Gillian Frank

When the singer and poet Rod McKuen died on January 29th at the age of 81, major publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post paid tribute to his numerous accomplishments. For many readers, these obituaries functioned as the final word on McKuen’s legacy; so what does it mean that the mainstream press all but erased McKuen’s queer past and gay activism?

Rod McKuen, “Slide Easy In…” Discus Studios, 1977. (Image courtesy of JD Doyle)

I first encountered Rod McKuen’s name while researching Anita Bryant’s 1977 anti-gay Save Our Children campaign in Florida. McKuen publicly opposed the Florida Citrus spokeswoman—dubbing Bryant with the name ‘Ginny Orangeseed’—and gave benefit performances in Miami and at gay discos in New York and LA to raise money for gay rights groups. In fact, McKuen was a longtime supporter of gay rights. In the 1950s, he held a leadership role in an early and important gay rights organization, the San Francisco Mattachine Society. He also engaged in AIDS activism for well over a decade, participating in numerous fundraisers in support of AIDS related charities.

McKuen’s sexuality, however, defied simple categorization. Asked in 1977 by an Associated Press reporter if he was gay, McKuen responded: “I’ve been attracted to men and I’ve been attracted to women. I have a 16-year-old son. You put a label on.” By the end of the year, the Baltimore Sun casually described McKuen as a homosexual. The gay newspaper, The Advocate, was less certain. In 1976, it had given McKuen the dubious “Something You do in the Dark” award for refusing to identify as gay.

Queer themes also suffused McKuen’s music including the notable 1977 record Slide… Easy In. The cover of this album, pictured above, depicts the arm of 1970s gay porn star Bruno, his fist filled with Crisco, hovering above a can with the label “disco” on it. (In the 1970s, Crisco—a vegetable shortening—was practically synonymous with gay sex as gay men used Crisco as an anal lubricant). The so-called “Crisco/Disco” album featured the song “Don’t Drink the Orange Juice,” released during the national “gaycot” of Florida orange juice in response to the Anita Bryant campaign.

McKuen was candid about his sexual desires and the complex ways he made meaning of them. McKuen regularly answered fan mail on his website. In 2004, one correspondent asked McKuen if he was gay. As with his Associated Press interview two decades earlier, McKuen refused to label his sexual activities:

Am I gay? Let me put it this way, Collectively I spend more hours brushing my teeth than having sex so I refuse to define my life in sexual terms. I’ve been to bed with women and men and in most cases enjoyed the experience with either sex immensely. Does that make me bi-sexual? Nope. Heterosexual? Not exclusively. Homosexual? Certainly not by my definition.

I am sexual by nature and I continue to fall in love with people and with any luck human beings of both sexes will now and again be drawn to me. I can’t imagine choosing one sex over the other, that’s just too limiting. I can’t even honestly say I have a preference. I’m attracted to different people for different reasons.

I do identify with the Gay Rights struggle, to me that battle is about nothing more or less than human rights. I marched in the 50’s and 60’s to protest the treatment of Blacks in this country and I’m proud of the fact that I broke the color barrier in South Africa by being the first artist to successfully demand integrated seating at my concerts. I am a die-hard feminist and will continue to speak out for women’s rights as long as they are threatened. These, of course, are all social issues and have nothing to do with my sex life (although admittedly I’ve met some pretty hot people of both sexes on the picket line.)

McKuen also framed his relationship with his brother Edward in unconventional terms, publicly describing Edward as his “partner.” In 2005, a presumably gay male fan wrote a note of appreciation about McKuen’s poem “I Always Knew.” He explained, “I plan on presenting it to my partner on his 54th. This will be our 8th year together. Thank you.” McKuen responded by reflecting upon his partnership with Edward and implicitly comparing this relationship to his fan’s gay partnership.  “Relationships take hard work so you both must be doing something right for each other. In case you missed it here’s a poem I wrote a few years ago… that you might find interesting.” The poem was titled “PARTNER / for Edward.” McKuen elsewhere clarified his relationship with Edward in this way: “As for Edward, he is my brother, father, mother, best friend and partner in almost every way. He’s a cute kid all right, but not my lover or my type. Besides, wouldn’t that be incest?”

If Rod McKuen had died in January 1978 instead of January 2015, his obituaries likely would have excluded these queerer and more complicated aspects of his life. Obituary columnists, sometimes at the behest of families but just as often in deference to convention, regularly erased references to same-sex partners and to sexual and gender variance. A social death accompanied physical death rendering queer lives unknowable before a presumably straight public.

I contacted the obituary writers for the Washington Post, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and asked why mention of McKuen’s gay politics or his queer relationships had been omitted from their articles. During our email exchange, Matt Schudel of the Washington Post refused to go on the record with me about his obituary of McKuen. Schudel’s obituary briefly acknowledges McKuen’s gay activism but it misleads readers about McKuen’s sexually variant past: “Always vague when asked about his romantic attachments,” Schudel disingenuously writes, “Mr. McKuen never married. He was the father of two children, who grew up in Paris with their French mother.”

