There are no links to this part of the post, about the shame of gay. And that’s because it’s a personal story I’d like to share about something I once experienced. But I’m going to fast forward to the present first.
Yesterday, a Catholic nun splashed holy water in my face. Tony and I are dealing with a close family member who is very ill right now and we’ve been driving two hours away to their home at least once a week for the past month. We’re helping with long term insurance to make sure they are getting assisted living with a private insurance policy they’ve had for the past fifteen years. We’re dealing with doctors, private nurses, and all the therapists that go along with in-home care. We’re not strangers to this, and we don’t mind doing these things for family at all. The only really awkward part is that the person we’re helping is very Catholic. And yesterday a nun in full habit came to visit as we were leaving and she splashed holy water on both of us. It came without warning; I’m not exaggerating. We were on our way out the door and she flung a small bottle of holy water at both of us and it hit me right in the face.Tony and I exchanged a quick glance, and we smiled. But I had to wonder if there was a hidden meaning to this. Would she have flung holy water in such a ridiculous way at my straight brother and his divorced wife? And then I wondered why I would even wonder about this in the first place.
And that has to do with shame. About nineteen years ago, Tony and I met two gay men who were older than us and they had already been together for forty years. One was a high end antiques dealer in NY, the other was an architect who’d studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and also wrote fiction part time. We became best friends with them for the next eight years, until they both passed on within a year of each other. During that friendship, not one day passed when I didn’t at least speak to them on the phone.
In all that time I never realized the generational differences between us. When we were with them, they always seemed so open and honest about being gay and being a gay couple. But in hindsight I now realize that’s because we always got together with them in places that were either completely gay venues, or highly gay friendly. And we all live in New Hope, which is a gay venue in itself. In other words, we never went to Outback Steakhouse with them, not once. We never went to the mall with them in New Jersey. At the time, I never gave it a second thought.
After they both passed, I had the opportunity to read a memoir that had been written and published by the architect. I’d always known he had published books out, but he never spoke of them and I never paid much attention to that part of his life. He’d stopped writing altogether at one point, and in the eight years I knew him I only heard him mention once he’d been a published author. So I came across his book one day on Amazon after his death, and I ordered it. This happened about five years after he’d passed away. I thought I would get this great memoir with wonderful insights about what gay life was like back in the middle of the last century, from a good friends I’d once known, and instead I found something I hadn’t expected.
Now I knew these people well. I know they were together for forty years and I know they’d lived their entire lives as gay men. And yet in the memoir I read, which even mentioned him by name, I found this altered version of the life he’d led that mentioned nothing at all about him being gay or about his lifelong gay partner. In fact, I read the same stories in this book I’d heard him tell at dinner parties in person, only in the book he changed the pronouns and made all the gay men women. In other words, he made himself straight in his own memoir and hid the most fundamental part of his entire life.
My initial reaction was shock. My final reaction was sadness. I know why he did what he did in that memoir, and I know that men of his generation didn’t have any other choices if they wanted to publish anything in the mainstream. And gay fiction…or gay books of any kind…were not highly sought after by publishers or literary agents…unless there was a freak show angle. There’s still a disconnect in publishing with gay books, but I don’t want to get off track. My point in this post is that the reason gay men of my friend’s generation had to fake memoirs like that was because of shame. You can take it and twist it around any way you like. You can say he did this to protect people. Or he did this to protect himself. But when it all comes down to one single factor it’s always the shame.
Gay men of my generation don’t know this brand of shame as well as my old friend knew it. But we still deal with it on a daily basis ourselves, and it’s always a struggle. I think gay men who are younger than Tony and I still deal with it, too. At least that’s what I see when I read letters from gay men in their twenties who have read my books. And I think that’s why I felt the way I did when that rude nun splashed holy water in my face. She probably meant nothing by it, but I still couldn’t help wondering if she was trying to save the gay guys with her little plastic bottle of holy water.
Philadelphia Equal Rights Bill
Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia signed a bill yesterday that is going to provide equal rights for LGBT people.
“My goal is for Philadelphia to be one of, if not the most, LGBT-friendly cities in the world and a leader on equality issues,” said Nutter, adding that the signing struck a personal note because his friend, the late City Councilman John Anderson, was a gay man and a mentor who inspired him 30 years ago to pursue a life of public service.
Although Tony and I live in the northern end of the Philadelphia area, and we spend a good deal of time in Center City Philadelphia, we are not allowed to vote in the city and we don’t get the benefits of a bill like this. If I did live in Philly, I would have voted for Mayor Nutter both times because this is the kind of Mayor he’s been since he was elected. It’s also one of the reasons why when Tony and I discuss our future, and getting older, living in Philadelphia is in our top ten list of places.
I also think leaders like Mayor Nutter, and many others in the US, are making a point of doing things like this right now as we await a decision from the supreme court on gay marriage this June.