The low point (so far) of my life as a homosexual came at the Gay Pride Parade in New York City, where I was caught among a phalanx of muscular young sun-worshippers chanting “shame, shame, shame” at some bigoted old woman who’d wandered out of her apartment to heckle and bait “the homos.” This ugly irony made the permanent marriage of pride and shame all too obvious. Gay Pride is a reactionary position, a response to the culture of shame forced on homosexuals ever since the category “homosexual” was invented. Like most reactions, pride carries shame with it like a twin, a shadow it can never lose. Gay Pride is a denouncement of shame, a shaming of it. You can imagine my discomfort when my homo brethren demonstrated the permanence of this disagreeable paradox to the elderly bigot on the sidewalk.
I’ve led a privileged life. No gay bashings, no violent condemning parents, no lost jobs, no housing discrimination. Raised by middle-class Seattle liberals in a post-Stonewall world, I’ve encountered Pride in circumstances quite different from the ones that gave rise to it. I was never hauled by police into a paddy-wagon, never denounced in the newspapers. I navigated my own way through shame as any teenager would, confronting hazards no different from those faced by my straight friends. Why was my body so out of control? What did I want from others, and why did I want it so badly? What vexed me was being sexual, not being homosexual, and once I’d found a right relation to that, my peace of mind felt more like balance or discernment than like pride. The black-and-white categories, loud declarations, and stridency of Gay Pride were, for me, off-putting, even wrong-headed.
First off, pride, in my homosexual life, has never really dispelled shame so much as it has compounded it. I recall striding around the drunk wreckage of some basement show of The Fartz (nearly 20 years ago) wearing an enormous red, white, and blue button announcing “I Like Boys.” I’d pinned this knick-knack, big as a salad plate, to my tattered flannel, thinking it would raise consciousness among my sullen friends. Instead it reduced me into a cartoonish billboard, a singular target at which thoughtless boys aimed equally reductive responses: “Wanna suck my dick?” etc. I mustered up my dignity by refusing them – “I like boys, but not you!” – and feeling ashamed of all of us, me with my come higher slogan, and them with their brainless dicks. Even in more accommodating settings, gay bars and parades, the sweet taste of pride shouted loud and proud always left a treacly taste in my mouth.
But, really, what options did I have? Growing up post-Stonewall meant living with the narrow constraints of the new liberation. Shame was the enemy, a fiery dragon every young gay man would have to meet and slay, on his path toward maturity. Pride was the sword by which we’d conquer it. A survey of my bookshelf back then would reveal the paucity of tools I’d been given: Best Little Boy in the World, Dancer from the Dance – white suburban homos growing into self-awareness, then shame, before finding liberation through the solidarity forged by coming out and becoming gay. Gay meant manly lovers, moving into the city, plus a rhetoric of pride with which I was already uncomfortable. Why all the coarse shouting?
Only in a very narrow historical moment could the path toward homosexual liberation have taken shape this way. Pride (as we will know it this coming Sunday) is an extremely isolated practice – a body of rhetoric and a set of habits which have developed in the urban West (largely New York and San Francisco) over the last 30 years. It is irrelevant to the lives of most homosexuals and has been of limited value as a political tool. With that said, I’ll add that I wouldn’t be writing this essay without the cultural and political victories won through Gay Pride. So it may simply by my contrarian nature (in any group I want out), but I’d like to transform this knee-jerk reflex of mine into some kind of viable alternative to Pride. Somehow, I believe, young homos would be better served by an older rhetoric – one contrasting shame with discernment or balance – than by the yahoo boastfulness of Gay Pride.
For most of their long histories, pride and shame have both been negative – the fate of the unwise and unwary. Pride, of course, is the first deadly sin. It goeth before a fall. Shame (Plato tells us) is also undesirable, countered not through pride, but through a sense of balance and justness. “There is,” Plato says in The Symposium, “no absolute right and wrong in love, but everything depends upon the circumstances; to yield to a bad man in a bad way is wrong, but to yield to a worthy man in a right way is right.” Balance brings honor – excess and abandon bring shame. Pride, too, is marked by excess.
Shame and pride alike befall impetuous, stupid people. In a kind of instructive love letter attributed to Demosthenes, a young man about to enter into the social and sexual relations of Athens is cautioned that “no one finds himself disappointed of favors from you which it is just and fair to ask, but no one is permitted to even hope for such liberties as lead to shame. So great is the latitude of your discretion permits to those who have the best intentions; so great is the discouragement to those who would fling off restraint.”
It won’t fit on a sloganeer’s button (even one as big as a plate), but the rhetoric of this Athenian “coming-out guide” is light-years away from Pride’s current contrast of evil shame and the bright light of pride. Restraint, discernment, and moderation are rare qualities, near impossibilities in the midst of our current political agenda. I’m no scholar (this Greek stuff for instance, is all taken second-hand from Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality), but the terms of Demosthenes’ discussion are a far cry from those encountered by the curious young homo of today. Here, for example, is current hot-selling homo author Ken Hanes on the qualities of gay men.
