Back in the 70’s in the rip-roaring-radical town of Berzerkely, CA, I made the acquaintance of a number of women who labeled themselves “Radical Feminist Lesbian Lawyers.” My “in” to the group was a bisexual liberal lawyer who hung with my college roommates. I was permitted to be around this group of women as long as I did not speak unless spoken to first and as long as I was respectful in my use of language. I once mentioned a 7-year-old girl and was told I must never use the word “girl.”
“But,” I said, “she is only 7.”
My liberal friend condescended to instruct me. She said:
Man * Woman
Boy * Woman Child
Guy * Woman
Bloke * Woman
Fellow * Woman
Freshman * First Year Student
Chap * Woman
Dude * Woman
I got it: it is about respect. At that time male bosses might refer to their 60-year-old secretaries as their “girls.” A correction in the language was necessary. Language is important and can be used to oppress. It has taken me a long, long time to accept that many modern feminists no longer feel a need to fight this particular battle. I still find it difficult to say “girl” to describe a young woman.
But the strongest lesson I learned from feminists of that era was separatism. Some of the women at my acting school at that time decided to have a group for women actors only. I asked if I could participate and was told, “No men.” I said, “But I’m one of the good guys.” I was thinking, “How much of a threat could a 100% gay man be?”
[Digression: when my high school class graduated, and my friends and I went to Myrtle Beach, SC, to celebrate, the young women invited me to accompany them to the beach, where they indulged in a bottle of wine. No one had ever openly stated that I was gay (especially not I), but for some reason they felt safe having me be the only guy there while they got drunk. I thought how eager the other guys on the trip would be to take my place. I was special. * I grew up jumping rope with and hanging out with these female friends, not playing baseball with the boys. I think you can forgive me if I thought I was as much if not more a part of the female crowd than the male crowd. In Latin class, where the boys sat on one side, and the girls on the other, I sat with the girls. It was mostly to look at the boys, and I was dull-witted enough not to figure out that that was why the boys and girls were facing each other, not the whole “cootie” thing from grade school.]
One of the women [back to the female only acting group] explained it to me this way: “Some of us feel so damaged by the way we have been treated by men, that even the presence of a man who is an ally and no threat whatsoever is enough to call up certain feelings and behaviors. The mere presence of a man within our group has the potential to disrupt the healing process we seek.”
I got it. I got it so well, that for the next 20 years I became a gay separatist. I moved to San Francisco (not too far—just across the Bay) to live near the Castro District—the mostly gay male district that would elect Harvey Milk as a San Francisco Supervisor. And I did as much as I could for the next 20 years to spend as much of my time as possible exclusively in the presence of women and gay men. At the time, I felt that even being around a man I considered to be an “evolved straight man”—a heterosexually oriented man who nevertheless could hang with gay men without feeling threatened or acting superior—would bring up in me feelings that I wished to purge from my soul, feelings of being inferior, feelings of being wrong somehow. [There are still mental health professionals who strongly aver that gay men have made a “mistake” in the target of their affections; that somehow we’re just too stupid—that our brains are too muddled–to realize we’re supposed to be attracted to women—I kid you not.]
At the time I was growing up [back to the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s], the network news on TV would not mention “homosexuals” unless it was to refer to a “homosexual murder,” the implication being that the only activity homosexuals engaged in other than perverse sex was murdering other men. The New York Times, a respected reading pastime for intellectuals, refused to use the word “gay” for decades after it came into common usage. In California, a man could be arrested for holding another man’s hand in public or giving him a kiss, held for 3 months without trial in a prison for the criminally insane, given unorthodox treatments that were really torture, then made to register as a sex offender which label would ruin his life—for holding hands.
I knew the following as a 5-year-old: I’m different. I like boys. And I don’t want to change.
But I knew that was bad. And I still didn’t want to change. So I was doubly bad. [Abomination.]
You know what: the gay bars in NYC (my next stop on the perverse train) were run by the Mafia. Since my choice of whom to love made me a criminal, and since the real criminals provided the safe space, the message to me was clear: one transgression leads to another. Straight society has no use for you; you might as well embrace the underworld of the night life—“city lights, painted girls/in the day nothing matters/it’s the night time that matters….I, I live among the creatures of the night” [“Self-control” written by Giancarlo Bigazzi, Raffaele Riefoli, Steve Piccolo]
Oh, yes, I could have been gay and still been righteous on every other level. I could even submerge myself in gay culture and still behave like the straights. But why would I want to? And why would I want to hang out with any straight man, no matter how evolved when the message I got from that was: you’re different, you’re inferior, and your choice in sex partners is strange, wrong, or just queer? And why be monogamous when it did not bring any of the rewards it did for that evolved straight male? So when a friendly straight man would wander into my local gay bar and would sign up to play pool, I would put down my cue stick and walk away from the table.
And from hanging with gay men, and talking to gay men, and walking with gay men, and sharing my soul with gay men, I eventually learned how to be a man. A man. A proud man. A gay man. A proud gay man.
And then, and only then could I start talking to straight men again. And enjoying their company. And feeling their equal.
You know what? I still hesitate to join a men’s group until I have some assurance that the men are all evolved—every one—a strong sign, or a direct question: “Is this group for gay men as well?” And I still wonder if my opinion will be valued by straight men about relationships—what do you know about men and women together? What do you know about being strong, being the head of a household, being the rock in the time of crisis? [I love to cry, and I do it unabashedly now, because guys, “Real men do cry.”]
[It isn’t so hard to know these things. Every oppressed group knows everything there is to know about the dominant group—because the signs signals rules behaviors and privileges of the dominant group are apparent on every street corner in every school in every novel in every TV show. You think I don’t know how men and women interact—I observe it every day in the office in everything I read in every movie I watch. On the other hand, what do straight people know about gay? I hear over and over again that gay men flaunt their gayness all the time. But when I talk about my life experiences and gay culture and my feelings as a gay man (not that often—certainly not as often as I hear people talking about their marriages, their spouses, their children), it’s usually news to the straight people around me. For instance, do you think they know what it’s like to lose half your generation half your friends to AIDS before you were 40? Do most of the people who know me know that is what I have lived with for half my life?]
But here’s the new thing: some of the best times of my life are now spent in the company of the men and women at CSMMD, talking honestly and openly, and respectfully about what it means to be a man, and how to be a better man. Not a small part of it is utter and total commitment to social justice, and defining that concept as it evolves and changes.
I used to think I was primarily “gay,” that “gay” was the strongest component of my identity, that “gay” made me fundamentally different than straight men—because I liked jewelry, listened to Broadway show tunes, liked to garden, and bake, and did not participate in sports. Until I realized I was socialized as a man first, that most of my behavior was male-identified, that my actions more strongly resembled straight men than women. Whereas that might seem obvious now, it was a revelation and a shock to me. Remember I jumped rope with the women-children, not the boys.
AIDS was a large part of what brought me out of gay separatism into the fold of inclusivity. When gay men were overwhelmed with the deaths of scores of friends (at the height of the epidemic gay men in New York would say, “In the 80’s I went to a party every weekend, in the 90’s I went to a funeral every week”), emotionally exhausted, financially strained, lesbians came in and ran the AIDS organizations. Then when I was in Eugene, Oregon, half the volunteers at the AIDS organizations were straight. And I realized in order to survive, separatism was no longer working, and it was time to join in again. You know what, I discovered straight men need my help as much as I ever needed theirs. Time to join hands and work together, make changes together, make a better world together.
Not that I will ever gainsay my wonderful wonderful years as a gay separatist.