SCOTUS Thunderbolts and the Long, Slow Work of Social Change
by Jonathan Silin
I became a gay reader early, at age 9 or 10, when a well meaning librarian introduced me to the Hardy Boys books. I was mesmerized by the scenes of the brothers, Frank and Joe, and their friends stripping down to swim across one body of water or another or to dry their rain soaked clothing. These images provided a seductive screen onto which I could project my first unarticulated homosexual longings.
Later in high-school I sought out the novels of James Baldwin, Andre Gide, and DH Lawrence. Hungry for signs of homosexual life, I ignored the fact that desires were mostly unfulfilled and the relationships often self-destructive. In the limited literary landscape of gay life, these descriptions offered me the opportunity to imagine them otherwise.
Eventually I also became a writer with a decided bent for incorporating scenes from my own gay life, whether in journalistic essays, many of which have appeared in these pages, or in scholarly articles and books. My writing like my reading focused on the politics of representation: who tells our stories and why? How are we depicted and with what ends in view?
It is perhaps for this reason that amidst the avalanche of journalism following the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage I was drawn to The New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni’s “Our Weddings, Our Worth.” I admired the honesty of Bruni’s autobiographical reflections that lead up to his celebration of the SCOTUS ruling. At the same time I wished that he had recognized the many pioneers who made possible his successful personal journey as a gay man.
For me the essay’s punctum, its most compelling image, is Bruni’s description of himself at age sixteen (the year is 1980) slipping away from his friends at the local mall into a bookshop where he came across Seymour Kleinberg’s Alienated Affections: Being Gay in America. I empathize with the way that Bruni was put off by the descriptions of gay types with whom he could not identify and even the archness of Kleinberg’s style.
I had a very similar experience twenty years earlier while trolling my own neighborhood bookstore — they were everywhere in 1960 New York — and finding a copy of Edmund Bergler’s pseudoscientific Homosexuality: Disease or Way of Life? I couldn’t summon the courage to bring the book to the cash register. I was determined enough, however, to stand in a back corner of the shop and read page after page. Admittedly, I didn’t comprehend the virulently homophobic nature of Bergler’s work but, nonetheless, like Bruni holding Kleinberg’s tome, I knew that as much as I searched, I couldn’t find myself in Bergler’s pages. Or, more precisely, I found parts of myself, but the complete case studies seemed incompatible with my life till then, or even the one I imagined I might lead.
Now I can see that at sixteen the root of my confusion in reading Bergler’s stories of unhappy homosexual men was located in the word “homosexual” itself. My growing attraction to other boys and men had already lead to a rich interior life that I could not and did not want to deny.
I paused over and over again when Bergler depicted the electric excitement experienced by homosexual men who furtively found each other in the years after WWII. I was far less certain, however, that I was indeed a homosexual. Yes, I was quickly coming to terms with the adjectival meanings of “homosexual,” accepting a word that identified the desires that so often coursed through my body. No, I couldn’t, relate to the word when it functioned as a noun, and the all-encompassing nature of a purported homosexual personhood. As challenging as it was, I understood myself as a person with homosexual desires but that was different from identifying myself as a homosexual human being and especially those troubled people portrayed in the scientific literature. I was caught between my life as lived and the nineteenth century medical label that I knew others wanted to affix to me.
Doubtless I would have been reassured to know that twenty years previously, in an apartment just around the corner from where I was standing on East 89th street, three unashamedly gay men successful in the transatlantic world of the arts had set up domestic life together — photographer George Platt Lynes, novelist Glenway Wescott, and Monroe Wheeler, Director of Exhibitions and Publications at the Museum of Modern Art. Lynes would spend the summer of 1945 here in East Hampton, after the break up of that arrangement, and while in the midst of a tempestuous relationship with a much younger lover.
Although I was sustained during the 1960s by a proto-gay identity, it took till the end of the decade for others who were more politically sophisticated to reclaim the word gay from its complicated history. The shift in terminology from “homosexual” to “gay” was emblematic of the larger social forces that separated my own experience from Frank Bruni’s. In 1984, only four years after finding Alienated Affections, Bruni was able to come out to his parents and friends. This, even as a growing number of young people were identifying as “queer,” a moniker signaling more fluid ideas about sexuality than afforded by a simple gay/straight distinction.
