William Burroughs Was Probably Misogynistic and Racist (But We Should Still Read His Work)

Why read William Burroughs when there are so many other queer anti-authoritarians to read? Are there any other reasons to read his work?

The shelf of LGBTQ writers has grown over the decades; we occupy an entire section at Barnes and Nobles. Our history, which once would have been fragmented to past generations, is now a degree in universities. Doubtless, we enjoy a viewpoint which previous generations could not have: we live in a post-Pride world. We are post-Kinsey, post-Stonewall, post-Harvey Milk. We have elected LGBTQ politicians, and our rights are considered legal matters, not religious or cultural ones. We’re no longer listed in the DSM as a disorder. It’s sometimes hard to remember, in our continued quest for social justice, how far we’ve come, and how much progress has been made. 

We do have a history. History is constantly being reevaluated. Therefore, if we’re to understand how past generations of queers imagined themselves, we have to imagine what the world seemed like when equality was unimaginable. 

This doesn’t excuse the fact that William S. Burroughs, an ancestor of Beat, surrealist, criminal, and outsider literary traditions as well as many others, may have held some very racist and sexist beliefs. He was, at least, affected by bigoted beliefs. However, there is much worthwhile social criticism buried in his biting sarcasm, hyperbole, explosive wit, and violent, filthy humor. I hope not to say his less acceptable beliefs were justifiable, but perhaps that we should consider them in context. 

Here is the first observation about Burroughs apparent to every reader: Burroughs is, in modern parlance, a troll. He writes in ways that will purposefully shock readers to get attention, inspire social change, or his intentions lie somewhere between the polarities. This technique wasn’t new; it wasn’t new when Jonathan Swift used it. 

William Burroughs seems, after the success of his fourth novel Naked Lunch (after an obscenity trial), to have become aware of his role not only as an author but as a performance artist. His favorite topics include crime, drugs, guns, homosexuality, horror and body horror, mind control and expansion, magick, weapons, propaganda, and conspiracy theories, which sound more bizarre when read in his oddly toned, dead-panned voice. His physical image became another element of his performance: few could forget the tall, slender man in a dark suit, with thick-framed glasses and fedora, often with a pistol, shotgun, or other weapons. Clearly, Burroughs is aware his appearance and demeanor are anachronous to his words and work, how could he not be aware of it? In short, Burroughs knew he was strange, that it was his appeal, and from that point, probably wrote to be more offensive, controversial, and shocking. 

But there is something that’s not just trolling about Burroughs’ writing, and it all can’t be explained away as simply hyperbole to bring attention to social ills. Simply put, Burroughs might have had bigoted views that might be revealed in his writing, and certainly in his well-documented life. Once again, I hope not to excuse such potential bigotry, only to encourage that we consider the man and his works in context. 

William Burroughs was doubtlessly a troubled and sometimes troubling man. He was born in 1912, and was at least a decade older than other members of the so-called  “Beat Generation.” Unlike them, he came from a wealthy, well-established, and mannerly St. Louis family. This alone gave Burroughs a perspective that differed greatly from his younger literary contemporaries. 

William’s upbringing was not a liberal upbringing, but it was a very privileged one for his era: the Burroughs family was a non-direct heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune, and the Burroughs family remained unaffected by the Great Depression. This may explain at least in a basic sense a reason why Burroughs expresses an elitist perspective. He did, after all, study across Europe (without earning any degrees) in his twenties and thirties. But more to the point, his parents would keep William on a consistent allowance throughout life. Even into his mid-fifties, Burroughs would request monies from the senior Burroughs couple and was rarely denied. The senior Burroughs couple also took responsibility for raising his son, William S. Burroughs Jr. Given the fact that Burroughs Jr. also fell into severe addiction and self-risking activities leading to a young death, perhaps the senior Burroughs couple were no less dysfunctional even in their late senior years. This privilege engendered William with a sometimes nonchalant attitude towards money, but more importantly, he expressed a nonchalant attitude towards education. He simply didn’t acknowledge he was financially privileged, and even in Burroughs’ day, this was unacceptable. William Burroughs was, without argument, flippant about his financial privileges.  

But privilege does not always mean bliss. William was outed accidentally when private love letters between himself and another boy were discovered in his last year of high school: the letters were explicit and both boys were expelled from Los Alamos Ranch Boys school. 

This traumatizing event may have had a lifelong effect on Burroughs. Throughout life, he would problematically choose male lovers decades younger, but significantly, never of illegal age. In fact, boyhood and adolescent sexuality was a frequent trope in the fictional, surreal Burroughsesque universe. Take, for instance, the strange race of Wild Boys, who are not exactly human, but a group of preternatural, protohuman hybrids, shamans, and time travelers. To those who read Burroughs’ obsession with boyhood sexuality for its face value, it’s easy to guess he could have been a predator. But again, as far as we know, Burroughs did not seek sex with ‘under legal age’ boys. It’s possible William’s in-fiction (and in-life) obsession with youthful, sexually active boys represented a neurotic obsession with his own unfulfilled adolescent sexuality. However, we can’t dismiss that Burroughs’ obsession with particularly teenage sexuality comes off as deeply upsetting, and can’t be easily explained away even by childhood trauma. While there’s no biographical evidence that Burroughs was a pedophile, we cannot shake the feeling he may have been, and that is unnerving enough. 

