On the Road's Graphic Gay Sex Isn't a Gay Experience

Now adapted for film, On the Road contained gay sex but not the gay experience.

BY Neal Broverman

October 31 2012 8:00 AM ET

Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (left) and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty.

Even though the upcoming celluloid take on Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road comes 55 years after the book’s publication, the buzz is not about the storytelling, art direction, or faithfulness to the American classic but instead about the gay sex.

The film, out December 21, features a graphic anal scene between Garrett Hedlund and Steve Buscemi as well as a scene in which Kristen Stewart pleasures two men simultaneously in a truck. Gay experiences and queer people peppered the writing and the lives of Kerouac and his Beat contemporaries William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady (the latter two appear in the film as thinly veiled characters, with Hedlund playing the Cassady role). So it’s a relief to see that On the Road director Walter Salles didn’t shy away from the nonconforming sex that was a huge part of the freedom the Beats cherished.

But while the movie is brazen about gay sex (well, male gay sex), it may not attain queer classic status like My Own Private Idaho, Bound, and Mysterious Skin. While some film critics accuse Salles of turning his nose up at the gay sex in the book, the truth is that Kerouac’s novel is not really a queer work, just a work with queers. While Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal wrote about men loving other men, On the Road has male characters simply jumping into bed with each other. Also, the book is way too stocked with misogyny and homophobia to be a testament to the LGBT experience, says Don Romesburg, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and the queer studies adviser at California’s Sonoma State University.

On the Road’s homoeroticism doesn’t affirm homosexuality or bisexuality as much as it shores up the narrator’s and main character’s prerogatives, as Beat but ultimately straight white males, to go where they want and fuck who they want,” Romesburg says. “But it’s all in the service of their freedom, not ours. Being queer and reading On the Road can be like that drunken one-night stand with a straight boy who won’t make eye contact with you after.”

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