Friday, January 29, 2010

Gay Literature

In the February 1st issue of Time is an article titled "From Europe with Love," about the release in America of an anthology of short stories, Best European Fiction 2010, containing translations of stories "from thirty-five nations and regions from Albania to Wales...."  The columnist Radhika Jones writes, "Translations of  foreign-language works make up a mere 3% to 5% of the books published in the U.S. annually, and that includes new editions of classics like Anna Karenina.  Except for a few recent breakouts...translated authors tend to deliver anemic sales, which makes mainstream American publishers loath to gamble on them [p. 52]."

The United States isn't the only country to avoid releasing translated versions of foreign writing; Canada's pretty good at it too, although I think, in general, Canadian publishers do a better job of importing this material, especially from England, which makes sense given our connection to the Commonwealth.

But it isn't just foreign translations that don't get much attention.  It's gay literature too, both written by gay writers--who, in many cases, are every bit as capable as straight writers--and containing gay content.  One need only peruse the shelves of Chapters, the large national outlet that's all but wiped out local independent booksellers across the country (read, less choice), to see for themselves the lack of selections from gay writers like Edmund White, James Baldwin, and Christopher Isherwood--that is, of course, unless there is little actual gay content.  Despite their large locations, Chapters seems to carry only those books that are more mainstream, the ones they know will sell, denying us easy access to the works of lesser-known writers (and the ones that could dearly use our support), whether gay or straight.  

All of this got me thinking:  Over the years, I've read countless wonderful books written by straight writers, most with not a single gay character. And, don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed being brought into the worlds of straight characters as they play out their lives, and, yes, even as they engage in sex with someone of the opposite gender.  None of that puts me off, or discourages me from reading it, even though I'm gay.  Just because I read about straight characters doesn't mean I can't identify with the feelings of a man and a woman who fall in love, and everything that goes along with that.  Funny--gay people and straight people are more alike than we are dissimilar.  In fact, over the years, it's a good thing I've been able to engage in and enjoy books with straight characters.  Otherwise, I don't know what I would have read.

So the question I have for you is this:  When is the last time you read a book with a gay character in it, or mostly gay characters in it?  Do you have the same attitude toward gay literature that I have toward straight literature?  Just something to think about.

A Contradiction

I can't make sense out of this--I guess each of us is little more than a series of contradictions--so I'll just put it out there and see what happens when the words are in front of me.

Readers who have followed my blog for a while know I believe my homosexuality--that is, my attraction to men--has something to do with insecure feelings related to my physical masculine identity, based on how I was teased about being so much like a girl when I was in grade school. Thus, I believe I'm attracted to men--or, let me qualify that, to men who appear physically masculine--because I perceive that to be lacking in me, and, through association with physically masculine men, I feel more secure about my own physical masculinity.  (My guess is that I'm not the only gay man who feels this way; I think there's lots of it going around, if gay men are honest with themselves).

Let me back up a little now, and say something about puberty for me.  Upon the first signs of physical masculinity manifesting itself on my body--that is, the growth of underarm hair, facial hair, and a few hairs in the center of my chest--I felt embarrassed and ashamed.  Of course, any teenager would feel this way if his father drew the rest of the family's attention at the dinner table to the few hairs growing out of his upper lip, chin, and cheeks, laughingly asking if they would amount to anything.  I remember feeling mortified when this happened, wondering why puberty was so messy, and why it couldn't be done and over with in a matter of minutes, so I didn't have to appear silly, gawky, and hopeless.

But, as I think about it now, something else was going on here.  There was good reason why I tried to keep my arms down when I wore sleeveless shirts during the hot summer months; why the razor my mother used to shave her armpits came in handy when she wasn't home to remove the unsightly stubble growing on my face; why I went out of my way to ensure my family didn't see the peach fuzz sprouting on my chest.  I was embarrassed about the changes on my body, but I was also embarrassed about becoming a man in a physical sense.  

Many of the young men I went to school with at the time couldn't wait to show off their newly masculine bodies.  The minute they had hair on their faces, in all the key areas, they grew tiny, sparse mustaches that were scarcely visible, or long, strangely kinky sideburns, that were too visible. And, at the first sight of a few hairs on their chests, their shirts plunged open, even in the middle of winter, to ensure everyone witnessed the men they were becoming.  Honestly, I admired them--I was even attracted to some of them, though I could never let on that I was--because they were becoming what I most wanted to be.

Only I wanted it, but I didn't.  Part of the problem was that I didn't want to attract any more attention to myself than I absolutely had to.  Because of all the bullying I took at school, I moved quickly through the hallways and kept my head down.  I didn't dare linger anywhere or walk with my head up for fear that I'd be noticed and the teasing would start all over again.  If I could get from one place to another without anyone seeing me, I stood a better chance of no one taunting me about how unusual I looked, with or without bizarre hair growing on my face, or of anyone calling me names.  The last thing I needed to do was provoke anyone.  

