Sorry for the silence!
I have not been blogging recently because I am turning something over in my head, something which has been in my head for a very long time. When I was writing my previous blog, Coming Out at 48, I had a wide readership and drew the attention of several book editors and agents. At the time, I felt too close to the events themselves to imagine writing a book, but the years are passing. Those events are no longer so raw, so recent, and I am exploring the possibility of turning those posts into a book. So many people continue to write me, asking me about the blog, telling me their stories, wondering if I will put the posts back online. Often they ask if there is a book coming.
Well, maybe it is time for me to find out...
I'm running again. Along the river, nearly frozen, I'm running and watching my feet make the paces. I'm running for speed, not for distance, working to get faster in advance of training for my next marathon, and I'm breathing hard. Sometimes long distance running is meditative, leaving me in a trance of some kind as I move ahead mile after mile. But when I am running for speed and not distance, I am at work. I am breathing hard, thinking about running, and reading my watch.
I'm looking down at the concrete sidewalk, thinking about the surface and is it too hard for my feet--should I be on the asphalt--and telling myself to keep moving, don't slow down. As I watch my running shoes moving ahead, my eyes catch something stamped onto one of the concrete rectangles of the sidewalk, street graffiti of sorts, in neat, small block letters:
The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
I almost trip on my feet. My feet slip, as my pace is interupted and the message beneath me breaks my concentration. I keep running, but I can't continue my stream of thought. It is impossible, having seen this message, to return to analysis of my pace, time divided by distance. I have just been given a message from the street, from the sidewalk, and it's impossible to ignore.
The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
I look around me as I continue to run. I see the boathouse by the water, shut tight for the season, shutters drawn in front of the windows. I see the graffiti on the stuccoed wall. I can't really make out the letters, as they are heavily stylized and almost floral, fading in the weather. I must see graffiti such as this all the time as I run; I must spot in on the sides of bridges, on the backs of buildings, or along the subway tracks. I must see it, but I know I never try to read it. I don't think about who wrote it, or how someone reached the spot it is written, or who it was written for. I take it in as I run, I suppose, but I accept it as I accept the benches on the riverbanks and the geese that cross my path sometimes.
But this, this message stamped upon the sidewalk is different. Startled to see it beneath my feet, I have read it. It is not a message I've spotted in the distance, but a note to me, directly beneath my feet. It is impossible to ignore.
I run on. I remember a day when I ran along a sidewalk some years ago. It was summer and the sun was blistering. The humidity was beyond oppressive. It was the middle of the day and I was out running. I was not analyzing my pace nor imagining my time that day. I was not thinking about running. I was terrified. I knew I had come to a crossroad in my life, and I knew I was going to need to change my life if I were to live. I knew it was time to speak to my family. It was time to come out. As I ran that day, I knew that the alternative to telling was very bleak indeed. And as I considered that alternative, I stopped running, sweating, and walked. In despair.
The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
But today I do not stop running. I am a little unnerved by this message, surprised it is there, and wondering a little if this is a warning I am meant to heed. It's not a simple thing to change one's life, to shift patterns, to take a stand, or alter course. But it can be done. And today I do not stop running. I keep to the route, increasing my speed back to the goal, lifting my eyes, looking out toward the river. It is a cold day, and the river is frozen, but the sun is strong and still high.
A writer needs a reader. Oh, I know, a writer could write a journal, could keep it under lock under key, and could even destroy it before anyone had a chance to see what secrets it held. But a writer who posts his writings on the internet, checking anxiously at the comments page and at the site tracking report, needs a reader. He needs to know his reader is there and he may even need to know what his reader is thinking.
I can see from the tracking reports that there are many, many people reading these posts. I have seen some of your comments and some of you have written me by email. But I want a little more from my reader. I would like a little more than an IP address, a town in Arkansas or Bangladesh. I'd like to hear from you.