The Burroughs family certainly was shaken by the traumatic revelation the letters made: having a homosexual in the family made it difficult to keep up appearances. The Burroughs planned to encourage him to marry. Both his parents were Southern transplants, and doubtlessly, it was a very racist environment. This may have been one reason Burroughs felt the need to travel so broadly across the globe; to disprove the biases of his upbringing, or conversely, to prove them correct. Burroughs’ writings regarding his world travels to South America, Morocco, and Mexico can be seen through the lens of his sense of white supremacy, as he openly speaks with some derision regarding natives of these countries. This is probably in part due to his travels across the globe as a wealthy white man, in fact, his writing seems to reflect that he knew he was an outsider and did not fully understand or appreciate the intricate customs of the countries he visited no matter how long he stayed. He also frequently uses slurs and racial stereotypes to describe all minorities. However, Burroughs also often satirizes his prejudices, mocking ‘gringos’ or white supremacist language and speech by making caricatures of Southern culture. This creates a complex situation where it is unclear where Burroughs is expressing bigoted views and where he is mocking those views. Some have wondered whether Burroughs was mocking the concept of race. As a surrealist and experimental writer, Burroughs would frequently mix writing strategies mid-paragraph or mid-sentence, making intention and tone in some passages difficult to place. That being said, Burroughs does invoke racist stereotypes sometimes completely devoid of humor, mirth, sarcasm, or hyperbole. However, one has to wonder: was he ever attempting to bring attention to or mock racism, his own bigoted background, or the concept of race? Ultimately, it would be deceptive to say that Burroughs was not racist at all, but if he was, he was very possibly uniquely and acutely aware of his racism and how hateful it was. The particular question of race is so convoluted in Burroughs’ writings that it is difficult to determine whether he took any of his caricatures seriously. 

The Burroughs family did in fact send their younger son to seek psychiatric attention, which included psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and drug rehabilitation treatments to address his struggles with alcoholism and later drug addictions. They also intended to ‘fix’ his sexual orientation. If we know that the pseudoscience conversion therapy is damaging and abusive today, it would have been deeply primitive during the 1930s and 1940s. Burroughs learned to deceive therapists and doctor shops for prescriptions, which would be imperative to his later experiences with drugs. However, this also meant that by his late thirties, Burroughs would have already been exposed to damaging and abusive psychiatric practices. According to his letters, by the early 1950s, he considered himself on his way to becoming a ‘recovering’ bisexual, yet this may not actually be true. Many may find it strange that Burroughs would hyperbolize gay men in his writing, yet he does. His frequent targets are effeminate, flamboyant gay men, for whom he had no end of disdain. It would seem that Burroughs learned to despise other gay men who were less effective at passing as straight. This will be anachronous to most queer readers today. But Burroughs was married and had fathered a son when writing, so his disdain makes more sense. If Burroughs was meeting other homosexual men for sex during his marriage, which he was and his wife knew about, he wanted to be discreet about those encounters. Flamboyant gay men likely reminded him that he could never pass. It’s also very likely that Burroughs was either in denial or at least deeply ashamed that he was not actually ‘recovered.’ Once, in Europe, a twenty-something Burroughs cut off the tip of his pinkie finger purposefully with the idea he could present it to a male love interest as a sign of his attraction, a disfigurement he would have for the rest of his life. This alone should prove William did not have a healthy relationship with his sexuality. His sexuality would remain conflicted until his wife died in a tragic accident. 

This is the point where it’s absolutely the most tempting to say that Burroughs hated women. He did, in fact, shoot his own wife in the head during an intoxicated game of William Tell at a crowded party with other attendees cheering the couple’s stunt on. William was already intoxicated and was in no state to do the trick. Yes, she died almost immediately. The only reason he didn’t end up permanently incarcerated was that he was an American in Mexico (a legally murky situation) and the event could technically be categorized as manslaughter. Burroughs would later say that he had never been able to truly write before his wife Joan was killed, but deeply regretted it every day of his life. He even came to believe that a dark spirit had possessed him during the event.

Burroughs frequently writes about violence against women in his fiction, and his most scatological and violent humor is directed towards them. He seemingly cannot write about a woman without using a slur, unless they are early writings about his wife. Women are rarely real characters in his novels, and appear more frequently as monsters or aliens, and even more often, simply as targets and comedic cannon fodder. I think it would be impossible to say Burroughs had no anger towards women whatsoever, despite the fact that he would have many important, meaningful friendships with women over his life, including punk rock artists such as Kathy Acker, Patti Smith, and others.

However, when examining Burroughs’ scathing, violent words that dehumanize women, we remember: William’s marriage to Joan Burroughs allowed him to pass. There was a deeply intellectual and emotional bond between the two that infrequently lead to sexual activity, but ultimately, William’s parents had insisted he marry and pretend to be heterosexual. This cannot have resulted in anything but unresolved bitter feelings, and his fiction must have offered a violent, visceral escape. 