The other part of the problem was that I think I'd internalized all the taunting, believing I really was girly and effeminate, as my tormenters had said over and over, and, as such, it was inappropriate for me to show signs of growing into manhood.  In fact, I'll go so far as to say I probably didn't think I deserved to become a physical man, that I should continue to manifest the outward signs of effeminacy, because that's who I was--that's what others expected of me, that's what I expected of myself--and anything else would have been fake or fraudulent.  Biologically, I had some help with this too.  My body may have been changing, but it certainly didn't change near as fully or as rapidly as many of the other boys I went to school with.  By graduation day, I still appeared very boyish, or should I say girlish, and it would be a number of years yet before I'd end up with the physical masculine characteristics I have today.

So how does it make sense that the very reason I'm most attracted to men, and the very thing I wanted most for myself, is the very thing I downplayed in my physical being for as long as I could so I was able to maintain the image people had of me and that I had of myself?  I don't understand this at all.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Teased

I read a coming out story today, written by writer and teacher Brad Gooch, in the book Boys Like Us:  Gay Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories. And no where in the five or six pages I read did Gooch write he'd been teased about being gay when he was younger and in grade school.  Being teased was so much a part of my experience that it never occurred to me other young boys wouldn't be teased in the same way I was.  Maybe it was the difference between me and them: I was effeminate, girlish, particular, and my peers took that to mean I was gay (when, truthfully, I didn't know what I was myself), while they were masculine in the ways that boys are masculine, playing sports, roughhousing, doing boy things, and no one ever knew they were interested in boys and not girls.  

Imagine being turned on by some of the boys you went to school with, lusting after them, even sexually experimenting with some of them, innocently enough, of course, behind the bleachers, or in the playing field, or at the park, and getting all the way through junior and senior high without being teased, because no one suspected your interest or knew what was going on.  In fact, I can't imagine that.  It's so counter to my experience that it seems impossible.  This would be the equivalent of adult men who are gay but who don't look or act it, so no one knows they have sex with men rather than women.  I can't fathom that either.  Again, it's not a part of my experience.  But I can dream about what that might have been like, can't I?  About how different my life would have been back then, how different I'd feel about myself today, had that been the case for me too?        

Follow-up to "Adam Lambert" Post, December 23, 2009

Adam Lambert appeared on this past Tuesday's episode of "Oprah" (see my post titled "Adam Lambert," dated December 23, 2009), and he may just have redeemed himself (although he didn't have much to redeem himself for).

Of course, the issue of Lambert being gay came up on the show.  I use the word issue, but, as far as he's concerned, there's no issue.  As I've written before, Lambert was out as a gay man long before he admitted he was gay in "Rolling Stone," shortly after last year's season of "American Idol" ended in May.  Oprah asked him if he was given the option of formally coming out when rumors circulated about his sexual orientation while appearing on "Idol," and he told her that he was but thought against it.  He didn't want the gay label attached to him, thereby avoiding conclusions made about him as a result.  

Continuing on the subject of being gay, Lambert said the following:  "I've seen a lot of press where they say 'openly gay singer Adam Lambert.'  It's like the gay part comes before the singer part, and I'm like, 'That doesn't define who I am [source:  Oprah.com].'"

That's what I've been talking about in previous posts.  Enough said about that.  

But I can't let this opportunity go by without making one more point:  Adam Lambert is a trailblazer, of sorts.  I won't pretend he's the first man in the public eye to come out--there have been a few before him--but just how many?  When I think about it, not many.  Here are some that readily come to mind:  Lance Bass (formerly from 'N Sync); Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D.," currently "How I Met Your Mother," host of numerous awards shows); Richard Chamberlain ("Dr. Kildaire" and TV mini-series "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds"); Chad Allen ("Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman"); Rupert Everett ("My Best Friend's Wedding," "Shakespeare in Love"); George Michael (pop singer formerly from Wham).  And that's about it.  

Adam Lambert is from a new generation of performers who didn't wait until he had a broad base of adoring fans before he came out.  He first became well-known, and garnered loyal fans, while appearing on "Idol," when his sexual orientation was obvious to some but strangely ambiguous to others, and he wasn't officially looked at as being gay until after the "Rolling Stone" confirmation.  So, like him or hate him, whether for his singing or his homosexuality, Lambert is out, and there's no going back in the closet now.  His success will be determined in part by his talent, that either endures or doesn't in a world with the attention span of a hummingbird, and in part by people's acceptance, or lack thereof, of his sexual orientation.

I suspect it's easier for men in the music business to be out--although ask George Michael, who suffered for many years from not being able to be himself for fear that his millions of female fans would dessert him and his career would dive in the dumper as a result--because they're not necessarily presented as female-loving heterosexuals.  Some male actors, on the other hand, presented in motion pictures as leading men, romantically involved on-screen with many of today's leading actresses, are another thing altogether.  

