Passionate attachment between two persons of the same sex...has generally been treated by the accredited thinkers and writers as a thing to be passed over in silence, as associated with mere grossness and mental aberration, or as unworthy of serious attention...In latest times however--that is, during the last thirty years or so--a group of scientific and capable men...have made a special and more or less impartial study of this subject: with the result that a quite altered complexion has been given to it; it being indeed especially noticeable that the change of view among the scientists has gone on step by step with the accumulation of reliable information....Their labours have established...that sexual inversion is in a vast number of cases quite instinctive and congenital, mentally and physically, and therefore twined in the very roots of individual life and practically ineradicable...that the number of individuals affected...is very great--much greater than is generally supposed...[and] that the individuals affected...do not after all differ from the rest of mankind, or womankind, in any other physical or mental particular which can be distinctly indicated.
Edward Carpenter, from Homogenic Love
I'm most amazed by how modern Carpenter sounds. It reminds me of Kinsey in the 1950's and the frenzy of studies on homosexuality he left in his controversial wake, the beginnings of the gay movement in a small bar called the Stonewall in 1969 when a group of drag queens found enough dignity to fight back when police decided to "rough up some fags" yet again, and the 1972 decision by the APA to classify homosexuality as an "alternate lifestyle" rather than as a disease.
Carpenter's speech seems perfectly appropriate today. I can imagine saying the same thing to the latest crop of Stanford freshmen who, for the ten years I have been here, have constantly amazed me by having exactly the same misconceptions about our community, no matter what part of the country they come from or what year they arrive.
So how is it possible that Carpenter's words were written in 1895? More to the point, how could Carpenter have made such insightful observations almost a century ago but somehow remain almost a complete unknown? Why did I have to wait until I was twenty-five to discover his words on a dusty bookshelf in a gay bookstore in San Francisco? And how do those freshmen demonstrate such detailed understanding of gay myths in a world that could forget Edward Carpenter?
I believe the answer is silence. True, our community has many obstacles to overcome, not least of which are religion, politics, the corporate mentality in America, and the entertainment industry. But after many years of observing the negative impact of all of our enemies, I have come to the conclusion that the greatest weapon society uses against us, the one that always tilts the odds in their favor, is silence.
"It's okay to be gay," we're told, "but keep it in the bedroom where it belongs. Why do you people have to talk about it all the time? We don't." This is the kind of misunderstanding left-handed people experience all the time from right-handed people who fail to recognize our society's right-orientation.
What do they mean, they don't talk about it? I suppose that Valentine's Day is one of the quietest holidays of the year, that falling in love again is about as exciting as going to the supermarket one more time, that weddings are considered fairly trivial events in people's lives, and that love doesn't end up being a theme in many books, poems, commercials, soap operas, songs, plays, or operas.
Face it, we talk about love all the time. The problem is that most people think of "gay" as "homosexual." The two concepts are, in fact, quite different. It is perfectly proper to say that male inmates isolated from the world for many years commit homosexual acts and that the incidence of homosexuality among male mice (i.e., one "mounting" another) seems to increase when their environment becomes overcrowded. Also appropriate is the epithet "homosexuals" for those who verify that they engage in such activities (or "admitted homosexuals" as the conservatives love to say). And I must confess that the Old Testament and Jesus' disciple Paul seem to clearly denounce homosexual acts.
But being gay is something quite different. There is no contradiction in the term "gay virgin," just as there is no paradox in saying that "nongay inmates sometimes exhibit homosexual behavior" (something altogether different from "gay behavior"). If two male mice mated for life, I'd be willing to call them the first pair of "gay mice," but not those who get confused about what kind of partner to mount. And I see no argument to contradict the notion that some gay Christians hold that perhaps, like abortion and nuclear disarmament, Jesus said nothing about either homosexuality or being gay because his culture did not provide him the words he needed, the ability to say "gay couple" rather than "homosexual act."
Thus, "I'm gay" does not constitute an intimate admission of sexual activity. It merely informs the listener that I tend to fall in love with men rather than women. To me it seems the same as telling people that somehow everyone in the world but me likes pizza. Then they know not to buy pizza for my surprise birthday party and not to fix me up with a woman if we have a "screw your roommate" party. With those I care for, I imagine that it's the same as if I were left-handed or color-blind and shared it with them, because either they would be the same as me, giving us something to share, or they wouldn't be, giving us something fun to talk about that I know all about.
