Edmund White witnessed the Stonewall riots, just the beginning of a revolutionary life
Edmund White witnessed the Stonewall riots, just the beginning of a revolutionary life
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On the warm evening of June 28, 1969, Edmund White, then in his late 20s, and his friend and former lover Charles Burch were out “taking the air” in New York City’s Greenwich Village. They found themselves walking along Christopher Street toward Seventh Avenue and, as White tells it, stumbled upon one of the events that sparked the modern American fight for equality.
But on that particular June night in 1969, as White and Burch approached Christopher Park – a slim triangle of green space between Christopher and Grove Streets that today features a quartet of statues by the artist George Segal called “Gay Liberation” – White noticed police vehicles parked outside The Stonewall Inn.
“There were all these bright lights and policemen dragging out angry Black drag queens,” White recalled in an exclusive interview with LGBTQ Nation, of the events more than a half-century ago.
As White and Burch looked on, the crowd began catcalling the police officers. Someone shouted, “Gay power.” People started throwing pennies and beer bottles at the officers.
White, who would go on to become a critically acclaimed novelist, also described the uprising in his 1988 semi-autobiographical novel, The Beautiful Room Is Empty:
“I suppose the police expected us to run away into the night, as we’d always done before, but we stood across the street on the sidewalk of the small triangular park … Our group drew a still larger crowd … Everyone booed the cops, just as though they were committing a shameful act. We kept exchanging peripheral glances, excited and afraid.” – from Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty
Today he recalls a chorus line of queens and gay boys confronting the police in their riot gear, high-kicking like the Radio City Rockettes, a scene he also described in The Beautiful Room Is Empty in characteristically lyrical prose:
“The riot squad was called in. It marched like a Roman army behind shields down Christopher from the women’s prison, which was loud with catcalls and the clatter of metal drinking cups against steel bars. The squad, clubs flying, drove the gay men down Christopher, but everyone doubled back through Gay Street and emerged behind the squad in a chorus line, dancing the can-can. ‘Yoo-hoo, yoo-hoo,’ they called.”
White’s recollections of the uprising are tinged with wry humor. He has consistently called Stonewall “the first funny revolution”- the pennies, the chorus line, the spontaneous slogans that felt like parodies at the time, the brute force of the police met with queer sass that for so long felt like the only weapon LGBTQ people had at their disposal.
But that’s not to say that an event that felt so lively, so tongue-in-cheek to him, didn’t have serious, momentous consequences. “Up till that moment, we had all thought that homosexuality was a medical term,” he wrote in his 2009 memoir City Boy. “Suddenly we saw that we could be a minority group – with rights, a culture, an agenda.”
“I think Stonewall was a historic event that changed consciousness, in a way that seems almost unbelievable,” White told LGBTQ Nation.
White’s firsthand account of the Stonewall uprising is far from his only contribution. Over the course of his career, he has had 30 books published – with a new one, The Humble Lover, expected to be released in May 2023. His biography of Jean Genet remains perhaps the definitive work on the iconoclastic queer French writer. He has received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Lambda Literary Award, among numerous other accolades.
Born in 1940, White has seen the incredible ebbs and flows of the past five-plus decades of the modern American equality movement. He was also a member of the short-lived gay writers group the Violet Quill, which from 1980 to ’81 included Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, and other influential literary figures of the post-Stonewall generation whose work helped thousands of gay men see themselves in a positive light. The group made contributions to the community – while making its mark on the larger literary world.
Diagnosed with HIV in 1985, White co-founded the community-based AIDS service nonprofit Gay Men’s Health Crisis (now known as GMHC) alongside activist and writer Larry Kramer and others in 1982. He endured the conservative backlash against gay liberation in the 1980s and watched as visibility and acceptance grew in the 1990s, building up to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015.
Now in his 80s, and with the tide of LGBTQ equality potentially turning once again, White is at work on yet another novel – a ghost story inspired by his nephew, who died by suicide at the age of 50, and Beethoven. His semi-autobiographical 1982 novel A Boy’s Own Story, a foundational text for gay men of a certain age, has been adapted by his husband, the writer Michael Carroll, and Brian Alessandro into a graphic novel with art by Igor Karash, to be released this fall.
“I remember thinking I had no idea what was happening to me,” Carroll said of reading A Boy’s Own Story for the first time. “I understood the narrator, though he did seem sort of superior to me. I think it’s because he could express himself so well in so few words, and I wanted to be a great writer, too. So, at the time, I came at it largely from a literary standpoint. I thought, ‘Why doesn’t this man have the Nobel Prize?'”