For some reason, to be taken seriously as romantic leads, these same men must be seen by the public as being straight themselves, or they risk appearing unbelievable in their roles.  I don't see how an actor's sexual orientation in real life has anything to do with being taken seriously in romantic roles with women.  After all, they are not actors, for heaven's sake.  They act for a living.  If they can't act like they're madly, passionately in love with their female costars, then they shouldn't be actors, plain and simple.

But I'm not so naive to fail realizing that the boundaries between an actor's real life and screen life are often blurred, especially if the actor in question is young (not always necessary), handsome (almost always necessary), and a great lover on the screen (again, not always necessary but preferable).  Today, as has always been the case, I suppose, some women--and men--are held spellbound by the magic a few choice actors create on screen with their female costars, and their sexual prowess in the movies is often confused with their imagined sexual prowess in real life, thereby generating a fevered desire for them and contributing to the hysteria surrounding them in their real lives.

Robert Pattison, from the "Twilight" movies, is a spectacular recent example.  One can only wonder, after all those young ladies around the world fall over themselves for a piece of him, no matter how small, remote, or trivial, what their reaction toward him would be if he publicly revealed that he's gay (of course, the gay men who fell in love with him would be beside themselves following such an announcement, but, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons).*            

But back to the subject of Adam Lambert, the good news is that, every time someone like him comes out, presenting himself with loads of talent and star power, as well as straightforwardness, humility, respect, and all those good things, and people take to him, especially the younger generation, another step is taken toward a greater understanding and acceptance of people who are gay.

Lambert is a very visible example of an up-and-coming star, who happens to be gay, and, like Oprah said, he's a groundbreaker.  What he does today will pave the way even further for the celebrities of tomorrow, who happen to be gay, whether they be singers or actors, in whatever area of show business.  If you know Adam Lambert through his appearances on "American Idol," his interview in "Rolling Stone," and his latest CD "For Your Entertainment," and you like him as a person and appreciate his talent, you know a gay person--you can't say that you don't anymore--and there's no excuse for not accepting other gay people, whether they be in your family, among your friends, at your workplace, or in the performing arts.  

Thank-you, Adam, for being you and being out.  You've already made a difference in the world, by being who you are, through your talent and through your honesty about your sexual orientation, and you set a great example for other gay people around the world.


* I hasten to add that I believe actors and actresses should be appreciated and respected for their work, and not for who they are as people in their real lives--unless, of course, they do something truly admirable.  Otherwise, they are people like all the rest of us, and deserving of no more and no less admiration and respect as we might give to anyone else in our lives.

Self-Loathing


Perhaps the greatest challenge facing gay men and lesbian women today is overcoming their self-loathing, the result of years of putdowns and ridicule and scorn.  Regardless of what we're now told about how our culture has changed, how more accepting it is of gay people--even to the point that some have claimed being gay is no longer an issue--the damage has been done.  Millions of gay people have internalized the torment they went through, come to believe that they are unacceptable for being nothing more than who they are, and, today, they hate themselves, whether they realize it or not, which manifests itself in their lives in a myriad of ways.  What about them?  Society's moved on, but how do we? How do we unlearn everything that's characterized who we are for so many years, and begin to see and believe in our own self-worth?  Will we be the last and worst ones to prevent ourselves from being the fully realized people we were born to be?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Diabetes

A week or so ago, while Chris and I washed and dried the dinner dishes, I made the following comment:  "Can you imagine?  My grandmother is forty-one years older than me."  All at once, the realization that I'm fifty years old, and that my maternal grandmother in Kelowna has lived fully forty-one years more than I have hit me in a way it hadn't before.  I couldn't imagine living as long as I have already and an additional forty-one years on top of it.  At the time, that seemed like an incredibly long span, although, if you asked my grandmother, who's never had a serious illness and who's never spent a day in a hospital except to give birth to her two daughters, she might say it's not long at all, that it passes in an instant.  

I looked at Chris then, and I asked jokingly, "Can you imagine spending another forty-one years with me?"  Of course, the question was intended to provoke him to make yet another comment about how tough it's been for him to live with me for the past seventeen years, let alone another forty-one.  Instead, he surprised me by saying he probably wouldn't be around that long.  He said that he'd be eighty-two in forty-one years, an age most people with type 1 diabetes don't live to.  Then he said that, in the unlikely event he did see it, he'd probably be blind, or have kidney or heart disease, or have some combination of his hands, arms, feet, or legs amputated.

What?

Chris and I have talked about the long-term effects of diabetes before; in fact, the subject's come up several times over the years.  But I guess it seemed like such a long time before anything awful could happen, as though we were talking about some dim possibility far into the future.  Only, we've both gotten older since then, and, more than ever, the future feels like it's right now.  

