Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Choices: A Cautionary Tale

The year was 1966. It was the year that James Meredith was shot in Mississippi and the year the sniper in the University of Texas tower in Austin shot forty-three people, killing twelve. It was also the year that I chose my sexual orientation.

Not that I had no sexual orientation prior to that time; at age thirty I had had one for years, but it was certainly not one I had chosen nor one I ever would have chosen for myself. After all, what rational individual freely chooses to be a pariah — to be ridiculed, ostracized, and discriminated against? Since the age of fifteen — throughout high school, college, graduate school, and three years of employment — I had known beyond any doubt that I was one hundred percent, red-blooded, all-American "queer" (the slur of choice in 1966), this despite the fact that I remained sexually inexperienced until the age of twenty-eight. From the moment I became aware of my unorthodox affectional orientation, my soul recoiled before the flame-thrower of society's condemnation of homosexuals, and I plunged deep into the closet. I felt much as I imagine a Jewish kid growing up in Nazi Germany might have felt had he attempted to pass himself off as non-Jewish.

In 1966 in Huntsville, Alabama no one was openly gay. No TV talk show featured gay guests, and no TV sitcom featured a gay character. No medical research results had yet been published to suggest that sexual orientation is probably determined at birth or soon thereafter. The Stonewall rebellion would not take place for another three years, and no gays marched before network television news cameras proclaiming their pride. The notion that homosexual persons might have human and civil rights that were being abridged was yet to be articulated.

In the Huntsville of 1966, no bookstore carried gay titles, and no newsstand displayed gay newspapers or magazines. However, the mainstream press carried reports of heinous crimes committed by "sex perverts", "moral degenerates", or "sexual deviates". Occasionally a hapless soul was convicted of the infamous "crime against nature".

The literature of the day on homosexuality was limited primarily to obscure academic treatises on abnormal psychology wherein I might read what a truly diseased wretch I was. (In 1966 homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness.) Oh, I could be cured, to be sure, but the accepted treatments for homosexuality in those days — including prefrontal lobotomy, electroshock, hormone injection, and castration — seemed to belong more to the realm of horror movies than to that of clinics and hospitals dedicated to healing. In any case, the treatment seemed to me infinitely worse than the disease which, truth to tell, felt quite pleasant except for the terror I felt at the prospect of having my secret longings discovered by friends and relatives who, I expected, would then fall upon me like a pack of ravenous wolves.

Although I felt neither sick nor sinful, it was inevitable that I should acquire much of the prevailing attitude towards homosexuals and homosexuality. Indeed, it is extraordinarily difficult to convince oneself entirely that one is right and the rest of the world is consummately wrong.

And so, in 1966, I faced what seemed to me a cruel choice: I could have the love and respect of friends, family, and coworkers, a career with prestige, financial security, and the myriad material goods our society offer a reasonably conscientious heterosexual male WASP. Or I could have a love life, but to have both appeared to me utterly impossible.

Thus it was that I came to choose a heterosexual orientation, that is to say, in much the same manner as one being robbed at gunpoint "chooses" to surrender one's valuables.

Determined to make myself acceptable to society, I vowed silently that, if it were humanly possible, I would "cure" myself of this terrible "sickness" and become heterosexual. I undertook nothing less that the total reconstruction of my personality from the ground up.

Systematically I set about effecting the required metamorphosis. I purchased a new car, a house, and a boat. I had myself fitted with contact lenses and had my hair styled. I bought stylish new clothes and signed up for lessons in ballroom dancing. I joined a singles club and subscribed to a computer dating service. Relentlessly suppressing all insecurities and every impulse to turn and flee, I drove myself by sheer force of will to date women. With dogged determination I repressed all homosexual fantasies. The Rev. Jerry Falwell would have been proud of me.

And so it was that I set out to cross an emotional desert, a trackless wasteland of unknown, perhaps infinite, extent Medical science and religious leaders of the day assured me that good health and salvation lay beyond, and on their counsel I wagered my future.

