Edmund White. “States of Desire Revisited: Travels in Gay America”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.
Going Back and Moving Forward
Any time a book by Edmund White is published it is an event and even if it is a new edition of an older book. “States of Desire Revisited” is an updated version of White’s original “States of Desire” published in 1991. It “looks back from the twenty-first century at a pivotal moment in the late 1970s: Gay Liberation was a new and flourishing movement of creative culture, political activism, and sexual freedom, just before the 1980s devastation of AIDS”.
In the first edition, Edmund White took us on a tour of gay America of the late 70’s and it was a tour that was filled with surprises. We see what happens behind the glitter at various nightspots and resorts and we learn of gay men in all of the professions. Here is new insight about what it was (and in many cases, still is) to be gay in America. He spoke with politicians who worked in the system in Washington, with radicals in New York and San Francisco, with masculine butch gay men in Houston and with the self-loathing Southern gentlemen of Memphis. He visited with the time warp in Kansas City, with progressive thinkers and conservatives in Portland and Minneapolis and Portland, with the rich and beautiful of Los Angeles. He visited a desert retreat for older gays and lesbians that has been in Santa Fe since the 1920s in Santa Fe. White frames those past travels with a brief, bracing review of gay America since the 1970s (“now we were all supposed to settle down with a partner in the suburbs and adopt a Korean daughter”), and a reflection on how Internet culture has diminished unique gay places and scenes but brought isolated individuals into a global GLBTQ community.
States of Desire Revisited looks back from the twenty-first century at a pivotal moment in the late 1970s: Gay Liberation was a new and flourishing movement of creative culture, political activism, and sexual freedom, just before the 1980s devastation of AIDS. Edmund White traveled America, recording impressions of gay individuals and communities that remain perceptive and captivating today. He noted politicos in D.C. working the system, in-fighting radicals in New York and San Francisco, butch guys in Houston and self-loathing but courteous gentlemen in Memphis, the “Fifties in Deep Freeze” in Kansas City, progressive thinkers with conservative style in Minneapolis and Portland, wealth and beauty in Los Angeles, and, in Santa Fe, a desert retreat for older gays and lesbians since the 1920s.
As we go from city to city and learn about the places we visit, we also get a bit of the autobiography of Edmund White. I get the impression that White is writing this to help straight readers understand gay men. He talks to men who are willing to share their lives with him be they homosexual Mormons in Utah or gay Cubans in Miami. We get quite a cross section of people but unfortunately (and I hate to use that word when writing about one of my literary heroes), the characters here just do not gain reality. White also tells us about himself but does not delve as deeply as I would have liked him to do.
The places he visited back then now have a review of how it was and how it has changed. White also looks at Internet culture and tells how it has caused the waning of “unique gay places and scenes but brought isolated individuals into a global GLBTQ community”.
The original book was written before the AIDS epidemic devastated our community and so the gay America of the 70’s was promiscuous and lives were filled with sex, drugs and rock and roll. This was an interesting America in which we do not learn about children or parents or even what the future is expected to bring. It was a country of now. The gay community was transient and it followed the best parties, the best bars and the best bathhouses. Random and anonymous sex prevailed and romance was fleeting. (I am sure there were loving relationships but those did not make it into the book). It was a nation that emphasized youth and beauty yet it was also a time of fear as anti-homosexual leaders began their rants.
Some things never change—there was the fear of aging and losing our good looks. White spends a good bit of time exploring fetishes and kinkiness and he gives us his own opinion on such activities.
White’s reflection of the men he saw includes not the most “kosher” descriptions and he notes that they are victims of their own self-delusions. Their lives seemed to be ablaze and they hate the thought of getting older; they live in the pursuit of their own definition of happiness and lust. This is not a sympathetic view of gay life but as one who lived through it, I must say that it is somewhat accurate.
To Edmund White, gay life is a mosaic that contains the elements of radicalism and renaissance, hedonism and extremism but we also see the possibilities for what can be. Our eyes are opened and we see the rainbow of gay men in all of their variations and choices. Reading this reminds us of the evolution we have experienced and I found that I was in the midst of reverie as I read. It is difficult to compare the world of then with the world of now and I am not even sure it can be done. White tries to do so in his epilogue which was just written and he does so successfully in terms of culture. When we look at how far we have come, it becomes astounding to think how far we have yet to go.
Note: I have incorporated my original review into my review of the new edition.