Walt Whitman, Arnie Kantrowitz and Us

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The Barbaric Yawp That Still Dares Not Speak Its Name

by Lawrence D. Mass

The De-Gaying of Walt Whitman by the Walt Whitman Birthplace Museum and Interpretive Center Stood in Contrast to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Gay-Inclusive Exhibit of Michelangelo’s Drawings

Song of Myself: A Novel by Arnie Kantrowitz, SentinelVoices, 2024

Prologue: Personal Narratives That Are Still Political

In 1997, with attendant controversy stoked by gay activists over its obfuscation and expunging of gay content and perspective, a new Walt Whitman Birthplace, Interpretive Center and Museum in Huntington Long Island was dedicated. In 2017, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased an exhibit of Michelangelo’s Drawings that dealt frankly and affirmingly with the artist’s homosexuality. In doing so, the Met inadvertently cast a spotlight on the de-gaying that prevailed in Huntington, a reticence that can still be sensed in leading media, including The New York Times.

In 1985, I accompanied James Saslow to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition of the paintings of Caravaggio, the early 17th century Italian master of chiaroscuro who became infamous for his brawling and frequent run-ins with the law, but a lot less well-known for any specificity of his sexual preferences and offenses. The author of a landmark study, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society, then soon to be published, Saslow was already on his way to becoming a leading international authority on Italian Renaissance art and its conjoined subject, homosexuality and art.

In that early period of the unfolding of gay liberation, frank acknowledgment of homosexuality in life and art was, at best, reticent. More often, as at the Caravaggio exhibit, it was totally absent.

As critics and activists, many of us in the gay community were becoming primed to detect such obscurantism in the arts and elsewhere in historical writing and public discourse about sexuality and homosexuality. What Jim Saslow was doing in art mirrored what Vito Russo was doing in cinema, Arnie Kantrowitz in literature, and I myself in music and opera. Despite gains on these fronts, however, we were always in danger of failing our mission as reactionary forces pushed back.

Fast forward to the Met’s exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings in 2017. Informational guides made respectful reference to Saslow’s work in documenting the principal male love interests in Michelangelo’s sonnets: Gherardo Perini and Tommaso dei Cavalieri. Events associated with the exhibit included interviews and a panel discussion featuring Saslow that was so packed even his close friends, Arnie and me, couldn’t get in when we arrived just prior to its commencement.

At one of the world’s greatest museums of art, scholarly work on homosexuality in the life and art of one of history’s greatest artists, Michelangelo, was being acknowledged with professionalism, balance and trust in the public’s ability to deal forthrightly with truth and diversity. With a keen sense of context and resonance, the Met’s exhibit was coupled with a companion exhibit — of the works of contemporary, openly gay artist David Hockney.

In the promotion and aftermath of the Met’s exhibits, which garnered high praise from every quarter, there were no protests of concern about exposing impressionable schoolchildren to “pornographic” or “sexual” material, or of “blasphemy” in rendering one of religion’s and western civilization’s leading artists with the taint of “degeneracy.” By contrast, the comparably great, important and homosexual/gay literary figure who became internationally recognized as the great poet of America and democracy, Walt Whitman, continues to be publicly obscured as such — notably by the organization showcasing his own birthplace and legacy, but as well by The New York Times.

Walt Whitman, Poet of America, Democracy, and the Body

“Whitman as the poet of the people, the poet of democracy and the American poet, has also become an American public property whose image is bound up with the maintenance of American public health and American national policy. It is not only the academic and critical establishment but those in positions of social and cultural power, and I would add, the national government itself, that are heavily invested in keeping Whitman’s sexuality, and specifically his sexual love for men, out of any discussion of his role as the poet of democracy and the American poet. In other words, if we can control Whitman’s sexuality, we can control the sexuality of the nation.”

— Betsy Erkkila, Whitman and the Homosexual Republic (1)

— from a protest demonstration handout at the Whitman Birthplace dedication, Huntington, Long Island, May 31, 1997

The above call-out from the protest demonstration at the dedication of the Whitman Birthplace Museum led by Arnie Kantrowitz and other members of The Calamus Preservation Society is one you will not see on display there. Nor will you see any reference to them. Currently, these efforts remain as hidden from history as the word gay is at the museum.

Arnie Kantrowitz was a pioneering figure of Gay Liberation. Author of the gay classic, Under The Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, his coming of age took place in times that mandated LGBTQ+ people to live lives of subterfuge. No one could speak publicly about the homosexuality of some of our greatest artists, composers and writers — Michelangelo, Leonardo, Tchaikovsky and Whitman. When the dam of gay reticence finally burst with the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, Arnie was in the forefront of its activist leadership — in the streets, in the press, on television and in university classrooms.

A generation later, Arnie wrote a monograph, Walt Whitman, for the Chelsea House series on Notable Gay and Lesbian Lives under the directorship of Martin Duberman and Chelsea House President Philip Cohen. The series was as ambitious as it was unprecedented. Its subjects included Oscar Wilde, John Maynard Keynes, James Dean, Alvin Ailey, Federico Garcia Lorca, Rock Hudson, Bessie Smith, Liberace, Sergei Diaghilev, Andy Warhol, T.E. Lawrence, J. Edgar Hoover, Sappho and Martina Navratilova. Sadly, this laudable undertaking was abandoned in the wake of resistance from morality custodians as well as some who believe “gay,” and, for that matter, “democracy,” to be byproduct conceptions of capitalism. (2)

Walt Whitman by Arnie Kantrowitz, Chelsea House Gay and Lesbian Writers Series, 2005

Arnie’s Walt Whitman was published in 2006. Over the ensuing decade, Arnie completed a novel, Song of Myself, the posthumous publication of which is the occasion for this commentary.

6 page handout from the activist “zap” by The Calamus Preservation Society led by Arnie Kantrowitz at the Walt Whitman Birthplace dedication in 1997, cover page plus 5 pages of quotes from Whitman and others

Gay Life Prior to Gay Liberation

Surrounded by ignorance and bigotry, gay people were without civil liberties and subject to discrimination from our families, workplaces, the military, houses of worship and society at large. We were vulnerable to crime and high rates of assault, theft, blackmail, murder, alcoholism and suicide. Such were the silence and hostility we faced that, apart from negative terms — pervert, degenerate, sex offender, sinner, psychopathic personality — we had little idea who we really were. With the odds so stacked against us, there were no allies. Hope for fair recognition, for civil liberties protections, for understanding and compassion, seemed impossible dreams, more in the realms of fiction or even science fiction than in any conceivable reality.

