Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Joke

Q: What did the co-dependent say to his spouse?













A: "If you ever leave me, can I come too?"

Monday, April 16, 2007

Becoming a Man

I just reread Paul Monette's Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story. This book is a coming out story by a deeply conflicted, closeted young man who eventually finds the love of his life. (FYI, It's also a great piece of writing that won the National Book Award.) Monette wrote this after the memoir of his lover's illness, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, as a kind of "prequel." I can recommend both books, but if you are going to read them both start with Borrowed Time first. Or, if you're mostly interested in the coming out story, stick with Becoming a Man.

I think this story has relevance for the MoHo crowd. Although Monette was not LDS, he grew up in an era where homosexuality was not as accepted as it is today. He made a huge effort to suppress his sexual orientation and actively tried to change it. The story (I warn in advance) is not for the faint of heart. Monette does not sugarcoat any of the missteps he took along the way.

I read this book when it was first published in 1992. I was in my early thirties at that point and had been out for less than 5 years. I was horrified. Monette seemed like a sexual outlaw to me, unlikable and hard.

When you reread books after time has passed, one of the most interesting things that you discover is the change in yourself. The words on the page are the same words you read earlier; how you feel about those words can be very different. This has happened to me a number of times. I remember rereading The Brothers Karamazov in my late thirties. I had read the novel when I was 21 and loved it. But it was a completely different book (I swear) when I read it on the cusp of middle age. I still loved it, but in a very different way (hint: I liked Ivan a lot better the second time around).

So when I reread Becoming a Man this week, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that my interpretation of it changed after 15 years. The bottom line: the forty-something version of me judges Monette a lot less harshly than the thiry-something version did. I think I now have more understanding for how difficult it is to come out, how many obstacles there really are. Also, I'm at a point in my life where I have a lot more compassion for the variety of responses to life's challenges.

Even though Monette doesn't come across as the most sympathetic of protagonists, the anguish he felt humanizes him. You get the sense that he did the best he could given the situation he was in. What I've come to after some years of living is that there are many stories. Our stories taken together, as a whole, give us understanding. Some of my favorite blog entries are those that tell personal stories.

I hope those of you who are looking for a well written personal account of coming out might check this book out.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Covering

At the recommendation of Chris, I read Covering by Kenji Yoshino.

The book is partly a personal coming out story and partly a legal and social argument. It also restates a psychological framework developed by Erving Goffman for understanding assimilation.

Goffman's psychological theory is interesting. (I haven't read the source material, so I'm relying on Yoshino's summary.) When a trait is stigmatized, there seems to be a spectrum of adaptive behaviors: conversion, passing, covering and flaunting. For example Jews in the U.S. have adapted by conversion (changing religion, identity and name; intermarriage), passing (changing names, sending Christmas cards), covering (public acknowledgment of affiliation but careful accommodation of cultural expectations so as not to appear "too Jewish") and flaunting (contradicting social expectations to conform).

Yoshino uses Goffman's ideas as part of an argument that identity politics in the U.S. has more or less run its course and that in its place should be a push for universal human rights that would require all nonconformers to "cover" less. He also argues that legal remedies to social problems are limited. Conversations more than lawsuits will be the means of social change. The examples are wide-ranging, including workplace accommodation for women with children and other non-gay issues. His approach seems sensible, humane and workable. Certainly it is less divisive than identity politics.

Yoshino's coming out story was the least interesting part of the book. When he moves from law and social issues to his personal life, his writing suddenly becomes pretentious, stiff and evasive. It's an overblown, grandiose faux-literary style that you would expect only in a much younger writer.

I found the narrative to be self-indulgently confessional. For example, there is a stomach-turning scene in which Yoshino refuses his lover's hand while his lover is awaiting a potentially serious diagnosis in hospital. We are told that this is due to "covering." I see it less charitably. I think it shows frightening callousness. Its inclusion in the book seems self-serving (the author reassures us he still "winces" when he thinks about it).

While reading Yoshino's story, I thought of a similar, but superior, coming out memoir, Paul Monette's Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story. Like Yoshino, Monette is not always a very likable protagonist, but unlike Yoshino, Monette was a gifted writer of personal narrative. (Monette's memoir won the National Book Award, a high honor that was well deserved.) His story leaves no doubt of what he felt; the reader can experience his life. Monette is painful to read but very worthwhile.

Yoshino's legal and social argument resonates with me, and I can recommend Covering for its social and legal ideas alone. The coming out story-- not so much.