In 1987, while marching on Washington, D.C., with a half-million other people, I nearly collided with a woman I knew and her nine-year-old son.
My partner and I and an old college friend of his from Vermont had driven down from New York to join in the first national AIDS March, designed to draw desperately needed attention to the increasingly obvious epidemic and to demand a better response from an unheeding government. It was the first time in history such a huge and open demonstration had organized around a medical issue, and the first time I had publicly appeared as what my father might have called a “card-carrying” member of any population of demonstrators, let alone these men and women. The coincidence of my chance encounter with my friend Margaret was all the more surprising because most of the marchers were gay and lesbian, and Margaret was not.
A member of the European aristocracy, Margaret had led a manifestly bohemian existence before settling down to embrace wholeheartedly the American family experience. She had been an art historian, a painter, and later a colleague of mine in psychotherapy in New York. A robust, energetic woman with a grand vocabulary and a voracious appetite for ideas, Margaret greeted you wearing secondhand clothing, charmingly layered and sometimes even garnished with mismatched socks. At her dinner parties you were as likely to meet a world-renowned poet, artist, or filmmaker as an eccentric New York street person with a throughly inspirational perspective on a subject like the developing obsolescence of marriage, racism, the novel, or money.
Having decided to take a break from the marching and search for a food vendor of some kind, my friends and I were walking in the opposite direction from the throng when we literally came face to face with Margaret and her matching blond-haired, blue-eyed son.
“Margaret!” I exclaimed.
“Stanley!” she sang in response. To the delight of hundreds of passersby whose palpable joy had seemed fueled by the constant repetition of such gleeful encounters, we embraced and moved to the sidewalk, better to reacquaint and chat.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted innocently. I was relatively new at being me, and I must have considered a happily married woman out of place walking hand in hand with one of her three children among a half-million gays and lesbians. That she also was codirecting an AIDS-related family-treatment project did not mitigate my initial curiosity. Mainly I was struck by the sight of her holding the hand of her son. What was she doing here with him? Before she could answer my first question, I asked the second.
“This is my poetic son,” she said proudly, with dramatic, tonal emphasis on the adjective rather than the noun. “Poetic and artistic. I don’t know in what direction his life will take him, but I wanted him to see the power of this event and of those extraordinary men and women – the diversity, the dignity, the respectability. I want him to acquire and keep a memorable image of these people and of this event, and what it all represents.”
I inferred from her polite euphemisms that she was respectfully considering the possibility her son might be gay, an inference she confirmed for me in a much later conversation.
So many times since then I have pondered with incalculable admiration and some wistful envy the possible impact of Margaret’s wisdom, the intellectual agility of her simple act of parental generosity, and – in a way that should not be so spectacularly unusual but nonetheless is – her sense of responsibility. She was determined to keep her son uncontaminated by ignorance and its crippling effects, which in its extreme inspires such homicidal bigotry as that required to fuel a gay-bashing assailant.
Within a year Margaret had all but forgotten the scene, but I kept it like an autographed memory and think of it still as a privileged glimpse into the future, perhaps of a time when the categorical majorities of human beings will have a greater understanding and a less charged view of their counterpart minorities, their mathematically inevitable, spiritually indomitable, and fundamentally natural counterpart minorities, from whom they can learn crucial lessons about the new strengths and virtues necessary for the growth and improvement of the species.
The world is round. Face it.
Humanity’s spectrum includes all variations of tall and shot, dark and pale, aggressive and passive, scientific and artistic, brilliant and barely educable, and with the majorities falling comfortably in the middle of the parabolic curve, and the minorities drifting off on either side, providing the relative extremes whose existence proves the average and permites its calculation. All that is natural. Homosexuals appear in every chapter of human history, in every language, culture, tribe, class, caste, race, and religion. Homosexuality occurs in nature, quite simply, quite regularly, and, as the scientific community concluded years ago, quite not by choice.
