Friday, May 25, 2007

Hiding From Their Own Shadows

What's wrong with this picture? In 1972, a gay twenty-year-old visiting Manhattan has only one night to "find others like myself":
Yet in an era before gay community centers and programs, or gay bookstores and the right kind of titles to line their shelves, where was a young queer person to go? All I knew -- all I had ever heard about -- were the seedy gay movie houses near Times Square. With trembling fingers, I paid for a ticket and entered one. Within minutes, I was back out on the streets in heart-pounding escape from a brigade in raincoats who had descended on me the moment I sat down. In fear and panic, I ran uptown and into Central Park. Hadn't I read somewhere that queers met there too? My foray into the greenery didn't last much longer than my interlude at the movies: it, too, was a dark and scary place. A brief encounter with a kindred soul? Hell, one could get killed here! I returned to my hotel room, dejected and hopeless. Instead of finding others like me, all I had discovered were shadows -- predatory and frightening.
There's a great deal wrong with this passage from Mark Thompson's Gay Body (viii-ix), starting with the shoddy writing and proceeding through the Jungian demonization of the "shadows" he encountered. (Remember, Mark, those "shadows" are your shadow.) What I'd like you to notice now is Thompson's claim that in New York in 1972 there were no "gay community centers and programs, or gay bookstores and the right kind of titles to line their shelves." In fact, Craig Rodwell's Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore opened in Greenwich Village in 1967, five years before Thompson's night of the Long Raincoats. By 1972, New York Gay Activists Alliance had a community center in a converted firehouse. San Francisco's gay community center was founded in 1966. Chicago Gay Alliance had a center in the middle of the city. (At the age of twenty, with just one night to find others like myself, I visited it in April 1971.) The early 1970s were a time of explosive growth for such resources nationwide. Young Mark Thompson may not have known about these resources, but they did exist, and old Mark Thompson should know it by now.

But facts do get in the way of a good story.

Now let's move ahead a few years. Fenton Johnson's Geography of the Heart is a moving account of the death from AIDS of his lover Larry Rose. It also tells of his own earlier life in "San Francisco in the late 1970s, those innocent and exhilarating years when it first seemed possible for gay men and lesbians to live and love openly" (79). Notice how the "years when it first seemed possible for gay men and lesbians to live and love openly" creep forward in time. For Mark Thompson, 1972 was still the Dark Ages; for Johnson, the late 1970s -- in San Francisco, mind you -- were just the beginning of the Enlightenment.

Or not: In 1979 ("my second year in San Francisco" [81]), Johnson found a new place to live, out of the fast lane. One acquaintance at the time, "a painfully young man," had "just been discharged from the navy because he was gay, a nice instance of discrimination that at the time we accepted as simply the way life worked and would always work."

Apparently "we" had never heard of Leonard Matlovich, a gay man who received national straight media coverage and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1975, for fighting to remain in the US military. Rapid growth of gay organizations and visibility had continued through the Seventies, all over the US and elsewhere. Since young Mark Thompson went cruising in Times Square and Central Park and ran shrieking from the reflections of himself he found there, gay activists had confronted the psychiatric establishment, and won: the APA de-pathologized homosexuality in 1973. Aside from Matlovich and other gay military personnel, there were openly gay politicians, from Elaine Noble to Allen Spears. And need I mention that 1979 was the year after the assassination of Harvey Milk? Evidently I need.

These events weren't entirely invisible in the straight media, and certainly could have been known by people who read even the Advocate, let alone other gay media. Johnson writes about the period without the intrusion of these current, local events into his portrait; and even today too many gay people accept discrimination "as simply the way life worked and would always work."

