Building a Better Map 

New books explore the hidden history of homosexuality

New books explore the hidden history of homosexuality

Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts

By James M. Saslow

(Viking, $39.95, 342 pp.)

Men Like That: A Southern Queer History

By John Howard

(University of Chicago Press, $27.50, 418 pp.)

Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts and Men Like That: A Southern Queer History beg to be reviewed together. Not only are they both about the experience of being gay in a frequently anti-gay world, but they also illuminate aspects of each other’s theses—in their differences as much as their similarities. Most of James M. Saslow’s Pictures and Passions is about the celebration of homosexuality; few of the artists who have depicted same-sex themes, or created art with such overtones, did so to condemn homosexuality. In contrast, John Howard’s Men Like That is largely the story of men—few of them artists—whose sexuality faced aggressive opposition and demanded both secretive lives and creative detours around the prohibitions.

Saslow’s broad canvas demands a sprawling mural of a work; Howard’s is a carefully detailed miniature. Saslow addresses both male and female same-sex relationships, from the popularity of and tolerance for gay sex in ancient Greece to Della Grace’s recent photographs of enthusiastic lesbians. Although female homosexuality naturally comes up at times, Howard’s study focuses primarily on the experiences of men, those in rural Mississippi since World War II—a narrow topic that allows for a revealing depth.

Both books manage to surprise the reader. For example, Saslow documents the way that the Renaissance rediscovery of the Greek nude, and its subsequent employment in biblical paintings, reflected the homosexuality rampant inside monasteries and convents. Meanwhile, Howard details the ways in which gay men in rural Mississippi found each other and forged friendships and liaisons through the very institutions that condemned their behavior—churches, schools, and social organizations. Reading the two books simultaneously creates a nice sense of both big and small takes on a common theme.

For many years, Saslow was the East Coast arts editor of the gay and lesbian newsmagazine The Advocate, and he is now a professor at Queens College. His previous books include Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society. Naturally, part of the appeal of his new book lies in its 150 illustrations, which portray a broad spectrum of approaches to what Blake called “the human form divine.” Donatello, for example, portrayed his “David” as a fetching lad who, to fight the giant, has removed his clothing but inexplicably has kept his hat and boots. This leaves him, as Saslow remarks, not merely nude but shockingly naked. Frida Kahlo’s “Two Nudes in the Jungle” shows two women enjoying each other’s company in a wild forest reminiscent of Henri Rousseau.

Most of Saslow’s illustrations are along these lines, works considered respectable and even classical. He begins with Greek pottery and Roman silver cups. The panorama marches on, through medieval manuscripts and Victorian photographs. By 1885 Thomas Eakins was painting an absolute buffet of nude men in “The Swimming Hole.” From our own era, Saslow gathers several works that have yet to attain respectability, including pop culture artifacts such as the lovingly drawn (not to mention extravagantly endowed) hunks of Touko Laaksonen, the notorious “Tom of Finland.”

Saslow makes many good points, as in his explanation of how the very words for homosexual acts are linguistically akin to terms for other heresies that were seen to threaten the social order. “Such violations,” he writes, “were the work of the Devil, and if he could draw you to one, you might fall into the others.” Saslow is at his best when he explicates specific works. When he theorizes at random, sometimes he becomes awkwardly poetic, as in a discussion of gays already ghettoized within a racial minority: “Double and triple outsiderhood, the psychic lava of a demographic volcano, continues to flow through the arts.”

John Howard is a lecturer in American history at the University of York in the United Kingdom and the editor of Carryin’ on in the Gay and Lesbian South. What he manages to do, in his personal, anecdotal account, is piece together a cultural history of racial, social, and sexual class distinctions in the rural South. He describes the availability of unlocked churches for illicit trysts, the way that white police officers violently interrogated Freedom Riders about their sexuality, and the surprising number of Mississippi writers and artists who wrote about homosexuality. One of his most interesting sections is about Carl Corley, the author of a number of volumes of gay erotica and a man who intertwined fact and fiction in almost every remark he made.

Frequently Howard is himself a character in his book. He makes statements in the first person and describes his attempts to locate Corley as if he were a detective on a case. Most of the time this approach works, keeping the footnoted, research-heavy book from becoming too dry. And many lively anecdotes also help. For example, the mini-biography of Frank Hains, the anti-censorship arts editor of the Jackson Daily News, is both funny and sad, as well as revealing of official attitudes at the time.

Naturally, what both books demonstrate implicitly is how common homosexuality has been throughout history, and how much needless pain has been caused by opposition to it. Men Like That opens with an epigraph from essayist Minnie Bruce Pratt, which nicely sums up the goal of recent books on sexuality, race, and even childhood: “So here it is: I’m putting it down for you to see if our fragments match anywhere, if our pieces, together, make another larger piece of the truth that can be part of the map we are making together to show us the way to the longed-for world.”

These new books by James M. Saslow and John Howard play their part in this social evolution, and do indeed merge into larger pieces of the truth. In documenting the impressive variety of ways that women and men have expressed their affection and enjoyed their bodies, these two books finally achieve their authors’ shared goal—making clearer a big part of the map of human behavior.

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