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McGehee, Peter (1955 -1991)  
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Although he originally set out to be a playwright, and achieved regional success as an actor, lyricist, and musical performer, Peter McGehee will be best remembered for his deft negotiation of the AIDS pandemic through the genre of screwball comedy in a pair of whimsical novels that record the adventures of Zero MacNoo and his "tribe of characters," Boys Like Us (1991) and Sweetheart (1992).


Born on October 6, 1955, the middle of three children, McGehee grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, a city that occupies a central place in his fiction. He played trombone in his high school band and worked as a photographer for the school newspaper and yearbook, and sustained in later life his early interests in music and photography.

In 1976, shortly before graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, McGehee moved to San Francisco, where he wrote and acted in street theater and small revues, including The Quinlan Sisters, an a capella musical revue that featured social, political, and sexual satire and that took its name from Karen Ann Quinlan, a comatose young woman whose right-to-die was much discussed by the media of the day.

While living in San Francisco, McGehee met Doug Wilson (1950-1992), a Canadian gay rights activist who was visiting for the annual Gay Pride celebration. Wilson had been born in Saskatchewan, would serve as executive director of the Saskatchewan Association on Human Rights (1978-83), and in 1983 would move to Toronto to work as an adviser to the Race Relations and Equal Opportunity Office of the Toronto Board of Education. According to the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives, Wilson became the first openly gay candidate to be nominated by a major political party to stand for Parliament, representing the New Democratic Party in the Toronto riding of Rosedale.

McGehee described Wilson as "the love of my life," and in 1980 followed him to Saskatoon. Unable to stand the sharp Canadian plains winter, McGehee moved with Wilson to Toronto in 1982. Although each man pursued other relationships and often maintained separate apartments, they were deeply committed to each other. McGehee married first one and then another female friend in order to remain in Canada with Wilson.

McGehee's deportation by Canadian authorities and his subsequent attempt to break into the New York literary world while living in lower Manhattan from 1984 to 1986 are the subjects of painfully funny letters written to friends in Toronto during this period.

After returning to Toronto, McGehee co-wrote the songs for, and performed with Fiji Robinson in, a new musical revue, The Fabulous Sirs, which Wilson produced and marketed as a cassette. McGehee also developed a one-man show about a young gay man's poignant but hilariously-told rejction of his Arkansas family's conventional values, which he revised as Beyond Happiness, the novella that Wilson edited for his Stubblejumper Press in 1985.

Beyond Happiness proved the prelude to McGehee's most popular success, Boys Like Us, which appeared in 1991 under the influential Stonewall Inn line of gay and lesbian books that Michael Denneny edited for St. Martin's Press.

McGehee's struggle to complete his second novel, Sweetheart, while suffering from AIDS-related toxoplasmosis, is recorded in Labor of Love (1993), Wilson's "completion" of McGehee's projected trilogy. McGehee died on September 13, 1991, however, before Sweetheart could appear, and just days before his collection of short stories, The I. Q. Zoo, was released. Wilson, who was ill from AIDS as well, passed away a year later, shortly after completing Labor of Love.

Gay Screwball Comedy

A "sweet sort of melancholy" infuses McGehee's two novels. "I lose people," Zero comments quietly at the opening of Boys Like Us. "Friends, family, lovers. Sometimes they come back; sometimes not." Zero is not the only person to live in the shadow of loss. His Uncle Markus is haunted by the memory of his first lover, who committed suicide at age nineteen when their affair was exposed and the boy was summarily expelled from college. Throughout the novels sick men must fight an indifferent bureaucracy for access to life-saving drugs and care.

"Where oh where do we get the strength?", a fellow caregiver asks Zero, who has traveled to Los Angeles to see his cousin and first lover, Trebreh (aka gay porn star "Billy Rocket"), before the latter dies. At one memorial service, a pensive David asks Zero, "Do you ever wonder how many times you'll serve as an executor before someone's doing the same for you?"--a question that is answered by Wilson's Labor of Love.

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Peter McGehee (left) kissing his partner Douglas Wilson.
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