Los Angeles-based artist William E. Jones has a passion for mining untold and often marginalized histories, from instructional films to government picture archives to surveillance footage to gay porn. His findings have resulted in a variety of works that include experimental videos, documentaries, installations, artist’s books, and curated programs. His latest project is a biography of Boyd McDonald, the creator of the Straight to Hell, a zine that collected readers’s “true homosexual experiences” beginning in 1973. Ryan Linkof, Associate Curator at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, sat down with Jones to discuss his work and the new book, True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell.
Ryan Linkof—To begin, congratulations on a beautiful and important book. It was such a pleasure to read, and it should be required reading for homos (and non-homos) everywhere.
I’m tempted to fire off a succession of pointed questions about your previous sexual experiences, your cock size, your preference for jock straps or briefs, and your knowledge of the sexual proclivities of celebrities, if only to honor the brilliant and significant work of Boyd McDonald. But I’ll refrain, and ask questions more becoming a reputable magazine.
I thought maybe I’d ask this question later in the conversation, but I’m tempted to start us off with it instead: how much of yourself to you see in Boyd McDonald? Clearly, you have a deep appreciation for him and his work, but I also wondered how much you found yourself identifying with him and his social/sexual politics. In a way – and this speaks the nature of the work that McDonald was engaged in – at what point does writing a biography of someone else become an act of autobiography?
William E Jones—Boyd McDonald answers a question that has often crossed my mind over the years: how to be a gay leftist and have a sense of humor. Boyd was never a “joiner” and engaged in no political activities, yet he became a minor public figure and developed a forum for his satire. He was ruthless in his attacks on the hypocrisy and avarice of politics as usual. As many gay men do, he saw the world of his youth disappear, only to be replaced by one that viewed his type with indifference, yet he never gave up, and indeed remains relevant to this day.
When I started True Homosexual Experiences, I was flat broke. It was summer in Los Angeles, and I was hiding from the relentless sunshine in my apartment full of books. I was on leave from a teaching job that I had come to find a torment—a gang of students had lodged complaints about me for showing sexually explicit, homoerotic films in an avant-garde film class—so I was motivated by revenge against the new puritans. I admire Boyd’s strength of character and determination in the face of far worse circumstances. His life would have utterly defeated most declassed Ivy Leaguers like me.
I deplore the solipsism of bad autobiographical writing. I don’t shy away from using the first person, but I need subjects outside myself to make my texts more dynamic. I should add that my own life isn’t all that interesting.
Ryan—At several points throughout the book, you acknowledge a fundamental paradox in McDonald’s biography: the fact that he demanded frank and candid honesty from other people, but was cagey and even pathologically private about his own life. What does it mean that he was so invested in revealing other peoples’ secrets, but so protective of his own? If “Truth is the biggest turn-on,” as he once said, then where are his “true homosexual experiences”?
William—The stories Boyd published in Straight to Hell were all anonymous, though with some sleuthing, it has been possible to determine the identities of a few correspondents. On the other hand, Boyd’s identity was known, if not very widely. He risked something by making his sexual interests public. We get a few oblique statements and hints: he liked very young guys, Asian men, rough trade; he did not particularly like middle class gays. My guess is that in his prime, Boyd enjoyed servicing men who identified as straight, though this was a nearly universal interest at that time among men who admitted (as opposed to denying) that they preferred men as sexual partners.
During my research for the book, I found only vague testimony that Boyd was sexually active during the time he edited Straight to Hell and the STH anthologies. I would guess that Boyd had virtually no sex at all after a certain point in his life. His work became a massive sublimation—writing and editing texts about things he couldn’t have. I imagine that to admit this to his readers would have been painful, not to mention impugning his reputation as a “sex guru,” to use John Ashbery’s colorful phrase.
Ryan—What is it about hearing other people’s sex stories that is so endlessly fascinating? Was it even more exciting before the internet, when the confessional impulse didn’t have quite so many avenues for expression?
William—At the beginning of Boyd’s project, there were many men who thought in all innocence that they were the only men who did these things or had these desires. In the early issues of STH, there was a feeling of self-recognition and solidarity that faded away once the political gains of gay liberation spread and commercial gay pornography became widely available.
