You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, sang Joni Mitchell, and nowhere is that more true than in the realm of nasty social attitudes.
Indeed, it wasn’t until I read Jack Pollock’s 1989 memoir, Dear M, that I realized exactly how far we’ve come — and the crap we’ve shed along the way.
Jack Pollock was a Toronto art dealer who during his heyday in the 1960s and ’70s showed David Hockney, discovered Norval Morrisseau and lead a wild and extravagant life until the early ’80s when he retired to France and explored his highly conflicted inner life in a series of letters to a Toronto psychiatrist known only as M.
Those letters, collected in Dear M: Letters From A Gentleman Of Excess, are not exactly cheery reading. If anything will make you feel better about your own life, it’s Pollock’s: drug addiction, depression, AIDS, a couple of stays in the loony bin, an abusive alcoholic father, failed relationships and a very up-and-down relationship with money.
But what he lacked in suburban happiness, Pollock made up for with a long and energetic sex life. From the age of 12, when he seduced his scoutmaster, until at least his early 50s, when he staged a three-hour orgy in a public urinal in the south of France, Pollock seems to have gone at it everywhere and anywhere. Seen through his eyes, even ’50s Toronto sounds like fun. “The Bay Theatre’s darkened tiers … Philosophers’ Walk on warm summer evenings… cab drivers, store clerks — anyone, anywhere — and, of course, High Park.”
What’s most remarkable, though, is the glimpse of a bygone mentality. Pollock was already in his late 30s when Stonewall hit and his attitudes are those of an interim generation, caught between pre-Stonewall closetry and ’60s self-promotion. He had plenty of sex and at least two long-term relationships, yet he’s anything but the proud homosexual.
In fact, most of his sex stories (and there are lots of them in this book) are circumscribed by doubt, braggadocio and self-loathing. Just pages after describing a rather funny encounter at the old Terminus Baths on Bay St, Pollock says that he “never liked the gay scene, can’t stand faggots and was never part of a bar-and-booze life (St Charles, Parkside, and so on).” I guess that when it comes to the “scene,” the baths don’t count. In addition to the Terminus, he also frequented the Oak Leaf, Continental, Roman and Club baths.
Shame and self-loathing have a long and interestingly crooked history in the gay community and almost from the beginning some folks have had the wit to turn the idea on its ear. Contemporary youth will know “shame” only as the name of the Vazaleen Pride party, but in the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde’s poet/lover claimed that, “Of all sweet passions Shame is loveliest.” Not so many years later, in 1907, an Edwardian music hall performer named Fred Barnes came up with a very popular ditty that claimed, “It’s a queer, queer world we live in/ And Dame Nature plays a funny game/ Some get all the sunshine/ Others get the shame.”
In irony is identity, you might say.
But aside from being a code word, shame is also a potent form of social control and as gay and lesbian people became more visible in the middle of the last century, others turned up the pressure. In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, a couple of prominent US doctors popularized the notion that there was no such thing as a happy homosexual. Gay people themselves bought into the idea and so it came to pass that if you were unhappy it must be because you were gay.
Even people who were in some sense out and about retained a healthy heaping of self-loathing. One of the first people I slept with, a beautiful blond who could have had anyone he wanted, turned up years later in Vancouver claiming he no longer hung out with gay people. He didn’t like them. Now it was strictly straights. Oddly enough, he didn’t look any happier.
In the ’70s, two British activists tried to lose the self-loathing with a seminal screed called With Downcast Gays, and for a while everyone went around trying to spot other people’s “internalized homophobia.” But their devastating critique (still available on-line at Outgay.co.uk/intro.html) didn’t convince everyone and for many years you’d hear people bitching about activists, bar flies, drag queens and indeed anyone too obviously gay.
As recently as 1994, an otherwise intelligent man excused the failure of our fling by saying, “But Brent, we only met in a bar.” As though we’d have done better somewhere outside the gay scene, like maybe a church or a mall.
Oddly enough, that’s probably the last time I heard a gay person blame their failings on their culture or orientation. People may or may not go out, but nobody slams the “scene” anymore. It’s not much in the way of progress, really, just a sensible bit of mental decluttering, and it won’t stop the Pope, the PM and other rightwingers from picking at our rights, but at least we’re not bashing ourselves anymore.