A moving exploration of how gay men construct their identities, fight to be themselves, and live authentically
It goes without saying that even today, it’s not easy to be gay in America. While young gay men often come out more readily, even those from the most progressive of backgrounds still struggle with the legacy of early-life stigma and a deficit of self-acceptance, which can fuel doubt, regret, and, at worst, self-loathing. And this is to say nothing of the ongoing trauma wrought by AIDS, which is all too often relegated to history. Drawing on his work as a clinical psychologist during and in the aftermath of the epidemic, Walt Odets reflects on what it means to survive and figure out a way to live in a new, uncompromising future, both for the men who endured the upheaval of those years and for the younger men who have come of age since then, at a time when an HIV epidemic is still ravaging the gay community, especially among the most marginalized.
Through moving stories—of friends and patients, and his own—Odets considers how experiences early in life launch men on trajectories aimed at futures that are not authentically theirs. He writes to help reconstruct how we think about gay life by considering everything from the misleading idea of “the homosexual,” to the diversity and richness of gay relationships, to the historical role of stigma and shame and the significance of youth and of aging. Crawling out from under the trauma of destructive early-life experience and the two epidemics, and into a century of shifting social values, provides an opportunity to explore possibilities rather than live with limitations imposed by others. Though it is drawn from decades of private practice, activism, and life in the gay community, Odets’s work achieves remarkable universality. At its core, Out of the Shadows is driven by his belief that it is time that we act based on who we are and not who others are or who they would want us to be. We—particularly the young—must construct our own paths through life. Out of the Shadows is a necessary, impassioned argument for how and why we must all take hold of our futures.
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About the Author
Walt Odets is a clinical psychologist and writer. He is the author of In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS. He lives in Berkeley, where he has practiced psychology since 1987.
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Are Gay Men Homosexuals?
What is your line?
It is not the cow that makes the frycook.
— Keith Waldrop, The Not Forever
WHAT IS A HOMOSEXUAL?
There are two different perspectives on what makes a man "a homosexual." The first — the heterosexual perspective — is that homosexuals are "men who have sex with men." The gay man's perspective, briefly put, is that he is "attracted to other men." The difference between the two descriptions is important: the heterosexual identifies a single, objective behavior, the gay man an entire internal life of feeling. While the straight man may feel support, indifference, fear, or contempt for the idea of "the homosexual," the gay man has more complex feelings, in part because the term has historically been used to stigmatize. "Are you a homosexual?" is easily, often correctly, experienced as the opening salvo of an attack. The majority of gay-identified men do have at least a marginally conscious sense that being gay is about more than sexual attraction or sex; but many gay men have been swayed by the heterosexual definition and have accepted the narrow, behaviorally defined identity. In today's gay assimilationist politics, gay men often explain themselves to heterosexuals with the idea that they are "attracted to men, but otherwise just like you." In that assertion, the gay man is accepting the heterosexual perspective on who he is: the gender of his sexual partner defines him as gay and is his only distinguishing difference. From a psychological perspective, this is simply not the whole truth, and the claim often does a serious disservice to gay lives.
For gay men, sexual attraction to other men is only one expression of something more fundamental, something that might be called a gay sensibility. As I am using the term, gay sensibility describes both the man's internal experience of himself, and his characteristic external expression of self to others. Together, the two constitute "a sensibility," and a gay sensibility is often different from that of heterosexual men. Sexual attraction is not the cause of gay sensibility, although it may influence and inform it; nor is the simple idea of the homosexual an adequate characterization of that sensibility. The question I am raising — whether or not gay men are homosexuals and should be characterized as such — is not at all intended to dismiss the importance of gay sexual lives. Sexuality is of central importance in all human life, whether acknowledged or not. What it means to "be gay" has for too long been defined by others, and too much of that imposed definition has been incorporated into gay self-experience. Being gay offers important opportunities that can only be realized if gay people can free themselves of societal and internalized stigma, much of which stems from the conventional idea of the homosexual. Freed from this narrow characterization, gay people have lives that are, in some ways, like heterosexual lives and, in other ways, appreciably different. Lives that express such complexity are often better, fuller, more authentic lives.
Gay people — with the historical focus largely on men — have been designated homosexuals in the psychological literature since the late nineteenth century, when the previously little-used term appeared in the German psychiatric text Psychopathia Sexualis. In addition to homosexuality, the author, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, cataloged other psychosexual phenomena, including bestiality, exhibitionism, pedophilia, and sadism. The company homosexuals kept in this tome of "perversions" was a good indicator of where the understanding of gay lives was headed in the developing psychiatric literature, the popular mind, and, too often, the gay mind. But the significance of Psychopathia Sexualis went disturbingly beyond the classification of same-sex behavior as a pathological perversion. Before this treatise, homosexual sex had been only a behavior, a single anomaly in an otherwise "normal" human being. With Psychopathia, homosexual behavior became something that could identify and characterize an entire person. Not only was the behavior pathological, the entire man was: the man with a discreet cancer had become "a cancer." The newly assigned identity was readily incorporated into the self-experience of gay men, giving rise to a self-perpetuating psychosocial dynamic of imposed social stigma and reactive, internalized shame that, in turn, bolstered the stigma. Gay men were being identified as homosexuals, and that is what they started to feel like.
