How are you defined as a man? For Eirik Rogers, being gay has defined him in a world of good men – but even more, it has defined him outside that world.
I recently participated in a discussion with some friends about the definition of what it means to be a good man in today’s world. Many topics came up, from the general (stereotypes of manhood) to the specific (manhood and the prison industrial complex), from the macroscopic (fatherhood) to the microscopic (the genetic basis that distinguishes men from women). I remained silent in this conversation, waiting as definitions were championed and the various topics played out. In the end, the subject I had hoped would be mentioned never was. Being gay is a topic that has defined me in a world of good men – but even more, it has defined me outside that world.
Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, in a stunning article in the New York Times opinion section (How Many American Men are Gay, December 7, 2013), attempts to define some dimensions and dynamics at play within the gay community. He states that characterizing the number of gay men in the United States is fraught with challenge. Despite ever increasing strides towards openness, social media has not unlocked the closet door as much as it has expanded that closet into different rooms.
Stevens-Davidowitz makes a significant observation in the relative demographics of more tolerant states versus more conservative ones. Using an example from Facebook profiles, he mentions that in California, 3% of men openly identify themselves as being gay, compared to only 1% in Mississippi. Do those numbers accurately reflect the population sizes? That is unlikely. Looking at the relatively insignificant number of openly gay men who have moved from more conservative states to more liberal ones, he concludes there has been no meaningful measure of migration that could account for the disparity. And the essentially equal percentage of online gay pornography searches between liberal and conservative states further belies the reliability of the candor suggested in Facebook profiles.
Quite telling is this interesting tidbit. Searches on Google that begin with the phrase “Is my husband…” are completed with the word “gay” more often than any other word (and 10% more than “cheating”). Such queries by wives into the sexual inclinations of their husbands are significantly more common in less tolerant states where the closet doors are stronger and candor even with one’s own spouse is more questionable.
The conclusion drawn by the author is that the closet remains a major factor in the gay population, and the social mores of community directly correlate with the numbers of gay men that feel safe enough to openly disclose their sexual identity. The author states that there is a “huge amount of secret suffering in the United States that can be directly attributed to the intolerance of homosexuality.”
This reaches many of us. It certainly affects gays regardless of how closeted or open they may be. But it also challenges straight men to define their role in this discussion. Are they part of a general social posture that intimidates gay men who might otherwise be more open? If so, how would they square those attitudes with the discovery that a close friend or even a family member such as a father, a brother, or a son might be gay?
While the closet for gays in the United States is a relative haven of comfortable anonymity, for gay men in some other countries it is a prison of fear. Gay pride parades do not march colorfully down the streets of Iran, where former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad felt emboldened enough to publically pronounce there were no homosexuals in his country. In Russia, the mayor of Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, echoed a similar sentiment. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has stated that homosexuality must be “cleansed” from Russian society, tacitly endorses homophobic vigilantism by turning a blind eye to thugs such as Maxim Martsinkevich who target and torture gay men and teens.
So I count my blessings. But any conversation about what it means to be a good man is not complete without considering sexual identity. Coming to terms with who I feared I might be was nothing I could share in the company of good men. My friends never knew. I didn’t have a confiding uncle. My father went to his grave never knowing who I was. And everything culture taught me about being a good man in society mentioned nothing of the special secrets I carried, nor did it give me permission to share them. I was left to reconcile my sexual identity alone in a frustrated adolescence.
While my friends openly celebrated their own identities with double dates and proms, I hid mine in shame, a defect in desperate search of repair. With suicide rates among gay teens up to three times higher than the national average, and with 30% of completed teen suicides being related to sexual identity issues, it dawns on me just how lucky I am. It occurs to me how strong I was. I couldn’t press much at the gym, but I carried an invisible elephant on my back right through my childhood. And I didn’t share that burden with a soul.
As I started to emerge from my dark closet, I found the concept of gay pride curious. I certainly wasn’t proud of being gay – it was enough just to learn not to be ashamed of it. How can one be proud of their sexuality, anyway? After all, there are no straight pride festivals. Perhaps that is because it is considered a social default. Being gay or straight is not an accomplishment, nor a choice, nor does it attest to character. Time has taught me that the only thing truly unnatural about my sexuality has been repressing it. And gradually pride has made more sense. I am not so much proud that I am gay as I am that I sorted out who I am in this world, and did that pretty much on my own. I am proud that I can look in the mirror and respect the man who looks back at me. And I am proud that I survived to join the ranks of good men.