Coming Out Is So 20th-Century

Just before a recent trip back home to Boston, I mentioned to someone that I might look up old friends from high school. I had reconnected with a few people recently through Facebook and thought it would be fun to see them in person after all these years, but I had some trepidation, since our lives had diverged so much. (High school was a very long time ago.) In fact, I said, I had had to unfriend a couple of my old classmates when political conflicts erupted after the election; god only knew what other surprises they might have in store for me.

In what seemed a non sequitur to me, my friend asked if I had ever come out to these people.

“Come out?” I asked. “You mean, like, actually say, ‘I’m gay’?” I hadn’t had that conversation with anyone in more than 25 years. Surely it wasn’t necessary anymore. I posted my life on social media—pictures of my partner, political screeds about homophobic politicians. I’d published two novels featuring gay characters, for heaven’s sake. Why would I need to “come out”?

The last time I had come out, in so many words, I was 28 years old. Since then, I haven’t felt the need to—for a number of reasons, both personal and cultural. The world changed in the interim, and god knows I did.

The last time I’d “had the conversation” was before Ellen, before Will and Grace, before marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And, of course, before I had moved to the Castro.

Writing teachers make a big deal about “showing” over “telling.” In fiction, if you want to elucidate a theme or convey a point, it’s much more effective to do so by having your character do something than by simply talking about it. Instead of writing, “Joseph was a frightened man,” you put him in a situation and show him trembling, sweating. You paint a picture with words; otherwise, they’re just words.

So instead of saying the words, I long ago decided to live them. I no longer sit people down to tell them I’m gay: I casually mention my partner. I talk about Provincetown, the opera, RuPaul—the artifacts of my culture—as breezily as other people talk about sports.

The truth is that, even when I was doing it, I resented the coming-out ritual, the presumed need for it. I resented the notion that my sexual behavior came with an expectation of strobe-light disclosure. No one had ever pulled me aside to confess their heterosexuality. Why should I have to make a big deal out of telling them I’m gay? By living my life matter-of-factly and without secrecy, I was making all the statement that needed to be made. I was, in fact, making an even deeper statement, I thought: I was proclaiming that my sexual orientation was not an extraordinary thing. I was telling the world, by implication, that it was completely normal.

Of course, I didn’t always feel this way. Certainly not when I was growing up in barely working-class Chelsea, Massachusetts, where the word faggot was thrown at me every day of my adolescence. Now I have the privilege of living in San Francisco, where people are more likely to criticize you for wearing pastels than for being a bottom.

But San Francisco is indeed a bubble, and after 24 years inside that bubble, it’s easy to forget that the world outside hasn’t changed as much as I’d like to think.

For other people, because of where they live, what they do for a living, or how they were raised, coming out can still be as difficult as it ever was. With such thoughts rattling through my mind, that disconnect took over as the main theme of my new novel, Channeling Morgan.

The title character in the book, Clive Morgan, is a successful actor who fears what coming out could do to his career. The notion of a closeted actor, of course, is so familiar as to be cliché, but in this instance it was that very familiarity that I believed would help bring the point home. Gay rumors have followed movie stars all the way back to Charles Laughton; and even in our current era, there are only a handful of out film actors, despite the obvious attraction the profession has for gay people.

Just witness the difference between the Tonys and the Oscars every year: at the former, barely a male actor accepts an award without thanking his husband, but in the world of American movies, where success means appealing to a wider and less urban audience, you take your life into your hands by being anything less than butch. But are we really supposed to believe that stage actors are more likely to be gay than movie actors are?

I may not agree with my characters, but my job as an author is not to point the finger at them. My duty, rather, is to portray these characters honestly and as empathetically as possible. My duty is to see myself in them. In this book, that meant understanding the things that keep Clive and others from expressing their true identities.

So, I had to ask myself: What does it mean to be closeted in 21st-century America, in a culture that has often been called post-gay? What kind of pain does that cause? And why would you inflict it upon yourself? Surely, the Clives of the world know what they’re missing. Surely, even if they’re privileged in other ways, they are not immune to envy when they see how many of us are living more open lives.

Because these days, in this culture, the closet door is seldom locked from the outside. Like Dorothy and Oz, we all have the power to leave it at any time. That may mean leaving the things you’re used to—the place you grew up, the family or church that condemns you for being who you are, or the career that has made you rich as long as you agree to hide the truth.

In the course of developing Clive’s story, though, I realized that there are lots of closets out there. And some people just trade one for another. So that had to play into the story, as well.