How did scientists manage to conclude this, asks a recent New York Times editorial. “The answer seems startlingly low-tech. Basically the same way they concluded that left-handedness is not chosen, through common sense. Left-handers tell us that they don’t choose to be left-handed. Aspected of left-handedness like homosexuality almost universally appear in childhood. As Dean Hammer, an author of a Science article [linking a genetic marker to homosexual orientation] says, ‘All scientists already agree there is little element of choice in sexual orientation. Genes vs. Choice is an incorrect framework. A much better way of thinking about it might be Genes vs. Hormones.'”
In this book, while talking to people who tell us this, Ed Lowe and I chart the life journey specifically of the homosexual male, the gay man. Looking at him from a presumption of his natural innocence and then acknowledging the unnatural barriers of his growth and development, we discover among other things that he enjoys distinct, liberating advantages over the majority and that some of his creative advantages by the very homophobic, prejudicial behavior that seems most calculated to exacerbate his isolation and self-hatred.
Gay men who develop beyond self-destruction have a singular advantage: they are outside the prejudicial systems.
Ignored and ostracized in turn by the heterosexist community, the gay man in today’s society contends constantly with myths about himself and expectations for himself. Conflicting messages from the world at large both force and encourage him to live his life in a unique way, one vastly different, first, from what his family might have expected of him, and ultimately different from what he might have expected for himself.
From the beginning, because of his awareness of his differentness, and because a gay child may then separate or isolate himself from the world, he also learns to occupy himself, to entertain himself, to find comfort in solo activities. He develops an apparatus for independence, because he really cannot count on anybody. He may in fact design his own world, refashion, remake, reform, and transform it, filling it with whatever beauty and comfort he cannot find in the hostile, dominant world. These adaptive proclivities are the precursors to skills he later applies in more innovative ways to living a more creative life.
Because he is defined as different, a gay child develops a self-consciousness that translates or converts into an uncommon form of self-awareness. Because he always is monitoring himself in relation to the dominant world, he develops a certain carefulness about his relationship with it. Because he is ostracized and criticized, he tends to identify with other, less fortunate people who fall into like categories – underdogs by and large – and develops a kind of compassion and sensitivity deemed unusual, particularly for a man.
Breaking through the defenses while maintaining his integrity and intimacy in a hostile and unsupportive environment is a heroic achievement at whatever level a gay man manages it. What with the impact of society and culture, the risks in developing close relationships, the necessity of creating a new family, the personal psychological process over the life course, the permutations for his mental health, are that much more complicated, but he is that much stronger and wiser a human being for having plodded his way through his unchartered course.
One way of another, the penalty for being born arithmetically exceptional is that the developing gay man is forced to tap exceptional strengths and creativity to cope with his status and the shame the larger society insits that he feels. Evidence clearly suggests that over generations, coping adaptations become encoded as genetic structures. Could it be that creativity among gay men falls within that realm, like the chameleon’s sublimely developed palette?
Adversity forces the gay man to develop a creative genius for living. He can take nothing for granted. The behavioral restrictions designed to ensure the mutual safety and security of lifetime heterosexual lovers, for instance, do not exist or do not apply to him. He becomes acclimated to working outside accepted boundaries, outside rules, traditions, and covenants. Frequently carrying that outsider’s rebellious daring into his chosen professional world, he is on the cutting edge of whatever field has attracted his energies. In many ways he is a pioneer, whether in the revitalization of a neighborhood or the creation of a new industry. The gay man always seems to be prominent among the leading innovators in art, literature, theater, music, dance, film, fashion, and even the sciences. In a way that must strike Madison Avenue image makers as sublimely ironic, he most closely approximates, in real life, the legendary American hero, the true individualist, traveling alone, defying convention, finding his own shelter, cooking his own meals, exploring new frontiers, making up rules as he goes bravely along…
Stanley Siegel, Intelligent Life
Unchartered Lives: Understanding the Life Passages of Gay Men by Stanley Siegel and Ed Lowe