Samuel R. Delany and NAMBLA

DelanyNamb

I’ve read very little of Samuel R. Delany’s fiction. He’s one of the novelists I never got round to exploring, despite having heard a good deal of praise directed his way. And yet, somehow, I’ve found myself writing about him a surprising amount. Specifically, I’ve found myself writing about his controversial relationship with the pro-paedophile organisation NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association).

I’m still working on my book Monster Hunters, Dinosaur Lovers: Speculative Fiction in the Culture Wars, and I recently sketched out a section where I touch upon Delany and NAMBLA. The section is too short for me to really go into detail, though, so I decided that it was time for a fuller exploration of the topic.

For those unfamiliar with the controversy, the best place to start is this July 2014 interview between Delany and author Will Shetterly. Here, Delany delivers a long, rambling series of thoughts on paedophilia. He admits to having supported NAMBLA in the 1990s because he was impressed by its newsletter, which he describes as having been “a smart, well-written, and well thought-out gay rights newsletter” put out by “an intelligent and highly thoughtful institution”. He distances himself from the group’s current incarnation:  “Where or what NAMBLA is today, I haven’t the foggiest notion” (as an aside, he also reveals that Camilla Decarnin, a minor SF author of the 1980s, was a NAMBLA member).

It is clear from the interview that Delany was molested as a child — he goes into detail about a certain incident when he was aged 6 — and grew up with positive memories of this experience which later led him to sympathise with NAMBLA. This makes him comparable to Milo Yiannopoulos and George Takei, also gay men who provoked controversy by defending adults who molested them as minors.

What are we to make of this sordid business? Some might give Delany the benefit of the doubt on the grounds that he supported NAMBLA as a result of having been molested himself, has not been involved with the group for over a decade, and states in the interview that his book Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders makes “a very strong argument against having sex with children”. Other, less forgiving observers will point out that a number of his comments are clearly normalising paedophilia:

I had my first sexual experience with an adult when I was six, with a local Harlem building superintendent. And nothing hurtful happened at all. It would have been cruel and unusual punishment to incarcerate him for it […] Johnny and I were the “aggressors,” not him. I believe his attitude was as “healthy” about the whole thing as it could possibly have been in 1948.

My general impression is that the interview comes from a tug-of-war going on inside Delany’s head. The rational part of his mind understands that paedophilia is wrong; but an irrational part of his mind seems to think that his childhood would have been better off had he formed some sort of “Greek love” relationship with an older man who could act as teacher. This idea of molester-as-mentor also turns up in comments made by Milo Yiannopoulos, who spoke in a podcast interview about “important, enriching and incredibly life-affirming, important, shaping relationships very often between younger boys and older men” that “can be hugely positive experiences for those young boys, they can even save those boys from desolation”. Describing his sexual encounters with adults that he had as a minor, Yiannopoulos argued that “I was very definitely the predator on both occasions, as offensive as some people will find that, I don’t much care”. Delany and the right-wing Yiannopoulos occupy very different wavelengths of the political spectrum, yet their childhood experiences appear to have led them to very similar conclusions in one respect.

Now, the reason I’m bringing all of this up in my book is that certain right-wing members of the SF/F community have used Delany as a stick to beat their left-wing counterparts, pushing a narrative that progressive sci-fi authors all love and revere Delany despite (or even because of) his paedophile apology, and that his books are child porn for degenerate lefty SFers to get their kicks from. Here is one of multiple examples.

There are a number of flaws in this narrative. One is that the “child pornography” accusation rests on one novel, Hogg, which Delany wrote in 1969 but did not get published until 1995. Now, I’ve read Hogg as part of my research — it’s the one story by Delany I’m familiar with — and while it depicts a large amount of sexual degradation, at no point did I get the impression that such behaviour was being condoned. If a man who was molested as a child writes a story in which a child protagonist is molested, then my initial reaction is not “goodness, he must be a paedophile.”