Where I used to be happy with how age manifested itself in my face and body--mostly, to a large degree, because it didn't, and because people used to say consistently that I looked as many as ten years younger than I really was--I'm now in tune with aging more than I've ever been before, and the reality has sunk in that my youth is long gone, that I'm less and less able to defy looking my age, and that I really will die some day, whether I believe it or not (oh, I believe it, more than ever).  And with that comes concern for Chris too, as we both grow older together, and as there's the very real possibility that we'll have to work through how diabetes may affect him, and us.

Feeling myself getting increasingly upset over what Chris had said, I thought for a moment and knew I had to say something, if only to try to make myself, and him, feel better.  "What do you mean?" I asked.  "You take care of yourself.  You're conscientious about your diabetes.  I thought if you managed your blood sugar levels with insulin over a lifetime, preventing the highs and lows, you could stop all those bad things from happening to you."  I needed reassurance from him that I was right about diabetics taking care of themselves and staving off the horrible and unthinkable consequences that we hear about happening to those in denial of their disease and of the need to take care of themselves in ways they never have before.  

"It's not that easy," he said, in that same matter-of-fact tone he uses when he talks about most serious things in life--like it's going to happen anyway, and there's little you can do about it.  The effects are cumulative, he told me.  It doesn't matter how conscientious you are about managing your diabetes, keeping your blood sugar levels within the normal range over time.  In the end, your body breaks down regardless.  All the fluctuations in sugar levels over a lifetime have an effect on the body, impact the organs, cause poor circulation.  Then, to soften the blow perhaps, he told me the same thing could happen to me too, as my own body grows older.  It was less likely to happen because I'm not a diabetic, he admitted, but it still could.  One never knows how age will affect one's body.

I must have been more sensitive than usual.  I'd heard all the words before, although maybe not these exact ones, but I hadn't really heard them. I knew how diabetes could affect the body over time, if it hadn't been managed properly.  I'd heard stories of people not taking care of themselves, eating whatever they'd wanted to, not getting proper exercise, not taking their pills or insulin with every meal to help in the processing of sugar in the blood.  And how they'd lost their eyesight, or went into kidney failure, or suffered heart attacks, or had parts of their bodies removed.

But I always thought that, if you were like Chris, and you worked hard to keep your diabetes under control, which he's done diligently since I've known him, you could prevent the long-term effects of the disease.  I always thought because of how conscientious he is, Chris would be one of the few fortunate diabetics to reap the benefits of his efforts, and that he'd be rewarded with a long and happy life, essentially unimpeded by the ravages of the disease, giving us many, many good years together as we both got much older.

That night, I learned what I'd assumed was wrong, that what I'd thought didn't guarantee anything; all the hard work involved in taking care of diabetes didn't mean you'd avoid any or all of the insidious aspects of the disease.  In fact, despite all the hard work, many of the more tragic consequences of having such a disease for the majority of your life couldn't be avoided.  It was perhaps just a matter of time before it started to manifest itself in some form in the body, necessitating drastic medical attention, and starting the downward slide to even more tragic consequences.

I was angry because I couldn't imagine any of the awful things Chris mentioned happening to him.  I looked at him standing in front of the kitchen sink, his hands immersed in the water, swishing a dishcloth around, washing one of the pots we'd used to make rice that night.  I looked at his right profile, the greying hairs on his temple, his short, trimmed sideburn, the four-days growth of beard on his cheek, and I saw the kid he was when we first met, when I was thirty-two and he was just twenty-three.  I saw the man he'd become, that I've spent a third of my life with, the man I want to grow old with, with whom I want to spend the rest of my life.

The more I thought about it, the angrier I became.  It seemed unfathomable that this disease he's had to deal with since just before we met could eventually take his eyesight.  That it could stop the functioning of his kidneys or lead to heart failure.  That it could necessitate the removal of a part of his body that he now counts on to do such mundane things as stand and walk, shower and shave himself, eat and, yes, wash dinner dishes.

For a moment, I imagined myself having to take care of him, which we've joked about over the years--who will have to take care of who first?--and which there could be no question I would do.  But, in that moment, standing in front of the kitchen sink, both of us still relatively young, healthy, and vital, I couldn't see him as anything less than he is now--didn't want to see him as anything less than he is now--without being filled with so much sadness and so much anger and so much pity that the tears would come, and keep coming, because I wouldn't be able to stop them.

I couldn't imagine this man that I love as fully and as deeply as life itself in a position of being dependent on me in any way.  I couldn't imagine our lives any different than they are now, despite the two of us getting older and having to work through the effects of aging on our minds and bodies.  I couldn't imagine that he would be diminished in any way, and I never wanted to see that happen.  I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I ever did.

