We hailed “The Sexual Revolution” as our liberation from Puritanism and Victorianism. We thought that our lives and our identities were opening up, becoming free, as we expressed our sexual desires. That much may have been true, but we have also ended up with a sadly minimal vision of manhood, a cartoon: Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Markey Mark in his briefs over Times Square. It seems that the only thing we are sure of about men is that a man is muscular and has a penis.
Gay men have taken this new definition of manhood to an extreme. Look at any gathering of gay men, and you will see that a large percentage have bodies that are almost identical: large pectorals, large lats, and large upper arms, narrow waists, big glutes, thighs, and calves. They to show the world that they are men not by demonstrating their manliness in their behavior (what would that be?) but by exaggerating their physical shape.
They also provide living proof of one of Oscar Wilde’s witticisms: “Life imitates Art.” In the 1950s and 1960s, Tom of Finland made drawings of men with exaggerated musculature and huge penises, inspired, he said, by the German troops who had occupied his country during World War Two. Now hundreds of thousands of living men have exercised for hundreds of hours and injected steroids and human growth hormone, playing havoc with their nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems, to look just Tom of Finland’s drawings.
Women, I think, are far ahead of men in developing a new definition of themselves, because of the Feminist Movement. Women organized themselves and talked, both in consciousness-raising groups and informally, about what a woman could and should be able to do. Men have not done this work. Perhaps because the old order enthroned men in the seat of all power, men have had trouble bringing themselves to admit that it is as dead as any other ancien regime. The new definition of manhood will necessarily be one in which men have less power than they once did.
The family has also ceased to conform to the old definitions. The very existence of political organizations attempting to “defend” the family means that it no longer exists in the form they champion. In my neighborhood, I hear a whole new language dealing with the most basic elements that make up a family. Instead of hearing “husband” or “wife,” or even “girl/boyfriend”, “spouse”, or “partner”, I hear “BabyMama” and “BabyDaddy.”
I am reminded of a Sociological study of a west African tribe which I read in college. The language spoken by that tribe had different words for the brother of one’s father and the brother of one’s mother and different words for the sister of each parent as well. The point was that the siblings of each parent had different responsibilities in the care and upbringing of the child. Thus “my MotherBrother” played a different role in the speakers life than that of “my FatherBrother.” The roles of “BabyDaddy” and “BabyMama” will help form the new order.
In recent years I have noticed something else going on in language among people of all strata of society: people are giving their children names that they have made up. When I was young, some children were named after particular relatives or had “family names” but even the others had names that were traditional and more or less familiar. (In my day I was surrounded by Bobs, Toms, and Davids, to name a few.) The common names gradually became more exotic (Sebastian and Alexandra) but were not wholly unfamiliar. There seemed to be a period of revival for old-fashioned names such as Henry, Max, and Gus. Yet now I have heard of a “Shaden”, a name his father is proud to have made up, and have met a “Unique”. What strikes me in the invention of these new names is the deliberate rejection of the past, as if the children being born now should be free of any history, the inheritors of nothing, without ancestors.
Do these new names prefigure a coming world so different from ours that nothing from the past will be useful any more? How high must the oceans rise? How deep must the coming Ice Age be?
We believed in another liberation at the time of “The Sexual Revolution.” We believed that we should not stick “labels” on one another and resented being “labeled” in various ways. Of course all we could end up doing was to reject the label we had been given and replace it with a new one. “Negro“ became “colored” became “black” became “African-American” became “nigger.” We didn’t like “queer” or “homosexual”, so we called ourselves “gay.”
My personal aversion to the latter term means, of course, nothing. I do not get to make up my own word for who I am. None of us does. We do not control our language: it controls us. We live in our language. We are born into it. When you were a kid, you and a friend might have made up a secret language, but it was not really a language. It was at best a secret code, but it was not a language.
So I have no choice but to call myself “gay”. To do otherwise would either mislead my interlocutor or leave her wondering what point I was making by adopting some unusual term. If I call myself “queer”, I make a radical political statement. If I call myself “homosexual,” people might think me sarcastic, ironic, self-loathing, or painfully arch.
