A TIME TO LOOK BACK, A TIME TO LOOK FORWARD

By Paul M. Lewis

Fifty years ago this month, I had just left the monastery where I’d lived as a monk for the previous seven years. I was twenty-one years old, struggling to find myself in a world that was as totally unfamiliar to me as the inside of a silent monastery is to most people who have never lived there. This “outside world,” as we called it and as I even then thought of it, was loud and overbearing, seemingly both uncontrolled and uncontrollable. If I had landed on an alien moon, or a planet somewhere on the far off edges of the galaxy, I am not sure I would have found it all that much less strange or intimidating. To me, this new world was exotic, incomprehensible, and in conflict with everything I had come to think of and rely on as familiar and stabilizing.

It had been my choice to leave. I knew I could no longer remain locked behind monastic gates, not with the kind of desires I had. As a young gay man, my hormones were roiling and boiling, but as a monk, I had kept my vows, reined in those sometimes almost overwhelming impulses into a kind of control (the “white-knuckle” kind, as people in AA say) and had refrained from all carnal contact with other monks. Much later, I learned that many other young monastics had not, but I took the vows I had pronounced as sacred promises and followed them to the letter. My plan, as bizarre as it may seem to anyone now, was to leave, begin dating girls, which would magically cure me of otherwise unwanted desires, and then eventually rejoin the monastery once more after I had become “normal” again. There is hardly any need to say that this did not happen, could not have happened, and for that I am now more grateful than I can probably ever express.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that during this first year on the outside, that first summer in particular, I was in a kind of constant state of trauma. I flew home—for the first time on my own—from Washington, DC, where the monastery was located, to upstate New York, where my mother and brother lived. But I stayed there for only a few weeks, as I had applied for and been accepted into an NDEA (National Defense Education Act) scholarship, as a future teacher of French. The eight-week immersion course (all day, everyday, only French was to be spoken) was located at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Twenty-five people from all over the United States had been accepted and formed our group. The fact that probably two-thirds were women, while not exactly a surprise, nonetheless still came as a kind of existential shock to me. Up until that point, I had never in my life spent so much time with young women my own age, and I found it both terrifying and enlightening. It was the beginning of a long learning curve for me, during which I slowly came to realize, and to enormously appreciate, the fact that the female sensibility was different from that of men, and that women have marvelous, even almost magical insights to offer.

Even so, dating women—as I had promised myself I would do—was not easy. I had no notion of what to expect, nor what they might expect from me, or how to respond if, in fact, they wanted something I could not provide. I dated Martha first, and found myself liking her very much, though only as a friend, even going so far as to visit her in her family home on Cape Cod. Later on, I dated Bea, perhaps because she looked kind of boyish, but I found her unsettlingly aggressive, to the point almost of making me want to flee. And when it became clear that I was supposed to be kissing her, but did not, even now all these years later I cringe to remember her saying to me: “What? Do I have spinach in my teeth, or something?” As much as it is a useless and futile exercise to regret anything in life, I have to say that I am nevertheless extremely sorry for what I put them through. I know I did my best, but they were both fine women, good human beings, and they deserved better than I was able to give. No doubt, they have gone on to have happy and fulfilled lives; or so it is my hope anyway.

At the same time, I was struggling at least as much with my faith. More and more, I began to realize that I could no longer believe in a rigid, overly doctrinaire, and uncompassionate Church, one that had once been the mainstay of not just my spiritual life, but of my psychological and emotional life as well. This bedrock of what I had felt to be my identity was rapidly beginning to shatter. Everything I knew or was familiar with had begun to flow away, until soon it became a river in flood stage, a torrent that carried with it whatever had previously seemed solid and stable. I was drifting with nothing to cling to. I did not want to confide in my mother, as she had troubles enough of her own, mourning the passing of her husband, my father. And my brother was a young straight man, who spent his time in the local bars with his factory working buddies. I felt I hardly knew him.

But as difficult as all this was, and as lost as I felt, I also realized at some level that it was the beginning of a new and exciting life, something I had never before envisioned for myself. The particular Catholic religious order I had been a member of was made up of teaching brothers. As such, while a monk, I’d also been a student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Upon leaving, I had one year left to go before getting my bachelor’s degree in French Literature, and I did so at the State University of New York at Albany.

