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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

50 Years of Coming Out of the Closet

THE GAY METROPOLIS: 1940-1996 by Charles Kaiser; Houghton Mifflin $27, 404 pages

January 02, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When in 1993 Gen. Colin Powell used his influence as Top Gun and his insulation as an African American to oppose lifting the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces, he put an ironic halt to a march toward gay and lesbian liberation that had begun half a century before.

According to Charles Kaiser in his commendable history "Gay Metropolis," it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor that began to draw the diffuse American homosexual population together, leading to as great an explosion of taboo and creativity, tragedy and triumph as the country has ever seen.

"Fourteen-thousand men were entering 250 different training centers every day," Kaiser writes. "The Army then acted like a giant centrifuge, creating the largest concentration of gay men inside a single institution in American history."

Between these military bookends lies a chronicle of 50 years of closet-leaving in America. Kaiser captures the sexual exuberance of the pre-AIDS '70s when "people seemed 'crazy,' " in the words of one enthusiast, "like lapsed Catholics who were working out some deep personal issues, which most of them were--except for the Mormons and Orthodox Jews."

Kaiser also catalogs in measured tones the victories as well as the tremendous devastation that the AIDS epidemic has wreaked on the gay community.

"For many straight Americans, the epidemic had transformed the prevailing image of gay men--from sex maniacs into caring, ingenious and grieving human beings. As the gay author Andrew Tobias put it, 'It's pretty hard to hate people who have this run of bad luck.' "

For each of the decades, Kaiser selects characters from the rich, the glamorous and the ordinary. The obvious and often delicious voices of Gore Vidal and Truman Capote mix with the harsher self-hating tones of Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy. Well-documented coming-of-sexuality stories by the likes of the critic Walter Clemons harmonize with the confessions of ordinary Americans, like the young medical student whose first homosexual experience, with Leonard Bernstein in Jerusalem just after the Six-Day War, gave him a one-nighter to remember.

Sometimes it's unclear where Kaiser is sailing. One particularly confusing chapter concerns the creation of "West Side Story." The fact that the undisputed masterpiece of the late 20th-century musical was created by four gay men--Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins--is supposed to be impressive. Yet Kaiser's search for the link between homosexuality and the muse remains unresolved.

The collaborators emphatically deny that their sexuality had anything to do with their creative ability. When Laurents opines that perhaps their common Jewishness was the sensibility that "really does inform the work," Kaiser makes a simplistic observation comparing the "experiences of Jews and homosexuals in New York City: two oppressed minority groups who have struggled mightily, and very successfully, to travel out of invisibility and assimilation to proud self-declaration."

But these are the exceptions. Kaiser is too good a writer to avoid complexity. Despite the desire to see black, women's and gay liberation as mutually supportive movements of postwar America, he acknowledges inconsistencies.

One of Kaiser's most impressive feats is to follow the coverage of homosexuality and the treatment of gays in and by the national news media over the last 50 years. He asks respected journalists to reconsider decades-old columns and broadcasts that treated homosexuality as either a moral or physical affliction. Some do; some don't.

Kaiser lets us come to individual realizations of how few of us, independent of sexuality, saw our neighbors and ourselves with unblinkered vision in the not-so-distant past.

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