I posted 4 articles
In this course, we have used the metaphor of nests and cages to describe how culture, identity, and community can support and nurture us at times and can confine and oppress us at other times. This can happen internally within us, empowering us to be or preventing us from being our whole selves and well. This can also happen between people, and we can evaluate the degree to which our relationships are just based on the degree to which others recognize and add to our nest or ignore or reinforce our cages. While some have questioned the need for social discussions of individual identity in spaces such as this, we will reframe this need by considering all the ways in which society already reads our personal identities and responds to us differently based on these perceived identities. And it is these social responses that result in the systemic privilege or oppression that we have been discussing in our time together.
This week’s four required resources were: Arana (2012), Baldwin (1985), Beck (2013), and Yoshino (2006), and you also read/watched two of the remaining six resources. Take five minutes now to reflect on the resources you read/watched and then answer the following questions:
· In what ways can you see the authors describing the way that they understand and embody their sexual identity in contrast to the way that the world reads and responds to the authors sexual identities? How do the authors respond to the ways in which the world reads them?
· How have you seen the world read and respond to your sexual identity or those around you? How have you responded? How have you seen others respond?
Again, please build from our previous Writing Tip discussions to consider what resonates with you, what questions do you have, what messages are coming up, and how people are seeking to define identity as well as the rules around talking about or being particular identities.
Once you have written out your response – again this doesn’t need to take more than 5 minutes or 100 words or so – post your response to the discussion board. Please also read other people’s posts and consider whether what they are saying – either about the resource or about their own lived experience – is a window or mirror for you. Post these thoughts as replies to their post if you are willing to connect with them and potentially continue the conversation. In reading others’ responses and as we continue our conversations this week, please remember that we each still have individual power and agency to know ourselves, to be ourselves, and to choose how we respond to how society reads and responds to us.
January 15, 2006
The Pressure to Cover
By KENJI YOSHINO
When I began teaching at Yale Law School in 1998, a friend spoke to me frankly. “You’ll have a better
chance at tenure,” he said, “if you’re a homosexual professional than if you’re a professional
homosexual.” Out of the closet for six years at the time, I knew what he meant. To be a “homosexual
professional” was to be a professor of constitutional law who “happened” to be gay. To be a
“professional homosexual” was to be a gay professor who made gay rights his work. Others echoed the
sentiment in less elegant formulations. Be gay, my world seemed to say. Be openly gay, if you want.
But don’t flaunt.
I didn’t experience the advice as antigay. The law school is a vigorously tolerant place, embedded in a
university famous for its gay student population. (As the undergraduate jingle goes: “One in four,
maybe more/One in three, maybe me/One in two, maybe you.”) I took my colleague’s words as generic
counsel to leave my personal life at home. I could see that research related to one’s identity – referred
to in the academy as “mesearch” – could raise legitimate questions about scholarly objectivity.
I also saw others playing down their outsider identities to blend into the mainstream. Female colleagues
confided that they would avoid references to their children at work, lest they be seen as mothers first
and scholars second. Conservative students asked for advice about how open they could be about their
politics without suffering repercussions at some imagined future confirmation hearing. A religious
student said he feared coming out as a believer, as he thought his intellect would be placed on a 25
percent discount. Many of us, it seemed, had to work our identities as well as our jobs.
It wasn’t long before I found myself resisting the demand to conform. What bothered me was not that I
had to engage in straight-acting behavior, much of which felt natural to me. What bothered me was the
felt need to mute my passion for gay subjects, people, culture. At a time when the law was
transforming gay rights, it seemed ludicrous not to suit up and get in the game.
“Mesearch” being what it is, I soon turned my scholarly attention to the pressure to conform. What
puzzled me was that I felt that pressure so long after my emergence from the closet. When I stopped
passing, I exulted that I could stop thinking about my sexuality. This proved naïve. Long after I came
out, I still experienced the need to assimilate to straight norms. But I didn’t have a word for this
demand to tone down my known gayness.
Then I found my word, in the sociologist Erving Goffman’s book “Stigma.” Written in 1963, the book
describes how various groups – including the disabled, the elderly and the obese – manage their
“spoiled” identities. After discussing passing, Goffman observes that “persons who are ready to admit
possession of a stigma. . .may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.”
He calls this behavior covering. He distinguishes passing from covering by noting that passing pertains
to the visibility of a characteristic, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness. He relates how F.D.R.
stationed himself behind a desk before his advisers came in for meetings. Roosevelt was not passing,
since everyone knew he used a wheelchair. He was covering, playing down his disability so people
would focus on his more conventionally presidential qualities.
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As is often the case when you learn a new idea, I began to perceive covering everywhere. Leafing
through a magazine, I read that Helen Keller replaced her natural eyes (one of which protruded) with
brilliant blue glass ones. On the radio, I heard that Margaret Thatcher went to a voice coach to lower
the pitch of her voice. Friends began to send me e-mail. Did I know that Martin Sheen was Ramon
Estevez on his birth certificate, that Ben Kingsley was Krishna Bhanji, that Kirk Douglas was Issur
Danielovitch Demsky and that Jon Stewart was Jonathan Leibowitz?
In those days, spotting instances of covering felt like a parlor game. It’s hard to get worked up about
how celebrities and politicians have to manage their public images. Jon Stewart joked that he changed
his name because Leibowitz was “too Hollywood,” and that seemed to get it exactly right. My own
experience with covering was also not particularly difficult – once I had the courage to write from my
passions, I was immediately embraced.
It was only when I looked for instances of covering in the law that I saw how lucky I had been. Civil
rights case law is peopled with plaintiffs who were severely punished for daring to be openly different.
Workers were fired for lapsing into Spanish in English-only workplaces, women were fired for
behaving in stereotypically “feminine” ways and gay parents lost custody of their children for engaging
in displays of same-sex affection. These cases revealed that far from being a parlor game, covering was
the civil rights issue of our time.
The New Discrimination
In recent decades, discrimination in America has undergone a generational shift. Discrimination was
once aimed at entire groups, resulting in the exclusion of all racial minorities, women, gays, religious
minorities and people with disabilities. A battery of civil rights laws – like the Civil Rights Act of 1964
and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 – sought to combat these forms of discrimination. The
triumph of American civil rights is that such categorical exclusions by the state or employers are now
Now a subtler form of discrimination has risen to take its place. This discrimination does not aim at
groups as a whole. Rather, it aims at the subset of the group that refuses to cover, that is, to assimilate
to dominant norms. And for the most part, existing civil rights laws do not protect individuals against
such covering demands. The question of our time is whether we should understand this new
discrimination to be a harm and, if so, whether the remedy is legal or social in nature.
Consider the following cases:
• Renee Rogers, an African-American employee at American Airlines, wore cornrows to work.
American had a grooming policy that prevented employees from wearing an all-braided hairstyle.
When American sought to enforce this policy against Rogers, she filed suit, alleging race
discrimination. In 1981, a federal district court rejected her argument. It first observed that cornrows
were not distinctively associated with African-Americans, noting that Rogers had only adopted the
hairstyle after it “had been popularized by a white actress in the film ’10.’ ” As if recognizing the
unpersuasiveness of what we might call the Bo Derek defense, the court further alleged that because
hairstyle, unlike skin color, was a mutable characteristic, discrimination on the basis of grooming was
not discrimination on the basis of race. Renee Rogers lost her case.
• Lydia Mikus and Ismael Gonzalez were called for jury service in a case involving a defendant who
was Latino. When the prosecutor asked them whether they could speak Spanish, they answered in the
affirmative. The prosecutor struck them, and the defense attorney then brought suit on their behalf,
claiming national-origin discrimination. The prosecutor responded that he had not removed the
potential jurors for their ethnicity but for their ability to speak Spanish. His stated concern was that
they would not defer to the court translator in listening to Spanish-language testimony. In 1991, the
Supreme Court credited this argument. Lydia Mikus and Ismael Gonzalez lost their case.
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• Diana Piantanida had a child and took a maternity leave from her job at the Wyman Center, a
charitable organization in Missouri. During her leave, she was demoted, supposedly for previously
having handed in work late. The man who was then the Wyman Center’s executive director, however,
justified her demotion by saying the new position would be easier “for a new mom to handle.” As it
turned out, the new position had less responsibility and half the pay of the original one. But when
Piantanida turned this position down, her successor was paid Piantanida’s old salary. Piantanida
brought suit, claiming she had been discharged as a “new mom.” In 1997, a federal appellate court
refused to analyze her claim as a sex-discrimination case, which would have led to comparing the
treatment she received to the treatment of “new dads.” Instead, it found that Piantanida’s (admittedly
vague) pleadings raised claims only under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which it correctly
interpreted to protect women only while they are pregnant. Diana Piantanida lost her case.
Robin Shahar was a lesbian attorney who received a job offer from the Georgia Department of Law,
where she had worked as a law student. The summer before she started her new job, Shahar had a
religious same-sex commitment ceremony with her partner. She asked a supervisor for a late starting
date because she was getting married and wanted to go on a celebratory trip to Greece. Believing
Shahar was marrying a man, the supervisor offered his congratulations. Senior officials in the office
soon learned, however, that Shahar’s partner was a woman. This news caused a stir, reports of which
reached Michael Bowers, the attorney general of Georgia who had successfully defended his state’s
prohibition of sodomy before the United States Supreme Court. After deliberating with his lawyers,
Bowers rescinded her job offer. The staff member who informed her read from a script, concluding,
“Thanks again for coming in, and have a nice day.” Shahar brought suit, claiming discrimination on the
basis of sexual orientation. In court, Bowers testified that he knew Shahar was gay when he hired her,
and would never have terminated her for that reason. In 1997, a federal appellate court accepted that
defense, maintaining that Bowers had terminated Shahar on the basis of her conduct, not her status.
Robin Shahar lost her case.
• Simcha Goldman, an Air Force officer who was also an ordained rabbi, wore a yarmulke at all times.
Wearing a yarmulke is part of the Orthodox tradition of covering one’s head out of deference to an
omnipresent god. Goldman’s religious observance ran afoul of an Air Force regulation that prohibited
wearing headgear while indoors. When he refused his commanding officer’s order to remove his
yarmulke, Goldman was threatened with a court martial. He brought a First Amendment claim, alleging
discrimination on the basis of religion. In 1986, the Supreme Court rejected his claim. It stated that the
Air Force had drawn a reasonable line between “religious apparel that is visible and that which is not.”
