Most of what I’m writing here I’ve thought about for a long time. I’ve long debated with myself as to whether or not I should write it up and publish it. It wasn’t until yesterday that something clicked and I realized that maybe this is the most important thing I have to say right now at my time and place in history. Out of respect for another person’s privacy who is very close to me, I’m choosing not to specify here what prompted this realization, but it’s not important for the purposes of this post.
By the way, I apologize if this is a spoiler alert, but I’m not gay in any way, shape or form. I’m also not a Republican, an anti-gay activist, or a Trump supporter. You’re welcome to assume whatever you want about me, but if that’s your agenda as far as reading this post is concerned, I’m warning you now that you can save your time and stop here.
I’ve led a fairly privileged life, all things considered, but no one’s life is without its dark side. For me, at the end of the day, it’s the soul-sucking loneliness of it all that’s really the tragic element. I’m never at a loss for company on a certain level, but when it comes to some things that are so vivid and so real to me as to change my life, most people around me are simply not in a position to understand what I mean when I try to explain. Actually, this may be a best-case scenario. I’m sad to say that even some people who are near and dear to me assume the worst about me whenever I open my mouth. I guess I can’t stop them from slapping labels on me and shutting down what I have to say because I was born a certain way, or into certain types of supposed privilege, but it hurts sometimes to know that’s what they think. The real tragedy is that this enmity between gay and straight, male and female, white and nonwhite, didn’t have to exist. As Kanye West lamented, “We could’ve been somebody.” I’m at the point, though, where I feel what I have to say is important enough that someone needs to hear it, even if an internet of strangers is the safest space for me. Maybe someone out there one day will read this and truly understand what it was like to be me at place and time right now. Maybe they’ll even feel what I felt, and understand that no matter what some people might say, it’s as real as you can possibly imagine.
Let’s start at a point that the majority of decent people I know would acknowledge. If you’re one of those people who believes that homosexuality is a sin, and you feel a responsibility to publicly condemn these people or anything that would help them, then for the love of God, please stop. You can believe whatever you want, but this kind of bloviating will never change hearts and minds for the better, and it’s laughable to imagine it would ever convince anyone to stop being gay. The only tangible result of it is to drive these lifestyles underground, making the problems of self-hatred, drug abuse and suicide that these people face on a daily basis even worse. God doesn’t create mistakes, and every person who wants to be psychologically healthy needs to take stock of who they are at heart and recognize their inherent self-worth and potential. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being attracted to the same sex - once you acknowledge who you are and your inclinations, it’s what you do with them that makes it right or wrong. Every reasonable person I know, would agree with me on this, regardless of their religious or political points of view. It’s taken a remarkably long time for even the most liberal societies on earth to come to this point of view, and if you’re on board, you should be proud of yourself. I submit to you, however, that the discussion is not yet finished.
One of the great things about attending Juilliard was the acceptance the community at large there showed towards individuals who led certain nontraditional lifestyles. There was the old joke that circulated in the hallways that there are only three types of pianists: Gay pianists, Jewish pianists, and bad pianists (I was a bad pianist, as my keyboard skills instructor would have confidently told you). Amidst the welcoming and tolerant attitude that I enjoyed taking in on a daily basis in the new, exciting city, I eventually began to have some questions.
The man pictured at the top of this post is Benjamin Britten, one of my favorite composers of all time from a personal aesthetic point of view. The Estonian composer Arvo Part wrote, in fact, that upon emigration from the USSR, he was the only composer in the West whose music truly touched him. Today we would say he was one of the first openly gay composers, and he made history posthumously when the Queen of England sent a letter of condolence to his lifetime partner Peter Pears after his death.
In my second year at Juilliard, I took a class on his music with the brilliant opera singer and professor Benjamin Sosland, who is also openly gay. He taught us a great many things he knew about opera, some humorous. One thing I remember off the top of my head is that in Billy Budd, an opera with an all-male cast on a ship, he apparently didn’t realize the double meaning of one of his lines, ‘Clear the decks of seamen!” until the first rehearsal. Despite the amusement of the singers (or because of it?), he refused to change the lyrics.
