My Gay Life as a Straight ManBy J.E. Fishman
May 16, 2012
I turned fifty years old this year. I was a little kid in the Sixties. A teen in the Seventies. I had my first jobs and graduated from college in the Eighties. I settled down and did my first entrepreneurial things in the Aughts.
When I was a kid, among the biggest insults you could sling at another boy was calling him “faggot,” “queer” or “fairy.” We accepted without any discussion that homosexuality was a trait devoutly not to be wished upon oneself.
One of my mother’s sisters had four children. Though it didn’t come out until we were all adults, three of these four children are gay.
My wife tells me that two kids at her all-girls boarding school were once caught in bed together. It became the talk of the school at the time, but the girls remained in attendance, and they all stayed friends.
When I was fifteen I participated in a “teen tour” of the American west—twenty kids on a bus. One day, we went whitewater rafting. Panic, of course, was part of the fun. In the boat behind me, one of the counselors could be heard calling out, “Paddle, Robert, you faggot! Paddle!” Back on shore we all had a good laugh over that. For a week we endlessly repeated, “Paddle, Robert, you faggot!”
There were a few particularly effeminate boys in our public high school. As we progressed from freshman to senior year, their difference from the “normal” kids became clearer. All of us straight guys accepted that one could talk to the apparent homosexuals, but you never wanted to get too close, lest the stigma rub off.
There were two girls in high school rumored to be lesbians. By senior year they appeared to be a couple, but it was all something of an open secret. We made them the subject of endless discussion. Like something outré.
I had a distant cousin who was about twelve years older than me. He was flamboyant and had an active social life, living large in New York City, a big part of the club scene in the Seventies. One day, I heard that he’d fallen seriously ill. The next time I saw him, he had raised dark splotches all over his body. Though he’d always been thin, now he appeared emaciated. I overheard his mother talking. She said he had a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. In less than a year, he died, an early victim of AIDS.
Toward the end of high school, a boy whom I didn’t know very well walked in front of a train. He’d always been a quiet and sensitive kid. The youngest in a very large Catholic family. We debated whether it was suicide or an accident. I think now, looking back, of the likelihood that he was gay and couldn’t live with himself.
Imagine that you carry a dark secret. It is only dark because your family, your priest, and all the people you know well tell you that it makes you a terrible person, a lesser human being. The only relief for you from this torment would be to find others like yourself who know what it means to be you, who might share their understanding with you—more important, who might share their love. But to join these other people, to be seen with them, would be an admission of guilt to those judging you. Can there be any lonelier feeling? Would you want to go on?
One of the lesbian girls from high school attended my university. During the first few weeks of college, when nearly every relationship was a new relationship, we hung out together a little. One weekend, her girlfriend visited. A kid on my dormitory hall came to me that Saturday night and said, “Someone saw your friend kissing another girl.” He said it as if this was scandalous behavior. I didn’t pile on, but neither did I correct him. At that moment, I knew how Peter must have felt, denying that he knew Jesus.
My senior year of college, I lived in a house off campus with two roommates. One was my best friend at the time. The other was a personable, bright guy with a lot of friends. He’d been dating a woman the year before, but they broke up. Now he was manifestly unhappy at times and going to counseling. He didn’t share the source of his unhappiness with me, but he let something slip to my best friend. My best friend and I lived carefree, all of us supported by our parents, hanging out, having fun, going to class. Everything was a joke to my best friend. He told me with a scarcely suppressed grin that he knew what had driven our roommate to therapy: He was having problems regarding his sexuality. I didn’t find that funny. When I was alone with the guy, I told him he could talk to me about it if that would make him feel better. He gave me a cold thanks and never did. But years later, quite successful in business, out of the closet, in a happy long-term relationship with another man, he thanked me again for that offer. Though he’d never taken me up on it, he said that my offer had given him hope at a time when he was feeling hopeless.
My oldest first cousin is ten years older than I. When I graduated from college and began looking at apartments, I fell in love with a little studio on Christopher Street. At the time, it was the center of gay activity in New York. Naively, I didn’t know that. My cousin told my father I shouldn’t move there because I would get “cruised” all the time. I bought an apartment in Soho instead.
That same cousin had once been engaged to be married to a woman. We never talked about his sexuality, but over lunch one day I asked him why he’d never gone through with the marriage. He said, “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life making love to someone while picturing someone else.”
At some point after I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife, I learned that her father—who was divorced from her mother before we’d met—had come out of the closet a few years after the divorce as a gay man. He was a creative, brilliant, accomplished individual who had done some truly impressive things early in life. He’d grown up in a WASP family of significant social standing, the son of a war hero. His half-brother died a lifelong bachelor. My father-in-law, who is now gone, lived most of his life as an alcoholic.
