Last month, while browsing through the second-hand bookstore opposite the Biscuit Mill in Cape Town I came across this autobiography by Paul Monette and quickly added it to the growing pile of books I ended up leaving with. I’m very glad I did. In reading it I’ve had more than my fair share of chortles, tears and chokes – it is as moving as it is funny. I don’t think straight people will find it as meaningful given that it is written by a gay man, to gay people about gay men. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in either autobiographies or the struggles of gay men in straight America.
When I write, either personally or professionally, I find that my natural style – that which comes most easily to me – is to write polemically with splashes of vitriol. Moderation is not my thing. It doesn’t come easily and with prose it’s no different. There’s a joke in our Department that the bulk of my supervisor’s editing during the first year of my PhD was simply to delete (or at the very least tame) any adjective I used in reports for government. So where I wrote about “egregious inefficiencies” or ”wholesale ineptitude” this was pacified to “clear inefficiencies” and “systemic capacity deficits”. Words like ‘heinous’, ‘sclerotic’ and ‘unfathomable’ simply had to go, and rightly so I suppose. It would seem that writing in registers is something that is learnt but never taught. In any event I’m getting carried away here. The point is that I loved this book because I identified not only with the content but also with the emotionally-rich prose. Let me give you a chunk from the first page and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about:
“I speak for no one else here, if only because I don’t want to saddle the women and men of my tribe with the lead weight of my self-hatred, the particular doorless room of my internal exile. Yet I’ve come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment. The self-delusion of uniqueness. The festering pretense that we are the same as they are. The gutting of all our passions till we are a bunch of eunuchs, our zones of pleasure in enemy hands. Most of all, the ventriloquism, the learning how to pass for straight. Such obedient slaves we make, with such tidy rooms.
Forty-six now and dying by inches, I finally see how our lives align at the core, if not in the sorry details. I still shiver with a kind of astonished delight when a gay brother or sister tells of that narrow escape from the coffin world of the closet. Yes yes yes, goes a voice in my head, it was just like that for me. When we laugh together and dance in the giddy circle of freedom, we are children for real, at last, because we have finally grown up. And every time we dance, our enemies writhe like the Witch in Oz, melting, melting – the Nazi Popes and all their brocaded minions, the rat-brain politicians, the wacko fundamentalists and their Book of Lies…So whether or not I was ever a child is a matter of very small moment. But every memoir now is a kind of manifesto, as we piece together the tale of the tribe. Our stories have died with us long enough. We mean to leave behind some map, some key, for the gay and lesbian people who follow – that they may not drown in the lies, in the hate that pools and foams like pus on the carcass of America.” (p1)
And with prose like that I can’t help but understand his struggle and feel his pain, even as I begin to better understand my own struggles and pains. I think one of the reasons why I was drawn to this autobiography was because it is not only one man’s autobiography, but one particular refraction of a common theme – living as a gay man in a straight world. Yet the plot and narrative also show a clear development and acquired nuance in his understanding of homosexuality – masterfully written to echo his own chronological realizations. What started out as a biological understanding of sexuality, explaining who likes whom and why, morphs into a far more abstract and realistic understanding that being gay is far more than simply sexual preference. It is also a sensibility, a disposition to meaning acquired through socialization and shared experience. Interestingly educational sociologists use the term “orientation to meaning” in their discussions about the propagation of class inequalities in society. It would be interesting to explore this notion with respect to gay meaning-making in contrast to straight meaning-making in a hegemonically heterosexual world. But again I digress. Monette – a poet by training and profession – is also a brilliant social commentator with the flair befitting his orientation. In his writing he mixes equal parts of self-awareness, sorrow, literary genius and social commentary:
“I don’t come from the past, I come from now, here in the cauldron of the plague. When the doors to the camps were finally beaten down, the Jews of Europe no longer came from Poland and Holland and France. They came from Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But I will never understand how the straights could have let us die like this – year after year, collaborating by indifference – except by sifting through the evidence of my queer journey. Why do they hate us? Why do they fear us? Why do they want us invisible? I don’t trust my own answers anymore. I’m too twisted up with rage, too hooked on the millennium. But I find myself combing the past these days, dreaming dreams without sleep, puzzling over my guys, the gay and the straight and the inbetween. Somewhere in there is a horror of love, and to try to kill the beast in them, they take it out on us. Which is not to say I don’t chastise myself for halving the world into us and them. I know that the good guys aren’t all gay, or the bad all straight. That is what I am sifting for, to know what a man is finally, no matter the tribe or gender.”
And this is where Monette comes into his own – where he reaches the peak of his literary prowess – his visceral descriptions of a life well contemplated. He is not shy to include the sordid details of his sex life, but neither is he shy to expose the heart-ache and insecurity of an approval-seeking narcissist. He helped me to see that all of life is experience – the good, the bad and the ugly. This all stands in stark contrast to the religious dogma of fundamentalists whose petty priorities can only pass for legitimate by masquerading as absolute truth. I still have not managed to reconcile how otherwise intelligent people are so uncritical of the half-baked ideas of their religious superiors.
This book also helped me to realize just how far we are from the just treatment of gay people in society. As an educational evangelist I wonder if we will ever be able to unteach and unlearn the homophobia acquired over generations of prejudice and ignorance. How do you reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason their way into? You can’t. And this is where the parallels with feminism and gender become unmistakable. Contrary to popular belief, all people have received an education about gender. The vast majority receive their education by socialization into a sexist, gendered patriarchal environment. Unfortunately most never realize they’ve been taught or that they’ve learned anything as they continue with their hum-drum lives. For the enlightened few who can think enough and empathize enough to realize that women are truly oppressed – even in ‘liberated’ Western society – the task then becomes how we orchestrate change. Like true economists, those in positions of power realize that it is not good enough to only correct the cloaked-misogynists at the dinner table, but rather that the forces of markets, politics and religion must converge on a new truth – that men and women – heterosexual and homosexual – black and white – are all fully human and thus equally entitled to the full spectrum of rights, responsibilities and opportunities. Until that day we have work to do.