"Mary Tyler Moore is a type 1 diabetic," I said to Chris then, grasping defensively at what I could, "and, as far as I know, she hasn't faced any of the consequences of the disease that you mentioned."  Of course, I couldn't say that for sure.  The last time I saw her was on the "Oprah" show, maybe a year and a half ago, when Oprah did a "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" reunion, and she looked good, particularly for seventy-two, and seemed to be in good health.  But how could I know for sure what she was going through as an older woman who had battled diabetes for most of her life?  And she was seventy-two, not eighty-two, which Chris had mentioned, referring to himself.  I prayed the comment I made in haste was right.  "Do all diabetics suffer awful consequences?"

"Not all," Chris conceded.  "But most do.  It's life."

His comment was too cavalier, too thoughtless, really.  Why wasn't he angry, I wondered, as angry as I was?  Why did I seem to be more upset about him suffering long-term effects from diabetes than he was?  That didn't seem right.  Surely he didn't want to get sick and lose his quality of life.  Surely he didn't want the life we share together now to be affected by this disease he has no business having in the first place.  Surely he knows how devastating it would be if any one of the dreadful things he'd talked about happened to him, let alone several of them.  Why can't things stay the way they are now, I wanted to yell out at God?  Why do we have to get old and sick and die?  Why does Chris, the most patient and sweet and wonderful human being I know, and the man I love so much, have to have diabetes?  He doesn't deserve it.  Nobody deserves it, really.  

For now, all I have is what all of us have when it comes to the long litany of horrible things that can happen to us during this human experience on earth:  Hope.  Hope, in Chris's case, that he will die many, many years from now, of something completely unrelated to diabetes, that he'll be one of the fortunate few spared from its devastation.  None of us know our fate in life.  And I can't help but think that's a very good thing.  Which one of us wants to know that we'll get cancer when we're sixty-one and die three years later from it?  Which one of us wants to know we'll die of a heart attack this weekend when we're at Save-On Foods buying our grocery items for next week?  Which one of us wants to know we'll have a stroke when we're eighty-one and be paralyzed for the next five years, suffering several more strokes until we're mercifully taken?  We're blessed not to know how we'll die because, otherwise, I can't help but think we'd live our lives differently, constantly worried about that end time and what it'll be like.  

Life is strange.  I worry about what will happen to Chris, but, in fact, something could happen to me first.  After all, I'm nine years older.  I try to take care of myself, but you never know when something you inherited genetically will do you in.  You never know when you'll be involved in some freak accident.  In short, you never know when your time is up.  All any of us really have is today, and, if today, you find yourself in good health, and the person you love is in good health, too, and you're both able to enjoy each other's company and take advantage of your usual quality of life, you need to make the most of it right now.  Because no one knows if what we take for granted today will be irrevocably changed by something that happens tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Out

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.

Middle Ground

If someone had asked me even a few months ago why I think I'm gay, my answer would have been the same as it's been for many years:  I was born that way.  My genetic makeup predisposed me to feeling a stronger connection in every respect to men rather than to women, in the exact same way that men and women in heterosexual relationships feel strong connections to each other in every respect.  And I would have argued the point.  After all, the difference is between being born gay, where you have no choice but to be who you are, and turning out gay because of your environment, which suggests that, if factors in your environment changed, you could just as easily be straight.  There's a lot at stake with the argument.  Most gay people, male or female, can't accept being seen as having a choice about their sexual orientation, because, take it from me, they don't have one.  I know for a fact I didn't choose to be the way I am.  Based on my experience as a gay man over the past fifty years, I can't imagine anyone actively choosing to be gay and living with the daily consequences of that.

But the more I think about it--which I've done over the past months, since I've been writing about what it means to be gay in this blog--the more likely it seems to me that homosexuality may be caused by a combination of both biological and environmental factors.  Here's why I've decided to take a more moderate view on this matter.  You decide for yourself if I'm on to something.

I've never understood effeminate men who say they are not gay, or who are not the least unequivocal about their sexual orientation.  In our lifetimes, all of us know at least a few effeminate men, who seem to be as turned on by women as strictly heterosexual men are.  But they make us shake our heads, don't they?  We think they're closet cases, and that they just haven't faced the facts about who they are.  We consider the unsuspecting women they get involved with as much in denial about them as they are about themselves, and we envision them getting married and fathering children before discovering they're really gay.  At which point, their sham marriages fall apart, and the women and children are devastated when their husbands and fathers run off to live unthinkable lives with other men.  We wonder, how can we see what they are, but they can't?  If we care enough, we want to shake the hell out of them and tell them to get a grip.  Otherwise, we laugh to ourselves and imagine with amusement what will happen when everything falls apart, because they didn't have the balls to be what they really are.    

Many years ago, a young man transferred to the place where I worked.  From the moment he walked in the door and we were introduced to him, we knew he was gay.  There was no doubt in our minds.  You could tell by the bigger-than-life way he responded to things, by the way he talked, by his habits and mannerisms--everything said gay.  My gaydar went off so loudly, I couldn't believe the young man wasn't able to hear it himself.

