Keeping cluelessness in the closet

I was looking at an old picture last night, showing me at my 1982 law school graduation. Three of my closest friends are there -- two in front of me, one behind me. One was to die in 1986, another in 1988, the other in 1995. I went to law school because of them, and they helped get me through by making life as easy as they could for me, and giving me a sense of purpose, and above all a sense of community. It's painful to look at that picture right now, because I looked so damnably happy. Not a clue that a tiny virus was about to destroy that community I so loved and depended on.

Community? Well, yes. Not really a community in today's "identity politics" sense of the word, but a community nonetheless. We were arrogant enough to call ourselves a "family" before the reactions and counterreactions surrounding identity politics inflamed and then destroyed that word. (AIDS, of course, helped cement gay identity politics firmly into place by a mechanism similar to martyrdom.) These days I'd hesitate to call my dog a family member. . .

In one of his inimitable from-the-belly-of-the-beast style posts, Sean Kinsell reflects on the angry gay commenter who menaced Dr. Helen Smith with threats of lawsuits, death wishes, and angry insults.

As far as I'm concerned, people who haven't been out long get some leeway if they're a little touchy and extra-combative about gay stuff. But no one in his mid-30s gets enough leeway to accommodate looking forward to someone's next heart attack. I don't care whether you just came out ten minutes ago and were driven from your parents' house by your entire knife-brandishing extended family--if you've been an adult for over a decade, you are supposed to know how to handle yourself in public, and if you're not up to it, you keep still until you've regained your equanimity. When you cross a line or two--I've certainly been known to--you apologize and discipline yourself not to do it again.

Would that it were only his tone that was objectionable, but the content doesn't entirely wash, either. There are few beliefs propagated by some of my fellow homos that drive me up the wall more than the idea that the pain and isolation we experience up until we come out exhausts our full lifetime ration of misery and that, therefore, it's society's job to make us feel good about ourselves from that point on. No, no one ever actually puts it that way, but the implicit belief that any questions raised about gay life are in and of themselves anti-gay or [yawn] homophobic seems to govern a lot of the public debate.

But life doesn't work like that for ANYONE. Fat people, Mormons, and folks with Appalachian accents who move to the big city come in for their share of callous judgments, and they're expected to deal. If they decide they'd like to change, no one goes bananas trying to prevent them, even in cases in which it seems they'd probably be happier just accepting themselves.

Homosexual behavior only began to be decriminalized very recently. No one should be bowled over by the fact that a lot of people still have strong positions against it. Or by the fact that some people are unhappy being homosexual themselves. Or by the fact that parents who wish their kids weren't homosexual will try everything they can to remold them--the same way pushy parents who want their artistic kids to become lawyers or want their bookish kids to play on the football team do. One need not like such situations to acknowledge that bureaucratic fiat is a bad way to try to address them, especially when it's alloyed with identity politics.

Sean is right. And on a personal level, the whole "coming out" thing has always annoyed me, as I just never got it. I never knew what coming out was, because I never experienced the phenomenon. Instead, when I was 16 hears old I pontificated about human sexuality at the high school lunch table, allowed that I was "bisexual" and speculated about certain activities. I noticed that this frightened a few asshole jocks in the same way that a snake or a rat might frighten a group of girls. No one dared say a word. They looked at their food. If that's coming out, where was the party? What's coming out when you weren't in? The words never quite worked, and they still don't. So why are people so imprisoned by them? Why do people care? Do they really care, or do they just say they care?

Understanding the fact that people get all hot and bothered over sexual issues is beside the point, really. It's important to understand that they do, but unless you feel what they are feeling, the understanding is purely intellectual, and not of much value in any sort of meaningful debate. Typically, a young man who "comes out" about his homosexuality goes through what we are told is a gut-wrenching emotional experience. I know that because I have read about it. But I do not feel it. There's just no empathy there. Similarly, the emotional reactions of people on the other "side" of this proper-placement-of-penises issue is something I understand intellectually, but I'm at a loss to feel what they claim to be feeling.

By no means am I singling out people with strong religious objections to homosexuality. I don't even mean to necessarily include all of them, because I am talking about emotions here, not religion. (The two are not synonymous, and there are plenty of people with religious convictions who aren't emotional about them.)

As I just brought up the stereotype of girls with snakes, let me stay with the snake analogy. (OK, I know animals aren't moral issues but bear with me. Yeah right! "Animals aren't moral issues"? Tell that to the activists....)