Just a brief note, or a comment, or an email, letting me know you are there. Tell me anything you want. Send me to a new site or to your own blog. Rant and rave, or simply say, " I'm here."
I'm looking forward to it, actually.
That day there would be an interruption during lunch, a small disturbance. We didn't know it was about to happen and, when it did, it was a surprise. You see, someone had written a letter to the college newspaper, an anonymous letter, announcing the formation of a gay support organization on campus. This was the late 70s and we didn't have such organizations at our small, elite college. People didn't really announce their sexual orientation there. We didn't really even say sexual orientation. Looking back, I doubt I had even seen the letter when I sat down to lunch that day.
A student stood up on a chair, on one of those white, cool Eames chairs, wire frame with orange seat cushions. He stood up on a chair and began to read the letter. We could all hear him and we stopped talking, I imagine. As he read this letter, this letter about starting a gay support organization, he read it with a lisp. His tone was mocking. The letter was a joke to him and he was making it a joke for us.
I sat in my chair and I didn't say a word. As I remember it, no one really said a word. Perhaps there was some laughter; there was also certainly some shocked silence. I sat in my chair, but please, imagine me for who I was: not a closeted gay student watching this horror, not a young man struggling with his sexuality, but a student, nineteen, twenty, deeply repressed and deeply repressing thoughts in his mind. A young man not sure about himself and not ready to engage with his confusion.
I don't suppose the student's performance on the chair that day helped me in any way toward resolution of my own inner conflicts.
I think of this incident--this student bashing gay people on a chair, unchallenged as far as I can remember--as I read today of the Notre Dame newspaper and the charming cartoon they chose to publish this week. "What's the easiest way to turn a fruit into a vegetable," it asks.
"A baseball bat."
The cartoonists apparently had constructed an earlier version, which they deemed offensive and ditched. In their first version, the baseball bat punch line had been "AIDs."
Gay bashing. At college. Standing on a chair, lisping, mocking, belittling. Publishing a cartoon, joking, threatening, dehumanizing. Two incidents, both at colleges, separated by some thirty years. Yet, as I think about them both, these incidents live on. That story about the student standing on the chair? I've wondered for some years if I'd remembered it correctly, had my mind made it up, altered it, dramatized it? Well, some time ago I did a little search on the internet and I found references to it, clear, exactly as I recalled. This small incident lives on. The young man on the chair isn't named but he is there. He could find himself. He could do a search and quickly discover the tale of his transgression: the day he stood on the chair.
And these young cartoonists from Notre Dame? They are named. We know their names.
Every time these three cartoonists, these clever, overachieving, witty cartoonists from the big Catholic university out there in South Bend, every time they apply for a job, move into a neighborhood, announce a run for school committee, they will be googled. And their cartoon, those three frames which suggest the best way to turn a fruit into a vegetable will appear. Tough, tough at such a young age.
Imagine reading a book, a book with a strong argument, forceful, demanding, uncompromising. Infuriating, in a way, because it seems so uncompromising, but provocative, enough so to keep you reading. Imagine yourself reading this book, as you do most things you read, in a kind of silent dialogue, a dialogue with the text. This dialogue may seem as if it is between you and the writer, but of course it isn’t. It remains in your mind, between you and the words you read on the page. This is the stuff of reading, the interaction that takes place between you and what you are reading, the back and forth within yourself of what’s being said here, what do I think of it, what does it mean.
Imagine, then, reading this book and having, as you usually do, some reaction to what you have read. A strong book, dogmatic even, it has aroused some reaction in you. You are near the end of the book, nearly two hundred pages, and you encounter this: a list, a list prepared by the writer of this strongheaded book, a list of what you are not, as reader, allowed to think about this book. “Please,” writes the author, though please as a concept, as a manner, feels new to the book at this late point, “please,”
don’t change the words or meanings of this book in order to be able to contain them. Please do not claim that I said or believe any of the following things….