I live now among a population of men who call themselves and are, without a doubt, “straight”. But in as much as they have also been incarcerated, they are not unfamiliar with, nor entirely averse to, having sex with other men. I find myself comfortable among them.
I remember MRM once saying that he thought of himself “as a straight guy who likes to suck dick”, and while I would not go so far myself, I am sympathetic with his meaning.
My ambivalence about “the gay community” goes back almost to the day I came out. I have always felt that the political organizations and the other gay institutions existed mainly to pay the salaries of their Executive Directors and staff. The only political goal that made any sense to me was the abolition of anti-sodomy laws. If we could not be convicted of a felony for the way we led our lives, then we could not be denied any of the rights of other citizens. In this country, second-class citizenship can be assigned only to felons. My opinion has not changed. No less an authority than Antonin Scalia whined in his dissenting opinion in the case Lawrence v. Texas that the decriminalization of homosexual behavior means that gay marriage must be allowed.
But gay community politicos do not seem to have noticed that their goals have been met. One must then wonder whether there is some other agenda operating. From what I read and hear and see, I believe there is. The true, underlying goal of The Gays seems to be an adolescent one: they just want everyone to like them. When they complain about hate and homophobia, they sound like whining school-children. Tell me, are you any more dead if your murderer shouted “fag” as she killed you? And campaigns against bullying? You want to stop children from being cruel to one another? Mean and cruel and selfish by nature is what children always have been and always will be.
Furthermore, the dual goals of ‘Gays in the Military” and ‘Gay Marriage” are alien to me. When I went to Berkeley, we protested vigorously against the military. We burned draft cards, marched, and shut down the university to keep ourselves out of the military. And not even my straight friends want to participate in a patriarchal institution based on the exploitation of women, i.e. get married.
The gay community, or the gay movement, has become hopelessly bourgeois. Getting major brands to run ads targeting gay consumers counts to them as progress. Some organizations, for example the Human Rights Campaign, have consciously focused on becoming a brand, their equal-sign logo available on all kinds of merchandise. And thus a movement has itself become a label.
Talk about not fitting in. While walking home a few minutes ago, I crossed the U.N. Plaza and as I passed behind the splashing fountain found my conscious mind once again completely occupied in a search for words to describe the thick, sweet, repellant odor of human excrement. I struggle to find the words every time I walk into that wall of odor just behind the fountain. I come up with countless stabs in the general direction, but like the three adjectives above, none of them alone or in combination comes close to a description that is accurate and capable of conveying both the sensory effect that the odor has in one’s nose, mouth, and gut or the moral and emotional effect it has, with its burden of shame and hopelessness and loss.
I passed through the odor and, continuing on my way up Leavenworth Street, I became aware that I was humming the notes of a familiar tune. As I became conscious of this on-going activity, I began to pronounce the words that went with the notes. Finally, I heard the words that I was singing and shook my head and laughed. I was walking through the Tenderloin singing Rodgers and Hammerstein. Not just any Rodgers and Hammerstein (some of which is serious enough to fit the world through which I walked) mind you: I was singing a song from “The Sound of Music”. Which one? “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” for Christ’s sake! How white -- how gay -- can one guy be?
Walking through the city’s rougher streets, I am always aware that the people I pass, the dealers, the whores, the junkies, and the johns, observe me closely. Some greet me with firm and direct voices, asking various versions of “How do you do?” or offering a comment along the lines of “Nice evening, isn’t it?” More often than not, they end with “Sir.”
These, I can tell, have concluded that I am a cop. My favorite such incident occurred one night last year, as I walked along Mission Street from 17th Street to 16th Street some time between 4:00 and 4:30 AM. I saw two scantily clad young women approach and noticed that they were looking me over. As they passed, one of them said, “Good Morning, Officer.” I smiled back and said, “Good morning.“ I could hear them giggling as their voices faded behind me.
