On This Gay Day: Author William Burroughs was born in 1914

Author William Burroughs was born in 1914

Author William Burroughs was born on this day in 1914. As an author Burroughs was a primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major post-modern author who had a big effect on popular culture. Prior to publishing his first novels, Burroughs lived a life that took him to many countries, and several incidents with the law.

While studying English and Anthropology at Harvard University, he would travel to New York on the weekends an explore lesbian dives and piano bars in Harlem and the homosexual underground in Greenwich Village.

In the 1930’s Burroughs moved to Europe and attended medical school in Vienna. Here he delved into the Weimar-era LGBT culture and spent time picking up young men in the city’s steam baths. Here he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazi government, though never romantically involved Burroughs married Klapper so she could escape to the USA. The pair divorced soon after but remained friends for many years.

He joined the army during World War II signing up in 1942, but a year later he was living in New York where he developed a drug addiction that followed him for the rest of his life. Here he made friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, their work as poets and writers would become central to the foundation of the Beat Generation and 1960’s counter-culture movements.

In 1944 Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer, she already had a daughter from a previous relationship, and soon the couple added a son to their family. Both Burroughs and Voller struggled with mental health and drug addiction. After spending time in Louisiana and Texas, the couple moved to Mexico to avoid Burroughs being sent to prison after he caught forging a doctor’s prescription for drugs.

Once in Mexico Burroughs and Volmer from all accounts had an unhappy life, free of heroin his libido returned and he was pursuing other men, while Volmer became an alcoholic. One night in as Mexico City bar Burroughs pulled a revolver from his bag and told Vollmer it was time to do their ‘William Tell’ act. There was no indication the couple had ever previously performed the act – Vollmer balanced a highball glass on her head, and Burroughs fired the pistol at her, shooting her in the head and killing her almost instantly.

While awaiting trial in Mexico Burroughs wrote what would later become the novel Queer. Before he got to trial his lawyer, who had his own legal problems, ran away. Burroughs also decided to skip out on the trial and the country. He was convicted in absentia of homicide.

Next Burroughs spent several months in South America searching for a drug called yage, which reportedly gave users telepathic abilities. His letters correspondence with Ginsberg during this time formed The Yage Letters which was published in 1963 – it was later revealed the letters were mostly fictional.

In 1953 Burroughs’ first book Junkie was published. Later Queer was published. The author relocated to Tangiers in Morocco where he spent four years writing his next work The Naked Lunch. 

The novel would be acclaimed for it’s unconventional style, but also faced challenges from authorities who ruled it’s blunt depictions of homosexuality and drug use. In Massachusetts Burroughs was prosecuted for producing obscenity, but the court ruled the work not obscene.

Finding success in the 1960’s Burroughs spent time living in Paris and London before retuning to the USA in the 1970s. In the early 1980’s he relocated to Kansas. Among his novels are The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket Exploded and Wild Boys. 

Acclaimed a literary genius by critics, Burroughs also inspired many musicians, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Tom Waits, Patti Smith and Genesis P-Orridge all cited as a hero.

In his latter year Burroughs often collaborated with musicians, he made the album Seven Souls with Bill Laswell, collaborated with Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on another, worked with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Kris Novoselic, REM, Yellow Magic Orchestra and electronic band Spring Hell Jack.

William Burroughs died on 2nd August 1997, aged 83, having suffered a heart attack the previous day.     

‘Personal Best’ opened in 1982

On this day in 1982 the film Personal Best opened in New York City. It tells the story of two women, competing athletes who have a lesbian affair while training for the Olympics. It starred Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly. While the film was critically acclaimed it failed at the box office.

The movie was written and directed by Robert Towne, one of Hollywood’s most respected writers, who previously wrote the screenplays for Chinatown and Shampoo. 

Judas Priest singer Rob Halford’s coming out was a big deal

Nowadays celebrities declaring they are same-sex attracted isn’t such a big deal but back in 1998 when former Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford came out it was a groundbreaking announcement.

Halford was a performer in one of the most masculine genre’s of music – heavy metal. He was the lead singer of Judas Priest from the mid 1970’s through to 1991. He then left to form thrash mental band Fight. In 1998 he launched another project 2wo.

Speaking publicly of his sexuality for the first time Halford told MTV that he had been comfortable with his sexuality for a long time, but music was an area that still saw a lot of homophobia.

“A lot of homophobia still exists in the music world, in all kinds of music,” Halford said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any more phobic in metal or rap or whatever this music is that I’m doing now, but that¹s just something that I think we all have to address in our own lives. If we have a problem with it, I think we should seek help and find out why we do have a problem with it”

Halford said he hoped that by being open about his own sexuality he would make other people’s coming out journey easier.

“I think it’s difficult for everybody, you know, in making the decision to come forward and be who you are, based on peer pressure, especially if you’re a teenager,” Halford said. “That’s where a lot of the anxiety begins, and so maybe people like myself and others that do step in front of a camera and let the world know, maybe it’s of some help, where there’s an individual that’s been successful, that’s been able to achieve dreams and visions and goals in life and not let the issue of sexuality be something to hold them back, so I think it’s an important thing.”

In subsequent interviews Halford has reflected on the substance abuse that consumed his life during the 1980’s, saying it hiding his sexuality was a driver of his behaviour at that time.

Halford later launched another band, the self titled Halford. In 2003 he rejoined Judas Priest, the band started work on a new album in 2020. They had hoped to embark on a tour but it has since been pushed back due to the coronavirus.

OIP Staff, this post was first published on 5th February 2020, and subsequently updated.