How do we fit in? Where do we find berth? “What harbor shelters home?” asks the social misfit Peter Grimes, the protagonist of gay composer Benjamin Britten’s operatic masterpiece, Peter Grimes. Beyond those persons our gaydar recognized as being like ourselves, or seeming so, we honestly didn’t know. Hence the poignancy of iconic gay identification with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in her quest to find her way home.

Our gay liberation rainbow flag was symbolic of those we called “friends of Dorothy,” people like ourselves — outsiders, contrarians, denizens of racially, ethnically and otherwise socially demeaned and disenfranchised minorities. It was a movement that dovetailed with the anti-racist, multicultural Rainbow Coalition of the 1960’s, a political movement likewise inspired by Walt Whitman.

It became legend that the Stonewall Riots of 1969 which are widely acknowledged as demarcating the modern Gay Liberation Movement were sparked by the death of beloved gay icon Judy Garland, star of the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, with its theme song of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Dorothy, a child yearning for a sense of belonging, for her true home, was leading others in their own quests for self-realization.

As it turns out, Dorothy’s perilous journey home was a route she had to discover intuitively for herself, like a migrating bird or spawning salmon. It was a route she alone always had the innate gift and power to find via her own heart, courage and self-acceptance.

Other minorities could identify with Dorothy’s journey — e.g., The Wiz as a parable of Black experience. But being so invisible, illegitimate and unacknowledged as such meant that being gay could seem different, at least in degree, from other minority designations. I first learned of myself explicitly in 1958 when I looked up the word “homosexual” in my pathologist father’s medical office. I was 12 years old. The definition of “homosexuality” I found was clear in its description of a mental disorder and pathology of behavior. But I was so thrilled to learn that I existed at all that I felt like a voyager lost at sea finally spotting land, a Cape of Good Hope, however far off or fraught with danger.

Such medical classification through which many gay people understood their identity in those days meant that we had advanced from being vilified as demons by religions to being simultaneously victims of psychopathology and perpetrators of criminality who might betray and invade your country, indoctrinate or molest your children, and thereby be sentenced to prison or placed in a mental institution.

Even Alan Turing, a gay man who invented the computer, broke the Nazi code, and was the individual most singly responsible for the allied victory of World War 2, was rewarded for his brilliance and heroism with a postwar criminal conviction for homosexuality, the punishment for which was chemical castration with female hormones. Such was the horror of this ordeal that Turing committed suicide.

In addition to being persecuted for “crimes against nature” that were on the books everywhere, “homosexuals” were designated as “psychopathic personalities” by federal agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It’s on that basis that Sir John Gielgud, the great British actor, was denied entry to the US. Such was the obloquy and such were the consequences to life, family and career that If anyone broke that code of silence, they could be sued for libel, for slander, as some indeed were by Liberace and others. In the Hollywood film, Advise and Consent (1962), amidst the McCarthy era witch hunts, a young senator commits suicide on the eve of his being outed as a pervert.

Within all this and at its core was the collusion of everyone, including gay people ourselves, in the shame-based secrecy of the closet. Little Richard, it turns out, tried to come out in the heyday of his fireworks stardom. But nobody was prepared to deal with it. So this huge aspect of his persona, his sexual and gender nonconformity, fell on deaf ears and blind eyes, and it continues to do so.

Of course, some historical figures were known to have been “cosi” (Italian vernacular for queer)— e.g., Alexander the Great. However it got past so many levels of censorship, that he was homosexual became common knowledge, even if the lip service given that fact remained such. The same is true of the Roman emperor Hadrian.

Liberace was a good example of the paradoxical situation of silent gay visibility. Everyone, even those provincial, elderly straight folks who thronged to performances of the bejeweled, mink-clad megastar in Las Vegas, knew he was gay, but nobody could or would say it. No one wanted to imply that their beloved idol was a “homosexual,” as homosexuality was otherwise understood to be a mental illness. In fact, it was officially classified as such in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and sometimes treated with Draconian measures such as electroshock (ECT), other aversion therapies and even brain surgery (lobotomy).

It wasn’t until 1973–74 that the APA declassified homosexuality itself as a mental disorder. It was the greatest development in the gaying and decloseting of homosexuality since the Stonewall Inn Rebellion.

Then came Gay American History, a collection of letters, photographs and documents by Jonathan Ned Katz. Published in 1976, and likewise groundbreaking in it’s big, bold use of the word Gay, it was without precedent as an excavation of the history of gay people in America and by extension everywhere else. It’s findings were the dinosaur bones of heretofore hidden and forbidden history.

Gay people learned we were and could be like other minorities in having some touchstones of identification and measures of integration. You could be considered acceptable if your Blackness were discernably mitigated — if your hair were straightened, if you weren’t “uppity,” if you were very talented, and especially if your skin was cafe au lait rather than dark black and your lips weren’t too thick. As a Jew, you could be accepted if you were talented and funny but curbed your enthusiasm and politics (thumbs up for Milton Berle, but down for Lenny Bruce), if you got a nose job or were otherwise observably assimilated. A woman could be accepted in a career if she was a mother, not overly aggressive, deferential to men and otherwise lady-like.

Comparably, one could be tolerated as gay or gender-nonconforming by being discreet, married, having children, being politically conservative and otherwise hetero-normative. Being pegged as gay was a lot more proscribed, of course. And in its deployment of the closet, the inevitable price of assimilation was the internalization of minority prejudice otherwise known as self-hatred.

Emblematic of this situation is the circumstance of Caitlyn Jenner, a former leading athlete, Bruce Jenner, who underwent hormonal and surgical gender transformation. A throwback to Liberace in being explicitly allied with conservative religious and political forces rather than with the LGBTQ+ movement, what can finally be said about Ms. Jenner is what she wants to be said about her, that she’s not one of those people (notwithstanding the T in LGBTQ+). Rather, she’s a real authentic woman and as such, heterosexual, a proof of which is her staunchly Republican politics.

With notable discomfort and failure of clarity, Jenner appears to support banning people like herself from binary athletic competitions. As captured in Harvey Fierstein’s play, Casa Valentina, it was not uncommon for cross-dressers who otherwise identified as heterosexual to be similarly at pains to distinguish themselves from those identifying as gay. In the case of Jenner and the “T” in LGBTQ+ there is a footnote. As the first of several trials of indicted presidential candidate Donald Trump began in New York in April ’24, Jenner did appear at a fundraiser for Trump at Mar al Lago that featured, in a rare public appearance, First Lady Melania Trump. The event was hosted by the openly gay political group, Log Cabin Republicans.

