The Village Voice is presently running a fascinating story about a dispute over Smith's legacy between Penny Arcade and Voice film critic J. Hoberman on the one hand and Smith's elderly sister on the other. The details don't really add up. The quotes confuse. But that's what makes the story compelling.
It also has a certain allegorical value in the present climate, since the question of property is at the legal core of the debate over gay marriage. Who has the right of inheritance?
I doubt whether Jack Smith's legacy would have been clearer if marriage between men had been legal in his day, since he wasn't exactly the domestic type. Still, the fight over his legacy speaks eloquently about the price that gay women and men were once almost assured of paying for being "out," not to mention the price that many still pay.
On a similar note, the New York Times review of Graham Robb's book Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century also touches on the question of inheritance, or the lack of it, to be precise. Although its author Adam Goodheart harshes on Foucault in a mean-spirited manner, he makes some nice points.
I was was particularly taken with the review's conclusion:
The real mystery may be why so much historical evidence, on a subject of such great contemporary relevance, has remained largely unexamined, or at best misunderstood. Part of the reason may be human nature: just as most of us can never imagine that our parents are as sophisticated about sex as we are, so too we patronize our remoter forebears, finding innocent explanations for their hints and innuendoes. Part of it may also be the nature of history itself: at some primitive level, it is still a form of ancestor worship, and ancestors are generally heterosexual. In excavating the long-buried lives of our gay great-great-granduncles and lesbian great-great-grandaunts, Robb has done more than make a major historical contribution. He has, as it were, provided their distant nieces and nephews, gay and straight, with a family tree that we have never had before.I'm not sure how much overlap we should perceive between the alternative genealogy Goodheart proposes here and the sort that Foucault had in mind. But the idea of manufacturing surrogate ancestors is compelling.
Jack Smith has the potential to be the surrogate ancestor par excellence for queer cinema. Whether historians will be able to realize that potential, however, hinges on the fate of his estate.