I’ve always believed that sexism lies at the heart of homophobia, at least when it comes to men. Homophobes seem to make a clear distinction between the sexes: men as strong, women as weak. But that same belief can infiltrate the gay community as well. Witness how often bottom is thrown about as an epithet (usually with passive-aggressive facetiousness) among gay men. While many proclaim they have no issue with being gay, for some, there’s still residual shame in being fey.

We all have our closets, of one sort or another. And though I like to think I’ve broken out of mine, I can’t deny that I still carry a piece of it with me. Perhaps we all do.

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The New World Disorder: A Review of Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger”

In the wake of Trump’s election, there’s an awful lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking going on—from Hillary Clinton’s own memoir to articles and books full of information about how this travesty fits into a pattern. And yet, none of these alleged patterns was called out before November 9. Could it be that Trump was simply the missing jigsaw piece that suddenly made the whole picture clear? Or maybe we all saw the signs. We just didn’t believe it could get to this final level of absurdity, so we didn’t ring the alarm bells too loudly. The Berners kept up their childish idealism, the Clinton haters pretended that it was a contest between two evils. And Clinton herself may have grown too confident: her election, many people thought, was a fait accompli. When I expressed my anxiety to a friend last October, he looked at me with a shocking sense of calm. “I’m not worried,” he said. Like many, he believed Clinton would be elected because the alternative was unthinkable. And it was all moving like a well-oiled machine: people looked upon her campaign with the same sense of pride as shipmakers waving a proud farewell to the Titanic as it left port in Southampton.

Despite all the theories that have been bouncing around lately, I keep looking for an explanation that resonates. So far, Pankaj Mishra’s stimulating book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, is as close as I’ve found to one. In fact, it explains a great deal about our contemporary world. What I especially like is the fact that Mishra focuses less on ideology than on notions of disempowerment, thereby drawing a line that connects insurgent movements from the French Revolution to ISIS to Donald Trump. He traces the phenomenon back to the 18th century. Many people point to the Enlightenment as the primary dividing mark of history, the moment when modernism (the rights of man, the death of God) began. And there’s a lot to be said for that, of course. But it was a cultural shift that didn’t bring everyone along, and still hasn’t. The crime, perhaps, is that it never has affected enough people. The freedoms unleashed by the Enlightenment were accessible primarily to elites—whether financial or intellectual—and it has remained difficult for people who aren’t blessed with money, talent, or education to get to the same point. Our failure to educate all of our people is largely at fault. If people are empowered, as they are in a democracy, they need to know what they’re doing.

Mishra doesn’t let the disempowered off the hook, though. He delves into the psychological process that’s at play here. In a word, ressentiment, Kierkegaard’s term for a combination of envy and hatred whereby one debases the very thing one wishes to become. This is the motivation of the schoolyard bully who beats up the kid with good grades, the Nazi who executes Jews, the social loser who kills pretty women who won’t sleep with him. It’s Mohammed Atta going to a strip club before he crashes a plane into a building for Allah. It’s Donald Trump berating the New York Times just to see his name in the paper he allegedly reviles.

Sadly, Mishra offers no way out. His book is an analysis of what brought us to the current moment. It doesn’t offer a convenient process for solving the problem: that’s not his point, and it would probably lessen the impact of the book. It’s for someone else to pick up the baton and figure a way out. Mishra does offer examples from the past, particularly through the dialectic of countries like France and Germany, whose histories veered so much from one end of the scale to the other over time.

But this time it may be different, because this time the problem seems to be ubiquitous. And arguably, the United States is dealing with this phenomenon for the first time in its history, at least to this degree and at this scope: Donald Trump is not the governor of Alabama, standing in a school doorway.

Mishra’s done a great job of showing us the road behind. Now all we have to do is figure out which way to go from here.

 

 

Normandy and Charlottesville

I’ve never been one for skydiving or red convertibles, the cliché signs of a midlife crisis. My confrontation with mortality tends instead to lead to a less dangerous bucket list, one that’s focused primarily on places I have yet to visit—the Grand Canyon, Stonehenge, northern Norway for a front-row seat at the aurora borealis.

I recently checked off one of the spots near the top of my list: Normandy. My father fought in World War II and arrived in France a few days after D-Day (thus significantly increasing the chances that I would exist to be writing this today). He never spoke much about the war, so I got a better idea about what battle is like from Steven Spielberg than from him. In 1945, when it was all over, he was just 25 years old, and already battered by more trauma than I hope to know in a lifetime. I wouldn’t want to relive that much, either.

He’s been gone for a while now, but I wish I could tell him what it was like to step onto Omaha Beach 73 years after he did. The most remarkable thing is that it looks like a beach—just a beach. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting—angels hovering over the water, perhaps, or a John Williams score blaring from the clouds. Instead, I found a surprisingly narrow strip of sand, with children playing on it.