I could not rely on my mother for money, as she had none, and so while finishing my last year at university, I also worked every night, and all day Saturday. The job I got was in a local reform school for teenage boys, working in the recreation department. Obviously, institutional settings somehow attracted me, as much as this one represented what might be thought of as the darker version of a monastic environment. But regimens, schedules, and organized, bureaucratic settings, even institutional food and set and stable mealtimes clearly represented my comfort level. And somehow, I instinctively knew how to empathize and interact with boys who felt bereft and alone, even if they did put on a tough and sometimes off-putting front.

That first year on the outside is one I will never forget. It taught me that I could face what had once seemed frightening and even unbearable to me with a degree of courage and resilience. That said, it was still a long time before I began to feel even minimally adequate, the beginnings of an ability to take care of myself in a world that often felt alien, hostile, and simply inexplicable. Sometimes the smallest task would throw me, a thing that I knew I should know how to do, but did not. The first time I had to make a doctor’s appointment, for example, I remember thinking: “How exactly do you do that?” Until I made myself take this on, I had no clue that it was as simple as calling and scheduling one at a convenient time. That was the degree of my inexperience in the world. Virtually every day was an occasion to learn something new, to be frightened and utterly perplexed, and then slowly to come to see how I was supposed to conduct myself. I didn’t always like what I saw, or even understand it, but ultimately I decided that this was how to make my way toward a hoped-for adulthood, a sense of maturity, from the Latin maturus—as I knew—meaning “ripe.”

The curious thing is that I feel as though I am still learning, all these years later. When does one reach maturity? When are we fully ready to adequately face the unknown, the continuing, ever-changing challenges of life? Perhaps only when we leave this world. As the ripened fruit falls, so ends our struggle to grapple with life. Everything that I have faced and found, the summonses, the dares, the provocations, as well as the prizes, the great rewards that come to fill our hearts and minds, all have been worth the effort. This is the comfort that comes with seeing things from an older perspective.

So, I have learned something in these fifty years. And if it is not as much as I could or should have, at least I do know this: Nothing in life goes to waste. Everything we experience contributes to who we are, to our understanding of our rightful and fitting place in a sometimes wild and unpredictable, but always—ironically—a perfect, and beautifully ordered world.

WHAT’S UP WITH THOSE GAY GENES ANYWAY?

By Paul

There was an interesting article by Dr. Simon LeVay in the Oct. 2nd , 2012, issue of the online Huffington Post, entitled “The Paradox of Gay Genes.”  The article itself is not long, and if you are curious about reading it, I would direct you to the following website:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simon-levay/the-paradox-of-gay-genes_b_1929641.html.

In the interest of saying a few words about the subject, I will attempt to give a brief synopsis of what LeVay, a neuroscientist and long-time researcher on the biology of sexual orientation, has to say in the article.  The main issue he begins with is the fact that he is often asked, when giving talks, whether or not homosexuality is somehow genetically determined, and if so what might be its usefulness, if the main biological purpose of sex is to pass genes on to the next generation.  As he puts it: “If being gay is genetic, and gay sex doesn’t produce children, why don’t those genes die out?

As he notes, this is an intriguing question.  And although he makes clear that no one really knows the answer (at least not as yet), LeVay does discuss several possible hypotheses, which others have offered, as to why this may be the case.  For the most part, these theories cluster around how other individuals, that is, not gay people themselves, might somehow benefit from gay genes being passed on.  Sisters of gay people, for example, might receive some kind of advantage from a sort of gay-nanny syndrome (my words, not his), whereby gay brothers would assist their straight sisters in the raising of children.  Another theory speculates that some small amount of gay genes, which are already in the parental mix, may somehow get passed on to the straight siblings of gay brothers or sisters, such that otherwise heterosexual male siblings might present themselves as “mildly feminine,” and females as more “masculine.”  The somewhat feminine men are then purported to be more attractive to women.  As such, in the end they are consequently better able to produce a larger number of offspring.  Regarding more masculine women, although still heterosexual, the theory is that they are more sexually active and aggressive, which would result in more sexual activity, and therefore in a greater number of offspring that might be produced, as a result. 