“Despite the difference in period, the story is still a lonely boy with a family – all families are annoying – who won’t cut him a break,” Carroll said of the novel’s continued appeal. “He’s supposed to be the man of the family and yet his most tender thoughts and desires can’t be given life in front of them.”
“Ed has been writing about queer topics since the early 70s and has continued to do so, and has explored queer culture in fiction, memoirs, biographies – like his biography of Genet – sociology in his book States of Desire. He’s explored American literature, he’s explored a whole range of things. So, in the canon of queer literature, Ed is very, very important,” Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States, told LGBTQ Nation. “He also is an extraordinarily generous person with his connections, with helping people, really in the best traditions of the early gay movement of seeing a movement as a community.”
Today, White lives with Carroll in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, where the couple frequently entertains friends. In many ways, his life is atypical of LGBTQ elders, the men and women of his generation, many of whom face unique challenges, from discrimination to housing and economic insecurity, as they age.
Over the course of two conversations, White discussed these issues as well as his singular life.
You’ve written semi-autobiographical fiction, a couple of autobiographies, and biographies, so you’re obviously someone who thinks about a person’s life in the context of history. How do you think about the arc of the modern equality movement in your lifetime?
I was a very unhappy teenager, and even in my 20s, I was endlessly going to sort of charlatan psychiatrists to go straight. But I think no one really defended homosexuality before Stonewall. There were a few people like [the writer] Christopher Isherwood who had their heads on straight. My mother was a psychologist, but she could only think it was regrettable that I was gay. And I could only think that. I thought, “If I’m really lucky, I’ll get this monkey off my back, and I’ll become straight and live in a white picket fence house and have little children.”
Is “the Stonewall Generation” a label that means anything to you?
It definitely does. Not so much in my writing – although, yes, also that. The Beautiful Room Is Empty, which is the sequel to A Boy’s Own Story, ends with the Stonewall riot. So, I really was very much molded by that.
What kind of impact did the Stonewall Riot have on you?
I think Stonewall was a historic event that changed consciousness in a way that today seems almost unbelievable. Almost like the French Revolution – or something. I actually was in the Stonewall uprising – in a very feeble way. But, the fallout from it really had a big effect on me. I went to consciousness-raising groups that were kind of Maoist in format. You’d set a theme like “The Church and Homosexuality,” and you’d all talk about your religious experiences. But nobody was allowed to correct anybody or offer suggestions. You just bore witness. And then at the end of that, maybe the leader of the group would try to make some generalizations about what gays had gone through – at least this group of gays – in facing religion.
What was the goal of those sessions?
There was a feeling that we had all absorbed into our innermost beings a lot of homophobia, and we were trying to eradicate that and see it not just in personal, agonistic terms but in political terms. Oftentimes, these consciousness-raising sessions would end with a political action that we would all agree upon. I attended quite a few in 1972. The action we ended up deciding on was to march in the 1972 Pride Parade, which was a little daring in those days. But I think there was also the sense that the meetings were an occasion to make new friends, which is also a kind of activism.
You were actually present at the Stonewall uprising in 1969, if only by accident. What do you remember from that night? Do you recall what you expected of the night when you were getting ready to go out that evening?
No, it just took me by surprise. I was walking down Christopher Street with my first lover from Chicago [Charles Burch] – who is still one of my best friends – and we just happened to stumble upon it. We were out just taking the air. We were coming down Christopher toward Seventh Avenue, and all of a sudden, we could see that there were these big trucks from the police that were out front and there were all these bright lights and policemen dragging out angry Black drag queens and stuff like that. So, we just stayed, and Charles, my friend, became much more involved. He was back there the next night and the next night. And he began to take part in actions that occurred.
In one of your books, you wrote that you had the impulse to try to get everyone to calm down.
Yeah, I think the thing that really happened to me was that I thought I was just purely decorous and middle class, and I wanted everyone to get along and be quiet. But I was surprised that I felt my own indignation being inflamed. And that was part of the revelation of Stonewall for me.
I did write a letter to a friend about the Stonewall uprising, and one of the things I said was that it was the first funny revolution. Everybody was laughing, and somebody said, “Gay is good,” which was supposed to parallel “Black is beautiful.” But it seemed so presumptuous to us and absurd, because we all were pretty self-hating. I mean, we were wryly and comically self-hating, but still self-hating. And to assert that “gay is good” seemed to us a little crazy.