There’s a monument, of course, Allied flags still waving from tall poles, and a modern sculpture that looks like wings emerging from the sand. But what moved me most was the expanse of the place. Beyond the sand, there are grassy fields, a road, storefronts, all on a flat stretch of land far from the hills upon which the Germans roosted on that fateful, fatal day. That openness, and the placidity of the place, gave me a shudder. The only phrase that came to mind was another cliché, both inadequate and inevitable: sitting ducks. When the hatches opened and the Allied soldiers emerged into hellfire, there was nowhere to hide.

But ducks don’t know they’re sitting. Those men knew exactly what was about to happen. And still they did it. They did it simply because it had to be done, because there was no living without freedom. They did it not for themselves—they all must have feared they’d be dead within minutes—but for us.

Later, we visited the American Cemetery, a beautiful, cliffside lawn where nearly 10,000 people are buried. It’s a sea of white crosses and stars of David, all facing westward, toward home.

I walked slowly, as reverently as an atheist can, through the rows of graves. And I found myself lightly touching each marker I passed and murmuring, Thank you. Thank you for putting principle over personal safety. Thank you for standing up to tyranny. Thank you for making the world a better place for the rest of us.

We were on vacation, and—especially these days—vacation means an escape from the news. I didn’t watch any television that week, barely checked the headlines on the rare occasions when I bothered to log in to Wi-Fi. But I carried the news with me. I carried the trauma that has haunted me since November 2016. I carried the knowledge that the country I was visiting, the one that had capitulated to Hitler, had soundly rejected protofascism in its own recent election, while ours—the country that had saved it—had gone the other way. And I carried the memory of Charlottesville, where a woman had been killed fighting against the same kind of hatred that had started the war this hallowed ground acknowledged. Just days before, fascists and white supremacists had marched through the streets of Charlottesville, torches in hand, proclaiming hatred for anyone who didn’t look like them. And, as I came to learn while I was across the sea, the president of the United States had refused to condemn them.

The markers in that cemetery are a tribute to the brave Americans who stood up to barbarians and sacrificed their lives for freedom. Those people did not die so that the president of the United States could pander to Nazis. They demonstrated bravery in the face of death, not cowardice in the face of poll numbers. If our current commander-in-chief set foot on that sacred spot overlooking Omaha Beach, the very ground would tremble in protest.

cemetery star

Is Historical Perspective Gone with the Wind?

 

When a friend of mine was halfway through her English Ph.D. program at Berkeley, she told me she could no longer read Shakespeare because he was “too sexist.”

Yes, that Shakespeare. The one who gave us characters like Viola, Juliet, Cleopatra, and Cordelia. But, despite the inherent strength and wisdom of such characters, Shakespeare also portrayed many of his women as powerless over their own destinies. In the 16th century. Imagine!

I was reminded of my friend when I read that a Memphis movie theater was canceling its annual tradition of showing another politically incorrect classic, Gone with the Wind. The film’s romantic image of the Old South—embodied in part by the happy-to-be-a-slave Mammy (played by Hattie McDaniel in the first role ever to win an Oscar for an African-American actor)—has apparently met its match in our current climate.

I get it. If, god forbid, Gone with the Wind is your only source of information about the Civil War, then you are woefully and dangerously underinformed. And given the sad state of American education, it’s quite possible that a 1939 movie is indeed the dominant image a lot of people have about one of the most pivotal and horrifying periods in American history. For such people, America’s original sin is likely to seem more like an episode of Leave It to Beaver.

We are living in dangerous, ugly times, where racists feel empowered to show us their faces, now that their president has told them they can safely leave the pointy white masks in the back of the closet. And if you can’t trust that your audience has appropriate context, it’s probably best not to show the film at all. After all, this theater is in the heart of the South. There are probably Confederate flags embossed on cars in the parking lot.

That said, there’s another message here, a message I’m much less comfortable with. Censorship always gives me the creeps, especially when censors let the alleged politics of art eclipse the art itself.

It’s one thing to remove statues of Confederate leaders: Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were guilty of treason; they have no business standing on a pedestal anywhere. The Germans have no problem remembering their history despite the fact that no likeness of Adolf Hitler is to be found in any public space.

Gone with the Wind, however, is a work of art—a film classic that, adjusted for inflation, remains the highest-grossing movie of all time. For its era, it is a marvel of filmmaking—in terms of design, cinematography, direction, and, perhaps most of all, the iconic performance of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.

