5 Pieces Of Queer Literature From 60s/70s NYC | Stonewall Day

By Lucy Harbron - 18:24

On the 28th of June, we celebrate Stonewall Day. On that day in 1969, the riots broke out at The Stonewall Inn, a local spot for the LGBT+ community that was regularly raided and tormented by police. After another raid, the community had enough. On the 28th June 1969, when the police got violent, the crowd fought back, starting 6 days of riots and marches, and the global phenomenon of pride parades. The event was one of the most important moments in the gay liberation movement n the US and worldwide as the LGBT+ began raising their voices against discrimination and criminalisation. In 2020, we’ve come a long way but it’s important to look forward as well as back, and consider all the steps we need to take for full legal and social equality, especially for trans people who are under attack right now.

If you know anything about me, 1969 is my specialism year. During uni, my dissertation centred around this era in New York, looking into the literature of the counter-culture. Some of the most prominent voices from the American counterculture were proud gay people, yet history seems to barely remember this. Our images of the 60s are white-washed and idealised as a hippie dreamland when the reality was a beautiful, thriving and diverse underground scene that was propped up on love and care from the community and allies. Honouring them, here are 5 pieces of amazing queer literature from 60s/70s New York.

1)Any and All Frank O'Hara Work

Frank O'Hara is a favourite writer of mine, pioneering a form called ‘personism’. Personism is basically a term he coined for writing about yourself, creating a body of work that’s explicitly person. O’Hara’s work was written about and for his friends, regularly naming people, places and events of the time that shaped his social circle. He was also an openly gay man writing in a circle called The New York School which included writers, playwright, ballet dances and more, all taking classic forms and rejuvenating them for the liberal times. His life partner was a ballet dancer called Vincent Warren, a man who inspired some of the most unique and sincere love poems I’ve ever read.

Defining personism, Frank O’Hara said of his own work ‘I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem’, and that’s what his work feels like, like you’re eavesdropping on the day-to-day romanticism of a relationship. Vincent inspired many of his poems, but my favourite is Having A Coke With You; a piece that can be analysed as much or as little as you want. On one hand, the poem is full of subtle signalling, never explicitly mentioning his homosexuality but showing it through the context of his references and use of colour. But on the other hand, this is a small poem about a simple feeling of being in love with the little things about someone and trying to find a way to tell them. Though specifically and purposefully of it’s time and place, O’Hara’s work transcends its context, becoming universal in their relatability.

2)Chelsea Girls – Eileen Myles

Written slightly later, Eileen Myles’ collection of short stories, Chelsea Girls, is a beautiful collection of personal tales, many of which touch on her sexuality as a lesbian. However, my favourite in the collection is the titular piece. Starting out as a tale about a messy relationship, the story falls into one of the most endearing pieces of literature I’ve ever read. In the late 70s, Myles worked as a carer for James Schuyler, a poet who ran in the same social circle as O’Hara and was also gay. Myles and Schuyler’s relationship is pure and almost parental, engaging in a care exchange as Myles looks after his health and Schuyler encourages her work and gives her the positive male role she lacked in her own life. Myles’ care for the poet is undeniably coded, their relationship is filled with a sense of kinship that feels natural and unspoken, mirroring the buddy system that would later be set up during the AIDs crisis. The difference between her exchanges with Schuyler versus her lover shows two different portraits of life as a young gay woman, creating a piece that’s both highly literary but also super humanistic and gentle.

3)Just Kids – Patti Smith

Another piece centring around The Chelsea Hotel is Just Kids, which I’ve talked about to death. While Patti Smith went on to marry a man, and the origin of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe was romantic, their story becomes one of allyship as Mapplethorpe went one to be one of the most influential queer artists of the era. Similar to Myles and Schuyler, Patti and Robert have a love that’s built on kinship and loyalty first, their love is a vow of care, promising to look after each other and be there always. As the story moves through Mapplethorpe’s early experiences with men to his later life with his partner Sam Wagstaff, Smith’s narrative proceeds without judgement but tenderness, piecing together the final image of the artist he would become. Their relationship is a beautiful portrait of allyship with love coming before everything and remaining unchanged. Patti and Robert were soulmates from start to finish with Patti still dedicating so much of her work to the artist. As well as this relationship, the book also draws a great picture of the whole scene and the inclusion of the LGBT+ community in the counter culture as she encounters just about everyone.

4)Howl, Kaddish & Other Poems – Allen Ginsberg

I’m putting this one here because the modern impression of the beat generation annoys me. In recent years, it feels like the beat circle of Ginsberg and Kerouac have been twisted into nothing but an alternative boys club, seeing them as the 1960s answer to the lads down the pub. Seemingly remembered as the best of friends, all just loving drugs and art and Bob Dylan, the homoerotic subtext of their work has been left out of the conversation. Allen Ginsberg was a gay man who had public relationships with the beat circle including Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, something that was edited out of On The Road much to Ginsberg’s disappointment. Reading Howl or any of the other beats work without considering sexuality is missing a vital piece of the puzzle. Take Footnote To Howl for example:

‘ Holy peter Holy Allen holy Solomon Holy Lucien holy Kerouac 
holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady holy the 
unknown buggered and suffering beggars holy the hideous human angels!’

You really think Ginsberg just loved his friends that much?

Too often read as notes of admiration for his writer friends, Ginsberg’s work is explicitly homoerotic, a major reason why Howl had to battle through a long censorship trial. Touching on many areas of politics, queerness is undeniably one, and reading it without consideration of that is erasure.

5)Scorpio Rising – Kenneth Anger

And a film. Scorpio Rising is a weird one but a must-watch for 1960s queer literature. Scorpio Rising sees underground queer director Kenneth Anger use all the tools of the mainstream against them, mixing doo-wop music, images of Jesus and the blossoming music video form in with clear homoerotic images of bikers and leather. Soundtracked by the biggest ‘straight’ mainstream songs of the time, the short film moves through a series of music videos that follow Scorpio and a biker gang. It doesn’t really have a plot, but Anger touches on the worship of rebels and the idolised images in the gay biker scene, as though this rejected community have been forced to find their own gods and create their own rituals. Super stylish, Scorpio Rising is a perfect gateway into the world of 1960s underground cinema, dipping your toes in with something inoffensive. If you want something more shocking, move onto Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith next.

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