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Autobiography, Gay Male  
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The Twentieth Century: From Reticence to Openness

The medical model is particularly important in two early American gay autobiographies: The Story of a Life (1901) by the pseudonymous Claude Hartland and Autobiography of an Androgyne (1918) by Earl Lind. Published by medical presses, both of these works are clearly shaped by the case history, which, of course, assumes that homosexuality is an illness.

However, although they self-consciously embrace the medical model--even directly addressing physicians as presumed readers--these works also in many ways resist that model, revealing details of more fully rounded lives than can be easily accommodated by scientific theory. Moreover, in their narratives, they tend to aestheticize experience and use literary tropes to create emotional realities at variance with the medical paradigm. They may be more accurately seen as apologia or pleas for understanding than as case histories.

Perhaps the most original of all attempts at gay autobiography is J. R. Ackerley's posthumously published My Father and Myself (1968), which reconsiders the author's distant relationship with his father. Richly describing Ackerley's own sexual awakening and his search for the "Ideal Friend," and providing valuable information about the gay milieu of 1920s and 1930s England as well as the eroticism of class difference in homosexual relationships of the time, My Father and Myself also details the author's discovery of and fascination with his father's "secret life," which came to light after the elder Ackerley's death in 1929. That secret life included not only a second family but also a probable homosexual liaison.

At the end of the autobiography, deeply frustrated, Ackerley regrets his failure of communication with his father and longs for validation, musing, "What irony if it could be proved that [my father] had led in his youth the very kind of life that I was leading."

Only recently have gay men been able to write openly about their lives in books published under their own names and during their lifetimes. Although Andrew Tobias has recently issued The Best Little Boy in the World under his own name, when it was first published in 1973 Tobias understandably released it under the pseudonym John Reid.

The resonant coming out story of a young, Ivy League-educated businessman who struggles to reconcile white-collar ambition with his hidden sexual identity and internalized homophobia, the book is both moving and disarming in its honesty. Self-conscious about the need to use a pseudonym, the author remarks, "Ideally, of course, it would not be necessary. But, then again, ideally there would be no reason to write a book like this at all."

When Christopher Isherwood published his first autobiography, Lions and Shadows, in 1938, he was necessarily circumspect about his sexual interests. Indeed, the book is curiously impersonal. It is not, he remarks, "in the ordinary journalistic sense of the word, an autobiography; it contains no 'revelations'; it is never 'indiscreet'; it is not even entirely 'true.'" In fact, the homosexuality of Isherwood and many of his friends is a kind of absent presence in the book. The author's reticence in discussing his sex life probably itself signaled his homosexuality to sophisticated readers in the 1930s.

In contrast, however, Isherwood's "frank and factual" 1976 autobiography, Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939, makes explicit the fact that homosexuality was one of the central aspects of his life and that the of Western society invested his homosexuality with political significance. For Isherwood, homosexuality was not only his nature, but also his way of protesting the heterosexual dictatorship: "If boys didn't exist," he admits, "I should have to invent them." A revisionary interpretation of a legendary time and place--Berlin in the 1930s--Christopher and His Kind is invigorated and humanized by Isherwood's commitment to the gay liberation movement of the 1970s.

Two of the frankest autobiographical works before the Stonewall rebellion sparked the gay liberation movement are The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem (1966) and The Naked Civil Servant (1968) by Quentin Crisp.

Rorem's candid revelations of his love affairs casually present his homosexuality as an essential but unsensational part of a balanced and multifaceted personality.

Like Rorem, Crisp also seems to have hardly struggled with his identity as a gay man, although the courage with which he "flaunted" his effeminacy led to repeated confrontations and persecution. He defines himself as an "innately" homosexual person, explaining that "I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one. That is to say I put my case not only before the people who knew me but also before strangers." Wearing effeminacy as his badge of identity, Crisp presents himself as too individualistic to be easily pigeonholed, yet in his work one can detect the beginnings of what would later flower as gay pride.

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