When I was 22 and just stepping out of the closet, I knew that choosing to embrace my sexual orientation meant not choosing other options available at the time to gay men. Marrying a man wasn’t a legal option. And the integrity I asserted by accepting myself allowed no place for a half-baked heterosexual marriage, the default for many older gay men who hoped for some kind of a “normal” life.
Fortunately, I was also aware of other options that were much more appealing to me. Reading the work of gay men who had lived years before me — Andre Gide, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde — planted images in my mind of men who were as “openly gay” as they needed to be in their era. They celebrated their love of men. But their homosexuality was simply part of their eccentricity, part of what made them “different.” Embracing their different-ness was how they asserted what we’d call “gay pride.”
What a contrast to today’s fundamentalist-like insistence that being a “proud” gay man requires buying into a defined set of political values and tastes, living in an urban gay ghetto surrounded by like-minded men, even dressing and cutting one’s hair in the “right” way.
Gide, Whitman and Wilde must spin in their graves over the cookie-cutter conformity of vast numbers of today’s homosexuals. I doubt they’d recognize themselves in the men, even the activists, who want nothing more than to be accepted as “no different than” heterosexuals.
Yes, I support someone’s right to legally wed the male or female partner of their choice. But honestly, I find it extremely odd to hear men talk about their “husbands.” To my mind, a husband is the partner of a wife — and vice versa. They are, by definition, heterosexual words.
I still kind of like the word “lover” that was widely used when I came out in the early ’80s. It was definitely a “gay” word. Everyone knew that a lover was a man’s partner, his special someone, distinguished from boyfriends and more casual relationships often called “tricks,” an abominable word from the sex trade.
So even though my father teased me when I was a boy that I would “make someone a good wife some day” — because I knew how to cook, wash my own laundry, grow plants and flowers and do many of the things that many competent, independent people of both sexes are able to do for themselves — I can’t imagine calling myself anyone’s wife. I also can’t imagine calling another man my husband (even if there were a man in my life in that special role).
In this month when we celebrate gay pride and recall the struggles our people endured in the fight finally to be treated equally under the law, I’d suggest there is still a place in this world — and in the gay equality movement — for independent-minded men and women who don’t need others, gay or not, to define who we are.
I have found a great deal of wisdom, and a kindred spirit, in the life and writing of a more recent — and happily, still very much alive — gay man who, for me, seems to channel his great hero Walt Whitman.
Arnie Kantrowitz, one of my own heroes, was one of the founding members of the post-Stonewall Gay Activists Alliance, in New York City, and a marshall in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, as the first pride parade, in 1970, was called. In his 1977 memoir Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, Arnie talked about his personal liberation, what it was like to be a “nice Jewish boy from Newark” who found his freedom — at first, anyway — in New York’s gay scene, but then moved on.
Instead of providing genuine liberation, Arnie eventually found that gay life in the ghetto had created another sort of oppression with its pressure to conform to social expectations of what a gay man was “supposed” to be, believe, wear and do. The “safety” of the ghetto began to seem too artificial for Arnie and others, with the price of “belonging” one’s renunciation of the belief that there could be fulfilling gay life outside the ghetto. Arnie wrote, “We had come in search of protective anonymity, and we had all wound up in the same gigantic closet.”
As a veteran of the political and sexual revolutions of the ’70s, Arnie said, “I had explored my sexual fantasies enough, and I was ready to return to the life I had once led, but as a new person.”
For some of us, being a new person — an out and proud gay man — may mean settling down with a special partner and building a life together, and being happy enough about it to tell anyone who cares to know. For others, it may simply mean asserting ourselves as independent, even eccentric, “free men” rather than what Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck called “herd men.”
Adopting the herd mentality of the highly materialistic, celebrity-obsessed, we’re-just-like-everyone-else “homosexual lifestyle” being pushed at us in today’s gay media isn’t proud or liberating. Buying a bill of goods because the salesmen happen to be gay is simply trading one oppressor for another.