The Art of Seeing
I think one of the greatest challenges in life is being yourself in a world where others would generally prefer you to be someone else.
Recently, at a Zoom meeting I regularly attend—comprised of men all “of a certain age”—I was particularly struck by a comment made by one of our twenty or so members. He is perhaps a decade older than I am, was married to a woman, had children before coming out as gay, then got divorced and entered into another marriage, this time with a man who also had children from a previous marriage.
At one point during the gathering he asked me, “If you could have been born straight instead of gay, wouldn’t you have wanted to be?”
After decades of political and religious struggles, humiliation, endless grappling with low self-worth, and NOW I get to make a choice??
Sure, I do some wishful thinking now and then. “What would I do if I had a few extra bucks in my pocket?” or “I wish I had straight, blonde hair.”
Still, I rarely enjoy entering into conversations centered on improbable wish making; “If you could have a superpower, which one would it be?” “If you could go back in time and re-live one moment, which would it be?” “If you could sleep with any movie star, who would it be?”
(Bear in mind, the movie star we pick most likely will not be that into us!)
I’m pragmatic. We are who we are. And as was said somewhat clumsily by our last First Lady, “Be Best!”
All of us were dealt hands, kings and aces, deuces and treys. A trite analogy, I know, but true. I have noticed many people are blind to their high cards. They seem only to be able to play those lowly clubs.
Eckhart Tolle wrote; “The realization that you are ‘different’ from others may force you to dis-identify from socially conditioned patterns of thought and behaviour. This will automatically raise your level of consciousness above that of the unconscious majority whose members unquestioningly take on board all inherited patterns.
So, again, “If I could have been born straight instead of gay, would I have chosen so?”
There was a moment in my life when I would have given my left testicle to be magically re-molded into a heterosexual. And when I did lose my left testicle thirty years later, it wasn’t because of the wave of a magic wand by the Sexual Identity Fairy, but because of cancer.
And even minus the testicle I had been willing to use as a bargaining chip decades before, I’m still gay.
At sixteen, I was living with my parents in something called a “six-plex.” We occupied the two- bedroom owner’s unit and the other five apartments we rented out were one-bedroom spaces. A couple of the units were empty one November and it was because of those vacancies my parents were able to invite our whole family to come stay with us that Thanksgiving holiday. There was ample room for everyone.
I knew I was different from a very young age. I just didn’t have a word for it. I knew it had to do with sex, an uncomfortable topic under the best of circumstances.
I was already dodging the “Is there any special “her” in your life” sort of questions from grandparents. How long, I wondered, could I wiggle out of answering with my standard “I have too much studying to do,” response.
As I moved into my teenage years, I understood this secret made me feel ‘less then,’ a feeling of diminution I attempted to alleviate up for by exerting an enormous effort to be perfect at everything else in my life; great grades, Student Body President, a huge smile glued to my face throughout the day which I discovered was the safest mask to ward off questions like “What’s bothering you?”
On the second morning of that Thanksgiving gathering, I showered leisurely in the empty unit I was occupying, dressed and then headed downstairs. I could hear the happy voices of my family, their laughter, my cousins yelling, the sound of the television broadcast of the parade in New York City. The smell of the Thanksgiving dinner my mother and aunts were already preparing was wafting up the stairwell.
I was, in that moment, filled with the memories of my family’s many kindnesses towards me, our easy familiarities. And suddenly I realized, on that crisp, late northern California morning, that eventually I would run out of hiding places. It would soon become apparent there was no Cheryl or Kathy waiting in the wings and that my mask would ultimately begin to crack. Would they still care for me, I wondered, if they really knew me?
So that Thanksgiving, I would have answered the man’s question with a resounding “Yes. Yes please! I will gladly give away being “different” to fit in with this dear family waiting for me downstairs.”
I recall a few years before this particular Thanksgiving, I had studied a photograph in either Time or Life Magazine. The photograph was of a man in leather pants and what appeared to be a black leather cap. I hadn’t read the article but the word ‘homosexual’ jumped off the page.
One day driving downtown with my folks, I noticed a man walking on the sidewalk wearing leather pants, just like the man in the magazine. And I blithely observed, “Oh look, there’s a homosexual.”
Boom! My dad brought out sky blue Dodge Dart to a sudden stop. My parents practically gave themselves whiplashes when they swiveled in their seats to eyeball me. I’d brought down upon myself a minor and somewhat confusing Inquisition.
“Who is that man?”
“How do you know him?”
“How did you know he was homosexual?”
Thanks Time Magazine!
I explained to the best of my ability and the topic was dropped.
I understand being gay isn’t the only circumstance which might make life more challenging. Or more exciting. Or more dangerous. Or more angering. Or more colorful. Or more hurtful.
Has being gay been difficult?
Obviously. Not necessarily difficult like being black in Alabama or being born without a limb or two. Not tough like being autistic or blind or being unloved and uncared for.
Still, my gradual awakening, painful though it was, brought with it so much good.
What I thought of as a deuce—my sexuality– gradually became my ace, a fact made apparent by the friends I gathered about me and have stuck with me through the years, my deep love for musical theater, classical music and opera, a passion for film, for reading, a love for exploring consignment shops, the way I dress, the desire I have to connect with others, a heightened sense of compassion, my ability to really listen to other’s when they talk.
Did all this come with being different?
Yes. I believe so.
And I simply don’t know who I would be if I wasn’t gay. Would any of us recognize ourselves if anything about us changed with a little unrealistic wishing?
It just doesn’t work that way. We are who are because of every memory that holds us together as exactly the person we ARE.
Tolle continued. “So, being gay (or poor or black or disabled) can help. Being an outsider to some extent makes life difficult. But it also places you at advantage as far as enlightenment is concerned. It takes you out of unconsciousness almost by force.”
I grew out of an unconscious life into a life—with its challenges and joys– filled with a new awareness of my place in the world.
If I had magically been made straight would I have quit law school and gotten a job singing in a Vegas show or moved to New York City or sung at Carnegie Hall and at the White House? Would I have produced films and theater, been to the Academy Awards or had dinner with Joan Rivers?
Still, my wish back when I was fourteen didn’t take any of that great stuffinto account. My deuce indeed had become an ace.
There are things I wish I could change in my life now and at this juncture. But my being gay would be at the bottom of the list. I wish I could apologize to all the people I have wronged and wish I hadn’t. I wish I hadn’t ever lied about who I was. I wish I could have negotiated the demands of my ego better. I wish I could have back all the energy spent on fear of aging, dying and all that happens next.
Those moments are inscribed on the tablet of my life as surely as my being gay is.
If I must play the wishing game, here is an improbable wish I have; to be young and filled with energy with a full life shining ahead of me AND know everything I know now. (Note: listen to Stephen Sondheim’s “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” from the Broadway show Follies for a fuller understanding of this unlikely wish.)
See? If I wasn’t gay would I be able to dig out this gem of musical theater to share with you all now?
Maybe. But doubtful.
I have always tried to “be best” and that is, perhaps, one of the best cards in my hand.
As Walt Whitman wrote: I am larger, better than I thought. I did not know I held so much goodness.
(And ps. No. My answer to the question now would be a resounding no!)
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