Monday, December 24, 2007

Locking the Closet Door From Both Sides

Back in 1971, when I first began telling my straight friends that I was gay, I was prepared to deal with either hostility or acceptance from them. So I was surprised when my friends responded, first, by not believing me, and second, by explaining it away as something I was just saying to be different. Of course the years of hidden longings and crushes I’d struggled through were invisible to them. (I wasn’t sexually precocious, and didn’t even kiss another person of either sex until months after I came out, at the age of twenty. It was all in my head, but then, isn’t everything?) My friends’ reaction was partly reasonable, then, but it was also intended to deny what I was telling them, to deny the existence of real gay people. There was a bit of a Mom’s egotism in it too: You’re just doing this to drive me crazy.

I think that straight people have improved a little during the succeeding decades, and have begun to learn that we are gay for our own sake, not to annoy them; but the idea that we have inner lives independent of the Mysterious Twilight World Between the Sexes of Heterosexuality is still threatening to many. I still hear straights claiming that now it is “fashionable” to be gay; such claims have been made for at least a century. I suppose there must be a few scattered people who really do try out homosexuality because they think their gay friends are cool, but once again what’s going is an attempt to deny other people’s inner lives. If I didn’t know about it before, it wasn’t happening. They’re just pretending to be gay; they’re just doing it to annoy me. And why not, after all – it can be profoundly disturbing to consider what might be going on in the heads of all those people around you: what desires, what fantasies, what secret practices they harbor.

This nervousness could be seen in many of the reactions to the recent revelation by his creatrix that Albus Dumbledore, late headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was gay. Many people, not just straight ones, complained that Rowling was cheating: if she meant Dumbledore to be gay, she should have said so in the books! Not that this would have made them less indignant. If Rowling had said so in the books, the fuss would have begun sooner. (Why did she have to tell us? She’s obsessive. She’s just trying to drive us crazy.) I saw enough fury in fan discussions years ago, when someone would raise the possibility that someone in the Potter universe might turn out to be gay. These are children’s books! people would fume. Harry’s just a child! Even Harry’s burgeoning heterosexuality made some of them queasy, in fact. They pretended that they were only concerned about The Children who would read the books, but I feel sure that they were angry on their own account, as adults: they wanted to escape into a presexual universe, without skin or pumping blood vessels or bodily fluids. Rowling’s very tame accounts of adolescent flirtations and crushes still threatened to burst the dikes and inundate their Nether-Netherlands with passion.

I’ve come to realize that heterosexuality makes many heterosexuals uncomfortable. They’re stuck with it, though, because of the need to make babies. (Thanks to artificial insemination, however, heterosex is no longer really necessary.) Homosexuality doesn’t have that excuse, and so it will always be embattled. Straights can project their hang-ups onto gays: we are all about sex, they are all about Love. Just ignore the man and woman screwing behind the curtain.

I often encounter phrases like “kicking in the closet doors” in connection with the post-Stonewall gay movement of the 70s. I’ve probably used such language myself. Surely, we believed, those closet doors would stay down once we’d kicked them in. The visibility we achieved would remain, and all we had to do was to extend it. But at some point I noticed that there was a very strong resistance to gay (and lesbian and bisexual) visibility. Straights who knew me would conveniently forget that I was gay. They wouldn’t want to mention that I was gay to other people, because it was not something one should gossip about. On one level, this discretion might be seen as commendable, since so many gay people do see their homosexuality as a dirty secret. But when it’s applied to openly gay people, it constitutes a quiet, determined attempt to push them back into the closet. Looking back, I found that those closet doors we’d kicked in had been quietly, firmly put back on their hinges and locked once more.

I’m not saying, and I don’t believe, that people who do this are evil. They’re just uncomfortable, and such avoidance is a common way of dealing with discomfort. Gay people are still anomalous and unpopular in this country. (Which is why I laugh bitterly when I talk to or read foreigners who talk as though we are totally accepted in America.) But what these people are doing is harmful. They don’t (consciously) want to eliminate gay people, not necessarily; but life would be so much simpler if we’d just … go away. Be gay somewhere else, okay?

Another place this resistance can be seen is academic discussion of homosexuality, especially under the influence of Queer theory. I think Queer theory offers a lot of important ideas and insights, but it is often used to make us … go away. The mantra that homosexuality is a modern concept, and that famous people of the past weren’t “gay as we know it today” – whatever that means; it’s seldom explained – is true enough; but too often it’s used to justify ignoring same-sex love and passion. It wasn’t homosexual, it was “homoerotic,” or better, “homosocial.” After all, Dumbledore was very old, and they didn’t have “the homosexual” when he was growing up. He was only infatuated with Grindelwald, they never did anything, so it was really just a normal schoolboy crush. And (so far at least) Rowling hasn’t mentioned any other, later loves of his. As long as she doesn’t tell us that he went to Judy’s Carnegie Hall concert, or that he collected Callas opera recordings, or that he was really the older guy with the wand who picked up Michael Tolliver at the tubs in Tales of the City – well, then, we can just define him out of existence. He wasn’t gay, in the modern sense, so we’ll just pretend he was straight. It would be narrow-minded to force Dumbledore into our modern categories. Delitrius. Evanesco. Obliviate.

Much has been made, by some gay writers, of the fact that the term “closet” doesn’t seem to have been used in gay and proto-gay society before the 1950s or so. But as Michel Foucault wrote on the first page of the second volume of his History of Sexuality:

The term [“sexuality”] itself did not appear until the beginning of the nineteenth century, a fact that should be neither underestimated nor overinterpreted. It does point to something other than a simple recasting of vocabulary, but obviously it does not mark the sudden emergence of that to which “sexuality” refers.

"Obviously" is funny here, since according to many people (including Foucault himself at times) the appearance of the word “homosexual” did “mark the sudden emergence of that to which [‘homosexual’] refers.” The same consideration applies to “closet”: we can see enforced secrecy affecting the lives of those who loved their own sex for centuries in the past, whether it was called “the closet” or not.

The closet door was locked from both sides. During the “outing” controversies of the early 1990s, gay writers pointed out that the same straight media which denounced outing as an awful violation of privacy, published the names and addresses of people arrested in gay bar raids. Yes, being arrested puts one on public record, but the costs to the ordinary citizens who were outed by the the police and the New York Times were very different than the costs to the celebrities outed by Queer Nation. The former often lost jobs, heterosexual spouses, children, and sometimes their lives. The latter were already out in most respects, often with partners of many years’ standing, and were known to the straight media, and their homosexuality was an open secret; none of them seem to have suffered from the controversy, and most later came out.

As Michael Bronski wrote, “A person’s homosexuality is often mentioned by the mainstream press when it wants to discredit a public figure.” Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and others had been smeared by innuendo and sometimes even outed in heterosexual media for decades. (Right now I’m reading Michael Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy [North Carolina, 2007], which gives plenty of examples, such as Philip Roth’s 1965 attack on Edward Albee in the New York Review of Books.) Contrariwise, even a fairly open homosexual like W. H. Auden would be ‘inned’: poet and anthologist Louis Untermeyer, in a biographical essay for his collection Modern American Poetry, mentioned Auden’s marriage of convenience to Erika Mann (which took place solely to get Mann out of Nazi Germany) but not his decades-long partnership with Chester Kallmann. Joan Acocella’s raving “defense” of Willa Cather, published in 2000, is a reminder that this strategy is still with us. So is the more recent reaction to the “outing” of Albus Dumbledore – a fictional character! -- which made it clear that the “privacy” being violated was not Dumbledore’s but that of the homophobes, both gay and straight, who didn’t want to know.