The intensity, sometimes desperation, with which young people search for images that help them to reflect on who they are and where they might be going, is something that Frank Bruni and I have in common with many others. But Bruni and I also have a very particular bond because I might well have been one of the very people that he read about as he stood flipping through the pages of Alienated Affections.
Several months after the book’s publication, my partner Bob and I were contacted by its author, Seymour Kleinberg. He was working on a new project about the promises and pitfalls of gay relationships. Would we be willing to sit for a series of interviews? We knew Seymour’s work because it appeared regularly in Christopher Street, the magazine that had been tracking the flowering of the new gay culture in the late 1970s. Early and loyal subscribers, how could we not accept Seymour’s invitation?
More fundamentally, as avid readers we understood that books had been an essential way for us to make some sense of our experience. I was just becoming a writer but eager in any way possible to help fill the representational void that other gay readers faced. I wanted both gay and straight readers to have access to real and complex representations of our lives.
In the mid-1980s, after a decade of focusing his photographic attention on the landscape of the East End, Bob would begin to make his elegant, often austere, portraits of gay and lesbian writers who lived near by — Edward Albee, Dolores Klaich, Joe Pintauro, Lanford Wilson. The project, eventually including 600 authors, reflected his commitment to picturing the diversity of gay life. Bob was to write in an introductory essay for Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers —
It is my wish that tomorrow, when a viewer looks into the eyes of the subjects of these pictures, he or she will say in a spirit of wonder, “These people were here; like me, they lived and breathed.” So too will the portraits and the words which accompany them respond, “We were here; we existed. This is how we were.” (p. xvii)
Riffling through my files to find the January 1981 issue of Christopher Street in which we were the lead story, I am struck by the stylized cover drawing of two gay men embracing. I don’t think we saw ourselves in quite this idealized way and Seymour’s text made clear that although we both placed a high value on intimacy and domesticity, we struggled mightily with questions of monogamy and fidelity, independence and mutual reliance.
I am reminded too that any anticipatory anxiety we may have had prior to the appearance of the issue was short-circuited by a phone call from friend and Springs resident, Chuck Hitchcock, congratulating us on the story. Working at the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force in New York City, he had been privy to an early copy, and despite Kleinberg’s attempt to disguise our identities, recognized us immediately.
Fast forward thirty-four years.
I am driving home from a swim at the East Hampton Rec Centre on the morning of June 26, 2015, and find myself overcome listening to President Obama’s hastily called press conference about the supreme court’s gay marriage decision.
I am more than a little surprised by my reaction, because tears are not my way and because gay marriage has never been my political issue of choice. Yes, I married my partner David eight years ago in Toronto, and we now enjoy many benefits that would otherwise have been unavailable to us. But for those of us who made a commitment to gay liberation in the late 1960s and hoped for more fundamental social change, marriage hardly seems like the victory that many believe it to be.
And of course the president himself has waffled dreadfully on the subject of gay marriage, holding every conceivable position from an early defense of the right to marry, to a limited civil unions position, to a 2008 declaration that marriage always and only involves a man and a woman. Only in 2012 did he announce that his “evolving” thinking had led him to support same sex marriage. I had reason to be suspicious.
But Obama’s words about the slow, small incremental journey to equality spoke directly to me . . . “Sometimes two steps forward, one step back. . . And then sometimes there are days like this, when that slow steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
In the end, most of my life has been lived before the thunderbolt of this summer’s SCOTUS decision. I’ve experienced first-hand the frustration of two steps forward and one step back while negotiating work life as an out gay early childhood educator, professor, and AIDS advocate and caregiver. As an activist, I’ve appreciated the slow, steady effort of the many which makes possible the thunderbolt even when the names of just a few are attached to it. Those of us who contributed to the new gay research in the 1970s and 1980s and who wrote about our lives in the following decades are now part of that long journey to equality, a journey that I hope we will not be blinded to by the SCOTUS thunderbolt.