Why did “gay is good” seem like a crazy slogan back then?
People might have defended homosexuality before and said, “Oh, these poor guys shouldn’t be persecuted, and they shouldn’t be in prison. They can’t help it.” It was a kind of cursed tribe of gay people. But to try to turn it around and say that gays are actually good and that it’s good to be gay …
It sounds like it was kind of a precursor to the idea of acceptance vs. tolerance.
Exactly. But also defiance. In other words, who gives a damn whether they accept us?
Surely there were some gays who were not self-hating, who accepted themselves and lived as openly as they could.
I met Christopher Isherwood maybe 10 years after Stonewall, but I think all through that period, he had been very liberated. There were other people who would live openly with another man, but they wouldn’t make a fuss about it. You certainly wouldn’t tell your boss. You could get fired or you could lose your apartment. There were no guarantees of your right to exist and your freedom to resist, except in our minds.
How do you think the popular understanding of the Stonewall uprising has evolved over the years?
I mean, somebody like the gay historian [Jonathan] Ned Katz would be better at answering that. But my feeling is that people tried to make cute little white boys more important than they were. I think it was significant, because whereas white people were so obedient and quiet and withdrawn – but the fact that the people who were raided were [Black and Brown] people meant that they resisted more. You have to realize that gay liberation was sort of piggybacking on the Vietnam War protests, on women’s liberation, and on Black liberation. And that actually having those groups as the 1960s precedent for that, I’m sure, produced gay liberation.
What do you make of some of the various depictions of the uprising in popular culture?
There was an English [film] I saw that was done by a director that I had met and talked to. The director [Nigel Finch] was dying of AIDS, so I didn’t think it was right to criticize the film since that would be the last thing he would do. But it did seem to me very glamorized, with all very attractive-looking actors. I don’t know. It seemed very slick and plotted. I never really saw any of those movies, and I never really owned a TV, so I really am not aware of them.
But I do feel like people, the way they talk about Stonewall makes it sound, first of all, more like a grim fight. Whereas actually, it was funny and most of us were laughing. There was a whole chorus line. The cops came down Christopher Street with their shields, and then a chorus line of gay boys came popping up behind them on Gay Street and taking them sort of by surprise, kicking like members of a chorus line. There was a frivolous, carnival feeling in the air, and that seems somewhat at odds with the way people portray it. And it was mainly Black and Brown people.
When did you come out? What was that like?
I think I came out in so many different ways. I told my mother when I was 13 that I was gay. And then, when I was about 16, I demanded that my father send me to a psychiatrist so that I could be cured of my homosexuality because I still thought I needed to be cured. So, I don’t know, which of those is coming out?
Well, in a lot of ways, we’re always coming out to everyone we meet.
You’ve been HIV-positive since 1985. What impact has that diagnosis had on your life over the past 37 years?
For a long time, it was a real curse because I think I was one of the first – I don’t want to call myself a “public figure,” but at least a slightly well-known person who was interviewed – and stuff about me was published. So, I was very frank in saying, from the very beginning, that I was HIV-positive, which, for me, was like coming out as gay had been. In other words, I saw it as essential to my own mental health and maybe publicly useful to identify myself as HIV-positive.
You also co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).
I was the first president of [GMHC], and I thought we were kind of cowardly and dim-witted because all we could think to do was to have a disco party to raise some money. Whereas in ’83, I moved to France, and I was already friends with [French philosopher] Michel Foucault. He died in ’84 of AIDS, so with his surviving partner, I helped to start the gay organization over there, which was called AIDES. And whereas [in the U.S.] we threw a disco party, they went to the minister of health and worked out a whole plan. In other words, everything was much more grown-up and professional in France, whereas in America, I think it was a sign of how beaten down we were that we didn’t think big at all.
What did you think GMHC should be doing instead of throwing a disco party?
Well, I guess being American and being middle class, being college educated and being, let’s say, bourgeois, I shared all the same hesitations of my colleagues in the GMHC. The French engaged in actual politics.
GMHC and other AIDS and LGBTQ-rights organizations have continued to throw big parties and galas to raise money. Do you think of those events differently now?
I sort of think trying to get the government to actually do things… America believes in [philanthropy], and France believes in government action. You don’t have charities in France, and if someone asks you to give them a loan, you say, “Oh, the state should do that.”
