Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 03 November 1997


National Author Tour listings for New York,
Yale University (New Haven), Boston, Philadelphia,Washington, D.C. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago


Charles Kaiser was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up there and in Albany (N.Y.), Dakar, Senegal, London, England, Windsor (CT), and New York City, where he has lived since he attended Columbia University in the 1970s. He came out the year after the Stonewall riot, so he has personally experienced all of the modern gay liberation movement.

Kaiser started writing for The New York Times while still an undergraduate. He spent five years there as a reporter on the Metro staff, covering City Hall, the State Supreme Court, the police and the environment.

He then became the press critic at Newsweek, followed by a stint covering media and publishing at The Wall Street Journal. His first book, 1968 in America, was published in 1988 and was later used as the basis for a CBS documentary on the same subject in which Kaiser made many appearances. It will be reissued in paperback this fall by Grove/ Atlantic.

His writing has also appeared in New York, the New York Observer, Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Washington Post, The American Lawyer and Manhattan, Inc., among other publications.

He has taught journalism at Columbia and Princeton, where he was the Ferris Professor of Journalism.

Kaiser is a member of the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and a founder and former president of its New York chapter.

He is an avid bike rider. A few years ago he biked 1,000 miles in three weeks over the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and Kentucky. Since 1968 he has lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Badpuppy's GayToday: You're the author of a previous book on American history, but this is your first book on gay history. What compelled you to write the book?

Charles Kaiser: I had considered writing something historical about New York for a long time. About seven years ago, I reached a point as a gay writer when I felt I had to write something about AIDS—to bear witness to the catastrophe that we all experienced. I wanted to write a book that would include AIDS, but not be overwhelmed by it. And, in fact, I don't mention the word until you're five sixths of the way into the book. For so many years during the 80s, it felt like gay life and AIDS were practically the same thing. So this was a way of trying to put the epidemic into perspective.

GayToday: There's a lot of talk these days about the "mainstreaming" of gay culture. Do you think that the popularity of films like "In and Out" are "The Birdcage" is a sign of a growing acceptance of homosexuals—or a misunderstanding of them?

Charles Kaiser: Movies like "The Birdcage" just demonstrate that Hollywood has finally figured out a way to make serious grosses out of a gay subject. It wasn't nearly as interesting as the French original—which was actually an important little cultural moment in time.

GayToday: You've been a reporter on the media for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. What role has the media played in the history of gay Americans?

Charles Kaiser: In three decades, the national media has gone from being one of the most serious impediments to the gay rights movement to one of its most important allies. Throughout the 60s, the message conveyed by places like CBS News and the New York Times was clear: the only respectable homosexual was one who was determined to become heterosexual. One of the first major breakthroughs, which I describe in the book, was Merle Miller's article in The New York Times Magazine, "What Its Means To Be a Homosexual," published in 1971. It was a direct response to one of the most disgusting pieces ever printed on this subject: Joseph Epstein's cover story published in Harper's in 1970. "If I had the power to do so," Epstein wrote, "I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth." That sequence is another example of my central theme: adversity has its advantages.

GayToday: In your book, you include a letter written by Christopher Isherwood to Gore Vidal, emphasizing the value of gay relationships on American society. An ironic spin on the "family values" campaign against homosexual unions! Please comment on this.

Charles Kaiser: Isherwood's letter is my favorite discovery—actually my niece's discovery; I dispatched her to the University of Wisconsin where she found it among Gore Vidal's papers. As far as I know, I am the first person to make it public. It was a fan letter Isherwood wrote to Vidal after he published his gay novel, The City and the Pillar, in 1948.

Isherwood wrote, "Homosexual relationships can be and frequently are, happy. Men live together for years and make homes and share their lives and their work, just as heterosexuals do. This truth is particularly disturbing and shocking even to 'liberal' people, because it cuts across their romantic, tragic notion of the homosexual's fate. Certainly under the present social setup, a homosexual relationship is more difficult to maintain than a heterosexual one (by the same token, a free-love relationship is more difficult to maintain than a marriage), but doesn't that merely make it more of a challenge and therefore, in a sense, more humanely worthwhile?"

It's a great letter, and it offers an early hint of a new postwar attitude toward the possibilities of gay love.

GayToday: In your opinion what are the crucial events or people who impelled gay liberation forward (or backward)?