I want to emphasize once again that LeVay is not proposing that these notions are necessarily an explanation in and of themselves, only that they have been proposed as hypotheses.  And we must note that hypotheses, by their very definition, are starting points, unproven theories.  Even so, I want to say that, as hypotheses, these particular examples appear to me to be extraordinarily lacking in any power to convince.  First of all, at least in my experience, I know of virtually no gay men who have significantly contributed to the rearing of their sisters’ offspring.  And in regard to the greater masculine/feminine tendency in siblings of gay people, again this seems farfetched and fanciful to me.  I certainly have never observed it, either in my own family, or in the families of any gay people whom I have ever encountered.  And what may even be more germane, perhaps, is that the entire idea of what is considered to be masculine, and what is considered feminine, is profoundly dependent on society and on social norms.  Therefore, to conflate biological determinism with societal or cultural constructs seems to me to be highly suspect.  And even if we could somehow agree on what either a fully masculine man (if that is the right term), or a mildly feminine man, might actually look like, who has proven that women prefer the latter over the former?  I will let heterosexual women weigh in on this, but again it is likely that much would depend on exactly what the definition of masculine and feminine turns out to be in any given cultural context. 

Although, as I have said, LeVay does not overtly give credence to any of these theories, he does note toward the end of his article:  “As a happy homosexual, I find it a bit disconcerting that my sexual orientation might simply be the price that evolution pays to improve straight men’s performance in the sexual marketplace.”  That sounds to me as though he may think that such hypotheses might have at least some degree of credibility. 

If, for the moment at least, we assent to the idea that there is a “gay gene,” or perhaps more likely a whole complex of such genes which, when activated by a physical or a social or a cultural stimulus, somehow results in a person being gay, what does that tell us?  In fact, it seems to me that the entire notion then gives rise to a number of other questions.  First of all, I believe that it is questionable to make the assumption that heterosexuality is the base line from which any other sexual orientation must deviate.  Is that really the case?  If sheer numbers are the sole criterion, I suppose there may be a degree of truth in it.  Still, it does not take into consideration the sliding scale, if you will, that sexuality is for most people.  During the course of our lives, all of us are attracted to countless other people.  Some of those people are individuals of the opposite sex, and some are of the same sex; some are older than we are, some are younger.  If we are to be completely honest with ourselves, most of us have to admit that at some time or another in our lives we have been attracted to a whole host of individuals.  If society were to place no special onus, no particular meaning, no negative connotation on same-sex attraction, I have no doubt that many more people would act on such impulses, at least some of the time.  And so, who is to say that exclusive heterosexual attraction is the norm, the default, against which everything else is to be measured and found deviant?  On the contrary, it seems to me that sexual attraction, itself, is the norm, and that this attraction is directed toward whoever it may be, depending on a whole host of individual, societal, and cultural preferences and specifications.

Another question arises in regard to this notion of what “use” gay genes may have.  Just how far are we prepared to go in order to say that things are fully biologically determined?  Are some people, for example, predisposed to being artists because of their genetic make up?  Surely it cannot be construed that the artistic vocation is somehow biologically useful.  And if that is the case, of what possible benefit would an “artistic gene” serve?  How would it enhance the next generation, and what would lead to its selection over, let us say, genes that predispose an individual toward something else which makes lots of money?  The evolutionary theory at work here is that those who are most successful (read, in modern society, those who make the most money) select others who have equal success.  It happens in the animal kingdom all the time.  The biggest and strongest males get to mate with the most fertile female or females.   Yet, it is clear that most artists remain at the lower end of the economic pecking order in the majority of modern societies. 

Neither am I suggesting here that gay people have a corner on the market when it comes to the creation of art.  Who could have been more heterosexual than Pablo Picasso?  And most of the great Impressionist masters of the 19th century were straight in their sexual orientation (at least as far as we know).  We could go on endlessly talking about other heterosexuals who excelled in one form or another of the arts, but that would take us too far afield.  My point here is not that artistic inclination equates either with heterosexual or homosexual inclination.  It is only that, if both stem from genetic predispositions, then both are equally “useless” from a strictly evolutionary point of view. And yet, the world has always had its artists, just as there have always been gay people.

