“Every person of ordinary sex endowment has a capacity for diffuse ‘homosexual’ sex expression … according to the temperamental situation,” the influential anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in a visionary 1933 letter that framed human sexuality as a matter of fluid attraction to temperaments, not a fixed attraction to genders, eight decades before the modern plight for marriage equality ushered in the universal dignity of love.
This conviction made Mead the perfect conversation partner for James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) when they sat down for their remarkable dialogue about identity four decades later. By then one of the most celebrated writers and thinkers in the world, Baldwin was among the era’s handful of openly gay public intellectuals and someone whom the legendary interviewer Studs Terkel aptly described as “one of the rare men in the world who seems to know who he is today.”
No book since Virginia Woolf’s Orlando would do more to enlist art as a force of empathic insight into same-sex desire than Giovanni’s Room, which Baldwin wrote in his early thirties against enormous resistance from American publishers, at a time when the DSM — the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s Bible — classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” But although Baldwin had devoted his entire life to defending human dignity in all its guises, it was only in his final years that he addressed the question of sexuality and the dark specter of homophobia directly, thanks to Village Voice journalist Richard Goldstein — one of the generation of gay people who had found in Giovanni’s Room what Goldstein considered “an early vector of self-discovery.”
Appalled that a lengthy interview with Baldwin in the New York Times Book Review had swept its subject’s sexuality under the rug, Goldstein decided to take matters into his own hands. He persuaded the beloved writer, “a man who traced much of his acuity and pain to the nexus of racism and homophobia,” to meet with him for a conversation that would become Baldwin’s most personal interview, eventually included in James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library).
From the very beginning of the conversation, Baldwin exerts a lively resistance to all the labels within which we confine the expansiveness of human love. He tells Goldstein:
Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality… It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is much more interesting than the question of homosexuality.
The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality. Sexuality is only a part of it. I don’t know even if it’s the most important part. But it’s indispensable.
Reflecting on what gave him the courage to release the novel in Europe despite American publishers’ vehement refusal to publish it, Baldwin considers the deepest societal seedbed of the malady of homophobia, symptoms of which we’ve begun to see anew all these decades later. Echoing Rilke’s assertion that “for one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,” he tells Goldstein:
It’s very frightening. But the so-called straight person is no safer than I am really. Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility. Loving of children, raising of children. The terrors homosexuals go through in this society would not be so great if the society itself did not go through so many terrors which it doesn’t want to admit. The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.
Illustration from The Harvey Milk Story, a picture-book biography of the slain LGBT rights pioneer
Three decades after Hannah Arendt’s incisive treatise on how tyrannical regimes use isolation as a weapon of terror and oppression, Baldwin considers the wielding of homophobia as a cultural control mechanism by political propagandists, “a way of exerting control over the universe, by terrifying people.” The consequence, he suggests, is a fragmentation of unity on the basis of a rather arbitrary point of difference:
BALDWIN: I know a great many white people, men and women, straight and gay, whatever, who are unlike the majority of their countrymen. On what basis we could form a coalition is still an open question. The idea of basing it on sexual preference strikes me as somewhat dubious, strikes me as being less than a firm foundation. It seems to me that a coalition has to be based on the grounds of human dignity. Anyway, what connects us, speaking about the private life, is mainly unspoken.
GOLDSTEIN: I sometimes think gay people look to black people as healing them…
BALDWIN: Not only gay people.
GOLDSTEIN: …healing their alienation.
BALDWIN: That has to be done, first of all, by the person and then you will find your company.
Art by Maurice Sendak from We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, one of history’s greatest LGBT children’s books
When Goldstein remarks, three decades before this became a reality, that he imagines the election of a black president would be better for gay people, Baldwin considers the cross-pollinatory empowerment of the disenfranchised:
There is a capacity in black people for experience, simply. And that capacity makes other things possible. It dictates the depth of one’s acceptance of other people. The capacity for experience is what burns out fear. Because the homophobia we’re talking about really is a kind of fear.
Photograph by Sage Sohier from At Home with Themselves, a portrait series of gay couples in the 1980s
Affirming the notion that homosexuality is universal, Baldwin considers how language can be both the prison bars of our identity and the crowbar for breaking out of that prison:
There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me. We’re trapped in language, of course. But “homosexual” is not a noun. At least not in my book… Perhaps a verb. You see, I can only talk about my own life. I loved a few people and they loved me. It had nothing to do with these labels. Of course, the world has all kinds of words for us. But that’s the world’s problem.
Envisioning the future for gay people, Baldwin offers:
No one will have to call themselves gay. Maybe that’s at the bottom of my impatience with the term. It answers a false argument, a false accusation … that you have no right to be here, that you have to prove your right to be here. I’m saying I have nothing to prove. The world also belongs to me.
When Goldstein asks what advice he might have for people about to come out, Baldwin answers:
Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations with literary history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters and the real-life story behind “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” then revisit Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s responsibility to society, what it means to be truly empowered, and his increasingly timely conversation with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art.