Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ou Sont Les Bonnes d'Antan?

I just finished reading My Husband and My Wives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) by Charles Rowan Beye.  Beye is a classicist who's taught at various distinguished universities, but this book is a memoir of his life as a gay man from Iowa, born in 1930.  That was what led me to check it out from the library when I happened on it.  Beye is technically old enough to be my father, and we're both from the Midwest, so I was curious to see what his experiences were like.

Beye came from a middle-class family in Iowa City.  His father, who died when he was quite young, was a surgeon in the University hospital there.  Beye started having sex with other boys when he was about twelve. He found plenty of eager male partners at school and elsewhere, and his availability was an open secret.  When scandal erupted, he was incredibly lucky that the therapist his mother sent him to wasn't interested in trying to "cure" him; instead he listened to him and helped him sort himself out.  After a brief flurry of hysteria, his schoolmates (many of whom had been sex partners) calmed down and he got through high school with minimal fuss.  From there he went to college, discovered an interest in (primarily Greek) classics, and embarked on an academic career.

I find myself comparing Beye to Merle Miller, also gay, also from Iowa, born a decade before Beye.  Miller's family was lower-middle-class.  Miller escaped to journalism (he was a war correspondent during World War II) and the writing of fiction.  In 1970, infuriated by a bigoted article on gays published in Harper's Magazine, he wrote a long essay for the New York Times Magazine, published in book form as On Being Different. The Times softened his anger during editing, but it was still a breakthrough for the time and for the Times: a homosexual writing as a homosexual under his own name, expressing his anger at a heterosexual writer's bigotry. 

I share Beye's discomfort with the gay scene, though not as strongly, and I have a different explanation for it.  Try a thought experiment: Suppose that gay men all acted exactly like straight men, so that when you entered a gay bar you wouldn't know from the customers' mannerisms and speech patterns that they were homosexual.  I don't know about Beye, but I would still not be very comfortable among gay men, just as I'm not comfortable among most straight men.  Or among most people of any type or class or background.  I depend on the fact that all straight men are not exactly alike, any more than all gay men are alike. The behavior of people in groups is very different from the behavior of people as individuals, however, and what surprises me is when I encounter a large (more than half a dozen people at a time, say) social group where I don't feel uncomfortable.

The most interesting part of Beye's story for me is his two heterosexual marriages, which produced four children.  Merle Miller married once, but only as a desperate attempt to be normal, and he had no children.  I have no idea whose experience was more common, but Beye's is a good example of the kind of erotic "fluidity" so often touted nowadays.  He seems to have had no difficulty functioning sexually with female partners, but he never lost interest in "male companionship" either.  Eventually he settled down with a male partner, whom he married after Massachusetts ratified civil same-sex marriage.  This comes out of nowhere, because though he mentions several times that he wishes for more from sex than quickies, and recounts several "affairs," usually with men who didn't think of themselves of gay, he frequently discounts the possibility of long-term committed relationships between men.  He never resolves this contradiction, simply states it.

Beye's viewpoint reminds me how easy it is to mistake one's own experience of gay life for its totality.  That's why I've always been interested in reading other gay people's life stories, to learn about other perspectives.  So when Beye claims that gay men are really only interested in one-night stands and not relationships -- "the truth of male-male relationships," he calls this (79), the result of (his interpretation of) male biology -- I wonder if he really hasn't met gay men who wanted to be in couples, or if he just didn't see them.  Certainly just about every gay man I met in Bloomington wanted to find a lover.  But you could look at older gay literature, from Walt Whitman to Ralph Meeker's Better Angel to Christopher Isherwood's fiction, memoirs, and diaries, and see that many gay men routinely coupled.  Isherwood was a quarter century older than Beye, and he seems to have been in relationships most of his life.  So Beye's view isn't a product of his pre-Stonewall generation; maybe, though I find this hard to believe, he just never encountered more than the one or two male couples he mentions.

Still, My Husband and My Wives is a good read.  I'm always glad to hear people's stories (I just began reading the oral autobiography of an African "bar girl," Hustling Is Not Stealing [Chicago, 2003], compiled by the anthropologist John M. Chernoff, and it looks good), and Charles Beye told his story engagingly.