Liberating Liberace

The most fabulous musician of all time helps America see queerly in a new video collection

Of course, no one would willingly revert to the world of "Friends of Dorothy" code and innuendo today. (Which is not to say that such skills have been rendered totally irrelevant: What is Frazier's Niles Crane but an upper-middle-class Liberace--invisible Maris, opera queendom, and all? Or Will & Grace's Jack, a Lee who dares speak the name of his love?) But before--or even after--we glory in being here, queer, and used to it, attention must be paid: There's an art and a nerve to Liberace's performances that demands respect. After all, he survived Anita Bryant's America, not Ellen De Generes's (much less Gregg Araki's). His world wasn't that far from the one where reputable newspapers printed the names of men nabbed in raids on gay bars, or where more government employees were hounded out of jobs for being gay than for being Communists.

But don't take my word for it. Consider Liberace in light of a surprising boomlet for the culture of closeting, one written by its survivors. In last year's The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, essayist Daniel Harris mourned the passing of old-style gay porn; recognizable humans getting it on, he argued, have been replaced by robotic constructs like Jeff Stryker going at it with mechanical efficiency. This fall brought literary critic D.A. Miller's Place for Us (Harvard), an elegant little hymn to the grand subtextual tradition of classic Broadway musicals--"a somehow gay genre, the only one that mass culture ever produced." Broadway, he writes in words that could just as well describe Liberace's one-man theater of the closet, "denominates those early pre-sexual realities of gay experience to which, in numerous lives, it became forever bound: not just the solitude, shame, [and] secretiveness by which the impossibility of social integration was first internalized; or the excessive sentimentality that was the necessary condition of sentiments allowed no real object; but also the intense, senseless joy that, while not identical to these destitutions, is neither extricable from them."

So give Liberace his due. Today he may read as painfully old and tired, an extinct species fighting a battle that's been mostly won. Seeing him sing "I'll Be Seeing You" for what must be the 10,000th time, winking and smiling at an audience that would be horrified to actually know what "you" meant for him, is a taste of true misery. But think of Liberace instead as a spy in the enemy's camp, and your view brightens. Going onstage every night must have felt like that to him: simultaneously a dance with career death and an exhilarating adventure in speaking up, even if no one could say out loud that they heard.

The forbidden outpost: Is Liberace, the Columbus of camp, trying to tell us something?
The forbidden outpost: Is Liberace, the Columbus of camp, trying to tell us something?

When you enjoy the plethora of gay characters mobbing the tube these days, spend a minute honoring those who helped win the airwaves for them. Luxuriant, fabulous, and everything else he was, Liberace did as much as anyone to boldly go where no (gay) man had gone before--all without ever leaving his closet.

« Previous Page