Inventors of Gay: Carson McCullers
Words by Christopher Harrity
February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967
Deeply troubled and darkly creative, McCullers did not identify as lesbian. In fact there is little evidence that she acted on any lesbian feelings, but if you Google her name with the added word of “lesbian," you will see lists of theoretic and academic writings surrounding her use of sexual identity. Her work allowed a vision of us, though flawed, to emerge in literature, the stage, and the screen.
Often associated with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote—both close friends—they have been referred to, with William Faulkner, as the core of Southern Gothic writing. But no one was more goth than McCullers. Her most signature works—The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Ballad of the Sad Café have all been made into haunting and memorable films that addressed sophisticated subject matter for their times.
In a time when homosexuality was mostly associated with loneliness, otherness, and perversion, she created complex characters that suffered from these qualities but did so with compassion and gave them a soulful expression, often allowing them to transcend their burdens without losing their essence or compromising.
Why we care:
McCullers' characters portrayed aspects of the human spirit with regard to gender and sexual identity in a more modern way. Julie Harris was indelibly memorable as a forlorn 12-year-old baby dyke, Frankie Adams, trying to find a sense of belonging in both the stage and screen versions of Member of the Wedding (below). When you see it—and you should see it—don’t miss the shots of Brandon DeWilde in drag (below as well).
Harris again gave her all to Reflections In a Golden Eye as Alison Landon, an army wife with a tendency to sexual self-mutilation. Also in Reflections, Marlon Brando plays Elizabeth Taylor’s closeted husband, obsessed with his wife’s exhibitionist stalker played by the perfectly beautiful and completely nude Robert Forster— in 1967!
The Ballad of the Sad Café is a 1991 Merchant Ivory film, produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by gay actor and director Simon Callow, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Keith Carradine. Michael Hirst adapted the gay playwright Edward Albee’s work, which in turn was based on a novella in a collection of short stories of the same title by McCullers. Redgrave plays a pre-trans consciousness FTM in this exploration of love and gender.
Besides gay writers Capote and Williams...
W. H. Auden— gay poet and critic
Benjamin Britten— gay composer
Gypsy Rose Lee— Burlesque queen stripper and writer
Paul and Jane Bowles— bisexual ex-patriot writers
"I think we look for the differences in people because it makes us less lonely."
— Carson McCullers
"But look what the Church has done to Jesus during the last two thousand years. What they have made of Him. How they have turned every word He spoke for their own vile ends. Jesus would be framed and in jail if he was living today."
— Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter)
Ethel Waters, Carson McCullers and Julie Harris
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.