Simcha Goldman lost his case.
These five cases represent only a fraction of those in which courts have refused to protect plaintiffs
from covering demands. In such cases, the courts routinely distinguish between immutable and mutable
traits, between being a member of a legally protected group and behavior associated with that group.
Under this rule, African-Americans cannot be fired for their skin color, but they could be fired for
wearing cornrows. Potential jurors cannot be struck for their ethnicity but can be struck for speaking
(or even for admitting proficiency in) a foreign language. Women cannot be discharged for having two
X chromosomes but can be penalized (in some jurisdictions) for becoming mothers. Although the
weaker protections for sexual orientation mean gays can sometimes be fired for their status alone, they
will be much more vulnerable if they are perceived to “flaunt” their sexuality. Jews cannot be
separated from the military for being Jewish but can be discharged for wearing yarmulkes.
This distinction between being and doing reflects a bias toward assimilation. Courts will protect traits
like skin color or chromosomes because such traits cannot be changed. In contrast, the courts will not
protect mutable traits, because individuals can alter them to fade into the mainstream, thereby escaping
discrimination. If individuals choose not to engage in that form of self-help, they must suffer the
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The judicial bias toward assimilation will seem correct and just to many Americans. Assimilation, after
all, is a precondition of civilization – wearing clothes, having manners and obeying the law are all acts
of assimilation. Moreover, the tie between assimilation and American civilization may be particularly
strong. At least since Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s 1782 “Letters from an American Farmer,” this
country has promoted assimilation as the way Americans of different backgrounds would be “melted
into a new race of men.” By the time Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot” made its debut in 1908,
the term had acquired the burnish of an American ideal. Theodore Roosevelt, who believed
hyphenations like “Polish-American” were a “moral treason,” is reputed to have yelled, “That’s a great
play!” from his box when it was performed in Washington. (He was wrong – it’s no accident the title
has had a longer run than the play.) And notwithstanding challenges beginning in the 1960’s to move
“beyond the melting pot” and to “celebrate diversity,” assimilation has never lost its grip on the
If anything, recent years have seen a revival of the melting-pot ideal. We are currently experiencing a
pluralism explosion in the United States. Patterns of immigration since the late 1960’s have made the
United States the most religiously various country in the history of the world. Even when the
demographics of a group – like the number of individuals with disabilities – are presumably constant,
the number of individuals claiming membership in that group may grow exponentially. In 1970, there
were 9 disability-related associations listed in the Encyclopedia of Associations; in 1980, there were
16; in 1990, there were 211; and in 2000, there were 799. The boom in identity politics has led many
thoughtful commentators to worry that we are losing our common culture as Americans. Fearful that
we are breaking apart into balkanized fiefs, even liberal lions like Arthur Schlesinger have called for a
recommitment to the ethic of assimilation.
Beyond keeping pace with the culture, the judiciary has institutional reasons for encouraging
assimilation. In the yarmulke case, the government argued that ruling in favor of the rabbi’s yarmulke
would immediately invite suits concerning the Sikh’s turban, the yogi’s saffron robes and the
Rastafarian’s dreadlocks. Because the courts must articulate principled grounds for their decisions, they
are particularly ill equipped to protect some groups but not others in an increasingly diverse society.
Seeking to avoid judgments about the relative worth of groups, the judiciary has decided instead to rely
on the relatively uncontroversial principle of protecting immutable traits.
Viewed in this light, the judiciary’s failure to protect individuals against covering demands seems
eminently reasonable. Unfortunately, it also represents an abdication of its responsibility to protect civil
The Case Against Assimilation
The flaw in the judiciary’s analysis is that it casts assimilation as an unadulterated good. Assimilation is
implicitly characterized as the way in which groups can evade discrimination by fading into the
mainstream – after all, the logic goes, if a bigot cannot discriminate between two individuals, he cannot
discriminate against one of them. But sometimes assimilation is not an escape from discrimination, but
precisely its effect. When a Jew is forced to convert to Protestantism, for instance, we do not celebrate
that as an evasion of anti-Semitism. We should not blind ourselves to the dark underbelly of the
American melting pot.
Take the cornrows case. Initially, this case appears to be an easy one for the employer, as hairstyle
seems like such a trivial thing. But if hair is so trivial, we might ask why American Airlines made it a
condition of Renee Rogers’s employment. What’s frustrating about the employment discrimination
jurisprudence is that courts often don’t force employers to answer the critical question of why they are
requiring employees to cover. If we look to other sources, the answers can be troubling.
John T. Molloy’s perennially popular self-help manual “New Dress for Success” also tells racial
minorities to cover. Molloy advises African-Americans to avoid “Afro hairstyles” and to wear
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“conservative pinstripe suits, preferably with vests, accompanied by all the establishment symbols,
including the Ivy League tie.” He urges Latinos to “avoid pencil-line mustaches,” “any hair tonic that
tends to give a greasy or shiny look to the hair,” “any articles of clothing that have Hispanic
associations” and “anything that is very sharp or precise.”
Molloy is equally frank about why covering is required. The “model of success,” he says, is “white,
Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.” Those who do not possess these traits “will elicit a negative response to
some degree, regardless of whether that response is conscious or subconscious.” Indeed, Molloy says
racial minorities must go “somewhat overboard” to compensate for immutable differences from the
white mainstream. After conducting research on African-American corporate grooming, Molloy reports
that “blacks had not only to dress more conservatively but also more expensively than their white
counterparts if they wanted to have an equal impact.”
Molloy’s basic point is supported by social-science research. The economists Marianne Bertrand and
Sendhil Mullainathan recently conducted a study in which they sent out résumés that were essentially
identical except for the names at the top. They discovered that résumés with white-sounding names like
Emily Walsh or Greg Baker drew 50 percent more callbacks than those with African-American-
sounding names like Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones. So it seems that even when Americans have
collectively set our faces against racism, we still react negatively to cultural traits – like hairstyles,
clothes or names – that we associate with historically disfavored races.
We can see a similar dynamic in the termination of Robin Shahar. Michael Bowers, the state attorney
general, disavowed engaging in first-generation discrimination when he said he had no problem with
gay employees. This raises the question of why he fired Shahar for having a religious same-sex
commitment ceremony. Unlike American Airlines, Bowers provided some answers. He argued that
retaining Shahar would compromise the department’s ability to deny same-sex couples marriage
licenses and to enforce sodomy statutes.
Neither argument survives scrutiny. At no point did Shahar seek to marry her partner legally, nor did
she agitate for the legalization of same-sex marriage. The Georgia citizenry could not fairly have
assumed that Shahar’s religious ceremony would entitle the couple to a civil license. Bowers’s claim
that Shahar’s wedding would compromise her ability to enforce sodomy statutes is also off the mark.
Georgia’s sodomy statute (which has since been struck down) punished cross-sex as well as same-sex
sodomy, meaning that any heterosexual in the department who had ever had oral sex was as
compromised as Shahar.
Stripped of these rationales, Bowers’s termination of Shahar looks more sinister. When she told a
supervisor she was getting married, he congratulated her. When he discovered she was marrying a
woman, it wasn’t long before she no longer had a job. Shahar’s religious ceremony was not in itself
indiscreet; cross-sex couples engage in such ceremonies all the time. If Shahar was flaunting anything,
it was her belief in her own equality: her belief that she, and not the state, should determine what
personal bonds are worthy of celebration.
The demand to cover is anything but trivial. It is the symbolic heartland of inequality – what reassures
one group of its superiority to another. When dominant groups ask subordinated groups to cover, they
are asking them to be small in the world, to forgo prerogatives that the dominant group has and
therefore to forgo equality. If courts make critical goods like employment dependent on covering, they
are legitimizing second-class citizenship for the subordinated group. In doing so, they are failing to
vindicate the promise of civil rights.
So the covering demand presents a conundrum. The courts are right to be leery of intervening in too
brusque a manner here, as they cannot risk playing favorites among groups. Yet they also cannot ignore
the fact that the covering demand is where many forms of inequality continue to have life. We need a
paradigm that gives both these concerns their due, adapting the aspirations of the civil rights movement
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to an increasingly pluralistic society.
The New Civil Rights
The new civil rights begins with the observation that everyone covers. When I lecture on covering, I
often encounter what I think of as the “angry straight white man” reaction. A member of the audience,
almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue. Why
shouldn’t racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal
protection against discrimination for things they cannot help. But why should they receive protection
for behaviors within their control – wearing cornrows, acting “feminine” or flaunting their sexuality?
After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depression, or my obesity,
or my alcoholism, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. I, too, am
one of the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation. Why should legally protected groups have a
right to self-expression I do not? Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?
I surprise these individuals when I agree. Contemporary civil rights has erred in focusing solely on
traditional civil rights groups – racial minorities, women, gays, religious minorities and people with
disabilities. This assumes those in the so-called mainstream – those straight white men – do not also
cover. They are understood only as obstacles, as people who prevent others from expressing
themselves, rather than as individuals who are themselves struggling for self-definition. No wonder
they often respond to civil rights advocates with hostility. They experience us as asking for an
entitlement they themselves have been refused – an expression of their full humanity.
Civil rights must rise into a new, more inclusive register. That ascent makes use of the recognition that
the mainstream is a myth. With respect to any particular identity, the word “mainstream” makes sense,
as in the statement that straights are more mainstream than gays. Used generically, however, the word
loses meaning. Because human beings hold many identities, the mainstream is a shifting coalition, and
none of us are entirely within it. It is not normal to be completely normal.
This does not mean discrimination against racial minorities is the same as discrimination against poets.
American civil rights law has correctly directed its concern toward certain groups and not others. But
the aspiration of civil rights – the aspiration that we be free to develop our human capacities without
the impediment of witless conformity – is an aspiration that extends beyond traditional civil rights
To fulfill that aspiration, we must think differently both within the law and outside it. With respect to
legal remedies, we must shift away from claims that demand equality for particular groups toward
claims that demand liberty for us all. This is not an exhortation that we strip protections from currently
recognized groups. Rather, it is a prediction that future courts will be unable to sustain a group-based
vision of civil rights when faced with the broad and irreversible trend toward demographic pluralism. In
an increasingly diverse society, the courts must look to what draws us together as citizens rather than to
what drives us apart.
As if in recognition of that fact, the Supreme Court has moved in recent years away from extending
protections on the basis of group membership and toward doing so on the basis of liberties we all
possess. In 2003, the court struck down a Texas statute that prohibited same-sex sodomy. It did not,
however, frame the case as one concerning the equality rights of gays. Instead, it cast the case as one
concerning the interest we all – straight, gay or otherwise – have in controlling our intimate lives.
