’s degree course recommended it after I gave a raucous presentation on sexual identity as drag, and read from Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend with such intensity that another tutor complimented it as “very Nick Cave”. At least, I think he said Cave …
I had not heard of Vidal, and so I went down to Waterstone’s and bought the double-feature Myra Breckinridge & Myron. From the first sentence I was transfixed, a convert, an acolyte, and I remain so to this day. “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess,” the novel begins. Myra’s voice was nothing like I had read before. “Frankly I can think of no greater pleasure than to approach an open face and swiftly say whatever needs to be said to shut it.” Touché.
Gore Vidal was born in 1925. His mother, who looked like a cross between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, was the daughter of Oklahoma’s first senator, T.P. Gore. His father was an engineer who worked for the Roosevelt administration, and co-founded TWA. Vidal’s first novel, Williwaw, was published in 1946. His third, The City and the Pillar (1948), was a frank exploration of homosexuality, and put him at loggerheads with the American mainstream, which is where he remained until, 24 novels and countless essays later, he died on July 31, 2012.
Vidal, like his creation Myra Breckinridge, always said what was on his mind. He did so with verve and humour laid out on a bed of velvet smooth prose. When I first started to read his work, I was struck by his clarity of thought as well as the acuteness of his humour. That year, opportunely, a book of his collected essays, United States, was published. At 1271 pages it was a crash course in his ideas on politics, sexuality and people. It glittered with brilliant thought and a bewitching style. In talking about the rise of Christian fundamentalists in 1970s America, Vidal concludes, “The authors of Leviticus proscribe homosexuality – and so do all good Christers. But Leviticus also proscribes rare meat, bacon, shellfish, and the wearing of nylon mixed with wool. If Leviticus were to be obeyed in every instance, the garment trade would collapse.” This is the Vidal style through and through: a serious comment is followed by an ironic gloss.
Vidal did not believe in sexual categories. His mantra was that there’s no such thing as a homosexual person, only homosexual acts. “We are bisexual. Opportunity and habit incline us toward this or that sexual object.” Larry Kramer pressed Vidal in an interview to say he was a homosexual person, to which he responded, “Look, what I’m preaching is: don’t be ghettoized, don’t be categorized. Every state tries to categorize its citizens in order to assert control of them.” He subscribed to an ideal politics. Asked about his identification as homosexual when running for political office in California, Vidal responded that he was nothing of the sort. “I am ecumenical.” He once claimed to be trisexual to throw an interviewer off this tired old question. Asked what that meant he replied, “You can’t leave me alone in a room with a cut cantaloupe melon”.
Vidal was fearless, and always ahead of the curve. He wrote about pornography and the Marquis de Sade a decade before feminists such as Angela Carter caught up. He understood American imperialism years before historians worked out how the US sustained its Cold War power base. nd he did it with a clarity that few writers possess. His satirical novels turned ideas about sexuality and gender identity upside down, and his bestselling historical novels showed an America that not been seen before. Vidal’s writing crossed boundaries, and he was able to talk about the nature of politics and sexuality to a mainstream audience that had not heard his like. And for that we are forever in his debt.