Sunday, July 14, 2019


I don't think I'll continue reading Walt Odets's new book, Out of the Shadows (FSG, 2019).  Right after the passage I discussed last week there came this:
For gay men, sexual attraction to other men is only one expression of something more formal, more fundamental, something that might be called a gay sensibility.  As I am using the term, gay sensibility describes the man's internal experience of himself, and his characteristic external expression of self to others.  Together, the two constitute "a sensibility," and a gay sensibility is often different from that of heterosexual men.  Sexual attraction is not the cause of gay sensibility, although it may influence and inform it; nor is the simple idea of the homosexual an adequate characterization of that sensibility.  The question I am raising -- whether or not gay men are homosexuals -- is not at all intended to dismiss the importance of gay sexual lives.  Sexuality is of central importance in all human life, whether acknowledged or not.  What it means to "be gay" has for too long been defined by others, and too much of that imposed definition has been incorporated into gay self-experience.  Being gay offers important opportunities that can only be realized if gay people can free themselves from the conventional idea of the homosexual.  Freed from this narrow characterization, gay people have lives that are, in some ways, like heterosexual lives and, in other ways, appreciably different.  Lives that express such complexity are often better, fuller, more authentic lives [20].
Odets might possibly make an interesting and useful case from this mess, but right now I don't have enough energy or curiosity to find out.  He allows that gay men are different from each other, but I can't see how to reconcile that acknowledgement with the notion of a "gay sensibility."  If erotic experience is only one expression of this putative sensibility, it would seem to follow that a gay male sensibility could express itself in erotic interaction with women as easily as it could with men, and that a man could have erotic experience exclusively with other men without having that sensibility.  In that case, it's hard to see why that sensibility should be called "gay."

This same problem arises in attempts to make sense of gender.  The psychological traits that are stereotyped "masculine" or "feminine" are really found in both / either sex most of the time, so it makes no sense to gender them.  Doing so just keeps people, whether they are professionals or laypeople, confused.  My sensibility is gay, not because I possess some indefinable gay essence, but because I am gay, so whatever sensibility I possess is a gay one.  In that I echo the "woman-identified woman" who asserted that whatever she wears, be it a gown or an army-surplus coat, it is by definition women's wear.  I am different from many straight men, but I'm also different from many gay men.  (I wonder where bisexual men fit into Odets's schema.)

I still disagree with his characterization of "the homosexual" as a concept consisting purely of sex.  In fact "the homosexual" has always been an incoherent conception, but it has always been more complex than Odets allows.  Foucault was correct when he wrote: "We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized ... less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself" (History of Sexuality, 1:43).  Gayish men had a good deal of input into the construction and elaboration of "the homosexual," not just as case histories but as thinkers and writers.  Perhaps Odets will take this history into account as he proceeds, but I'm not going to find out in the foreseeable future.

But I also object to Odets's stereotyping of heterosexual men.  It's not news that the social construction of heterosexuality has been restrictive and destructive of men's lives, as well as women's.  Nor should it be news that heterosexual men are as varied as gay men, and that there are large differences between cultures in the official definitions and limitations imposed on straight men.

For example, last week as I headed downtown I passed a group of about twenty international students being shown around.  They were all black Africans, mostly male, and two of them were holding hands.  They looked a bit uneasy, almost defiant, but they held on.  I presume they had been told that in America, men holding hands is taken as a sign of homosexuality.  Even many if not most gay men would make that mistake.  In many cultures, even quite homophobic ones, people of the same sex hold hands in public.  But in the US, any public display of physical affection between males is a fraught business.  (That 'affection' in that phrase generally is a euphemism for eroticism says a lot about our moral impoverishment.)

Even within a culture, manhood is an incoherent concept.  For an easy example, consider the attempts to limit artistic expression to males, to defend it as an inherently male capability, at the same time that male artists' manliness is often suspect.  For another, consider male bonding: men are supposed to be heterosexual, but they are also supposed to form powerful, even intimate bonds with other men -- yet they can never be sure they haven't gone too far and crossed the line into homosexuality.  Freed from the narrow and self-contradictory characterizations that constitute gender, everybody has the opportunity to build lives that are better, fuller, and more authentic.  I don't believe that a "gay" or a heterosexual sensibility is necessary for doing so.

The quip that gay people are different from straight people except for what we do in bed has been attributed to more than one gay sage, but I've never seen a good enumeration of what the real differences supposedly are.  Harry Hay was one of those sages, and I think it's significant that he not only wanted to define a gay spiritual sensibility, he based it on a biological-determinist theory of our origin and nature.  Odets objects to the born-gay dogma; I wonder if he realizes that Hay believed we are born fairies. For that reason I feel free to reject the claim, which feels to me like one more attempt to force us all into boxes instead of encouraging us to explore and own our complexity and richness.