Similarly, in 2004, the court held that a state could be required by a Congressional statute to make its
courthouses wheelchair accessible. Again, the court ruled in favor of the minority group without
framing its analysis in group-based equality rhetoric. Rather, it held that all people – disabled or
otherwise – have a “right of access to the courts,” which had been denied in that instance.
In these cases, the court implicitly acknowledged the national exhaustion with group-based identity
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politics and quieted the anxiety about pluralism that is driving us back toward the assimilative ideal. By
emphasizing the interest all individuals have in our own liberty, the court focused on what unites us
rather than on what divides us. While preserving the distinction between being and doing, the court
decided to protect doing in its own right.
If the Supreme Court protects individuals against covering demands in the future, I believe it will do so
by invoking the universal rights of people. I predict that if the court ever recognizes the right to speak a
native language, it will protect that right as a liberty to which we are all entitled, rather than as a
remedial concession granted to a particular national-origin group. If the court recognizes rights to
grooming, like the right to wear cornrows, I believe it will do so under something akin to the German
Constitution’s right to personality rather than as a right attached to racial minorities. And I hope that if
the court protects the right of gays to marry, it will do so by framing it as the right we all have to marry
the person we love, rather than defending “gay marriage” as if it were a separate institution.
A liberty-based approach to civil rights, of course, brings its own complications, beginning with the
question of where my liberty ends and yours begins. But the ability of liberty analysis to illuminate our
common humanity should not be underestimated. This virtue persuaded both Martin Luther King Jr.
and Malcolm X to argue for the transition from civil rights to human rights at the ends of their lives. It
is time for American law to follow suit.
While I have great hopes for this new legal paradigm, I also believe law will play a relatively small part
in the new civil rights. A doctor friend told me that in his first year of medical school, his dean
described how doctors were powerless to cure the vast majority of human ills. People would get better,
or they would not, but it would not be doctors who would cure them. Part of becoming a doctor, the
dean said, was to surrender a layperson’s awe for medical authority. I wished then that someone would
give an analogous lecture to law students and to Americans at large. My education in law has been in
no small part an education in its limitations.
As an initial matter, many covering demands are made by actors the law does not – and in my view
should not – hold accountable, like friends, family, neighbors, the “culture” or individuals themselves.
When I think of the covering demands I have experienced, I can trace many of them only to my own
censorious consciousness. And while I am often tempted to sue myself, I recognize this is not my
Law is also an incomplete solution to coerced assimilation because it has yet to recognize the myriad
groups that are subjected to covering demands even though these groups cannot be defined by
traditional classifications like race, sex, orientation, religion and disability. Whenever I speak about
covering, I receive new instances of identities that can be covered. The law may someday move to
protect some of these identities. But it will never protect them all.
For these and other reasons, I am troubled that Americans seem increasingly inclined to turn toward
the law to do the work of civil rights precisely when they should be turning away from it. The primary
solution lies in all of us as citizens, not in the tiny subset of us who are lawyers. People confronted with
demands to cover should feel emboldened to seek a reason for that demand, even if the law does not
reach the actors making the demand or recognize the group burdened by it. These reason-forcing
conversations should happen outside courtrooms – in public squares and prayer circles, in workplaces
and on playgrounds. They should occur informally and intimately, in the everyday places where
tolerance is made and unmade.
What will constitute a good-enough reason to justify assimilation will obviously be controversial. We
have come to some consensus that certain reasons are illegitimate – like racism, sexism or religious
intolerance. Beyond that, we should expect conversations rather than foreordained results – what
reasons count, and for what purposes, will be for us all to decide by facing one another as citizens. My
personal inclination is always to privilege the claims of the individual against countervailing interests
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like “neatness” or “workplace harmony.” But we should have that conversation.
Such conversations are the best – and perhaps the only – way to give both assimilation and authenticity
their due. They will help us alleviate conservative alarmists’ fears of a balkanized America and radical
multiculturalists’ fears of a monocultural America. The aspiration of civil rights has always been to
permit people to pursue their human flourishing without limitations based on bias. Focusing on law
prevents us from seeing the revolutionary breadth of that aspiration. It is only when we leave the law
that civil rights suddenly stops being about particular agents of oppression and particular victimized
groups and starts to become a project of human flourishing in which we all have a stake.
I don’t teach classes on gay rights any more. I suspect many of my students now experience me as a
homosexual professional rather than as a professional homosexual, if they think of me in such terms at
all. But I don’t experience myself as covering. I’ve just moved on to other interests, in the way scholars
do. So the same behavior – not teaching gay rights – has changed in meaning over time.
This just brings home to me that the only right I have wanted with any consistency is the freedom to be
who I am. I’ll be the first to admit that I owe much of that freedom to group-based equality movements,
like the gay rights movement. But it is now time for us as a nation to shift the emphasis away from
equality and toward liberty in our debates about identity politics. Only through such freedom can we
live our lives as works in progress, which is to say, as the complex, changeful and contradictory
creatures that we are.
Kenji Yoshino is a professor at Yale Law School. This article is adapted from his book,”Covering: The
Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,” which will be published by Random House later this month.
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SUNDAY, DEC 8, 2013 04:59 PM PST
Passing for white and straight:
How my looks hide my identity
I’m neither straight nor white, but I’m frequently mistaken for both and it’s taught me a lot about privilege
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A photo of the author
I �rst became aware of my passing as a young child confronted with standardized testing. My
second grade teacher had walked us through where to write our names in capital letters and
what bubbles to �ll in for our sex, our birth date and ethnicity. But in the days before “biracial”
or “multiracial” or “choose two or more of the following,” I was confronted with rigid boxes of
“white” or “black” – a space that my white father and black-Italian mother had navigated for
But even at 8 years old, I knew I could mark “white” on the form without a teacher’s assistant
telling me to do the form over with my No. 2 pencil. I could sometimes be “exotic” on the
playground to the grown-ups who watched us for skinned knees and bad words. But with hair
that had yet to curl and a white-sounding last name, I was at �rst glance – and many after – a
dark-haired white girl with a white father who collected her after school.
That girl came with me to junior high and even high school. Even as my hair became wiry with
puberty, the frizziness soon a universal topic in the girls’ bathroom as girls began their
marriages to the straight iron, I became aware that I read no di�erently. Another curly-haired
white girl who wished that her hair was straight.
School records could be curiously inconsistent, occasionally marking me as “white” and
sometimes “other,” my recorded ethnicity changing year to year as I would pass and then
White parents of school friends would never fail to comment on how I was “striking” or “foreign-
looking.” Distant relatives on the white side of my family would remark that I could easily pass
for Israeli, for Spanish, for Italian, and other nationalities that can be �led under “pan-ethnic.”
But they always equated me with the culturally sanctioned “chic” identities, like an exoticized
princess you could encounter on a distant beach or in a novel. Compound that with my
Hawaiian name (I was born there) and I was the problematic backdrop to any movie. The pretty
prop to a white, male protagonist’s discovery. Somebody’s “Pocahontas.”
The �rst time I read Nella Larson’s 1929 novel “Passing,” in which a black light-skinned
protagonist is passing as white during the Harlem renaissance, the following passage eerily
resonated with me: “They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy.
Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.”
This at times was even more perplexing to my white peers when they would encounter my
mother, who although much darker than I, was still relatively light-skinned. But the disconnect
became fully realized when I was asked by a friend in the seventhgrade why my mother “talked
like she was black.”
That’s when I learned that my mother was passing too.
Years later, I had to be interviewed by a New York University Langone administrator before
being admitted for surgery. The personal questions ranged from my address to an emergency
contact to allergies. When he printed out the forms for me to sign, I noticed that he had marked
my ethnicity as “white” – and without asking me. I politely asked him to correct it.
* * *
As an adult, I learned that my white doppelgänger was also straight.
I started dating women at age 17 — but with my conventionally feminine personal aesthetic, I
once again had an identity that went unread. Even though I was out from a relatively young age,
the high heels and dresses made acquaintances ask about “boyfriends.” Even as my female
partners sat right next to me.
When I got to college in the liberal Bay Area in California, the term “partner” o�ered a more
veiled inquiry from strangers. But words I volunteered like “girlfriend” or the female pronoun
still visibly cracked features, still framed a very visible pause.
These pauses have become even longer since I became engaged to a woman, as with deciding
to have my relationship sanctioned by the institution of marriage have come the fairly
predictable heterosexist assumptions.
But with every question about “my soon-to-be husband” and “your �ancé, what does he do?” I
see that my straight white doppelgänger is present even in the most intimate and far away
encounters. Recently on a trip to Italy, an American woman I had newly met asked how my
�ancée proposed to me. As I began recounting the story, dotting my story with many “she’s,” my
acquaintance appeared confused and asked if my male �ancé’s mother was in attendance.
Once, I told a new white male acquaintance where I used to live in Brooklyn, a neighborhood
that now is completely gentri�ed, but wasn’t when I started living there.
“What’s that area like for a white girl?” he asked.
I nearly turned around to look for her.
Because with my invisibility has come her privilege, an experience that has undeniably marked
most of my life. Due to my passing, I have the W.E.B. Du Bois-patented “double consciousness”
for the opportunities that have been placed before me, scholastic and professional, from
generally white and hetero establishments that look at me and always see their own. Is it the
presumed commonality that garnered me those interviews? Those smiles? Those callbacks?
Those �rm handshakes?
When I read statistics about how employers are more likely to hire white people than people of
color, I know that I can count myself in the former, despite the fact that I identify as the latter.
I’m hyper-aware that when a bank, a company or any public o�ce hears the sound of my voice
and reads my legal �rst name (under which this article does not appear), they assume that
they’re talking to a white woman, and therefore give me better service.
White and straight co-workers, employers and acquaintances don’t outwardly shun me when
they �nd out I’m of color or queer (due to the city I live in). There’s no dilemma of being
“discovered” (another privilege). But there’s an embarrassment that crosses their face, a shu�e
of papers, a reach for a pen — a social clumsiness in that they assume I’m not. And there we
both are, between a directly racist homophobic past and a more subtly racist and homophobic
My privilege in passing re�ects a racism and heterosexism that continues to �ourish, despite
romantic notions that racial mixing and gay marriage will create a utopian future free of
Police o�cers don’t suspect me. Store owners like me. White strangers don’t feel threatened by
me. Racists get too comfortable with me. Homophobes unknowingly befriend me. My straight
white doppelgänger and I ride the subway together as I try to lose her in crowds and leave her
behind at parties. I dispel her with the perpetual coming-out, the casual “I’m not white,” the
introduction of my partner.
