Boyd McDonald, “Straight to Hell” & queer assimilation
I’ve been fascinated by the life of Boyd McDonald for awhile now. A Harvard grad and former reporter for Time Magazine, McDonald became a “pornographer” with his zine “Straight to Hell” in the early 70s. The zine was his reaction to the straight-laced man he was forced to be. Through its salacious details and blunt photos, he wanted to celebrate the sexual side of gayness, the homosexual element that is so often denigrated.
William E. Jones published a biography of the renegade figure spring of last year. Jones’ research in “True Homosexual Experiences” is in-depth and meticulous, but as far as crafting a narrative of McDonald’s life, there was something left to be desired. (N+1 has a great review here).
I was surprised to see Wikipedia designates McDonald immediately as a pornographer. Jones makes a strong case that McDonald’s zines were so much more than porn. The powers that be construed Jones as a pornographer, but he was so much more: journalist, amateur sociologist, artist, writer. It’s telling to me that Wikipedia distinguishes McDonald primarily as a pornographer. It just goes to show how quickly heteronormativity classifies gay sexuality as gross and indecent whenever it is described in terms of pleasure rather than medical analysis.
One of my favorite contention from McDonald was his insight that “homosexual acts” remain private. Gay occurs in public. If McDonald is a “pornographer” it is because he insists that gay sexuality–something that should be hidden from the public–actually has a space in public. If the world were fair, when one calls McDonald a pornographer, one would place the same dignifier on the editors of Maxim and Sports Illustrated. Of course, the world isn’t fair, and a straight couple carnally conjoined on a 40 foot screen in Times Square is just peachy, but a gay couple in the same position is cause to call your legislator.
McDonald’s work was constantly fighting against this tidal wave of heteronormativity. He insisted, issue after issue, that homosexual acts deserved the same kind of acceptance of heterosexual acts.
From Jones’s biography, I was also struck by McDonald’s influence on queer theory. He didn’t participate directly in any academic space, but he certainly contributed to the spirit of queer theory. Queer theorists are all about looking in marginalized spaces, the gloomy and dirty areas and seeing what happens when these spaces are evaluated with dignity. When not assumed to be gross and disgusting, do the places reveal themselves to be something else, perhaps joyful or a spot of communion? (I think Garth Greenwell’s essay praising cruising).
More essays now on my reading list: