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Monday, January 9, 2012

William J. Mann on AIDS

William J. Mann
William J. Mann  

(From "The Edge: New England) William J. Mann has told the story of a generation that came through the AIDS crisis, dealt with the social and political turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s, and touched the very lives that he was describing in his seminal trilogy of books, "The Men from the Boys," "Where the Boys Are," and "Men Who Love Men."

But Mann has also told the story of Hollywood as a gay place where gay people--be they in the closet as they often were--made a profound impact on global culture. Mann’s works include "The Biograph Girl," a fictionalized account of the life of silent screen star Florence Lawrence, as well as biographies of a prominent early gay actor, "Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines" and an Oscar-winning director, "Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger."

More recently, Mann has turned his attention--and his skill as a cultural detective--to divas of the screen, icons with big gay followings like Kate Hepburn ("Kate") and Elizabeth Taylor ("How to Be A Movie Star"). The book he now has in progress, "Hello, Gorgeous," concerns itself with arguably an even bigger star: Barbra Streisand.

Mann agreed to an interview with EDGE about the imminent Streisand biography. The friendly chat turned into a wide-ranging and in-depth discussion about his life and career thus far.


Growing Up and Getting Involved

Mann meets me at the door with a quick hug. "I’ve got a cold," he says apologetically. Then, in his usual solicitous manner, he escorts me inside and offers me a drink. "Sorry about the mess," he says, navigating his way around plastic sheeting, tools, and assorted displaced kitchen items. "We’re renovating. This is the kitchen stage."

Mann’s comfortable house in Provincetown is one of two homes that he and his husband, Dr. Timothy Huber, a psychologist, maintain. On this particular day, Huber is in New York, setting up a new practice. Until recently, the couple, who married in 2004, spent winters in Palm Springs, California. They’ve since sold their California home and bought a house in Connecticut, the state where Mann grew up.

Mann’s younger years were those of a gay kid who didn’t lie to himself when he realized who he was. The writer embraced his sexuality and the world of people like him as an 18-year-old in the 1980s. His coming of age took place in the wake of the sudden and devastating fury of the onslaught of AIDS, and on the cusp of the energetic activism that put gay people on the political map once and for all.

It seems like an appropriate place to start the interview: How did being a club kid in the midst of the AIDS crisis affect his view of gay culture and, by extension, color his novels? How does this club kid now see the gay world, and what does he think the future might hold?

"I’m might still be a club something," Mann chuckles. "But I’m sure not a kid.

"How did being a club kid influence my view of gay life?" Mann continues, reflectively. "I think that I was always in the midst of things as they were happening. It was an exciting time, with all the parties that used to go on, parties which eventually became the circuit. At that age, I wasn’t as politically aware of the bigger picture as I became later, but because I was so versed in the gay bars and going out, I had a sense of the larger community out there, all the different kinds of people there were in the big gay world.

"I don’t think that for many kids today, that world of the club still exists," Mann reflects. "It’s online. Even today at Tea Dance, a young man I met told me he doesn’t normally talk to anybody because he comes with his friends, his pack. They all travel together because they all know each other, and the idea of meeting someone at Tea Dance or in the clubs isn’t a big part of what they do."

As he grew up and completed his education, Mann grew more aware and interested in the gay political situation.

"It was when I got my graduate degree at Wesleyan," the novelist tells EDGE. "Through meeting people at Wesleyan, I got to know some of the Connecticut gay activists. When I got my Master’s, I was teaching at UConn as an adjunct, to make money. I got an apartment in Hartford and made friends with the local activists, and that woke me up and sharpened my awareness of the political situation.

"That was in the early 1990s, when AIDS activism was at its height, and we’d go to ACT UP demonstrations in New York or Washington. That group of activists in Connecticut really became my family."

Since then, of course, things have improved for the GLBT community in many ways--except, Mann notes, where they have not.

"It’s infuriating, the political situation now," he tells EGDE. "More so than before because, ’God damn it, how come we haven’t evolved already?’ It’s frustrating that’s it’s still an issue, that we have to defend ourselves from people like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. It’s 2011! That level of homophobia should have gone away by now--and I think it would have, if George W. Bush hadn’t been handed the White House in 2000.

"At that point, a lot of the evangelical movement was disenchanted with politics. There was talk of them just retreating to their own worlds and teaching their kids what they wanted. They were discouraged that the public wasn’t more on their side during the whole Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. But with Bush getting in there--and he looks positively pro-gay next to Bachmann and Santorum--the evangelical movement had eight years in which to reorganize, get their judges appointed, and get their message out through Fox News.

"I’m not saying we wouldn’t have homophobia today if Bush hadn’t been president," Mann continues, "but if we’d have had eight years of a pro-gay bully pulpit under a President Gore. We would have seen a continuation of the kind of gay acceptance that we saw growing all through the 1990s. Can you imagine what these crazy people would say about "Will and Grace" today? It’s no surprise we haven’t had such an unapologetically gay show on TV since that point.

"The rhetoric that we hear today is worse than it was ten years ago, and not just on gay issues," Mann adds. "Now we talk about whether burning a Koran is free speech. Ten years ago such a discussion would have been seen as beyond the pale to have on national TV. Anyone advocating such a view would be marginalized and not given airtime. But now extremism dominates the national conversation.

"And we’ve gone beyond homophobia. Now it’s ’Death to gays.’ We’re an abomination, we should be killed--it’s happening in Africa, and there are now religious fundamentalists who actually float that idea in this country as well. That, again, would have been beyond the pale to even infer ten years ago.

"The rhetoric has just become much more extreme on so many levels. Look at the disrespect the office of the President is given under Obama. That would have been unthinkable under Bush."


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