A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture
Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004
Charlie: “Ever wonder who was the first guy to put pineapple on pizza? I bet he was gay. No straight guy is gonna say: ‘You know what this pizza could use? A pineapple ring!’ But God bless ‘im, it’s good!”
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet. . . .
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Everyone knows about the role of homosexuals in the creation as well as preservation of culture, especially that of the Aryan race. Well, maybe not. Other than James Neill’s vast survey The Origin and Role of Same-Sex Relationships in Human Societies, most people with any positive interest in the topic are content to just compile lists of “famous queers.” Then there are snarky works with titles like How Homosexuals Saved Civilization. Even Louis Cramford’s magisterial survey Homosexuality and Civilization is just an erudite variation, showing the interaction of its two titular topics without exploring the connection or interconnection.
It’s common enough on the Right to somewhat grudgingly acknowledge their role in the re-homesteading and revitalizing of blighted (usually by blacks) urban areas. The Right ruefully admits that for some reason, these limp-wristed sissies are able to resist the Black Undertow that drove out all those manly Olde Tyme White families.
As the writer Alan Gurganus is quoted in the work under review, “You can always tell an urban neighborhood in transition by that harbinger of change — the corner Art Deco shop opened by two gentlemen friends.”
Indeed, one need only spend an idle weekend or two viewing the plethora of cable channels devoted to house-hunting or home-improvement to notice the “over-representation” — as the Steve Sailerites like to say — of male couples, to the extent that the introduction of “my partner” is less likely to reveal a business partner than what the Times used to call a “life partner.”
One might dismiss this as another example of PC-casting, as in the even more obvious and unlikely number of intact black families with enough cash flow to buy a big new house or need help purging and organizing all their stuff.
On the other hand, if it reflects reality, the Sailerites are ready with a slew of easy explanations, revolving around “high net worth” and “no kids.” Here, they prefer amateur sociology to their favored biological explanations.
Our author, Will Fellows, confronts this meme right at the start, and dismisses it as a best inadequate. His research “provided me with so much — admittedly anecdotal — evidence to help dismiss some of the rather clichéd explanations as to why gay men are extraordinarily involved in the preservation arena. ”
There are arguments along the lines of ‘no children, so they don’t have to live in safe neighborhoods with good schools,’ or ‘no children so they have more income’. And even an argument that I heard that gay men are marginal creatures in the culture, or have been historically, and so they are inclined to take on marginal enterprises like preservation. 
In his Conclusion, Fellows gives his “answer”:
Gay men make extraordinary contributions in historic preservation, an arena well populated by straight women, because the mix of things that preservation is about strike many of the same psychologic chords in gay males as in straight females. These chords cluster around a number of themes: domophilia, romanticism, aestheticism, and connection- and continuity-mindedness.
Making things a bit more concrete, these “themes” are explicated as a “cluster of concerns” such as:
Creating and keeping attractive and safe dwelling spaces; restoring and preserving wholeness and design integrity; valuing heritage and identity; nurturing community relationships; fostering continuity in the midst of incessant change.
In short, the basic values of the New Right. In fact, Fellows later provides a quote from Jung (the Aryan Freud) which is very interesting in this context:
Since a “mother-complex” is a concept borrowed from [Judaic] psychopathology, it is always associated with the idea of injury and illness. But if we take the concept out of its narrow psychopathological setting and give it a wider connotation, we can see that it has positive effects as well. Thus a man with a mother-complex . . . is likely to have a feeling for history, and to be conservative in the best sense and cherish the values of the past.
Even further, Fellows insists historic preservation is far from “marginal work” fit only for people on the sidelines of “real work,” but is “a job that is at the very center of their society’s life, akin to religious work.” As he explains elsewhere:
In a certain sense I see historic preservation as a religious act, religious in the original meaning of that word, having to do with putting back together something that is broken.
There’s this whole phenomenon growing out of the human soul that resonates more powerfully for some people than for others that has to do with identifying things that are in need, things that are broken, things that are not whole, not complete, and restoring them to a state of wholeness. So in a certain sense I do see historic preservation as a religious act, religious in the original meaning of that word, having to do with putting back together something that is broken.