Well, sorry to catch myself in another thoughtcrime there. But "animal morality" aside, there are people who have a strong aversion to snakes, who find them repugnant and cannot stand to be around them. This might be called "fear," but it might be more than that and I'm trying to avoid labels here. Anyway, there are other people who think snakes are beautiful and cool. And there are people who have no strong feelings at all about snakes, but who might see them in the same morally indifferent way they'd see squirrels. Would it not be unreasonable to expect these latter two groups to share the deeply felt feelings of the "strong reaction to snakes" group? While the "snakes are cool" group and the "snakes are terrible" group might even be so incapable of dialogue as to be in direct conflict with each other, and the "indifferent-to-snakes" people might understand that there are people with strong feelings, it would be unreasonable to expect people to feel feelings they just don't have.

The frenzied "I just came out and I'm proud" people and the people who regard homosexuality with shock and awe -- these are people my rational side understands are there. But my emotional side only finds their emotions irritating, because I don't share them. In my case, it's further complicated by the fact that the intimates I lost to AIDS all tended to be in the "proud and emotional" category, and I get a bit hot under the collar when I sense that they are under attack. I am emotional about the need to defend the ethoi of dead people I failed to save (and I feel irrational guilt and anger over my failure to save them). And while it is personal to me because they are dead and I loved them, its not as personal as it would be if I actually felt what they felt about the sexual issues which still plague us in the form of the "Culture War." As to homosexuality, the emotions I feel are not grounded in issues of gay activism or gay politics. I despise these labels and I hate identity politics as well as the shrill and hysterical activism and petty demands. What I get a little emotional about from time to time is the mentality which I see as disrespecting the memory of my dead.

It's not easy trying to explain why I feel so strongly about this when the "issue" is one I don't feel strongly about.

Anyway, looking at the law school graduation picture reminded me that I'm as clueless now as I was then. I mean, here I am, stumbling through life with this ridiculous can't-we-all-get-along attitude while the psychotic mullahs are trying to get that nuke into a shipping container to level Manhattan and make me move to California in the hope that somehow I'll be left alone.

My biggest worry is not whether I came out but whether they'll shut down the blogosphere when we're nuked. Because, after all, blogging happens to be the community I now have, and life has taught me to fear destruction of my communities. Looking at the picture of my law school graduation, it's appalling how clueless I was about the coming destruction of everything I loved. I don't want that to happen again. But I fear that I'm as powerless over nukes as I was over a tiny virus.

To give just one teensy example or why I worry, if the damn thing goes off tomorrow, how do I know I'll be able to write a post?

If there's one thing worse than depression talking, it's reality talking. Reality sucks bad.

The problem is, even as I relate this painful history, I must make the case for cluelessness. I was probably better off not knowing that AIDS would destroy my community. Life was more fun not knowing.

Contrast that with 9/11 -- an event which struck me as a mild prelude to the nuke I expected. I was not surprised in the least by 9/11. I will not be surprised by the damned nuke. I'll just be more bitter. (To the millions of Americans who'll be dead and dying, I doubt my told-you-so bitterness will be very helpful.)

The bottom line is that, like it or not I am as powerless against the nuke as I was against a tiny virus. And the picture reminded me of it.

The difference of course, is that in 1982 I didn't see the AIDS virus coming.

(Is that supposed to be a comforting thought?)

AFTERTHOUGHT: Reading over this post, I'm aware that I'm looking on the dark side, so I should add a maybe.

Maybe we won't be nuked. After all, it hasn't happened yet.

UPDATE: I was delighted to read ShrinkWrapped's take on homosexuality:

....there is no single entity known as homosexuality; just as there are a myriad of characterological and constitutional determinants that shape one's heterosexuality, the same is true of homosexuality.
I'm not a psychotherapist, but I've been saying the same thing for years, and I know it's true from my own observations, experience, and common sense. ShrinkWrapped and Dr. Helen renew my faith in the psychoanalytic profession.

posted by Eric on 03.14.06 at 09:18 AM


"when I was 16 hears old I pontificated about human sexuality at the high school lunch table, allowed that I was "bisexual" and speculated about certain activities. I noticed that this frightened a few asshole jocks in the same way that a snake or a rat might frighten a group of girls."

This made me laugh. Did you get a small sense of "wow, THAT frightens them? Weird."

And furthering the snake allegory, I remember one time I went into a science study that I had (where I read in the storage room while class went on in the main room) and noticed that the door of the storage room was closed. Upon my inquiry, I was told that the bull snake had gotten out. So I went in, picked up the snake, and brought it out, to the (mild) horror of the class. And everybody asked how I was brave enough to do that.

My only reply? "That wasn't bravery. Bull snakes aren't poisonous."

(It was an all-girls school, which is what brought it to mind.)

B. Durbin   ·  March 15, 2006 12:27 AM

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