Dead Poets and Comic Geniuses

The checkout line was unusually long at Safeway today. Long enough to give me time to notice the tabloids staring down at me from bins on either side of my cart. All the headlines seemed to be about Robin Williams, promising “intimate details” about his final hours, his last words, where and how and why he took his own life.

I tried to look away. At some level, I didn’t want to know the details. The details were none of my business—and besides, I certainly didn’t trust that a tabloid rushed to print so soon after his death would actually get much right, or that the editors even felt any obligation or desire to get anything right. They wanted to sell papers. And if there were no alien abductions to report this week, then exploiting a man’s pain would suffice.

Surely, I thought, Williams had to have known that this moment of private agony would soon become food for the maw of celebrity culture. If he had stopped to think about it for a minute, he would have realized what his suicide would do to his loved ones, and how it would become the latest obsession of a culture constantly in search of a new obsession.

Stop. To. Think.

But he couldn’t, of course. That’s the point. Depression that deep is single-minded: it doesn’t allow in thoughts about the aftermath. Depression functions by minimizing access to rational thought. That’s its modus operandi.

The curiosity that caused all those papers to be printed is equally irrational. And as the checkout dragged on—the woman at the head of the line was having a long dispute with the cashier about coupons—I finally lost restraint and picked up one of the magazines. I skimmed to the story, but stopped myself after simply gazing at the photos—Robin in various film roles, a shot of the house in Tiburon where he died. I stuffed the magazine back in its bin, unread.

When I was four years old, my grandfather killed himself—a fact that was kept from me for years, of course, but that has haunted me ever since I found out. In high school I took a class called “Insanity in Literature,” where we read The Bell Jar and learned how its author, Sylvia Plath, had ended her own life in a gas-filled kitchen. I was fascinated by the concept of suicide. The romanticism of it appealed to my adolescent “they’ll miss me when I’m gone” attitude.   But there was something else, too: still grappling with the inevitability of death, I was amazed that anyone would actually want to move it up on the calendar. What on earth could explain that, I wondered.

I found out soon enough. My first novel, Chemistry, was inspired by one of my first romantic relationships, a love affair with a handsome 26-year-old man whom I watched sink into a debilitating depression. Just a few months into the relationship, I was thrust into the role of caretaker, witnessing his spiral into uncontrollable despair. He began seeing a psychiatrist and was put on medication whose effects were as unpredictable as the disease itself. And one day he attempted suicide by overdosing on the very pills that were supposed to cure him. He survived and was institutionalized for several months. It was during my frequent visits to the mental hospital that I began to see how depression works, how it pulls you away from the world into a solipsistic universe that admits nothing but itself.

As I learned from that experience, suicide has a disproportionate impact on the LGBT community, particularly our youth. And over the past week, a lot has been written about the increased risk of suicide for middle-aged men. So that covers two of my own demographic categories.

Despite what I’ve learned—through personal experience as well as studies on the subject—I struggle to understand. When I heard about Robin Williams, I tried to imagine what had happened. I tried to see myself in his shoes: walking through a beautiful, well-appointed house on a sunny day, past the mantel where my Academy Award stands guard, past posters of my films and various signs of success and adulation, into a closet full of designer clothes, so I could throw a belt over the rod.

It didn’t compute for me. He had everything he could want—everything I want—and still he did this?

But it’s not supposed to compute. It’s not supposed to make sense. Fame and fortune are irrelevant. The fact that Robin Williams achieved things I can only dream of is irrelevant. Many, in fact, have argued that the pain he suffered was precisely the thing that led him to overcompensate by being so incredibly funny. It may have been the key to his genius. But even that genius couldn’t stop him from reaching for the belt.

As I confront my own midlife crisis, I can’t shake the feeling that it could have been me; it could have been any of us. Our culture encourages men to be externally focused, to make their mark in the world. When you reach an age where new beginnings are hard to come by, disappointment inevitably results. There’s a tendency to believe you’re stuck with whatever it is you’ve created by then. When the second chances are used up and the years ahead are clearly fewer than the years behind, you’d damn well better be happy with what you’ve achieved.

And although I know that Robin Williams’s depression went far deeper than a midlife crisis, I still find myself cautiously observing the people in my life who fall into that demographic—looking for signs. Because a midlife crisis is no longer a joke.

Neither is depression. It made that point clear by killing the funniest man in the world.

The Intersection of Queer and Gay … and Straight?

This post first appeared in the Huffington Post.

My bedroom window looks out on the biggest rainbow flag in town. And that’s saying something for a town that’s draped in rainbow flags like monuments are draped in Christo’s pink fabric. And not just in June.