I’ve spent most of my adult life actively trying to evade her. But every time I sit down with new
people, I know that she sits down �rst.
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GABRIEL ARANA APRIL 11, 2012
My So-Called Ex-Gay Life
A deep look at the fringe movement that just lost its only shred of
Early in my freshman year of high school, I came home to find my mom sitting on her
bed, crying. She had snooped through my e-mail and discovered a message in which I
confessed to having a crush on a male classmate.
“Are you gay?” she asked. I blurted out that I was.
“I knew it, ever since you were a little boy.”
Her resignation didn’t last long. My mom is a problem solver, and the next day she handed me a
stack of papers she had printed out from the Internet about reorientation, or “ex-gay,” therapy. I
threw them away. I said I didn’t see how talking about myself in a therapist’s office was going to
make me stop liking guys. My mother responded by asking whether I wanted a family, then
posed a hypothetical: “If there were a pill you could take that would make you straight, would
you take it?”
I admitted that life would be easier if such a pill existed. I hadn’t thought about how my
infatuation with boys would play out over the course of my life. In fact, I had always imagined
myself middle-aged, married to a woman, and having a son and daughter—didn’t everyone want
some version of that?
“The gay lifestyle is very lonely,” she said.
She told me about Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist in California who was then
president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the
country’s largest organization for practitioners of ex-gay therapy. She said Nicolosi had treated
hundreds of people who were now able to live “normal” lives.
I read through the papers my mom had salvaged from the trash. They were interviews with
Nicolosi’s patients, who talked about how therapy helped them overcome depression and feel
“comfortable in their masculinity.” The testimonials seemed genuine, and the patients, grateful. I
agreed to fly with my father to Los Angeles from our small town on the Arizona-Mexico border
for an initial consultation.
When my father and I first sat down, Nicolosi explained what he
meant by “cure.” Although I might never feel a spark of excitement
when I saw a woman walking down the street, as I progressed in
therapy, my homosexual attractions would diminish.
The Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic was on the 13th floor of a modern building on Ventura
Boulevard, one of the San Fernando Valley’s main thoroughfares. Nicolosi’s corner office had
emerald-green carpet and mahogany bookshelves lined with titles like Homosexuality: A Freedom
Too Far and Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth. Middle-aged with thick, graying black hair,
Nicolosi grew up in New York City and spoke with a faint Bronx accent. Brusque but affable, he
put me at ease. When my father and I first sat down, Nicolosi explained what he meant by “cure.”
Although I might never feel a spark of excitement when I saw a woman walking down the street,
as I progressed in therapy, my homosexual attractions would diminish. I might have lingering
thoughts about men, but they would no longer control me.
Nicolosi’s acknowledgment that change wouldn’t be absolute made the theory seem reasonable.
His confidence in the outcome made me hopeful. Until I had spoken with Nicolosi, I had resigned
myself to the idea that, desirable or not, my life would have to accommodate the fact that I was
gay. But maybe this was something I had power over.
For the last half of the session, I talked with Nicolosi alone. “Tell me about your friends at school,”
he said. I said I had two close female friends. “Male friends?” I admitted that I had always had
trouble relating to boys my age. When I was in grade school, I preferred helping the teacher
clean the classroom during breaks instead of playing sports.
“Are you open to therapy?” Nicolosi asked. “If you don’t think this is working, you can stop
I agreed to start weekly sessions by phone. After our one-on-one meeting ended, I joined some of
his other patients for group therapy. I was by far the youngest person there. The other men—
four or five altogether—were in their forties and fifties and talked about their years in the “gay
lifestyle,” which had yielded only unhappiness. They wanted normal, fulfilling lives. They were
tired of the club scene, the drug use, the promiscuity; their relationships didn’t last; they
complained that gay culture was youth-obsessed. If that was what being gay meant—and with
30-plus years on me, they would know—then I wanted to be normal, too.
I left the office with a copy of Nicolosi’s most recent book, Healing Homosexuality, and a
worksheet that categorized different emotions under the rubrics of “true self” and “false self.” The
true self felt masculine, was “adequate, on par,” “secure, confident, capable,” and “at home in
[his] body.” The false self did not feel masculine, was inadequate and insecure, and felt alienated
from his body. This rang true. I had been teased throughout my childhood for being effeminate,
and as a lanky, awkward teen with bad skin, I certainly was not at home in my body.
Another sheet illustrated the “triadic relationship” that led to homosexuality: a passive, distant
father, an overinvolved mother, and a sensitive child. I was closer with my mother than my
father. I was shy. The story seemed to fit, which was comforting: It gave me confidence that I
could be cured.
According to Nicolosi, identification with a parent of the other gender is out of step with our
biological and evolutionary “design.” Because of this, it was impossible to ever become whole
through gay relationships. I wanted to be whole.
n July 13, 1998—the same year I started therapy—a full-page ad appeared in The New
York Times featuring a beaming woman with a diamond engagement ring and
wedding band. “I’m proof that the truth can set you free,” she proclaimed. The
woman, Anne Paulk, said that molestation during adolescence led her to homosexuality, but that
she had been healed through the power of Jesus Christ. The $600,000 ad campaign—sponsored
by 15 religious-right organizations, including the Christian Coalition, the Family Research
Council, and the American Family Association—ran for several weeks in such publications as The
Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Robert Knight of the Family Research
Council called it “the Normandy landing in the culture war.”
With few voices to challenge the testimonials, reporters transmitted them as revelation. Newsweek
ran a sympathetic cover story on change therapy, and national and regional papers published
ex-gays’ accounts. My mother might not have so easily found information about ex-gay therapy
had the Christian right not planted this stake in the culture war.
The ad appeared 23 years after the American Psychiatric Association (APA) declassified
homosexuality as a mental illness. As a consequence of that decision, extreme forms of
reorientation therapy—aversion therapy involving electrocution or nausea-inducing drugs, for
instance—had stopped being used. A small group of therapists continued to practice talk therapy
that encouraged patients to see homosexuality as a developmental disorder, but they remained
on the fringe until the Christian right took up their cause. This was a calculated political move.
Instead of fire-and-brimstone denunciations from the pulpit, the ex-gay movement allowed the
Christian right to couch its condemnation of homosexuality in a way that seemed compassionate.
Focus on the Family called its new ex-gay ministry Love Won Out and talked about healing and
caring for homosexuals.
The ex-gay movement turned the rhetoric of gay rights against itself: Shouldn’t ex-gays be able to
pursue therapy and live the lives they want without facing discrimination?
The two largest groups that provide ex-gay counseling are Exodus International, a
nondenominational Christian organization, and NARTH, its secular counterpart. If Exodus is the
spirit of the ex-gay movement, NARTH is the brain. The organizations share many members, and
Exodus parrots the developmental theories about same-sex attractions espoused by NARTH.
Together with the late Charles Socarides, a psychiatrist who led the opposition to declassifying
homosexuality as a mental illness, Nicolosi formed NARTH in 1992 as a “scientific organization
that offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality.” By 1998, the group was
holding an annual conference, publishing its own journal, and training hundreds of
psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors. Nicolosi remains NARTH’s most visible advocate.
There are no reliable statistics for how many patients have received ex-gay treatment or how
many therapists practice it, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ex-gay therapy enjoyed a
legitimacy it hadn’t since the APA removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual. Exodus
had 83 chapters in 34 states. Its president, Alan Chambers, claimed in 2004 that he knew “tens of
thousands of people who have successfully changed their sexual orientation.” Nicolosi appeared
often on programs like Oprah, 20/20, and Larry King Live. Whether or not the Christian right’s
alliance with the ex-gay movement had constituted a D-Day in the culture wars, it had
successfully challenged the prevailing idea that the best choice for gay people was to accept
fter our initial meeting, I spoke with Nicolosi weekly by phone for more than three
years, from the time I was 14 until I graduated high school. Like a rabbi instructing his
student in understanding the Torah, Nicolosi encouraged me to interpret my daily life
through the lens of his theories. I read in one of Nicolosi’s books, Reparative Therapy of Male
Homosexuality, that he tries to position himself as a supportive father figure, typifying the sort of
relationship that he believes his patients never had with their own father. I indeed came to see
him this way.
We mostly talked about how my damaged masculine identity manifested itself in my attractions
to other boys. Nicolosi would ask me about my crushes at school and what I liked about them.
Whether the trait was someone’s build, good looks, popularity, or confidence, these conversations
always ended with a redirect: Did I wish I had these traits? What might it feel like to be hugged
by one of these guys? Did I want them to like and accept me?
Of course, I wanted to be as attractive as the classmates I admired; of course, I wanted to be
accepted and liked by them. The line of questioning made me feel worse. Nicolosi explained,
session after session, that I felt inadequate because I had not had sufficient male affirmation in
childhood. I came to believe that my attraction to men was the result of the failure to connect
with my father. Whenever I felt slighted by my male friends—for failing to call when they said
they would, for neglecting to invite me to a party—I was re-experiencing a seminal rejection from
my father. Most guys, I was told, let things like that roll off their back—an expression of their
masculine confidence—but I was hurt by these things because it recalled prior trauma.
My parents were surprised at how the therapy blamed them for my condition. Initially, Nicolosi
had told them they were one of the cases that did not fit the mold of the “triadic relationship”—in
other words, that my sexual orientation was not their fault. Once it became clear that Nicolosi
held them responsible, they disengaged. They continued paying for therapy but no longer
checked in with Nicolosi regularly or asked what he and I talked about. I was happy to defy my
parents. Whether the grievance was that my curfew wasn’t late enough or that my parents didn’t
give me enough money, I had a trusted authority figure validating every perceived injustice. Any
complaint became evidence of how my parents had failed me.
As I progressed in therapy, I felt that I was gaining insight into the
source and causes of my sexual attractions.
As I progressed in therapy, I felt that I was gaining insight into the source and causes of my
sexual attractions. The problem was, they didn’t go away. At Nicolosi’s urging, I told my best
friend that I had to distance myself from her. Instead, Nicolosi encouraged me to form “genuine
nonsexual bonds” with other men. He paired me with another one of his patients, Ryan Kendall,
who was my age and lived in Colorado. We spoke by phone every few days.
