by Edmund White
Vintage International (1988)
I´ve been re-reading a few books lately, specifically ones that I read when I was in my latee teens or early twenties. I´m still reading new novels and short story collections too, but it´s been interspersing those newer titles with older ones, like I´m changing up my reading habits. Maybe it´s like a jazz musician, blending in some familiar and beloved standards along with the newer experimentations.
I first encountered The Beautiful Room Is Empty shortly after I relocated to New York, so at least thirty years ago. I had heard of Edmund White initially through his activism, as he was one of the co-founders of GMHC. I was told that it was a kind of "sequel" to his earlier autobiographical novel, A Boy´s Own Story, but that I would probably like this one more. Perhaps because a good portion of The Beautiful Room occurs while its nameless protagonist is in his late teens and early twenties, finishing a prep school in the Midwest (I also attended a prep school, though mine was run by Jesuits).
Knowing that the book is semi-autobiographical means that White´s novel operates on multiple levels simultaneously while reading it. On the one hand, it is obviously a deeply personal work, and the reader is invited into the conflicting and often painful struggles that the protagonist experiences about his sexual identity during a pre-Gay Liberation middle-America. He desires men, while at the same time loathes his own desire for them; he respects his friend Maria, a lesbian-identifying bisexual artist who has no problem speaking her mind and accepting herself as she is, yet he is naive in thinking that the solution to his troubles is to marry her. Under orders from his domineering father, the narrator of The Beautiful Room sees a drug-addicted psychiatrist who claims he--and only he--can "cure" him of his homosexuality.
The novel depicts a lot of the gay sex that the younger White/protagonist experience in 1950s- to early-60s Michigan and Illinois: mostly bathrooms, and with men whose identities from the waist-up were largely unknown. The author goes into extensive detail about how he would cruise for hours on end, bringing his homework with him into one of the stalls, waiting for someone to enter the stall next to his, pull down their pants, and show their erect cock. For years, the novel´s narrator thinks that this is what all homosexual relationships are; for years, he thinks that being queer is a diagnosis, as there was as yet no example of there being a gay community.
The Beautiful Room Is Empty offers a glimpse into the America before gay men and women were out and proud, and places the reader into the consciousness of at least some of the men struggling with their same-sex desires. It´s a complicated world, and one that offers nuance and humanity to LGBTQ+ history. To a reader in 2023, some of the language between the characters might be off-putting--some of the gay men here are racist (gasp), for example, just like any other human being--and some queer people today may disagree with some of the disparities between their sexual identities and their sexual desires or activities.
The novel culminates with the protagonist moving to New York City, and ending up at the Stonewall Inn during the time of the riots in 1969--which Edmund White actually experienced, by the way. It´s extraordinary to think how recent that pivotal moment in queer history was, and how it happened almost on a whim. Sometimes, looking back on queer history, one might be tempted to think that fighting back against the police that night in 1969 arose out of some organized or coherent outrage; to hear Edmund White tell it in this narrative, the cops just picked the wrong night to push the gay men and women around, because they were all mourning the death of Judy Garland. When the riot continued to escalate, and someone began chanting "Gay is good"--a conscious reference to the civil rights´ declaration of "Black is beautiful"--White says that some of the bar patrons laughed, at first. They didn´t realize that what was unfolding before all of their eyes was the first glimpse of themselves as a community, as far more than some misplaced diagnosis of a mental illness.
White originally published The Beautiful Room Is Empty in 1988, nearly twenty years after Stonewall, during the middle of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. On another level than autobiography or gay history, the novel also exists as a form of activism, a kind of rallying cry for queer people to remember where their community has come from, to not give up in the face of this, the latest horror and outrage. At the time of its publication, it was fighting the US government for research and treatment into a virus that was disproportionately killing queer people, a fact that was met with a shrug of indifference for years. Re-reading White´s novel today, amidst an unprecedented amount of legislation against queer people (particularly transgender-identifying youth and adults), The Beautiful Room Is Empty is a sobering and important read. Written by an gay author who grew up pre-Stonewall, came out before there even was a discernible queer community, who has lived with HIV for decades, and one who has helped to found organizations and build resources for the LGBTQ community--Edmund White is a powerful example of what one person can do, as well as the change that can occur when people work together.