I want to write this while Chip Delany is still alive.
Probably I have no right to refer to Samuel L. Delany as “Chip”. My understanding is that this is the name his friends call him; “Samuel” is the name he uses as a published author. But since I am focusing on Delany the person more than Delany the writer, I will use the nickname.
Chip Delany is best known as an author. He is often classified as a science-fiction author, although he has not written science fiction in decades. To be honest I have not read many of his writings, other than an autobiographical piece he published in the anthology Boys Like Us: Gay Writers Tell Their Coming-Out Stories, edited by Patrick Merla. His was the first (and chronologically earliest) entry in the series, and it reflected a world I had never known. Consider his etymological explanation of the word “camp”:
Etymologically, of course, “camp” was an apocopation of “camp follower.” Camp followers were the women, frequently prostitutes, who followed the armies across Europe from military camp to military camp. Since the military have always had a special place in homosexual mythology, and presumably because the advent of a large group of young, generally womenless men was as good an excuse as any for cross-dressing among the local male populace inclined, the then-new meaning of the term — “to go out and camp it up”, “to have a mad camp” (and “a mad camp” was the phrase most commonly in use — gained currency in England during World War I and had been brought back to the United States by American soldiers. Calling something “a camp” followed the same linguistic template as calling a funny experience “a riot”. Indeed, the two were often synonymous.
I had never heard of this. I had never heard of a lot of the experiences Delany related in this story. Delany was born in 1942. He lived gay life before Stonewall. He survived the plague of the 1980s. He has seen a lot and lived through a lot. That is enough for him to be admirable. But it is the way he has lived his life, and the ways that he has written about and advocated for that life that makes him remarkable. Since delving deeper into his life story, I think he has become one of my gay heroes, and not just because he is bearish and cute. He has made unconventional life choices and defended them openly, which seems heroic to me.
I should note up front that I don’t think his life choices are for everyone. I highly doubt they would be for me. But I do think he demonstrates that there are many different ways for homosexuals to structure their lives.
What have I found impressive? Let me list the ways:
First, he married a woman, Marilyn Hacker. Maybe that should not be surprising. Many gay men of his era married women. But Delany was open about his sexuality from the beginning with his wife. She later came out as lesbian. They had a daughter together, with whom Delany remains close. To me, it sounds like a significantly different narrative than “gay man forced into closet, decides to make himself straight by marrying, lives life of anguish”. In an interview I listened to on Youtube, Delany credits his wife with shifting the focus of his writing from science fiction to more contemporary alienation. Although his marriage ended, it does not sound as if he regretted being married. Many gay men who marry women appreciate the children but not the marriage; I get the impression that Delany appreciated both.
My understanding is that neither Delany nor Hacker were monogamous (probably Delany was less so). Throughout his life (including into his seventies) Delany continues to enjoy casual sexual encounters. There is no question that he got off lucky; I vaguely remember that he was fortunate in that he did not enjoy anal sex, so he happened to have reduced his risk in the plague years. Having a lot of sex is not particularly admirable or noteworthy; what is noteworthy is that he unapologetically defends this life as something that works for him. I have not read the book, but apparently he documents some of this life in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.
My appreciation for Delany grew further when listening to a somewhat-embarrassing panel discussion led by bell hooks. hooks kept trying to push Delany into a “sex radicalism” box, and Delany was having none of it. My interpretation is that he did not see himself as a sex radical who is radical for the sake of transgression, but that he was doing what was right for his life. A lot of what he said during the panel sounded downright sensible. I do think that Delany is kind of a sex radical (I will never ever read his book Hogg if I can help it) but I don’t get the sense that he is a zealot.
At some point after his divorce Delany established an intimate and non-monogamous relationship with Dennis Rickett, who was at the time homeless and selling books on a street corner. Their relationship is documented in the graphic novel Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York. The two have been committed to each other for decades, despite not being sexually exclusive. Throughout those years Rickett and Delany have been fighting a civil rights battle of their own; when he became homeless Rickett lost his identification and has become a non-citizen as a result, unable to access government services. Rickett and Delany have spent years trying to get Rickett his ID back, because Delany supported Rickett via his own ID; if Delany died before Rickett got his government ID, he would be thrown into destitution. This is a personal battle for the couple, but as with so many of the themes Delany talks about, it reflects larger struggles going on in the world.
It is gauche of me to say this, but Delany has done all this while being black, and unlike so many others he does not come across as bitter. I am sure that he is bitter sometimes, and I would not blame him for being so, and it is gauche to say this because of course privileged people appreciate oppressed people who are quiet and polite rather than loud and angry. Still, there is something worth mentioning here. When I listen to Delany speak the two adjectives that come to mind are “wise” and “articulate”.
I am glad that Delany survived the plague. I am glad he has made a living as a writer and a professor. I am glad that he has been able to live his life unconventionally and unapologetically. All too often I think we are pressured into cookie-cutter identities — first as party animals seeking endless anonymous sex, and then as picket-fence monogamous married gays who are middle-class and unthreatening. People like Chip Delany remind us that there are other ways to live.