Saturday, October 15, 2011

To See Ourselves As Others See Us

What I was looking for when I found that previous story was the latest Dan Savage column (which I first read at the Onion AV Club). It contained a letter from a scared, gay college freshman:
I'm still unable to admit my sexuality to my friends, teammates, classmates, and hallmates. I have thought about joining the LGBT organizations, but those guys are too "out" for me. Not that there's any problem with that. I just don't think that being gay is anyone else's business unless I want them to know. The hardest part is seeing other freshmen go out to parties, hook up, and date when I don't have the opportunity to do so. I've resorted to going on Craigslist, but my encounters have been weird. What should I do?

Closeted Undergrad
I've heard versions of this story many times over the past forty years, so I was curious to see what Dan Savage would have to say about it.

He begins adequately, by lecturing him gently on the psychic cost of the closet, inviting him to imagine his straight friends in the same boat:
What would the straight guys on your team have to do in order to hide their straightness from you? They could never mention their girlfriends, go out on dates, or hook up with someone they met at a party. They would have to hide their porn and be careful not to check out girls in public. They could never get engaged, get married, or have kids. They might be able to have furtive, secretive, and shame-driven sexual encounters with other closeted heterosexuals they met online or in places where closeted straight people gathered to have anonymous sex, but finding love—true and lasting love—would be extremely difficult.
"Team"? Closeted Undergrad didn't mention a team; or maybe he did but Savage edited down the letter and forgot what he'd cut out. No matter, really. So far so good. [P.S. How did I miss the word "teammates" in the first sentence I quoted from CU's letter? Senility is icumen in.]
It wouldn't be impossible—some gay people managed to find lasting love back in the bad old days—but it would be difficult. And the sneaking around and hiding and lying would ultimately warp their psyches and their lives.
Not so good. I think Savage is trying to scare the boy with old folklore. In fact, from what I've read and the older gay people I've known, a lot more than "some" managed to find "lasting love," though we'll never know exactly how many. We don't know how many do so now. Contrariwise, a lot of out gay people never find "lasting love." Some don't want to. Some want to but can't make a relationship last. The same is true of straight people.
... once you're out, you don't have to hang out with gay people with whom you don't click, and you don't have to be gay the way, say, the LGBT groupers on your campus are gay. Remember: Gay men who are out at your age (18?) tend to be a bit gayer than the average gay dude. They're out in part because they can't be in. And God bless 'em and more power to 'em and the gay rights/liberation movement would never have gotten off the ground without 'em. But since you can pass, CU, you've had the option of waiting.
Again, not so good. Rather worse, in fact. Neither Savage nor I know how "gay" the people in this kid's campus LGBT group are. What the kid complained about was how "out" they were, which is something else again, but many people think of being out as being flamboyantly, flamingly "stereotypical." But a deeply closeted kid like Closeted Undergrad might simply be frightened by the fact that the "groupers" aren't closeted: their straight friends know they're gay, they participate in public action like writing letters or columns in the student newspaper, and so on. That in itself is enough to terrify the closeted. I speak from experience.

Some years ago, the campus LGBT group here at IU met in a room at the top of the Student Activities Tower in the student Union building. The room was one floor higher than the elevator would go, so there was a landing below the stairway you took to get to the meeting. Often people going to meetings would notice other people pacing around on that landing. Later on some of them finally climbed the stairs, and some of them told us how hard it had been for them to do it, how afraid they were of walking through the door and entering a gay space. I could (and still can) sympathize with them, because I had a similar experience myself.

Occasionally someone would tell us that the group should change its name (OUT) to something less ... obvious. A lot of people were afraid to come to meetings, they told us, because they couldn't tell their straight friends where they were going without giving themselves away. They also thought the meetings were in too public a place. Meanie that I am, I suggested that an additional group be started for such people: call it "Almost Out." The date, time, contact information, and location of its meetings would be kept secret. Someone asked me, "So, when's the next meeting?"

"I'm sorry," I said innocently, "I can't tell you that."

