Merle Miller, writing On Being Different for The Times in 1971, tries to capture “What It Means to Be a Homosexual” (in an unpublished foreword, it is reinterpreted as “What It Means to Be Gay”) during a time of revolutionary gay rights activism. Miller’s homosexuality is informed by a refusal of the terms of closeting discourse that construct and degrade his sexuality; through this refusal, Miller continues to undo the defensiveness surrounding sexual identification by alluding to a security in his own sexuality, culminating in an experience of the present without regret.
Closeting discourse is embedded in the article to which Miller is responding; it is one written by Joseph Epstein wishing homosexuality off the face of the earth, which is a “genocidal” logic felt by “a great many intelligent people.” This sort of genocidal extreme sets the boundaries of the closet, in which Miller and his straight friends play a game of “masks.” The fear creating the masks that structure the closet plays itself out in multiple forms.
Miller took up these forms when he started “playing straight.” To avoid being called a “sissy,” which here, might mean gay (Miller’s writing demonstrates an alliance between sexuality and gender; sissy is later described as effeminate—which he avoids as if it is the same as “homosexual”), Miller avoided swimming nude at “the Y” (which, I guess, was a standard at the time), avoided changing in locker rooms, tried to become much more “masculine,” lowered his voice, voted against a front-page photograph of a gay composer, married a woman (maybe it would “cure” his homosexuality…), and, of all the institutions for “outcasts” that he chose to support, simply ignored the gay ones. We can see that the closet not only hides the existence of this gay man, but it also enforces the homophobia that keeps this man in the closet—an enforcement that may be one of the better techniques for hiding.
But it is not merely the genocidal extreme that enforced the rules of the closet. It was also the DSM classification (only changed after the publication of this article) of homosexuality as a mental illness, along with the sloppy science supporting its conclusion; it was language like “faggot” and the bullying that came with it; it was the threat of losing employment for being gay; it was the threat of violence towards gays in literature; it was the association of pedophilia with homosexuality; it was the discrimination that, even after outlawing discrimination, “was still the rule rather than the exception;” and it was the prevalence of a generally “intelligent” public that still came to genocidal conclusions (here: you can be as smart as you want, but you can’t think your way to compassion).
Nor was it only the closeted gays that were subjected to these rules. Miller mentions that in Boise, Idaho, when a “homosexual underworld” was uncovered, “upright” citizens panicked. So many men began to bring their wives to bars with them that guys nights were eradicated by the fear of being perceived as gay. Homophobia limits straight men too—they, too, participate in this game of masks.
So there is a link between incredibly mundane forms of behavior, such as speaking or swimming or choosing which institutions to support, and the implicit violence of homophobia. And although gay men aren’t the only ones subjected to this homophobia, gay men are its primary subject, living a life of masks until coming out.
If this game of masks is what structures sexuality, then one would expect what the psychologist Martin Hoffman says:
"self-condemnation pervades the homosexual world…[leading] towards promiscuity [that] makes stable relationships a terrific problem…homosexuals are lonely and alone…society imprints [adverse self-definitions] on the homosexual mind…many men… will live out their lives in the quiet desperation of the sad gay world…this dilemma is the core problem of the gay world."
Fundamentally, the psychologist sees these residuals of the closet as the defining problem of a gay life. Society continues to imprint norms of sadness and quiet desperation in gay men’s lives, according to Hoffman. And to some extent, Miller agrees when he accuses homosexuals of believing that homosexuality is contagious—like an illness that strikes fear into his straight friends; for Miller, culturally this is enacted in the play The Boys in the Band, where self-pity defines the gay experience. In a time when many of the norms surrounding gay men were negative, it is not shocking that the gay experience would be structured and defined by these same social imprints. Yet, Miller refuses them.
Miller shrugs off the masks that structure the closet. When he says, “[none] of my homosexual friends are any too happy, but then very few of my heterosexual friends…are exactly joyous either,” Miller levels the playing field; gays can be just as happy, or sad, as straight people because the rules that structure sexuality become ineffective. Where private acceptance of sexuality is hindered by the classification of homosexuality as a disease, Miller notes that “[most] people of every of every political persuasion seem to be too uncertain of their own sexual identification to be anything but defensive. Fearful. And maybe it is contagious. Prove it isn’t.” Discourse plays defensively here, and Miller is no longer defensive. No longer trying to prove anything, nor playing into the language of contagion, nor, earlier in the essay, the etiological language of homosexuality, nor the scientific language—no longer playing into the language that problematizes his sexuality, Miller places the burden of proof on the other. It no longer matters whether homosexuality is contagious (it isn’t) or, by extension, where it comes from, or whether it’s scientifically or rationally justified: Miller just exists, no longer governed by the fear that plays the game of masks.
By just existing, Miller does not negate the masks that play into the closet. He notes that if he had been given a choice, he would have preferred to be straight--but then he would not be himself, and he enjoys being himself. Yet, this is not the point, because nobody is given that choice. Instead, he finds himself in a beautiful environment, where he “would not choose to be anyone else or any place else.” Miller refuses to play that game of masks, to evaluate sexualities, for he can only be himself, sitting in the present, eluding the discursive practices that seek to structure his existence into even the most affirming form of a closet.
I’d like to shift very quickly to Litany in Which Certain Things are Crossed Out, which is a poem by Richard Siken. I’d recommend that you read it. Siken is a gay poet, speaking of different versions of life and different love stories that could have been.
In several instances, Siken describes real life moments, apologizing for the “bony elbows” or the “scene at the bottom of the stairwell.” Fragments from real life are “crossed out,” so that Siken writes, “I take the parts that I remember and stitch them back together/ to make a creature that will do what I say/ or love me back.” The creature becomes an ideal: he finds the parts that are bad and writes “crossed out” after them so he can reconstruct a “tabernacle.” And the religious ideal grows, because later in the poem he (becoming “we”—with the lover) keeps returning to Jerusalem, finding “not what we sought.” The ideal fails. Ultimately, Siken approaches “Forgiveness,” embodied as his lover, found in the present-moment yard, as the only way forward. Just like Miller’s refusal of the discourse on sexuality, the ineffectiveness of Siken’s story-building crossing-out suggests that Forgiveness is what works, in that present-moment yard.
Synthesizing Miller and Siken: forgive the closet. Forgive the masks, forgive the bad intelligence, forgive the bullying and discrimination, forgive the self-condemnation, forgive the loneliness, forgive that system, forgive yourself. Forgive the unforgivable—that is the only real forgiveness, anyways. No construction of tabernacles; no finding a Jerusalem to save you; no crossing out the terms; there is only a forgiveness rooted in the present that knows the inadequacy of a game of masks.