I was talking to a famous Canadian art expert the other day and I asked her about a well-known gay man who died in the 1960s. What did people think about his sexuality? I asked.
Basically, she said, everyone knew but no one talked about it. “It seemed unimportant,” she said.
Unimportant. I guess that was as good as it got in the 1960s. Tolerant without wishing to discuss it any further.
Still for those who consider gayness a key part of our identity it has the ring of dismissal. And it’s not so different from attitudes today.
Unimportant — that’s the way whites talk about race and straights talk about sexuality. People mean well, they really do. They’re trying to show they care by not caring. “Oh, I didn’t even notice. I thought you were just like me. Now can we please move on?”
But for anyone who thinks sexuality is more than just sex, as I do, it’s a slap in the face, a way of saying that a whole portion of the self is off-limits. Not just the sex life, but the interests, the community, the affection, maybe even the books. It denigrates, even obliterates, a person’s central experience.
Gays can be as bad as straights in this respect, though I’ve never understood their mindset — neither the old-style queens like Gore Vidal who has always maintained there are no homosexual individuals, only homosexual acts, nor the new style queens who think we’re way past gay/straight (to the surprise of numerous straights, no doubt).
I have a certain amount of sympathy for people who find labels confining. There are certainly times where one’s gayness feels, if not irrelevant, then certainly in abeyance. Or as the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts it, “For how long in any given day is one homosexual or heterosexual and can you always tell the difference?”
There are times too when you may wish to remain invisible. To assert yourself too clearly, after all, is in some ways to put yourself in someone else’s not-so-kind control. As York U author Terry Goldie (Queersexlife) observes, “To be ‘gay’ is a complex life… but for most people, both gay and straight, those complexities are contained within a package conceived a certain way by each observer.”
Still, there are advantages to defining yourself as gay and not just politically, or as an act of solidarity.
In an interview with the Gay and Lesbian Review novelist Christopher Bram said that his sexuality gave him a “place to stand,” a place from which to view the world.
I feel the same way. It’s not the sum total of who I am but it is one of the chief filters through which I see the world. Far from limiting my access to the world, it allows me to see further by rooting me deeper.
Rather than limiting the self, by defining it too closely, it strikes me as a way of extending it, both out into the world and back in time. I think of “gay” the way some people think of monogamous marriage: As a limitation that’s simultaneously an opening.
If all gay people are in some way my kin then knowing a bit more about them tells me a bit more about myself. I may not completely identify with some famous gay author, actor or designer but knowing they’re gay, and therefore both like and unlike me, is a way of extending the possibilities of the self. In watching them I know myself better.
For me the gay identity is also a way of reaching back in time, to an ancestry more interesting than my own. The US critic Cynthia Ozick once remarked that the modern gay sensibility stems from the influential Bloomsbury biographer Lytton Strachey. I’m not sure she meant it in a nice way. I do. Because even a hundred years later I can see parts of my life in Strachey’s. When he says all that matters is the timing of his lover’s next erection and the question of “whether it’s pleasanter to feel his buttocks or look into his eyes,” I can relate. Strachey and I have almost nothing in common but I can identify.
People like to belong to groups. It makes us feel complete, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of the The Happiness Hypothesis. So people who say they have nothing in common with other gay people, that they are more than the sum of their sexual inclinations, are missing the point. Nobody has anything in common with their fellow tribesmen. We are all individuals with unique quirks. But we draw strength from the tribe and for that reason alone the tribe is worth recognizing.
I’m tired of people who argue that the gay label is superfluous. If anything it’s more needed now than ever before. In an age where intimacy has gone virtual and few people have deep cultural roots, gay is grounding.