Such distortions of the public record are not the only factor leading to queer erasure. Margalit Fox of the New York Times explained the following about her obituary of McKuen:

The McKuen obit was written on deadline, under rather extreme conditions.

We had no advance obit on file for McKuen: He was on our “to do” list, but, given our small staff, writing advance obits for everyone important who is still living is a Sisyphean task…

None of the profiles of McKuen that I read at warp speed mentioned anything about his sexuality, or his activism, one way or the other. Had I seen mention of it, it very likely would have found its way into the obit.

David Colker at the LA Times spoke with me over the phone and offered a similar explanation. He characterized his obituary of McKuen as a “victim of deadlines.” An openly gay man, Colker explained that he couldn’t verify whether McKuen had children and found no record of his same-sex sexual relationships. “His sexuality was certainly of interest. He wrote about love and he wrote about romance,” stated Colker. But, he emphasized, there was no effort to closet McKuen: “No one has ever said to me ‘Oh don’t include that the person was gay or bi.’ That wouldn’t happen. Not at the Los Angeles Times…. The short answer is that I didn’t know. If I had more time to dig, I certainly could have found out.”

Unsurprisingly, some social media users took notice of the press’s omissions and offered their own tributes. Historian and curator Gerard Koskovich pithily centered McKuen’s queer past in an obituary posted to the Facebook group Preserving LGBT Historic Sites in California. Here Koskovich noted the press’s poor research. A Google search using the keywords “Rod McKuen gay,” he stated, immediately brings up McKuen’s own description of his sexual identity.

Still, it is possible that the demands of the 24-hour news cycle and the competition between papers to break a story first are reproducing the silences that previously resulted from anti-gay sentiment. Journalists, whether gay or straight, when faced with such deadlines, might default to cultural norms that presume heterosexuality. The convention of avoiding controversy likely leads some journalists to say nothing at all. And, among reporters, a lack of a nuanced vocabulary to describe complex sexual lives to readers might translate into textual silences.

Newspaper archives—their content, organization and curation—might also preclude the discovery of queer pasts. The newspaper’s own private archives, Colker and Fox explained, made no mention of McKuen’s gay activism or queer relationships. If the New York Times and Los Angeles Times archives are indeed weighted with interviews and articles written by authors who have ignored or erased queer lives, then obituary writers who draw from these sources will reproduce these lacunae.

But the mainstream press is not alone in missing the complexity of McKuen’s sexuality, doing poor research or remaining silent about his queerness.The gay press has presented McKuen simply as gay, missed his queer past or has said nothing at all. The Advocate’s Christopher Harrity described McKuen as a gay cultural icon while explaining, “From what we can find, there is no big coming out moment for Rod. He was generally assumed to be gay, had a production company and cut an album with Rock Hudson, and gay culture claimed him as their own with profiles and articles in The Advocate and After Dark.” San Francisco’s leading LGBT paper, The Bay Area Reporter, which had called McKuen “a gay poet and songwriter” for years, did not even write an obituary for him. In the end, silences in the historical record may tell us as much about poor journalistic research as they tell us about antigay bias.

Obituaries are acts of commemoration, remembrance and sometimes of celebration. Remembering the queer aspects of McKuen’s life honors his loves, desires and politics. It also affirms the vitality and centrality of queerness in a culture that still too often misreads, misplaces or silences sexual variance.

Singer Rod McKuen died on January 29, 2015. For over half a century he proudly advocated for gay rights while refusing sexual labels for himself. He is survived by his brother and partner Edward Habib McKuen, and his children Jean-Marc and Marie-France.

Gillian Frank is a Visiting Fellow at Center for the Study of Religion and a lecturer in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. Gillian’s research focuses on the intersections of sexuality, race, childhood and religion in the twentieth-century United States. He is currently revising a book manuscript titled Save Our Children: Sexual Politics and Cultural Conservatism in the United States, 1965-1990Gillian tweets from @1gillianfrank1

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  1. Reblogged this on imaz78.

  2. Thank you for a nuanced account of a richly complex life. McKuen’s gentle spirit and intelligent songs and poetry inspired me when I was a young man and struggling with my sexual identity. Now I wish I had paid closer attention as we both got older. I never noticed or cared that he hadn’t claimed the label “gay.” His art and his activism contributed far more to the world than we contribute when all we do is claim a label.

  3. Mark Stocker

    Do Jean-Marc and Marie-France exist? You set great store on good research, and I agree. It would be fascinating to know what it would yield and what they have to say about their father. Or were they like Cary Grant’s mythical wife, Mrs Adams, in that wonderful film ‘Indiscreet’?

    • I haven’t been able to track them down, Mark. That said, there’s a pretty rich and consistent paper trail mentioning them for about four decades. So if it’s a fabrication, it’s a pretty elaborate and consistent one.

  4. Sheri Sooy

    I am saddened to have learned of Rod Mc Kuen’s passing. I am a fan of his work, talent and person. Years ago, I discovered his book, Finding My Father and have read it several times. Over the years, I have collected his books, travelled multiple times to New York to see him perform, once to Carnegie Hall to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his 40th birthday. Meeting him was definitely a highlight. He once sang a song to me.We lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and saw Rod do several charity shows with other actors. I particularly enjoyed his chats done at the Common Wealth club. I will always have my cds to hear him sing, the poetry books, etc. He will be with us forever. RIP Rod.