Another day in class, he said something I found particularly memorable. I was a little surprised to hear, but if anyone has a right to say it, it would be him. It was simple: He said that as comfortable as we are with the term ‘gay’ today, Britten himself would never have identified himself by it. First of all, its meaning in the linguistic context of the day (and even in my childhood in the 1990s) would have most likely meant simply happy or carefree. Dr. Sosland elaborated further, however, emphasizing that the term ‘gay’ today is loaded with more connotations than simply being attracted to the same sex. As much as Britten’s lifestyle choices intersected with those of many ‘gay’ composers today, many attributes we would also expect of gay men today would have been alien to him. He implied that Britten might just as well have resented the association as felt empowered by it.
As wonderful of a musician as he is, another thing he repeatedly challenged was the notion of a ‘gay sensibility.’ Given the prevalence of gay people at the highest levels in the arts, it’s easy to see how certain associations between artistic talent and homosexuality could emerge. A lot of people, especially in that school, seemed to expect homosexuality in men (oddly enough, not usually in women who dress conventionally) who display outstanding artistic sensibilities, and vice versa. Sometimes being a straight man who dresses well and is sensitive enough to be a decent musician feels about like walking through the TSA check-in with a turban on. If you take Dr. Sosland’s word for it, as I think you should, the people promulgating these stereotypes are wrong.
In what felt like a moment of common humanity, he emphasized that aesthetics and sexual orientation, from his point of view, were not necessarily associated any more closely than they would be for heterosexual artists. He continued, saying the whole notion of a gay sensibility is so nebulous and relies on so many assumptions that it’s meaningless as far as he is concerned. Once you can even define what ‘gay sensibility’ means, maybe you can talk about, but until then, there’s not even a meaningful discussion to be had.
I get that Juilliard doesn’t represent normal society in most ways, but one thing it did make think about was what the obstacles to coming were there versus other more traditional communities. I’ve gotten to the point after several years where I’m just going to go ahead and say it - it would be hard to come out there too, and for radically different but equally valid reasons. There just seem to be certain lifestyle choices and affiliations that are expected of you, and if these are not all lines that one is comfortable crossing, then the only result is that again, it’s driven back underground.
There seems to be a whole package of expectations that comes with being gay. You can’t just acknowledge some degree of SSA (same-sex attraction) but leave it there and choose not to act on it. In the arts community, no sooner than those words leave your mouth, then the gay label is slapped on you, and it’s assumed that you’re still repressed or in the closet. No one looks at you the same from that point on. People expect certain political opinions from you, certain types of clothes, and even a certain inflection of voice (oddly, the gay musicians from the baby boomer generation who are represented so strongly in the faculty today seem to have no trace of this accent). Alienation from Christianity, if not outright hostility towards it, is assumed, although thankfully I see signs of this changing. There even seems to be an expectation that traditional heterosexual marriage and family is out of the question, and I have to say this is an expectation that comes from all levels of society now, across lines of gender and sexual orientation.
You could say that although some may choose to enter traditional heterosexual marriages on their own terms, it’s not your decision to make, so leave it to them. Fair enough, but it’s also easy to imagine how this could influence a lot of people to just preempt any discussion whatsoever and keep it all inside.
I don’t think I’ve said anything so far that should be too outrageous, although in today’s social media climate, who knows. As a self-identified liberal in the most radical sense, however, I’ve been used to taking risk on myself all my life in order to stay open to new ideas, and I’m not about to stop now. I’m going to take this a step further and question something that’s regarded as almost axiomatic by now: Is being gay a choice?
All gay people I know and have asked say they experienced same-sex attraction from an early age. As far as I’m aware, it’s ludicrous to imagine, as in the Book of Mormon musical, that you can just “turn it off like a lightswitch”. The issue here, though, is that we have to separate same-sex attraction and being ‘gay.’ Although all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that one’s fundamental sexual orientation is not realistically alterable by choice, I’m not willing to say that you can’t choose other aspects of the gay lifestyle, or what to do with these inclinations in the first place.
Every age has its own set of prejudices, and one in particular that troubles me right now is the one directed at men and women of traditional values who still experience same-sex attraction. It’s wrong to assume that a conservative Christian who acknowledges these inclinations but chooses not to act on them is repressed or in any way unhealthy. You could rightly say that the decision for them to get married to a member of the opposite sex isn’t yours to make, but it’s also not yours to deny, and in all honesty, I feel the latter is becoming as much a problem as the former. You could rightly express concern for the spouse of such a person, but it would be wrong to speak for them and say it’s inherently unfair to them. I also am troubled by the assumption that Republican lawmakers who speak out against the gay agenda are just secretly gay themselves and projecting their own struggles on the world instead of coming out. It’s not for anyone to assume, and even if it is true, it shouldn’t invalidate their opinions. To the contrary, it should make their position even more meaningful, if it comes at personal cost. Some might just assume they’re hypocrites and that they’re screwing around when away from their wives, but I would tell the gay men who claim to know the D.C. scene and repeat this hyperbole about congressmen to get realistic about themselves.
