Friday, April 1, 2011

Coming Out. Part One.

While living in the student ghetto, my wife met Sheila, a woman active in the women's movement, who ran a day-care cooperative. Her husband, Peter, was a social worker and community organizer; founder of the Greater Montreal Anti-Poverty Movement; a group inspired by Saul Alinsky that employed direct action and guerilla tactics as a way of empowering the poor. In conversation with them we decided to form a collective that would involve our two families; both of which had two children of roughly the same age. We found a large house in Westmount, a wealthy enclave surrounded by Montreal, that we could afford because it was scheduled for demolition. It was large enough for both couples to have their own large bedroom and two separate bedrooms for each pair of children. Otherwise, all the space was common. There was a finished basement with a very large room that served as a play room for the children. Sexuality stayed within the couples; but, after several years of living together, there was a high level of emotional intimacy. Given that this was a collective of professionals, it was only appropriate that we had a woman come in each day of the week to look after the four children and a cleaning lady; rather ironic given our commitment to the equality of women: tasks in the household were shared with total gender equality. One of the aims of living together was to save money on childcare and living expenses and to save time through sharing household tasks such as cooking and cleaning up. It worked well and was, mainly, a happy way of living for all of us; at least speaking for the adults; I'm less sure what the children would say. My coming out was mainly responsible for its demise.

We were living in the collective at the time of the October Crisis in 1970 and both Peter and I feared being picked up by the police, along with the five-hundred other people who had previously come to the attention of the RCMP for their leftist activities. Peter and I both vacated the house for a couple of days until we received the all-clear from a surprising source.  At that time the City of Westmount had its own, independent police force and it seems they were asked to raid our home, but the mayor of Westmount blocked the order. He was familiar with Peter because he was from a very wealthy family the foundation of which supported Peter's work. The mayor vouched for the fact that we were not about to participate in armed insurrection. We returned home and took advantage of our safe-house to assist those who were more threatened. In fact, the women's committee to free Paul Rose and others who had been detained met in our basement playroom.

I know it is difficult to imagine for some of my Canadian friends how I and other progressive anglophones could support Quebec nationalism. The reality was that it was members of the nationalist and separatist movement that were most supportive of draft dodgers and deserters coming to Canada and were the most ardently opposed to the War in Vietnam. Much later, it was a separatist governments was the first in North American (other than some municipalities) to recognize gay and lesbian civil rights and the first in Canada to expand civil unions to include same sex couples. Those in the nationalist movement who held a social democratic ideology were close to my own political perspective and the more fascistic elements in that movement were in a distinct minority. There were many of us who supported separation because it was likely that it would result in a social democratic state; though the risk was that nationalism is particularly vulnerable to being hijacked by fascism; federalism offers some hedge against that risk. Separatism remains tempting for social democrats even today, especially when one considers the alternative of a Canada where the Conservatives could become the natural, governing party.

While living in the collective, I continued to study works that were influential in progressive political life of the time. The writings of Herbert Marcuse, particularly Civilization and its Discontents, had a very strong influence on me. The book pulled together several currents of thought that had engaged me for many years: Freudianism, philosophical anthropology, social oppression and sexuality. The interpretation of Freud's pleasure principle in a manner that supported political, social and sexual revolution I thought was brilliant; though it had been attempted before in a not so elegant way by Wilhelm Reich in his Mass Psychology of Fascism. Other books contributed to a similar perspective: Norman O. Brown's Loves Body and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd. Those works initiated a reflection on the process through which I had come to my understanding of my own sexuality and led to an insight that sounded strange, pretentious and awkward:  I had been and continued to be the subject of oppression.

Considering myself oppressed seemed pretentious and awkward because I saw myself as privileged:  being relatively well-off; living in North American; being of European descent; being a man; being healthy and able-bodied. As a kid growing up I never experienced discrimination for who I was;  I never had doors shut to me because of who I am, how I look or how I had identified myself. While later in life I experienced opposition and restrictions based on political choices, those were my choices, they weren't imposed on me and, in the scale of things, the consequences weren't terribly harsh. It is that reality of privilege that leads some people, especially in visible minority communities, to reject the gay struggle for equal rights as comparable to their own; a discrimination and oppression that is present from the moment they come into contact with the majority community and that follows them through life; that is based simply on their appearance. The reality is more complex.

There are some gay people who should be considered as visible minorities and do experience bullying and discrimination simply on the basis of their appearance. However, the basis of their oppression is not, strictly speaking, sexual orientation, but gender expression which is seen as violating the cultural norm. They are harassed and discriminated against because they are seen as effeminate boys or men and masculine or butch women. In our particular society that gender non-conforming appearance or behaviour is equated with being gay or lesbian, so such people become targeted as being gay or lesbian, even though many, if not most, are heterosexual. They are gay-bashed because they are seen as being gay and their experience is equivalent in its oppression to that of visible minorities; perhaps even worse since they often lack the support of family and community from which members of visible minorities usually benefit.