Another view of publicly identifying as gay when it seemed a lot safer to do emerged with Sir Ian McKellan’s courageous coming out and standing in solidarity with the gay community. Even well into the gay liberation period and though he remains a towering figure of British theater, however, such was the singularity of his example that it was received with respectful but measured tolerance rather than a groundswell of support and worthy of reflection. From Little Richard to Sir Ian McKellan, progress could be measured for sure, however still delimited.

Meanwhile, most of those past leading public figures who are now acknowledged to have been homosexual continue to not be recognized or valued as such, a situation that is intensifying. Virtually everybody now knows that Michelangelo, Leonardo and Tchaikovsky were homosexual, right? We may imagine that to be the case, but only recently has that reality begun to be clearly stated for the public record in some authoritative references, or portrayed on film. (There’s Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers about Tchaikovsky, and as of this writing, Andrew Haigh, director of All of Us Strangers, is set to do a film on Leonardo.)

That Tchaikovsky was homosexual is not something we would expect Vladimir Putin to affirm. In fact, that he acknowledges it at all now can seem surprising. Not surprisingly, however, Putin sees Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality as it is still seen by most — as an incidental aspect, impediment or aberration rather than an important consideration in the composer’s creative life. Tchaikovsky is otherwise appreciated as decisively “Russian,” sometimes “European” but never “gay,” except, albeit rarely, by gay people ourselves or the rare avant-garde interpreter (Russell’s The Music Lovers and Heartbeat Opera’s Eugene Onegin) and some contemporary musicologists and historians.

Whether Tchaikovsky committed suicide because of homophobia remains contentious. Across the spectrum — from Putin’s Russia and even among progressives here in America — the challenge of acknowledging the significance of gayness in the life and art of Tchaikovsky remains besieged, resisted and unmet, even as more recently released archives of letters and scholarly books about the composer such as Yale historian Alexander Poznansky’s Tchaikovsky’s The Quest for the Inner Man and Tchaikovsky’s Last Days document his very active gay life — yet always in the shadow of his guilt and shame about being perceived as homosexual — right up to his last days.

Today, even musicologists who have championed minority perspectives such as the late Richard Taruskin, have wanted to update the “homosexual tragedy” version of “Chaik” (as Richard and I called him in our correspondence) to an extent that can seem to be throwing the baby of gay sentience out with the bathwater of what was never wrongly presumed to be the composer’s ego-dystonicity about being gay.

As the controversies surrounding Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and death continue to be debated, it seems pertinent to observe that were the composer openly gay in Putin’s antigay police-state dictatorship of Russia today, he would be in greater danger than ever of public censure, arrest, incarceration, assault, torture, murder and shame-incited suicide.

That Michelangelo and Leonardo were gay remains likewise obscured, qualified, rarely honestly owned and never honored, even now, by mainstreams and leading spokespersons. What Putin makes explicit about Tchaikovsky is what the rest of the world by and large still thinks about most gay people, and thereby its artists. At best, and with rare exceptions such as the Met’s exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings, the norm continues to be silent tolerance of the established fact that Michelangelo and Leonardo were homosexual.

Such reticent “tolerance” is likewise true of film icons known to be gay like Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson. The best we seem able to get is qualified, usually brief, effortfully polite acknowledgment rather than balanced appreciation and affirmation, from their mostly straight viewers and fans. When a more candid documentary is made, such as is now the case with the film All That Heaven Allows about the real, gay life of Rock Hudson, it’s greeted with tepid respect but otherwise ignored.

Walt Whitman in Context

The same is true of Walt Whitman. Though his being preferentially homosexual is now more widely acknowledged by historians and scholars, and even by a number of the Birthplace Associates, his place in American literatures and letters remains opaque in the extent to which it is de-gayed and de-sexed, however exclusionary and otherwise distorting such efforts always and quickly reveal themselves to be. Considered one of America’s greatest poets — sometimes referred to as “America’s Great Gray Poet” or “the Good Gray Poet of Camden, N. J.”— we’re still very far from anyone other than gay writers such as Arnie Kantrowitz, Mark Doty (Walt Whitman in My Life), Jonathan Ned Katz, Gary Schmidgal (Walt Whitman: A Gay Life), Charley Shively, Steve Turtell and a smattering of non-gay Whitman scholars designating him as American’s Great Gay Poet.

Turtell, a gay activist and writer, poet, artist and Whitmanian, attended the 1997 Whitman Birthplace and Museum dedication. In “Walt Whitman-Presumed Heterosexual,” an expansive two-part essay for the gay news journal LGNY (Lesbian and Gay New York), he documents what happened that day and offers winning perspective on the bravery of the protestors and a persuasive deconstruction of the reticence and provincialism that prevailed.

Turtell notes that instead of being shunned, gay activists should have been welcomed as valued participants. In steering its platform away from imagined controversy, the Birthplace Associates were perpetrating a version of what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was promulgating with his aggressively anti-”woke” initiatives, front and center of which was “Don’t Say Gay;” following which, in short order, came the other messages: Don’t Teach Slavery, Don’t Cross-Dress, No Black Activism, Don’t Be Overtly Sexual, Don’t Be Feminist, Don’t be Radical Leftist, Don’t Indoctrinate Our Children, Don’t Be Woke!.

What happened at the Birthplace Museum was as if, in deference to mainstream historians and scholars, Black activists were being sidelined and suppressed as such at the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C.

An appropriate welcome for vanguard, cutting edge gay scholars with impressive scholarly credentials and relevant perspective to contribute is what happened a decade later at the Met Museum’s Michelangelo exhibit. Meanwhile, the Whitman Birthplace Associates were living and acting in a time warp of provincial, small-town America as it was in Whitman’s day and since — with ignorance, prejudice, dishonesty, and the priority of self-interest, however couched in rationales of objectivity and concerns for public welfare.

2 part feature on the Walt Whitman Birthplace and Museum Dedication in 1997 by Steve Turtell, LGNY, 7/20/97

“How would you feel if no one mentioned that Walt was an American because his poetry belongs to the world? It’s time to tell the truth. Walt Whitman was gay.”

— Arnie Kantrowitz, statement from a handout at a demonstration during the Whitman Birthplace dedication.