Again, I realize I’m only speaking for a very limited cross-section of society, so if you’re a Southern Baptist in Alabama, this probably won’t be relevant to you. I’m checking my privilege here, but I can’t help that I was born into the life I lead, though, and in my part of the world during the brief flicker of time I happen to be alive in this earth, I have to say that it would be a bigger risk to take to come out as opposed to gay marriage at Juilliard than to come out as gay. I’m not saying that I disapproved of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states, but you better believe I made sure to tell anyone who asked how much I supported it. If I had opposed it (not that I have any power over the issue in the first place) I would have been treated worse than a gay person in my church at home. Coming out against any aspect of the gay rights movement or expressing disapproval of the lifestyle in general will seriously alienate you from the tribe mentality that runs the school, unless you want to be a very small minority.
I actually think the slippery slope argument that gay marriage will lead to societal collapse is ludicrous. It makes about as much sense as saying that marijuana is a 'gateway drug' (did anyone else grow up in the 90s?). Anyone who knows me, though, will eventually find out that I do have serious reservations about the gay lifestyle, especially in New York City. There is a rampant culture of superficiality and prioritization of short-term rewards, and anyone from the gay community would back me up. You could argue that the taboos about the gay lifestyle helped create this mess, driving it underground and keeping these poor guys in the rat race forever, and you might be right, but it still doesn’t justify it, and I’m not sure I would blame the republicans exclusively either. To me (though I can’t speak for anyone else), sexual gratification is perhaps the least important priority of a meaningful relationship. It would be wrong to assume that simply for this reason, traditional heterosexual marriage and the joy that comes with raising one’s own biological children is proscribed to anyone of homosexual inclinations. Again, looking back two generations, I can think of the examples of Leonard Bernstein and Donald McInnes, who raised families and had children with women. Though both outlived their marriages (though Bernstein remained married until the death of his wife), and both may have entered to fulfill societal expectations, I simply don’t know enough to say that the marriages were unhappy or exploitative of either them or their wives. Given the privacy of both men about this part of their lives, I don’t expect that many people would know.
One could argue that since I’m not gay, it’s not my place to make these pronouncements. I don’t really have an answer to this, expect to say that it shouldn’t invalidate what I have to say either. Something personal I can say, however, is that I did feel considerable pressure identify as gay at that school and to act on it. I have friends I knew who to the best of my knowledge probably still suspect I’m gay, and I very much resent everything that led to that state of affairs.
Things in the past like this don’t really keep me up at night, but what does bother me is that the gay lifestyle seems to be promoted as an alternative to real masculinity, and I think that in reality it shouldn’t be a cop-out, regardless of sexual orientation. I’ll be honest - I was repeatedly told by people who were close to me that I was gay, and most of the rest of people around me merely assumed it. I’ll acknowledge that I may have invited this characterization by lack of muscular development, being a little too soft-spoken, and generally not acting like a grown man at the times when I should have. Perhaps I was even ashamed of exhibiting signs of a traditional sexual orientation, having seen firsthand the tragic results that sometimes occur. Maybe I thought it made me a better musician. Maybe I even thought I had to pretend to be gay to be friends with women. Once you start living a lie, it’s harder than you might expect to stop the bullshit mill. And in my case, no one I knew would ever have felt sorry for me. Not that I would ever have told anyone or even been honest with myself at the time.
At this point some would say this is the fault of traditional masculinity for expecting all men to look and act like they’re on the high school football team, thereby gaywashing everyone else, but I have to assert this is a fundamentally inadequate approach to a complex issue. As hard is this is to put into words, I wouldn’t say in general that I ever felt growing up that so many societal expectations of men were wrong. If you ask me how I feel now looking back on my life up to this point, I would actually blame something like a well-intentioned maternal instinct run amok as the real culprit. I can say with a great deal of certainty that from a male point of view, boys actually want to be challenged and even denigrated by their male peers until they can prove a certain degree of strength, maturity, and ultimately masculinity. I get that this may appear like bullying, especially from a maternal perspective, but the paternal element of tough love is necessary too, as paradoxical as it may sound. Where you might actually run into trouble in this regard is by coddling boys too much who don’t fulfill the expected roles, and trying to direct them towards lifestyles, identities, and affiliations that might seem more friendly to them. I think there’s a real issue in fact with approaching boys who might just need to grow up a little bit or grow a pair with a whole set of stereotypes and expectations of their life. Equally so, it’s also wrong to expect men of artistic inclinations to be effeminate, and vice versa. To sum it up, it would have been more helpful for anyone who knew me to tell me “Man up!” than “You might be gay.” I know there’s a fine line between this and bullying, but all I can say at this point is that most men are a little more complicated inside than appearances might indicate. Just as men shouldn’t assume the right to tell girls how to feel about themselves, neither should women assume they know everything about male developmental psychology either.
Furthermore, I think if we’re honest, spending the time and work to become physically strong and verbally assertive is a positive development regardless of one’s sexual orientation. There is pressure on guys who are naturally effeminate to identify as gay, and if they embrace the underdeveloped side of themselves to an unnecessary extent, they’re going to find out that it’s not going to get them respect no matter which way they swing. Ask anyone in the gay community and you’ll find the expectations of traditional masculinity can be just as strong as for straight men, if not more. If you come out as gay, it better be for meaningful reasons, not as a cop-out. Obviously my problem pales in comparison with the oppression that gay people have faced in a straight society throughout history. There’s an opera being done on campus about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, in fact, only 20 years ago. Tragically, in Russia gays are murdered in the streets even today. Nevertheless, I didn’t choose the cards I was dealt, and at the end of the day, and this is the issue I had to figure out about myself to be of any benefit to the world. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
There does seem to be an element of admiration in the gay male community for gay men who are comfortable with who they are but also fit into society as respectfully as possible. They’re at peace with who they are but they don’t rub it in people’s faces, center their identity around it, or expect special treatment. I truly believe that most gay men are not flamers, contrary to whatever the average person might think. I get that this isn’t for me to impose, but I can say I sympathize with the idea. There’s a reason why I look up to Britten as an example of good sartorial and musical taste.
This is getting to be time for another blog post, but while I'm on the topic, I might as well add that while I’m fortunate enough to never have to worry about my acceptance or safety due to my sexual orientation, I do think part of the reason this issue continues to speak to me relates to my musical training. There’s a joke among musicians that violinists who play viola are ‘bisectionals’, and usually violinists who cop to playing some viola on the side are either accepted by pure violists for ‘coming out of the closet’, or told by others with good taste to put the viola back into the closet where it came out of storage!
Again, clearly this problem is not even on the same order of magnitude as worrying about coming out as gay, but again, two wrongs don’t make a right, and I wouldn’t be losing sleep if this didn’t matter to me. I did start on the violin, but I switched in my senior year of undergrad and then did my master’s in viola at Juilliard. I can say I’ve had to come out as a closeted violinist over my past three years at USC, and even my second year at Juilliard prior to my studies here, and it’s been a rough journey. The first stage was acknowledging the violinistic tendencies in my playing as real, rather than simply mistakes or poor taste as implied by many teachers. The next step was to realize that as scared as I am to compete among a whole different set of people with different and potentially higher expectations of me, maybe I could actually make it in the violin world instead. Renewed experimentation with things I'd given up on in the past when I was less mature helped confirm this idea. The final step is to acknowledge that while viola may not be something I devote the rest of my career to, it’s still important that I finish school honorably. I’ve figured out by now that it doesn’t work to change who I am as a string player at heart, but if I acknowledge that I naturally tend to play the viola like a big violin, there nothing wrong with that itself - it’s what I make of it that make it better or worse. I just need to accept who I am but make a conscious and informed decision at using everything I am as productively as I can in the context of my last two viola lessons and my final recital in a week and a half from today. You could say that I’m figuring out a respectful way to come out in a world whose traditions and values I admire and uphold but which is sometimes hostile to me when I’m truest to myself. It’s interesting to think of the parallels between mine and the prototypical coming out story, a gay man making his way in a straight world.
Or is it the other way around?