Ryan—John Waters is a recurring character in the book, and a longtime fan of Straight to Hell. Both Waters and McDonald celebrated aspects of human experience often denigrated as “filthy” – a term joyfully embraced by McDonald and one that animates Pink Flamingos, for example, as Divine competes to be the “Filthiest Person Alive.” What was the appeal of filth – or “raunch” to use another STH favorite – at this particular moment to a certain breed of queer men?
William—Your question implies that raunch is identified with a particular historical moment or a certain sexual minority, but the appeal of filth is quite broad and has not diminished one bit in the present era, from what I can see. Pink Flamingos and Straight to Hell, two great cultural artifacts celebrating filth, find audiences to this day.
Like all truly radical thinkers, Boyd envisioned utopia. The family man who likes to get fucked by his 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 founding editor of Straight to Hell. I believe in this way Boyd has a close kinship with the Marquis de Sade. 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.
Ryan—Could you speak to the significance of McDonald’s preference for the term “homosexual” rather than “gay”?
William—If we grant that the work of a philosopher is, as Gilles Deleuze put it, creating concepts, then the most important philosophical concept we can take from Boyd’s work is his distinction between homosexuality and gayness. Homosexuality is 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. 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.
To Boyd, being closeted required playing into society’s hypocrisy, but being openly gay required inventing a new hypocrisy. Boyd told a story about an openly 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 people who sacrificed personal honesty for the good of the cause. For Boyd, this sacrifice was too much; politics that did not acknowledge the specifics of homosexual desire was not liberating anyone.
To Boyd, being closeted required playing into society’s hypocrisy, but being openly gay required inventing a new hypocrisy.
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.
Ryan—A thread throughout your book, and many of the stories in Straight to Hell, is an appreciation for the sexual possibilities that existed before the emergence of a politically self-aware “gay culture” in the 1970s. You quote McDonald as saying, “The 1950s were great for sex in New York. It was just that it was not open.” At one point you say that this isn’t simply nostalgia, but is there a bit of a romantic rereading of the past?
William—Boyd made a very good point in the interview to which you refer: he said that while younger people were under the impression that there wasn’t much sex in New York before gay liberation, in fact it was “wildly sexual” in the 1950s. Each generation thinks it has invented everything.
I know very little about the individual contributors to STH, but I would guess that many of them were writing about their favorite sexual experiences of youth from a much later point in time. I would not wish to relinquish political rights won at great cost for the sake of wilder sex. I doubt Boyd had that position, either, but he was a satirist looking for the foibles of leaders, whether they were self-appointed or elected. Boyd was also left out of New York’s dominant gay “clone” culture of the late-1970s, because he was too old and too poor, and a feeling of exclusion was an important aspect of his worldview.
Ryan—His use of “homosexual” also highlights the clinical quality of STH’s sexual narratives. You draw comparisons between McDonald and Alfred Kinsey, the famous sexologist. Do you think Straight to Hell can be thought of as part of a tradition of sexual science?
William—I would say Straight to Hell is more a part of another great tradition: the traffic in smut taking place under the cover of science. The legal definition of obscenity in the United States protects materials with redeeming artistic or scientific value. Many publishers and film producers have taken advantage of this standard to distribute sexually explicit works for tremendous profit. These works contributed nothing to the study of sexuality; they are symptoms or examples rather than analyses. Although STH took its inspiration from Alfred Kinsey, Boyd’s work was not groundbreaking science—it’s far too anecdotal and there is no attempt to draw conclusions from the data—yet it has an appeal (and a use) far beyond the nudist camp films and dubious sociological studies that flooded the market in the 20th Century. Boyd himself understood his work as historical; he called Straight to Hell “the true history of homosexual desire and experience.”
Ryan—On the other hand, he is introducing his own perspective as editor/architect of the journal, creating a visual and tactile experience through the magazine’s episodic structure and rough-hewn design. It mixes detached, objective “case studies” with a raw, sensational tabloid sensibility. I’m at a loss thinking of another example of something that combined those two things so effectively.
William—The best response to your comment came from John Waters: “Those magazines were really sexy. They’re not campy. They’re warped. They are shocking because they’re just like if the New York Post did porn.” No one has successfully copied Straight to Hell’s unique form, though many have tried.
Ryan—You mention that the journal should be understood as art. How important was that to McDonald? Did he see the project as an ongoing art project, or was it something else altogether messier – a strange mix of journalism, pornography, oral history, and a fan magazine? Does identifying it as “art” take away some of the exciting hybridity of it?
