Liberace: The Queer for Non-Queers

My 17-year-old daughter came into the living room the other night while I watched HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” the Liberace biopic based on the tell-all book by his chauffeur/lover/victim/plaintiff Scott Thorson.

“What are you watching?” my daughter asked.

“A movie about Liberace,” I told her. “You know who he is, don’t you?”

And then I realized the difficulty trying to explain Liberace to a hip-hop generation that thinks Bravo has always been basic cable. You see, before there was a RuPaul, an Ellen on daytime, or even the acronym LGBT, there was just the L—and it stood for Liberace.

With an overall career spanning more than four decades, Liberace was his own gender phenomenon. For a period from the 50s through the 70s, he was considered the highest paid entertainer in the world.

He was gay, or “thought to be gay.” Because he came into everyone’s homes via TV, Liberace was considered “OK” for human consumption. He was his own beard.

The name Liberace itself became an acceptable euphemism in American society for “all things flamboyant.” And whatever the performer did in his bedroom, well, Middle America always gave him a pass. That was Lee. America enabled him to come out to play without making him ever leave the closet.

After all, he was in showbiz, and maybe he was just portraying a role up on stage, right?

The audience suspended disbelief for Liberace, who was said to be involved with the Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie. Whatever.

Besides, being in the closet wasn’t so bad if you were Liberace and had the biggest closet in America.

It makes Liberace’s story an important part of U.S. gay cultural history, maybe as important as Harvey Milk’s.

Indeed, Liberace’s flame helped America set its gaydar so high that others could practically go unnoticed. How many people had a fur coat with a long train like Liberace’s? A small one didn’t count.

In that sense, Liberace set the parameters. While Liberace pranced and tinkled, whether he knew it or not, he provided cover for others, who could stay closeted and go about their everyday lives in private.

Certainly, more people are out now. But I can recall in the 70s when I got a glimpse of that more closeted world. As a college student working a catering job in Boston, I found myself assigned to a Beacon Hill cocktail party.

The party was all-male, with top executives of major companies amid scions from Brahmin families. All fashionable fops and white, of course. I never saw so many ascots in my life. They were their own little club, and they had a great time together. And when it was over, they even had a regular ritual to end the night. The host would put on his nightgown, complete with a nightcap, and retreat to his four-poster bed. There his guests would line up as in a reverse receiving line (an exit line?), where one-by-one, they would kiss the host good night.

Me, I was only there to heat and serve the hors d’oeuvres.

But it was an example of one aspect of the gay underground as it existed back then. The part that still had the privilege of class to deflect the sting of discrimination.

And all that was going on while Liberace was doing his thing out in the open. Have we come a long way since Liberace? In some ways, yes. Instead of Liberace on daytime TV, there’s dancing Ellen. And there are some Asian American males who owe their careers to Liberace. He showed them how to flame on. Would there be a real-life Franck the wedding planner without a trailblazing Liberace?

Basically, despite all the folks who are out, we’re not that much further along if we still can’t come to closure nationally on the issues that really matter, like same-sex marriage. Last week’s immigration bill markup was telling when Southern Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham were OK with immigration, but not OK with same-sex couples petitioning for their loved ones.

So you watch the movie and think how all this existed over 30 years ago and you wonder why we haven’t gone beyond that feeling of acceptance we gave Liberace?

The movie does take us back in time. And it makes one forget Michael Douglas ever played opposite Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.” Was it the amyl nitrate or was it—acting! Both he and Matt Damon seem spot on if one compares their likeness to this actual clip of the opening of Liberace’s live show.

Certainly, one feels for Thorson who at 17 was as young as my daughter when he first met Liberace. Even though the movie is based on Thorson’s telling of his time with Liberace, he actually comes across as less sympathetic than the star. That’s hard to do considering Thorson was the victim of a kind of scheme that would make him the adopted son of Liberace. (But is that any different from Woody Allen and Soon-Yi?)

Thorson has since accumulated his own set of sordid tales sans Liberace and currently resides in a Nevada county jail, where it’s doubtful there’s cable.

Nevertheless, for the rest of us, the HBO movie is a real peek into Liberace’s closet, and a reminder of the way things were. More sad than campy, you see just how queer things were in the ’70s and ’80s when Liberace reigned supreme.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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