A broader issue with the narrative is that, as far as I can tell, Delany’s association with NAMBLA wasn’t common knowledge until 2014: while he did speak approvingly of the group in the nineties, he apparently wrote this endorsement to be used in NAMBLA’s own materials. People would only have learned about it had they been looking at NAMBLA’s publications – which, for obvious reasons, is not something most people tend to do. When his views came to light in 2014, they provoked more controversy among progressive writers than Delany’s right-wing opponents tend to acknowledge. A quick search of Twitter shows that Natalie LuhrsAliette de Bodard, Catherynne Valente and Nick Mamatas, to name four, each expressed unease at the revelation. You could argue that the backlash should have been stronger, and you may have a point; but it is inaccurate to deny that a backlash took place.

That said, while researching the matter, I turned up something that I had never seen discussed in regards to Delany and NAMBLA. It’s a 2004 interview with Delany that, if I understand correctly, was originally distributed with a limited signed-copy run of Hogg but later published online at one person’s Livejournal (part 1, part 2).

In it, Delany uses Hogg as a jumping-off point to discuss a number of topics, often at length. Then, towards the end of the first part, he mentions his support for NAMBLA:

It may seem paradoxical from my statement that generally speaking I think sexual relations between children and adults are likely to go wrong and that most of them are likely to be, start off as, or quickly become, abusive, that I also support a group like NAMBLA—which I do. But that’s because I feel one of the largest factors in the abuse is fostered by the secrecy itself and lack of social policing of the relationships.

The interview shows that Delany was willing to speak in favour of NAMBLA in 2004; this does not entirely mesh with statements he made in the 2014 interview with Will Shetterly, where he said “I have no idea what NAMBLA has been doing for the last twenty years” and portrayed his support for the group as being a short-lived affair confined to the mid-nineties.

Now, I don’t really have space for a full analysis of the interview, but once again there are a couple of caveats I’d like to bring up before I continue. One is that Delany is not calling for the carte blanche normalisation of sex with children, as this passage makes clear:

By and large, I think most children—i.e., those under sixteen—should stay out of sexual relations with people more than five years older than they are. They don’t, always. But it’s far too easy to abuse the power differential

Another is that the “walk a mile in that man’s shoes” defence is relevant. Delany appears to not only have been abused as a child, but also ground up in the legal system as a result of botched police intervention. The passage below seems to have been written from grim experience:

One of the terrible things about our society, even today, is that, in five out of six cases, the molester who threatens the child, “If you tell anyone what we’re doing, they will do awful things to you!” is usually, in the long run if not in the short, right. And that was far more the case a quarter of a century ago.

To repeat, in no way does citing such a contradiction mean that I approve of such child/adult relationships themselves. But counseling and gentler intervention is the direction that the world is going in—it just hadn’t arrived there, yet (as in only a few cases has it today), when I wrote the novel.

However, I’m not convinced that either one of these caveats can excuse Delany’s decision to speak out in support of a pro-paedophile organisation.

Some might argue that Delany was misled as to NAMBLA’s aims, but take another look at this excerpt:

It may seem paradoxical from my statement that generally speaking I think sexual relations between children and adults are likely to go wrong and that most of them are likely to be, start off as, or quickly become, abusive, that I also support a group like NAMBLA—which I do. But that’s because I feel one of the largest factors in the abuse is fostered by the secrecy itself and lack of social policing of the relationships.

So, Delany acknowledges an apparent discrepancy between his discouragement of sex between children and adults, and his support for NAMBLA. This comment only makes sense if he was aware that NAMBLA was encouraging sex between children and adults. He disagrees with aspects of the organisation, but he nonetheless believes (or believed, at the time) that NAMBLA was somehow making a worthwhile contribution to the marketplace of ideas.