We’ll return to those religious dimensions, but first, let’s go back to those “themes,” which are not entirely self-explanatory. Domophilia is a “neologism” and rather unfortunate, as it sounds like a sexual aberration. In fact, it’s nothing scarier than “an exceptional love of houses and things homey, this deep domesticity, which often emerges in childhood.”
Romanticism is not a neologism but is also unfortunate, being so poly-valent. Fellows calls it “romanticism with a small r, the exceptionally romantic and emotional ways in which many gay men relate to the past, to old buildings and the places, and to the lives and possessions of their previous occupants.” In short, what New Rightists will recognize as what we call “hauntology.”
Rightists might also think of H. P. Lovecraft as a non-homosexual, but distinctly odd, example of this trait — “I am Providence” and all that — but Fellows throws us a wonderful curveball here; Lovecraft is never mentioned in the book at all, but Romanticism is immediately exemplified by August Derleth, Lovecraft’s executor and posthumous collaborator, who set up Arkham House- (note the name!) to preserve Lovecraft’s weird oeuvre. Lovecraftians, led by S. T. Joshi, have long given Derleth a hard time, but here he’s lauded for his “quintessentially queer romanticism” as exemplified in such novels as The Atmosphere of Houses.
By contrast, Aestheticism is fairly straightforward, having for a long time “served as a code word for gay.” It refers to “the emergence in childhood of [an] artistic eye and aptitude, [an] extraordinary visual understanding of the world, [a] design-mindedness.” In short, to refer to the cable metaphor again, a “queer eye.”
Connection- and Continuity-mindedness is perhaps the most self-explanatory, but it’s also the most ironic, since it presents gay men as more conservative than most so-called “conservatives.”
As a connection with the past is central to the definition of culture, so is a concern with connection and continuity vital to culture keeping. . . . Like [E. M.] Forster, these men cherish tradition, family, community, a feeling for place, a sense of flowing history. They are enchanted not by the modern but by “something older, something slightly mysterious yet powerful,” as Nicholas Fox describes it.
Fellows then quotes the marvelously named James Van Trump, who seems to be a closet Heideggerian or archeofuturist:
“We live in a kind of cultural continuum, like a chain . . . We need a constant going back and forth from the present to the past. We have to have the past from which to move on.”
The bulk of Fellows’ book is both a history of historical preservation and an oral history of the gay men involved in it — to the extent that one can separate the two. Some men are well known in their professions, some are not. Some places are obvious — Provincetown, New Orleans — others are outliers — Red Cloud, Nebraska, or Cooksville, Wisconsin. As you can tell from the quotes I’ve sprinkled here and there, they’re a fascinating group, well worth your time to visit.
After all this Fellows has to face up to the meta-issue: how come? Here Fellows is boldly un-PC, driven by the data, anecdotal though it may be.
“Artistic,” “musical,” “nervous,” “sensitive,” “sophisticated,” and “temperamental” have served as euphemism or code words for gay. They are all based in the reality of gay men’s lives.
Score one for the Sailerites — some stereotypes are based on reality! In this case, “based on the reality of gay men’s lives.”
Fellows comes down on the un-politically popular side of nature, not nurture; quoting interviewee Richard Jost:
[The numbers of men involved in historic preservation] “would seem to argue for the existence of a preservation gene, which I would guess is located very near the Broadway show-tune gene.”
But no sooner does Fellows take his stand on empirical reality than he moves, even more boldly, from cliché to “archetypal truth,” bringing in the big guns: Camille Paglia herself:
Gay men are aliens, cursed and gifted, the shamans of our time . . . caught midway between the male and female brains.
Shamans! Male and female brains! In more traditional societies, from the shamans of so-called “primitive” tribes to the monks of mediaeval Christendom, these men who “partake of the ambiguous virtue of the feminine,” as Evola says, have largely been drawn to perform religious functions.
In the last two hundred years, however, the speed of change has accelerated to such an extent that preservation of the built environment has itself taken on the trappings of a religious calling. Indeed, clergy took a leading role in the beginnings of the preservationist movement.
As Fellows quotes another wonderfully named-interviewee, Richard Wagner, a Wisconsin preservationist, “It’s a priestly role, in the sense of the shamans.”
