A lifetime of homophobia had beaten down Larry Best, but with the help of a friend, he has regained pride in his manhood.
I first wrote about myself in a construction paper bound booklet bearing the title ABOUT ME.
Each of the few pages had a crayon drawing and a sentence or two about some aspect of my 10 or 11 year old self. My stated career goal was to be an astronaut, a common enough aspiration for a grade schooler in the early 1960s.
Thinking of it reminds me of a time in my life when I felt reasonably confident and optimistic about the future. I was already ambitious enough to have envisioned luxury cars and swimming pools. I felt different from the other boys, but saw being a good student as the only needed explanation. Looking at it now is a like entering a time machine to the 1961 me, an as yet unfully formed me that for the most part no longer exists other than in memory.
Puberty, of course, unexpectedly changed everything. I inexplicably began to notice, and I mean really notice, boys, including all their beguiling parts, postures, and mannerisms. This strange fascination, however, worked only to separate me further from these objects of my attention.
Overnight, I seemed to have become a stranger to the world and to myself.
As for the girls, well I knew they were there, but I just wasn’t interested in them in the same way. Still, I was sure that was coming any day as promised by all. It’s just that it never really did. In self defense I embarked upon decades of denial and rationalization, including my 1971 marriage to a woman, and accompanied by the redemptive birth of our three children.
This deception of myself, my family , friends, and the world worked to the degree that I was admitted to the various tribes then required for respectability and success, both of which became essential compensatory bolsters for my alienated, distorted, and hated self. The truth was never going to get me where I was determined to go. It was clear to me I was defective, disgusting, and must be suppressed. I became very good at suppression and denial.
I never so much as touched a boy or a man in all that time; at least not until I was 42 years old. It was then, and because I finally dared to do so, that my contrived life collapsed around me and our family. This required me to finally confront my rationalizations and self deception. In doing so, I realized I’d been living a horrific lie and a complete fabrication.
I gathered all the strength and determination I could muster and came out loud and proud. I managed to hang on to my career as a successful trial lawyer and worked hard to preserve my relationships with my children. I became a gay rights activist and built a new life, which soon included a loving companion. He and I have been together for 22 years. We had a Vermont Civil Union in 2001 with family and friends in attendance.
Problem solved? Well, apparently not quite.
Last month, in early 2013, I was in Miami on business and spent an evening visiting with a straight friend I’ve known since my still closeted days in the early 80s. We were sitting in my hotel’s sidewalk cafe in South Beach well after midnight, having a good time drinking and talking as always. I do not recall exactly what I said, but suddenly my friend interrupted me, taking exception to something in particular I’d said.
Apparently I had committed the offense of referring to myself as a “person.” I was puzzled as to the problem with that. My friend then explained that I did that all the time; meaning I typically referred to myself in that way and apparently always had. I had not noticed. I still did not see his point and protested defensively, “Well that’s what I am. I’m a person; a good person.”
My friend challenged me: “No you’re not. You’re a man. And you’re a good man. Why won’t you say it that way?”
I really had to pause and think about what he was saying and what it actually meant. I began to feel vulnerable and terribly exposed.
Upon reflection, I realized I had never in my life referred to myself as a “man.” Granted, I consider myself a feminist and have watched my masculine and feminine nouns and pronouns for years in order to correctly frame my references. So to some degree, the term “man” has some negative connotations in some contexts, but that was not what this was all about. This was about how I saw myself and therefore about who I really was.
Finally I responded with growing emotion. “I guess the sad, pathetic truth is I’ve never seen myself that way,” I said, still avoiding the word itself. “I’m a lot of things, both good and bad, but that isn’t one of them.
“Over the years of my life I’ve been called sissy, fruit, fairy, queer, pussy, Mary, wuss, faggot, and pansy, roughly in that chronological order. When you’ve heard that your whole life, it becomes your reality. It becomes how you see yourself even when no one is using those words. And you do this until it is part of you.” I paused again and thought some more. “In fact, as best I can remember, you are the first one I recall who has ever told me I was a man.”
I could hardly breathe as I stared silently at the floor. And then the lump that had been growing in my throat turned into tears, and the tears into choking sobs. Coming to grips with what I really thought of myself was like the floor giving way beneath me.
My friend reached across the small cafe table and put his hand on my shoulder. He made me look him in the eye while he again told me in no uncertain terms that I was a man and had always been a man, and a damned good one as well. Then he had me say those word back to him. I repeated them, but I cannot say they felt right or true to me then or now.
I know I have integrity, character and courage, despite my many faults. I am a good husband and father, if not the best. These things make me a man in my estimation. You would think that would be enough to be, and feel like, a man, but somehow it wasn’t.
