After my marriage fell apart, I learned the culture of gay self-loathing.
I‘d always pondered, from the safe haven of a partnership of several years, just what possessed certain gay men to behave as they did. Why the flitting from one failed relationship to another, why the obsession with bodies, why the constant pursuit of sex and the feverish calculation of smoldering stares from strangers on the street? Why was nothing enough? There seemed never enough sex to be had, nor a sufficient number of weights to be lifted, never enough admiration to be received. At the same time, none of it ever really mattered. No one seemed any happier, any less depressed or dissatisfied, for all the scores scored and pounds lost. How fast can you run on a treadmill going nowhere? I smugly asked.
And then, my relationship of a dozen years was suddenly over, 12
years apparently being a benchmark figure, the double digits either amazing
or appalling my friends. Those who wanted to be in a relationship were stunned that any two men could be together so long. Those who professed they had no use for long-term commitment waxed condescending about how two men could be together so long. Which is why, when I was finally, irrevocably single, I felt like an unmitigated failure: Why couldn’t I make this work? What would people say — especially my family, whom I had finally convinced that our relationship was as valid as the marriages of all the fucking nieces, nephews and cousins all around us?
In the end, there was nothing I could do; there I was, a single man again. So much of the validation I received from being part of a couple was now gone that I felt like demoted royalty, stripped of the “highness” title. It wasn’t just a question of status, however — it was also comfort. So much of my life had been lived in cave-like zones of connubial bliss that I never wanted to question what wasn’t working. I was stoned on domestic partnership.
“Get over it, Nancy,” was basically what my well-meaning friend Tom told me on my birthday a year ago, when denial was still very much part of my day-to-day existence. Wounded, I still had the wherewithal to respond to my friend, famous for cashing in his chips when the game got
dicey, that he — who’d never been in a relationship longer than two years — had no right to question my mourning.
“Six years,” said Marlane, my friend who had been through a painful divorce. “It takes six years to get over a 12-year marriage.” To her, it was not simply a mathematical equation — divide the number of years in half and that’s your grief time — but a question of the feelings involved. But for many of my gay male friends, such feelings did not enter into the equation. The fact that it took a heterosexual woman to validate my grief was not lost on me.
Of course, I have gay male friends who are capable of offering the same kind of comfort. But I’ve noticed that often gay men are the least equipped to empathize. Trained to not care, we place ourselves in a rigid existence of emotional self-denial. Outwardly, we might seem like the most extravagant of hedonists, denying ourselves nothing, neither drugs nor booze nor steroids nor sex. Inwardly, however, we lead lives of self-denial with a monastic stoicism.
“Saw you in J’s. You and I stared at each other for a half hour, then I left. Wished I’d asked for your name.” So reads an ad in the personals of one of the free gay weeklies. It speaks volumes about emotional self-deprivation: Give attitude first, pine later, in true Barbara Stanwyck style. It’s safer to pay for the placement of an ad and print your yearnings than to deal with those feelings in real time. In the same way, when the guy flippantly referring to “my future ex-boyfriend” with a Holly Golightly shrug is not 20 or 25 — the right age for this kind of brazen attitude — but 35 or 40, I cringe at his self-delusion. You really have to wonder what’s wrong with a guy who talks of disposing of lovers like used condoms — or why a gay man would consider this kind of behavior toward another gay man acceptable.
The bad behavior of most gay men toward each other results from a primal form of self-loathing. But it’s difficult to recognize. It can be shrouded in the guise of high standards, the great search for the unattainable. “I deserve the best and I won’t settle for anything else.” Many gay men attempt to make themselves unattainable through the body beautiful. They become more body-conscious than 11-year-old bulimic girls. Instead of bingeing and purging, they deny themselves by pumping up to the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float, rejecting any and all lesser physical specimens, forgetting that youth is not forever, that bodies betray us and that nothing evens the score like age.
Such a banal embrace of delusion finds its apogee in butch culture, which excludes everyone who’s not hairy and/or hyper-masculine and embraces a punishing Über-male image that caricatures manhood, usually with a large dose of S/M thrown in. And who’s the punishing top? “Daddy,” the hairiest one, the one most eager to administer the belt or the dildo or the fist. To these top and bottom queers, the only way of being a man is to play at pain, over and over. To themselves and each other, they’ll never be anything more than faggots, so they keep on playing the game.
Ironically, gay men pursue sex with a constancy and fervor unrivaled by any other humans because they want to be rejected: They need the daily fix of humiliation that so often stems from seeking out intimate contact. It’s not the casual sex or the seedy environment that creates the debasement. My friend Bill, for example, has cheerfully been down in the “skank” (as he calls it, appropriately) of basement booths in porn bookstores. “Every once in a while you’re separated from the universe by a plywood door, and it’s heaven on earth,” Bill said. “But most of the time we go to these places because we feel bad.”
This is the daily interactive trafficking in self-loathing, and gay men have turned it inside out, creating an exquisite origami of disgust. I know
someone who takes numbers from admiring men on the street precisely because he doesn’t believe he’s worth the time of day. He needs the flattery and fawning, but because he assumes such strangers are fools for finding him attractive, he takes their numbers with no intention of calling.
Having been married, I’m cautious about going through it again, not only because it was so painful but because it was so worth it. The idea of being alone suddenly seems less solitary than I’d imagined. I’m certain it’s less
lonely than scouring jerk-off joints and bars looking for a
nameless fuck every night. An occasional fuck, or the more than occasional one, in a skanky room among men you don’t want to spend your life with, is an experience I wouldn’t deny myself if I wanted it, and I have wanted it. And when you really want it, it is, as my friend Bill says, “heaven on earth.” It’s when you don’t and you’re in that skanky room that you’re in trouble.
I’d rather be alone for life than play the gay games of ritual debasement and self-loathing. The single most difficult thing to accept is that after all gay men have been through together, we’re still often our own worst enemies.
Daniel Reitz, a frequent contributor to Salon, is a writer living in New York. His film "Urbania," based on his play, "Urban Folk Tales," will be released in August. More Daniel Reitz.
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