I was very young and he was very old. Just how young and how old will probably be revealed in my eventual gritty memoir. Suffice it to say, a relationship between the two of us was unlikely. But he was retired and had the time and resources to make a project out of me.
George (that’s what I’ll call him) wanted me to love him, so he bought me gifts, gave me advice and showed me his silly side (stumbling and rolling down the occasional hill, walking around with his fly undone, accidentally brushing his teeth with hemorrhoid cream). But he also decided he needed to get me used to the idea — he needed to normalize the idea — of a relationship with someone so much older.
So, he introduced me to gay history, which, for better or worse, is full of examples of relationships between older and younger (often much younger) men.
He gave me my first taste of someone I would go on to develop a lasting obsession with — Oscar Wilde. Sitting in George’s living room, drinking too much gin (yes, gin), we watched the wonderful 1997 biographical film Wilde. I saw a portrayal of Oscar Wilde’s disastrous relationship with the young and awful Bosie Douglas, and experienced for the first time the famous speech he made at his 1895 gross indecency trial when asked by the prosecution to describe “the love that dare not speak its name.”
The speech that Wilde, played in this case by the glorious Stephen Fry, makes is a defence of homosexuality in general, but defines it as “such a great affection of an elder for a younger man,” and says of it: “It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection.”
The speech refers to, among others, Plato, so George told me about ancient Greece and how it was acceptable, particularly in Athens, for older men and younger men to have intimate relationships with each other (usually provided that the connection was not just physical, but intellectual). He was describing a practice to which, through later studies, I was able to apply the label “pederasty.”
Talking about the ancients led to some discussion of the Roman emperor Hadrian (who took power in 117 CE), and Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 book Memoirs of Hadrian, which George would eventually give me a copy of.
Yourcenar’s book is a sort of fictionalized (though fairly true to the facts) account of the life of Hadrian, including his relationship with the young and beautiful Greek boy Antinous. Hadrian loved Antinous so much that when the boy died, Hadrian built a city and named it Antinoöpolis. He also minted coins with the boy’s face on them.
I remember reading the touching scene when Yourcenar describes Antinous’ death. In her telling, Hadrian reflects, “That body, once so responsive, refused to be warmed or revived.” And later: “I had lost everything at once, the companion of the night’s delights and the young friend squatting low to his heels to help . . . with the folds of my toga.”
When Edmund White’s biography of the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud came out in 2008, George immediately got me a copy. I read about the precocious young poet’s tumultuous, short life and how it influenced everyone from Jack Kerouac to Patti Smith to Bob Dylan (whose song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” includes the line “Relationships have all been bad, mine have been like Verlaine and Rimbaud’s”).
It also details his relationship with the older poet Paul Verlaine, who responded to a flirtatious letter from the teenage Rimbaud with an invitation to Paris: “Come, dear great soul, we call you, we await you.” The resulting strange, drunken and violent affair would result in Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist.
On another gin-soaked movie night, we watched the 1971 film version of Thomas Mann’s 1912 classic novella Death in Venice. We watched as the fictional 50-something Gustav von Aschenbach lusted after the teenage Tadzio from a distance at an opulent hotel in early 20th-century Venice. George told me that the author Mann had been gay and that Tadzio was based on a real boy.
While watching Death in Venice, George held my hand and got a bit weepy talking, as he often did (he was dramatic that way), about unrequited love and how he wasn’t sure I would ever love him the way he loved me.
But he was wrong — I did love him. I don’t know how hung up on his age I actually was, but the history he taught me, among other things, helped me get over that. He spread his history campaign out over several years, but I was in love with him from early on, and our unusual relationship ended up lasting 10 years. I loved him for many reasons, including the joy of learning so much from him.
People I’ve talked to over the years have cited many reasons for caring about gay (or, as I prefer to think of it now, queer) history. Some want to understand why people were the way they were in a given era, or they want a historical role model. Maybe they want to legitimize our existence by showing we’ve been around forever.
One of the biggest draws for me is that queer history reminds me of a lovely chapter in my own life, spending time with a man who didn’t know what toothpaste looks like, and who won my heart and took good care of it.