Through my wife’s father, we became good friends with a gay artist who makes his living painting portraits. We hit it off as friends from the moment we met. I suppose that in another generation he may have managed to pass for straight. One summer weekend we invited him and another couple to visit a small cottage in the Catskills that we were renting. That Saturday morning, I initiated a game of touch football out on the lawn. The artist was game, though football was not his thing, and he never looked “gayer” than with his long arms waving in the air, attempting with all his might to defend against the pass. We all had a great time that weekend, but this moment of what I can only call “girlishness” on his part drew me even closer to him because he was totally unselfconscious about his lack of athleticism at that moment. He was entirely himself and was having fun. For our wedding, he gave us a pair of portraits of ourselves. They remain the most generous gift we have ever received.
One of my early bosses in publishing was a not particularly effeminate gay man who talked openly about his partner, a doctor. One day he hung up the phone and came into my office and said, “Some guy just called me a ‘fucking Canadian faggot’ because I won’t publish his book. ” I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “How did he know you were from Canada?”
Through her work, my wife met an old college classmate of mine whom I hadn’t seen in years. Coincidentally, she’d been the one whom my roommate had once dated. She was now out of the closet as a lesbian. Years later, she settled down with another woman and had a child, but we never met the child. Though we reached out many times, she always claimed to be too busy to have dinner with us. We never saw her again.
We had an acquaintance in our town in Westchester. He was a lifelong bachelor who lived alone in a cottage on a friend’s estate. He did odd jobs around town and sold his own pottery, which often featured painted pictures relating to horses. One day I ran into him in the grocery store. We were each just picking up a thing or two. He was wearing wellies and a raincoat and a cheerful smile. We had a nice chat. The very next day my wife called me and told me he had committed suicide. There were rumors that as a child he’d been abused by a priest.
I once had an employee who was openly gay and had recently overcome a bad drug habit. He had a long-term partner with AIDS, and he was deeply troubled. I couldn’t imagine not being able to make love to one’s partner without having to worry about acquiring a deadly communicable disease. Many years later, his partner remains alive. Last week, I received an email from the former employee, bragging about his promotion. Maybe he’s happy now.
In the town in Westchester, we knew a gay couple who were among the pillars of the community. One of them owns an old farmhouse that’s been in his family for generations. The other was our florist. When we still lived there, he’d spend hours in our house putting up Christmas decorations. He was outspoken and politically involved and something of an amateur historian. My wife used to tell me that he had a crush on me, but I didn’t believe it. Now that we’ve known him longer, however, he’s become more open about it, often telling me how good looking he thinks I am. He knows I’m not fair game, both because I’m married and straight, but he persists in these comments. It never offends me. In fact, I find this flattering.
We left the town in Westchester but we have many friends there. Among them are another gay couple. They invited us to come stay in their cottage with our daughter, and we did so when she was eight. We never spoke a word to her about the novelty of their arrangement because we don’t find it any more unusual than a tall man having committed his life to a short woman or an attorney living with an accountant or a million other possible human pairings. We stayed in their house and ate the breakfast they prepared and helped with the dishes as we would with any couple. It was all routine. My daughter never asked a question pertaining to their sexuality, but if she had, she would have received a matter-of-fact answer.
Ironically, our pied-à-terre in the West Village is a few blocks from Christopher Street. The neighborhood is much more mixed than it was when my cousin steered me away from an apartment there, nearly thirty years ago. But we do walk past lesbian and gay bars on a regular basis. Sometimes we point out drag queens to each other, only as a matter of curiosity. Is merely pointing someone out a kind of judging? I don’t know. Some of them clearly want attention. Others, however, appear to be mentally ill. What does it say about me that I feel compelled to make a note of these people?
One of the girls from my wife’s boarding school grew up to be an open lesbian in a committed relationship. She and her life partner have a child. The mothers are intelligent, caring, accomplished women, going about their lives as any couple does. They live in North Carolina and my wife’s friend vocally fought the constitutional amendment denying them their rights as a couple. She posted hourly on Facebook for weeks, begging people to oppose this amendment. Then she fell silent.
Now I think of this woman in North Carolina and of the casual idiocy with which we as children slung around terms like “queer” and “faggot.” And I am ashamed.
If only Mitt Romney had hired you to write an apology for what he did to that young student! – Excellent article and should be an eye opener for many who think they have never had contact with a gay person. Refusing to acknowledge their existence does not make them disappear.
I have 2 daughters and they don’t carry the prejudices of previous generations. I am sure your daughter does not either. There is hope yet for future generations.
I have been continually amazed at my daughter’s lack of prejudice, which just goes to show that it is a learned behavior.
This is a beautifully reflective piece, one of a few recent selections of writing which have been invoking a sense of responsibility within myself. Deciding what is right, what is wrong, and how to go about making immediate changes in our perception rather than waiting for the rest of society to initiate it. Thank you.
Thanks, Kaneischa. I have come to believe that most homophobia is resistance to looking within oneself. We must all be unafraid to look inward.
What a great read. It was particularly enjoyable since I know so many of the people referenced. Your wife was one of my closest friends in High School and I remember her father fondly. I remember going with her to visit him one weekend from boarding school and noticing that he and his friends actions and conversations were very different from that of my own father. I suspected but never asked. He was a lot of fun and clearly loved by his kids. I enjoyed your write very much. Please give my love to P.
Thanks, Jennifer. Will do.