  5. Betty Wagner

    I was privileged to see Rod when he opened for Glenn Yarborough in the early 60s in San Jose, CA. I became a fan and still love his songs and poetry. I was sad when I found out he had died. The world lost a wonderfully talented man. I also have his poetry books and CDs. I don’t think he will be forgotten for a very long time.

  6. I became a friend of Rod’s in late 1973 or early 1974. I spent time with him at Tres Vidas in Acapulco. He was working Seasons in the Sun at the time and negotiating with Hallmark to do a calendar featuring his dogs.Even though I’m a lawyer, he told me to just be present during the discussions with the Vice President of Hallmark because he “knew more about copyright law than most lawyers”! He had the ability to talk with you poetically.
    A tear comes to my eye every time I hear Seasons in the Sun.

  7. Rod has always made me very happy….

  8. Fascinating and well-written. I’m not a Rod McKuen fan but find his life and story very interesting, and yes, I had completely missed this complexity from the obits and most online material.

    It’s interesting to note his site is now down. No interest in sustaining it from his family? The final nail in a “dead” career?

  9. Barry Alfonso

    Gillian Frank’s essay is a timely reminder of Rod McKuen’s significance as a cultural figure as well as his misunderstood place in history. It informed my approach to writing A VOICE OF THE WARM: THE LIFE OF ROD McKUEN, due out from Backbeat Books in 2019. This is the first biography of McKuen. Anyone curious about Rod’s fascinating, complex and contradictory like ought to check it out. Here is a link:

  10. Roy and Joan McFarland

    I care not what was the sexual orientation of Rod. To me he as a wonderful poet, singer and writer. I enjoy listening to him still.

  11. A well informed article by Gillian Frank, thank you.
    I was fortunate to see Rod in concert in UK many times, the beautiful songs, coupled with an excellent wit, always were a joy to attend. He very generously autographed a cherished LP copy of “Listen to the Warm” to me. I never tire of listening to his music.
    The thoughts of Roy & Joan aptly sum it up …. R.I.P Rod.

  12. David L. Crockett

    The most gentile soul I’ve ever encountered. I would have liked to have known him.
    Until I purchased his album “Beatsville” in 1959, I assumed there was no one who saw the world quite the way I did.
    A persons sexuality is not what defines them. What’s in their heart and head, does.
    Rod’s words and music helped me through some difficult times growing up. Because of his poetry, I realized the sadness and loneliness that is a part of life. Like looking into a bright light…it can hurt. His words made me aware of the human capacity to be kind and caring or to be cruel and indifferent.
    Thank you, Rod, for the education and for the warm, quiet moments.
    My you have “pushed away the clouds” and found peace.

  13. I read his book “Finding My Father” and wrote a song about him. It is titled “There Is a Boy Today”. Hie poems and writings influenced me greatly. He was such a complete emotional human. I play my song often as I feel it is one of my best.

  14. Sharon Lee Willing-

    I knew Rod as an RCA artist and friend when I worked as secretary to Neely Plumb, manager of the West Coast Division of RCA Records in Hollywood, CA, from 1965 -1968. I remember Rod spending time with me in my office (while he was waiting to see Neely), chatting about his past and current doings. Especially memorable to me was the day he picked me up from the office and drove to Farmer’s Market where he loaded up on produce, then going to his home where he fixed lunch for us, including Eddie. Afterwards, he ran downstairs, coming up with a numbered and signed copy of his newly released “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows,” a copy I still have and treasure. I kept in touch with Rod after I left RCA; my last letter from him was written 6:38 a.m., 1 Jan.-’73, on a card that his “Creed” was printed, as follows:

    It doesn’t matter
    who you love
    or how you love
    but that you love.

    For in the end
    the act of loving any man
    is the act of loviing God.

    The good in men
    is all the God there is
    and loving is a contribution
    to that good
    and to that only God.

    We subsequently went our separate ways, as life so often dictates, but my memories of Rod McKuen will remain with me for as long as I live.

  15. Jennifer Wyatt

    I have been a fan of Rod McKuen for many years. I loved the albums that he produced with Anita Kerr. The albums were called, The Sea, The Soft Sea, and Home to the Sea. I also loved his book called, Listen to the Warm and the album that had the same name. I saw him years and I mean years ago at the Royal Oak Theater in Royal Oak Michigan. Rod was phenomenal. I would like to see an article talking about the great contribution that Rod Mckuen made to the world of poetry. When I think about Rod Mckuen, I remember his poetry and his music. I also enjoyed the pictures of Rod and his English Sheepdogs. Let’s keep the focus where it belongs and that is on his work.

  16. Rod McKuen was bisexual, but this was known since the 1960s and 1970s.

  17. Barbara Walsh

    I have enjoyed his song and music since the mid seventy’s. I could listen to him all day. His singing and songs are full of love and warmth, that still exists these many year later. I am happy to rediscover his arti forms and hope to never. Stop. Thank you
    Rod for being you.

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