Illustration from The Harvey Milk Story, a picture-book biography of the slain LGBT rights pioneer
“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“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…