Indeed, my home, just inches away from Harvey Milk Plaza—the hub of the Castro—is poetically referred to by one of my friends as “the epicenter of faggotry.” I’m sure he means that in the nicest way possible.

My condo was built in 1981, just three years after the assassination of Harvey Milk. That was also the year that AIDS (then known simply as gay cancer) made its first appearance in the media. Those events are linked in my mind as the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, and they seem to come together here, in the shadow of that beautiful, rippling flag.

Directly across the street is the Twin Peaks Tavern, a San Francisco landmark widely credited as the first gay bar in the world with plate glass windows. Of course, it’s also known as the Glass Coffin and God’s Waiting Room, so you can appreciate why it wasn’t until my late forties that I began to visit it with any semblance of regularity.

As has been pointed out in the media of late, “gayborhoods” are going out of fashion, so the moniker Glass Coffin may have a deeper meaning these days. The bar earned that name because its clientele have traditionally been a bit older, but now one could say it’s not just the individuals who are dying out, but the traditional definition of the neighborhood.

Not that property values are declining, of course—far from it—just the old way of life. The Castro is still gay, but then again, so is San Francisco, relative to almost anywhere else in America. But gay no longer means quite what it used to, and my neighbors are a bit more diverse these days. I’m almost as likely to see straight women at the grocery store now as gay men (at least I think the men are gay, though the metrosexuals can make you do a double-take). To confuse things further, the sidewalks are often blocked by baby strollers. Some of those strollers, admittedly, are manned by two daddies, but more often than not, it’s a mixed couple. (I remember when mixed meant Jewish and Christian; only in the Castro could it mean male and female.)

The mail drop at my condo complex says it all: one particular tenant seems to have all her shopping delivered by Google. I can’t tell whether that means she works there or just uses their services; in any event, the hipster vibe is alive and well. The current tech explosion is for geeks what sexual liberation was for gays in the 1970s: It’s the beacon that now brings thousands of new residents to a city that used to be known more for sexual and political innovation than the technical kind.

Real estate listings now routinely refer to the neighborhood as Eureka Valley—a name that hasn’t been used in about 40 years. I suppose Castro has connotations that might put off certain potential buyers.

Personally, I think those realtors should take all potential buyers on a tour of shop windows on Castro Street. If posters of naked men and dildo displays make you think twice, then do: Think twice, and consider whether you really want to live here, as is.

A neighborhood isn’t just a plot of land. It’s a culture. And changing that is a lot harder—and a lot less defensible—than repainting your walls or planting different flowers in the yard.

So far, the neighborhood is thankfully maintaining its open and very gay vibe. San Francisco being San Francisco, the new residents tend to be just as liberal and gay-friendly as the rest of us. But I have to admit that I get a real charge out of the conflict between old and new. The Castro Theatre has taken to presenting sing-alongs of the movie Frozen at practically every weekend matinee. I love nothing more than watching the stream of tiara-clad little girls holding their mothers’ hands and strolling out of the theater, right past the naked protesters outside Twin Peaks. Public nudity was recently banned in San Francisco, so our resident naturists have taken to wearing gold lamé socks on their penises. Try explaining that to your Disney princess.

But we can’t hold onto the past forever. Cultures and neighborhoods, like species, evolve or die. In a world where gay people serve in the military, get married, and vote Republican, the least we can do is open our borders. I just hope we don’t lose our basic values in the process. I was recently appalled by a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle by a gay father in the suburbs who vowed never to bring his child to a Pride parade because Pride parades are “disgusting” spectacles full of scantily clad people proclaiming the joy of sex. I hope he keeps his promise and stays the hell away. Frankly, I have more faith in my gay-friendly straight neighbors than in guys like him.

There was a day when we could only dream of acceptance. But now it’s sinking in that acceptance is a two-way street. Like Castro.

Undress Casual

I have news. Big news. Are you ready? Are you sitting down?

Straight people have discovered casual sex. Well, not casual sex, exactly (I think they got that message in the 70s, along with disco and bell bottoms), just a recognition of its health benefits. Apparently, it took a group of academics to reveal to the world that casual sex is good for your mental health. And the media decided that it’s news.

Who’d have thunk it?

When gay men started sleeping around (and around) in the 70s, we were superficial, promiscuous, incapable of mature relationships. When straight people start doing it, it’s suddenly a wellness program.

I suppose it was inevitable. First we introduced the world to disco. “Hello, straight people, meet Gloria Gaynor. … You’re welcome.”

