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Autobiography, Gay Male  
 
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In its first century of existence, gay male autobiography has become increasingly more open, frank, and unapologetic.

As Sir Stephen Spender comments in World within World (1951), "The great problem of autobiography . . . is to create the true tension between the inner and outer, subjective and objective, worlds." Gay autobiography in particular embodies this tension--a writer creates a version of his life that he presents to the world, at the same time being acutely aware of his "outsider" status in that very world.

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The controversial nature of homosexuality inevitably creates self-consciousness and may lead gay autobiographers to employ strategies of evasion or, conversely, to sensationalize or titillate. The degree to which an autobiography is coded for its readers illustrates the writer's own assessment of the likely repercussions of telling his story.

The Coming Out Experience

Gay autobiography has inspired solidarity by emphasizing both the uniqueness and the commonalities of the coming out experience, as well as the peculiarities and the mundanities of gay lives. Linked to the confessional or "conversion" story of St. Augustine, in which a linear narrative shows what existence was like both before and after a life-altering experience, nineteenth- and twentieth-century autobiographies of gay men chart some new emotional territory. The life-altering experience in most gay autobiographies is an awakening to sexual identity. Autobiographies reflect the many possible resolutions that follow such a self-recognition.

The Medical Model of Homosexuality

Early gay autobiography is indebted to the medical model of homosexuality, especially as presented in the work of late-nineteenth-century sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Edward Carpenter, and Havelock Ellis. Especially important are Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) and the collaborative study by Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion (1897), which established a pattern for gay autobiography whereby science and first-person narrative are combined in multidimensional portraits of the subjects under study.

Notably, each "case study" defines a moment of self-realization. Some of the subjects look for a scientific explanation of their "sexual inversion"; others accept their "condition" as a secret burden, but all attempt to somehow integrate their homosexual identity into the larger world. The difference between case studies and more developed gay autobiographies is that the latter tend to aestheticize experience and to complicate the medical explanation that they may accept yet also bridle under.

The Late Nineteenth Century: The Beginnings of Gay Autobiography

The earliest full-blown gay autobiography is John Addington Symonds's remarkable Memoirs, composed between 1889 and 1893 but not published until 1984. It is "both an account and justification of his life, and an interpretive analysis of his temperament," according to its editor, Phyllis Grosskurth. Symonds himself explained his goal as follows: "It was my primary object . . . to describe as accurately and candidly as I was able . . . a man of no mean talents, of no abnormal depravity, whose life has been perplexed from first to last by passion--natural, instinctive, healthy in his own particular case--but morbid and abominable from the point of view of the society in which he lives--passion for the male sex." By providing a nonpathological self-portrait in his Memoirs and by differentiating his own subjective attitude from that of the larger society, Symonds makes a major contribution to the literature of homosexuality.

Social theorist Edward Carpenter's autobiography was published during his lifetime and, consequently, it is more reticent about the details of intimate relationships than is Symonds's Memoirs. Nevertheless, it bravely and forthrightly addresses sexual identity. In My Days and Dreams (1890), Carpenter reflects that "It was not till (at the age of 25) I read Whitman--and then with a great leap of joy--that I met with the treatment of sex which accorded with my own sentiments."

Carpenter echoes the feeling expressed in many gay autobiographies that life was radically changed when he discovered that he was not "alone." He writes, "When at a later time I broke through this double veil, I soon discovered that others of like temperament to myself were abundant in all directions. . . . I found sympathy, understanding, love, . . . and my world of the heart became as rich in that which it needed as before it had seemed fruitless and barren."

Oscar Wilde's moving De Profundis (written in 1897; first published in 1905) is a raw and penetrating look at Wilde's psyche during his bleakest period. Less a coming out narrative than an assessment of his life, Wilde's long letter written during his years in Reading Gaol is self-consciously designed as a vindication and reflects the author's unwillingness "to sit in the grotesque pillory" to which he had been assigned by public opinion.

More profoundly, it is his attempt to discover and exhibit his authentic self, different from both the masks he had earlier created for himself and the ugly images attributed to him in the popular press. In De Profundis, Wilde presents his homosexuality as simply a "fact about me" and expresses skepticism about the medical model of homosexuality that had emerged at the end of the nineteenth century.

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Edward Carpenter's My Days and Dreams was published in 1890. Like other early gay male autobiographies, the book was reticent about its author's intimate relationships.
  
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