In considering the vile and violent expressions of hatred towards queer people by the Religious Right Wing, I want to scream out: ”Really? You want to live in a world without the contributions of Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Cole Porter, Noël Coward, John Maynard Keynes, Jasper Johns, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Willa Cather, Edward Albee, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bessie Smith, Stephen Sondheim or Stephen Rutledge, Christopher Isherwood, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Janis Joplin, or Aristotle!?!” Then I pause, take a breath and understand that the Religious Right would find a life without A Streetcar Named Desire to be just peachy. The great gifts given by gay artists could be lifted right out of our culture and the Religious Fanatics could live their lives free of asking questions, their biggest fear.
In his terrific book, Role Models (2010), John Waters wrote that Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) saved his life because Williams put gay desire on stage at a time when it was nearly unthinkable to do so. Sometimes you had to read between the lines to get why Brick and Maggie’s marriage was on the skids in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955), or why Blanche’s young husband killed himself in A Streetcar Named Desire, or the reason Sebastian Venable was literally devoured by a gang of street boys in Suddenly Last Summer (1958). But the clues are there. If his gay characters are a little troubling, that’s probably because their creator was himself a little troubled. A straight man could never have written these plays.
When Memoirs (1975), Williams’ imaginatively titled memoir was published, The NY Times reviewer wrote: ”If he has not exactly opened his heart, he has opened his fly”. Williams responded by saying that he had been offered $75,000 to write the book and he just assumed he would be dead by the time it came out. In Memoirs, Williams offers advice on sex with hustlers, recommending that ”penetration be avoided as they are most probably all infected with clap in the ass”. He writes about the great love of his life, Frank Merlo, whose death from cancer sent Williams into a decade long depression. He recounts his many casual pick-ups in gay bars. He also talks about his friendships with everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Candy Darling, everything, in fact, except his plays.
Williams won four Drama Critic Circle Awards, a Tony Award, a pair of Pulitzer Prizes (for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in 1955), plus the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 1980. He was also derided by the critics and blacklisted by the Roman Catholic Church, which condemned his work as ”revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, and offensive to Christian standards of decency”. Thank God.
Happy 112th birthday, Thomas Lanier Williams III !