Going Too Far -- For Everyone's Sake

The envelope was from Her Majesty's Inland Revenue and Customs Service, located at a dock outside London, England, addressed to the publisher of Gay Presses of New York. I was one of the three owners of GPNy so I opened the envelope and read the letter. In the politest possible language I was informed that the 20 copies of my memoir, Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children, intended for Gay Is the Word Bookstore at Russell Square, had been "seized by the signatory, declared obscene, and destroyed by immolation."

That was in 1989. Since my early twenties I had done as much as possible to protest and rebel against a society I had hopes for and wanted to reform. More than one person had told me, in no uncertain terms, "Some day you will go too far!"

That day had arrived: it was March 17, 1989.

I was astounded and at the same time I was very pleased. I'd never been censored before. Having a book censored means something. It means you have deeply offended one or more people who felt they needed to protect unsuspecting readers from your inflammatory words, thoughts, and images. Before this occurred, I'd been nominated for important literary awards, I'd had a few bestsellers, my books had been translated into many languages, but nothing before this had ever truly satisfied me that I was having any real effect as a writer.

Oddly, the book was already selling in the U.K. Earlier shipments had sailed past customs and it was even reviewed in The Guardian, not a minor journal. True, the review was deeply unintelligent. "Mr. Picano," the reviewer instructed, "Children do not have sex." I, of course, wrote back suggesting the reviewer check his hefty OED for the definition of the word memoir. I had written a memoir showing middle-class Long Island children having sex: hetero, homo, with dripping chocolate, and with airplane glue as stimulants. Ergo: children had sex.

I photocopied the Queen's letter and sent it to my business partners and then to almost everyone I knew. I had it framed and for years displayed it. In the dozen or so residential moves I made since it has become hopelessly lost, alas.

No worries, because apparently my ability to offend was only just beginning. In 1993 Harper Collins put out The New Joy of Gay Sex, co-authored by myself and Dr. Charles Silverstein. Charles is one of the members of the American Psychiatric Association who managed to get homosexuality removed from their list of illnesses. He invited me in to help him completely revamp the new volume, feeling the 1976 one he had done with Edmund White was out of date. For years after, people asked why a successful commercial and then literary author would write a "sex book."

The answer I give is that I handled the contract negotiations for the book from a pay telephone in the corridor outside the intensive care unit where my soul mate was dying. When I'd told him of the project and asked his advice, he'd grasped my wrist in his skin-and-bones hand and said, "We didn't know we were being infected. You must do everything you can so that others don't get infected too." Clearly AIDS and how to avoid it was a crucial part of that book.

Charles and I travelled around the U.S. promoting the book because the more people who knew of it and read it, the fewer people would become infected. We did long, tiresome, call-in radio and television shows. A decade later, we updated the book to include the changes due to the Internet and other cyber-progress. For these books, we've travelled singly and together to Iceland, Germany, Japan, and Israel. The book is now translated into 16 languages including Slovenian, Polish, Hebrew and Taiwanese.

One summer evening in the 1990s, a friend called to tell me to tune into The Daily Show: Stephen Colbert was reporting from a small town in California. I only saw part of it then but eventually I received a videotape of the entire segment. A copy of The New Joy of Gay Sex had been taken out of a suburban library by two "housewives and mothers" and they very publicly refused to return the book. Colbert interviewed the librarian -- "Their library cards are history," she staunchly declared. Colbert treated it as an abduction -- "Is the book okay?" he asked the women. "Is it in one piece?"

It was funny, it was charming. But... it was also quite instructive. The women's reason for taking the book? They both had young sons and they didn't want them reading the book. Forget that 13-year-old boys -- any boys who were thinking about sex -- were our target audience: They had to read the book if they wanted to know how to remain healthy! Later on, people would tell me that copies of The New Joy of Gay Sex or our later The Joy of Gay Sex, 3rd Edition, came into their college dorm and that everyone in the dorm, no matter their gender or sexual identification had looked at the book.

In the week following the TV show, that little library obtained six copies of the stolen tome: one from Charles and me, one from the publisher, and four more donated anonymously. So that act of literary censorship backfired. But I do readings and go to various conferences around the country and people have reported that our book has 1) been sold beneath the counter in bookstores, if carried at all 2) been kept in locked cabinets, and 3) could be found only if asked for and looked at in bookstore back offices.

Luckily, when we signed contracts for the newest version, we also signed a contract with the then new Electronic Publishing division of Harper Collins. By 2014, I can report that a third of The Joy of Gay Sex sold are now sold electronically. It's not that easy to lock an electronic book in a closet or back office or to keep it under the counter.

One would think that this attempt to censor the book is over. But no, just this past week, the Westboro Community Church invaded Manhattan with the intent of publicly shaming our publisher, Harper Collins, for selling the book. I made certain the original editor and supporters of the The Joy of Gay Sex saw the church's denunciation. By the way, those far-seeing editors are married, straight, and have been deemed one of New York's "power couples." The Westboro zanies also went after The Huffington Post because it of its support via Gay Voices.

What conclusions can I draw? All writers want to know that someone is reading their work, taking them seriously. It provides a kind of moral support. To be censored is one sure way of knowing you have been taken dead seriously. It also speaks to the continuing power of the printed word, almost fifteen hundred years after that amazing invention. But the prime goal of censorship is to promote ignorance, whether it is done via lying and bowdlerized school texts or by attacking individual books.

And, I'm sorry Mr. Pope, but ignorance is seldom bliss.