“I was very frank in saying, from the very beginning, that I was HIV-positive, which, for me, was like coming out as gay had been. In other words, I saw it as essential to my own mental health and maybe publicly useful to identify myself as HIV-positive.” – Edmund White
Yes, there’s been a lot of reporting and re-evaluation of how problematic the reliance on philanthropy is in America recently – as opposed to government action.
Exactly. My lover in France died of AIDS. There were free taxis to take him back and forth to the hospitals – even in remote areas of Paris. You paid for nothing. You didn’t pay for the medicine, you didn’t pay for the doctor.
What impact did the loss of so many gay men have on the evolution of LGBTQ culture – and on society more broadly?
I’m a writer, and I knew mainly other gay writers and people in the arts. I worked for Vogue for 10 years, and I knew people in fashion, people in music, all the various arts. I did an article in an arts magazine – I think it was Art in America – in ’86, where we had dozens of photos of all the people in the arts that had died and little short biographies of them. It wasn’t just that the artists themselves were all dying, but that the audience for them was dying.
How did you greet the arrival of HIV prevention medication (PrEP) a few years ago?
Well, I had been brought up as a Christian Scientist, so I was always wary of drugs and medicines. So, fortunately, I hadn’t taken any. AZT was poison, so I didn’t take that. I must have been what they called a “slow progressor.” By 1995, my T-cells were very low, but not that low, and my doctor said, “I understand why you’ve never wanted to take medicines, but I really do think you should go on this triple therapy.” You know, the antivirals. So, I did, and I think that saved my life. It was like I was given a whole new lease on life.
I ask because Larry Kramer didn’t initially greet the arrival of PrEP with much enthusiasm.
I just greeted it as a breakthrough in science. And Larry, who is “la Pasionaria” of our movement – he loved the idea of everybody suffering and dying and paying for their sins.
There are still disparities in who can access PrEP. People of color have a harder time getting the medication. What do you make of the state of the HIV/AIDS epidemic today?
Certainly, it’s more rampant in [the developing world]. But so is hunger. It seems like the disparities in society, within the rich and the poor in America, and then rich and poor nations – all that’s very dramatic and seems to be getting worse. I don’t know, it seems to me that gay men could have made a bigger effort to finance or join [Doctors Without Borders] or at least make contributions to helping people in [the developing world]. But every health problem is different because of social class.
You co-founded The Violet Quill. What do you see as the legacy of that group of writers, which included Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, among others?
I think even the name shows that it was a little bit silly. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously. “The Violet Quill” was supposed to be a joke. We only met eight times, and it seemed like the main competition was about who could serve the most beautiful desserts. Anyway, without it even being discussed so much, you might say there was some staking out of territory. Maybe I got childhood with A Boy’s Own Story, and maybe Felice Picano got genre [fiction] – he would write mystery stories and kind of violent bloody stories and stories about cops. And Andrew Holleran staked out Fire Island. And [Robert Ferro] got the family.
I do think it was good because one of the subtle changes that happened in that era was that gay people who had written gay books before, like Gore Vidal, had really been playing to a straight audience. The change that happened was that suddenly in the ’70s, there were gay bookstores, there were gay editors at big publishing houses, and they were publishing gay novels, and the novels were addressed to gay readers. Also, gay books of that earlier period were always involved in the ideology of gays: how did these characters come to be gay? Whereas I think later fiction, you just assumed that they were gay. Period. They were addressed to gay readers. Which probably cut down on sales but made the books more interesting, at least to gay readers.
A Boy’s Own Story has been adapted into a graphic novel. You’ve said in the past that you tend not to revisit your work once it’s published, and you also weren’t involved in this adaptation. So how are you anticipating revisiting this story when the graphic novel comes out?
One of the two co-writers is my husband, and I trust him. He kept a lot of the language of the original. But they have added kind of flash-forward scenes to show what happened to the character, that he went to Paris and did this and that in later years. I don’t really like that idea much, but why not.
Why do you think A Boy’s Own Story resonated with readers the way it did?
I think because it was about a young person who’s confused about his sexual identity. In England, I think most of the readers were straight adolescents. That’s a theme that resonates with straight and gay. Now even more so. [A 2022 Gallop poll indicated 57% of LGBTQ Americans identify as bisexual.]
How do you feel about the fact that it is probably your most well-known book, the one that comes to mind when your name is mentioned?
Well, I’m glad that something comes to mind. That’s already a blessing. But, I don’t know, I think other books of mine, like Hotel de Dream, is the most well-constructed and probably the best book that I’ve written. Caracole was my biggest flop. And I think my Genet biography won the most awards. It never was a bestseller, but it was a respected book that is still the main biography of Genet.
