Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg (1926-1997), a Beat Generation poet, wrote a long poem, Howl, in 1956. Its famous opening line:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

The poem warns of the destructive forces of materialism and conformity in the United States at the time, and its first hearing was an iconic moment in the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Allen Ginsberg was born into a New Jersey Jewish family, the son of poet/teacher father and a mother who was a member of the Communist party. At Columbia University Allen Ginsberg (who was never himself a Communist), met Lucien Carr, who introduced him to Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes, all future Beat Generation writers. They bonded over the potential they saw in the youth of America, as a counter movement to the post-WWII McCarthy era.

In San Francisco, Ginsberg met 21-year-old Peter Orlovsky (1933-2010), with whom he fell in love. Ginsberg encouraged Orlovsky to try writing poetry, and they became life-long partners. Orlovsky’s gentleness and kindness were a perfect foil to Ginsberg’s brittle coldness. There Ginsberg met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who would become part of a broader, expanded Beat Generation. Ginsberg planned a poetry reading at the Six Gallery, advertising the event as Six Poets at the Six Gallery. The reading, held on October 7, 1955, brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation. It was the first public reading of Howl, the poem that brought world-wide fame to Ginsberg and many of the poets associated with him.

Because of its explicit, raw language, Howl was considered scandalous when it was first published. Banned for obscenity shortly after its 1956 publication, that action became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment; the ban was rescinded after a judge declared the poem as having redeeming social importance.

Orlovsky (left) and Ginsberg in Paris, 1957:


Ginsberg's speech and writings about taboo subjects made him a controversial figure in the conservative 1950s, but he continued to tackle sensitive and inflammatory subjects throughout the next four decades. His openness about homosexuality, including his love of young men, was a constant expression. In his poetry he wrote openly and graphically about his desire for the freedom of men to love other men, paving the way for other writers to express themselves more honestly. As well, his use of language deemed indecent challenged obscenity laws, ultimately changing them.

Allen Ginsberg succumbed to cancer fifteen years ago. He died on April 5, 1997, at age 70, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City. All of us owe our legal freedom of expression to this man who bravely challenged the status quo.

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