But the world does not see it that way. "I'm gay" to them means "I'm a sex fiend who wants to make it with every man alive." Parents are the worst. Somehow "I'm gay" to them is transformed from a simple statement about my romantic life into an alarming admission that "Although I enjoy anonymous sex in sleazy bars, I am particularly fond of young boys and confused teenagers willing to experiment."
And so society fights back with silence: "Keep sex where it belongs. Don't let them near impressionable children. Fire them if they try to teach in our schools. Force them out if they try to flaunt their private lives in our wholesome neighborhoods. Be sure to let the manager of your local bookstore and library know just how upset you are about the homosexual filth they carry (radical trash like Edward Carpenter). And when you find another one of `them,' maybe gossip about it a bit, but certainly don't talk about it openly or let on that you're at all curious. Find some polite way to talk about it so that the `g' word doesn't have to be uttered. And if they die of AIDS, find some other way to explain the tragedy to their loved ones, to spare them the awful truth, particularly for those famous ones whose great accomplishments would be tarnished by such an identification."
And silence finds its way even into institutions of higher learning. This year marks the tenth anniversary of my battle with Don Kennedy's silence and the resulting silence of his administration. Here are just a few highligh
Even now I can feel the silence drowning out our voices. That's the only explanation I have for understanding how a group of masked protesters in front of Otero last spring supporting a freshman's antigay behavior could end up being mentioned in a report by the University Counsel's office as an example of racism, nowhere including the words "gay" or "homophobia." Even words like "homosexual" or "homosexuality," which at least break the silence, would have been preferable to the familiar assault: deletion, editing, failure to include.
But for all my arguments with President Kennedy, I have to at least admit that he listens to what I have to say, allows me to say it to anyone and everyone I meet at Stanford, and generally "agrees to disagree" rather than dismiss my feelings as silly or dangerous.
Perhaps I'm grateful for Kennedy's concessions because I'm now in the process of discovering just how powerful the silence is outside Stanford. I was given nothing short of a hero's welcome two years ago when, because my mother now works there, I first visited my old high school in the Northern Virginia suburbs of DC. I met with Computer Science students to talk about Stanford, careers in CS, and the AP exam in CS. They were tremendously interested, perhaps somewhat because of my charm, but probably more because, as Chief Reader for AP/CS, I know everything that will be on their exam and I am responsible for orchestrating its grading. They even had the A/V people videotape my talk. They were so interested in hearing me speak.
Even so, when a Washington Post article in which I discussed my teenage suicide attempts mentioned my desire to discuss gay issues with students at my old high school, the Principal left a message with my mother that I could no longer visit the school grounds, even to discuss CS with CS students. He was careful not to put anything in writing.
Since then I have described in a letter to him my desire to discuss gay issues (with a guarantee of nothing sexually explicit) to interested students in a voluntary session after school. He has formally turned down my request, but provided no explanation.
I have also submitted an article for the student newspaper which all of the student editors and faculty sponsors wish to publish. In it I explain that I am writing because of my own painful memories that as a senior there I tried to "kill myself to kill the feelings that were tearing me apart." I mention silence and its resulting atmosphere "where friends are too nervous to discuss gay issues and teachers censor gay history, leaving young gays only the back-alley view that `fags and dykes' lead unhappy lives." Finally, I argue that "gay prejudice would evaporate if we weren't squeamish about discussing it, just as misconceptions about left-handedness vanished when we applied reason rather than superstition to understand it."
The principal has not yet censored my article, but he has been "thinking about it" and "discussing it with higher-ups at the District office" for three months now, and I'm beginning to worry that silence will win this round through simple stalling.
For the first time ever I'm not sure how to close an article. I prefer to end on an optimistic note, but sometimes the silence seems so powerful that even my shouting sounds weak and faltering. I've come to realize that gay people can't break the silence alone. So if the rest of you don't hear the truth faintly whispering, I guess that I will be silenced after all, along with all the others.