“Writing Desire: Sixty Years of Gay Autobiography”– social history and personal biography

Cohler, Betram J. “Writing Desire: Sixty Years of Gay Autobiography.” The University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.

Social History and Personal Biography

Amos Lassen

Bertram Cohler in “Writing Desire” explores nearly sixty years of memoir and autobiography. He looks at the changing identity of gay men and at the historical context in which they lived. Cohler looks at the lives of ten men, among whom are performance artists, historians, poets, historians, social activists, bloggers and journalists. The writing of these men, when taken together as a whole, chronicles the history of gay life. What we get in the book is both personal biography and social history by the people who were most influential in American gay life. Heavily documented, the book is an excellent way to begin looking at our history.

The amount of scholarship that went into Cohler’s research is staggering. Here is nothing short of a remarkable telling of how both the social context and history shape the things we do as well as an excellent explanation of how the gay movement took form. Additionally Cohler shows how people influence and understand their lives and write about them.

It is safe to say that the social climate and the age in which people live determine how people act. Cohler goes one step further and presents the idea that they also influence how people write and read about the events that bring them to any period in time. Our life stories reflect and constitute our sense of self and the one constant thing to which we all aspire is the desire to “maintain a sense of personal continuity” about our lives. Our own concept of who we are is perhaps the reason all of us want to know from where we came and how will that benefit to where we are going. Our ego allows us to talk about ourselves and relate our desires and our interpretations of our relationships with other people.

This book is about life and life stories and the lives of men in the times in which they live. It spans sixty years of American gay life from 1930-1980. We see the changes from before World War II when we did not like to label ourselves as queer or gay as we do today. It is fascinating to see how gay men changed both their public and self images and how what we were ashamed to call ourselves became accepted terminology in America and the world at large.

Cohler uses an approach which he refers to as “grounded theory” by which he chose the men he writes about. He chose what he calls “particularly salient” life stories for his study of “writing desire”. By doing so he gives us a cross section of influential gay men among whom are Martin Duberman, Paul Monette, and Mark Doty—all three men who have been influential in shaping the way we see ourselves.

It is so important that we have a way to learn about the people who shaped gay life and Bertram Cohler gives us this in “Writing Desire”. I wish I had had a book like this years ago. It would have made understanding homosexual culture, history and myself so much easier.

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