What the new psychosocial dynamic persistently ignored was the complex sensibility — the experience of self, others, and the world — that lay behind and gave expression to the sexual behavior. The psychological lives of gay people would be lost to psychiatry, which embarked on a campaign to explore gay lives with the intent of revealing the psychopathology that was presumably the root of the "problem." In his seminal history of the American homophile movement, John D'Emilio discusses the role that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century "medicalization" of homosexuality played in the new homosexual identity:
Ironically, the medical model promoted the articulation of a gay identity and made it easier for many lesbians and homosexuals to come out. In elaborating upon their theories, doctors helped create the phenomenon that most of them wished to eliminate. They transformed an evil impulse that the morally upright strove to resist into the primary constituent of one's nature, inescapable because it permeated one's being. ... Medical theories made homosexuality not a deed that one avoided but a condition that described who one was.
While the attention of psychiatry beneficially "promoted the articulation of a gay identity," this narrow, stigmatized, and polarizing identity would prove to be immensely destructive. The earlier perception of the "evil impulse" left the person's identity as a human being otherwise relatively intact; but the new approach would shrink the entire identity into the evil impulse itself. As D'Emilio points out, psychiatry usefully, if inadvertently, accomplished an important affirmation for gay individuals: they had something in common with other people, gay people. Psychiatry thus brought being homosexual out of the one-man closet into a new group closet. This group closet was equipped with a newfangled light — the light of psychiatric diagnosis and "insight" — that turned on automatically whenever the closet door was opened, and scrutinized and pathologized the very homosexual identity that psychiatry itself had created.
Unavoidably, the new group closet did something else: it polarized the homosexual identity for gay people themselves. A person does not have the self-experience of being distinctive and an outsider until he encounters a group from which he is different and excluded. Being a member of the new group closet clearly excluded one from most of society, a society that left no doubt about the differences. "Gay communities" were thus born, populated by deviants who, by definition, had one thing in common — socially disapproved sexual interests. Where homosexual behavior is not disapproved, it is much less likely to be experienced as an identity, and if it is, the identity is much broader. When I recently asked a gay Dutch public health official what it meant to "be gay in the Netherlands," he responded, "I'm not sure what the question is. If you mean, do we live in our own parts of town as you do in the U.S., the answer is no. The whole issue doesn't mean as much in the Netherlands, we don't really have gay and straight people the way you do. It's more like we have people, and all people are different."
Today, a majority of American gay men still very much live in the group closet defined by the homosexual identity. A gay friend recently told me that he had asked his mother why she never inquired about how he and his partner were getting on. "Why would I?" she responded. "I never ask your brother about what he and his wife are doing in bed." While we have become accustomed to the social construction of the homosexual, from a psychological perspective it is peculiar that we would classify and characterize a group of people entirely by their sexual behavior. As essential as sexuality is in human life, sexual behavior does not constitute a complete relationship to another or a complete life, and sexual practices are not close to a complete description of anyone. The origins of this odd practice lie partly in the different social roles that gay men play — in particular, that they do not breed — and in the fact that sex is a concrete, observable behavior. The other part of gay men — the complex, rich internal sensibility — is not usually observable by others, and many gay men have become necessarily expert at limiting any external expressions of their internal lives, even to other gay men.
Walking in San Francisco's Castro or New York's Chelsea, I am often struck by how many men on the street appear to be uncomfortable making eye contact or offering a passing hello. They look slightly furtive or inauthentically aloof. Some of this behavior is probably a product of the male adolescent's learned caution about revealing any interest in another boy, and being discovered as gay. But the homosexual identity is characterized by sex, and the furtive or apparently aloof gay man is sometimes also avoiding any response that suggests acceptance of a feared or unwanted sexual invitation. Having found their first experience of social currency in their sexual desirability, too many men are left feeling that the only interest another man might have in them is sexual. Over the years, one thousand gay men have said to me, "The only thing other men are interested in is sex, and that's not what I want, it's not enough." To this, I usually respond, "But the other nine hundred and ninety-nine gay men I have spoken with have said the same thing. I think that many others share your feelings." The Castro and Chelsea are too often not social communities, but neighborhoods of people wandering the streets, all looking for something they are convinced is unattainable because of who gay men are. The wanderer knows only his own internal sensibility, not that of others, who are homosexuals, pure and simple.