Behind his back, all of us talked about his obvious sexual orientation.  When we learned he was seeing a girl, some of us had to stop our mouths from dropping open.  We couldn't believe he and his girlfriend were dating seriously, that they hoped to get married, have children, do the whole heterosexual thing.  When he was nowhere around, we talked about him and rolled our eyes.  We couldn't believe he didn't see what we saw.  That his girlfriend didn't see it.  As cruel as it sounds, many a laugh was shared at his expense.  Perhaps we were just nervous about him being so clueless.  How could he do this to his apparently unsuspecting girlfriend?  Didn't he owe it to her to man-up to what he was before it was too late, before he ruined his life and hers?

Some time ago, I learned this same fellow married a woman--not the one he was seeing when I worked with him, and not the many others he'd dated subsequently--and that they'd just returned from their honeymoon at a tropical destination.  From what I understand, the newlywed couple was blissfully happy and anxious to start a family.  By now, he was in his forties and presumably had enough time to sort out himself, so he knew exactly what he was.  In other words, if he'd ever had any doubt that he might not be straight, he'd had time to figure it out, so that he knew marrying a woman was right for both him and her.  But it got me thinking--were all of us wrong about him, after all?  Could he be one of those effeminate men who was really straight?  As incredible as that seems to me, even now, I have to concede it could be true.  Stranger things have happened.

I'm effeminate too.  For many years, I've tried to downplay my feminine characteristics and mannerisms, knowing they betray what I am and make me what I least want to be, especially since being gay is not exactly enviable in our culture.  But when you get me going--that is, when I get caught up in the moment and let my guard down--my effeminacy comes out all over again.  I get the inflections in my voice, I put on the affectations, and I swing the arms around with the best flamers, and what I am becomes unmistakable.

I shouldn't concern myself with anyone finding out that I'm gay, because that's what I am, and I've been out for the past twenty-five years.  There have to be some benefits to being out, including believing that you can be yourself in the company of other people without worrying that the way you look and act will twig them to the realization that you're gay.  But, if I'm honest with myself, even though I'm out, I'd rather be mistaken for being straight first and, as I see fit, reveal myself as being gay to those people I trust won't reject me when they find out, than be outed because of how I look, or act, or speak.  Unfortunately, we still live at a time in our culture when being straight is the accepted norm, so what gay man doesn't want to be considered straight first, with the option of revealing who he is, rather than have the decision made for him on the basis of how he comes across?

All of this said, the fact is that I am gay.  I can't escape that.  Whether I'm effeminate or not doesn't matter, because I am what I am.  But the fact that I am effeminate, and gay, suggests there is a correlation between the two, at least in the case of some men.  In other words, I live up to the stereotype, so no one should be disappointed when they learn beyond a doubt that I'm gay.  At the very least, it can be said that I've admitted what I am, that I haven't tried to pretend I'm straight, and that I haven't ruined anyone else's life as a result.  On that point I'm honorable, even if it means the path I've chosen to take hasn't always been the easiest for me.  

But the question I have to ask is this:  If some effeminate men are straight, and other effeminate men are gay, what are the differences between them that would account for this distinction?  I'm making the (unreasonable?) assumption here that all effeminate men have roughly the same biological makeup, at least in that one regard, and that all of them have the potential to be gay, or to be straight, for that matter.  If effeminacy is considered to be a common trait among gay men--it's important to state here once again that not all effeminate men are gay, and not all butch men are straight--then that may well satisfy the possible biological predisposition for being gay, but something else is clearly at play here when some effeminate men turn out to be straight.  This is where I think the environment plays a role in determining sexual orientation.

This is also where another stereotype comes into play.  Many people assume that gay men were raised in households where their fathers were absent or passive, and where their mothers were dominant and overbearing.  I realize the danger in using a stereotype to strengthen an argument, and yet, I can't ignore the fact that the stereotype is exactly right in my case and in the case of many other gay men I've known over the years. Many times, I've spoken to other gay men who were in the same situation:  For some reason, their fathers played little or no roles in their lives, while their mothers were strong, controlling influences.

Yes, stereotypes are generalizations and oversimplifications that don't take into account all the inherent differences that exist between people--and I would be the first to say that I hate most stereotypes as they relate to gay men, because few of them are positive or accurate--but there are good reasons why stereotypes exist in the first place.  If there wasn't some truth to them--that is, if stereotypes failed to accurately describe to some degree enough people in the same situation over an extended period of time--they wouldn't become stereotypes in the first place.  So, I propose there has to be some kernel of truth in them, or they wouldn't exist.

That said, I think it's important to connect the example of the effeminate man I described above with the stereotype of the ineffective father/overbearing mother.  What I believe the difference is between the effeminate man who is straight and the effeminate man who is gay is whether or not the gay stereotype was true for one but not the other.  In other words, could it not be true that for those effeminate men who ended up being straight, their fathers played a more active and effective role in their lives and their mothers were not abnormally dominant or overbearing, while for those effeminate men who ended up being gay, the exact opposite was true, thereby falling into the commonly-accepted stereotype?