Most of our conversations were mundane. We talked about our friends and people we didn’t like,
recounting every high-school travail and triumph. But we frequently deviated from the therapistapproved,
buddy-buddy talk that was supposed to repair us. We flirted, a novel experience for
me; there were no openly gay people at my high school. Ryan and I described what we looked
like to each other. He said he had brown hair and eyes and was short but cute; I said I was tall
and skinny (but left out my bad skin). We promised to send each other pictures, though we never
“What would Nicolosi say?” we’d ask. It became a regular refrain, an acknowledgment that we
were misbehaving. Part of the bond we developed was in our shared rebellion against our
therapist. For me, it had less to do with opposing ex-gay therapy than with the giddy thrill of
defying authority. Ryan was convinced that change was impossible—“Nicolosi’s a quack,” he once
said. Despite my transgressions, I still believed in Nicolosi’s theory. But my relationship with Ryan
evinced a larger problem: While I was uncovering how my relationship with my parents
continued to shape my inner life, I was still attracted to men. I chatted with older guys on the
Internet and on a few occasions met them.
I felt guilty about this but trusted Nicolosi enough to admit I had been “experimenting.” He told
me to be careful of meeting men off the Internet but that I shouldn’t dwell on it or feel guilty. He
said my sexual behavior was of secondary importance. If I understood myself and worked on my
relationships with men, the attractions would take care of themselves. I just had to be patient.
Late into my last year of high school, Nicolosi had a final conversation with my parents and told
them that the treatment had been a success. “Your son will never enter the gay lifestyle,” he
A few weeks later, our housekeeper caught me with a boy in our backyard. This marked the end
of therapy for me. My parents were convinced it had failed because Nicolosi had blamed things
on them rather than on my being teased by my male peers as a child. They sent me to another
therapist. I had one session but refused to continue. While I still accepted Nicolosi’s underlying
theory about why people were gay, I believed that all the talking in the world couldn’t change
me. When I left for Yale, my mother sent me off with a warning: Were she to discover that I had
“entered the gay lifestyle,” my parents would no longer pay for my education. “I love you enough
to stop you from hurting yourself,” she said.
n 2001, the year I started college, the ex-gay movement’s claims received a significant
boost. In 1973, Columbia professor and prominent psychiatrist Robert Spitzer had led
the effort to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. Four years after Stonewall, it
was a landmark event for the gay-rights movement. But 28 years later, Spitzer released a study
that asserted change in one’s sexual orientation was possible. Based on 200 interviews with exgay
patients—the largest sample amassed—the study did not make any claims about the success
rate of ex-gay therapy. But Spitzer concluded that, at least for a highly select group of motivated
individuals, it worked. What translated into the larger culture was: The father of the 1973
revolution in the classification and treatment of homosexuality, who could not be seen as just
another biased ex-gay crusader with an agenda, had validated ex-gay therapy.
An Associated Press story called it “explosive.” In the words of one of Spitzer’s gay colleagues, it
was like “throwing a grenade into the gay community.” For the ex-gay movement, it was a
godsend. Whereas previous accounts of success had appeared in non-peer-reviewed, vanity, payto-
publish journals like Psychological Reports, Spitzer’s study was published in the prestigious
Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Spitzer’s study is still cited by ex-gay organizations as evidence that ex-gay therapy works. The
study infuriated gay-rights supporters and many psychiatrists, who condemned its methodology
and design. Participants had been referred to Spitzer by ex-gay groups like NARTH and Exodus,
which had an interest in recommending clients who would validate their work. The claims of
change were self-reports, and Spitzer had not compared them with a control group that would
help him judge their credibility.
This spring, I visited Spitzer at his home in Princeton. He ambled toward the door in a walker.
Frail but sharp-witted, Spitzer suffers from Parkinson’s disease. “It’s a bummer,” he said. I told
Spitzer that Nicolosi had asked me to participate in the 2001 study and recount my success in
therapy, but that I never called him. “I actually had great difficulty finding participants,” Spitzer
said. “In all the years of doing ex-gay therapy, you’d think Nicolosi would have been able to
provide more success stories. He only sent me nine patients.”
“How’d it turn out for you?” he asked. I said that while I stayed in the closet for a few years more
than I might have, I ended up accepting my sexuality. At the end of college, I began to have
steady boyfriends, and in February of last year—ten years after my last session with Dr. Nicolosi
—I married my partner.
Spitzer was drawn to the topic of ex-gay therapy because it was controversial—“I was always
attracted to controversy”—but was troubled by how the study was received. He did not want to
suggest that gay people should pursue ex-gay therapy. His goal was to determine whether the
counterfactual—the claim that no one had ever changed his or her sexual orientation through
I asked about the criticisms leveled at him. “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are
largely correct,” he said. “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have
undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” He said he spoke with the editor of
the Archives of Sexual Behavior about writing a retraction, but the editor declined. (Repeated
attempts to contact the journal went unanswered.)
Spitzer said that he was proud of having been instrumental in removing homosexuality from the
list of mental disorders. Now 80 and retired, he was afraid that the 2001 study would tarnish his
legacy and perhaps hurt others. He said that failed attempts to rid oneself of homosexual
attractions “can be quite harmful.” He has, though, no doubts about the 1973 fight over the
classification of homosexuality.
“Had there been no Bob Spitzer, homosexuality would still have eventually been removed from
the list of psychiatric disorders,” he said. “But it wouldn’t have happened in 1973.”
Spitzer was growing tired and asked how many more questions I had. Nothing, I responded,
unless you have something to add.
He did. Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it
he ex-gay movement has relied on the Spitzer study as the single piece of objective
evidence that therapy can work. The need for that evidence became more pressing in
the early 2000s, when a cadre of gay-rights bloggers began to scrutinize the movement,
ready to expose any hint of hypocrisy. There was plenty of material.
John Paulk, Love Won Out founder, chair of the board of Exodus International, and husband of
Anne Paulk, was spotted and photographed at a Washington, D.C., gay bar. Richard Cohen, the
founder of PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays)—intended as the ex-gay counterpart
to PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)—was expelled from the American
Counseling Association for ethics violations. Michael Johnston, the founder of “National Coming
Out of Homosexuality Day,” was revealed to have infected men he’d met on the Internet with HIV
through unprotected sex.
A member of NARTH’s scientific advisory board ignited controversy by suggesting that blacks
were better off having been enslaved, which allowed them to escape the “savage” continent of
Africa. Shortly thereafter, the board of NARTH removed Nicolosi, who was still president. In 2010
it was revealed that NARTH’s executive secretary, Abba Goldberg, was a con man who had
served 18 months in prison.
Therapists associated with NARTH and Exodus were accused of sexually assaulting clients or
engaging in questionable therapy practices. Among them were Alan Downing, the lead therapist
of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), who made his patients strip and
touch themselves in front of a mirror; NARTH member Christopher Austin, who was convicted of
“unlawfully, intentionally and knowingly caus[ing] penetration of” a client; and Exodus-affiliated
Mike Jones, who asked a patient to take off his shirt and do push-ups for him.
The movement also suffered several high-profile defections. John Evans, who had founded the
first ex-gay ministry outside of San Francisco, renounced change therapy when a friend
committed suicide after failing to become heterosexual. Former ex-gay Peterson Toscano, who
was involved in the movement for 17 years, founded Beyond Ex-Gay, an online community for
“ex-gay survivors.” In 2007, Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee apologized for his role in starting
In fact, they found that it runs the risk of making patients anxious,
depressed, and at times suicidal.
Partly as a response to the resurgence of ex-gay therapy, mainstream professional organizations
also took a harder stance. From 2007 to 2009, the American Psychological Association conducted
a review of all the literature on efforts to change sexual orientation. Judith Glassgold, the chair of
the task force that produced the report, said the group found no scientific evidence that ex-gay
therapy works. In fact, they found that it runs the risk of making patients anxious, depressed,
and at times suicidal. “It provided false hope, which can be devastating,” Glassgold said. “It
harmed self-esteem and self-regard by focusing on the psychopathology of homosexuality.” The
APA now tells its members they should not engage in the practice.
In the past few years, even Exodus has begun to show cracks in its support for ex-gay therapy.
The organization has softened its rhetoric, encouraging its ministries to promote celibacy rather
than change in order to live in concert with their religious values. The group no longer talks
about “Freedom from Homosexuality”—its motto—but about the nobility of continuing to
struggle against same-sex attractions.
Exodus has also begun to distance itself from NARTH. In September of 2011, Exodus removed
references to Nicolosi’s books and articles from its website. In January, Exodus president Alan
Chambers spoke at a meeting of the Gay Christian Network. When asked about the possibility of
gay people changing their sexual orientation, Chambers—who’d once claimed that he knew of
thousands of success stories—said “99.9 percent” of those who had attempted to rid themselves of
same-sex attractions had failed.
There are other signs of decline. Attendance at Focus on the Family’s Love Won Out conference,
the movement’s largest annual gathering, has dropped. Focus on the Family recently sold Love
Won Out to Exodus. Ex-gay activists have less of a presence at religious-right events. Twenty
years after NARTH’s founding, the movement has lost its luster.
’ve come to know a number of Nicolosi’s former patients and others who underwent
therapy with NARTH members. Part of an informal alumni network of ex-gay
dropouts, we see one another occasionally at conferences and interact in the
blogosphere. Perhaps the best known is Daniel Gonzales, who writes for the website Box Turtle
Nicolosi had also asked Daniel to participate in Spitzer’s study. When Daniel left therapy, he
thought he had gained valuable insight into his condition but eventually gave up trying to resist
his same-sex attractions. “I wasted one and a half years of my life on the therapy,” he said. “For a
long time, the things Nicolosi said about gay relationships continued to haunt me.” His
relationships with men continually failed because he was convinced, as Nicolosi had told him,
that they would fall apart as soon as he began to feel comfortable with them, at peace with his
Nicolosi’s ideas did more than haunt me. The first two years of college, they were the basis for
how I saw myself: a leper with no hope of a cure. I stayed in the closet but had sexual encounters
with classmates nonetheless. I became increasingly depressed but didn’t go to mental-health
counseling for fear that a well-meaning therapist would inform my parents that I was living the
I planned for what I would do if my parents decided to stop paying my tuition. I would stay in
New Haven and get a job. I would apply for a scholarship from the Point Foundation, which gives
financial aid to gay kids whose parents have disowned them. I would not go back to Arizona. I
would not see an ex-gay therapist.