The homosexual identity is not only problematic because it is narrowly defined by sex; it is made even worse when the sex is considered deviant. As D'Emilio points out, the term homosexual has always been used to express religious, social, or medical disapproval: homosexual behavior has been a sin, a crime, or a sickness. Even as many gay men may be unconscious of such feelings about themselves, some have feelings — not usually ideas — that other gay men are sinful, criminal, or sick, none of which makes them desirably obtainable. One solution for such gay men is the not-uncommon interest in "straight-acting," straight-identified men, who are, for other reasons, also usually unobtainable. There is something else I have heard a thousand times from gay men: "I am never interested in men who are interested in me, and those I am interested in never return the feeling." What this peculiar, completely implausible predicament suggests is that the obstruction lies not in who other gay men actually are, but in what he, the seeker of relationships, feels about himself. The psychological mechanism is projection: when a man shows interest in another man, the interested man becomes a deviant homosexual in the eyes of his object, and this works bidirectionally. Both men feel some — probably unconscious — sense of their own homosexual undesirability and project the feeling onto each other. In such a mutually projective scheme, anyone who shows interest is disqualified.
THE STORY OF LARRY
Larry and I first met for therapy in 2014, and he clearly expressed the problematic nature of the homosexual identity and the role of stigmatization in codifying it. Larry was a twenty-eight-year-old African-American who, by his own description, grew up in Ohio in "a seriously Catholic family." At the age of twenty-three he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as an electrical engineer. Larry had come to me to talk about "having relationships," in which, he said, he had "been a complete failure." When Larry was twelve, his mother had found him in sexual play with another boy, and the event became the family's preoccupation.
"After my mother discovered me, everything changed. It was then that I realized I didn't want to be an astronaut, I wanted to be a homosexual."
"A homosexual instead of an astronaut? It's difficult to imagine them as conflicting options."
"Homosexuality became everything — it's all that my parents talked about, that's the word they used, and it was all I thought about when I thought about my future. I wasn't even black anymore, just gay. They told me a hundred times that if I didn't change, I was going to hell. Not going to hell was all that mattered to them. I would think to myself, 'I am a homosexual,' and everything seemed to start from there. So being an astronaut, well, that wasn't even on the table anymore."
"Being a homosexual seems like a very narrow way to think about yourself and your future. You did become an engineer. Was that okay — perhaps the question is, is it okay to think of yourself that way, as primarily a homosexual?"
"No, not really — because being a homosexual is a hopeless thing to be as far as I know."
"Because — you know all the things. Homosexuals don't have relationships, their families reject them, and they die lonely. And being black and gay is even worse, much worse. You belong nowhere."
"Do you still feel that hopeless? Do you believe that gay people don't have relationships? And what about being black and gay?"
"I know they have relationships — I don't know how good they are, but I know they do — but that's not what I feel. I do feel it's hopeless. And I don't belong with black people or gay people. I don't know if you understand that. For gay men, there's a lot of racism, and I'm pretty much a thing, which some guys are into and some are not. As far as my life has gone, being gay has been about having sex with guys who are into black men. I've never really had anything beyond that."
At the age of twelve, Larry had engaged in a single activity — physical play with his friend — and it had become his entire identity. Overnight, he had become "a homosexual," and in elaborating on this label, the family strengthened that identity with polarizing rejection: Larry was the only one in the family who would end up in hell. Neither Larry nor his parents had been able to give any attention to the internal life — the person — that motivated the natural physical exploration of two young adolescents. My thirty-year working experience has made clear that gay men with the most oppositional and hostile families are likely to hold the strongest, deepest, and narrowest identities as gay men. As with Larry's experience, sexual behavior becomes, if not the entire sense of self, a too significant part of it. On his own, Larry would almost certainly not have created so narrow an identity. A perceptive and thoughtful man, he had successful interests in many areas. He was not only an engineer, but an accomplished furniture maker and a budding pilot. But in his deepest feelings, he remained "a homosexual" and felt hopeless about himself and the possibility of relationships. This fundamentally gregarious and empathetic man was emotionally isolated and lonely, which was the very life his parents warned him about. American society had successfully created another homosexual, a man who experienced himself as a sexual "thing," and not much else.
A STUDY FROM INDIANA
The extent to which homosexual still defines being gay in America is revealed not only in Larry's story, but in a useful study conducted by members of the Department of Sociology at Indiana University. The psychological insight offered by the study lies in the authors' distinction between "formal rights" and "informal privileges" for couples. The formal rights polled in this study excluded gay marriage — the 2015 Supreme Court decision had not yet been handed down — but included other formal rights such as legal partnerships, insurance benefits, and hospital visitation. Informal privileges included telling others of the nature of their relationship, as well as holding hands, kissing on the cheek, and "French-kissing" in public. The last three items are known as public displays of affection, or PDA. The 1,073 subjects polled were approximately half heterosexual males and females, and half gay- and lesbian-identified people.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Out of the Shadows"
Copyright © 2019 Walt Whitman Odets.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
1. Are Gay Men Homosexuals?
2. Stigma and Shame
3. Our Tripartite Communities Today
4. The Significance of Early-Life Experience
5. Some Obstructions to Self-Discovery and Self-Realization: Diagnosis, Isolation, and Grief
6. Emerging from Trauma, Loss, and Isolation
7. Gay Men's Relationships
8. The Life and Times of Matthias Johnston
An Afterword for Young Men's Futures