As I write it’s Pride month, June 2019. This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall and with good reason. The uprising on Christopher Street was of vital significance for public queer life. This year, we commemorate the courageous queers who rebelled against police brutality and the raiding of their spaces. In the United States, we think of Stonewall as the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement. In our collective imagination Stonewall has become, as its name suggests, a monumental wall of stone: sedimented, unmovable, something we can perceive clearly–but perhaps at the expense of the queer lives that came before and the legacies that continued after it.
In Gay New York, George Chauncey refutes myths about gay life before Stonewall that persist among queer people. For instance, we often think that gay men were isolated from each other because there was no visible subculture that they could join. We are inclined to believe that they “passively accepted surveillance, that they uncritically internalized the dominant culture’s view of them as sick, perverted, and immoral.” Chauncey dispels these myths by examining the spaces where gay men cruised for sex and forged the intimate connections that enabled them to resist homophobia and policing.
Joe LeSueur, my Uncle Joe, was one of these men.
He lived an extraordinary gay life from his arrival to New York in 1949 until his death in 2001.
Uncle Joe had no time for conventional masculinity.
Uncle Joe had zero fucks to give about the trappings of heterosexual bourgeois respectability.
In fact, Uncle Joe saw his queerness as granting him freedom from the humdrum middle-class life that otherwise awaited him. The fact that Joe was the second child of a large LDS family severely affected by the Depression, who moved from apartment to apartment in suburban Los Angeles in search of cheap rent, colored his dreams as a boy. He yearned for a life of uninhibited freedom. He longed to be a writer.
He fantasized about living in New York, a city whose lit skyscrapers beckoned to him in the glossy MGM movies he watched as a boy.
Many years later, I too would grow up Mormon in the LA suburbs. I knew little about Uncle Joe. Mom and Dad would talk about him now and again as the family misfit who lived in New York and who rarely came around. Mom told me that I reminded her of him.
I too was a family misfit. I too wanted to be a writer.
I met Uncle Joe just once. He came to Christmas at my aunt and uncle’s house in San Clemente in 1988. I was ten years old. What I remember most about his visit was how dissimilar he was from the men of our extended family whose patriarchal gravity intimidated me. Always a shy kid, I watched Uncle Joe from the living room. He was in the kitchen, talking merrily with his siblings. He gestured freely with his hands and laughed heartily. He was short and had blazing blue eyes. He was well into his sixties. He wore tight pants.
I felt profoundly connected to him but could hardly muster a hello.
I never saw Uncle Joe in person again. On May 14, 2001, he died. I had come out as gay the previous summer. By then I knew that Uncle Joe was gay and a war hero, but that was about all. I was planning to write him; I wanted to propose that we meet in New York. But suddenly he was gone. Mom rang with the news. I was at work. I hung up the phone. I was overwhelmed with sadness.
I wanted to hear Uncle Joe laugh again. I wanted to hear him talk about his life. Looking back now, I think I needed him to tell me that I would be okay. In coming out, I had left everything I knew: BYU, the LDS Church, a tight circle of friends, a prescriptive roadmap for life. And, truly, I needed guidance. At the time, I was fixated on a self-absorbed alcoholic who only occasionally returned my desperate calls. I was working a job that I hated in the suburbs of Salt Lake. My family was still devastated about my coming out. They grieved over our surname which would die with me.
A couple of years later, in December of 2003, I wandered into A Different Light, a gay bookstore in San Diego (where I had moved after graduating from the University of Utah) to peruse the shelves. And there, in the new releases section, was a portent in the form of a book: Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara: A Memoir by Joe LeSueur.
I froze. Surely, this book couldn’t be by Uncle Joe, I thought. I picked up the book and leafed through it to the collection of pictures in the middle. Stunning photographs of a blond-haired, blue-eyed man confirmed that the author was indeed Uncle Joe.
I had read Frank O’Hara’s poetry as an undergraduate at Utah where I majored in English. “Lana Turner Has Collapsed” was one of my favorite poems. My friend Ben and I had memorized it. We roared with laughter every time we recited it to each other over drinks at Club Blue on underwear night.
And here was a book that my uncle had written about O’Hara. My uncle was his friend, I discovered—his roommate, his lover! More importantly to me, Joe had written about his own life. The enigmatic man who hovered around the periphery of our family became flesh in the pages of the tremendous book I held. A hidden queer biography was brought to life in absorbing prose. Uncle Joe was in the pages I scanned in the bookstore, talking to me as I had hoped he would.
I bought the book and finished it that day.
In reading his memoir, I discovered so much about Uncle Joe. I learned that he was awarded a bronze star for treating a wounded soldier under fire in Italy toward the end of World War II. I learned that he retrieved decomposing corpses from the battlefield. I learned about Uncle Joe’s life in the years following the war. He returned to LA, where he attended USC thanks to the G.I. Bill. As he worked toward a degree in English, he frequented the “sordid” and “trashy” queer bars of LA, especially Maxwell’s, the “most notorious dive in the red-light district of downtown” with its “all-male assemblage of hustlers, drifters, rough trade, and transvestites.” At Maxwell’s, he met the novelist Christopher Isherwood. Later, the social critic and anarchist philosopher Paul Goodman, who was visiting from New York, would say hello to Joe there. Joe left with Goodman and his friends at last call. Joe was mesmerized by the stunning intellect of Goodman and his bohemian posse. They drank and smoked and talked until dawn.