But maybe even 1979 is still too long ago. So let's move ahead to the 1980s, and a young lesbian attending a tiny liberal-arts college in Indiana. Although there was no gay organization there at the time,
To DePauw's credit, with the college's support I was able to attend a number of national women's studies conferences in the Midwest as well as a large antinuclear weapons conference at Riverside Church in New York City. These conferences literally [?] saved my life. They allowed me to meet not only other feminist women but students like myself who were struggling with their sexual identities. The women and men I met gave me the reassurance I needed that being a lesbian was not "abnormal." At the time, it felt like just being lesbian, gay, or bisexual was extremely radical and in itself a political statement (Stiers, xiii).
When I first read this, I immediately wondered: How does "extremely radical" connect to "abnormal"? Or does Stiers approve of "political statements"? She's so incoherent I can't be sure. Let's consider the historical context again: by the 1980s, what might be called the professionalization of the gay movement was well underway, with frequent calls to put the radicalism of the 70s behind us. More gay military, more gay politicians, more gay pastors and priests and rabbis, more laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation, even in towns in Indiana. Businessman David Goodstein had bought the Advocate, no radical publication to begin with, and used it to further an avowedly conservative agenda. Gay religious groups were the fastest-growing segment of the gay movement. And by the mid-1980s, AIDS had put a wholly different face on the gay male community. If being gay seemed "radical" at that time to Gretchen Stiers, it was despite all these developments.

But leave all that aside. Consider the impression this author gives that there were no gay resources in Indiana colleges in the 1980s, that it was necessary to go to New York to meet "students like myself who were struggling with their sexual identities." You'd think that Gretchen Stiers was the only gay person at DePauw in those days, which just isn't true. Even DePauw was not quite as bad as Stiers implies: there have been several attempts to get a gay organization going there since the 1970s. I was one of several gay men who visited DePauw from Indiana University in Bloomington (whose first student gay organization -- that I know of! -- was founded in 1970) in the mid-1970s to speak to the whole campus about being gay. Gretchen Stiers may not have known about such things at the time she was "struggling with her sexual identity", but how can it be that 15 years of gay organizing in Indiana (!) colleges and universities have still never intruded on her awareness?

And since we're now talking about women as well as men, how about the Michigan Women's Music Festival -- or if Michigan was too far out ("radical"?) for young Gretchen Stiers, the National Women's Music Festival took place every summer in Bloomington, an hour's drive from DePauw. There were women's bookstores in Bloomington and Indianapolis, also close to DePauw. By the time Stiers was coming out, Olivia Records was moving towards luppification, such as expensive ocean cruises.

But surely, the reader may protest, things changed in the 1990s? I wish I could say so (and don't call me Shirley!). Let's leave the coming-out genre for a moment, and listen to a gay man of 40, writing about gay life in New York City today:
I have, of course, like most of the gay men I know, spent a good deal of time complaining about the bar scene. The complaining -- that if you're a single gay man the only way to meet other single gay men, the only way to find someone to play with, is to stray into that familiar space, probably ugly, most likely badly lighted, filled with strangers and music you wouldn't choose yourself, and wait against a wall with the drink in your hand until you finally slide into a conversation with someone whom you can't see quite well enough and who is probably only looking for a one-night stand anyway, unlike you who, you tell yourself, are looking for a Relationship -- this complaint is a necessary lie. A lie, because I am pretty sure by now that we go to these places in order not to connect, but rather to exist in the exquisite moment when our desirability is still perfect, unspoiled by contact; necessary, because who could acknowledge that this was what he really wanted -- to be a flawless image rather than a living person, to have a narrative rather than a life, to be tragic rather than to live -- and not go mad? [Mendelsohn, 195f]
Ahem. Andrew Holleran said the same thing 20 years ago in Dancer from the Dance, and better: with humor, for one thing, to balance the self-pity. But I don't believe that a) all bars in New York City, even in Chelsea, are like this; or b) there are no other ways in New York to meet eligible men (discussion groups? amateur sports? Spinoza and other gay Jewish groups?). The author of this passage cruises certain streets and bars in Chelsea, and Internet chat rooms, and simply ignores the existence of other possibilities -- as well as the existence of gay men who use those alternatives. At least the author admits that he isn't really interested in "connecting", or in environments where he might do so.

