(This post is dedicated to Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia, bigots who hold tremendous power that they will exercise tomorrow. May they someday be compelled to watch the entire Fred Halsted oeuvre, and may it change them for the better.*)
When Fred Halsted released his rough, transgressive artporn film Sextool in 1975, reviewer William Moritz applauded it in Entertainment West, declaring that the “heterosexual, middle-class concepts of marriage and morality that have been foisted upon gays by society are ruptured and banished.”
Well, not entirely: a few months later, in May 1975, Halsted was “pleased and proud to announce his engagement to his personal slave, super-twink Joseph Yale”:
In some ways the Halsted-Yale partnership upsets prevailing narratives of same-sex marriage. As opponents of marriage equality quickly recede into an ugly and intolerant past that collective memory is sure to quickly purge (as it did miscegenation laws, a rapid forgetting Peggy Pascoe chronicled in What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America), two main camps are left standing. Liberal proponents of formal legal equality recognize marriage as the basic institution of sexual citizenship, and demand access for all. Queer radical critics, like the Against Equality collective, reject the idea of assimilating into a hegemonic “normalcy” that “apes hetero privilege” and subjects LGBT relationships to the same regulatory mechanisms of state control that straight people have so insipidly hoisted upon themselves in the name of what Dagmar Herzog calls “the wages of straightness.”
I’m simplifying, but that’s because what I really want to talk about is Fred Halsted.
Halsted and Yale complicate the tension between these camps. As kinky, nonmonogamous, drug using pornographers, they were hardly precursors to what Lisa Duggan has labeled homonormativity, a sort of inversion of Foucault’s perverse implantation in which it’s the ones labeled perverts who internalize the standards of vanilla straight society. Carl Wittman railed against this in his famous “Gay Manifesto,” writing that “gay people must stop gauging their self-respect by how well they mimic straight marriages.” But Halsted caught flak from the other side, too, as radical gay liberationists often reacted negatively to the rough SM slant of his 1972 masterpiece L.A. Plays Itself, some even considering it oppressive.
Halsted himself saw no ideological tension in his marriage. When asked in a 1978 interview why anyone would want to get married, he simply said, “Because they’re in love. Everyone’s always wanted to get married.” While this somewhat unnuanced and ahistorical view fell short of profundity, he later added qualifying comments that rejected a monolithic view of the institution. He and Yale had a clause specifying that adultery could not constitute grounds for divorce. “We’re not heterosexuals,” he said, “and I don’t think we should live our marriage in terms of heterosexuality.”
So far, so queer. Domesticated consumer subjects of American empire, they were not, and Halsted and Yale provide an interesting historical counterpoint to bifurcated narratives of marriage in which it stands in opposition to a more “radical” liberationist ethos. (They also, I think, serve as reminders of an important aspect of this history all too often overlooked, which is that whatever legal bans have been imposed, same-sex marriage has been happening for decades, and has never been prevented by homophobic laws; the actual question is one of state recognition.**)
Yet something sticks in the craw upon reading that mostly charming announcement. Slave imagery has a long (and complex) history in BDSM circles, but as Margot Weiss recently argued in Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, it can’t be wholly “emptied of any specific historical or social meaning, or rendered ‘not real’ by the bracketing function of the safe, sane, and consensual scene” (196-97). In a society still haunted by the ongoing racial inequalities generated by slavery, calling something “play” does not simply remove it from history. Yet Halsted granted himself license to transcend race; as a self-identified pervert, and a filmmaker who at times used bold interracial imagery, he seemed to feel entitled to lay claim to racial imagery that was not his to own.
It wasn’t just the widely-used SM slave trope. William E. Jones’s Halsted Plays Himself, one of my favorite books of the past decade and a work of astounding research and recovery, includes a tremendously useful bibliography of Halsted material. One citation it does not include, though, which I found in the vertical file for L.A. Plays Itself at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives (from Drummer, issue 38, 1975), reflects Halsted’s casual but deeply problematic claiming of loaded racial language:
Ugh. You can see my shocked underlining. Surely the affective resonances of language like this vary across time and place, and it fit Halsted’s carefully cultivated self-presentation as a coarse iconoclast (who also called himself and others “faggot,” much to the anger of many gay activists). Yet it also undeniably shows a sense of unquestioned racial entitlement.
There are numerous analytical avenues one could take from there. I fear that I stretch the limits of a decent blog post (and heaven forfend that one would traipse into indecency whilst discussing that all-American man Fred Halsted!), but I’ll leave it at the simple suggestion that Halsted and Yale queered the question of same-sex marriage long before it became a mainstream-LGBT-vs-queer-radical proposition, and also that they did so while engaging in a form of sexualized white privilege that requires interrogation—had the Supreme Court not, this very day, reminded us that racism is dead and we live in a post-racial nation that just happens to be riddled with deep-seated racial inequalities. I guess Fred Halsted and Samuel Alito share some ideas after all.
* I like to think that while Thomas was renting copious amounts of porn lo those many years ago before the interwebz, he accidentally brought home a copy of L.A. Plays Itself. Oh, the ensuing hilarity…
**I’m not sure whether Halsted and Yale received state recognition for their marriage, but the announcement does mention being “wed legally,” and the time and place of Boulder, 1975, is glaring; Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan had wed there in April 1975, with a half-dozen gay couples following before the county clamped down. Were Halsted and Yale among them? I don’t actually know, but I’d love to learn more.