I spent hours in front of the window of my third-story room, wondering whether jumping would
kill or merely paralyze me. I had a prescription for Ambien and considered taking the entire
bottle and perching myself on the ledge until it kicked in—a sort of insurance.
I am not sure how it all came to a head. Perhaps it was academic pressure combined with the
increasing conflict between my ideals and my behavior. But in the spring of my sophomore year,
the disparate parts of myself I had managed to hold together—the part of me that thought being
gay was wrong, the part that slept with men anyway, the part of myself I let the world see, and
the part that suffered in silence—came undone. I slept in 20-minute spurts for two nights,
consumed with despair. I eyed the prescription bottles on my dresser with anxious excitement. I
had reached a point at which I feared myself more than what would happen if I were gay.
Realizing how close I was to impulsively deciding to kill myself, I went to the college dean’s office
and said I was suicidal. He walked me over to the Department of Undergraduate Health, and I
was admitted to the Yale Psychiatric Hospital. During the intake interview, I had a panic attack
and handed the counselor a handwritten note that said, “Whatever happens, please don’t take
me away from here.” I had signed my full name and dated it. More than anything, I feared going
It was gray and cold my first night at the hospital. I remember looking out the window of the
room I was sharing with a schizophrenic. Snow covered the ground in the enclosed courtyard
below. Restless, I gathered a stack of magazines from the common area and flipped through the
pages, noticing the men in the fashion advertisements. I tore out the ads and put them in a clear
plastic file folder. I lay down in bed and held the folder against my chest. “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK,”
I indeed had to go home for a year before returning to school. By then my father, who flew to
New Haven the day I committed myself, realized that therapy—and the pressure he and my
mother had placed on me—was doing more harm than good. “I’d rather have a gay son than a
dead son,” he said.
The ordeal was a turning point. While it took years of counseling to disabuse myself of the ideas I
had learned while undergoing therapy with Nicolosi, it was the first time I encountered
professionals who were affirming of my sexuality, and the first time I allowed myself to think it
was all right to be gay.
Ryan, my therapy partner, was even more deeply affected. Two years ago, I came across his
name in transcripts of the lawsuit against California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8,
in which he testified about the harm therapy with Nicolosi had caused. Afterward, I friended him
We recently met in person for the first time at a restaurant on Manhattan’s West Side. It had
been 12 years since we’d last spoken on the phone. At 28, Ryan had just moved to New York City
from Denver to start his undergraduate studies at Columbia. He looked like he does in his
Facebook pictures: solid and short, with a shaved head and large brown eyes.
Ryan had initiated dependency-and-neglect proceedings against his parents at age 16 to escape
ex-gay therapy. That’s when we fell out of touch. He dropped out of high school and lived
intermittently with friends, then with his brother until his house was foreclosed on. Ryan had
been homeless at times. He had a series of short-term jobs and for a period dealt drugs to make
money but was broke most of the time. For food, on a few occasions, he filled a shopping cart
with items and then ran it out of the grocery store. “I was beyond control,” he said. “Something
just broke in me. I was trying to destroy myself because I had internalized all the homophobia
When did things turn around for him? A few years ago, he said, he landed a job working in an
administrative-support position at the Denver Police Department. It was then that he started
getting involved in gay-rights causes. “The Prop. 8 lawsuit was the first time I felt people really
believed in me,” he says. “I was surrounded by smart, important people, and they paid attention
I could relate to that: Being at Yale was the first time I felt validated by smart, important people. I
asked Ryan what he would say to Nicolosi if he were at the table.
“I’d ask him why he doesn’t just stop.”
couldn’t help wondering what Nicolosi would say to me, or Daniel, or Ryan. Does he
feel as though he failed us? Does he think we failed him? Has hearing the stories of his
former patients posted all over YouTube and the blogosphere changed his thinking? I
decide to call him to find out.
I am anxious about talking to Nicolosi again, afraid of what our conversation might bring back.
He knew me as an adolescent better than my parents or friends did.
When I first reach Nicolosi on the phone, he says he remembers me well and that he is surprised
that I “went in the gay direction. You really seemed to get it.” The conversation is quick. He is
between clients, so we arrange to speak a few days later.
I call and tell him I’m recording our conversation. “I’m recording too,” he jokes, “in case you say,
‘Nicolosi said that gays are sick weirdos and they’re perverted and they all should go to hell.’”
I chuckle. He’s just as I remember him—irreverent, warm. He says he’s been thinking about me
since I called. I ask why, if he was so sure I had “got it,” I never experienced change in my sexual
Nicolosi says his techniques have improved—now his patients focus more on the moment of
sexual attraction instead of speaking generally about the cause of homosexuality. Therapy, he
says, has become more effective. But part of the reason it failed for me, he says, was also that I
was stuck: There were not men I could bond with, and my parents did not understand me. It’s
the same thing he told me throughout high school.
What about people who don’t fit his model? “After almost 30 years of work, I can say to you that
I’ve never met a single homosexual who’s had a loving and respectful relationship with his
father,” he says. I had heard it all before.
I’m thinking, as he speaks, that for all his talk about understanding the homosexual condition,
what it feels like to be gay is beyond Nicolosi’s experience. For him, changing one’s sexual
orientation is a hypothetical proposition. He’s never lived it. Only his patients have had to face the
failure of his ideas.
I mention Ryan and tell Nicolosi he blames him for destroying his family. Nicolosi says he doesn’t
remember Ryan. But he is defensive about taking any responsibility. “For all this concern about
how I damage people, where is the damage? We’re currently treating 137 people. Over 30 years,
don’t you think there’d be a busload of people who are damaged?”
I asked him what he remembers about me. “All I can do is visualize a teenager in his room in a
hot small town,” he says. “You would talk to me about the loneliness, the kids at school—you
really had no friends. You desperately wanted to get out.”
He is trying to draw me out, get me to talk to him openly. He is the therapist, and I am once again
his patient. I am reticent. I tell him I did end up leaving Arizona.
“And I encouraged you, right?” he says. “Quite honestly, Gabriel, I hope you see me as someone
who didn’t make you feel worse about yourself, someone who did not force you to do or believe
anything about yourself that you didn’t want to.”
It’s true that while in therapy, I did not feel coerced into believing his theories. Like nuclear
fallout, the damage came later, when I realized my sexual orientation would not change. I could
have told Nicolosi about my thoughts of suicide, my time in the mental institution. I could have
told him that my parents still don’t understand me but that I’m grown up now and it has less of a
bearing on my life. I could have told him that I married a man. But I realize it wouldn’t be of any
use: I’ve changed since I left therapy, but Nicolosi has not. For years I shared my innermost
thoughts and feelings with him. Now I want to keep this for myself.
Baldwin, J. (1985). Here be dragons. In The price of the ticket: Collected nonfiction 1948-1985 (pp. 677-690). New York, NY: St. Martins Press.
To be androgynous, Webster’s informs us, is to have both male and female characteristics. This means that there is a man in every woman and a woman in every man. Sometimes this is recognized only when the chips are, brutally, down — when there is no longer any way to avoid this recognition. But love between a man and a woman, or love between any two human beings, would not be possible did we not have available to us the spiritual resources of both sexes.
To be androgynous does not imply both male and female sexual equipment, which is the state, uncommon, of the hermaphrodite. However, the existence of the hermaphrodite reveals, in intimidating exaggeration, the truth concerning every human being — which is why the hermaphrodite is called a freak. The human being does not, in general, enjoy being intimidated by what he/she finds in the mirror.
The hermaphrodite, therefore, may make his/her living in side shows or brothels, whereas the merely androgynous are running banks or filling stations or maternity wards, churches, armies or countries.
The last time you had a drink, whether you were alone or with another, you were having a drink with an androgynous human being; and this is true for the last time you broke bread or, as I have tried to suggest, the last time you made love.
There seems to be a vast amount of confusion in the western world concerning these matters, but love and sexual activity are not synonymous: Only by becoming inhuman can the human being pretend that they are. The mare is not obliged to love the stallion, nor is the bull required to love the cow. They are doing what comes naturally.
But this by no means sums up the state or the possibilities of the human being in whom the awakening of desire fuels imagination and in whom imagination fuels desire. In other words, it is not possible for the human being to be as simple as a stallion or a mare, because the human imagination is perpetually required to examine, control, and redefine reality, of which we must assume ourselves to be the center and the key. Nature and revelation are perpetually challenging each other; this relentless tension is one of the keys to human history and to what is known as the human condition.
Now, I can speak only of the western world and must rely on my own experience, but the simple truth of this universal duality, this perpetual possibility of communion and completion, seems so alarming that I have watched it lead to addiction, despair, death, and madness. Nowhere have I seen this panic more vividly than in my country and in my generation.
The American idea of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity. Idea may not be the precise word, for the idea of one’s sexuality can only with great violence be divorced or distanced from the idea of the self. Yet something resembling this rupture has certainly occurred (and is occurring) in American life, and violence has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America. This violence, furthermore, is not merely literal and actual but appears to be admired and lusted after, and the key to the American imagination.
All countries or groups make of their trials a legend or, as in the case of Europe, a dubious romance called “history.” But no other country has ever made so successful and glamorous a romance out of genocide and slavery; therefore, perhaps the word I am searching for is not idea but ideal.
The American ideal, then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden — as an unpatriotic act — that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.
The exigencies created by the triumph of the Industrial Revolution — or, in other terms, the rise of Europe to global dominance — had, among many mighty effects, that of commercializing the roles of men and women. Men became the propagators, or perpetrators, of property, and women became the means by which that property was protected and handed down. One may say that this was nothing more than the ancient and universal division of labor — women nurtured the tribe, men battled for it — but the concept of property had undergone a change. This change was vast and deep and sinister.
For the first time in human history, a man was reduced not merely to a thing but to a thing the value of which was determined, absolutely, by that thing’s commercial value. That this pragmatic principle dictated the slaughter of the native American, the enslavement of the black and the monumental rape of Africa — to say nothing of creating the wealth of the Western world — no one, I suppose, will now attempt to deny.
But this principle also raped and starved Ireland, for example, as well as Latin America, and it controlled the pens of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence — a document more clearly commercial than moral. This is how, and why, the American Constitution was able to define the slave as three-fifths of a man, from which legal and commercial definition it legally followed that a black man “had no rights a white man was bound to respect.”