One the other hand, the majority of gays and lesbians show behaviour and have an appearance that conforms with the expectations of what is appropriate for their gender in our society. Their behaviour and appearance are close enough to expectations of masculinity and femininity that they don't stand out to the average person: they can pass as straight, unless they choose to out themselves.  While with visible minorities the ability to pass unless outed by others or oneself is relatively rare, with gays and lesbians it is the norm. Accordingly, the majority of gays and lesbians experience a mainly inner conflict regarding their sexuality, while an important minority of gays and gender non-conformers experience a significant outer, social dimension of conflict that is usually accompanied by inner conflict. Members of sexual minorities who can pass tend to suffer from repression: turning a part of themselves against themselves; visible sexual minorities suffer, in addition, direct, social oppression. The taunting, violence and discrimination expressed against that visible minority serves as a warning to the the capable-of-passing majority not to disclose themselves and to fear being identified by others. Only when the average gay, lesbian or other member of a sexual minority, out themselves or are outed by another do they experience oppression; happily, less severe than it was a short time ago in our society, but often unto death in other cultures. It wasn't until I outed myself as gay that I directly experienced the consequent, negative social consequences. Previously identifying myself to friends as bisexual had no such negative consequences; perhaps because I had one foot in the acceptable camp; but especially because I was only acting on the heterosexual dimension.

As a child and adolescent my comportment was perceived as being adequately enough "masculine" that I didn't directly experience social oppression; I was able to pass, at least to the average person. Those with a finely-honed ability to detect homosexuals, based on either desire or hatred, probably could have spotted me. There was one, particularly frightening, experience in my early teens when a boy on a crowded bus yelled, "What are you looking at?".  His taunt took me totally by surprise, but I learned to be more cautious regarding where my eyes wandered.  I imagined that the choices I made in response to the sexual desires which I found in myself were simply personal choices. I hadn't yet learned that much-used slogan of the sexual revolutions: the personal is political. Reading Marcuse led me to see the social and political dimensions of what I had supposed were personal choices: the control of sexuality through repression of all but its heterosexual, reproductive expression being a major instrument of a wider social control; enforcing gender inequality and the maintainance of societies based upon competition and aggression. The fear of being seen as homosexual serving as a major bulwark of patriarchy and subjugation of the individual.

The realization that the narrative I had constructed of my sexual identity was a product of the social and political oppression of homosexuality was the sort of insight that I described in my previous blog, "Celibacy. It's Easy", when I employed the metaphor of the duck/rabbit or witch/beautiful woman. Although the groundwork is gradual, suddenly a perceptual shift occurs; while the facts remain the same, they are seen in a totally different way. A previous gestalt dissolves and is replaced by a radically different one. For me, when I look at the figure of the duck/rabbit or the witch/beautiful woman, I initially see it as one or the other possibility, then, through some strange process, come to see the figure as the other possibility.  I can't go readily back and forth from one to the other. Once the new way of seeing flashes into perception, it tends to be seen as what the figure really is; despite the fact that we know intellectually that the drawing depicts no more a duck than a rabbit, no more a witch, than a beautiful woman. So it is as I look back on my life now, through a different lens than I had previously employed.

Looking back on the choices I had made from a radically different perspective resulted in many changes to the understanding of my sexual self that I had constructed. In considering myself as bisexual I had chosen to overlook the reality that my sexual desires for men and women were not even close to being evenly divided; during my adolescence I had never wanted to have sex with a woman and I never fantasized about having sex with a woman, though I had the occasional dream. The theory I had adopted that homosexuality was a just phase in normal adolescent sexual development was largely a reflection of and a contributor to a particular, ideological premise, masquerading as science: that being a healthy, gay adult is not possible. The fact that I hadn't had any awareness of an adult, gay life style with which I could identify was due to the fact that society suppressed such a possibility and that most homosexuals who were comfortable with their lives were coerced into silence. For example, as an adolescent I had admired Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, and as a young adult I admired the thought of Wittgenstein; but it wasn't until after the gay revolution that I knew they were gay. I was, understandably, afraid to acknowledge to myself, much less to others, the truth about my sexuality: I had seen how my best friend in elementary school was treated; I had seen what happened to one of my best friends in high school when he was found out; I observed the derision with which society regarded those it identified as homosexuals. The narrative I constructed enabled me to manage that fear and to enjoy a "normal" family life;  but at what price?

The price had been to never fully explore or enjoy my own sexuality; to never share the fullness of my sexuality with someone whom I loved. Naturally, that repression had repercussions on many aspects of my personality: it led me to be fearful of intimacy and somewhat distant; to be in some ways never fully engaged with another adult; to be rigid in some aspects of my life. Once I came to believe that the choices I had made regarding my sexuality were largely imposed and manipulated in order to re-enforce a particular power structure, I felt regret and resentment.  I had struggled against the privileges I carried as a result of birth and upbringing and allied with those I felt suffered from being less privileged; a struggle which represents an on-going tension and compromise between my own comfort and social status and a sense of social justice. I had never seen a need to liberate myself or identified the harm caused to myself through repression. How could I continue to be committed to progressive social change without having the courage to face the repression visited on me and other sexual minorities, especially other gay people?  I felt it was somehow my turn; for the first time radical social change was about me:  my own lack of fulfillment; my own oppression. Sadly, I had no idea how to make that happen without wreaking destruction around me.

No comments:

Post a Comment