On May 31, 1997, Arnie Kantrowitz, who had been chair of the English Department at the College of Staten Island, where he fathered a pioneering Gay Studies course and taught Walt Whitman as a gay poet, led that activist “zap,” an in-person protest demonstration at the dedication ceremony of the Whitman Birthplace Museum and Center. With dramatic flare, it concluded with a tossing of erasers to spotlight the erasure of history that was taking place.

In addition to the event’s description by Turtell, the detailing of what happened and its background is also chronicled in a monograph, Museums, Moralities and Human Rights edited by Richard Sandell (Routledge, 2017).

In Museums, Moralities and Human Rights, Richard Sandell painstakingly documents what happened at the Whitman Birthplace and Museum dedication in Huntington, Long Island

Academic and scholar Sandell is at pains to document the complexity and ambivalence that played roles in what happened. As noted, some of the Birthplace Associates were not in overt denial about Whitman’s sexuality, which they more or less conceded — like Whitman biographer Justin Kaplan, author of Walt Whitman: A Life — was probably homosexual. Rather, they based their reserve on other concerns, such as Whitman himself (who was once tarred and feathered, apparently for sexual deviance, for the crime of sodomy) not being more explicitly self-designating as homosexual, albeit during a time when it was illegal to profess or in any way act on being so, when it would have been professionally and socially suicidal to do so, and when virtually no one else did so.

As it was, when Leaves of Grass was published, Whitman lost his job with the Department of the Interior in its Office of Indian Affairs, and his book was condemned by many reviewers, especially among the literary elite, for its alleged lasciviousness and flagrant disregard for norms, for which it was also banned in some venues.

Being out, publicly identifying as LGBTQ+, not only wasn’t done in Whitman’s day. Considering the danger and harshness of legal consequences, it was virtually inconceivable. A rare exception that comes to mind is Oscar Wilde, who was a contemporary and “camerado” (Whitman’s term of endearment for special friend) of Walt Whitman. Wilde paid dearly for his untimely courage of speaking to the love that dare not speak its name. For this, he was widely regarded, including by other gay people then and even subsequently, as foolhardy. Wilde died a broken man after completing a stiff jail term of hard labor.

The perspective that emerges from these accounts by Turtell and Sandell is that the Associates’ decisions probably had more to do with the commercial and provincial community interests of Huntington, where families and family life remain what might be described as Norman Rockwell American and where stores, plazas, roads and places of business are named after Whitman. Local economics, in keeping with conservative propriety at the expense of honest and balanced acknowledgment, in other words, appears to have been bigger factors in the shaping of the Birthplace exhibits and guides than any of the Associates have been willing to admit.

What’s ultimately most indicting of the Birthplace Associates is their unwillingness to include discussion or even acknowledgment of the impressive discourse and history of contention around Whitman’s sexuality. It’s in this context that one can best understand conservative initiatives to de-legitimize and police diversity, equality and inclusion perspectives in public institutions and spaces.

What happened in Huntington is literally “Don’t Say Gay.” Just as the concerns of Black Lives Matter activists who want the real history of slavery to be taught in schools are being aggressively opposed by the far right, so are those of gay activists with regard to some of our greatest writers and artists.

In their defense around the absence of “proof” about Whitman’s homosexuality, the omissions and qualifications of the panels, displays and descriptions that finally emerged in the Birthplace Museum were of a piece with those surrounding any public discussion of homosexuality in the era in which most of these folks came of age — the 1950’s and 60’s, in the heyday of homophobic psychoanalytic psychiatry, when “homosexuality” was an official psychiatric classification of mental illness. Notably, this period was also the heyday of McCarthyism.

Such became the defensive paranoia of this issue for the public that if and when the subject did arise — for example, on the extremely rare occasion when an openly gay activist like Arnie Kantrowitz appeared on national television (as he did on Tonight Starring Jack Paar and other talk shows)— there usually had to be the countervailing, “expert opinion” for “balance,” often from blatantly homophobic psychiatrists like Dr. Charles Socarides.

Requiring a contrary opinion is not what eventuated in Huntington, however. Rather than taking a respectful if distancing “pro-and-con” approach the way the New York Times mostly has, they opted for the earlier defensive positions of censorship, obfuscation, taciturnity and silence. The resulting impression one would have in visiting the current Birthplace and Museum is that no such controversy ever existed. In its determination not simply to obscure but to eliminate the controversy altogether, it’s an impression that seems even more troubled than that which “equalizes” the disinformation platforms of homophobic psychiatrists, far-right politicos and generic obscurantists against those of better-informed and credentialed authorities and trusted cultural commentators.

The media, meanwhile, can seem tacitly complicit in this “epistemology of the closet,” as Eve Sedgwick became known for describing it, that still dogs the legacy and appreciation of Walt Whitman. The New York Times, which gradually emerged from its long era of homophobic collusion with mainstream prejudice to more fairly acknowledge gay perspectives, did not cover the Birthplace controversy, choosing instead to publish a kind of press release puff piece promoting the newly expanded and recreated Birthplace as a center of learning, announcing “All the students, seniors, scholars and aspiring poets who come here to work and learn will grow from [Whitman’s] spirit, too.’’

https://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/01/nyregion/expansion-of-whitman-visitors-center-helps-honor-native-son.html?searchResultPosition=1

In its most recent feature on Whitman, “Retracing Walt Whitman’s Steps Through Brooklyn and Manhattan” (3), by Miguel Morales, a NYT contributor who has written elsewhere about queer culture, the Times piece, while not averse to using the words “gay” and “cruise” to describe the bar Whitman frequented, eschews explicit reference to Whitman’s sexuality, to the contemporary consensus of his most likely having been gay. Gay cruising doubtless went on there, the NYT acknowledges, but any presumption that Whitman was gay still remains sufficiently speculative that it shouldn’t be said as such, at least not by the NYT at this juncture.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/07/t-magazine/walt-whitman-new-york.html

One of the spots on this NYT historical itinerary with period photographs and illustrations, is Pfaff’s Beer Cellar.