Charles Kaiser: Some crucial events which propelled the gay movement forward were World War II, when the United States Army acted as a great, secret, unwitting engine of gay liberation, the first Kinsey report, published in 1948, Evelyn Hooker's groundbreaking research in the 1950s which proved that just because you're gay doesn't mean you're disturbed; the Stonewall riot, because it gradually gave gay people a new image of themselves; Jack Nichols and Frank Kameny, because they did more than anyone else to infuse the movement with the spirit of the 1960s; the decision by the American Psychiatric Association (partly inspired by a Frank Kameny lobbying campaign) to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973; Gore Vidal, because he wrote more frequently and more intelligently on this subject than any other member of his generation; and the AIDS epidemic, the worst and the best thing that ever happened to gay people in America. AIDS had a greater impact on the shape of the gay community than all the other events of the previous forty years put together.

GayToday: In researching this book, did you uncover anything that shocked you? What in this book might come as a surprise to readers?

Charles Kaiser: I hope there will be hundreds of surprises for the typical reader—everything from Alec Baldwin's experiences as a waiter in the balcony of Studio 54 to the identity of the person most responsible for ending gay invisibility in America—Phil Donahue. I was astonished by the intelligence and the persistence of a handful of people who transformed the way America thinks about this subject. But I wasn't shocked.


THE GAY METROPOLIS—1940-1996 by Charles Kaiser (Houghton-Mifflin) is now available at your local bookstore. Here is what well-known people say about it, as reported in June by Patricia Conklin:

Tuesday, 10 June 1997


By Patricia Conklin

Book-Of-The-Month & Quality Paperback Clubs to Offer Work Ed Koch, Lesley Stall, Edmond White & Arthur Laurent Give Praise

Pre-publication praise from prominent Americans and Book-of-The Month-Club and Quality Paperback Book Club arrangements have placed Charles Kaiser, author of the forthcoming history, The Gay Metropolis (Houghton-Mifflin), in a significant role as 1997's most celebrated researcher and interpreter of gay events occurring between World War II and the present. Kaiser has held, among other significant positions, one as Newsweek magazine's former media editor.

Though other histories have covered a similar timeframe, few have been hailed by famous mainstream personalities with such vigor. In significant ways Kaiser's approach differs from earlier works like Stonewall, which, some charge, has been written in an author's heat of personal biases. Kaiser's book will appear during Gay History Month, in October.

"This is the liveliest gay history I've ever read: richly detailed, briskly narrated, eminently sane," says celebrated author, Edmund White.

Television's Lesley Stall believes Kaiser wrote his history to both teach and entertain, and that he has accomplished both missions. "I laughed and cried and couldn't stop reading," she says, "This is a truly wonderful, wonderful book."

Arthur Laurent, author of West Side Story, Gypsy, and The Way We Were, calls Kaiser's work "a surprisingly fascinating history," while praising the book's engrossing readability, while John Gregory Dunne, of the New York Observer calls the work "Absolutely riveting!"

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch believes Kaiser has produced a "masterpiece" and that he "brilliantly weaves together the lives of the heroes of the gay rights movement with the lives of young men and women who, while facing lesser barriers today than fifty years ago, must still overcome enormous prejudices based on their sexual orientation."

A host of other commentators are also finding The Gay Metropolis as history "deeply moving", trumpeting that its story is "crucial to modern American history." In telling this history, says David J. Garrow, "Kaiser illuminates the courage and contributions of hundreds of men and women who pioneered the struggle for sexual freedom and equality."

Historian Kaiser says he's glad at being able to take a temporary rest from labors which, literally, have taken many years. In autumn, however, the rested author will go on the open road, sponsored by his Houghton Mifflin publisher, appearing in major cities from coast to coast.

J. Anthony Lukas has climbed on the gay history bandwagon too, calling The Gay Metropolis "absorbing" and a "social history of a very high order." Lukas relates that, "scarcely a page went by on which I did not learn something surprising, something fascinating, something instructive."



Monday, October 27, 6 pm: New York Historical Society "The Gay Metropolis: A Panel Discussion" featuring Edward Koch, Paul Cadmus, Verna Eggleston, Arthur Laurents, and moderated by Charles Kaiser.


Thursday, October 23, 4:30 pm: Masters Tea at Morse College


November 13-16: "The Gay Metropolis: "In Their Own Words," a one-man play performed by Johnny Moore, based on four characters from THE GAY METROPOLIS, at 145 Avenue of the Americas at Spring Street.

Friday, November 7, 7 pm : A Different Light (Bookstore)

Friday, November 21, 7:30 pm: Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Triangle.


Thursday, November 6, 7 pm: We Think the World of You


Monday, November 10, 7:30 pm: Borders, Walnut Street


Wednesday, November 12, 6 pm: Lambda Rising


Monday, November 17, 8pm: A Different Light


Tuesday, November 18, 6:30 pm: San Francisco Library, Gay & Lesbian Center


Thursday, November 20, 7:30pm: Unabridged Books

© 1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission give credit to website: