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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Out of the Shadows

Reimagining Gay Men's Lives

Walt Odets

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Are Gay Men Homosexuals?

What is your line?

It is not the cow that makes the frycook.

—Keith Waldrop, The Not Forever1


There are two different perspectives on what makes a man “a homosexual.” The first—the heterosexual perspective—is that homosexuals are “men who have sex with men.” The gay man’s perspective, briefly put, is that he is “attracted to other men.” The difference between the two descriptions is important: the heterosexual identifies a single, objective behavior, the gay man an entire internal life of feeling. While the straight man may feel support, indifference, fear, or contempt for the idea of “the homosexual,” the gay man has more complex feelings, in part because the term has historically been used to stigmatize. “Are you a homosexual?” is easily, often correctly, experienced as the opening salvo of an attack. The majority of gay-identified men do have at least a marginally conscious sense that being gay is about more than sexual attraction or sex; but many gay men have been swayed by the heterosexual definition and have accepted the narrow, behaviorally defined identity. In today’s gay assimilationist politics, gay men often explain themselves to heterosexuals with the idea that they are “attracted to men, but otherwise just like you.” In that assertion, the gay man is accepting the heterosexual perspective on who he is: the gender of his sexual partner defines him as gay and is his only distinguishing difference. From a psychological perspective, this is simply not the whole truth, and the claim often does a serious disservice to gay lives.

For gay men, sexual attraction to other men is only one expression of something more fundamental, something that might be called a gay sensibility. As I am using the term, gay sensibility describes both the man’s internal experience of himself, and his characteristic external expression of self to others. Together, the two constitute “a sensibility,” and a gay sensibility is often different from that of heterosexual men. Sexual attraction is not the cause of gay sensibility, although it may influence and inform it; nor is the simple idea of the homosexual an adequate characterization of that sensibility. The question I am raising—whether or not gay men are homosexuals and should be characterized as such—is not at all intended to dismiss the importance of gay sexual lives. Sexuality is of central importance in all human life, whether acknowledged or not. What it means to “be gay” has for too long been defined by others, and too much of that imposed definition has been incorporated into gay self-experience. Being gay offers important opportunities that can only be realized if gay people can free themselves of societal and internalized stigma, much of which stems from the conventional idea of the homosexual. Freed from this narrow characterization, gay people have lives that are, in some ways, like heterosexual lives and, in other ways, appreciably different. Lives that express such complexity are often better, fuller, more authentic lives.

Gay people—with the historical focus largely on men—have been designated homosexuals in the psychological literature since the late nineteenth century, when the previously little-used term appeared in the German psychiatric text Psychopathia Sexualis.2 In addition to homosexuality, the author, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, cataloged other psychosexual phenomena, including bestiality, exhibitionism, pedophilia, and sadism. The company homosexuals kept in this tome of “perversions” was a good indicator of where the understanding of gay lives was headed in the developing psychiatric literature, the popular mind, and, too often, the gay mind. But the significance of Psychopathia Sexualis went disturbingly beyond the classification of same-sex behavior as a pathological perversion. Before this treatise, homosexual sex had been only a behavior, a single anomaly in an otherwise “normal” human being. With Psychopathia, homosexual behavior became something that could identify and characterize an entire person. Not only was the behavior pathological, the entire man was: the man with a discreet cancer had become “a cancer.” The newly assigned identity was readily incorporated into the self-experience of gay men, giving rise to a self-perpetuating psychosocial dynamic of imposed social stigma and reactive, internalized shame that, in turn, bolstered the stigma. Gay men were being identified as homosexuals, and that is what they started to feel like.

What the new psychosocial dynamic persistently ignored was the complex sensibility—the experience of self, others, and the world—that lay behind and gave expression to the sexual behavior. The psychological lives of gay people would be lost to psychiatry, which embarked on a campaign to explore gay lives with the intent of revealing the psychopathology that was presumably the root of the “problem.” In his seminal history of the American homophile movement, John D’Emilio discusses the role that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century “medicalization” of homosexuality played in the new homosexual identity:

Ironically, the medical model promoted the articulation of a gay identity and made it easier for many lesbians and homosexuals to come out. In elaborating upon their theories, doctors helped create the phenomenon that most of them wished to eliminate. They transformed an evil impulse that the morally upright strove to resist into the primary constituent of one’s nature, inescapable because it permeated one’s being.… Medical theories made homosexuality not a deed that one avoided but a condition that described who one was.3

While the attention of psychiatry beneficially “promoted the articulation of a gay identity,” this narrow, stigmatized, and polarizing identity would prove to be immensely destructive. The earlier perception of the “evil impulse” left the person’s identity as a human being otherwise relatively intact; but the new approach would shrink the entire identity into the evil impulse itself. As D’Emilio points out, psychiatry usefully, if inadvertently, accomplished an important affirmation for gay individuals: they had something in common with other people, gay people. Psychiatry thus brought being homosexual out of the one-man closet into a new group closet. This group closet was equipped with a newfangled light—the light of psychiatric diagnosis and “insight”—that turned on automatically whenever the closet door was opened, and scrutinized and pathologized the very homosexual identity that psychiatry itself had created.

Unavoidably, the new group closet did something else: it polarized the homosexual identity for gay people themselves. A person does not have the self-experience of being distinctive and an outsider until he encounters a group from which he is different and excluded. Being a member of the new group closet clearly excluded one from most of society, a society that left no doubt about the differences. “Gay communities” were thus born, populated by deviants who, by definition, had one thing in common—socially disapproved sexual interests. Where homosexual behavior is not disapproved, it is much less likely to be experienced as an identity, and if it is, the identity is much broader. When I recently asked a gay Dutch public health official what it meant to “be gay in the Netherlands,” he responded, “I’m not sure what the question is. If you mean, do we live in our own parts of town as you do in the U.S., the answer is no. The whole issue doesn’t mean as much in the Netherlands, we don’t really have gay and straight people the way you do. It’s more like we have people, and all people are different.”

Today, a majority of American gay men still very much live in the group closet defined by the homosexual identity. A gay friend recently told me that he had asked his mother why she never inquired about how he and his partner were getting on. “Why would I?” she responded. “I never ask your brother about what he and his wife are doing in bed.” While we have become accustomed to the social construction of the homosexual, from a psychological perspective it is peculiar that we would classify and characterize a group of people entirely by their sexual behavior. As essential as sexuality is in human life, sexual behavior does not constitute a complete relationship to another or a complete life, and sexual practices are not close to a complete description of anyone. The origins of this odd practice lie partly in the different social roles that gay men play—in particular, that they do not breed—and in the fact that sex is a concrete, observable behavior. The other part of gay men—the complex, rich internal sensibility—is not usually observable by others, and many gay men have become necessarily expert at limiting any external expressions of their internal lives, even to other gay men.

Walking in San Francisco’s Castro or New York’s Chelsea, I am often struck by how many men on the street appear to be uncomfortable making eye contact or offering a passing hello. They look slightly furtive or inauthentically aloof. Some of this behavior is probably a product of the male adolescent’s learned caution about revealing any interest in another boy, and being discovered as gay. But the homosexual identity is characterized by sex, and the furtive or apparently aloof gay man is sometimes also avoiding any response that suggests acceptance of a feared or unwanted sexual invitation. Having found their first experience of social currency in their sexual desirability, too many men are left feeling that the only interest another man might have in them is sexual. Over the years, one thousand gay men have said to me, “The only thing other men are interested in is sex, and that’s not what I want, it’s not enough.” To this, I usually respond, “But the other nine hundred and ninety-nine gay men I have spoken with have said the same thing. I think that many others share your feelings.” The Castro and Chelsea are too often not social communities, but neighborhoods of people wandering the streets, all looking for something they are convinced is unattainable because of who gay men are. The wanderer knows only his own internal sensibility, not that of others, who are homosexuals, pure and simple.

The homosexual identity is not only problematic because it is narrowly defined by sex; it is made even worse when the sex is considered deviant. As D’Emilio points out, the term homosexual has always been used to express religious, social, or medical disapproval: homosexual behavior has been a sin, a crime, or a sickness.4 Even as many gay men may be unconscious of such feelings about themselves, some have feelings—not usually ideas—that other gay men are sinful, criminal, or sick, none of which makes them desirably obtainable. One solution for such gay men is the not-uncommon interest in “straight-acting,” straight-identified men, who are, for other reasons, also usually unobtainable. There is something else I have heard a thousand times from gay men: “I am never interested in men who are interested in me, and those I am interested in never return the feeling.” What this peculiar, completely implausible predicament suggests is that the obstruction lies not in who other gay men actually are, but in what he, the seeker of relationships, feels about himself. The psychological mechanism is projection: when a man shows interest in another man, the interested man becomes a deviant homosexual in the eyes of his object, and this works bidirectionally. Both men feel some—probably unconscious—sense of their own homosexual undesirability and project the feeling onto each other. In such a mutually projective scheme, anyone who shows interest is disqualified.5

Copyright © 2019 by Walt Whitman Odets