Again, I have to use me as an example.  I am effeminate; I am gay; my father was physically or emotionally absent when I was growing up; and my mother was dominant and overbearing.  Here's what I think happened as a result:  I've written in other posts that being gay, at least for me, has been about needing connection to men in a way I never had when I was growing up--needing to be accepted and loved by a man, and therefore validated.  Of course, I'll never know if I would have turned out to be straight, despite being effeminate, if my father had played a more dominant role in my life; if he, or another strong, influential male, had accepted and loved me for who I was.  But I'd be willing to bet that my effeminate colleague of many years ago had a close and loving relationship with his father, or with another significant male in his life, who provided him with what he needed most at a critical developmental time, and, in the end, may have made all the difference in terms of determining his ultimate sexual orientation.  Because I didn't have that, I will continue to need from the man I share my life with now that which I lacked during the most formative years of my life.

I realize all of this is nothing more than conjecture on my part.  But what I know for sure is that I've lived with the bits and pieces all my life--effeminacy, being gay, ineffective father, dominant mother, needing validation--and, sooner or later, if you reflect and explore and ruminate long enough, you begin to see that the bits and pieces fit together to form a more or less coherent whole, helping to explain what wasn't apparent before.  In large part, that's what my blog posts about "Being Gay" have been all about.

But there's more.  When you begin to see that the bits and pieces that fit together in your life in a certain way fit together in pretty much the same way in other gay men's lives, you wonder if it's all more than mere coincidence.  I've had a friend for many years, who exhibited some effeminate characteristics; who always assumed he was straight; whose father was passive and ineffective; and who has come, over the years, to the realization that he's gay, and who needs something from being with men that he was never able to derive fully from being with women.  When I ask him what that is, he's not sure because he hasn't spent time thinking about it--he's merely responded to it--but I know in my case that it's partly masculine identity and partly approval, love, and validation from what I consider to be a masculine male.  Hence the reason why in most gay male relationships, one partner is often effeminate and takes on the female role, while the other partner is more masculine and takes on the male role, within the framework of the traditional male/female relationship.  (Of course, many gay men would argue that I've perpetuated yet another stereotype by making this statement.  So be it.  I can only speak for what I know to be true in my own relationship, and what I've seen to be largely true in other gay relationships around me.)

I could be wrong, of course.  Everything I've written above may be nothing more than complete nonsense.  But, as I said before, when you think, explore, and study long enough everything that goes into forming the dynamics of what it means to be gay, and what gay relationships are all about, specific truths emerge, all of which may be used to explain who you are and how you got that way.

It's been said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I couldn't agree more.  For me, that's what writing these blog posts has been about. Every time an aimless, wayward piece of my life finds a place with the others that I've figured out and that now make more sense, I know I'm one step closer to coming to terms with who I am, and to accepting and loving myself unconditionally, which, I believe, must be the ultimate goal of every living, breathing human being.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Role of Envy in Being Gay

For most of my life, being envious and being gay have almost been one and the same.  I haven't been able to separate them.  Out of necessity, one even became an excuse for the other, for a period of time.      

Somewhere in all of this, attraction plays a critical role.  Even as a kid, I was attracted to men.  I was about ten years old when the neighbor across the back alley came over to have a beer with my father on a sunny, hot day.  Spike Johnson sat in a plastic lawn chair next to my father, his torso bare, his forearms, chest, and stomach muscular, tanned, and covered in a layer of thick, curly, blond hair.  I couldn't keep my eyes off of him.  I imagined him wrapping me in those those bare arms, holding me tightly against his hairy body, making me feel wanted, and safe, and loved.

Even today, thinking back to that ten-year-old that I was, I can't sort out my feelings toward Spike.  Was I turned on by him?  Maybe, even though I was too young to know it at the time.  Was I envious of him?  Probably, because, even then, he symbolized what I most thought a real man was, and what I most wanted to be when I became a man myself.  Did I look to him for something I didn't get from my own father?  Most likely, because, looking at the quiet, confident man that he was in that lawn chair, I fantasized that Spike would be closer to me than my own father was, emotionally and physically, that he would understand me, and, ultimately, that he would accept me in a way that I'd never felt accepted before.    

The confusion didn't get any easier when I became older.  I was always attracted to what I thought were manly men, both by how they conducted themselves and by how they looked.  In elementary school, there was Marc Hilton.  In junior high, there was Julian Neale.  In high school, there were Dan Evans, Chris Howard, Hank Grenda, and Don Moore.  To my young eyes, all of these teachers were the type I most admired, certainly on a physical level, if not on a personal level (especially since I didn't know any of them personally).  All I knew was what I saw, and what I saw was undeniable masculinity--manifest in how they carried themselves, how they controlled their classrooms, and how muscular and usually hairy they were.  

