Monday, July 8, 2019

The Soul of a Man Trapped in the Body of a Man

I've begun reading Walt Odets's Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men's Lives (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019).  Here's how the first chapter, "What Is a Homosexual?", begins:
There are two different perspectives on what makes a man a "homosexual."  The first -- the heterosexual perspective -- is that homosexuals are "men who have sex with men."  The gay man's perspective, is that he s "attracted to other men."  The difference between the two descriptions is important: the heterosexual identifies a single, objective behavior, the gay man an entire internal life of feeling.  While the straight man may feel support, indifference, fear, or contempt for the idea of "the homosexual," the gay man has more complex feelings, in part because the term has historically been used to stigmatize ... The majority of gay-identified men do have at least a marginally conscious sense that being gay is about more than sexual attraction or sex; but many gay men have been swayed by the heterosexual definition and have accepted the narrow, behaviorally defined identity.  In today's gay assimilationist politics, gay men often explain themselves to heterosexuals with the idea that they are "attracted to men, but otherwise just like you."
Like most binaries, this one has some value, but it breaks down pretty quickly.  I think that heterosexuals also think of male homosexuals as essentially female by nature and in mentality. This conception certainly typified a great deal of professional and clinical discussion from the late nineteenth-century onward, which focused not only on sexual behavior but on the postulated feminine nature of the invert.  It's a concept shared by many gay men even as they resist it for public-relations purposes.

One reason for the binary Odets advances here is the difference between how I see myself and how others see me.  It's the old subjective/objective divide, which I thought had mostly been abandoned as oversimple and inadequate.  I'm reminded of Graham Shaw's comment on the New Testament stories of Jesus' disciples breaking rules of Sabbath observance, that these stories
also portray a fundamental contradiction in the religious viewpoint they convey.  For paradoxically the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face.* 
Contrariwise, observant Jews could feel their deep sincerity in keeping the Sabbath, while Jesus and his crew could only see the shallow exterior conformity.  So I don't think that Odets's point has specific relevance to gay people.  The same divide turns up internally to the community, as respectability-minded gay people deplore the shallowness of leathermen gyrating drunkenly on Pride parade floats, though those leathermen are probably perfectly respectable bankers and businessmen who think of their behavior very differently in their minds, perhaps as healthy role models in contrast to all the screaming nellies.  But if you're a gay man who's just been voted salesman of the year by your real estate company, why not celebrate with an amateur drag performance?  It's the gay thing to do!  In our day a gay man can celebrate making lots of money for his bosses by expressing his true, authentic self!  I'm not sure how that fits into Odets's classification.

I'm not happy with the sex / attraction distinction here either.  "Attraction" in this case means erotic attraction, the desire to have sex with someone.  Some gay apologists have tried to de-emphasize sex in favor of some other essential gay quality, but at best it's disingenuous, at worst it's collaborating with bigots -- agreeing that buttsex is nasty, but trying to claim that real, decent homosexuals just stay at home and crochet antimacassars.  Even the people who advance this position don't really believe it; at best they're engaging in doublethink.

Perhaps Odets is trying to see the heterosexual position as an assumption that "men who have sex with men" do so without desire or affect, for some mysterious reason.  But many gay men share that assumption, at least where other gay men are concerned: I'm a free spirit, you're just a slut!  I suppose it's all right to draw the sex / attraction line as long as "attraction" is defined so as to exclude copulation completely; unfortunately, its advocates seem to have trouble avoiding such a definition.

I've noticed myself that "we're just like you except for being attracted to men" backfires by reducing gayness to sex, a stereotype those who use this claim are trying to reject.  But I object to it because it also assumes that all straight people are alike and all gay people are alike.  I strongly reject any attempt to define for me the right way to be gay: there are many right ways to be gay.  I'm also a bit uneasy about Odets's reference to "assimilationist gay politics," since I don't think that "assimilation" is a coherent idea or strategy.  I don't agree with people who advocate some kind of gay assimilationism, because they have an unrealistic idea of what straight people are like, and equally unrealistic ideas of how prejudice works.

Well, I'm only on the first page of Out of the Shadows.  I've liked Odets's previous writings, so I'll read on and see where he takes his argument.
* Graham Shaw, The Cost of Authority, Fortress Press 1982, p. 246.