Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Being Gay

Here are two more quotes from E. Lynn Harris's memoir "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," which are related to Harris's hope to change the perception of gay men through the writing career he was about to embark on:

"I prayed that if it was [God's] will, He would give me the words and courage to write, to tell the story of people like [my close, gay, male friends] Richard, Randy, Willa, Larry, and myself and make people realize that being gay wasn't just about sex, but about love." (p. 230)

"I told my aunt that she didn't understand what being gay was about and that I couldn't wait until my novel was published so it could help people understand that being gay was as much about being attracted to the same sex as it was about my spirit and soul." (p. 239)

Amen! That's all I have to say. Amen!

For too long, gay men themselves have created the perception that all we're about is having sex. Images of gay men in the media and at the annual Pride parade, for example, depict muscular men or skinny twinks, nearly always undressed, creating the illusion that when we're not having sex, we're thinking about it. Unfortunately, this makes us as a whole appear one-dimensional, and it doesn't allow for the wide diversity within our community.

For most gay men, sex is no bigger, or smaller, a part of their lives than it is for the rest of the population. In reality, the majority of us are interested in all of the same things--from maintaining mutually rewarding relationships with family and friends to succeeding at our jobs, and from extending ourselves within the community in meaningful ways to understanding why we're here on earth and how to fulfill our purpose.

My advice to straight people, then? Don't get caught up in all the images of the gay community. Recognize that you're only seeing a very small part of who we are, and that, just like in any large group of people, a wide range of diversity exists within our numbers.

But, even more importantly, as I've written before, think about gay people as being human beings first, because that's what we are. Just like you--whether you're female, black, Asian, blind, physically challenged, short, whatever--we're not the sum total of the label our culture affixes to us. We are human beings first, all of us, despite our differences, and we deserve to be considered on that basis.

I think straight people get hung up on the mechanics of sex between two men, and that turns them off or disgusts them. So my next bit of advice? Don't ponder the sex between men thing. When I see a straight person, I don't think about him or her having sex. I don't care what straight people do in bed together, so why should they care about what I do? Let's get our minds out of the bedroom and focus on all of the important things that make us who we are.

Over the years, I've done a lot of thinking about what it means to be gay, or why I'm gay. Of course, there's the biology thing, and I don't deny that. In fact, I strongly believe being gay is biology first. But I don't think that's the full story.

As Harris suggests in his two quotes above, I think being gay is about connection to another human being of the same gender, not just physical but emotional, intellectual, and spiritual too. Yes, like straight men, I could connect to women in the same way they do. But there would be something in that connection that, for me, would lack in significant ways.

Growing up, I never had a good connection with the men in my life--not with my father (who, when he wasn't physically unavailable, was emotionally unavailable); not with an older brother, which I didn't have; not with a grandfather; not with a cousin or an uncle; and not with a close friend. Hence, to a large degree, being gay for me has been about the search for connection with my own sex, perhaps in order to validate my masculine identity or my sense of belonging with men as a whole.

But there's more to being gay than just that, at least for me. Without the strong male influences in my life, and with dominant female influences, consciously or unconsciously, I discovered that I lacked in areas. I wasn't like other boys. I had effeminate characteristics and mannerisms, and I identified more with females than with males.

As I physically matured, I didn't see in myself what I saw in straight men. I wasn't muscular and strong; I couldn't grow proper sideburns or a beard; I didn't have a hairy chest. To me, all of these physical attributes were so identifiable with straight men that, to not have them meant that, at least in my mind, I wasn't a man.

Thus, from day one, what I sought in a mate was what I didn't have myself. Among other things, in Chris, I found someone who was strong, physically and emotionally. He could grow sideburns and a full and impressive beard. And he had a hairy chest and stomach. In that sense, and despite being gay himself, he was more the physical male that I'd always wanted to be. And, perhaps through him, I was vicariously able to fulfill the part of me that I couldn't myself.

In some respects, I suspect Chris is also the father, or older brother, or relative, or close male friend, that I never had, and he's taken on the symbol of masculinity in my life. By connecting with him, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and by being fortunate enough to have someone with his physical attributes want to be with me and to love me, I've felt validated as a man, and, in my own way, I've taken my rightful place at the table with my gender.

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