But maybe Closeted Undergrad does consider the members of his campus LGBT group to be, like, too gay. I've heard that one before too. A guy once complained to me that when he attended an OUT meeting, it was full of screaming queens. I remembered that meeting, and it was nothing of the kind: true, there were some big queens and dykes there, but there were more people who weren't. I told him this. I did not tell him that he was not nearly as butch himself as he evidently liked to think, though that was true. Nor was he unique in this attitude. Unlike Dan Savage, I wouldn't assume that Closeted Undergrad is passing. Maybe he only thinks he is; he won't know until he comes out to his straight friends and they tell him, "Finally! What took you so long?" I'd bet that six months after he comes out, CU will be performing in amateur drag nights. (As I recall from Dan Savage's own It Gets Better video, he was no John Wayne at that age himself, and got picked on because he "couldn't be in." Why is he talking about such people as "they" instead of "we"?)

Not that it matters. I've also met people who complained that OUT was just a "meatrack" (they all used the same word, interestingly), that everybody there was just looking for sex, and the complainers complained that they never got laid. Some cognitive dissonance there, no? I've talked to people who complained after attending one or two meetings that they hadn't met the love of their life, so there was no point in going to another. ("I know that you hate me for going back into the closet," one of them told me. How they do love to project onto others! I didn't hate him; I thought he was probably right, he wasn't ready to come out yet.) People do "hook up" at campus LGBT groups, but they are better sites for making friends and learning something of the range of gay people's experience. If you go looking for love, without taking any other kind of interest in the people you meet there, you will probably be disappointed. As Dan told CU, he doesn't have to hang out with gay people with whom he doesn't click -- but he won't be able to find people he clicks with unless he gets out a little.

On the other hand, Closeted Undergrad doesn't have to start with the community we call gay. Lots of gay people told their straight friends first, and only later went looking for other gay people, especially when we found out that we were still going to have to watch our straight friends go to parties, "hook up", and date while we tended the music or the keg by ourselves. ("Hook up" is a term that confuses me. Usually it seems to mean "find a one-night sexual partner", sometimes it seems to mean "make the acquaintance of someone who might become a sexual or romantic partner in the indefinite future.") But Closeted Undergrad needs to get it through his rather thick skull that he can't expect every gay person he meets to be a potential sex partner or even friend -- anymore than straights can expect the same of each other. Some of them he may not even like, and vice versa. It looks to me like CU is just looking for what used to be called "tricks", or today "hookups." Which is his privilege, but in that case he should stick with Craigslist or the local adult bookstore -- whatever. It also sounds as if he's surprised to find that hookups aren't particularly fulfilling and don't lead to true love; but the same can be said of most dates.

So it might be just as well if Closeted Undergrad waits a while before he comes out; that he went to personal ads on Craigslist (which I am bound to say seems to me to show a somewhat impatient nature) supports this. So does the remark "I just don't think that being gay is anyone else's business unless I want them to know." Evidently he feels that way even about his sexual partners. Unlike Dan, I don't think he's ready to come out yet. It won't kill him to wait another year or two; many people have waited longer. (I was 20 when I came out, and I've known people who were older, often much older.) His penis won't fall off nor will his heart shrivel if he waits until he's ready to stop playing games with himself and with other people.

It's not like he's trapped in some podunk town with no resources but the Internet and the nearest highway rest stop; if his college has a campus LGBT group, it also must have other social possibilities as well: parties, friendship circles, maybe a gay Christian group if he's kinky that way. He's not interested in people: I suspect that what he wants, or fantasizes, is a hot stud being left anonymously at his door, wrapped in cellophane for his protection, to be disposed of when he tires of him. This kind of self-absorption isn't evil; it's merely adolescent. But then, he is only eighteen.

Even his letter is a game: he presents Dan with an impossible problem -- how to "hook up" without letting anyone else know he's gay. I've known many people over the years with the same attitude, and Dan Savage has surely received even more letters from such people. Usually he doesn't go all moist about them. It's good to be gentle with the young, but not to overindulge them; that's not Dan Savage's style at all.