“‘My own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s,’ Whitman recounted, “was to look on — to see, talk little, absorb.” It’s been said that the bar was also a place for gay men of the era to cruise. Whitman wrote an unpublished poem about the oasis, “The Two Vaults,” an elegy for a way of life that perished, along with many of its practitioners, with the upheaval of the war…”

— The New York Times T-Magazine, 12/7/22

The Times Magazine piece concludes with a photograph of the Navy Yard Whitman frequented with speculation on Whitman’s relation to it:

“Still, Whitman, a flâneur before the term was widely known, regularly walked in the vicinity of the Navy Yard, and his brother Jesse worked for a time at the docks as a loader. On one of Whitman’s nightly peregrinations during the war, a couple of months before he came across his brother George’s name listed as among the wounded in the paper and left Brooklyn to find him, he met David Wilson, a blacksmith who worked at the yard. Whitman would over the years form attachments with a number of young working-class men. A few of these friendships, like those the poet developed with Fred Vaughan in the 1850s and Peter Doyle after the war, proved enduring. Men at that time openly expressed their affection for one another, and it was not uncommon for them to sleep in the same bed. Even chance encounters like the one with Wilson were important enough to Whitman for him to document them in his notebooks. Later, when Whitman had become the Good Gray Poet of Camden, N.J., he recalled the faces and personalities of some of the soldiers he had comforted and attended to at the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. In “Specimen Days & Collect” (1882), assembled and published toward the end of his life, he describes the bravery of these men and their stoicism in the face of death.”

— The New York Times T-Magazine, 12/7/22

Rather than say that Whitman and many of the relationships he became known for forming were most likely gay, they suggest that such close attachments and open affection were what one also would commonly see with heterosexual men. The subtextual NYT message is clear enough: No more jumping to the conclusion that Whitman was “gay.”

This walking-on-eggshells failure to more clearly observe that Whitman is now widely believed to have been gay may have been incidental in this instance, but seemed surprising in view of the Times Sunday Style Magazine’s otherwise laudable sensitivity to gay perspectives. Even if this omission was more circumstantial or coincidental than purposeful, however, it seems telling of how the times, again, are a-changing.

Like the Birthplace Associates, perhaps some of the newer Times editors don’t want to seem overly committed to recent trends of seeing Whitman as “gay,” a modern-day nomenclature arguably in flux. In doing so, however and however inadvertently, they’re committing themselves to the old, relentless march of historical distortion, obfuscation and expungement of gay and minority life, culture and history. It would be as if the Metropolitan Museum of Art had decided to dilute the taint of homoeroticism in Michelangelo’s sonnets and drawings by noting its existence more widely in period mainstream art and literature.

In his own time, Whitman, who was repeatedly entreated to alter or suppress his own language, was frustrated and disheartened by such efforts.

“Damn all expurgated books, the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.”

Walt Whitman, 1888, as quoted in an entry in Horace Traubel’s Journal

While writing this narrative, I have been getting a daily stream of scholarly research on Whitman via a subscription to Academia.edu. As it turns out, the backtracking I’m sensing in places like the New York Times, alongside those of the Whitman Birthplace Associates, do reflect broader trends of retrenchment in politics and society, and as well in scholarship as research methodologies evolve. This has been notably the case in the Wikipedia entry on Walt Whitman, where the contention became so unwieldy that the site was closed to additional editorial input. As anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives take hold sweepingly and globally, wending their way into school and public institutional policies and Draconian legal edicts, it should not be surprising that even otherwise reputationally objective academics and standard bearers of journalistic neutrality and fairness are evincing their own levels of retrenchment on these questions.

In “Morbid Inferences: Whitman, Wikipedia And The Debate Over The Poet’s Sexuality,” Jason Stacy, Cory Blad and Rob Vellela note the developments at Wikipedia, dutifully crediting the complexity of motivation and decision-making much as Sandell did with the Whitman Birthplace Associates. But they conclude on a more commonsensical note.

“And so, one is left to wonder to what extent Whitman, suspicious of the expert and friend of the common, is rolling in his grave.” (5)

This retrenchment — this gathering reluctance to fairly acknowledge us in public discourse, in alliance with the greater journey of our expurgation from history — is imaginatively captured, brilliantly satirized and eloquently mourned by Larry Kramer in his two-volume magnum opus, The American People.

When I first learned not long ago of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, I was appalled at my own failure of education in never having heard about it. When I asked around among friends and colleagues, however, I discovered that none of them had ever heard of this epochal event of American history and racism. It had been effectively hidden from history and memory. What happened in Tulsa is in the same vein of the coverup and attempted historical expurgation of the student massacre of Tlatelolco, Mexico in 1968. Though less starkly consequential, in essence, this is what too many who know better are still conspiring to do with leading gay artists and writers. However regrettable such political obfuscation may seem of itself, it’s a canary in a vaster coal mine, a tip of greater and more destructive icebergs with regard to vulnerable constituencies of humanity and history.

How serious are today’s expurgations of information, of history, of truth? Clearly, you have to go back to the Nazi book bans and burnings to find anything comparable to the crisis it has again become. History is replete with these cycles — renaissances of humanity, enlightenment and tolerance beaten bloody by extremists, mountebanks and their active and passive collaborators. All the minorities are once again under siege globally, with LGBTQ+ people often taking premiere place for vilification, scapegoating and overtly genocidal targeting (i.e., in Africa). What happened in Huntington was a harbinger of where all this is headed.

What’s surpassingly important to appreciate is the reality that any minority devaluing is invariably aimed at all the minorities. In his National Book Award winning study, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, historian John Boswell demonstrated that in Western Europe, whenever there were major consolidations of political power, invariably at the helm of the Church, the minorities were always scapegoated in tandem, regardless of which went first or seemed most targeted. (The National Book Award Prize that year was presented to brilliant, openly gay Yale scholar Boswell by none other than Yale’s leading conservative intellectual William F. Buckley!)

Today we know how it feels to have been, like Galileo, someone who believed rationally and scientifically. Or like Kafka (now believed to have been gay), feeling “Kafka-esque” — of suddenly finding oneself in a world turned upside down by tyranny, by “Orwellian” thought police. One day you’re a Jew, a Tutsi, a queer, non-lifer or other nonbeliever. The next day you’re a cockroach, an “enemy of the people.”

When we try to speak reasonably in telling the sometimes complex truth about climate change or transgender medicine, about HIV or COVID, we come close, as Galileo did, to committing the crime of heresy with a public on the brink of another major civil war and world war, aflame with the rabble-rousing rhetoric, disinformation and conspiracy theories of mob psychology, what Wilhelm Reich called “the mass psychology of fascism.”

We are currently in the early period of yet another of these great onslaughts, these stampedes of populist ignorance and fear-based reactivity, of meanness and evil, that demarcate human history, which in greater perspective are really about the reconfigurations of political and dictatorial power that Boswell charted in his landmark study.