In your intro to the graphic novel, you say that you wanted A Boy’s Own Story to be “a ‘literary’ coming-out story.” That you wanted to write a “dignified version of our experience.” When you think about that intention compared to the vile things that are being said about the LGBTQ books that are being challenged and banned from school libraries recently, what’s your reaction?
I know that Michael, my husband, is looking forward to our graphic novel being banned because he thinks that will help sales. All the book burning and banning and the [recent stabbing] of [The Satanic Verses author] Salman Rushdie does seem to be a bit much. I’ve never really had much trouble during my long career with censorship. In Canada, they had the kind of nefarious practice of, if someone objected to a book – not legally, but just voiced an objection – it would be taken off the shelves.
That sounds so much like what’s happening now in U.S. schools. What do you make of the fact that access to books, to literature, is such a site of concern recently?
LGBTQ literature is a good one to attack because going all the way back to Anita Bryant, there’s this theory that admirable gays are the real danger. Because then the students might model their behavior on the admirable people, like teachers. So, gay teachers weren’t dangerous because they would pervert the students, necessarily, but just that they would give them an example of an out and proud gay person, which was very dangerous.
Having seen firsthand the gay liberation of the ’70s followed by the backlash that followed the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, then the unprecedented speed at which we won the right to marriage, all the way up to this current backlash, is there anything this generation needs to know about the cyclical nature of these kinds of fights for social justice?
One thing is that maybe 10 years ago, people would have said, “Gay people are totally accepted – and they’re all big brats anyway, so who cares?” But I think of the fact that especially in the Muslim world, gays have been [persecuted]. Michael, my husband, lived in Yemen and saw gay people being pushed off a cliff as capital punishment. At least in this household, we’re very aware of gay executions in Saudi Arabia and different places. It’s na”ive to imagine that gays have really been accepted except among educated people and in America. Throughout the world, it’s still very much hated – homosexuality. I think that’s gotten better. You’ll see surveys and [more than] 70 percent of American people accept gay marriage, for example, and if you’d done that 50 years ago it would have been five percent.
Do you think there are particular challenges for queer people as they age?
Well, I always said that gay men have to be as successful as straight men and as beautiful as women. So, I think that if you’re a gay male and you’re successful financially or you have status or something, that’s one part of it. But you are definitely losing on the beauty front by aging!
How do you think your life compares to that of most LGBTQ elders?
It’s much more privileged. I’ve published 30 books, and I bought my apartment 20-some years ago, and I get a pension from Princeton, and I get Social Security, and I get some royalties from my books and advances against royalties. I would say my life is very privileged. Also, because I’m sort of known as a writer, there are lots of young writers who want to meet me and come here for pizza parties and things. So, I’m not as isolated as most elderly gay people are, and I’m very fortunate that Michael looks after me because my mobility’s not very good.
What do you think we can do about the troubling statistics regarding elders?
It’s really the problem of all old people in America, not just gay ones. Children aren’t very good about supporting their parents. I’ve lived in both France and Italy, and in those countries, the parents usually buy their children their first apartment, and they continue to have lunch with them every day. By the same token, the children would never put their parents in an old age home but would take care of them. We hear so much about family values in America, but it’s all rubbish because nobody cares about their families. I think that the problem of gay elders is probably just the problem of elders. Because having children doesn’t guarantee you that they’re going to take care of you.
What do you most want queer young people to understand about your generation?
That we’re not so different. That we may sound sentimental, but we’re still very romantic, and that we’ve been through a lot. To be oppressed in the ’50s, liberated in the ’60s, and almost wiped out in the ’70s and ’80s – it’s a very fast wash-and-rinse cycle. I think that gay history has been very sped up, and I think that has left a lot of marks on these old walruses like me who still exist.
What gives you hope for the future?
I don’t know. I don’t really have very clear ideas about that. Of course, we would like to have greater acceptance, but the acceptance seems to come at the price of being middle class, married and having children. And that seems to me rather limiting. When I was in my 20s and 30s, we felt that gay people had something special to offer the world. For instance, when we break up, we don’t hate our ex. We often stay friends with our ex, but straight people almost never do.
So, obviously, we’re superior, morally.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. The LGBT National Hotline provides telephone, online chat, and email peer support at 888-843-4564 or www.lgbthotline.org. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.
John Russell is a New York-based journalist covering entertainment and LGBTQ issues. He writes about queer cinema and other cultural topics in his free newsletter, Johnny Writes…