If all this talk of “brokenness” and healing and religion — shamans, even! — seems a bit much, consider some evidence from those interested in preservation as such. For example, New York’s official real estate curmudgeon, “Jerimiah” (a pseudonym), gathers some evidence of his own in a rare moment of meta-reflection on his task:
You can like those towers or hate those towers. But here’s the thing: All the glass boxes around the city are making us sick — mentally and physically. They are literally killing us as they hasten our deaths.
Cognitive neuroscientist Colin Ellard studied what happens to people on the sidewalk when they stand in front of a bland glass façade. In one study, he placed human subjects in front of the Whole Foods grocery store on the Lower East Side, strapped skin-conducting bracelets to their wrists, and asked them to take notes on their emotional states.
He reported, “When planted in front of Whole Foods, my participants stood awkwardly, casting around for something of interest to latch on to and talk about. They assessed their emotional state as being on the wrong side of ‘happy’ and their state of arousal was close to bottoming out. The physiological instruments strapped to their arms showed a similar pattern. These people were bored and unhappy. When asked to describe the site, words such as bland, monotonous and passionless rose to the top of the charts.”
In his book Happy City, Charles Montgomery calls this “an emerging disaster in street psychology.” The loss of old buildings and small businesses, the homogenization from suburban chains and condo boxes, is more than an aesthetic loss. It is damaging us both psychologically and physically.
Writes Montgomery, “The big-boxing of a city block harms the physical health of people living nearby, especially the elderly. Seniors who live among long stretches of dead frontage have actually been found to age more quickly than those who live on blocks with plenty of doors, windows, porch stoops, and destinations.”
In a city where people are reconceived as consumers, not citizens, it is best to keep everyone moving and disconnected.
Disconnected! There’s that word again.
And lest your cold, libertard heart thinks that all this, despite references to Heidegger and archeofuturism, is really just hippie airy-fairy nonsense, consider how our white homelands, which are very popular on the New Right as examples of How to Live, handle this:
Change, for its own sake, isn’t necessarily a good thing. In New York, “change” means eradication. There is no effort to blend the new with, and into, the old. It’s all or nothing, no compromise, no desire in preserving the past in the present to be appreciated in the future. It’s funny that Europeans understand that preserving the past, in historical and cultural contexts, is a way of maintaining a continuous link between what came before, what is now and what will be in the future. Warsaw, Dresden and Nurnberg for example, were obliterated during WWII. They were rebuilt, combining old and new (which included painstakingly recreating historic structures) because the people understood the importance of being able to connect with their past. Unfortunately, preserving and acknowledging New York’s history doesn’t exist in the minds and actions of developers. A dystopian city, a la “Blade Runner” is something we all should fear since that seems to be the direction New York is heading.
Fellows even finds himself drifting further into the vortex of Traditionalism, quoting from John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s The Necessity for Ruins to the effect that the preservationist “sees history not as a continuity but as a dramatic discontinuity, a kind of cosmic drama,” involving a necessary plunge into chaos and decay (as in the nigredo stage of alchemy?) before the work of restoration can return us to “that golden age of harmonious beginnings.”
This is how we reproduce the cosmic scheme and correct history. Are we perhaps trying to reenact some ancient myth of birth, death and redemption?
Gosh, could the “conservatives” be wrong? Perhaps all those childless men do have some role to play in reproduction and survival, at least in the reproduction of the past into the future and the survival of cities, not global consumerist playgrounds?
I suspect that at this point Fellows’ readers in the architecture or “gay studies” shelves may have started to bleed from the ears as he hits these levels. Nevertheless, it is a rare and valuable empirical supplement to the more abstract works alluded to above (as well as some of my own) that strive to remind us of role of the non-family man in the creation and preservation of Aryan culture.
1. Two and a Half Men, Season 2, Episode 14, “Those Big Pink Things With Coconuts.” See this epic moment here. An interviewee in the book under review recalls his father making a similar comment about prehistoric cave paintings: “It had to be the fags. All the other men are out hunting and killing. There’s a bunch of fags sitting in the back of the cave, complaining about how ugly it is, wondering what they can do to make it look better. So they decide to paint some bison on the walls.” For more on cave paintings see Collin Cleary “The Stones Cry Out: Cave Art and the Origins of the Human Spirit,” here. Greg Johnson takes Camille Paglia to task for failing to include cave paintings in her recent survey of images, here.
