Monday, May 18, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Alienation

This weekend I read a book of essay/memoirs, If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter, published by Sarabande Books in 2011.  I think I must originally have learned about it from one of Band of Thebes's annual lists of the best LBGT books, and time got away from me.

Van Meter was born in 1975 and grew up in Missouri, moved to Chicago after college to come out and spent several years there, and as of the date of publication was teaching in San Francisco.  He's had a moderately successful life as a writer, with numerous publications and awards.  I was curious to learn a little about what it's like to grow up gay in the Midwest a quarter-century after I did.  We hear so much about the great changes that have taken place, so how much has really changed?

Not a lot, it seems.  Van Meter, like me, was a sissy, played with girls, hated sports.  (One of the essays describes his poor father's attempts to get him interested in baseball, which resembled my own experience in that area.)  Unlike me, he managed -- most of the time -- to convince himself he wasn't gay until he was out of college, despite ongoing and intense crushes and bursts of lust for other boys.  Although he's a writer, he seems to be a lot less bookish than I am; whatever reading he's done doesn't really make an impression in his memories.  The library seems to have been more of a hiding place for him than a source of information and hope; one important use of reading for me, as for many other bookworms I've heard about, was to reassure myself that there was a world out there more interesting than the one I grew up in, and that in time I'd escape to it.

One important difference between us: Van Meter grew up in the age of AIDS.  He remembers early TV news reports on the epidemic when he was seven or eight years old, which quite reasonably terrified him.  It made it easier for him to persuade himself that he wasn't gay when he chose to let "gay" mean dying, wasted men.  Still, as terrible as that was, my own generation had its own terrors and incitements to denial.  In retrospect I suppose I'm the odd one, because when I learned the word "homosexual" at the age of about twelve, I knew I was homosexual because I was attracted to other boys, and though I hoped those attractions would go away by themselves in time (thanks to other books that assured me homosexuality was often a phase to be outgrown), as long as I had them, I never doubted that the label applied to me.

One sentence jumped out at me, on page 161: "... I didn’t know I was gay, but I knew I was different, and I didn’t want to be that either."  This broke my heart, though it also annoyed me.  I knew I was different too, because I was smarter than most kids, and that was why I didn't fit in.  I now realize this might have been a tactic of denial on my part, displacing my difference from my homosexuality to my intellectuality, but I don't think so.  The fact that I would rather read than watch the Superbowl has little -- maybe nothing -- to do with my homosexuality.  I've known heterosexual males who had the same priorities, and I've also noticed that alienation is much more common among the young than seems to be generally recognized by people who want to see homosexuality as the only difference that counts.  (If you always felt like a misfit, you must have been gay.)

Some of the credit must go to my parents, who probably weren't very happy with my being a sissy but never discouraged my intellectual differences -- and other differences too: it is probably significant that my mother, who was also left-handed, was determined that I would not be forced into right-handedness at school.  So I grew up confident that being different wasn't itself a bad thing.  Several of my teachers were helpful too.  Some, it's true, were determined to force me into conformity, but others encouraged me to be different.  (Little did they know all my differences!)  Van Meter mentions, by the way, that his father was not only a jock but a serious reader himself; he seems to be a more complex person than the son wants to recognize.

I don't condemn Ryan Van Meter for his wish not to be different, but it seems to have made his life harder and more hopeless than it need have been, and I'm not sure he's gotten over it yet.  It may help to explain something else I noticed about his writing: its lack of anger.  Also of humor, which is probably connected when I consider the component of aggression in much humor.  The combination made If You Knew Then What I Know a slog to get through.  A lack of anger in minority writing produces a glum mush, because it accepts that being different is bad, deserved, and punishable.  Anger can be difficult to manage, but for gay men as for straight women it's important to learn to manage it.  Especially for writers.

Luckily, he's had good luck in relationships: he found a boyfriend fairly soon after he came out, and they stayed together, apparently pretty happily, for eight years.  After the first one dumped him, he found another one fairly soon.  Not bad.  In the last essay in the book he asks several of his friends, "So how do we learn to be in love?"  He reports the varying answers of several of them, most of which make good sense.  One doesn't:
Kevin … thinks it pretty ironic that pretty much the only time we get to see two gay men doing anything together is in porn, and those construction crews and corrals of cowboys just aren’t very affectionate [207].
What do you mean "we," girlene?  If Kevin "pretty much" only sees gay men together in porn, that indicates he's watching too much porn and ignoring alternatives.  There have been many non-porn same-sex love stories in cinema and literature.  None of them is the answer to Van Meter's question, but it's to his credit that he admits that there may not be one answer to it.  Kevin exhibits the same willed tunnel vision that watches a Gay Pride Parade and ignores everyone but the leathermen in assless chaps.