Manhood is a loaded concept, amid changing ideas in our age of increasing and welcome sexual equality. My friend is kind of an old school macho guy himself, which might explain the importance of the term to him, but the idea he thought I was a man frankly astonished me, particularly since it seemed so self evident to him. He does not see sexual orientation as having anything to do with being a man and plainly said so.
Our conversation kept coming back to me over the following weeks, until I had to work out what it meant to me. I finally wrote these words down on paper for clarity and so as never to forget them:
I am a man; not just a person.
I am a good man; not just a good person.
I am a strong man to have survived and thrived in spite of great adversity.
I must continue to be strong to survive.
Life is about survival.
I have a right to survive; it is my right and duty as a man.
I have as much right to live and exist as any other man and I damned well will.
The words made me feel better and stronger. It was like learning a lesson in school for the first time. I knew had to say these words to myself and I had to mean them.
At the heart of all this, of course, is shame. I was shamed and humiliated by people in my life, whether they knew better or not. I was shamed by our entire culture from very early childhood. I was made to feel an embarrassment to myself and to the world.
In our culture to this very day, femininity is considered weak and passive. Women remain devalued and men who are seen as feminine, particularly those who are attracted to other men, are derided and scorned. In addition to all this hatred, we have long been “unspeakable.” You can’t get much worse than that.
Aggression, dominance and healthy male, red blooded heterosexuality are valued over all. Those not so oriented are worse than worthless, we are told; we are disgusting. This world is not a safe or easy place for us to survive, much less successfully navigate.
My own denial and self deception should come as no surprise. They were my Darwinian survival techniques. I coped and survived, although at great cost to myself and others. My own psychic scars remain. So do those of my former wife and children.
At the very heart of this shaming are attitudes toward gay male sexual passivity. Even straight men get a pass for merely feminine mannerisms. Sexual passivity is, however, considered beyond the pale. In many cultures, a man is not really gay unless and until he is sexually passive. Men who take the active sexual role with other men avoid this and retain their hetero-normative credentials. Male sexual passivity is and has been the ultimate taboo for centuries.
I’ve broken that taboo, and even before I did, I wanted to. And because my culture has scorned me and others like me, I have scorned myself. Thinking these truths through caused me to write a second lesson plan:
I am a man who loves men and wants men.
I am a man who needs to be loved by men.
My love of men needs to be expressed physically, both actively and passively.
This is my body; no one else’s.
I love my husband; he is my life.
This is not only my truth; it is THE truth.
The joy and fulfillment of my sexual desires is my birthright.
It is as much a part of me as breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping.
It makes me whole. It make me authentic and true to my nature and myself.
It is my right and my destiny. It is who I am.
I have a right to be who I am.
I have fought long and hard to be who I am.
I will not be denied.
Speaking the unspeakable can be a powerful thing. The taboo is broken by the act itself, more so by the speaking of it, and even more particularly by the public speaking of it. If I cannot respect myself enough to speak the truth publically, neither will anyone else. I will no longer play the dominant culture’s game of demeaning marginalization based on a so called morality which is nothing more than a lie handed down through generations of ignorance and hatred.
The invigorating fresh air of this process brought back other memories of my coming out. After I decided what to do, and after I’d told my wife and children, I began making calls to family and friends with my story. One of my best male friends at the time listened quietly as I went on. He then memorably demanded of me, “Please at least tell me you don’t take it up the ass!” This seemed to matter more to him than anything else.
But I was done with lying by this time, so I told him the truth he clearly did not want to hear. He never spoke to me again. I often wonder if my truth didn’t hit too close to home for him. Nonetheless, his singular demand graphically makes my point about this cultural taboo.
The truth is the truth. Willful ignorant homophobic denial of the truth doesn’t make it less so, just as pretending gay people do not exist, or choose their orientation, doesn’t make that so either.
Refusal to talk about sexual truths doesn’t change them despite the demands of certain state legislatures trying to pass “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. They want to reinforce our unspeakability and the taboo that they think makes them better than us. Speaking our truth will one day set us all free.
As for me, writing about my truth and my journey has been another step on the long climb toward self respect and self love; another step to becoming a man: my own man. I’ve been on this challenging journey as long as I can remember. My gayness has defined my entire existence because I hid from my truth for so long. I thought I’d gone as far as I could on my journey.
But late one night on the beach in Miami, my friend, a true friend comfortable with himself, helped me open another door to another stairway. And he helped me up those steps. I will never forget that night, or him and his friendship. It was just two friends, one straight and one gay; just two men, one helping the other to feel a little bit more like a man, because that’s what real men do.
Image credit: Bob Jagendorf/Flickr