Next month brings the 10th anniversary of legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts. We're not so very far away from a generation of young adults who will come of age with the expectation that they will be able to marry whomever they want. This is, of course, a giddy-making concept. But as with any generational shift, there's a real possibility that younger people will forget all the hard work that came before. Just last week, blogger Andrew Sullivan launched a blistering attack on New York Times journalist Jo Becker's new book, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, for insinuating that the real battle for marriage equality started in 2008.
On his blog, the Dish, Sullivan argued that Becker had no sense of history: "The astonishing achievement of turning what was once deemed a joke into a serious national cause and issue happened in the 1990s and then more emphatically after George W. Bush's endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004." Sullivan went on to wonder "how on earth such a distorted and ahistorical and polemical attack on the architects of the marriage equality movement can have been written."
So how do you keep a history alive? How do you save lives from becoming glossed-over bullet points in aseptic history classes? You listen to the people who were there, the people who were marginalized by the people who get to write the official history. You learn how they lived, and you listen to their stories, which is the way you learn to feel what they felt.
Tom Spanbauer has been publishing novels since the late '80s. Over time, his role as a writer has shifted from outsider to beloved teacher of a whole new generation of novelists. His voice is a teacher's voice—chatty, friendly, and capable of relating the greatest of heartbreaks in the warmest of voices. Spanbauer's newest novel, I Loved You More (Hawthorne Books, $18.95), is a living, breathing testament to the confusion and danger and sadness and elation of what it felt like to be a young gay man in New York in the 1980s. The protagonist, Ben, shares many biographical similarities with Spanbauer—he's an HIV-positive novelist from Idaho who moves to New York, and then Portland. But frankly, it's none of our business how much of Ben's story is Spanbauer's story; Spanbauer's job is to create a fictional reality that feels more real within us than reality ever could.
He succeeds. Ben frames his life story inside a long-running love triangle between Ben, his (mostly) straight best friend Hank Christian, and the woman they both love. It's the sort of lifelong story of adoration and refusal and unrequited love that John Irving made his fortune on, but it's better than that, because it's delivered in Spanbauer's gorgeous voice.
It's not fair to call More a rambling story, because the rambling is the point, like a Sunday drive, or like aimless foreplay:
The whole time, as Hank and I speak to each other, our hands and arms move up and down, each of us on our own bodies—hands on hips, fingers in armpits, one hand on hip, a hand that pops the knuckle on the other hand, both hands hanging down at the sides, a quick cover of the crotch, then hands that wave around, fucking hands, man, two men standing too close front to front, flutter flutter, fucking arms, folding and unfolding over our cocks, over our bellies, over our hearts.
Spanbauer's restless hands, waving from the sacred to the profane and back again, are at once fluttering through the tragic past and the hopeful present, but they're also guiding us to a better future. Let's hope they never stop.