Once again, we are honored to have writer and filmmaker William E. Jones with us to talk about his latest book. In talking about Boyd McDonald, we also discuss contemporary queer politics and the important legacy of radical queer artists and writers.
Robert Frashure: Welcome back, William! Where we left off last time, we were talking about the importance of camp humor. Speaking of humor, you describe how Boyd used to joke that “Straight to Hell was the only gay sex magazine funded by the United States Government” because he used welfare money to pay his printing bills. That’s pretty hilarious! Do you think he wanted recognition and mainstream acceptance for his work, or did he like/require the freedom of being on the margins?
William E. Jones: Boyd’s attitude toward worldly success can only be described as ambivalent. Once he realized that material from the original Straight to Hell chapbooks he edited could be compiled into books, and that these volumes would be popular—Meat, the first one, eventually sold 50,000 copies—he paid close attention to the promotion and distribution of his works. Boyd edited STH in anonymity for years, until 1981, when he gave two widely circulated interviews, one in the Village Voice and one in the Advocate. Both featured pictures of him. Because Boyd suffered from social anxiety disorder, he did not do much else to enhance his status as a public figure. He probably had dreams of great popular success in his youth—he did, after all, write for Time magazine after graduating from Harvard—but he found the compromises required to participate in mass culture to be intolerable. To Boyd’s credit, he did not denounce this culture in abstract terms from an ivory tower; he actually had experiences in the workplace that led him to turn his back on the mainstream acceptance many of his classmates sought.
Robert Frashure: In what ways does Boyd writing his works in the single room in Manhattan add to the intrigue of importance of writing a biography about him? It reminds me a bit of Tom of Finland, collaging photographs and drawing comics in his room at the house in Echo Park. To me, it seems to add to his mystique and legend.
William E. Jones: Boyd did not occupy an ivory tower, but he did become a hermit. For extended periods, his agoraphobia was so intense that he seldom left his room. He did everything he could to keep Straight to Hell going, as long as it didn’t involve travel beyond the area where he felt comfortable (a few square blocks of New York’s Upper West Side). He continued the great gay tradition of the lonely collage artist, making Frankenstein monster versions of the cultural material that came his way. He was also an avatar of the homebody ’zine publisher who goes to the office supply store, the copy shop, and the post office, and almost nowhere else.
Robert Frashure: I was so surprised to read about Boyd’s nieces who, despite being close to him and finding him “hilariously funny” with his “indifference to convention,” essentially had no idea what he had been writing about! It is always amazing to me how little some family members know about each other. I wonder how they would have reacted if they had read a copy of the “The New York Review of Cocksucking?”
William E. Jones: Well, eventually members of Boyd’s family did read copies of The New York Review of Cocksucking, and they were shocked. I mentioned this to John Waters when I interviewed him, and he exclaimed, “Of course they were shocked! Straight to Hell is shocking. It’s as if the New York Post did porn.” Boyd’s niece, the living family member who was probably the closest to him, told me that she is still not comfortable with her uncle’s sex writing. Boyd himself never intended Straight to Hell for his family’s consumption. He told an interviewer, “Somebody asked me, ‘How can you do this kind of work?,’ and I said, ‘Because my mother died.’”
Robert Frashure: You talk about the puritanism in American culture, describing how moral panics denigrate artists who work with sexual themes and attempt to reduce their visibility. These surviving artists deserve our respect and gratitude, I totally agree. How was Boyd able to survive this repressive period of American history, was there something especially resilient in him that allowed him to keep writing?
William E. Jones: Boyd was a true fanatic. His writing displays a narrow range of interests: American politics, the subject of his running commentary in all contexts; journalism, especially the New York Times, which he ruthlessly criticized in his “Sex in the News” column; Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s, which he wrote about in Cruising the Movies; and above all, “how men look, act, walk, talk, dress, undress, taste & smell,” the main subject of Straight to Hell. Boyd’s obsessions sustained him, and he had the resourcefulness and luck to transform them into publications that others could read and enjoy. One of his editors called him “the dirtiest old man in New York,” and it must be said (if it isn’t immediately obvious from his writing) that there is something almost inhumanly monomaniacal about his obsessions. I have no proof of this, but it seemed to me that as his writing and editing became more important, his sex life must have faded away. Straight to Hell was a massive sublimation, and a deliciously perverted one.