Song of Myself takes us back to those times and mentalities of recent American history so reverberant of what’s happening today and of other bygone eras and conflicts around “truth” — remember the Scopes Monkey Trial? — with ignorance, skulduggery and asininity once again seizing the day at every turn.

Like no other work of recent literature, the story of Daniel Dell Blake, the protagonist of Arnie Kantrowitz’s Song of Myself, helps us not only to see but to feel what it was like to be gay when the world still resolutely believed and insisted on superstition and prejudice to explain diversity and complexity.

So hidden and off-limits was homosexuality to explore or discuss in mid-century America that the young, real-life Arnie Kantrowitz’s only certain connection to self-understanding was via Walt Whitman, who he intuited to be, like himself, gay, even as Whitman himself took his own pains to evade the censure and certain consequences of claiming any such identity and thereby incriminating himself for “crimes against nature” and otherwise dooming his art and legacy. Like Galileo, to save himself from mortal danger, he lied about his most deeply felt truth.

Song of Myself is the saga of Daniel Dell Blake, a boy like Arnie who grew up in small-town America during World War 2. Though he had no idea who he was, what tribe he belonged to, where and what to call home, who were his people, he was given a touchstone early on that would set the trajectory of the rest of his life: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

As I read Arnie’s novel I kept thinking how true to life it was for him and us. Falling in love with Arnie 43 years ago, I inherited an extended family of Gay Liberation pioneers, especially Arnie’s two closest friends— Vito Russo, the legendary gay and AIDS activist and author of The Celluloid Closet, and the likewise legendary Jim Owles, who initiated and led the struggle for gay civil rights legislation in New York City, finally achieved 15 years later in 1987. Talk about Gay Pride. I was living with 3 of the greatest figures of the post-Stonewall Gay Liberation Movement. I had finally found my own family and home.

In the novel, one of Dell’s school teachers turns out to be one of us. Recognizing Daniel as tribal kin, it’s she who gives him that special gift of Leaves of Grass, which she felt would dovetail with his penchant for literature and learning, and that would likewise help him understand himself and find his way in life. Not surprisingly, her own fate, on being outed as lesbian, was to be fired and run out of town, redolent of the way Whitman himself apparently was.

Over the coming decades, as a prisoner of war under the Japanese and prisoner in America for “lewd behavior,” of being “dishonorably discharged” for such after putting his life on the line for his country, and otherwise navigating the flow of sexual outlaw life into the period of Gay Liberation and AIDS, Dell’s copy of Leaves of Grass provides him with the insight, guidance, reassurance and inspiration to continue to believe in himself and wend his way, and thereby to believe in life, in love for his fellow man literally and for mankind and humankind infinitely. In the vein of his hero and spiritual mentor, Walt Whitman, Dell becomes an apostle and champion practitioner, in his life and in his writing, of universal love and its partner in society, democracy.

Along the way of this great journey, we meet what might now seem older stereotypes of gay life — e.g., nelly (sic) queens as gender-complex individuals were collectively designated, some of whom were drag queens and others transgender. We meet abusive, homophobic parents with their own sexual secrets; more than a few self-hating gay men, virtually all of whom are in greater or lesser degree in self-denial, and of course in the closet. They are an array of character types with adaptations reflective of the internalization of homophobia common in times of oppression, like Jewish conversos pretending to be Christian during the Inquisition and in Europe during World War 2. We meet others who have found ways to be more “ego-syntonic” by gravitating to the arts and big cities where Dell likewise ends up.(4)

A panorama of gay life and times in twentieth-century America, Song of Myself is the narrative of a gay man’s odyssey of self-discovery. A picaresque saga of coming of age and self-possession, of sex, romance, love, adventure, history, humanity, humor, heart and hope in times of brutal discrimination, oppression and persecution, Song of Myself resonates with veracity and poignance for all of us today.

Statue of Walt Whitman with Butterfly. In 2011 Soka Gakkai International-USA gifted this statue of Walt Whitman, erected on the lawn in front of the Whitman Birthplace house in Huntington, Long Island, where the poet first grew up. The 8′ statue, entitled “Whitman with Butterfly” was created by sculptor John Giannotti and was inspired by a photo of Whitman with a butterfuly alighting on his finger that was taken at the Philip and Taylor studio in Philadelphia. Copies of the statue can by found at SGI’s headquarters in Tokyo and in Camden, New Jersey. In 2021 the statue, a target of protests for seeming to some to be a relic of older forces of racism and slavery, notwithstanding that Whitman was a champion of Lincoln and emancipation, was relocated from the center of the Rutgers-Camden campus. Rutgers was the alma mater of Arnie Kantrowitz.

Epilogue: My Visit to the Walt Whitman Birthplace and Museum

On Sunday, April 14, 2024, I took the Long Island Railroad to it’s far outpost of Huntington. Having arrived a bit early, I looked about for a place to grab a bite to eat. None of the people whose paths I crossed, most of them Hispanic, had any idea of where a diner or coffee shop might be. A taxi driver spoke little English and had never heard of Walt Whitman, Old Walt Whitman Road or the Birthplace Center. Nor had my Uber driver, who I opted for in lieu of the taxi service, and whose GPS got us there.

Throughout my experience that day, I felt under the spell of Whitman. The town itself seems as working class today as it was during Walt’s early years of growing up there before his family moved to Brooklyn. There’s little sense of wealth, class, race or ethnic divisions in what I saw of the town, which I imagined to be made up predominantly of working people and melting-pot American ethnicities. All of which lent the Birthplace Center itself an aura of authenticity.

The environs of the Birthplace home and grounds were originally an apple orchard and farm, like the one Daniel Dell Blake grows up in. Via a conducted tour, the house revealed its utilitarian design, workings and period devices. It was a humble abode, the simplicity of which was in keeping with Whitman’s working-class family origins and upbringing. From childhood on, the life Whitman led, for all its notoriety and fitful acclaim, was a tough one. Wealth was never to become him or his family.

Sculptures and artifacts are carefully and lovingly placed on the grounds that demarcate the space between the Birthplace Center and the actual house where Whitman was born and raised. In the dooryard outside the window of the upstairs bedroom where Whitman slept, one could see a still winter-barren lilac tree. On the cusp of Spring blooms, it was easy to imagine it is that which inspired Whitman’s tribute to his beloved assassinated President Lincoln: “Oh Captain! My Captain!”

