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On a Deadline

I hate to disagree, but actually the single most important moment in 1982, gay-liberation-wise, took place six months earlier, in the last week of May, in The New Yorker. This is the magazine that had published J. D. Salinger's stories, Vladimir Nabokov's stories, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" (a four-part series), John Hersey's "Hiroshima" (it took up an entire issue in 1946), Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" (where the phrase "the banality of evil" originated)—need I go on? American literature in the 20th century would have been very different without The New Yorker.

It's still staggering—in the context of the magazine's starchy reputation (it famously rejected both The Catcher in the Rye and Lolita)—to go back and find David Leavitt's 12-page short story "Territory," wrapped around a poem by Robert Creeley and a Charles Addams cartoon. The vocabulary alone probably gave at least a few subscribers heart attacks: "enemas," "bathhouses," "back rooms," "poppers," "faggot," "faggotry," and "sleazy-faggot son." The story is about a 23-year-old coming out to his ultra-left-wing mom, who nevertheless struggles to be okay with it, and its author, then still in college, wasn't out to his own parents when he wrote it.

Leavitt wrote about the writing of that story two decades later, in his novel Martin Bauman. (Leavitt confirmed by e-mail last week that the account in the novel is fairly accurate.) The magazine calls to tell him they've accepted the story, and then he goes to New York to meet his editor, who tells him, "Homosexuality is such a hard subject to handle! And yet you manage it so effortlessly. That's what I like. I've read plenty of homosexual stories, and the trouble is, they all seem sociological. They all say, 'Look, I'm about homosexuality as a category,' instead of just being about people, which is what yours is." He's sort of stunned, because he never thought of it as a "homosexual story," and doesn't know what to say when people ask him about having the first "homosexual story" in the magazine.

“Territory” was new territory for America’s leading general interest magazine, and it made way for a whole category of literature previously confined to the ghettos of gay journals. Leavitt hasn't been published in The New Yorker since 1983, but there have been lots of "homosexual stories" in his wake. Three great ones: “The Cinderella Waltz” by Ann Beattie, “Cinnamon Skin” by Edmund White, and a little story by Annie Proulx called "Brokeback Mountain,” which was way, way better than the movie.