Ancient maps of the world — when the world was flat — inform us, concerning that void where America was waiting to be discovered, HERE BE DRAGONS. Dragons may not have been here then, but they are certainly here now, breathing fire, belching smoke; or, to be less literary and biblical about it, attempting to intimidate the mores, morals, and morality of this particular and peculiar time and place. Nor, since this country is the issue of the entire globe and is also the most powerful nation currently to be found on it, are we speaking only of this time and place. And it can be said that the monumental struggles being waged in our time and not only in this place resemble, in awesome ways, the ancient struggle between those who insisted that the world was flat and those who apprehended that it was round.
Of course, I cannot possibly imagine what it can be like to have both male and female sexual equipment. That’s a load of family jewels to be hauling about, and it seems to me that it must make choice incessant or impossible — or, in terms unavailable to me, unnecessary. Yet, not to be frivolous concerning what I know I cannot — or, more probably, dare not — imagine, I hazard that the physically androgynous state must create an all-but-intolerable loneliness, since we all exist, after all, and crucially, in the eye of the beholder. We all react to and, to whatever extent, become what that eye sees. This judgment begins in the eyes of one’s parents (the crucial, the definitive, the all-but-everlasting judgment), and so we move, in the vast and claustrophobic gallery of Others, on up or down the line, to the eye of one’s enemy or one’s friend or one’s lover.
It is virtually impossible to trust one’s human value without the collaboration or corroboration of that eye — which is to say that no one can live without it. One can, of course, instruct that eye as to what to see, but this effort, which is nothing less than ruthless intimidation, is wounding and exhausting: While it can keep humiliation at bay, it confirms the fact that humiliation is the central danger of one’s life. And since one cannot risk love without risking humiliation, love becomes impossible.
I hit the streets when I was about six or seven, like most black kids of my generation, running errands, doing odd jobs. This was in the black world — my turf — which means that I felt protected. I think that I really was, though poverty is poverty and we were, if I may say so, among the truly needy, in spite of the tins of corned beef we got from home relief every week, along with prunes. (Catsup had not yet become a vegetable; indeed, I don’t think we had ever heard of it.) My mother fried corned beef, she boiled it, she baked it, she put potatoes in it, she put rice in it, she disguised it in corn bread, she boiled it in soup (!), she wrapped it in cloth, she beat it with a hammer, she banged it against the wall, she threw it onto the ceiling. Finally, she gave up, for nothing could make us eat it anymore, and the tins reproachfully piled up on the shelf above the bathtub — along with the prunes, which we also couldn’t eat anymore. While I won’t speak for my brothers and sisters, I can’t bear corned-beef hash or prunes even today.
Poverty. I remember one afternoon when someone dropped a dime in front of the subway station at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue and I and a man of about forty both scrambled for it. The man won, giving me a cheerful goodbye as he sauntered down the subway steps. I was bitterly disappointed, a dime being a dime, but I laughed, too.
The truly needy. Once, my father gave me a dime — the last dime in the house, though I didn’t know that — to go to the store for kerosene for the stove, and I fell on the icy streets and dropped the dime and lost it. My father beat me with an iron cord from the kitchen to the back room and back again, until I lay, half-conscious, on my belly on the floor.
Yet — strange though it is to realize this, looking back — I never felt threatened in those years, when I was growing up in Harlem, my hometown. I think this may be because it was familiar; the white people who lived there then were as poor as we, and there was no TV setting our teeth on edge with exhortations to buy what we could never hope to afford.
On the other hand, I was certainly unbelievably unhappy and pathologically shy, but that, I felt, was nobody’s fault but mine. My father kept me in short pants longer than he should have, and I had been told, and I believed, that I was ugly. This meant that the idea of myself as a sexual possibility, or target, as a creature capable of desire, had never entered my mind. And it entered my mind, finally, by means of the rent made in my short boy-scout pants by a man who had lured me into a hallway, saying that he wanted to send me to the store. That was the very last time I agreed to run an errand for any stranger.
Yet I was, in peculiar truth, a very lucky boy. Shortly after I turned sixteen, a Harlem racketeer, a man of about thirty-eight, fell in love with me, and I will be grateful to that man until the day I die. I showed him all my poetry, because I had no one else in Harlem to show it to, and even now, I sometimes wonder what on earth his friends could have been thinking, confronted with stingy-brimmed, mustachioed, razor-toting Poppa and skinny, popeyed Me when he walked me (rarely) into various shady joints, I drinking ginger ale, he drinking brandy. I think I was supposed to be his nephew, some nonsense like that, though he was Spanish and Irish, with curly black hair. But I knew that he was showing me off and wanted his friends to be happy for him — which, indeed, if the way they treated me can be taken as a barometer, they were. They seemed to feel that this was his business — that he would be in trouble if it became their business.
And though I loved him, too — in my way, a boy’s way — I was mightily tormented, for I was still a child evangelist, which everybody knew, Lord. My soul looks back and wonders.
For what this really means is that all of the American categories of male and female, straight or not, black or white, were shattered, thank heaven, very early in my life. Not without anguish, certainly; but once you have discerned the meaning of a label, it may seem to define you for others, but it does not have the power to define you to yourself.
This prepared me for my life downtown, where I quickly discovered that my existence was the punch line of a dirty joke.
The condition that is now called gay was then called queer. The operative word was faggot and, later, pussy, but those epithets really had nothing to do with the question of sexual preference: You were being told simply that you had no balls.
I certainly had no desire to harm anyone, nor did I understand how anyone could look at me and suppose me physically capable of causing any harm. But boys and men chased me, saying I was a danger to their sisters. I was thrown out of cafeterias and rooming houses because I was “bad” for the neighborhood.
The cops watched all this with a smile, never making the faintest motion to protect me or to disperse my attackers; in fact, I was even more afraid of the cops than I was of the populace.
By the time I was nineteen, I was working in the Garment Center. I was getting on very badly at home and delayed going home after work as long as possible. At the end of the workday, I would wander east, to the Forty-second Street Library. Sometimes, I would sit in Bryant Park — but I discovered that I could not sit there long. I fled, to the movies, and so discovered Forty-second Street. Today that street is exactly what it was when I was an adolescent: It has simply become more blatant.
There were no X-rated movies then, but there were, so to speak, X-rated audiences. For example, I went in complete innocence to the Apollo, on Forty-second Street, because foreign films were shown there — The Lower Depths, Childhood of Maxim Gorky, La Bête Humaine — and I walked out as untouched (by human hands) as I had been when I walked in. There were the stores, mainly on Sixth Avenue, that sold “girlie” magazines. These magazines were usually to be found at the back of the store, and I don’t so much remember them as I remember the silent men who stood there. They stood, it seemed, for hours, with the magazines in their hands and a kind of miasma in their eyes. There were all kinds of men, mostly young and, in those days, almost exclusively white. Also, for what it’s worth, they were heterosexual, since the images they studied, at crotch level, were those of women.
Actually, I guess I hit Forty-second Street twice and have very nearly blotted the first time out. I was not at the mercy of the street the first time, for, though I may have dreaded going home, I hadn’t left home yet. Then, I spent a lot of time in the library, and I stole odds and ends out of Woolworth’s — with no compunction at all, due to the way they treated us in Harlem. When I went to the movies, I imagine that a combination of innocence and terror prevented me from too clearly apprehending the action taking place in the darkness of the Apollo — though I understood it well enough to remain standing a great deal of the time. This cunning stratagem failed when, one afternoon, the young boy I was standing behind put his hand behind him and grabbed my cock at the very same moment that a young boy came up behind me and put his cock against my hand: Ignobly enough, I fled, though I doubt that I was missed. The men in the men’s room frightened me, so I moved in and out as quickly as possible, and I also dimly felt, I remember, that I didn’t want to “fool around” and so risk hurting the feelings of my uptown friend.
But if I was paralyzed by guilt and terror, I cannot be judged or judge myself too harshly, for I remember the faces of the men. These men, so far from being or resembling faggots, looked and sounded like the vigilantes who banded together on weekends to beat faggots up. (And I was around long enough, suffered enough, and learned enough to be forced to realize that this was very often true. I might not have learned this if I had been a white boy; but sometimes a white man will tell a black boy anything, everything, weeping briny tears. He knows that the black boy can never betray him, for no one will believe his testimony.)
These men looked like cops, football players, soldiers, sailors, Marines or bank presidents, admen, boxers, construction workers; they had wives, mistresses, and children. I sometimes saw them in other settings — in, as it were, the daytime. Sometimes they spoke to me, sometimes not, for anguish has many days and styles. But I had first seen them in the men’s room, sometimes on their knees, peering up into the stalls, or standing at the urinal stroking themselves, staring at another man, stroking, and with this miasma in their eyes. Sometimes, eventually, inevitably, I would find myself in bed with one of these men, a despairing and dreadful conjunction, since their need was as relentless as quicksand and as impersonal, and sexual rumor concerning blacks had preceded me. As for sexual roles, these were created by the imagination and limited only by one’s stamina.
At bottom, what I had learned was that the male desire for a male roams everywhere, avid, desperate, unimaginably lonely, culminating often in drugs, piety, madness or death. It was also dreadfully like watching myself at the end of a long, slow-moving line: Soon I would be next. All of this was very frightening. It was lonely and impersonal and demeaning. I could not believe — after all, I was only nineteen — that I could have been driven to the lonesome place where these men and I met each other so soon, to stay.
The American idea of masculinity: There are few things under heaven more difficult to understand or, when I was younger, to forgive.
During the Second World War (the first one having failed to make the world safe for democracy) and some time after the Civil War (which had failed, unaccountably, to liberate the slave), life for niggers was fairly rough in Greenwich Village. There were only about three of us, if I remember correctly, when I first hit those streets, and I was the youngest, the most visible, and the most vulnerable.
On every street corner, I was called a faggot. This meant that I was despised, and, however horrible this is, it is clear. What was not clear at that time of my life was what motivated the men and boys who mocked and chased me; for, if they found me when they were alone, they spoke to me very differently — frightening me, I must say, into a stunned and speechless paralysis. For when they were alone, they spoke very gently and wanted me to take them home and make love. (They could not take me home; they lived with their families.) The bafflement and the pain this caused in me remain beyond description. I was far too terrified to be able to accept their propositions, which could only result, it seemed to me, in making myself a candidate for gang rape. At the same time, I was moved by their loneliness, their halting, nearly speechless need. But I did not understand it.