Let’s also bear in mind that there’s more than a little satire in the character of Scarlett, whose “fiddle-dee-dee” approach to life is judged quite harshly by the filmmakers, as it was by her creator, Margaret Mitchell. The main arc of the plot is Scarlett’s evolution from shallow narcissist to empathetic human, as her ignorance is shattered along with the immoral institutions that created and buttressed it.

In his announcement about the cancellation, the Orpheum Theater Group’s president stated, “As an organization whose stated mission is to ‘entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves,’ the Orpheum cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population.”

Hmm. In what way are education and enlightenment served by censorship? This is the same thinking that leads college campuses to issue trigger warnings and deny discussion of any ideas that don’t adhere to politically correct notions. If anything, censorship adds insult to injury, a patriarchal approach that suggests that the censor knows better than the people he is aiming to protect. The plantation parallels are a bit ironic.

There’s no question that Gone with the Wind got it wrong, very wrong. The ugliness of slavery wasn’t at the top of Margaret Mitchell’s list of plot points. Slavery was little more than a backdrop for Scarlett’s tale. There’s no question that the film is insensitive to the suffering that lay at the core of the alleged glories of the Old South. The title, of course, refers nostalgically to the antebellum South, and the story bathes it in a naïve romanticism that may have been common in its day but grates in our own. Gone with the Wind was made 70 years after the war it depicts. Now, 80 years after that, we’re still suffering the ramifications of that wretched legacy, through a long history that makes Scarlett’s ignorance look pathetic by comparison. In the age of Ferguson, in an era when the KKK marches hoodless through the streets, Scarlett O’Hara should be seen exactly for what she is: an artifact of a bygone era.

Perhaps the appropriate way to handle her story is to put it on a double bill with Twelve Years a Slave, to give the lie to the old Hollywood notion of the joys of forced labor. The latter, another Oscar winner, tells the story of slavery from the perspective of its victims, and it does so without sugarcoating anything. It’s a far more historically accurate and culturally sensitive film. But they are both excellent works of art. Sadly, Twelve Years a Slave could not have been made in 1939. That, too, is a historical reality.

Art is a product of its time. Even the classics can’t escape the era in which they were made. We could disparage Hitchock’s Rope as homophobic, My Fair Lady as sexist. Or we could accept them all for what they are and use our own critical judgment to put them in perspective. Shutting down the conversation before it’s even begun serves no one.

Dude the Obscure

This is the height of paradox: writing a blog about my fear of attention. Blogs, after all, were created so that everyone who wants attention can get it.

But the truth is that I have a very ambivalent attitude toward being noticed. I seem to be an introvert trapped in an extrovert’s body. Somewhere inside, it feels arrogant to expect attention—even to want it. That doesn’t stop me, of course, from doing just that.

I’m sure my feelings aren’t unique. The phenomenon seems particularly common among artists, since creativity and introversion seem to go together like paint and canvas. Ironically, the main drive of an artist is self-expression. But what’s the point of expressing yourself without the benefit of an audience? If you sing an aria in the forest and no one’s there to hear you, does it make a sound?

The discomfort hits most powerfully when I’m about to publish a book. I was hoping that by the third time (the proverbial charm), I’d be used to it. I was hoping that, by now, I could concentrate on the excitement, unaccompanied by this all-too-familiar dread.

Alas, that was not to be. I am no less terrified now than I was when my first novel came out, more than 10 years ago. Will readers understand my intention? Will anyone be turned off? Will, god forbid, I receive a bad review?

Of course, the answer is Yes, and Yes, and Yes. Someone won’t get it. Someone will be pissed off. Someone will disparage it. So what? Does that mean you shouldn’t try, that you shouldn’t let your work be seen by the world? Legend has it that Emily Dickinson wrote her poems on grocery bags and stuck them in a drawer. They are now among the finest artifacts of American literature. Apparently, obscurity goes only so far.

Publishing a novel brings up a couple of different worries. First, the personal exposure: there’s something of the author in every book. And even if it’s not autobiographical, you fear that people will read it that way, that they’ll attribute every action of every character to you personally. Second is simply the fact that by putting your stuff out there, you’re inviting criticism of the work itself.

So in other words, there are two options: people can use the novel as an opportunity to judge your talent or your life. No wonder I’m anxious.

There’s little consolation in the fact that Channeling Morgan is the least autobiographical of my novels. I’m not a ghostwriter, like the protagonist (though we do share a certain discomfort with being the heroes of our own lives). My exposure to drag queens and movie stars is minimal (i.e., a few of the former and none of the latter). But, as in all my work, there are pieces of me everywhere. You have to empathize with your characters to some degree. The crucial question, then, is: will people guess right as to which detail is which?