What follows is a list, a list of six items we are not to believe about the book, that what the author has claimed about people, about families, about straight people, about gay people, that each of these things that the author has claimed with much fury, much confidence, and I would say, rather a heavy hand, is not actually true about all of those people.
Which is odd, odd for me, at any rate, at this point in the book, because each of these six things on the author’s list I have in fact thought as I read the book. I have been provoked, and stimulated and intrigued--yes, let’s admit I’ve been infuriated as well, but is that so bad--and yet I have wished many times that this provocative book were more careful in its’ arguments, less reductionist, less absolute, less black and white, how shall I say it, more nuanced, yes, that’s it.
And then I read, in the very next paragraph,
I am not making any unnuanced arguments that are without exception. So, please, don’t…pretend that I have in order to disqualify my work.
I put the book down. I really don’t know what to say. Have I ever read such a thing in a book before? A writer who anticipates a reader’s reactions to her book and shuts down those reactions before the book is even finished? Not only shuts down and rejects those reactions, but more, puts their very authenticity in doubt. “Please don’t pretend,” the author admonishes, not think, or claim, but pretend, she writes.
So, not only are the reactions I had to this book wrong, they are also made up, I have created them to conceal what I am really thinking. Here is an author, a professor, an activist, dictating the terms in which the reader is to read the book. The discussion, all of that interior dialogue that was going on in my head as I read this book, was invalid. The author is telling me, I suppose, that I am making up these reactions so that I do not have to accept the bitter truths she knows and is exposing for me.
Sarah Schulman has written a provocative book. I didn’t agree with it all, but it was fascinating, I was given this book and I am glad to have read it. But I suspected from the very beginning of this book that the only way I was expected to think, as a reader, as a gay man, as a reasonably intelligent person, was the way Sarah Schulman wanted me to think. I felt this from the very beginning, but I didn’t expect to have it laid out in front of me so explicitly in the concluding pages.
It’s odd, really. A lot of this book is about power, and the misuse of power, and the way power is concealed as the source of so much pain. In the dialogue that ran through my head as I read this book, I wondered about my writer. She wrote so much about her lack of power, and yet, she seems to me to have quite a bit of power: “nine novels, four nonfiction books, numerous plays, a recipient of a Guggenheim and a Fulbright…,” a professor of English at three universities, so says the jacket.
To be honest with you, I think she could have handled anything I could have given her back, anything I could have come up with, as her reader. She could have dealt with my questions, my confusion, my objections. And she could have at least respected me enough, her reader, not to have decided I was pretending, making up those reactions, before I’d even had a chance to voice them.
Are you gay? No? Then fuck off! This is my culture! I'm not doing anything illegal. The police don't even come here any more.
This is my culture, that's what he said, and that I remember. I remember it very well, as it struck me hard and I couldn't forget it. This is my culture, he said, and if it was his culture, I knew I was thinking, if it was his culture it must be my culture. Gays in the bushes: cottaging they call it over there, cruising, anonymous sex. And George Michael, caught by the paparazzi, doesn't deny it all, he doesn't apologize, and he doesn't even look shamed. No, he shouts back at the rest of the world, this is how we live, this is how we live, you don't get it, but that doesn't matter because this isn't your world and this isn't your culture.
His remark that day, this is my culture!, captured for me the struggle I see taking place within the gay community, between the gays and the queers, between assimilation and separation, between domesticity and promiscuity. A struggle between those who shudder at the drag queens in the pride parade (we're not all like that, they say, we live regular lives just like you do, we are normal) and those who sneer at marriage (we don't need the trappings of the heteros, we are different, we are queer). I feel this struggle, I sense it all around me, and when George Michael said fuck off, this is my culture, I knew he had touched something, something explosive and unresolved. And I was filled with some amount of admiration for his cheekiness and perhaps even his bravery.