One evening, for example, I was standing at the bottom of the steps to the Waverly Place subway station, saying goodbye to some friends who were about to take the subway. A gang of boys stood at the top of the steps and cried, in high, feminine voices, “Is this where the fags meet?”
Well. This meant that I certainly could not go back upstairs but would have to take the subway with my friends and get off at another station and maneuver my way home. But one of the gang saw me and, without missing a beat or saying a word to his friends, called my name and came down the steps, throwing one arm around me and asking where I’d been. He had let me know, some time before, that he wanted me to take him home — but I was surprised that he could be so open before his friends, who for their part seemed to find nothing astonishing in this encounter and disappeared, probably in search of other faggots.
The boys who are left of that time and place are all my age or older. But many of them are dead, and I remember how some of them died — some in the streets, some in the Army, some on the needle, some in jail. Many years later, we managed, without ever becoming friends — it was too late for that — to be friendly with one another. One of these men and I had a very brief, intense affair shortly before he died. He was on drugs and knew that he could not live long. “What a waste,” he said, and he was right.
One of them said, “My God, Jimmy, you were moving so fast in those years, you never stopped to talk to me.”
I said, “That’s right, baby; I didn’t stop because I didn’t want you to think that I was trying to seduce you.”
“Man,” he said, indescribably, “why didn’t you?”
But the queer — not yet gay — world was an even more intimidating area of this hall of mirrors. I knew that I was in the hall and present at this company — but the mirrors threw back only brief and distorted fragments of myself.
In the first place, as I have said, there were very few black people in the Village in those years, and of that handful, I was decidedly the most improbable. Perhaps, as they say in the theater, I was a hard type to cast; yet I was eager, vulnerable, and lonely. I was terribly shy, but boys are shy. I am saying that I don’t think I felt absolutely, irredeemably grotesque — nothing that a friendly wave of the wand couldn’t alter — but I was miserable. I moved through that world very quickly; I have described it as “my season in hell,” for I was never able to make my peace with it.
It wasn’t only that I didn’t wish to seem or sound like a woman, for it was this detail that most harshly first struck my eye and ear. I am sure that I was afraid that I already seemed and sounded too much like a woman. In my childhood, at least until my adolescence, my playmates had called me a sissy. It seemed to me that many of the people I met were making fun of women, and I didn’t see why. I certainly needed all the friends I could get, male or female, and women had nothing to do with whatever my trouble might prove to be.
At the same time, I had already been sexually involved with a couple of white women in the Village. There were virtually no black women there when I hit those streets, and none who needed or could have afforded to risk herself with an odd, raggedy-assed black boy who clearly had no future. (The first black girl I met who dug me I fell in love with, lived with and almost married. But I met her, though I was only twenty-two, many light-years too late.)
The white girls I had known or been involved with — different categories — had paralyzed me, because I simply did not know what, apart from my sex, they wanted. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it was just moaning and groaning, but, ultimately, I found myself at the mercy of a double fear. The fear of the world was bearable until it entered the bedroom. But it sometimes entered the bedroom by means of the motives of the girl, who intended to civilize you into becoming an appendage or who had found a black boy to sleep with because she wanted to humiliate her parents. Not an easy scene to play, in any case, since it can bring out the worst in both parties, and more than one white girl had already made me know that her color was more powerful than my dick.
Which had nothing to do with how I found myself in the gay world. I would have found myself there anyway, but perhaps the very last thing this black boy needed were clouds of imitation white women and speculations concerning the size of his organ: speculations sometimes accompanied by an attempt at the laying on of hands. “Ooo! Look at him! He’s cute — he doesn’t like you to touch him there!”
In short, I was black in that world, and I was used that way, and by people who truly meant me no harm.
And they could not have meant me any harm, because they did not see me. There were exceptions, of course, for I also met some beautiful people. Yet even today, it seems to me (possibly because I am black) very dangerous to model one’s opposition to the arbitrary definition, the imposed ordeal, merely on the example supplied by one’s oppressor.
The object of one’s hatred is never, alas, conveniently outside but is seated in one’s lap, stirring in one’s bowels and dictating the beat of one’s heart. And if one does not know this, one risks becoming an imitation — and, therefore, a continuation — of principles one imagines oneself to despise.
I, in any case, had endured far too much debasement willingly to debase myself. I had absolutely no fantasies about making love to the last cop or hoodlum who had beaten the shit out of me. I did not find it amusing, in any way whatever, to act out the role of the darky.
So I moved on out of there.
In fact, I found a friend — more accurately, a friend found me — an Italian, about five years older than I, who helped my morale greatly in those years. I was told that he had threatened to kill anyone who touched me. I don’t know about that, but people stopped beating me up. Our relationship never seemed to worry him or his friends or his women.
My situation in the Village stabilized itself to the extent that I began working as a waiter in a black West Indian restaurant, The Calypso, on MacDougal Street. This led, by no means incidentally, to the desegregation of the San Remo, an Italian bar and restaurant on the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker. Every time I entered the San Remo, they threw me out. I had to pass it all the time on my way to and from work, which is, no doubt, why the insult rankled.
I had won the Saxton Fellowship, which was administered by Harper & Brothers, and I knew Frank S. MacGregor, the president of Harper’s. One night, when he asked me where we should have dinner, I suggested, spontaneously, the San Remo.
We entered, and they seated us and we were served. I went back to MacGregor’s house for a drink and then went straight back to the San Remo, sitting on a bar stool in the window. The San Remo thus began to attract a varied clientele, indeed — so much so that Allen Ginsberg and company arrived there the year I left New York for Paris.
As for the people who ran and worked at the San Remo, they never bothered me again. Indeed, the Italian community never bothered me again — or rarely and, as it were, by accident. But the Village was full of white tourists, and one night, when a mob gathered before the San Remo, demanding that I come out, the owners closed the joint and turned the lights out and we sat in the back room, in the dark, for a couple of hours, until they judged it safe to drive me home.
This was a strange, great and bewildering time in my life. Once I was in the San Remo, for example, I was in, and anybody who messed with me was out — that was all there was to it, and it happened more than once. And no one seemed to remember a time when I had not been there.
I could not quite get it together, but it seemed to me that I was no longer black for them and they had ceased to be white for me, for they sometimes introduced me to their families with every appearance of affection and pride and exhibited not the remotest interest in whatever my sexual proclivities chanced to be.
They had fought me very hard to prevent this moment, but perhaps we were all much relieved to have got beyond the obscenity of color.
Matters were equally bewildering, though in a different way, at The Calypso. All kinds of people came into our joint — I am now referring to white people — and one of their most vivid aspects, for me, was the cruelty of their alienation. They appeared to have no antecedents nor any real connections.
“Do you really like your mother?” someone asked me, seeming to be astounded, totally disbelieving the possibility.
I was astounded by the question. Certainly, my mother and I did not agree about everything, and I knew that she was very worried about the dangers of the life I lived, but that was normal, since I was a boy and she was a woman. Of course she was worried about me: She was my mother. But she knew I wasn’t crazy and that I would certainly never do anything, deliberately, to hurt her. Or my tribe, my brothers and sisters, who were probably worried about me, too.
My family was a part of my life. I could not imagine life without them, might never have been able to reconcile myself to life without them. And certainly one of the reasons I was breaking my ass in the Village had to do with my need to try to move us out of our dangerous situation. I was perfectly aware of the odds — my father had made that very clear — but he had also given me my assignment. “Do you really like your mother?” did not cause me to wonder about my mother or myself but about the person asking the question.
And perhaps because of such questions, I was not even remotely tempted by the possibilities of psychiatry or psychoanalysis. For one thing, there were too many schools — Freud, Horney, Jung, Reich (to suggest merely the tip of that iceberg) — and, for another, it seemed to me that anyone who thought seriously that I had any desire to be “adjusted” to this society had to be ill; too ill, certainly, as time was to prove, to be trusted.
I sensed, then — without being able to articulate it — that this dependence on a formula for safety, for that is what it was, signaled a desperate moral abdication. People went to the shrink in order to find justification for the empty lives they led and the meaningless work they did. Many turned, helplessly, hopefully, to Wilhelm Reich and perished in orgone boxes.
I seem to have strayed a long way from our subject, but our subject is social and historical — and continuous. The people who leaped into orgone boxes in search of the perfect orgasm were later to turn to acid. The people so dependent on psychiatric formulas were unable to give their children any sense of right or wrong — indeed, this sense was in themselves so fragile that during the McCarthy era, more than one shrink made a lot of money by convincing his patients, or clients, that their psychic health demanded that they inform on their friends. (Some of these people, after their surrender, attempted to absolve themselves in the civil rights movement.)
What happened to the children, therefore, is not even remotely astonishing. The flower children — who became the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Manson Family — are creatures from this howling inner space.
I am not certain, therefore, that the present sexual revolution is either sexual or a revolution. It strikes me as a reaction to the spiritual famine of American life. The present androgynous “craze” — to underestimate it — strikes me as an attempt to be honest concerning one’s nature, and it is instructive, I think, to note that there is virtually no emphasis on overt sexual activity. There is nothing more boring, anyway, than sexual activity as an end in itself, and a great many people who came out of the closet should reconsider.
Such figures as Boy George do not disturb me nearly so much as do those relentlessly hetero (sexual?) keepers of the keys and seals, those who know what the world needs in the way of order and who are ready and willing to supply that order.
This rage for order can result in chaos, and in this country, chaos connects with color. During the height of my involvement in the civil rights movement, for example, I was subjected to hate mail of a terrifying precision. Volumes concerning what my sisters, to say nothing of my mother, were capable of doing; to say nothing of my brothers; to say nothing of the monumental size of my organ and what I did with it. Someone described, in utterly riveting detail, a scene he swore he had witnessed (I think it was a he — such mail is rarely signed) on the steps of houses in Baltimore of niggers fucking their dogs.
At the same time, I was also on the mailing list of one of the more elegant of the KKK societies, and I still have some of that mail in my files. Someone, of course, eventually realized that the organization should not be sending that mail to this particular citizen, and it stopped coming — but not before I had had time to be struck by the similarity of tone between the hate mail and the mail of the society, and not before the society had informed me, by means of a parody of an Audubon Society postcard, what it felt and expected me to feel concerning a certain “Red-breasted” Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair — to all of which may now be added the bitter need to find a head on which to place the crown of Miss America.
Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.
Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks — though we are rarely what we appear to be. We are, for the most part, visibly male or female, our social roles defined by our sexual equipment.
But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.