The convenient amnesia continues. The director of one segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2, three short films about lesbians made for HBO in 2000, told the Advocate that they didn't even have a word for such relationships in 1930, when the couple in the segment would have met. Nonsense. Of course there was a word -- in fact there were several -- even if the women involved didn't want to use it. Even now, there isn't a word that's acceptable to all same-sex couples.

The writers I've quoted here are not by any means the only ones who express the perspective I'm criticizing -- if only they were! Unfortunately they seem to speak for many others, and even more important, they bespeak a willed amnesia that is too common among gay people. I'm not surprised to find such attitudes in gay people, like Andrew Sullivan, who have been appointed interpreters of gay life by the straight media, who mirror and reinforce the ignorance of straight editors, reporters, and readers; but to find them in people who are writing for a gay readership is dispiriting.

It's a ritual part of the standard coming-out narrative to claim that in those dark days, one was totally alone and isolated, and there was none to help, nay not anywhere. One was the only sensitive (or "normal") gay person in New York City (or San Franciso, or America) in 1972 or 1979 or 1984, all the rest were predatory shadows. This may make for an archetypically mythic story, but like so many archetypically mythic stories it is a lie. Would it really ruin the tale to admit that yes, there were resources, even if the storyteller didn't know about them -- perhaps still doesn't want to know about them? After all, if all other gay people in Those Days were just extreme radicals and there were no alternatives to the clammy embraces of raincoated hordes in sticky-floored porn movie houses, then it seems sane and reasonable to have remained in the closet for so long. To admit that one ignored alternatives, that one was lagging behind history instead of its prisoner, sounds so much less heroic.

Erasing our history doesn't just encourage gay people to stay closeted: it encourages complacency among the antigay. How often I've heard apologists for bigotry say that you can't bring about change overnight, apparently because their awareness of gay activism has been edited down to the 1993 March on Washington at most. (The Millennium March of 2000 will now probably replace the 1993 March as the beginning of gay activism in this mythology.) The thirty-plus years since the Stonewall riots, the fifty-odd years since the founding of Mattachine, the full century since Magnus Hirschfeld came from Germany to the US to lecture on sex "intermediates" -- all down the memory hole. And worst of all, it is gay people, the very ones who lived through it and who should know better, who are erasing our history.

"How would I know I was gay if I didn't know what gay was," a young gay man asked rhetorically on the Internet, referring to his high school days in Iowa during the 1990s. No wonder so many people swallow the nonsense that there were no homosexuals before the word "homosexual" was coined -- they really believe that without a printed instruction manual, professionally-run training seminars, rainbow healing crystals, and the all-important Abercrombie & Fitch apparel, you don't even exist.

Ever since I can remember (and I came out in 1971), there have been people in US gay communities who've claimed that the war has been won, that no gay person suffers stigma, guilt, or shame anymore, or that (as a graduate student at a large midwestern state university put it in the late 1980s) most people have figured out their sexuality by the time they get to college, so they need no further education about gay history, politics, or culture. Even in large cities with large gay communities, this is clearly not true.

In Emma Donoghue's Passions Between Women, she notes how often 18th and 19th century women writers who referred to lesbianism in their work would hasten to add that they couldn't imagine what two women could do together. This forestalled the question that would follow if they admitted knowing: how did they know, hm? I detect a similar disclaimer in these tales of gay and lesbian isolation from the past 30 years: yes, I was That Way, but I didn't want to be, I didn't choose it, I couldn't imagine where to find others like myself, and when I did, they were predators and shadows, not like me at all, not what I meant at all. What gay interests are served by this erasure of history and of the present? What stigma are these openly gay writers trying to fend off?

Thompson, Mark. Gay Body: a journey through shadow to self. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Johnson, Fenton. Geography of the heart: a memoir. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Stiers, Gretchen A. From this day forward: commitment, marriage, and family in lesbian and gay relationships. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. The elusive embrace: desire and the riddle of identity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Donoghue, Emma. Passions between women: British Lesbian culture 1668-1801. London: Scarlet Press, 1993. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.