Those Others is part novel and part history. It’s a window into mid-century LGBT life. The book by Joe Openshaw follows Michael, a young, all-American male from Tennessee, who is unable to get a college athletic scholarship or join the military due to his asthma. Because of his medical condition, which his agrarian father finds to be a sign of weakness, his father arranges for him to work in the office of a senator whom he had been in the military with at one time.
We meet Michael as he is getting ready to leave for the nation’s Capitol in 1965.
The historical aspect of the novel coincides with a groundbreaking—however dated by today’s standards—1965 series of articles that appeared in the Washington Post by Jean M. White. They open by saying that bringing up the topic of homosexuality in “polite society or public print” in 1965 would not have been possible in 1960.
“So, like mental illness and venereal disease earlier,” White writes, “homosexuality was stored out of sight in society’s attic, carefully hidden under a blanket of silence—except for snide jokes or oblique allusions,”
Michael is introduced to the articles by a closeted homosexual—who happens to be a married senator. As he reads the articles, he becomes more aware and less ashamed of his homosexuality. He soon meets Alan, a man that becomes his lover, partner and ultimately roommate, soon after his arrival in the Capitol.
The articles, reprinted in the back of the book, should be read before reading Michael’s story, as they structure the questions Michael asks himself. Each article discusses the structure of gay “society” at the time: the closeted homosexual, in a dangerous position of government power—in the form of the senator; and the lower-class homosexual, no stranger to hustling when times are tough, employed as a supermarket manager—in the form of Alan, whose real name is revealed to be Marlon.
In terms of historical figures that Michael and Alan encounter—figures that are open, educated, enlightened, and perhaps “militant homosexuals”—we meet Martin Luther King’s confidante, Bayard Rustin.
The writing is sensitive. Michael does not “come out,” as we would know the term today. Instead, by realizing his sexuality, finding someone to build a life with, and later becoming aware of and a part of the struggle for civil rights—the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an underlying theme—he comes to accept himself and realizes he should have the same rights as everyone else.
Openshaw writes in a particularly beautiful passage: “He was totally immersed in the rapturous moments that led, for the first time, to a feeling of ease with his developing sexuality. Lying in bed, exhausted and naked, when he should have felt most vulnerable, he felt completely accepted and at peace.”
The book is also linked to the “Our God is Marching On!” speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered on March 25, 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama. Michael not only encounters his homosexuality for the first time in Washington, but also becomes involved in the civil rights movement, as the senator he works for is being courted by civil rights leaders who wish him to vote for their cause. Michael even attends the rally, and afterwards takes the then-shocking step of taking his lover and his black friend George to his parents in Tennessee. The act makes him realize that the next time he sees his family he will tell them the truth about him and Marlon.
In effect, Michael is also encountering African-Americans for the first time, or in 1960s parlance, the Negros. The figure of Bayard Rustin, noted MLK, Jr., colleague and civil rights leader, also features into the background, if not the forefront, of Michael’s story.
Rustin’s presence in the novel artfully and historically links the civil rights movement of African-Americans to the gay community. The fiction of the book, the first 136 pages, is written with an elegant pace and tone. The rich backdrops of setting, time, and place infuse the novel with a vital importance.
The final paragraph of the reprinted articles reminds us that Michael, in 1965, has many struggles ahead of him, as we do 45 years later.
“Yet society has to deal with the homosexual in its midst. And it will never be able to do this with fairness and compassion until it understands more about what has been called ‘the riddle of homosexuality.’”
The book is available for purchase locally at The Book Nook in Wilton Manors, and the author’s website, Thoseothersthebook.com