Robert Frashure: Boyd seemed ahead of his time when he wrote in 1993 that “my work is an alternative to the gay liberation movement and to the gay press. The gay press has to be sexless because they are public. My books are all about homosexuality rather than gayness. It has nothing to do with gay liberation, gay rights, gays in the military, civil rights, fundraising….it is a necessity that the whole liberation movement had to give up sex in order to go public as gay.” I think he nailed it with this statement! Do you think this is part of the appeal of his work—it is unapologetic in its truthfulness to sexual life, and an alternative to some of the sexless and assimilationist modern gay communities? Does this distinction between homosexuality and gayness make sense to you?
William E. Jones: If we grant that the work of a philosopher is, as Gilles Deleuze puts it, creating concepts, then the most important philosophical content we can take from Boyd’s work is his distinction between homosexuality and gayness. Homosexuality is desires and acts—what a human being feels and does—while gayness is what is discussed in public. I had never encountered the distinction expressed in quite this way until reading Boyd, and I find it useful and illuminating.
Being closeted requires playing into society’s hypocrisy, but being openly gay requires inventing a new hypocrisy. Boyd told a story about a gay man who was a writer at an important newspaper. To the outside world he was a success, but he lived with constant repression so intense that every time he met Boyd, he would start talking about his desire to “suck Puerto Rican assholes.” Boyd saw gay politics as dominated by a cabal of eunuchs who sacrificed personal honesty for the good of gay liberation. For Boyd, this sacrifice was too much: politics that did not acknowledge the reality of homosexual desire was not liberating anyone. Gore Vidal, who was Boyd’s exact contemporary, said something similar when he asserted that there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, but I think he was straining a bit to make his point. Boyd’s formulation is much more elegant.
When sexuality gets narrowed to a question of political identity, its conventions prevent us from seeing many subtle variations in human behavior and desire. Essentialist labels are understood to be necessary tools for organizing and advocating for legal rights in our society, but the liberation movement’s ungainly alphabet soup of “LGBTIQ” (with more initials coming soon) is an implicit acknowledgment of the failure of this language.
Like all truly radical thinkers, Boyd envisions utopia: a society that is uninhibited and enjoyable, and where a struggle for legal rights does not have to be waged, because individuals are left alone to do what they wish. This could be mistaken for a superficially sexualized version of libertarianism, but the consequences of instating such a regime of desire are profound. The family man who likes to get fucked by the neighbor’s teenage son; the policeman who enacts bukkake scenes in the local public toilet; the politician who compares notes on sucking cock with his constituents; the priest who holds orgies behind the altar—these are the pillars of society as imagined by the editor of Straight to Hell. I believe in this way Boyd has a close kinship with Sade. Boyd didn’t get locked up in the Bastille, but rather in a single room occupancy hotel—I suppose we can think of this as a triumph of the welfare state—but then, Boyd wasn’t interested in torturing anyone, either. Will the names McDonald and Sade one day be mentioned in the same breath in intellectual circles as utopian visionaries of human sexuality? Anything is possible.
Robert Frashure: Is the force of this American puritanism and moral panics still impacting and limiting the impact of gay artists, especially artists working with sexual themes? In what ways do you still notice this? At a time when it seems increasingly less possible to make any distinction between entertainment and politics, lying and authenticity, something I am left with after reading Boyd is the theme that reoccurs throughout Meat: “truth is the biggest turn on.”
William E. Jones: We are living through a very peculiar moment. The most outrageous lies are accepted as truth, because the alternative is too painful for a significant segment of society. I can hardly imagine how Boyd would have made sense of it all had he lived to see our present situation.
One recent phenomenon readymade for Boyd’s kind of satire is the trigger warning. The literary canon (not to mention the sanity of instructors) is under threat, because sheltered students want to expunge anything disturbing from their lessons. They seem to have no concept of the way their efforts have compromised freedom of intellectual inquiry on campus. Or maybe they do know that they are the new censors, and they relish their power. For these crypto-fascist youngsters I wish a future of grievous midlife crises. All the pain they seek to avoid will descend upon them eventually. Will they learn from this? I hope so.
Boyd learned the most valuable lesson for artists in America: you can do just about anything you want as long as you don’t expect to be rich and famous. He was (and continues to be) an underground figure. He probably would have been happy to see the proliferation of independent publications circulating in the wake of mainstream publishing’s decline. It remains to be seen if anyone can combine a do-it-yourself aesthetic and a radical vision of the world in ways as powerfully convincing and hilariously funny as Straight to Hell.