I learned that Uncle Joe was soon fucking Paul Goodman on the regular.
With Goodman and another lover expecting his arrival, Joe hopped a Greyhound bus bound for the New York of his boyhood dreams, one month after graduating from USC.
Joe struggled in the beginning. After exhausting his savings, he worked a clerical job in the garment district in a building that he characterized as “Dickensian squalor.” He stayed with Goodman and his wife, Sally, for a period. He also found a sugar daddy.
Joe was having too much fun to be a kept boy, though. He partied. He heard the poet Dylan Thomas read. He frequented art galleries. He attended the earliest productions of The Living Theatre. He made friends. He got a job in a bookstore.
Then, at a party in 1951, a life-changing event transpired: Goodman introduced Joe to a young, still unheralded poet named Frank O’Hara. As Joe recalls, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was blaring from a phonograph. He and O’Hara bonded over a “frivolous ballet scenario” they conjured to accompany the music.
Subsequently, the two saw a lot of each other. Joe stayed at O’Hara’s place on weekends. By 1955, they were living together permanently. All told, they cohabitated in four apartments over ten years.
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, Uncle Joe and O’Hara went to gay bars, movies, concerts, ballets, and art openings. We often assume that life for gay people before Stonewall must have been miserable, but Joe describes these years wistfully:
What kind of lives were we living, anyway? Pretty outrageous ones, I’d say; we indulged ourselves, abided by our every whim, did pretty much what we pleased. And why not? There had to be some advantages in being queer, and we made sure that there were. For one thing, we didn’t feel compelled to project those hardhearted qualities of masculinity so often expected of straight males our age–how dispiriting and tiring that must be! Like so many gays, we were young for our age, thus slightly giddy and sometimes heedless; we had no responsibilities beyond making enough money to pay the rent, buy food and booze, and go to the movies and the ballet as often as possible.
Here and elsewhere, Joe describes his and O’Hara’s queer lives in exuberant terms. They indulged their impulses. They escaped the inhibiting constraints of heteronormative masculinity. Joe’s carefree young adult life––aided by his attractiveness, charisma, education, and, to be sure, his whiteness––was one in which he freely and openly navigated a vibrant social world.
In the years he lived with Joe, O’Hara wrote prolifically. He composed poems to my uncle, including “Lines to a Depressed Friend,” “Joe’s Jacket,” “At the Old Place,” and others. O’Hara dedicated his landmark collection of poetry, Lunch Poems, to Joe. They lived together until 1965 when the two decided to separate. A year later, O’Hara was hit by a jeep on Fire Island. He died the following day of a ruptured liver. Joe rushed to the hospital to see O’Hara before his passing.
Today, Joe is known for his connection to O’Hara, for the light his memoir sheds on O’Hara’s poetry, which often includes names of friends and anecdotes that would otherwise be unknown.
But Joe wrote throughout his life, and not just about O’Hara. He earned a master’s degree in English from Columbia, where he completed a thesis under Lionel Trilling. He authored bitchy theater reviews for The Village Voice where, according to his hilarious obituary, he was eventually fired for writing a review of a play he never attended.
In the decade following Stonewall (which he missed), Joe wrote every Thursday episode for the soap opera “The Guiding Light.” He made enough money from that gig to buy a house in East Hampton, where he spent his later years with his friend Patsy Southgate.
He also published a book of poetry called You Were a Bastard for Being So Fucking Good in Bed; Or, The Unmentionable through Chelsea Copy Press, an underground gay publisher, in 1982.
Toward the end of his life, he wrote his memoir. He didn’t live to see it published.
Uncle Joe is a rarity: an openly gay man who lived in New York through the entire second half of the twentieth century, well before and long after Stonewall. As his queer life ended at age 76, mine was beginning at 22. All told, as uncle and nephew we account for seventy years of queerness and counting. Our lives, woven together, have witnessed astonishing events: Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, same-sex marriage, and the Pulse massacre in Orlando, to name a few.
Our lives are bound by blood, choice, and serendipity.
In her chapter on kinship theory and queer theory in Blackwell’s A Companion to LGBTQ Studies, Elizabeth Freeman writes about how queers “endure in corporeal time, beyond procreation.” How, Freeman wonders, can “queer exceed its own time”?
Joe exceeds his own time in part through me.
The heterosexual family tree, with its inflexible and unforgiving horizontal and vertical lines, stops at Joe. But on the queer family tree, where lines aren’t straight, where lineages take creative twists and turns, Joe’s line continues through me and the people he touched. From us, other lines radiate outward.
Uncle Joe and I are bound by blood, but we are also aligned in our queerness, in our refusal to consider our gay selves inferior despite being raised by successive generations of LDS families in the LA suburbs.
We are aligned in our lifelong commitments to literature and writing. Without Joe’s memoir, I would know nothing about him beyond a sanitized version of his biography that my family knows through their religious filters. In the family history that I share with Uncle Joe, literature is the queer knot that binds us together. In his writing, Uncle Joe reaches out from oblivion––around religious boundaries and across time––to embrace me. He holds me tightly, still.
Joe endures in his writing. He endures in this essay.
In these lines we breathe, together.
Our queer lives are, after all, literary ones.
Jason S. Farr is assistant professor of English at Marquette University. His book Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature was recently published by Bucknell University Press. His writing has also appeared in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Profession, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find him on Twitter at @farr_jason.