When he initially spoke in support of NAMBLA back in the mid-nineties, Delany was standing against the tide of opinion within gay circles, and he knew it. In his original statement he criticised “this demonized notion of guys running about trying to screw little boys”. The International Lesbian and Gay Association had voted to remove NAMBLA from its membership in 1994; during the controversy, gay activist Richard J. Rosendall penned an opinion piece examining the NAMBLA newsletter (hailed by Delany as “one of the most intelligent discussions of sexuality I’ve ever found”) and was decidedly unimpressed:

The author of the first-person essay says lamentingly of society, “They would rather [the boy] go to an abusive mother than to a man who loves boys.” A common thread running through this material is an utter inability to recognize a conflict of interest. These men really seem to believe that they have the boys’ best interests at heart, despite clear evidence from their own accounts that they are taking grotesque advantage of troubled boys’ need for love, attention, support, and freedom from abuse. Their subtler form of abuse directs an adult’s arsenal against the innocence of children and the nascent sexuality of young adolescents and, when it succeeds, calls the result consensual love. That people so selfish should presume to lecture others about love, much less portray themselves as victims, is a supreme achievement in self-delusion and gall.

Even NAMBLA co-founder David Thorstad would later object to the newsletter in a clear attempt to escape the monster he had helped create, as reported here:

“The Bulletin is turning into a semi-pornographic jerk-off mag for pedophiles,” NAMBLA cofounder David Thorstad wrote in a December 1996 letter to the magazine. “Has the Bulletin forgotten that NAMBLA has always consisted not only of pedophiles, but also of pederasts? In fact, were it not for the pederasts, there would never have been a NAMBLA. . . . What has happened to the political goals of NAMBLA, which are to struggle for sexual freedom and liberation, not merely for the right of dirty old men to get their vicarious jollies?”

The Bulletin‘s then-editor, Mike Merisi, replied angrily in print: “I well remember visiting Mr. Thorstad’s NYC apartment in the early ’70s, and viewing in his library books and magazines . . . [that] featured nude boys apparently between 6 and 16, and I can assume Mr. Thorstad has since shredded these artifacts of our culture, at which time he became a good pederast, only interested in age-appropriate teens, leaving the rest of us bad ‘pedophiles’ behind, in much the same way as the larger gay movement left him.”

Researching this matter led me down a rabbit hole of truly embarrassing NAMBLA apologism. In his 2014 interview, Delany quotes these comments by Scott O’Hara:

We have a million gay children out there right now who are in the same boat, who know their sexuality, and aren’t getting any support. Most of our supposed gay leaders are afraid to do anything with them. … That means we’re leaving the sex education of our youth to angry heterosexuals who don’t understand.

That’s one reason NAMBLA is so important. They are willing to take the risks that no one is willing to take… . They’re the only ones willing to acknowledge that adolescents actually do have sex lives.

There is also a more basic reason why I support NAMBLA. They are the voice of dissent in the gay movement today. They’re the whipping boy, the fashionable group to condemn. … I say, watch out, tomorrow that whipping boy could be you… . In the efforts of the gay establishment to suppress NAMBLA I see the seeds of tyranny.

The argument is utterly fatuous: he’s drawing a false dichotomy between gay adolescents being guided by “angry heterosexuals who don’t understand”, and gay adolescents being guided by the paedophiles of NAMBLA. But in a way, I am more disturbed by the final paragraph, where O’Hara says “watch out, tomorrow that whipping boy could be you.”

Well, yes, the whipping boy could be me. I’m transgender. As the “Drop the T” and “Get the L Out” movements demonstrate, not everyone is happy having people like me in LGBT circles. But why should that force me into solidarity with a pro-paedophile organisation? O’Hara is using LGBT people’s fears of prejudice and persecution to cajole them into supporting NAMBLA. It’s nauseating. And it’s quoted approvingly by Samuel R. Delany.

Across the two interviews, Delany speaks with knowledge and eloquence about both literature and gay culture. I have no doubt that he is a good novelist, and I will likely read his books someday. While writing this post I dipped into some commentary on his novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which apparently depicts a gay utopia. It sounds intriguing. I’m tempted to give it a look.

But I look back at Delany’s defence of NAMBLA, and I’m reminded that this queer Eden has an ugly little snake.

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