Now that we’re in our eighties, one or two undergrad classmates from 1961 and myself are talking. We were theatre people, dedicated to Ibsen and Chekhov, Moliere and Sophocles. We were acquiring presentation skills and while we were not a confessional bunch -- much more interested in "becoming" in the now onstage -- we did study “The Method”, a way of bringing a character alive by remembering our own past experiences. The sensory moment was what counted and I see that it is becoming crucial today in the scientific context to understand identity and memory.
Northwestern was said to be where people went who couldn’t make it into the Big Ten. Maybe. Most students were quite prosperous and there were a lot of Jewish people from the Eastern coast. Blacks were confined to the football team but regarded with awe. I can’t remember anyone Asian or indigenous. I was on scholarship. Girls at NU found me deficient in social and wardrobe skills. I was hardly sorority material.
But I was more or less adopted by a handsome and promising young man. He belonged to a small group of gentle and imaginative young men who turned out to be what we now call “gay.” That is, they were sexually attracted to other men but in all other ways they reflected their class and education. They didn’t really understand themselves as a category, except they were different, which was typical of theatre people. Looking back, I was a bit of a disguise.
On the other hand, I was never what is now labeled a Karen which is not quite the same as a sorority girl, not an elite socially approved woman, neither a tart nor a frump. Nor did I want to be a mom. In the end I found my niche here next to the Blackfeet rez where I can wear work shirts and drive a pickup. When in 1961 I went to the job placement office of NU, they told me there was no such place as this. The implication was that I was no such person. (I married a sculptor, kind of hyper-het, and was his adjunct for ten years, right here.)
So this male friend of mine, who has kept very elite company over the years and is now happily married to a same-sex spouse, is talking about how unique and secret those guys felt then. At the time I wrote for each one of them a fantasy short story, one about a man who loved a unicorn, one about a man who cherishes and protects a seed until he died and his body fertilized it so it bloomed — that sort of thing. I’m surprised they remember them and kept them. They are surprised that I knew they were gay but wasn’t shocked and repelled.
Maybe it was an advantage for us to feel so different, a way of being “chosen” for great things. When is a stigma not a stigma? “Gay” is one of those tricky labels that can be both negative and positive. Like being indigenous. Or being from a foreign country. My friend was close to two others of us who were sister actresses. Both were on the boundary of madness — one went over the edge and one became famous. Was being Marilyn Monroe a stigma or a kind of holiness? The plays we studied considered these things seriously, acted them out.
So we talk about the people we knew then, but haven’t seriously considered writing their biographies, though we play with the idea of autobiography or at least “memoir” which includes the fantasy element. Does one stigma, like suffering from AIDS, cancel out another stigma, like being gay? Does great art cancel out psychosis? Can truly ugly people be sexually attractive to anyone?
The problem is that the stigma is not in the person stigmatized but in the culture and the culture is always changing to accommodate the conditions of the time. When we are all prosperous and the sun is shining, we are willing to experiment and to tolerate troublesome people. We don’t mind if the people we know are like a freak show cast, super-obese, densely tattooed, very short, very hairy, contest-winning muscular. Maybe they are really "Star Trek" characters.
When times are tough we try to fit in. People with money whittle their own flesh to conform to some idea. But what we are conforming to may be quite different in one era or country than in another. I have a book somewhere that explores the ideal appearance of women, lingering over foot fetishes that urged the Chinese to deform the feet of their girls while in a certain European era, big feet were considered beautiful. In today’s slick mag world, women are urged to be thin to the point of matchsticks but to have fat lips that stick out like duck-bills. What’s that about? Looking like aliens? In contrast, vids of people celebrating the end of lockdown show women in bikinis who are ballooned and bleached with exquisite nails, dramatic makeup, and floating straight white hair. Like dolls.
Very sexy men — gay or not — can be depicted as half-goat, always dark and hairy but certainly uncultured. Yet gay men might be portrayed like Oscar Wilde, almost over-cultured and a friend to women. Are most poets “Nancies” with airs and flourishes, or must they be rough, cursing, outside respectability, in order to be taken seriously? It’s all very confusing.
If a person has taken this latter way of being and has actually done sex work, accommodating very powerful people who would be ruined by disclosure, they could become blackmailers or they could be in danger of preemptive destruction, even death. Politicians who have spent their lives obsessively hiding and covering up are pretty hard to persuade that gay is not a stigma anymore but merely a marketing category, so they should come out and own themselves. Look what has happened to all the women who have ratted out Trump. It’s not a way that’s comfortable and will make some people detest the victim’s past instead of the perpetrator’s deeds.
Repenting while refusing to testify is almost impossible. But that’s public. What is there to say among old friends who always knew, but never felt that society’s opinion was worth tuppence, however little that may be. And how temporary.