Though the word gay is nowhere to be found, the exhibits are in spots articulate about the expansiveness of Whitman’s sexuality. Indeed, an initial impression was that it’s not censorship that’s being perpetrated. Rather, it seems more like the old days of art exhibits when reticence and decorum were always the standards by which matters of intimacy were referred to rather than because of skittishness around gayness per se. The museum includes a printing press from the Long Islander Newspaper where Whitman first worked as an apprentice and which is still in print and distribution locally today.

In the gift and book store were many familiar items. Had they ever carried any of the gay-oriented books about Whitman by Kantrowitz, Schmidgal, or Doty? Apparently not. Even so, and though their archives are not directly accessible to the public except via pre-arrangement with administrative associates, the de-gaying that aroused the activist concerns of the Calamus Preservation Society at its 1997 dedication seemed initially more acts of omission than commission.

At the end of my tour, during which I was moved by the regard I was feeling for the care that had gone into establishing and preserving this landmark of American cultural history, I thanked the two attendants who so generously and kindly showed me around and answered questions. In fact, for the several hours I was there, there were just us three.

I’ve no idea whether either of them was gay. One was a young area denizen, a playwright, one of whose plays in New York garnered affirmation in the New York Times. He seemed so willing to speak about these matters that I’d presumed would be a lot more proscribed that I went on to full disclosure of who I am and why I was there (to revisit the site of the demonstration led by my deceased life partner Arnie and to better understand and appreciate Whitman and the Birthplace and Museum in context). He had vaguely heard about the Birthplace dedication controversy but didn’t know the details or recognize the names of some of the participants I mentioned, including Arnie Kantrowitz.

But there was nothing hush-hush in his opinions about Whitman’s sexuality. That Whitman was gay he had no doubt. Not only that, he concurred wholeheartedly that the museum up to that time had eschewed discussion of Whitman’s gayness, a situation he was confident would not only change decisively, but soon.

Yes, one could appreciate earlier concerns about accuracy, propriety and controversy, but not only did he judge those outdated, he keenly shared my own sense that in its eschewing of gay perspectives, the Center was relegating what could otherwise be one of its great resources of support and participation — the LGBTQ+ community. If the New York Historical Society could include a new wing devoted to LGBTQ+ history, and the Met Museum of Art could graciously acknowledge gay contributions, perhaps the Birthplace Center could move towards a more inclusive future as well.

My heart swelled with pride that Arnie’s activism had not been in vain. There is hope. As with Whitman, it can be hard to feel hope for America in the face of so much turmoil, so much that was wrong and keeps going wrong. Whitman lived through the horrors of the American Civil War and its carpetbagger aftermath, his spirit repeatedly bludgeoned but never defeated.

Will we have the stuff Whitman inspired with his own example to prevail in a new civil war? Thanks to Whitman, for one, it seems credible to believe that the answer to that is not only in the affirmative, but even great-yawp declaimable. Indomitable hope and spirit were what made Walt Whitman not only the great poetic voice of America, democracy, spirituality, sexuality and being gay, but of the whole wide world.

The attendant gave me his card. I told him I’d send him information about Arnie’s books and legacy. As I wound down from the day’s peregrinations, I felt revitalized in our long-muffled hopes for a future in which at least some of the rapidly accumulating gay literature on Whitman, perhaps even Arnie’s books, will find their rightful place in the Whitman Birthplace archives, displays and gift store.

In the aftermath of my sojourn to Huntington, I met for coffee with James M, an old friend from my Greenwich Village-Chelsea community circles. I had attended his wedding decades ago, followed the growth of his children and grandchildren and was always impressed with his knowledge of American literature and literary life, especially of the life and poems of Walt Whitman. Like Arnie, he knew many of Whitman’s verses by heart and could recite them with his own heartfelt inflections.

James is from a generations-old New York family whose roots actually intersected with those of Whitman’s family in Huntington and New York City, in publishing and printing. James, who had his own distinguished career in publishing, is an exemplar of the countless decent, informed and discerning Whitmanians who are not gay but for whom Whitman’s writing was as life-changing as it was for Arnie, who have their own vital, deeply felt personal impressions of Whitman that they cherish as much as gay Whitmanians do.

Not surprisingly, some of these figures like James who were never anti-gay per se were initially concerned about the intensity of territoriality with which gay activists could seem to be claiming Whitman as an apostle of gay liberation. In our zealousness, we could seem to be denying the validity and sanctity of the greater variety of Whitman appreciation.

What’s happened over time is that we’ve all come closer together in mutual respect and recognition. For our coffee, James brought his own weathered paperback copy of Leaves of Grass with an introduction by William Carlos Williams, with whom I share the gift of being twice-blessed as a physician and writer.

The last great experience I shard with Arnie, lasting about 2 months, was his sequential reading of every line from his weathered, heavily annotated teaching version of Leaves of Grass. Arnie, aged 80 and virtually blind from advanced diabetic retinopathy, stumbled in reading some passages, which seemed thereby all the more powerful. It was as if Whitman himself were reading them.

Concluding our Village coffee, James read one of his own favorite passages:

“Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”

— from Song of The Open Road, Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

I’m 77, and am no spring chicken, as we say. And James, now in his 80's, has a progressive degenerative neurological condition that is fatal. He walks with a cane and wears a bike helmet for protection, lest he fall. I walked him towards his home across from Jackson Square. On the way, we passed Greenwich Village’s AIDS Memorial Park, just opposite what used to be St. Vincent’s Hospital, where my mother passed away, which is now a luxury condo development. The center of the memorial is a circular fountain, surrounding which is a spiraling path of written words, an extended passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

As we passed the monument, Jim held onto my arm for balance. Did I mind? No, Camerado, I told him. I did not mind. On the contrary, I felt graced.

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.”

— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

“On a Pilgrimmage to the Shrine of Saint Walt” by James M. Saslow, The Advocate, 12/29, 1977

Lunch with Jim Saslow at Cafe MeMe in Abingdon Square. With Brandon Judell, Vito Russo, Jim Owles and Arthur Bell, all of us now relics of the Stonewall era of Gay Liberation, Jim has always been family.

For all the extravagance of his drag personas, HRH Sazlova can seem something of a paradox in being so plainspoken and without pretension in his writing, in academe and in society. Though his (pre-pronoun era) royal titles were more proclaimed than official, time has rendered Jim, like Whitman, Arnie and the others, to the status of gay elder statesperson.