Not that we ever got so much as a thank you. It seems that every trend, from facial hair to Bette Midler to the cosmo, is greeted by mainstream America at least 5 years after it was all the rage in the gay community—and always with the gay backstory ignored. It’s as if a forest of trees were falling silently for decades just because there were no straight ears to hear them. (I challenge you to ask the average Bette Midler fan what a bathhouse is.)

Interestingly enough, by the time most of these trends become hot in the straight world, they’ve already gone cold among the gays. (Bette, sure, she can stay—but cosmos, oh please.) Frankly, it’s a chicken-or-egg mystery: sometimes we give up on the trend less because we’re bored than because … well, style being what it is, such things just aren’t interesting when everyone’s doing them.

Except for this one. Casual sex is a trend that I don’t see the gays giving up anytime soon. The jury, however, is still out on straights.

The researchers could have saved a lot of trouble just by asking us. If you want to know the benefits of casual sex, Dr. Feelgood, come to the source. We didn’t invent bathhouses, back rooms, pick-up bars, sex clubs, and hook-up apps as a route to the Nobel Prize. We invented them because they’re fun. Because casual sex offers a break from the stress of life.

The problem, of course, is that our larger society—and in particular, the religious wing that is intent on controlling everything and wrenching the fun out of dysfunction—has done too good of a job of convincing people that sex is primarily for making babies and filing joint tax returns. They want you to believe that the term casual sex is an oxymoron. For ages, casual sex was considered a sign of inadequacy (especially for women, of course), a futile attempt to fill a psychic hole (no pun intended).

But that’s not what it was for gay men. For gay men, casual sex has always been about having fun—guilt-free fun. And fun is good for you. When you do something for no other reason than to have a good time, it has benefits to your mental health. Like roller coasters, cotton candy, or the sacred trinity of straight men everywhere: football, baseball, and basketball. Or, for women, I don’t know, shoe shopping.

Don’t get me wrong. Emotional sex has its place. And god knows that in the long run, there’s nothing better for your mental health than a solid relationship, a safe space to rely on. But as anyone who’s ever been in a relationship for long knows all too well, sex between lovers can fall prey to its own challenges: routine, dissatisfaction, unnecessary complication. You may be reluctant to ask for what you want sexually, lest you come across as dirty-minded, or overly critical of your lover’s performance. And let’s not forget that sex between lovers can be used as a weapon—albeit, in such circumstances, the weapon typically lies in not using it.

And then there’s that other hallmark of the “proper” relationship: the misguided equation of sex and love, the expectation that sex always has to be tender and heart-based, with a background of soft jazz and rose petals. But let’s face it, sometimes you just want to fuck.

And just fucking, as we’ve finally been officially told, is good for you. It’s a stress reliever, sure, but also—and paradoxically—a chance for human connection, albeit on a fleeting level. Sex with anyone—lover or stranger—has the potential to create moments of tremendous connection, an awareness of our common humanity. It wouldn’t be hard to argue, in fact, that sex with strangers has more to teach us in that regard than sex with our most intimate lovers. That sort of connection and giving is easy with someone you love. But when all you share with someone is physical attraction and your common humanity, the momentary feeling of kinship that sex affords can be pretty earth-shattering.

Finally, the word is out. The benefits of casual sex are too good to be kept secret.
Welcome to the party.

 

Homozilla

When I was in ninth grade, Danny O’Donnell picked on me one too many times.  He was by no means the first person to call me a faggot, but he was most certainly one of the last.  For whatever reason, that day I had had enough.  He said it again, and I pushed him—in front of everyone, just before the beginning of class.

He fell to the floor, nearly knocking over a desk or two in the process, and the stunned look on his face made it clear that, for him, the thought of a faggot fighting back called the rules of the universe into question.

The incident had a corollary effect on me.  At that moment, as Danny stumbled to his feet, I was riven by a combination of fear and shame.  I was afraid of what he would do to me now, if only to save face after a very public humiliation.  But I was even more afraid of what had come out of me, and disappointed that I had given in to it.  I had tried diplomacy, and it had never worked—not with Danny, nor with any of my other schoolhouse tormentors.  By process of elimination, violence had become my only recourse.  And yet it felt disjunctive, like using a fire extinguisher on a cigarette lighter.

In those days, there was only one way to deal with a bully:  give him a piece of his own medicine.  These days, the process is a little subtler:  you shame him on social media or threaten a boycott.