“The people bursting with humanity and goodness, the ones who make you happy, well, just by being on the planet – why are a seemingly inordinate number of these folk gay men? I’ve heard people suggest a spiritual explanation – that gays and lesbians are an incarnation of a special spirit, even a third gender, and that it’s the queer’s role to save the world. I’ve heard some say it’s genetic – that whatever blend of DNA makes one queer also brews a unique cocktail of extreme sensitivity, talent, and wisdom….”
Save the world? Extreme sensitivity, talent, and wisdom? Hanes goes on, but we don’t have to. The rhetoric of pride is filled with such excesses.
Boosterism of this kind isn’t restricted to the self-help titles. The bulk of gay fiction in the last 30 years has also conformed to this political agenda. Our tales of gay triumph locate shame in the family and a homophobic society, then offer the power of gay solidarity as a weapon to combat it. Victory comes through pride and a permanent alliance with the isolationist culture of urban gay life. Since I live the better part of my life through books, the afflictions of this narrative have been keenly felt.
Happily, books are also the holding tank for a great reservoir of pre-Enlightenment notions which have helped me construct a more satisfying relation to shame and sexuality. Chief among these books are the novels of James Purdy. Purdy imports Greek notions of fate and humility into contemporary American settings, some urban and some rural, making young men navigate the hazards of the homoerotic without any of the political resources or constraints proffered by Gay Pride. In Purdy’s world, gay, if used at all, means happy, and pride is still a sin. His novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works is fairly typical.
“Eustace Chisholm has been caught up in two tragedies, the national one of his country’s economic collapse, and his failed attempt to combine marriage with the calling of narrative poet. He wondered whether it was because of his inability to produce a book or merely the general tenor of the times that his wife, Carla, who had support him hand and mouth for two years, ran out on him with a baker’s apprentice some six months before this story begins.”
Eustace becomes a Greek chorus of sorts, observing the poorly concealed romance of two friends – Amos Ratcliffe (a 17-year-old bastard who, having been dropped from school, fills his spare hours teaching Attic Greek to Eustace) and their landlord Daniel Haws (an ex-soldier who compulsively scrubs himself clean “as only a man who hates himself can”). Haws and Ratcliffe pursue a hidden romance without ever ascending into the thin air of identity politics. Haws is straight, Ratcliffe, an angel more than a man, and neither can be dragged from the subterranean realm of their attraction into the bright light of public discourse or identity. Shame is never erased so much as it is put in its place, contextualized, and incorporated into the broad stream of eros. This unlikely pair and their perverse hesitations toward love rang so much truer to my young homo soul than any Best Little Boy in the World, I knew I’d found something to celebrate (and not just in June).
I would add Purdy’s magnificent House of the Solitary Maggot, In a Shallow Grave, Malcolm, and Narrow Rooms, to my short list of alterna-Pride readings, as well as Edmund White’s terrific coming-of-age novel A Boy’s Own Story. Published in 1982, White’s novel deliberately sets up and then subverts the by-that-time normative coming-out tale typical of Gay Pride. White sets his young protagonist (a boy in the Midwest, circa 1950s) off on the familiar path through adolescence, with the fiery dragon of shame puffing visible clouds just around the bend. Ultimately shipped off to boarding school, the boy encounters a familiar helper, the older man, a teacher who initiates the boy and who offers a glimpse of some possible uplifting community of perverts. This particular boy, however, having pursued and gotten sex, turns the teacher in, ruining him, and then launches himself off into a fascinating life of duplicity, discernment, and power quite unlike the power of Gay Pride. Delicious!
Notably, Purdy (and to some degree, White) has been savaged by gay critics, particularly those committed to the political agendas of Pride. Purdy does not offer a “positive model.” In the dichotomous world proposed by Pride, Purdy’s books allow shame to persist and thus subvert liberation. For Pride to succeed, shame must be erased. By contrast, in Purdy’s world (as in so much of the real world) fate places us in a right relation to shame, still allowing for its possibility; humility helps us find this balance.
Interestingly, Purdy’s narratives echo many of the stories collected in Will Ferrow’s recent Farm Boy, an anthology of reminiscences from gay men in the rural Midwest. The testimony of these marginalized rural homos reminds us that the contingent, socially nuanced construction of a gay identity – negotiated through discretion and balance, rather than confrontation – persists in many parts of contemporary homo life, not just in our fictions. While many of these men fled to the cities, just as many either remained or returned to the farms. Their narratives are not “unreal” so much as they are marginalized. A similar world is conjured much closer to home in Gus Van Sant’s exquisite film Mala Noche. The mainstream of urban Gay Pride is only one small slice of the homo world.
So spend this Pride weekend groping your way through some forbidden fruits, and don’t shout about it from the rooftops. The time for open declarations is over; it’s time to turn ourselves to the next challenge: recovering the archaic constellation of shame and honor as real alternatives in a world burned clean by the excesses of Pride.