Human sexuality generally cannot be reduced to any one gene, or even to a set of genes.  I believe that sexual orientation, of whatever stripe, is not solely predetermined either by biology or society, as much as both probably do play some role in its unfolding and in the particular expression it can take in any given individual.  This is not to say that neuroscientists such as Simon LeVay ought not to continue research and exploration.  Quite the contrary.  The more we learn, the more we begin to understand the underpinnings of the enormously complex and endlessly fascinating topic which is human sexuality.  But neither should we fall into the philosophical trap known as reductio ad absurdum, and claim that being gay can be reduced to something as simple-minded as help in the rearing of one’s sister’s children. 

If ever we do some day arrive at a full and profound understanding of the origins of homosexuality, my guess is that it will be seen to be as expansive, as full of beauty and wonder, and as utterly mysterious as heterosexual attraction is or ever has been.  On that day, let us hope, religious groups and others who currently condemn same-sex attraction will instead come to honor and to celebrate the stunning and awesome miracle that it clearly is.

THE GAY BENEFIT

Dear Kevin,

There is no doubt that being gay sometimes brings with it a heavy burden in our too often violent and homophobic society, infused as it is to the hilt with religious fundamentalism.   I left the (Catholic) monastery, myself, at the age of 21 after seven years there because I realized I was gay and believed it to be incompatible with my religious vows.   My plan at the time was to date women, somehow magically “get cured” (it wasn’t exactly clear to me how, but surely it would work, I felt), and then return to the monastery again.  Well, needless to say, things didn’t quite work out that way, for which I am more grateful today than I can probably ever really express. 

The reason why I say this is because I have come to realize that, while being gay carries with it – as we have both said – many undeniable burdens, it is also a great blessing in one’s life.  I will say more about that in a moment, but before going on to do so, I guess I have to admit that, in some ways, I have had it pretty easy.  I did not choose as a career path to enter into the world of big business, where, as you no doubt rightly point out, you’d better keep your mouth shut and your head down if you’re gay and if you know what’s good for you.  I didn’t work for a church either, any church, most of which as I have seen are highly prejudiced against gay people.  The one you mention in your letter, whose name we both know but which I will leave blank here, ought very much to have known better.  Actually, I think most churches are uncomfortable with sexuality in general, of any variety, let alone gay sexuality, because we are somehow supposed to be above such carnal thoughts and desires.  I reject that premise on its face, and believe that it has been the source of much of the “gay burden” you mention in your letter.

But I was fortunate to have chosen the path of education, and higher education in particular, and while I never announced to my work world that I was gay and had a partner, I also never felt I had to hide or dissimulate.  I did not, in fact, do so.  No one ever said a word to me, at least not to my face.  And so far from being fired, I never felt I was held back in terms of promotion because of it, either. 

But I want to return to what I was saying above in regard to the “gay benefit” (as opposed to the “gay burden”).  I guess the world we know is, in a sense, the only world that exists for most of us.  Yes, of course, we can imagine, we can put ourselves into somebody else’s shoes, and we all do that to one extent or another.  But in the end, our own private and personal experience of the world is all that we can truly say we understand.  That world, a gay one in my (our) case, has for me been filled with wonder, delight, and I will even say magic.  If I had not been gay, I would never have met my partner, Andy, whom I have lived with now for over 32 years.  These years have been far greater and more filled with joy and happiness than anything I ever could have imagined when I first left the monastery (46 years ago now, almost to the day).  Just that in itself is evidence, proof positive I would say, of the “gay benefit,” at least so far as I’m concerned.  And going on from there, there are all of the profound friendships I have formed over the years, with you and with many others, gifts of inestimable value, friendships which in all likelihood would not have been formed had we not all been gay. 

In the end, I think that what will count is how well we have loved and how well we have treated others.  Being gay has helped to teach me real compassion for others who have at times experienced their own form of oppression – Blacks, American Indians, Latinos, Jews, women in general in many cases, disabled people, the poor, the homeless etc.  It has given me a perspective on the world which I might never have been able to otherwise achieve. 

