If I could choose to be a straight man, I would. At least, this is what I tell myself sometimes. As you can imagine, it doesn’t really help me sleep at night. If anything, it’s only made me more perturbed by the well of conflicting emotions swirling inside of me. I did not choose to be persecuted. I should not have to justify my existence to corrupt lawmakers who, notepads out, prescribe me with injections of Leviticus the way a licensed medical professional would treat a bout of flu with antibiotics.
My “affliction” was declassified as a mental disorder by the World Health Organization in 1990. It’s unnerving, then, to still feel the knife in my gut when I read about yet another young teenager, or a college student, pushed to suicide. It’s disturbing still, to read about homosexuals thrown off buildings to their deaths by ISIS, to discuss public stonings, hangings—even beheadings, over my morning coffee. If I were a straight male, the blows over these indictments and punishments would be, I think, rather lost on me. But I would fail at being a straight male; as convenient as simply hitting the “off” switch on my sexual orientation would be, it’s just not an option.
As a gay male, I don’t have the right to male privilege. Male privilege is straight male privilege. It’s an aspiration, however unattainable, among many of my ilk. Just ask the “straight acting” gay men who take pride in their trips to the gym, their football games and their asides to the bath houses while their wives are away. Whatever enjoyment they may get out of being a star athlete is overridden by their survival instinct. They have created a status and within it, there is protection, not to mention power. They’re positively riled if you even insinuate that you know they’re gay. These are the men who will charm you with their looks, yet bring you instantly to heel at their prejudice. They’re superior to me, because they’re “on the downlow.” They’re masc. They can avoid the plague of human rights violations in our country while reaping the benefits of their meticulously cultivated “straight” persona.
I was still homeless just a few short months ago and one night, I was tired and I was lonely. I cruised around the Bronx, eventually finding myself in the neighborhood of Kingsbridge. I met a rather intelligent guy: tall, intriguing, just shy of thirty. He’d just moved to New York from South Carolina after finishing his Masters in Psychology. When I found myself in his apartment, he shut off all the lights and indicated for me to park myself on his bed, legs up in the air. “How tender of you,” I remember quipping sardonically. My situation being rather dire at this point in time, I honestly didn’t care about love or tenderness. I had very little compassion to give to anyone, let alone myself. And yet. His reply struck a chord.
“What do you want from me?” he tells me. “I don’t suck dick. That’s gay.”
I sat up then and looked him right in the eyes. “What are you going on about? You are gay.”
He shook his head. “I’m not gay like you.”
His rebuttals made no logical sense to me. I go to the gym, he said. I don’t swish. I don’t make waves. Almost immediately after that, I put my clothes back on and left.
I wondered then what it meant to be gay like me and it got me thinking of the phrase black like me, as coined by John Howard Griffin in his book of the same name. He managed to pass himself off as a black man much to the pleasure (and ignorance) of racist white folk. But the picture is thus: Griffin isn’t rallying his brothers and sisters to be black like him. Black is still black, after all, especially in the pre-Bloody Sunday era South. He’s pointing out that to be truly free, one has to be white like them, which is an impossibility. Conversely, no gay male, if they truly want to be taken seriously, can be gay like me.
To be straight like them is the way to be. You’ll be rid of the feeling that you live in a climate of perpetual injustice, you’ll be able to toss out your strawberry daiquiris quicker than a huntsman will yell “Tally ho!” upon catching sight of his quarry; you’ll be one of the guys, people will actually listen to you, you’ll be normal. Is it any surprise that horrors such as conversion therapy even exist? Is it bewildering, then, that the straight ideal has contributed to a sort of makeshift caste system among an already vulnerable, even disillusioned minority? Our identity isn’t even our own.
So straight men explain it to me. Even some straight women, too. Well, they’ve tried. It boggles the mind that one group could be so ignorant to the full extent of their privilege and the catastrophic effects of so many years of sexual entitlement and misogyny built up into one rather grand, even brilliant, ripple effect. Society has, for years, embarked on a campaign against our gay men for being too feminine and our lesbians for not being feminine enough. It’s a philosophy filtered down from Capitol Hill to armchairs across America.
There’s talk, oh there’s talk, about the threat to marriage, which is simply another way of saying the threat to heterosexual identity, namely straight male identities, who are fearful of no longer being able to call it their own, their elated positions as providers polluted by a notably inferior identity. (Marriage has only been the heteronormative fashion of choice for a short time in our history, but that’s another discussion for another day and to be frank, there are many other voices out there who have stated these points and have continued to reiterate these points far better than I; suffice it to say that if straight men decided feather boas were prime examples of masculine superiority and fortitude, a few thousand more rewrites of history would render it as such.) This identity already exists in conjunction with the subjugation of the female experience, which carried over and mutated into the monster which has been heavily at work consuming the homosexual one.
