Tough Guys Don’t Agonize:
Norman Mailer and sexual bigotry

I pondered a good while about what to write in this piece concerning one of the greatest macho writers the country has ever known and his attitude about gay people. In the end I came up with this: Norman Mailer was not homophobic.

For years people believed that Norman Mailer was somehow a sexual bigot. The people were wrong. He didn’t waste his time, at least not while I was in the picture, which was five years, thinking about who anyone else went to bed with. What Norman appreciated was good sense in a person, an ability to think their way through life and manage a little decency along the way.

Any man coming of age in the 1930’s and 1940’s was, generally, instilled with the notion that any derivation from heterosexuality was an abomination and, therefore, immoral. In that era of America’s ethical desolation where homosexuals were concerned, there was no regret by the masses at hearing the news of a persecuted gay person. He or she did, after all, have it coming to them, did they not?  Consequently, news about atrocities towards gays and lesbians was rarely reported. But some intellectuals did write about homosexuality smack in the middle of an era when few would touch the issue for fear of being branded as subversive or perverted. One writer who did was Norman. In 1954 he went to bat for gay people by publicly examining his own early bigotry in a little known piece titled “The Homosexual Villain,” which was published by one of the first gay magazines called “One.”  The title of the piece, of course, was tongue in cheek. It was meant to provoke people into reading it and when they did they found out that Mailer thought of gay people as anything but villains.

Perhaps no other American writer was considered as steadfastly heterosexual than Norman Mailer. His prose was hard-edged, his characters forceful and biting in their external toughness. He wrote and spoke about the “masculine” sport of boxing better than anyone and he was renowned for his prowess with beautiful women.

So what did Mailer think about gay people? I can tell you what he thought because I, as a gay man, was there and worked intimately with him for years. He thought of us as no better or worse than straights and even, perhaps, thought we had insights into the world of art that heterosexuals could never quite grasp. I think his attitude, sculpted within the moral strictures of the middle decades of the twentieth century, changed earlier and more radically than most men’s.

In the aforementioned magazine piece that he wrote, Norman wrestles with complex questions about why it was he was supposed to feel a certain way about gays. What he deduced was that there was no reason for any feeling of “threat.”  If a man is heterosexual then where is the logic for fear? Norman was, above all, a logical man and once he embraced any lingering whispers of alarm where associating with gay people was concerned, logic took over and he deduced that any amount of bigotry was not only illogical it was impractical.

I dealt with him every day. I did research for four books for him, often cooked and ate meals with him, laughed with him, exchanged private stories with him and confided in him about my relationship with my boyfriend. In none of those scenarios did I ever notice him having some reticence about “the gay thing.” As a matter of note, he offered advice to me about how to handle certain issues with my partner and never once did he remark that the problems we were having were any different from difficulties a straight couple might encounter.

The day before he died I traveled down to New York to be with him one last time as he lay in his hospital bed at Mt. Sinai. When I entered the room his hand immediately stretched toward me and our fingers intertwined as those of people who hold great fondness for each other do. The feeling I got from holding his hand at that moment was as genuine and pure as any I’ve ever felt. There was no question of our importance to each other. Here was a man who’d crammed four lifetimes into one, wrestled with large questions and small ones, married six women, been father to nine children and mentor and confidant to at least one person: Me. As the gay man who came into his life late and stayed until the end, I always felt an almost palpable reverence from him where my sexuality was concerned. He considered it a part of me, a part of my brain, which he greatly admired, and my very existence. By that measure he respected my sexual persuasion because he logically knew that to disapprove of me being gay was to disapprove of my entire being. Such a notion never crossed his mind due to his respect for me as a man he worked closely with. In the end, that’s all any of us truly want: unqualified respect, gay or straight. I got that respect wholeheartedly from Norman Mailer and consequently I became a better man myself.