June 15, 2007

Gay History -- Some Personal Notes

[I offer here once again an essay I first published on May 1, 2003. I can hardly believe it's been more than four years since I wrote this. I've been intending to republish this for some time but hadn't gotten around to it; this seemed to be an appropriate time -- particularly with regard to this post from earlier today, a previous entry on the same topic, and the still earlier "We Are Not Freaks" and "Living on the Inside...and Living on the Outside." This article fills in some specifics that might be helpful in understanding my perspective on these issues, for those who are interested.

I hadn't reread this in some time, and I was quite amused to see that my focus on the "thicker skin" theme had emerged so long ago. I recently discussed the same notion here. But as I've noted, that is the major kind of advice on this subject that I've received for as long as I can remember. My primary purpose in republishing this is to emphasize, with as much force as I can, that those who are heterosexual and white simply do not understand what those people who do not enjoy a similarly privileged position experience in this culture, unless they make a concerted, diligent effort to do so. (That is triply true if the person is also male.) Depending on the accidents of birth, our entire experiences of the world and what is possible to us can be vastly different. It takes a great deal of work to bridge those gaps. I expect to be returning to these themes in the near future; in the meantime, this may aid in fostering such understanding, to whatever extent my small efforts can help that end.

I haven't yet republished the earlier posts about Santorum's remarks referenced at the very beginning. Because those essays covered some issues that continue to be relevant, I hope to reprint them soon. I have deleted two brief sentences toward the end, both of which concerned very tangential issues. In all other respects, this is reprinted as it first appeared. I dare to think that my writing has improved in many technical ways since I wrote this, as I also hope the quality of my thought and analysis has grown and become more comprehensive. But I will say, acknowledging that this sounds unforgivably arrogant, that I had not expected to be as proud of this as I am.]

I have some concluding thoughts about the latest controversy concerning Santorum's regrettable and hateful comments about homosexuality. (I discussed those comments here and here, and in some other posts over the last week.) Yes, I said hateful. What follows will explain why I use that word. These remarks are prompted by a couple of things: first, Andrew Sullivan's comments about some gay students he met on his latest trip:
They know who they are. They appear to have good relationships with their straight peers; and even in their occasional struggles, know they own the future. It's strange to be in the middle of such social change. I'll never know what it's like to grow up in a more accepting age, not to have the torments that so many in my generation went through (let alone the poor souls older than me), but the results in these youngsters' lives are truly inspiring. They lift me up and cheer me on. With each generation, the psychological damage and pain recedes a little. And the pursuit of happiness begins again. Some of these kids think of me as a mentor. How do I tell them that they are actually mentors to me?
And second, a Sports Illustrated article, about this statement from Colorado Rockies reliever Todd Jones:
"I wouldn't want a gay guy being around me," Jones told the paper. "It's got nothing to do with me being scared. That's the problem: All these people say he's got all these rights. Yeah, he's got rights or whatever, but he shouldn't walk around proud. It's like he's rubbing it in our face. 'See me, Hear me roar.' We're not trying to be close-minded, but then again, why be confrontational when you don't really have to be?"
I realize, once again, that many people simply do not seem to have any comprehension what it means to grow up as a gay man or lesbian in a culture which is largely hostile to your own sense of self and, in many ways, to your very existence. This is not surprising, or unexpected; it takes some effort to fully understand the experiences of those who are different from you in some fundamental way. For most people, such understanding comes through personal interaction with people belonging to different groups; for some, it comes through reading extensively about it. In either case, though, I don't think people who are not gay can fully understand what it feels like to be gay in this culture. Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am certainly not endorsing a version of multiculturalism, or saying that reality changes depending on our personal contexts. And I am not saying that people who are not gay cannot understand what it means to be gay in this culture. But what I said, and what I do believe, is that heterosexuals cannot grasp fully what it feels like to be gay in this culture. And I think that is undeniably true.

I am about to turn 55. I was a teenager in the 1960s. Let me tell you a bit about what that was like. The prevailing view in the '60s was that homosexuality was unutterably disgusting, and it was very rarely even discussed. It was officially regarded as a mental illness, and the culture in general viewed homosexuals as sometimes colorful and interesting (and sometimes unusually talented), but always as perverted, revolting -- and doomed, to one degree or another. I absorbed and internalized all of that. I first began to realize that I was "different" at the age of about eight or nine. My feelings weren't specifically sexual at that age, but I was aware that I related to other boys, and to girls, in some way that was...well, just different from almost all the other kids I knew. By the age of 12 or 13, I realized that I was sexually attracted to other boys, and to men -- and that's when the real trouble started.

I regarded this knowledge as the dirtiest secret it was possible for me to have -- and I felt that no one else must ever know. Since I was (all too stereotypically) primarily interested in the arts, I found my "role models," if you could possibly call them that, in the arts, especially in the theater, in the opera world, and in literature. I looked at Tennessee Williams, for example: a once brilliantly talented playwright (much more talented than his contemporary, Arthur Miller, in my view -- Williams at his best was stupendously theatrical, and heartbreakingly poetic; damn, that man could write, in a way that Miller never could). But by the 1960s, Williams was a husk of a man -- a broken-down alcoholic (and drug addict, if I am remembering correctly), whose latest plays were extremely undistinguished, and sometimes just simply bad. And when he appeared on television, he was a pathetic wreck, and it was painful to watch him.