Please don’t get me wrong, in no way am I am saying that you have to be gay in order to form friendships, or to feel love and compassion for anyone.  We all have that capacity, and it is indeed one of the great gifts of being human.  But, as I was saying above, my own world is the world I know, and I feel that being gay has offered me a special window on that world. 

So, this is what I will always be grateful for.  I can only hope – and yes even pray – that young gay people will be able to somehow struggle through their own burdens and difficulties, dealing with the oppression and bigotry that they all too often experience.  Not only does it get better, as activist Dan Savage has said – which it absolutely does – but it even gets wonderful!  Or at least it can, if you open your heart and your mind.  Being gay does not define who you are – that is a much bigger and far more complex question – but, in my experience anyway, it does, or it can, set the stage for a life filled with friendship, with love, and with the great joy and wonder of being alive.  And who could ask for more than that?

Paul

DHARUN RAVI, THE LATEST IN HOMOPHOBIA

By Paul

Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student whose spying with a webcam on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, led to the roommate’s subsequent taking of his own life, has been sentenced to thirty days in jail.  He was also fined $10,000, given three years probation, and assigned to 300 hours of community service.  In all probability, he will not face deportation back to his native India.  The question remains: does such a punishment fit the crime? 

The gay community has been split on the answer to that question.  Some believe that it is far too lenient, that thirty days behind bars pales to nothing in comparison to the life of a young man.  Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, it is a safe bet to assume that Ravi will be alive and building his career and family.  His ex-roommate, however, not to put too fine a point on it, will still be as dead then as he is now, a life unfulfilled and cut too tragically short, due to a stupid and uncaring so-called prank that Dharun Ravi somehow thought would be a fun thing to do.  To call such an act, with such consequences, insensitive, as the judge did, is nothing less than a colossal understatement.   It was a horrendously callous, heinous, and hateful act maliciously perpetrated on an extremely private and highly sensitive young man. 

Ravi could have been sentenced to up to ten years, but the judge maintains that he took into consideration the fact that the defendant had no prior record and that normally charges of so-called bias crimes are reserved for violent assault or murder.  If Ravi’s actions were not a violent assault, and I suppose no one could reasonably say that they were, at least it could well be argued that the effect of his actions surely did turn violent in the end. 

I am not advocating here for a harsher sentence for this young man, as unfeeling, cold-hearted, and uncompassionate as I think he clearly was.  His actions were utterly stupid and vacuous, and as much as he claimed to have had no bias toward gay people, what he did clearly contradicts and gives the lie to what he says.  Even so, I do not see the good that would come from putting him in prison for a long period of time.  We can only hope that he will live his entire life with the memory of the evil he perpetrated on an innocent man, who had never harmed him in any way.  And if it is true that karma brings to all of us the fruits of our actions, good and bad, we can only assume that Dharun Ravi will in one form or another reap what he sowed.

On the side of Tyler Clementi, it does no good to wish that he had been able to better weather the storms of hatred and bigotry.  All gay people experience this kind of thing, perhaps not so directly as Tyler did, but still no one who grows up in the United States and who is gay, whether man or woman, can escape the sting of hostility, ill will, and homophobia.  Witness, merely just as the latest example, the bigoted and hate filled Baptist preacher in North Carolina, who recently declaimed from his pulpit that all lesbians and gay people ought to be put into a pen surrounded by electrified wire and left there to die.  These are the kinds of messages that LGBT people grow up with in this culture, and given the fact that the messages are so pervasive, so invasive, and so insidious, especially for young people it is difficult in the extreme not to allow them to penetrate to some extent. 

As one grows older, for the most part, one finds ways to ward off and deflect the hostility that so often surrounds us.  Indeed, it manifests itself in so many ways, large and small, that gay people are well advised to learn ways to manage and cope.  Some do so by hiding, or at least by dissimulating, and sad to say there are times when that may be the wisest thing to do.  On the other hand, if you live in a large city, especially on either coast, perhaps for the most part you can be relatively, or entirely, open.  Even so, the act of coming out is one that keeps on presenting itself.  Every time a gay person meets someone new, or is put in a new situation, a kind of decision has to be made as to how “open” he or she will be.  Just how safe is it?  What could the consequences be?  Is it worth the effort to do or say what a straight person might not even think twice about in the same circumstances?  Should we, for example, make reference to “my partner,” or “my husband,” of “my wife,” or would it be better entirely if nothing at all were to be said?  How am I feeling, how strong, how much energy do I happen to have right now, how much gumption, how much will, how much courage?    