I think of myself as rather normal. I have a job, I pay my taxes, I am in bed at a reasonable hour, I mean for God's sake I even have kids. I'm rarely in bushes with unemployed potbellied truckdrivers. I support gay marriage, I really do, and I would work to support it, but still, sometimes, I do wonder if marriage, respectability, recognition, fitting in, is really the goal of the struggle we find ourselves in. I think about it sometimes when I see the hookup ads that begin "I am a straight acting, masculine...," I think about it and I wonder if it isn't the femboy who can't possibly pretend to be straight, the inevitable target of the bullies, who shouldn't be celebrated. And I think about it when I see the men in leather, stocky, hirsute, doing unmentionable things in small groups, and in their own way turning our culture's ideas of masculinity upside down and all around. And I think about it when I meet a single gay man, in his fifties, riding a bicycle instead of a car, in an open relationship with a much younger man, living outside of conventional morality in the most respectable manner imaginable.
Defending George Michael? Well, really, he doesn't need me to defend him and he wouldn't want my defense anyway. Defending a grown man who smokes too much dope and spends too much time in the reeds, well, it's a little strange, but there's something worth defending about him, nevertheless. It's my culture, he declares. Maybe not, maybe not exactly so, but he got some part of it right and he made damn well sure we all knew it.
It wasn't just the house, this California house, dark wood and glass, glass everywhere; it was everything in the house, even the bed. It was Colin Firth, in a crisp white shirt, stretching himself out with a gun in his hand, stretching himself out on the white sheets, brown bedding, gray blanket pulled up and folded exactly halfway up the length of the bed, the same elegant, limited set of colors. As I watched all of this, I was fascinated by this perfect world and inextricably drawn to it. I want my apartment to look like this, I thought, imagining the next phase of renovations.
Well, this is what you should expect if Tom Ford makes a movie: an English professor at an undistinguished university in Southern California, dressed like a Manhattan advertising executive, living in a John Lautner house. But there is a spell cast by this film and I found it hard to resist. Living in the lush suburbs,among the well kept nuclear families on his street, Colin Firth is the single man--single, but with his friend, his roommate.
"We are invisible."
I think we hear these words twice in the film, set in 1962. We are invisible. Invisible, he lives in his house of glass, his office also entirely lined in glass. Everyone can see in, but there is nothing to see. He loses his lover of sixteen years and there is no one to share his grief with: it can't be discussed at work, it's off limits with his students, he seems to have no circle of closeted gay friends. He has only one longtime friend with whom he can share his deep loss, a woman. And even she, this longtime companion, she lets out one drunken evening: your lover, your lover of sixteen years, he was just a substitution, she says. A substitution.
Colin Firth, lying on his impeccable bed with a gun in his hand, his lover of sixteen years gone, is invisible in his pain to the world beyond his walls of glass. And then, in the gesture and presence of a handsome young man, he experiences a moment of clarity, of stunning clarity, ice clear . The frivolity of it, the lightness of it, the absurdity of it, that a sexy young man, a symbol of youth and virility and hope, can bring clarity to a middle aged man in deep pain simply by his being there. Christopher Isherwood was onto something.
But of course this was 1962, so many years past, and now everything has changed. Gay men are no longer invisible. Everyone knows them for what they are, recognizes their lovers as partners not as friends. Everything has changed. And yet I am reminded of a friend of mine returning to his family at the holidays, back to his large, extended, loving family. He goes alone, this middle aged man, without his genial, intelligent partner of some years. Alone, back to his family he goes, his partner an unmentioned secret. Though, of course, he is no secret at all. Everyone knows. Yet invisible.
No criticism from me on this point. None at all. I understand the arrangements we all make to live our lives the best we can, and I certainly have my own arrangements. I understand them and I don't criticize them. But I see the absurdity of this, and the injustice of it. Parts of our lives remain invisible, yet there for everyone to see.
I will go back now, plan my renovations, and look for that perfect palate of brown, and white, gray, tan, black, silver accents. The gray blanket pulled up and folded exactly halfway up the length of the bed. And this crisp, new white shirt I bought only yesterday.