Or I looked at Truman Capote -- also someone who had been brilliantly gifted, but who was by then a caricature of a human being. In fact, Capote appeared to barely even be human, with that artificial, squeaky voice and delivery, and his overly-stylized (and ridiculous) manner of self-presentation, which he appeared to be simultaneously aware of and even mocking himself, but trapped by, too, and not knowing how to abandon it and return to something more resembling normalcy. People like Williams and Capote were the only public faces of homosexuality that I was aware of -- and when I looked at them, I saw my own future, and my own fate. (If you're wondering about someone like Noel Coward: even though it was commonly known that Coward was gay, he never spoke about it publicly during that period. With very rare exceptions, people just didn't talk about it then at all. It was only when books began to be published about Coward later, after he died, that a full picture of his life and his relationships was available.)

I saw my future in other places, too: one of my most vivid memories of growing up during that period was seeing the film of Advise and Consent. In that story, I identified most with the young Senator played by Don Murray, who was apparently happily married, and had a young child. But he had a deep, dark, disgusting secret: when he had been in the military, he had had a brief homosexual affair. In the course of the political battles in the film, one of the Senator's enemies discovers this secret -- and blackmails the Senator with the threat to expose the affair, in an effort to get him to change his position on a key Presidential nomination. Tormented by the predicament he finds himself in, the Senator finally kills himself.

Those are the sorts of messages the culture gave me. And the culture did not give me any others at all -- and it certainly didn't provide me with any images of gay men living happily, having good jobs, or being in anything like fulfilling long-term relationships. So it is hardly surprising that when, at the age of about 15, I first went to a psychotherapist (the first of many to come), I told him during our initial session that I had these sexual desires, but that I hadn't yet acted on them. I also told him that I did not want to act on them, that I, too, thought they were revolting and disgusting -- and that I would do anything to change them. And he had a "solution": electroshock therapy. (I was later told, by another psychotherapist whom I believe on this matter, that even in the mid-1960s this was not a view commonly held by psychotherapists with regard to "curing" homosexuality -- but I also have to say that the therapist who suggested electroshock therapy to me was very well-known, the author of several books, and generally well-respected.) It is hardly surprising that, throughout my teenage years, I was deeply depressed -- and occasionally thought about suicide myself. It never got beyond the stage of "thinking," but such thoughts were never too far away.

In any event, I do not know what combination of survival instinct and some basic sense of self saved me -- but I declined the therapist's offer of a "cure." I told him that I would happily work with him for as many years as it took -- work with him by talking it through, and trying to figure how to change my sexual orientation -- but that I was not interested in being treated like a lab rat. My efforts to "become" straight continued for about another 13 or 14 years, until I moved to Los Angeles in 1978. And working for Ayn Rand and having many friends in "Objectivist society" in New York did not help at all in this regard; in fact, it made it significantly worse -- but that is a subject for a separate post (or several). But this is a measure of how straitjacketed and trapped I felt in New York: I had to move 3,000 miles away to even begin to think about having a life that was truly my own, one in which I could act on my desires. And I never discussed being gay with anyone in my immediate family until after I had come out, when I was in my early thirties.

I have gone into some of this history for a couple of reasons (and there's obviously much more, but I'm condensing it here). First, as I indicated above, I think many heterosexuals simply do not understand what it is like to grow up in a world that makes you feel like a freak in the deepest sense -- and a disgusting freak, at that. In addition, Sullivan's comments made me realize that, thankfully, many gay and lesbian teenagers and young people today may not understand what it was like as recently as 40 years ago. Thank God that things are so different now -- but Santorum's comments from last week, and the reaction to them on the part of many people in important positions (including, most regrettably, Bush himself), make it unfortunately all too clear that we still have a very long way to go.

And comments like Santorum's, and the attitudes that they reveal, bring all of these memories back to me -- and I am certain they bring similar memories back to many other people, as well. I truly do not think that people like Santorum realize how profoundly, deeply hurtful their views are -- or how shaming, Even if they don't succeed in making a given individual feel ashamed of being gay, that is the only possible result of such views if one were to view them as legitimate and acceptable. There is another aspect of this that should also be noted. I have just gone through an extraordinarily difficult period of my life, so it is probably the case that these memories, and the feelings they evoke, are closer to the surface than they typically would be. But even in the best of times, they are never that far away. And here's the thing: these kinds of strongly negative messages about homosexuality are still all around us today. It is not just Santorum; it is many religious or "social conservatives," including several people at National Review, for example; it is the people at World Net Daily, who appear to be on a campaign to eradicate homosexuality altogether, if only they could; it is in comments like those by the Colorado Rockies pitcher.

