Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I begin with a quote from Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel A Single Man"

"But how very strange to sit here with Charley [short for Charlotte] sobbing and remember that night when the long-distance call came through from Ohio.  An uncle of Jim's whom he'd never met--trying to be sympathetic, even admitting George's right to a small honorary share in the sacred family grief--but then, as they talked, becoming a bit chilled by George's laconic Yes, I see, yes, his curt No, thank you, to the funeral invitation--deciding no doubt that this much talked of roommate hadn't been such a close friend, after all....  And then, at least five minutes after George had put down the phone, when the first shock wave hit, when the meaningless news suddenly meant exactly what it said, his blundering gasping run up the hill in the dark, his blind stumbling on the steps, banging at Charley's door, crying blubbering howling on her shoulder, in her lap, all over her; and Charley squeezing him, stroking his hair, telling him the usual stuff one tells...[p. 126]."

What you've read is one of the critical and most affecting passages from Isherwood's book, in which George is told that his long-time partner, Jim, has been killed in an automobile accident.  Although George and Jim have been together as life partners since the end of WWII (the book takes place in the early 1960s), homosexuality is forbidden, even illegal, in the United States at the time, and gay relationships are not recognized. Hence the reason for George's initial reaction to the news that his lover is dead, leaving Jim's uncle, who may or may not know about the true nature of their relationship, to assume that George and Jim were roommates and friends but, apparently, not close at all.

Of course, after George puts the telephone receiver down and the realization of what he's just heard hits him, he falls apart, and, in a fit of incomprehensible grief, he flees to Charley's house nearby.  Charley is a long-time friend of George's, both of them expats from England, and it is there, in the company of one who knows about his homosexuality and his relationship with Jim, that George can release the intensity of his sorrow and seek consolation.

For obvious reasons, living in the closet was the norm back in the 1960s, the time frame of the novel, when sexual orientation couldn't be revealed due to possible societal and legal consequences.  That was then, this is now, but, ironically, despite so much advancement in the cause of being gay, many gay men and lesbian women still live their lives closeted, because, despite the recent legalization of gay marriage in Canada, culturally, our country still doesn't accept homosexuality as readily as heterosexuality.  In other words, our laws have surpassed our culture in terms of the recognition and acceptance of sexual orientation, and our culture, largely because of outmoded morals based on misguided religious beliefs, hasn't caught up.

Recently, I met a sixty-year-old gentleman who's gay and who's not out of the closet.  His decision to remain closeted is a cultural one.  He's from Japan, and, many years ago, in order to live his life more freely, he moved to Canada.  His family still lives in Japan, but he hasn't seen them in many years.  It became increasingly difficult for him to continue answering the question about why he isn't married yet.  He suspects by now that some of his family members know about his homosexuality, but whatever suspicions they have remain unconfirmed.  He has no intention of telling them that he's a gay man and living in a six-year relationship with another gay man.  As far as he's concerned, his family can keep guessing about his sexual orientation all they like.

The cultural suppression of homosexuality runs deep.  Even though this man now lives in Canada, and even though he's in a long-term relationship, he's not openly gay here either.  In fact, neither is his partner, who is a born Canadian, and who is ten years younger.  Within their small circle of gay friends, including Chris and me, and other singles and couples, they are out, but none of their family members know what's going on.  Or perhaps they do, but nothing official has been said.  The Japanese gentleman's partner says that he'll admit he's gay and in a relationship with another man if any of his family asks, but neither of them is prepared to go out of their way to confirm or deny who they are.  It's just easier that way, for everyone concerned.

There's something sad in this for me.  As one who came out when he was twenty-six, and who has since been out of the closet, so to speak, for half his life, I can't fathom not being out.  I can't fathom taking Chris to Kelowna with me, staying with my family there, and presenting him as nothing more than my friend, or as the person who shares a house with me, as the Japanese fellow and his partner do.  I can't fathom not being able to share with the people who are most important in my life how much I'm in love with Chris, how being in a relationship with him has transformed me, how I expect to live the rest of my life with him because he's my partner, the love of my life, and my soulmate.

It's easy to believe that if you live your live in a certain way, everybody else lives theirs in the same way too.  Because I've been out as long as I have been, because I've been partnered with Chris for many years, and because most of my closest family has been as supportive of Chris and me as they could be, it's easy to think that all gay men are out, that all gay men are in relationships, and that all gay men's families are supportive of them. But, of course, that's not at all the case.  There are all sorts of living arrangements out there, and Chris's and mine is just one of them.  I happen to think we have one of the best possible arrangements for gay men, because we are both out and we are both in a loving relationship, but that's just my opinion.  That's all I know, and, thankfully, all I've known for many years.

So when I encounter other gay men who are not in the same situation as Chris and me, I'm surprised...no, I'm shocked, because I can't imagine not being out.  I can't imagine continuing to live with the toll it takes to hide what you are, day-in and day-out, and of having to downplay a part of you that is as fundamental as having brown eyes or being left-handed.  And I can't imagine not openly celebrating the wonder and the beauty and the magic of a relationship with family and friends, whether the two people in the relationship are straight, gay, or whatever.

And I'm angry.  I'm angry because the gay men in question haven't had the courage to come out, to live full, authentic, complete lives, despite all the opportunities they've had to take advantage of how much easier it is to be gay now than it was in the past.  Why wait until family members or friends ask what's going on?  Why put the onus on loved ones to do for us what we can't do ourselves?  Why not take responsibility for yourself, own what you are, and get the job done, once and for all, whether it has a happy ending or not?  (In most cases, you're just kidding yourself that everyone in your life doesn't already know what's going on, anyway.)  The byproduct of each gay man coming out is that an increasing number of straight people will realize they have gay people in their own families (that gay people are not somebody else's relatives), gay people will become less and less of an anomaly, the stigma of being gay will be reduced or eliminated, and coming out will become a thing of the past.    

After I finished reading Isherwood's A Single Man several weeks ago, I remember thinking how much better off we are now--and how much we're not.  Even though circumstances may be much better for gay men today, there are still some gay men who, for whatever reason, continue to live, to a large degree, as though they're in the '60s, cautious of being found out they're gay, and unwilling to live openly within their gay relationships.  I suspect that if something happened to the partner of the elderly Japanese gentlemen I spoke of above, he would find himself in the same situation as George in A Single Man.  He would not be able to share his grief with his or his partner's families, seeking consolation in their joint pain. Despite having a few gay friends, he might find himself very much alone in having to deal with the aftermath of his loss, and I think it's a shame that any gay man could potentially find himself in that regrettable position.

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