These are questions that LGBT people face every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  For the most part (although with some very notable exceptions), it is true at least in this country that these are not life-threatening things, nor are they any longer likely to land anyone in jail (as they can in such countries as Uganda, or Zimbabwe, or even Russia).  All the same, they can be unrelentingly exhausting.  And young people in particular, who are just coming to terms with who they are and opening up to friends and family, as I have said, are especially prone to the insidiousness of it all. I do not doubt that it was this kind of atmosphere, as well as the distorted bias and bigotry of his roommate, that contributed to that terrible and fateful decision on the part of Tyler Clementi

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this story.  Tyler will not go on to flourish as a musician, or anything else, and for the rest of their lives his parents are going to somehow have to come to terms with the gaping wound of the absence of their son.  Dharun Ravi will go on to put this behind him, even if – let us hope – he will never forget what he did.  Perhaps the bigotry in this case was unthinking on the part of a senseless and delusional young man; perhaps it was more malevolent.  We will probably never know which.  In the end, however, it makes very little difference.  One way or another, a unique and promising life has been snuffed out, we are all the less for it, and homophobia has triumphed once again.

THE GAY AGENDA

By Paul

I have grown tired of hearing fundamentalist preachers accuse gay people of having a “Gay Agenda.’  Personally, I have never seen such a document, and it was not part of any training I ever received.  As a result, I decided I ought to come up with one myself, so that the next time I am accused of having such an agenda, I will know exactly what I am being accused of.  So, here’s one version — mine, that is — of what could be thought of as “The Gay Agenda.”

1.  Do what you can to live in beauty.  Grow vegetables and flowers; create, appreciate, and display art; attend plays and dance performances; listen to music; paint and decorate your home, however grand or humble it may be.  But remember that beauty is not just what you do; more importantly, it is what you think and who you are.

2.  Speak nicely to people.  Treat them well.  Unless, of course, they are small-minded fundamentalist bigots, in which case you may do whatever is necessary to as politely as possible point out their small mindedness and their bigotry to them.

3.  Infiltrate as much as possible every profession and every area of work.  Do not forget blue-collar jobs, so-called, as well as professional and artistic ones, again so-called.  And by all means become a soldier or join the police force, if you feel so inclined.  At least for now, however, you might wish to avoid hairdressing and window dressing, as we may already have a monopoly on these professions.

4.  Have children, if you wish (although not too many — the world is already over populated).  Better still, adopt them.  Work with children.  Young people need to know that we love them and wish them well.  Otherwise, they grow up to become small-minded fundamentalist bigots (see #2 above).

5.  Enter politics, if you dare.  Politicians make laws which in part control our lives.  It’s better to be in control of the controls, than to be controlled by controllers who wish us ill.

6.  Think carefully before becoming a priest, a preacher, or a mullah, as many religions are predatory toward gay people.  If you must chose such a state, you may have to hide who you are and live a life of misery and repression.  Most importantly, never allow the ignorance and small mindedness of organized religion to spoil your relationship with the all-loving Divine Spirit.

7.  Get married, or enter into a domestic partnership, if you can find a compatible mate.  Be as happy, or as unhappy, as straight people living with their mate.  In so doing, you will show that, so far at least, we have not completely unhinged the bonds of holy matrimony.

8.  Travel the world, learn other languages, visit and appreciate other cultures, and be open about who you are, unless it endangers life and limb.  In the latter case, be most circumspect, or avoid those places entirely whenever possible.

9.  Cherish the world in general: rocks, plants, rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans, animals and all creatures, as well as people.  The planet is your home, too.  Do not despoil it.

10.  Above all, as much as possible be honest, forthright, and kind to all.  Remember that not everyone is a bigot, and many people are open and welcoming.  The best way by far to spread The Gay Agenda is to act like a real human being, which by the way you are — no matter what those who push The Anti-Gay Agenda may say.