Fast-forward through twenty years to 1986. At age fifty I have been scrupulously faithful to my wife of seventeen years, and we have two fine children together, but the noble experiment has failed. Although my behavior since the wedding has been exclusively heterosexual, at no time have I ever been able to regard myself as anything other than gay. In my own mind I have simply been a gay man masquerading as a straight man, albeit quite successfully to all outward appearances. In effect I have created a fictional straight character and lived his life rather than my own.

Eros is dead, the victim of slow starvation. My wife and children find me remote and unfeeling. Like the Cheshire cat, I have vanished except for the smile I show to the world. In a state of deep depression, I have no sense of personal worth or identity, being neither man nor woman, neither gay nor straight. A nonentity — at most an object, a thing. A robot perhaps, or a zombie? From my vantage point somewhere beyond the orbit of Saturn, I observe the vain struggles of humankind, its members — male and female alike — appearing to me as cardboard cutouts or department store manikins. Suicidal thoughts occur with increasing frequency.

I am obsessed with the idea that I shall die never having made intimate contact with another human being — that none will ever know who I truly was nor what my life was all about. Like the ephemeral neutrino, I should have transited Earth, leaving behind no trace of my passing. Another fearful choice looms. In desperation I confide in the person nearest me; I tell my wife that I am gay.

Fast-forward again, this time through five years to 1991. Divorced for two years, I now face the third grim choice of my life. Quite simply, the fictional straight character I have created has no future. (Shall I have him remarry? Never! Then what?) No, clearly the straight character must die. The only question remaining is whether I shall die along with him. At age fifty-five, like one parachuting from a burning aircraft, I close my eyes, hold my breath, and leap — out of the closet.

I summon my children to me and explain to them that their father is gay. At the office the following day I inform my supervisor that I am gay. In church the following Sunday I announce to the congregation that I am gay. All these I do with full awareness that my words are being misunderstood by many as a confession of sexual misconduct, or an admission of guilt, or weakness, or moral turpitude, but I am not deterred; for the first time in my life, I am simply declaring to the world my true identity — not what I do or have done, but who and what I am.

Fast-forward one last time, through three years to the present. Clearly the wager I made so long ago is lost. The medical and religious authorities of that time to whom I had entrusted my fate are proven by time to have been woefully mistaken, and the desert I once set out to cross has taken a terrible toll.
The romantic dreams which formerly warmed my youthful heart have turned, every one, to ashes. The sweet, warm wine of life that once coursed through my veins has turned to cold, sour vinegar. Despair has robbed my heart of its once-great capacity to give and receive human love, so that my affectional orientation is now largely moot. Perpetual celibacy and alienation appear to be my fate.

I am today filled with bitter resentment toward a benighted society that has denied me the only life I might actually have lived, bullying and coercing me to pursue another's vision of happiness rather than my own. My chief regret is not that I was born homosexual, but rather that I was born into a nest of vipers. Had I but been born into a more enlightened society such as that of ancient Greece, I might have lived my own life and still have enjoyed the respect of friends, family, and coworkers. In a misguided effort to comply with the cruel and perverse demands of an ignorant and uncaring society, I have neglected entirely my own imperative emotional needs with uniformly disastrous results.

Despite everything, I still feel an impulse to live. In a sense, I feel that my life has only just begun. Only now am I free to speak the truth as I know it, and I feel compelled to bear witness to the folly of attempting to deny one's own basic and immutable nature. With the love and support of my two loyal sons, I shall do whatever I can to promote truth and justice with respect to homosexuals and homosexuality.

In setting down these reflections, it is my hope that they may stand as a warning of the dangers inherent in forced choices and in false choices. At worst, this chronicle can serve as an object lesson to others who mightbe tempted to venture onto that pitiless wasteland.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Reinhold Niebuhr