Yesterday’s post didn’t quite nail the complexities regarding guys who aren’t gay who have sex with guys. I’m not prepared to write a rigorous, academically-defensible essay on the topic (that’s what grad students pay to have the privilege to do), but I do want to revisit some of the questions in play and twiddle them a bit.
The title of my blog post itself was problematic. “Closeted” Conservative Homosexuals Are Not Gay, I said, but I think that that’s probably not always true. In order to arrive at a real sense of what I think I actually think, let me define “closeted” and let me define “gay.” Note that all of the below blabbing only applies to males and male homosexuality. I am not presuming to speak for/about lesbians, transgendered people, gender queer, or any other group of people you can think of who aren’t the ones I’m talking about. This isn’t because I’m uninterested in those other groups of people. It’s just because that’s not what I’m talking about right now.
Closeted: someone who knows that he is gay, but who actively tries to hide it from the world at large because being known to be gay would be disadvantageous to him in some social, political, cultural, professional, or other way. An example would be Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson lived a completely gay lifestyle, but presented a completely heterosexual image, and was aware, all along, that that was what he was doing. Another example would be that sheriff in Arizona who got busted for threatening to deport one of his ex-boyfriends if the ex-boyfriend told the press that he, the sheriff, was gay. Note: this is an example of a closeted conservative gay person, and a disproof of my post’s title from yesterday. Which brings us to the other word we need to define: gay.
Gay. According to most people’s understanding, “gay” was just a word invented by homosexual activists in the mid-twentieth century to put a happier face on the community. That may or may not be true. I’ve read all kinds of gay history books that have all kinds of theories about the origin of the word and its use to identify homosexuals as a community. If I were writing that defensible thesis, I’d quote some of them here. Let’s just say that it’s not as cut and dried as when Jesse Jackson decided to ask people to use the term “African-American” instead of “black” to refer to, um, African-Americans. There’s a specific date and a specific person and a specific motivation tied to the popularization of that term. There’s no such data around “gay.”
That means to some extent we can make it up for ourselves.
For me, “gay” speaks to a very specific manifestation of homosexuality that arose in the urban middle classes of the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. I said I was “making this up,” but I do have sources that lead me to this opinion. Maybe not definitively, maybe not inarguably, but they do lead. Again, I’m not writing a thesis here, but I would urge you to check out George Chauncey’s “Gay New York” and Ethan Mordden’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” to get a sense of how I came to my understanding.
Compared to prior manifestations of homosexuality in American culture, which more closely resembled prison sex (straight-identified “toughs” having sex with “queers” whose role is strictly to service them, as in the Newport sex scandal of 1919) “gay” was and is domestic, egalitarian, humanistic, and centered on the concept of love, rather than lust.
When “gay” took hold in urban centers, as a way for some men to organize their lives, it didn’t erase previous forms of homosexuality — to this day, straight-identified sailors still get blowjobs from self-identified “fairies,” just like they did in 1919 — but it did win the branding war. Every manifestation of homosexuality was now equated to “gayness.” Since being gay means seeking an equal-footing, loving partnership with another man, any man who practiced homosexual acts, who did not seem to be seeking an equal-footing, loving partnership with another man, was considered to be fooling himself, or lying to the public (in other words, “in the closet”) — and that’s definitely the case for some of them. But at least another some of them are simply expressing a form of homosexual behavior that wasn’t necessarily tied to a gay identity. It’s just a thing they do, not a thing they are, in other words.
I have said that “gay” arose in the United States, but it has been such a popular and powerful meme that it has spread to other countries, including some of the most regressive and oppressive countries in the world. Even so, gay expressions of homosexuality tend to thrive in sexually liberal societies, like San Francisco or Brazil. Pre-gay (or non-gay, let’s say) expressions of homosexuality (where straight-identified males unload their sexual frustrations into “passive” submissive queers) tend to thrive in sexually conservative cultures, like Morocco, or Mississippi.
Many of the anti-gay politicians who have been busted soliciting homosexual sex are probably expressing a non-gay homosexuality. They’re not saying they’re not gay in order to hide the fact that they’re gay. They’re saying they’re not gay because they don’t think they’re gay. Now, it’s also true that they are trying to hide their activities, so you can call that a version of being “in the closet,” but I don’t think it is the same thing as, say, Anderson Cooper never quite telling anybody about his hunky bar-owning boyfriend, as a conscious, strategic career choice.
Or, maybe another way to put it is: “On the Downlow” isn’t quite the same thing as being “In the Closet,” though both involve secrecy around homosexual acts.
Is what I meant to say. Maybe. Still gotta ponder on this one a bit more.