2. Allen Ginsberg, “America.”
3. McFarland, 2008. Neill is focused mostly on the role of homosexuals, and homosexuality, in providing a biological-evolutionary advantage to primates and their descendants, primitive human tribes, although he does not neglect the cultural role as well; he even finds the need to compile his own “famous queers” list. See my Amazon Kindle A Review of James Neill’s “The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies.”
4. Harvard, 2003.
5. You know what that means, of course.
6. I suspect this is why I now find people online complaining that even the grandfather of them all, PBS’ This Old House has “gotten too gay;” though usually blamed on recent new host Kevin O’Connor (like the Joel vs. Mike battles of MST3k fans), it’s more likely just contamination from the “all these shows are gay” feeling.
7. And you know what that means, too.
8. Author interviewed here: There Almost Went The Neighborhood: Gay Men and Preservation | Arts and Music – Indiana Public Media.
9. Carl Jung, “The Mother Complex” in Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, pp. 85-91.
11. See, for example, Christopher Pankhurst’s “Towards a Right-wing Hauntology,” here. “In contradistinction to overt contemporary culture which endlessly recycles and repeats the past as a commodity for the present, hauntology seeks to reinstate the melancholy fact that the past is lost, and to imbue its unknowableness with a bittersweet taste of mortality.”
12. The implication that Derleth was homosexual is news to me, and Fellows has not provided any evidence; is it common knowledge?
13. Fellows quotes Philip Gambone, who lived on Boston’s Beacon Hill in the ’70s and attended the Anglo-Catholic Church of the Advent: “The Advent’s congregation was made up almost exclusively of gay men and Boston Brahmins, a strange and tenuous coalition at best. What brought these unlikely factions together was a shared passion for the Mass, and for its high church aesthetic.” The coalition may have been strange but hardly tenuous; it dates back to the 19th century. See Douglass Shand-Tucci, Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture, especially vol. 1, Boston Bohemia (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994). The afore-mentioned James Van Trump explains that, like Cram and other Boston Bohemians, becoming a High-Church Episcopalian allowed him to “have all the lights, incense, color, flowers, and music without subscribing to the rigid doctrines of Rome.” I think you know what those are.
14. “No, indeed. It is hardly possible to separate you, even when he is summoned to a secret council and you are not.” The Fellowship of the Ring II.2, “The Council of Elrond.”
15. Quoting from her collection Vamps and Tramps.
16. See Wulf Grimmson, Loki’s Way: The Path of the Sorcerer in the Age of Iron (Second Edition, Lulu.com, 2011) and my review, “A Band Apart,” here and reprinted in The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).
17. “How disheartening to those who uphold the myth of manhood based on muscles and metallic strength: this [the Androgyne] alone is the TRUE man, the ABSOLUTE man. He absorbs within himself the ambiguous virtue of the female. . .” “Serpentine Wisdom” in Julius Evola, The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1995). This is an essay on the Tao Te Ching, which also provides an epigraph for Fellows’ book: “Knowing the masculine and nurturing the feminine become the river of all beneath heaven.”
18. “In normal times, evil would be fought with good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.” The Chronicles of Riddick (Twohy, 2004).
19. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).
20. A post on the destruction of the Market Diner on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York , here.
21. Evola gave grudging praise to Spengler for having overturned the idea of one, rising and progressing civilization and replacing it with the idea of discontinuity among types of civilizations; see The Path of Cinnabar (Arktos, 2009), pp. 203-04
22. I think he means “reverse or annihilate history” not the Judaic idea of tikkun olam.
23. Fellows quoting from Jackson, The Necessity for Ruins (Amherst, 1980).
24. Painful as it may be to those whose ideas of architecture arise from the work of Ayn Rand, Fellows notes along the way that architecture has long been a similarly respectable refuge for the homosexual male. See my “Ralph Adams Cram: Wild Boy of American Architecture,” here and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014), and “A Waste of Space: Some Thoughts on the Fabulous Career of Philip Johnson, Architect,” here. Alas, Cram get only one brief mention, but it has a good, Ignatius Reilly-an quote: “Between the years 1000 and 1500 life was in certain fundamental respects, more right than at any time before or since. . . . Back to medievalism we must go, and begin again.”