I am white. My body and my clothes are clean. I am clean shaven, my hair cropped short. My clothes are those of the middle and upper-middle class. (Levi’s or chinos, shirt with button down collar, an undershirt, and a belt.) I am clearly not a college kid looking for drugs to fuel a gaudy revel, nor a suburban commuter getting his weekend supply of escape from the doldrums of lawns dividing single-family houses and winding streets and parking lots, big parking lots, around every public accommodation, whether church or shopping center or school or theater. I am old enough to have been defeated by life, to have slipped slowly into the gutters along which the forgotten men and women wash down to this neighborhood, but I have clear eyes, clear skin, a well-muscled physique, and walk with a sure step. I have clean finger nails.
The only other people who look like me around here are either undercover cops or social workers, and most of the latter wear lanyards with their photo I.D.s in little squares of clear plastic bouncing against their chests as they walk.
I mentioned in one of my early postings that Saturn is retrograde. Today my ruler, Neptune, also began retracing his steps in the heavens. The two are a complementary pair: Saturn, the power that comes from boundaries and limitation, and Neptune, the power that comes from unification with the universal.
Pisceans don’t recognize boundaries and separation. We understand them intellectually. We understand them in terms of etiquette. We are sensitive to what is proper or improper behavior. But we do not have any sensation of being separate from others. It is as if instead of having empathy, we were empathy. Remember Bill Clinton saying “I feel your pain?” It would never occur to us to think of the pain as being yours as opposed to mine.. For us the pain is as palpable as it is for you.
Yet thanks to an entire industry of self-help, spawned by 12-Step programs and the Dale Carnegies and Wayne Dyers of the world, I know the importance of “personal boundaries”. What that phrase means, I believe, is that we should eschew attempts to control other individuals and insist that others not attempt to control us. I find this to be common sense. For one thing, trying to control another person, whether by bullying or by subtle manipulation, is rude: it shows a lack of respect for the other person. And for another thing, because she or he usually feels the attempt at control as insulting, the controlling behavior is self-defeating. Insults rarely inspire cooperation or compliance. The talk about boundaries that is prevalent nowadays concerns this kind of practical analysis of and normative prescription for social behavior.
However the idea that some kind of existential separations between people hold us apart from one another is far from the reality I perceive through my senses or feel emotionally in my heart. “Personal boundaries” are conventional and conceptual divisions, not part of the real world in which I live -- and that‘s real as in real estate. Looking down from an airplane at the northern tier of the United States, I do not see lines of various colors -- some solid, some dotted, some bold, some thin) separating Wisconsin from Michigan or Montana from Idaho -- or any of them from Canada. The ground does not stop and then begin again at each border.
Nor does anything stop at the ends of my fingertips and give way to something else. I am not separate from anything in the universe. Not only is this the way I actually sense the world, the way I feel my being in it, but it also seems undeniably obvious. If I were separate from the rest of the material world, how could the matter that makes up the plants and animals I eat keep me alive and become my flesh? If I were separate from you, how could the touch of your hand leave me crying?
This blindness to boundaries, as metaphysically valid as it may be, has also shaped much of my life in ways not always for the best. In me identification with others has repeatedly extended to a failure to identify myself at all. I have been through six -- here we go with the inaccuracy of words in our current social milieu -- “marriages”. They were “marriages” in quotation marks because marriage was not a legal option. But they were understood by all involved, and by friends and family, to be equivalent to other marriages. In every case, within a few months of getting involved with someone, I found myself living his life.
Each of these men had a strong and interesting character, a sharp intellect, an appreciation of beauty and purpose in art and nature, and a well developed spiritual understanding. I never set out to find a partner or to get married, but I enjoyed being with each of them so much that I was soon spending all my time with them. (As a child and as a teen-ager I similarly always had one very close male friend -- my best friend -- who was virtually the only person I would play with.) I was fascinated and moved by seeing how these men lived and by hearing their thoughts. I felt deeply honored to be included by each of them in what amounted to an intimate conversation, a conversation encompassing the totality of his and my daily experiences, ideas, and emotions.
I thought that I knew how to do the relationship thing right. Other gay guys were always sad or angry or hurt because they couldn’t find their one true love. Their relationships seldom endured for a year, let alone three or four. My first lasted seven years, the second ten, the third four, the fourth one, the fifth nine, and the sixth two.
