For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you know that I’ve posted recently about the “Listen to Your Elders” series of blog posts.
After this initial 3 part series ran at the end of PRIDE Month, I was thrilled with the reception it received. What came after was even more humbling. I’ve had quite a few older members of the LGBTQIA community reach out privately and independently with more stories. Reading them has been educational, for sure, but it has been humbling and heartbreaking and cheerful and…everything.
Today, with permission from the author, I bring you an essay from a 75-year-old queer man, Russ.
Russ is a reader I struck up an email friendship with during the pandemic. It has lasted almost a year now–and I hope it continues for a very long time.
Today, I will let Russ’s own words describe to you what it was like to be born and grow up during the 40s onward, to serve during Vietnam, and come out later in life. In his essay, he’ll explain how the COVID pandemic led to him suddenly voraciously consuming all of the gay media he could get his hands on.
It’s only 1250 words, so it’s a quick read–but so important.
Enjoy. But also, absorb.
Musings: June/July 2021
Over the last couple of years…and especially throughout the pandemic…I have been voraciously reading all types of gay literature, from the erotic to the romantic, covering the young and the old. I’ve also watched nearly every movie and TV show with gay content or characters during this time period. I haven’t enjoyed it all, but I have found it mostly satisfying and even inspirational occasionally. In doing so, I have virtually quit reading “straight” literature or watching “ordinary” TV. My best guess is that I have read over 100 of such books, either in Kindle or soft cover form. (It would be disingenuous of me to leave out that I have watched a fairly large number of gay porn movies, also.) Over this past week, I have begun to reflect on why this is happening to me, a 75-year-old gay man, who has spent most of his life and all of his formative years striving to lead the best straight life possible. What I’ve written below is my attempt to account for this fascination with all things gay. I suppose in some ways, this is a justification for my behavior, in spite of my new found defiance about not having to “explain” myself. Regardless, I should start at the beginning of my life in order for this to make the best sense possible.
Although I was born in 1946, my formative years really span from about 1950 to 1968. I lived in rural Michigan, where everyone was white, and nearly everyone was Protestant. Catholics were few and far between, and Jewish folks really were unheard of. There was one Jewish kid in my senior class of 255, and I honestly didn’t really understand what that even meant. We didn’t have even one black student in the entire school system when I graduated. In short, everything was white-normative, Protestant-normative, and absolutely hetero-normative. Norms dictated by these conventions were decades old and not ever questioned. My community was the perfect storm for white, Protestant, heterosexuality. The lines were sharply drawn, and while consequences for crossing them were never explicitly stated, it was quite clear that ostracism was the minimum punishment. (For example, I never told anyone that the Italian side of my family was Catholic. Just the word “Italian” was enough to cause suspicion.)
So, I grew up understanding the following: boys were supposed to date and marry girls; boys were supposed to be emotionally and physically tough; and boys never ever were supposed to touch one another unless it was in a team sport. All sex talk among boys was about girls, especially about their breast size and their willingness to “put out.” It was straight sex talk, which did not include discussions about kissing or any other form of intimacy. Although rarely mentioned, “queer” boys were considered abnormal and diseased. They were “sissies” and an aberration of all things male. Even when it was mentioned, there was no consideration for girls who might like girls. That was impossible! Gentler words such as “gay” or “bisexual” did not exist.
Making matters worse was the absence of any written or visual material which could help a gay kid find some understanding about same sex attraction and sexual urges. Even if there had been articles or books written, they were not to be found in the school or public libraries in my hometown.
However, there were a couple of reasonably enlightened experiences when I was in 9th grade and again when I was a senior. During the second semesters of those years, our school put us on buses and drove us to the county health department where we were separated by gender. Our all-boy group had a male instructor from the health department who really was quite good as I reflect back on this. He very patiently explained how our bodies, both male and female, were changing. He had slides to illustrate those changes. When he asked if we had questions, no one was brave enough to start the dialog. Finally, someone broke the ice, and an avalanche of questions ensued. I recall that the experiences for both years were instructive and positive. There were no lectures about the dire consequences of venereal diseases (the term used in the 60s) and unwanted pregnancies. Instead, the instructor gave us the information we requested without all the drama of religious prohibitions about sexual behavior. However, there very definitely was one element missing: what about boy-boy or girl-girl sexual behavior? There was no hint that that was even possible. While I found the classes positive and useful, I was still at a loss for understanding my particular sexual desires/needs.
So, there I was, stranded in sexual no-man’s-land with clear and uniformly enforced ideas about what was right and what was wrong sexually speaking, but with absolutely no idea about how to change or even if change was possible. I was stuck in utter isolation with only the rules of society to guide me. There was “The Normal,” and everything else was outside that box, making it deviant, undesirable, and probably illegal. (I’ve always loved Peter Shaffer’s play, “Equus,” because it so eloquently described how we constantly and without question make “sacrifices to the normal.”)
After my experience in Vietnam, I was concerned about the possibilities of PTSD, and there have been a few, which I mostly have overcome. However, it never occurred to me that growing up as a “deviant” in our culture was the strongest form of PTSD I might ever face. I’ve never heard that diagnosis applied to those of us who were forced to be invisible throughout our childhood and early adult years. However, I think it’s an appropriate diagnosis, and the consequences are certainly evident. I still hesitate and hold my breath a little when I tell someone I’m gay, and I am very selective with whom I share this information. I still find it difficult to hug another gay man except when behind closed doors. Holding hands or kissing in public even with my husband is probably never going to happen. I still find conversations with straight people asking about gay issues slightly uncomfortable, and I look closely to see if they are likewise uncomfortable. If so, I change the subject. I hesitate to go to gay themed movies with straight people because it always seems a little awkward and embarrassing. Secretly, I revel in gay men kissing and hugging, but I find it impossible to celebrate their easy intimacy publicly. I really hate that I’m like this! It’s the last vestige of internalized homophobia, and I can’t seem to shake it completely. Years and decades of being subjected to “The Normal” have shaped my soul. There is no surgery for this. Maybe the best I can do is to try every day to pave over the wound, but I still feel its sting.
And that’s why I voraciously read gay themed books and search out TV shows/movies with gay characters and why I even watch gay porn. It’s my own personal struggle with “The Normal.” I’m making up for early indoctrination, when I couldn’t even dream of a world like we have today, a world with gay literature, gay movies, and real live gay people, some of whom are on the public stage. I’m famished, and I aim to eat heartily until the pain of decades lost has been alleviated. Then, there will be a new “normal,” one of my own invention, not requiring sacrifices.
Tremendous Love & Thanks,