So if you're gay, and you're a news junkie like me, you only have one choice: you can either get deeply angry every time you come across this kind of ignorance -- and also experience to some degree, yet again, the wounds that these kinds of views have caused in the course of your life; or you can repress many of those feelings, and try to not let it "get to you." There are dangers whichever way you choose to proceed. A word of warning: I would appreciate not seeing in the comments the kind of advice I have received in the past -- that I should have a "thicker skin." Everyone's psychology is immensely complex, and mine is no exception. My psychology grows out of everything that has happened to me in my life -- including those elements that I described above. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. There is much else that I haven't told you -- the teasing I received, the cruel jokes I heard constantly, to say nothing of the incredible trauma that gym class caused me throughout school. (That is another stereotypical element of this, but it also happens to be true, in my case, as I know it is for many other gay men.) And there is still much more.

In my case, too, it is also true that my emotions have always been very close to the surface. It's just part of who I am, and it's not about to change at this point in my life. So I do the best I can. I try not to let the hurt go too deep, and I try to point out the errors in many people's erroneous views about being gay or lesbian, as I tried to do in analyzing Santorum's comments, for example. But sometimes views like Santorum's -- particularly when they come, as in his case, from people in prominent and influential governmental positions -- do get to me, and there is nothing I can do about it. And I have to say again: if you're gay, Santorum's views represent a condemnation of who you are at a very deep level. In order to gain the toleration of someone like Santorum, I would have to go back to the view I had of being gay in the 1960s: that it is something fundamentally wrong about me, that I should never act on it, and that I should do absolutely anything to try to change it. If that's not an attack on who I am as a person, then what on earth would be?

Consider the following, too. No one today would dare argue that having blacks in the military would destroy "unit cohesiveness" or impede the goals of our armed services. But before the military was integrated, many people argued precisely that -- and many people today use the same exact argument in opposing gays or lesbians serving openly in the military. No one today would dare argue (at least, in respectable society) that allowing blacks and whites to intermarry would destroy the "institution" of marriage, or sunder the fabric of society. But before laws against interracial marriage were struck down, many people argued precisely that -- and whenever the subject of extending state-sanctioned marriage to gay couples comes up, people use the same argument today. Hell, people like Santorum (and Stanley Kurtz at NRO, who seems unable to write about any subject other than gay issues at the moment) see the end of civilization when contemplating simply allowing adult gays and lesbians to have sex in the privacy of their own homes.

In short, the same old prejudices -- and precisely the same arguments -- are still being used today, and only the target has changed. I often think, as I know others do, too, that views like Santorum's are the last "acceptable" prejudice. ... Why do certain people always seem to feel the need to have an object of derision, of scorn, of contempt? I think part of the explanation is that it provides an automatic feeling of superiority, and an automatic, and unearned, sense of self-esteem and self-worth. For people who lack genuine self-confidence, when they have a handy target to condemn, they can at least feel: "Well, I'm better than that." And today, rather than thinking, "Well, at least I'm white!", now they can feel, "Well, at least I'm straight!" They appear not to realize it, but their condemnation and their unreasoning biases reveal far more about them than about anyone else. I think if they understood the degree of self-revelation in which they were engaged, they might simply keep quiet -- because what they are revealing about themselves is not at all attractive.

But in the meantime, people like Santorum -- and all those who give him a pass, or even worse, agree with or simply tolerate his views -- do great harm. The ultimate meaning and message of Santorum's comments is the condemnation of a group of people for being who they are, for existing as who they are. And I don't want to hear any of this crap about "not having a problem with homosexuality," but only "having a problem with homosexual acts." I discussed before what is wrong with this view -- and I will sum it up here bluntly, and rudely: it's bullshit. And beyond the fact that it's a distinction without a difference in this context, as long as we are talking about acts between consenting adults, why the hell is it any of Santorum's or anyone else's business? Why don't these people simply get on with their own lives, and stay the hell out of everyone else's? That proposition seems so simple to me, and for the life of me, I still don't understand why certain people spend so much time, and exert so much energy, in judging other people's actions -- when those actions have absolutely nothing to do with them. And the arguments that people like Kurtz now try to make to establish that somehow gays and lesbians acting as they wish in private affects the general health of society are so strained, that the ludicrousness of the arguments themselves makes unmistakably clear that the arguments have no merit whatsoever. ...

The major reason for my writing this is to make the more personal point, though. This is not simply an academic debating exercise for me, even though I have tried to address the substantive issues in previous posts. And it is not a debating exercise for gays and lesbians in general. You're talking about our lives -- and many of those lives have held a great deal of pain, in large part because of prejudices and ignorance of the kind revealed in this latest episode.

People ought to remember that before they give voice to uninformed, baseless and indefensible views. We do; we cannot help but remember it -- it's part of the fabric of our lives. Next time, think about all this before you speak -- and think about the number of gay and lesbian teenagers who kill themselves, or try to, or at least seriously think about it, as I did 40 years ago. Views like Santorum's have consequences, and costs, and some of them are terrible to contemplate.

I hope that the God Santorum believes in will forgive him. I can't -- and I won't.