Following our lunch, Jim, who has been working on his own memoir and whose leadership skills have rendered him a natural to become a kind of regent of his biological family, sent me an article he had written for The Advocate, recounting his “pilgrimmage” to the Whitman Birthplace Center in the early post-Stonewall period. With characteristic clarity, Jim tells a distressingly similar tale to those by Turtell, Sandell and me. As it turns out, the Whitman Birthplace’s policy of reticence and nonspecificity cum obfuscation and expurgation around Whitman’s sexuality has been unyielding since its inception.

Meanwhile, what tale of royalty would be complete without a scandale? In exploring his biological roots across the globe, Jim discovered that cousin Lehman Engel, the family’s “creative bachelor” and a minor figure of New York theater and musical life, had an affair with heartthrob Montgomery Clift! In those days, you couldn’t tell anyone such things, of course, and no one did. You couldn’t say gay. But it’s now on record in Jim’s blossoming “History of the Saslow Family.”

The Walt Whitman Mausoleum in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey,

The next leg of my own journey came to me in the aftermath of my weekend visit to the Whitman Birthplace and Museum and coffee with James. I want to pay my first to visit to Whitman’s last home in Camden, New Jersey, now a historic site. Coincidentally, it’s not far from where Arnie’s brother Barry resides.

Barry is a Trump Republican, real estate businessman and Chabad Jew. Arnie was a bookworm, scholar, liberal and agnostic who was keyed into Jewish culture and history, especially of antisemitism and the Holocaust, from which he drew gay identification and compassion for all minority experience. Despite being polar opposites politically and in so many ways characterologically, they shared hopes for Israel and delight in being extrovertedly Jewish. Arnie’s Jewish sense of humor was such that it was often suggested he do stand-up comedy. When he and Barry were on the phone or met in person, there were Yiddish-accented Jewish jokes with raucous laughter galore. No matter how challenging the moment, and though “fierce and gentle” Arnie never waivered in standing his ground on matters of political conscience, their brotherly love was always surpassing.

When Arnie first decided to come out to his family more than half a century ago, it was Barry who was bravely at his side with love and support. Not unlike the love between himself and his own brother “Ben” (Arthur) that Larry Kramer pays tribute to in his plays The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me, their bond remained unbreakable. In the wake of Arnie’s passing and our cherishing of his presence in our lives, and despite our differences and a colossal meltdown I had over Trump, Barry and I have remained close. We are the closest link either of us has to our beloved Arnie.

Barry spoke eloquently, eliciting tears, at Arnie’s memorial services. And though he didn’t actually read Under The Rainbow until decades after it was published, over the years he gave Arnie a number of thoughtful gifts, including a framed period newspaper headline about Whitman. Barry was not a reader or intellectual. Though I initially scoffed as his waiting all these years to read Arnie’s book (is it the only book Barry has ever read, I wondered to myself with sarcasm and judgment), it’s touching and testimonial that he finally did so. Just as it was touching that, under Arnie’s influence, and even if it were more gestural than transformational, he broadened his news-watching from Fox exclusivity to occasionally include CNN.

For all the right reasons, he would be the spiritual choice to accompany me on that visit to Camden, especially on the eve of the release of Arnie’s Song of Myself. We may not have so much to share about Whitman or much else intellectually, including historical antisemitism in relation to other prejudices (I suggested to Barry that the insecurity Orthodox Jews feel for their safety on the streets today is similar to how many gay and especially trans people feel in public, and likewise people of color and racial difference), but our mutual depth of feeling for Arnie will be the right resting place for this narrative; even as our camaraderie around Arnie is no more likely to witness a transformation of Barry’s or my positions than the stalemate that prevailed between opera friends Supreme Court textualist and conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and Supreme Court Justice pragmatist and progressive Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In remembrance of Arnie’s passing, a small group of family and friends had gathered at Tavern on the Green in New York City’s Central Park. Steps away, around several of the magnificent trees Arnie so cherished in the Sheep Meadow, we spread his ashes. I still have several small vials of them, one of which I will hope to spread around a choice tree in the environs of the tomb Whitman himself designed and where he now rests in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery. Another, at his request and notwithstanding Orthodox Jewish proscriptions against cremation, I will give to Barry.

In the heyday of Gay Liberation, we were fighting for our lives literally. Not unreasonably, uncovering our history and allowing it to have its day in the sun of long overdue recognition and honoring, we were primed to stand our ground on issues of identity. One day, we hoped, gay identity would be little different from other variants of humanity — skin color, ethnicity, and physicality. One day, we imagined, being gay will carry no more measure of opprobrium or even attention than being left-handed, brunette, dark-skinned or short. Thanks to Walt Whitman, Arnie Kantrowitz and us, and notwithstanding the inevitable squalls, that still-distant shore can now be intermittently glimpsed on the horizon.

___________________

(1) from The Whitman Revolution: Sex, Poetry and Politics by Betsy Erikkila, Iowa Whitman Series, University of Iowa Press, 2020

(2) OUT IN PRINT: A Publisher Gambles on a Gay Book Series for Young People by David Richards, Washington Post, Oct 26, 1995

(3) “Retracing Walt Whitman’s Steps Through Brooklyn and Manhattan,” by Miguel Morales, a T-Book Club feature, New York Times Sunday Style Magazine, 12/7/22

(4) Following the declassification of “homosexuality” as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973–74, new categories appeared. One of these was “ego-dystonic homosexuality” to designate those who were unhappy and maladapted in their sexual orientation.

(5) “Morbid Inferences: Whitman, Wikipedia And The Debate Over The Poet’s Sexuality” by Jason Stacy, Cory Blad and Rob Vellela, 2013, Polymath, An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal

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Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., is a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and was the first to write about AIDS in the press. In 2019 he was awarded GMHC’s Founders Activism Award. He is the author of Homosexuality and Sexuality: Dialogues of the Sexual Revolution, Volume 1, and Homosexuality as Behavior and Identity: Dialogues of The Sexual Revolution, Volume 2. He is the author/editor of an anthology, We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. He is the author of a memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite: Being Gay and Jewish in America; of the sequel to that memoir, On the Future of Wagnerism: Art, Intoxication, Addiction, Codependence and Recovery; and the forthcoming Wayfaring With Ned Rorem: A Nonfiction Novella. They form a trilogy Mass has designated as his Jewish Wagnerism Series. Mass has written widely on medicine, health and culture for mainstream and specialist publications. A recently retired physician specializing in addiction medicine, he resides in New York City and South Florida. Lawrencedmass.com

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