Homo homini rodentius est

Harold Arrives Late to the Party

The scariest thing… ever.

In the wake of AIDS, with the gay community furiously trying to reinvent itself as a caricature of 1950’s domesticity, one can barely remember what gay sensibility was like back in the 1970s. A bit darker than images of beaming pairs of grooms slicing into a wedding cake, to be sure. Growing up in a small upstate town, the images of homosexuality that made their way into my little backwater milieu were rare, often absurd and sometimes frightening — a glance at a Life magazine photospread about gay subculture, replete with shadowy shots of hirsute men in strange leather uniforms; the odd appearance on TV of flamboyant character actors like Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde; the furtive peek at Playgirl (which even I knew was targeted to men as much as women). And then there was The Boys in the Band. I saw it on TV when I was very young and it scared the living hell out of me. The movie was meant to be an honest look at the experiences of gay men living in Manhattan, but its over-the-top portrayal of every hysterical stereotype extant approached Grand Guignol. Most frightening of all was “Harold” — a blasé character at the center of the storm, so embittered and disdainful that he can barely make an utterance that isn’t delivered like a lancet. I suspected I was queer and I dreaded that Harold was to be my fate. But the world would change before that could happen.

CA Tripp, a colleague of Kinsey’s, writing in The Homosexual Matrix about the psychology of effeminacy — a section entitled “Blasé (The Queenly Gestures)”:

Sometimes the blasé attitude looks like a “hold your head high and be unmoved” kind of posture. Or, it may have a quiet elegance — sometimes quite plain and genuine looking, or overdone to the point of a regal standoffishness. Calling such a person a “queen” is the homosexual vernacular for this regalness… the whole posture is what psychologists call a reaction-formation, an exaggerated correction away from an original tendency — in this case, away from overreacting to everything and over-animating oneself.

According to Tripp, so much of stereotypical gay affectation is a hydraulic reaction to hypersensitivity to perceived threat by a hostile environment. I can’t do justice to his book here (you should dig up a copy, it’s amazing), but a lot of what he says rings true. I think what was most frightening to me about The Boys in the Band was sensing the extreme levels of aggression and anger that were turned inward, warping and destroying personalities along the way. In such an environment, is it any wonder that such self-annihilation led to suicidal levels of substance abuse and the disease(s) that benefited thereby?

What am I thankful for this Gay Pride Day? Well, I’m thankful — always — that I dodged a bullet that has claimed too many of my kind. I’m thankful that there is a new generation of men and women who are accepting of gay people, even supportive. And I’m thankful that queer kids growing up today don’t have to fear their fate — they can welcome it.

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