But in each case, long before the marriage ended, I knew that it had died. I would eventually find myself feeling trapped in this other another man’s life. I heard none of my favorite songs, only his (or his operas, symphonies, concerti, etc.). Our friends were generally people who had been his friends or people we had met together. Only one ever attended church with me, and that was not for long. And as for the one who did himself attend church regularly, I never went with him. I spent my life tagging along with other men who were leading their own lives regardless of me. They had every right to do so and to expect me to be leading my own life too, but that is what I failed to do.
I am now sixty and for the first time since I “came out”, I have lived for more than a year as a single man. It has taken me this long to begin making decisions for myself alone.
Is it any wonder that I feel as though I am living my life backwards?
I have said that in the midst of a social upheaval such as the one we are living through, it is impossible to know what new order is being born. We must ask with Yeats
I am no prophet, but I have caught sight of some shadows, some outlines, of a couple of things that I think might be part of the Brave New World. These are not so much hints at the new order as they are indications that certain things we take for granted might not survive much longer.
I think that the time is coming when people will no longer be gay or straight. I have noticed over the past few years that some of the young adults I have met are not segregated the way that my generation has been. I do not mean that I and my gay friends have had no straight friends, but I think that we have not had the same intimacy (or not had it as easily) with our straight friends as with our gay friends. I know that I cannot imagine talking to straight friends about many of my experiences. I keep some fairly large areas of my life behind walls through which I let only other gay men pass. The way I experience this alienation from my straight friends is that I cannot imagine sharing certain things without going through some lengthy and difficult explanation or set of explanations about the norms and mores of the gay demi-monde. I feel as though I would have to explain that we have certain customs that might seem outrageous to you. I feel as though it would be hard to disclose these things without risking judgment -- that is, rejection.
But I have talked to people in their twenties who share all such facts about themselves with their friends regardless of their “sexual orientation”. And what is more, it seems that they are all not only able to understand and accept each other across these (for me) boundaries, but even to move back and forth across the boundaries themselves. In other words, I have met young gay men who had primary relationships with women before beginning their current relationship with a man and who might easily be involved with another woman after their current relationship ends. The sexes seem to be at ease dating members of their own or of the opposite sex without feeling that one or the other reflects their “true” nature.
My former partner W.S. used to talk about writing a story concerning a gay man who decided to marry a woman and live a straight life. He said that he thought that such a man would suffer bitterly at the hands of his gay “friends.” Gay men like to think that if a straight guy has sex with another man, he is discovering or revealing the truth about himself, but if he then continues to live as a straight man, he is a “closet case” or a victim of internalized homophobia. Gays seem to want to be defined rigorously by sexual behavior and to admit of no fluidity there, but I do not think that people will feel that way about themselves in the future.
[It has always seemed odd to me to begin a sentence with “I am” and end it with a term descriptive of what I do with what I have between my legs. No one did so prior to the late nineteenth century, and I feel certain that by the end of the twenty-first century no one will do so either.]
The other feeling I have about the shape of things to come is that even if it is as strict as the Victorianism that followed the freedom of the 18th-century, it will not be any of the forms of Fundamentalism now ravaging the planet. I say so because I believe that Fundamentalism, whether Christian, Islamic, of Jewish, is appealing only in times of turmoil such as ours.
Almost everything in our society is in flux. Nothing -- not a man, a woman, or a family, let alone right and wrong -- is clearly defined any more. The old definitions have broken down, for good reasons, but the new ones have not yet coalesced. I believe that when people have to live with such deep and radical uncertainty as this, they are drawn to Fundamentalism. They need a set of standards, a set of rules, that is solid, clear, and time-honored. Hence the most ancient ideas and values in their cultural tradition seem best. “This which has not changed in thousands of years,” they say to themselves, “this which uncounted generations have held to be true, this is the surest and safest ideology to live by.”
The irony is that in taking hold of the oldest ideas of their culture, Fundamentalists are relegating themselves to the most primitive ways of thinking and of living. They jettison all the centuries during which trial and error and learning from experience have refined, strengthened, and made more practicable and more humane those primitive ideas and traditions.
And so as the new order emerges, I believe the appeal of Fundamentalism will again wane. Today Fundamentalists are fighting a rear-guard action. They have nothing to do with the troops who are establishing the next front.