Gayphemera V: Giovanni’s Room

The history and the culture that has built the present lifestyle of gay men is both deep and beautiful and very deserving of our digging through it. Gayphemera hopes to educate and explore the cultural players, performers, and projects that defined us then and now. In this installment, we explore the James Baldwin‘s classic.

People do crazy shit when they are in love but are having trouble getting that love back. We’ve heard of people pretending to be dead in fiction (Romeo & Juliet) to literally cutting off body parts for attention (Vincent Van Gogh): people are fucking crazy. Can you imagine applying the chemistry of love to a time period where your love is absolutely not allowed? Can you imagine being gay and crazy in love and unable to get that love back? That sounds like hell.

That’s more or less the underlying dramatic pull of the classic piece of gay literature, Giovanni’s Room. James Baldwin’s mid-century novel is about two men in a fraught relationship, where only one person is being gay—but both are in love. It’s not only about the struggle of a relationship but the unique struggle of being out and in a relationship. If you are same sex oriented and have dated someone who isn’t willing to be out or isn’t willing to be gay outside of intimate spaces, you know this unique situation: that is the story Giovanni’s Room tells.

It’s more complicated than that. Baldwin creates a reflection of 1950s Paris where an American (David) has a complicated relationship with an Italian man (Giovanni), an admittedly liberal zone that still has it’s issues with letting people be people. The tension is based in a give and take because, while both have to stay closeted in some capacity, David still claims to be coupled with a woman while seeing Giovanni. Giovanni is a good sport about things until he reaches a maddening breaking point, where he has to be the only one, where he needs attention, where he needs love, where he needs to be validated as a person outside of a silly fuck boy.

With this main conflict, Baldwin creates a tense scatter plot of variables. David is broke and lives with Giovanni in Paris but needs money and can get money from his father if he has a reason…like getting married to a woman. Giovanni has his own baggage of losing family, dating women himself, and working (and not working) in a down-low gay bar. Atop of this, there is a murder accusation and eventual death sentence, a gay martyring that feeds into an ocean of guilt. It is one of the best modern tragedies of our time.

Why? Because it all has to do with the experience of being gay, not being able to be gay, and finding your way to love despite trying circumstances. Some people can’t help but be themselves while others struggle and lock themselves into the self, without a means to escape—and that leads you nowhere. Yes, it’s necessary reading because Baldwin provides a glimpse into a specific moment in gay history but it’s essential reading for all because it so clearly depicts a unique relationship gay people (or anyone dealing with a closet) have, where one person is willing to be out while the other person will only go so far.

It’s a tough read because it’s so realistic. If you have not read Baldwin, it’s a wonderful, painful, touching introduction. It’s a look at what people do for love—and it’s a look at what people won’t do for love. And that is the fucked up part, a fact that will blemish the brain forevermore.

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