As for the stuff that’s not me, the perennial concern is whether I captured it correctly. Did I describe the drag world well enough? Did I offend poets or actors with my satirical renditions of various archetypes? Is the story universal enough? The plot is intended to be a bit far-fetched, the characters a bit over the top, but that doesn’t excuse me from an obligation to a certain degree of verisimilitude.

Most of all, of course, I want people to like it. Recently, an article in the New York Times grabbed my eye with the title “Popular People Live Longer.” Loneliness, apparently, is second only to smoking in the list of behavioral conditions that cause premature death. Words to live by.

So I guess I’ll take the bet. I’ll put my work out there, lay my heart and soul on display, and hope that the occasional word of praise will add a day or so to my lifespan.

Hamlet Debates Watching Donald Trump’s Speech

To watch or not to watch, that is the question.

Whether ’tis safer for the sanity and the blood pressure to ignore

The bigotry and nonsense of this outrageous circus,

Or to take arms against a sea of crass stupidity

And by laughing, end it.  To cry, to weep–

No more–and by guffawing to say we end

This absurd union of rednecks and greed-mad narcissists,

And the million certifiable lunatics the GOP is heir to.

‘Tis a consummation secularly to be wished. To cry, to sleep–

To sleep, perchance to dream, and find that this nightmare

Is nothing more than the fear and small-handedness

That tyrants are made on.

May the Myth Be with You

Star Wars is a summer movie if ever there was one. Or seven. Or nine. And yet, there’s something terribly appropriate about the fact that, this holiday season, The Force Awakens is all anyone can talk about. A December opening isn’t just about Oscar lust and box office. The winter solstice has been a time of mythic meaning from the pagans, through the Christians, to the Jedis.

When the Star Wars logo appeared on the screen at today’s matinee, and the plot summary in its familiar yellow font receded slowly into star-strewn space, I felt a catch in my throat. It’s the same reaction I have on Christmas Eve when I hear the story of the wise men, even though I’ve been a confirmed atheist for a long time in what seems like a galaxy far, far away.

In neither case is my reaction because the story is factual. In both cases, it’s because the story is true.

No spoilers, I promise. I’ll refer to only one aspect of the plot, and that’s revealed in those yellow words at the opening, when we’re told that Luke Skywalker has disappeared. Later, when Luke is mentioned, one of the characters dismissively says, “Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth.”

The line reminded me of the opening of another modern myth—Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—the sentence that serves as a catchphrase for hopelessness throughout the first part of the book: “Who is John Galt?” Well, after a few hundred pages, the world finds out who John Galt is, and hopeless is the last word to describe him.

When people say things like this—“I thought he was a myth”—the suggestion is that a myth is somehow less powerful than a flesh-and-blood person. In truth, men and women act upon their time in history. Myths live forever. The stories of the fictitious Odysseus still resonate for the world. Jesus was a man who became a myth, and as I write, people the world over are celebrating his birthday, or an approximation thereof.

Myths resonate so deeply in part because of their simplicity. There are a few common elements that each mythology seems to recycle. One such element is the absent hero, the hero who’s retreated from the world and is somehow coaxed back into it, toward his greatest triumph. Jesus wanders in the wilderness, John Galt creates a hidden community in the mountains. And Luke Skywalker … well, he does what Luke Skywalker does. (I promised: no spoilers.)

And then there’s the central concept that gives each myth its unifying structure, its raison d’être. I’d forgotten how cool the concept of the Force is, the idea that there’s an energy coursing through the universe that has both light and dark components. In Star Wars, it’s an almost tangible thing, external to people but still running through them. In religion, it’s pretty much the same—grace emanating from a god, granted to individuals. And in both cases, it’s a metaphor for free will. Light and dark, good and evil, lie before us all the time, and every moment of the day we choose one or the other. On some days, mostly good; on other days, not so much. In our own ways, we are all members of the Skywalker clan, tempted by warring forces within our own minds.

My favorite of all myths is the Nibelungenlied, as manifested in Wagner’s transcendent Ring cycle. There’s a force in that story, too, a force that can be used for good or for evil. And in the end, there is redemption. The most beautiful music I know is the leitmotif that pours through the orchestra at the end, when Brünnhilde sacrifices herself to save the world.   The theme is known as “redemption through love.”

There are two more movies before we reach the end of the Star Wars saga, before we find out what action saves that particular galaxy. But we know that something will. There’s a huge surprise near the end of episode 7, but the final moment of the film is completely predictable. That’s what happens in myth. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.