I don't remember Arthur Russell. In fact, I'd never heard of Arthur Russell until a week ago, one of my sons gave me a CD of his small folk pop tunes, his friend is writing about Russell, and it was all news to me. I looked him up, started reading about him, a wide ranging musician, friends with Allen Ginsberg, alternative musical compositions, cello, pop tunes, David Byrne, a victim of AIDS at age 41.
You see, I may have been dancing on a few lit floors, colored lights, but where I was dancing the audience wasn't shouting back Yes! to the Loose Joints when they sang "Is It All Over My Face?," they weren't dancing to that song, it wasn't on any radio station I listened to. I thought I'd heard disco music, but I'd never heard a cello in a disco song, I don't think I'd heard trombones, either, and I know I hadn't heard the double entendre of is it all over my face. "Is it all over my face,"
You caught me love dancing,
Is it all over my face,
I'm in love dancin'.........
Is it all over my face, the fact that I'm loving this dancing, that's what the words meant, but is it all over my face, a crowd of men dancing, gay men, 1980, before the fall, is it all over my face, that audience knew the second meaning and as they danced they shouted back, Yes!
I'm not sure I listened very closely to the lyrics of those disco songs I knew back then, but I'm doubting I ever heard the implicit darkness that I hear now in Russell's 1978 underground hit, "Kiss Me Again," long, repetitive, but minimal in a very advanced sort of way. The vocalist, a woman, sings the lines, but there's a detachment, given what she is singing, "the wind blows,"
the clouds wave, am I a woman or a slave?
Oooh baby, is this the woman I want to be?
Kiss me again, kiss me again, kiss me again........
There's a subversiveness to this disco music, this is not John Travolta, the straight man at the center, leading, strutting, no, this music is off, it's anticipating things that are coming, it's queer. So queer, the producers of "Is It All Over My Face," when they discovered what Russell had given them, quickly remixed it, removing the male vocals and replacing them with a female, so that we have the Male Version, original, a little harder to find, and the Female Version, less rough around the edges, more widely heard. And now, with time, with the years having past, this music is all about places that don't exist any longer, the Garage and the Loft, a world that is gone, a sexually liberated world, men in New York asserting themselves, taking hold of their sexuality, but just before things change, they don't know what's coming, they are dancing all night, is it all over my face they are singing, I'm in love dancin..................
A new and gay minister, at his first meeting with parish council, was delighted to meet me, how good to know, he later told me, how good he thought, there's at least one other gay man here. A woman, partnered with another woman, recounts her first introduction to me, years ago, at a party, I liked the gay guy, she told her partner later that night, he was funny. He's married, she informed her.
Oh, I always knew that, says the wife of a cousin. A longtime friend, we were work colleagues as well as family friends, I always thought that, she tells me. A friend from graduate school, we are seated at a table in a small, hip restaurant, I am spilling the beans, and he tells me, my wife and I, when we got the invitation to your wedding, so many years ago, we opened it, looked at each other and said, well, I hope he knows what he is doing.
It's odd, really, odd how everyone knows what you don't know. Or aren't sure about. Or haven't settled with. Because of course they didn't really know. They only thought they knew. They could have been wrong and only thought they knew better. But now, now you are telling them they were right.
Harvey Milk saw it as political action. Our duty, really, our political duty to cause change. "You must come out, " he challenged us,
Come out... to your parents... I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives... come out to your friends... if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors... to your fellow workers... to the people who work where you eat and shop... come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters...
Well, he may have been right, and perhaps it sways votes. But I know I never saw it that way, not then, and maybe not now. I may have been telling them, I may have been coming out, I may have been telling them what some of them already thought they knew, but it was mine to tell. Or not to tell. And just as I wanted the right to tell them when and if I chose, I also wanted the right to know whether it was true or not.
They were sure. They knew. But they didn't really know. They only thought they knew.