1995 | Foreword to "Gay Letters"

Foreword to "Gay Letters"
selected & edited by James Jolly and Estelle Kohler, 1995

Judging by my mail these days, I am not alone in writing fewer letters than I used to. Circulars, invitations and bills are a sort of correspondence and some strangers need answering; but, picture postcards aside, it is increasingly rare for friends to pick up a pen and, when we want to keep in touch, the telephone is more handy. Instantaneous communication is the convenient, modern way, thanks to the everyday magic with which we can harness satellite, time and space to an intimate, international call.

About the fax, I am less sure. A facsimile by definition is not the real thing. Pressing the 'start' button and watching the paper slide through and out can be exciting, with the prospect of an immediate response. Yet when the reply comes, if it comes, looking just like every other limply curling message, there is none of the unique personality of a letter lying seductively on the front door mat. With care, ink and even pencil can be kept forever but the print of faxes fades. Soon, no doubt, I shall succumb to the modem but I am not enthusiastic about messages that flicker across a screen.

Certainly technology is no way for lovers to correspond. It denies that overwhelming thrill of the familiar handwriting on the unopened envelope. How do you seal a fax with a loving kiss? Once your letter falls down inside the pillar-box, the waiting is exquisitely painful. 'If he gets it tomorrow or, considering the distance, maybe the day after, will he write back straightaway and will I get it soon, soon, soon?' Even when the first post fails to deliver, or the second, disappointment is tempered by the masochistic delight of joy postponed. Tomorrow it may come. Then, of course, you pick up the phone. 'Did you get my letter?'

Erasmus, too, nervously wondered why his beloved had not written: “What shall I guess to be the reason?” Great thinkers are not impervious to common complaining. Many of the other letters in this collection ring familiar bells of jealousy and insecurity. 'What care and anxiety, nay what fear had you spared me, if you had written to me only once or twice on your journey' the lovelorn 54-year-old Hubert Languet writes to the 18-year-old Philip Sidney. Then comes the reassuring reply, that ends 'May God grant you long life for my sake'. Languet must have read that over and over.

The title 'Gay Letters' will mislead any reader who is hoping for intimate revelations about the particular problems and delights of homosexual desire through the ages. Without the editors' notes you couldn't always guess the writers' particular sexuality. This is neither a prosetylising, nor an academic study relating to the rights of lesbians and gay men to be treated equally with the rest of society. Subsequent anthologies can do that but they may well want to reprint the couple of explicit letters which are included here. Estelle Kohler and James Jolly have cast a wide net and revealed what the world at large is only just beginning to appreciate, that the daily preoccupations of most gay people coincide with those of the rest of the population. Are we not, after all, any more queer than other folk? Is there no such thing as an especially gay sensibility?

Identifying yourself as gay, in private and in public, is a welcome phenomenon but too modern to apply to most of the other letters herein. Indeed some of the writers might want to sue; on grounds of what? defamation? exaggeration? bewilderment? When it comes to outing the dead, I'm all for it.

My favourite contribution is the only fictional one, not just because Armistead Maupin and his lover Terry Anderson showed me the way out of the closet but because in Michael 'Mouse' Tolliver's 'Letter to Mama', we can read the best 'gay letter' yet. — Ian McKellen, 1995

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