William—I believe all cultural artifacts of great intrinsic interest, regardless of how lowly their provenance, will eventually be accepted into the realm of high culture. Whether or not they will be understood as originally intended is another matter entirely. Straight to Hell has already been recognized as art by the cognoscenti. (This process began in the 1970s.) The important question is how Boyd’s work will be introduced into the mainstream. I would like for that to happen in a thoughtful way, and with a sense of its historical context. That is one of the main reasons I wrote the book.
Ryan—As you point out in the book – quoting of all people Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor! – STH confounds definitions of pornography. McDonald preferred the term “smut.” Do you think the magazine can be thought of as pornographic, or is that term inadequate in this case?
William—Boyd did not associate what he did with commercial pornography, though Straight to Hell packs the punch of obscenity and was originally sold in adult bookstores. I am fascinated by its unstable relationship to pornography. When we were preparing True Homosexual Experiences, we anticipated problems with the printer in China because of the book’s content, but there were none. In the event, it was the shipper who balked at the material and refused the shipment; the cargo had to be transferred to Hong Kong, delaying the release of the book by a few weeks. The pictures in True Homosexual Experiences are actually somewhat tamer than what was included in my book Halsted Plays Himself (2011), which was printed in South Korea and encountered different difficulties. I have come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to second guess what will pass inspection and what will not. The whole racket is arbitrary.
Recent court decisions favoring producers of “extreme” fetish porn in the UK have called into question the very notion of obscenity itself. Now that everyone in countries with reliable internet service potentially has access to sexually explicit material—even children: their parents can’t watch and control them at every moment, so they will find ways to see it—there is a need to rethink what it means to prosecute obscenity. Until a new, more coherent set of legal standards arise, which is unlikely to happen soon, confusion will reign. In a way, Boyd anticipated this state of affairs, and sought to test the boundaries of what was possible in his lifetime. He has been dead since 1993, but Straight to Hell still causes problems and calls principles into question.
Ryan—For all of his contemporaneity, McDonald was a very old fashioned sort of queer man in certain ways. You draw comparisons with Walt Whitman and Quentin Crisp, and there are certainly many others that one might compare him to. In particular, his fascination with, even fetishization of, working class men is of a piece of much late nineteenth and early twentieth century elite homosexual men – a fascination characterized by Oscar Wilde as “feasting with panthers.” What is it about this kind of cross-class homoerotic fantasy that has made it so enduring?
William—The appeal of working class men is still very much a part of contemporary sexuality. In Los Angeles, where I live, the working class is mainly not white, so the type of man we’re talking about does not look exactly the way he did in early issues of Straight to Hell. In the book I argue that one of the main advantages of homosexuality, which is not (yet) entirely subsumed by heteronormative notions of marriage and romance, is that it has given some men license to associate in intimate ways with men quite unlike themselves. This transgression of boundaries is one of the ways we can make circulating in a class society interesting and refuse the economically determined plans for our lives. Social engineering (in the guise of freedom to marry) works to curtail other, more anarchic freedoms.
When sexuality gets narrowed to a question of political identity, its conventions prevent us from seeing many subtle variations in human behavior and desire.
Boyd aimed his polemic at what he called the Rising Middle Class, which prefers things to be fancy and safe. He had no interest in the writer who tried to tart up his texts and ended up “writing the way Liberace dresses,” his worst insult. He preferred blunt, direct communication and had no patience for pretension of any sort, or so I have been told. This makes him sound like a more forbidding editor—a fanatical, sodomitical Strunk and White?—than he probably was in practice.
The damage wrought by the Rising Middle Class is all around us. I recently returned from a trip to Columbus, Ohio, where I did a reading at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Columbus used to have the best gay bar I had ever visited, the Old Bow Wow, which featured amateur strippers every Wednesday night, and lap dances with working class men of all ethnicities. The place was closed down a couple of years ago on a legal pretext, because it was likely to give offence to the encroaching yuppie population and attracted the “wrong sort” of people.
How is it possible to have fun in Columbus? Lately we have been encouraged to shop and eat at Easton, a faux-urban outdoor mall where all interactions are under surveillance, and all experiences ideally lead to a sale. It was developed by Les Wexner, the richest resident of the state of Ohio. Easton is not even properly part of a city—you have to drive to get there then try to find a parking place in the midst of cute, newly built townhouses and chain stores. A trip to Easton made me think that I was walking through a nightmare of Sayyid Qtub, the harshest Islamist critic of “the American way of life,” which he experienced as a visiting scholar in the late 1940s. American spiritual emptiness is sold back to us in a retail environment resembling a theme park.
A calamity has befallen Columbus, which as recently as the early 1980s had storefront snakehandling churches on the main drag between the State Capitol and the Ohio State campus. My friends tell me that even finding hustlers has become tough. Thus far, there have been no public protests against this new regime of blandness—which, I must add, accompanies and enables ever greater racial segregation—but I wouldn’t be surprised if one day bored teens rioted in the paradise their parents built for them.
Ryan—The appearance of Quentin Crisp in the biography highlighted something slightly unsavory about McDonald, for me. Although comparisons between the two men were made by mutual friends, McDonald seemed to look down on Crisp because of his exaggerated femininity. That made me realize how truly intolerant McDonald could be, despite the fact that, as you say in the book, he was someone who “abhorred intolerance.” He seemed very judgmental of “unmanly” men. Is that a fair characterization?
William—I am certain that like all homosexual American men of his era, Boyd had been taught to hate himself quite thoroughly, and he actually saw something of himself in Quentin Crisp, who became the object of his rage, at least during one rather unpleasant dinner party. To get beyond the cultural training that tells us how inferior we are because of the way we walk or talk is extremely challenging, and even the most upright and life-affirming among us have our lapses. I think it’s of some importance that Boyd expressed these opinions in private, rather than in published writing. His public attacks on effeminacy were generally aimed at putatively straight men, for instance the conservative talk show host William F. Buckley, Jr., who attacked Gore Vidal (Boyd’s friend and a fan of STH) on television.
The ridicule of the effeminate, as lame as it is, has been a part of the American cultural landscape for a very long time. In the late 1930s, the painter Thomas Hart Benton railed against urban cabals of unmanly men who conspired to hoodwink the masses with modernism (thereby excluding him). He transmitted his prejudices to an eager student, Jackson Pollock, who years later took out his frustrations on “fairies” and “cocksuckers” who had the temerity to set foot inside the Cedar Tavern while he held court there. But I digress to a subject I am currently researching.
Ryan—His insistence on taking an adversarial stance – against cultural orthodoxy of all sorts, both within the gay community and in society more broadly – is what makes his writing so vital and exciting to read. His film criticism is brilliant and specific and hilarious, and so iconoclastic, not just against the icons of the screen, but also of the icons of film criticism – as you suggest, presenting a retort to auteur theory by focusing on stars instead of directors, for example. Was his marginal social status a necessary precursor to his form of social observation and criticism?
William—I believe it was crucial. Boyd gave up a life that would have destroyed him and made a new life for himself in extremely austere circumstances. He found himself with nothing, and instead of letting his situation demoralize him and deprive him of his voice, he realized the power of having nothing to lose. Writers for respectable publications are edited in ways that make their work completely comprehensible (and completely inoffensive) to their readers. Boyd, who had been a writer at Time/Life and a freelance editor, was acutely aware of the freedom his precipitous fall in social status brought him.
Ryan—As I read more about him, I kept thinking of him as a kind of precursor to the internet blogger, watching films on his television and writing sharply worded missives from his bed – able to hurl insults behind the cloak of his self-imposed anonymity and isolation. Am I way off-base in thinking that there is something of the internet “troll” in McDonald’s critical writing?
William—I associate trolls with anonymous racism and sexism expressed with impunity. Trolls also seem to be remarkably illiterate. Boyd’s writing was highly literate, and not truly anonymous, because his publications did carry a byline. He never bullied private citizens, but chose instead to direct his insults at public figures. His sympathies lay with employees (especially actresses) rather than with their bosses.
I find myself wishing Boyd had lived a lot longer, so I could read his comments about Dennis Hastert, the former Speaker of the House who sexually abused boys he was supposed to be coaching, or about Donald Trump, whose mentor in his early days was the truly despicable Roy Cohn, who, as Boyd put it, “gave dick-licking a bad name.”
Ryan—For all of his sharp-edged criticisms, he had these amazing moments of kindness, especially toward children. Were you surprised to learn about his fondness for his nieces?
William—I was surprised, and finding Boyd’s nieces during my investigation was one of the most rewarding parts of the writing. Boyd’s maniacal focus on a limited number of topics (male anatomy, old Hollywood, American politics) gave him an almost inhuman aspect, but testimony from his family served to humanize him. He was also a scrupulous and devoted (if occasionally difficult) friend. It made me happy to be able to present him as a multifaceted person, not just as “the dirtiest old man in New York.”
Ryan—Is there a bit of the “mad genius” in him? His story seems to highlight the link between creative genius and depression, for example.
William—Boyd McDonald suffered greatly from depression and anxiety disorders, which he masked or medicated with alcohol until it almost killed him. Boyd overcame many obstacles and vanquished personal demons to produce Straight to Hell, and he did not waste his opportunity; he reached truly appreciative readers. But that was just about all he did. There was almost no room in his very restricted life for what most people now consider essential: having a regular partner, raising a family, buying real estate, socializing with colleagues and friends, going shopping. One of the most admirable aspects of Boyd McDonald to me is that he made his mental illness work for him. This could serve as one definition of art, at least the art that strives to do more than provide employment for recent art school graduates and distraction or decoration for the nouveau riche.
Ryan—The final chapter threw me a bit. I wondered if you could say more about why we need to go back to the seventeenth-century philosopher Robert Burton, and even further back to Socrates and Diogenes, to appreciate McDonald’s creative achievements?
William—I can answer your question in a few words: I’m not playing.
I think it’s important to couch the argument for Boyd’s work in strong, historically grounded terms. This may mystify people who think in a limited way about what Boyd represents, but it makes sense to me, because I am refusing to succumb to stereotypical thinking, i. e., asserting that he was “that type of queen.” Boyd’s work was unique and he was an extraordinary person. How many important artists have made their work in a single room occupancy hotel? Boyd rose to a position of privilege, then completely renounced it for a life he believed was more authentic. Very few have truly done this sort of thing, and fewer still have been productive, lucid, and engaged with an audience in their self-imposed poverty. I hold that Boyd had more in common with Diogenes, who lived in a tub and “defaced the currency” by violating social conventions and ridiculing the rich and powerful, than he had in common with his Harvard classmates (John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Edward Gorey) or with his pen pals (Gore Vidal, William S. Burroughs, Samuel Steward).
I realize that my thesis has implications that are difficult to accept. Diogenes criticized Plato and Aristotle for kowtowing to tyrants, and he thought that their work as philosophers was irredeemably compromised by its accommodation to political power. What can be done in the face of such a criticism, short of throwing out the very foundation of the western philosophical tradition? The questions posed by the Cynics, as inconvenient as they are, have not gone away—far from it. In the present era of art collections perpetuating the grotesque vanity of rich criminals, and artists only too willing to abandon any principles they might have entertained for a place at the feeding trough, I believe a counterexample is urgently necessary.
Anatomy of Melancholy is a gorgeous book, and one which seethes with perverse implications—Robert Burton is an important predecessor of the “mad genius” you mention. In the end, I have admit that ancient philosophy holds as much interest for me as public sex and bulging jock straps. That’s not because I wish to compose legitimating apologia—“the great Socrates was a fag, so please tolerate us”—but because I believe a radical cultural figure requires a radical argument. Furthermore, neither philosophy nor smut is going away any time soon; it is far from idle to speculate about what they have in common.
Ryan—Do you think that telling McDonald’s story is particularly important now? How might his life and work be instructive or enlightening for younger people – queer or not?
William—During the question and answer session following a recent reading I did at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, a spectator said that he grew up in Louisiana, and whenever one of his circle of friends would get hold of a new issue of Straight to Hell, they would all get together and eagerly devour it (and each other). The reading sessions turned into what he called “boy orgies.” The pleasures currently offered by apps on glowing phones pale by comparison to fun with friends and lovers forming intimate bonds in person. I hope Boyd’s story suggests ways for younger people to discover this and have their own “boy orgies,” whatever that might mean to them. The idea that my books can encourage people to enjoy themselves in defiance of conventional expectations sustains my enthusiasm for writing. I want what I write to be useful without being prescriptive.
Ryan—Finally – to borrow from McDonald’s amazing interview with Robert Mapplethorpe – do you enjoy a life of debauchery?
William—I think I will save the answer to that question for my autobiography.