In equating gay men and women to the so-called “weaker sex,” the process of dehumanization is complete, as is the relentless contribution to the rise in LGBT depression and suicide rates. This is the world we live in, a world where Sean Hayes can be castigated by a theatre critic for not being straight enough and where even Michael Sam, as broad and as abrasive on the field, I reckon, as any American football player would have to be, can’t kiss his own boyfriend without confessing to outlandish, socially constructed perceptions of weakness (this “weakness” is directly related to why straight men are intimidated by the very notion of being peeked at in the locker rooms—they don’t want to give a homo the opportunity to treat them the same way they treat women). The world we live in sees to it that homosexual role models are snuffed out.
Working at a bookstore, I’ve found myself exposed once again to authors I know and love, but the real magic on the job lies in discovering (or perhaps re-discovering) authors you may or may not have heard of. Rebecca Solnit and her essay collection, Men Explain Things to Me, were in this latter camp, though I distinctly remember her original essay making the rounds in 2008. It’s hard, as homosexuals, not to relate to, or even see a lot of ourselves, in the plight of the fairer sex. It’s difficult for me not to nod my head in silent agreement when I hear women so fervently and astutely challenge the patriarchy for its diminutiveness towards their experiences, when so many of my own straight male role models have let me down, directing me to accept my own subjugation, my excision from a “normal” family unit, telling me, not imploring me, to silently regress within myself and adhere to my status as a second-class citizen, never mind however implicit or explicit the discrimination!
You take this too seriously, I’ve been told. You live in the best and brightest country in the world and You live in the best city in the world are other mantras I’ve been hearing. Well, let me explain this to you: I am a gay man living in (allegedly) the most civilized country on the planet and even that’s not civilized enough. I live in a country where gay men and women can be fired in 29 states simply for being who they are. I live in a country where same-sex couples can be denied hospital visitation, family health coverage, and even their role as parents and carers to their children; where gay men and women commit suicide to avoid emotional and physical retribution from their family members, peers, colleagues and even total strangers. I live in a country where I was ridiculed by the police after escaping an abusive relationship because I “could have, you know, been a man.”
He then explained how this could have been achieved and refused to take my statement.
And I’m tired of it. I’m tired of it because none of it should have happened. I should not have had to be homeless and cast out by society, the very institutions I pay my taxes into and many of the people in my life because I did not meet anyone’s preconceived notions and expectations of how a man should or shouldn’t act. It’s impossible for me not to take umbrage with the idea that domestic violence is a female problem, for while it is true that the majority of cases which are reported involve heterosexual couplings, the stance serves to simultaneously shame the victim and subjugate them to the level which women are so commonly subjugated.
We all know that women are history’s favourite scapegoat. They are scapegoats because straight male privilege has dictated that the easiest way to do this, if they can’t be, at least in our country, raped, beaten, flogged, circumcised, stoned, drowned in wells or burnt at the stake, then they can, at the very least, be mocked, chastised, forced to live up to unrealistic beauty standards and have their experiences completely and utterly invalidated.
Let me leave you with a little story:
There once was a woman who had two children. Boys. With two different men. She worked tirelessly raising them to be gentlemen. She did this alone. She juggled single-parenthood without complaint. She dated women. Some relationships lasted longer than others, but the children weathered the storms as they came. The mother endured the silent treatment from some of her relatives, quietly bracing herself for each biting recrimination. Her children were never raised to believe that their home was anything but normal. Childhood was a happy time, though they lived, for the most part, in obliviousness to any familial rifts which may have come about as a result of their mother’s sexual preference. It was easier that way. Then, when the elder son, who had endured endless streams of teasing and bullying for many years, who had secretly fostered a drinking problem, embarked on his first serious relationship and decided to come out of the closet, the mother was not happy. She expressed her misgivings and berated him. If only you’d been straight, she said. You’d have been spared. I wouldn’t have to worry so much.
The woman in the story is my mother. For the longest time, I had the utmost difficulty with reconciling those feelings. I have had to make sense of her struggles in an attempt to comprehend, even mitigate, my own.
As of this writing, I’m still not straight. I don’t really see that changing, do you? I have also come to understand my mother’s seemingly disappointed response to my coming out and have been able to make sense of her feelings. They come from a place which is outside of myself, a place which is greater than the both of us. It is not, however, a place that is beyond me, though it might be beyond the limits, perhaps even absurd, to some and, even still, inconceivable to some others.
It is merely the space I live in, that we live in, explained to the best of my ability.
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