Did Burroughs actually hate women, and had he never endured abusive therapy or been forced to marry, would he have still hated women? It’s impossible to know. What is evident is that William did shoot his wife and that it was a drunken accident. Had he meant to murder her, he would never have chosen a crowded party with many watching the event. 

So the question is, then: why would a modern queer reader read Burroughs at all? He seems like a hateful, vile, bigoted, callous, criminal man, right? 

All of this is true, and problematically, it’s hard to tell where the performance art of Burroughs ends and the real man and writer begins. But Burroughs’ work is significant nonetheless.

Naked Lunch wasn’t investigated by authorities simply for being scatological and describing homosexual sex acts. Burroughs’ portrayal of drug use is scathing and nightmarish but has also been cited as some of the most accurate fiction to describe the lived experiences of addicts, particularly when describing withdrawal. Burroughs’ descriptions of the drug experience are worth reading: while it’s often surreal to the point of nightmarishness, his descriptions are vivid, raw, and gut-wrenching. While not the first descriptions of their kind, they are historically significant. The fact that Burroughs would struggle with his own bouts of sobriety and addiction with no stability throughout his life is a testament to the fact that just because one is aware of the evils of a substance, that doesn’t mean addiction can be beaten. 

Underneath the stomach-churning sci-fi-horror and homosexual fantasy psychodramas, there are underpinnings of economic and political critiques. In Burroughs’ fiction, FBI agents, spies, customs officials, policemen, soldiers, bureaucrats, politicians, priests, all those with political authority, are portrayed as the most sinister of all. Burroughs clearly has a solid understanding of anti-authoritarian philosophies, and while not a Communist or Anarchist (Burroughs was not likely affiliated with any political philosophy or party), he clearly has a solid understanding of how power enforces the Capitalist system. 

The last section of Naked Lunch is an essay that discusses Burrough’s views of drugs, economics, and control. In it, Burroughs puts forth the thesis that drug addiction is an ideal model of parasitic Capitalism: addicts will never stay stable in their need for drugs, and always require more, so they are forced to find new addicts to sell to in hopes of trading, selling, or buying their way to a more powerful drug or more of the same substance. Furthermore, addicts cannot organize to take control of the abusive system. 

This final thesis is not just an essay to make Naked Lunch of social worth or commentary, which is what saved it in the obscenity trial. Furthermore, that final thesis is not just about Capitalism or authority. Burroughs is wary of and challenges every form of control he can think of, and his fiction can read as an exploration of those systems of control. It is a central trope, indeed, the central trope that will be invoked throughout Burroughs’ fiction, and was present in his earliest fiction. His nonfiction is even more explicit regarding this point. Burroughs feared any idea, even a good idea, that might seek to define his being by an outside set of terms. He seemed aware that his efforts to deny all forms of control would be futile, but this didn’t mean that he wouldn’t try. 

This is why William Burroughs was against Gay Pride culture. Burroughs never even referred to himself as gay: he referred to himself as a homosexual. Around the time gay rights became a more central, united fight for equality, Burroughs feared the possibility that the cultural norms of consumerism and Capitalism would become part of the community. He feared that gay culture if it became centralized and unified, would become politicized, and he would not trust groups with political interests. In retrospect, it’s hard to say that his observations would have been completely incorrect. Whether these concerns justify opposing Gay Pride is for each queer to determine for themselves. 

So, again: why read William Burroughs when there are so many other queer anti-authoritarians to read? Are there any other reasons to read his work? 

Whether we agree with how he lived or not (and nobody should agree with the way William Burroughs lived), or whether we think Burroughs was a bigot, the irrefutable fact is that Burroughs made a major cultural impact on art and the modern imagination. His nonfiction book The Third Mind demonstrated his composition techniques and elucidated the implications of breaking down the language in a way that might make experimental fiction more viable. To my knowledge, such an extensive workbook of this type had not been written before. His unique surrealist/horror/drug/science fiction has influenced countless other artists, specifically in the body horror genre. Finally, Burroughs is a significant cultural figure that, for what it’s worth, danced constantly along a cultural line that held traditional values on one side and other possibilities on the other. Whether he did that tactfully is another matter. William Burroughs was a troll, but he was the right kind of troll that found infamy and fortune in his time. 

Every queer reader who reads Burroughs’ work will ask themselves the question: Is this man good at pretending to be a misanthrope, or is he one in actuality? In Burroughs’ work, more than any other author’s, I don’t think critical analysis will reveal a definitive answer, even if written by the most well-researched biographers. This leaves it to every reader to decide where the end of Burroughs’ sincerity ends and performance or even anti-authoritarian, anti-control, experimental technique, or just plain trolling, begins. The work throws the question back on us: We, as readers, can take responsibility for ourselves to consume or not consume material. We have the freedom to be offended or not, but we have to take that responsibility for ourselves and choose what we expose ourselves to. And Uncle Bill wouldn’t have it any other way. 

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