Perhaps the greatest challenge to sorting out my feelings came from my peers, in high school, when many of them seemed to become the young men I most wanted to be myself, right before my eyes.  I still remember their names all this time later--Rick Biggar, Chad Bodnar, Don Ungaro, Terry Mann, Todd Carruthers, Cliff Rousell.  All of these young men were my age, sixteen to eighteen, and all of them were what I thought young men should be, especially physically.  They shaved before I did.  They grew sideburns and facial hair before I could.  Their chests grew hair before mine did.  When I went to high school, most males were boys, a privileged few were men.  I was definitely a boy.

Again, I couldn't keep my eyes off of them.  I remember Rick's frizzy sideburns (that later turned into an impressive beard); Chad's unbuttoned shirt and patch of blond fuzz between his pecs (that soon covered his entire chest); Don's dark Italian body fur (in grade ten, for heaven sakes; how does that happen?); Terry's plunging neckline and thick, dark chest hair (that excited and confounded me when I was fortunate enough to see it); Todd's curly, blond hair at his neckline (with the promise of so much more inside his shirt); and Cliff's completely unbuttoned shirt when he left Mrs. Cassidy's English class, his chest and stomach hair incredibly like that of a mature man's already.  And the thought that came to me when I saw each of my masculine classmates was, am I turned on by them, or am I envious of them?  At that point, the choice made all the difference in the world.

I decided I was envious of them.  Could I be anything else?  After all, I already knew that many of the kids in school thought I was gay.  And that, based on how they'd teased me about it, being gay wasn't acceptable.  I couldn't possibly be what everyone thought was unacceptable.  Who could? So, when I encountered Rick, Chad, Don, Terry, Todd, Cliff, and their like in a classroom, or passed by them in hallways; when my eyes were locked on them and dazed by their early signs of masculinity, the very ones I didn't see in myself, then what I felt toward them had to be envy. Right?  I wanted to be them; I didn't want to have sex with them.  Or did I?

I used the same excuse for many years.  It was easy to use it when I wasn't having sex with anyone, female or male.  It explained my attraction to other males, why I was drawn to them, why I stared at them, why I wanted to be near them, why I felt so much worse when I compared myself to them, which I couldn't help doing.  After all, when you saw in others what you didn't see in yourself, and wanted more than anything else in life, how could you not feel envy toward them?  I spent most of these years beating myself up, one, because everyone thought I was gay when I was determined I couldn't be, and, two, because my physical appearance and masculinity didn't compare with some of the young men I went to school with.  My frustration levels over these rose higher and higher as time went on.

But, of course, the envy excuse became increasingly difficult to use.  I couldn't lie to myself forever.  It may have been easy to dismiss my attraction to men when I was in my late teens and early twenties, because I was envious of their early physical maturity, and because, I rationalized, almost everyone my age, male or female, was trying to figure out who he or she was, including which gender he or she was most attracted to and wanted to have sex with.  But, by the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had to accept that puberty was over.

For years, I'd prayed to God to help me be attracted to girls, in the same way that every other boy around me seemed to be, but that was a waste of time.  In fact, if anything, I was more attracted to men than ever, particularly those who were physically what I wasn't, and I could no longer deny that I was sexually aroused by them, that I thought about them when I was alone and lonely, and that I wanted to meet and become partners with one of them.  If only I could accept myself, come out as a gay man, and live my life authentically.  Those were the first steps I had to take.

To this day, I'm still confused by whether I'm attracted to a man because I think is hot, or because I'm envious of him.  Even though I'm out of the closet and have been for half of my life; even though I have a life partner I love very much; even though I'm in a committed, monogamous relationship--sometimes, I have to ask myself if my attraction to a man means I want to get it on with him, or I want to look like him.  Invariably, my answer is that I don't want to be with him sexually at all, because, in Chris, I have everything I could ask for.  And because that's not where my greatest need is.

Rather, my ongoing attraction to men in general, as symbols, and to specific men in particular, representing what I believe true masculinity is all about, says more about my insecurities as a man and less about the fact that I'm gay.  Physically, I was a late bloomer.  Whatever facial and body hair I was to receive didn't happen until I was almost in my mid-twenties, and it remained disappointing in relation to what I'd always wanted, in my eyes, shortchanging my masculinity, and more or less sending me down the same road envying men for the rest of my life.

The world is filled with examples of what I always thought I would be, what I'd always hoped I would become, and that I never became, at least not to the degree I wanted to.  The biggest favor I can do for myself now is to enjoy the wonderful examples of male physical beauty and masculinity that I encounter for what they are, and to avoid connecting them to any sense of inadequacy I feel about myself.  That ship has sailed, never to return, and there's little sense continuing to make myself sick about it.