The Queer Issue
In 1984, Ronald Reagan was midway through his eight-year reign of evil and I was a 15-year-old fag living in West Texas.
At this point, everything I knew about sex came from Dr. David Reuben, whose 1969 blockbuster Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) I'd found on my parents' bookshelf. The vast ludicrousness of Reuben's allegedly nonfiction work is by now a cultural given, and is most garishly evident in the chapter entitled "Male Homosexuality." After diagnosing homosexuality as a condition that afflicts victims with a depraved lust toward their own sex (along with the desire to don women's clothing and insert light bulbs in their anuses), Reuben lays it out: "Homosexuals are trying the impossible: solving the problem with only half the pieces. The homosexual tries each phallus in succession, then turns away remorsefully. 'No, that's not the one!' He is condemned eternally to search after what does not exist—after what never existed."
In lieu of any contending information, I took Reuben's word as gospel, and did my best to prepare for my inevitably miserable life, which I now envisioned as a series of anonymous liaisons in public restrooms followed by near-fatal alcoholism and suicide.
But in 1984, I found a font of commiseration and guidance on how to navigate this miserable affliction in a most unlikely place: The Smiths, the self-titled debut LP from the Manchester four-piece that was released in the U.S. that spring. I'd first encountered the Smiths—and their strikingly sensitive and poetic lead singer Morrissey—the year before, thanks to a Sire Records compilation tape featuring "What Difference Does It Make?" Over Johnny Marr's bluesy jangle, Morrissey issued an atonal plea for tolerance from a landscape I instantly recognized as the twisted terrain of the afflicted homosexual, as mapped by Dr. Reuben. "All men have secrets and here is mine, so let it be known," moans Morrissey at the start of "What Difference...," laying out an elliptical tale of shameful secrets that cause loved ones to lash out in anger and recoil in disgust. Despite an inevitable rejection that Dr. Reuben would have no doubt found morally justifiable, Morrissey can't help professing his love—"Still I'd leap in front of a flying bullet for you," he tells his rejecter, without shame.
Suddenly, I had a role model, someone similarly afflicted but who bore the affliction with unprecedented wit and passion. To this day, Morrissey has never outed himself as gay, initially only identifying himself as celibate (clearly the only dignified choice for the afflicted, I thought at the time). Still, his Oscar Wilde–inspired world of charming men and handsome devils and brilliantly conflicted invitations to "pin and mount me, like a butterfly" made no secret of his desires, and listening to Morrissey, I felt my first flush of anything resembling gay pride.
It wasn't pretty. What I felt was a galaxy away from the contemporary ideal of pride, where homosexuality is embraced as a morally neutral disposition, like heterosexuality. Mine and Morrissey's was a defiant pride, based on embracing a tragic but inescapable affliction, and essentially turning internalized homophobia into an art form. Still, you've got to start somewhere, and Morrissey's miserable world wasn't without its self-hating pleasures. "A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand," sneered Morrissey in his elliptically filthy way. "I think I can help you get through your exams...."