I was reminded of Danny when I heard that Brendan Eich had resigned as CEO of Mozilla in the wake of controversy surrounding his views on marriage equality.  I have no sympathy for a man who declared my civil rights his personal business by donating $1,000 to the Prop 8 campaign.  And his avowal that Mozilla would remain inclusive under his leadership rang hollow given his refusal to state his current opinion on the issue.  But somehow I cringed a bit to think that he had been forced out of his position because of something that, on its face, had nothing to do with job performance.

After I sent him tumbling to the floor, Danny O’Donnell never bothered me again.  I won’t say I earned his respect or that we became friends.  But he left me alone.  So you could say my outburst succeeded.  I achieved my aim.  I just didn’t feel too good about it.

Seeing someone get his just desserts isn’t always sweet.  On one hand it’s wonderful to find that gay rights have become so mainstream that you can lose your job for opposing them.  On the other hand, when it comes to his job, it’s kind of … well, irrelevant what Eich’s beliefs are unless he uses them to harm his employees.  (Are you listening, Hobby Lobby?)

But CEOs aren’t like you and me, and it’s not just because they make 500 times our salary.  CEO is more than a job:  it’s the face of the brand.  Barilla Pasta and Chick-fil-A have learned that the hard way.  But it’s kind of sad that it has to come to this.  It’s sad that Brendan Eich and Danny O’Donnell both have to be tossed on their asses in order to learn a lesson about respect.

 

Reasons to Be Gay

Straight people haven’t cornered the market on disbelief at how the other half lives.  Sometimes I don’t get them, either.

I recently saw an excellent production of Neil LaBute’s play Reasons to Be Pretty at the San Francisco Playhouse—three years after its run on Broadway, but just weeks ahead of the New York premiere of the sequel, ironically entitled Reasons to Be Happy.  Five minutes into act 1, I was not happy:  I wanted the protagonist to pull out a gun and shoot his screeching, obviously deranged girlfriend in the head and put us all out of her misery.

Said girlfriend, Steph, was incensed to learn that Greg had been overheard describing her as “regular-looking,” in contrast to another woman, whom he deemed “pretty.”  That was enough to make her go ballistic and set in motion the demise of their relationship.

I sat through the entire first act in a combination of anger and disbelief.  Neil LaBute will do that to you:  he’s a genius at it.  As the act went on, it became clear that Greg could have called Steph a moron, a terrorist, or a tasteless tramp, and not endured this much wrath.  This woman really believed that “regular-looking” was the ultimate insult.

I just didn’t get it.  Neither did the gay male friend I was with.  So at intermission, I decided to do a little research.  I struck up a conversation with a guy by the bar who seemed straight (an increasingly difficult feat of identification these days, particularly in San Francisco).  Much to my relief, he shared my horror at Steph’s behavior, but was less surprised by it.  A moment later, his own girlfriend arrived.  (I suppose I shouldn’t indicate whether I found her pretty, but why should she care what a gay guy thinks, anyway?)  She was notably less emotional about the whole issue.  She agreed that Steph’s behavior was extreme, but she didn’t completely disavow her motivation.  And she cut off the conversation rather quickly to pull her boyfriend away.  (Maybe it was the subject matter, or maybe she just didn’t want to waste date night chatting with a stranger.)

That appeared to be the consensus among the straight members of the audience:  Steph’s obsession with how she looked (or, more precisely, how she was perceived) was extreme, but not unheard of.  At one point, Steph even tells Greg that the greater sin isn’t thinking her un-pretty but saying it out loud.  Her self-esteem is profoundly wrapped up in her appearance.

While I’ve certainly seen my share of gym bunnies who spend countless hours pumping up and tweaking their hair into gel-soaked hillocks, I’ve never known a man—gay or straight—whose ego so deeply depended upon being perceived as attractive.

As I watched Greg sit through Steph’s histrionics and allow himself to be berated through two off-the-wall soliloquies (one in public), I found myself wondering why he put up with it.  If I’m to believe that the relationship in the play is to any degree representative of real life, the disconnect between the sexes can be pretty profound—I mean, quite profound.

I wanted to jump onto the stage and tell Greg there’s another way.  I wanted to give him Reasons to Be Gay:

  1. Objects attract.  Gay men are like straight men in one crucial way:  they love to objectify the people they’re attracted to.  The difference is that—in my experience, at least—men don’t much mind being treated like a sex object.  And when the subject can identify with the object, is it still objectification?
  2. Empathy, emotional.  Freud said it best:  What do women want?  Straight men spend their lives trying to answer that question.  But what gay man has ever had to ask himself, What do men want?  You just know—it cuts down on the eggshell walking.
  3. Empathy, physical.  Having the same equipment just makes it easier to know what your lover might like.  I saw the movie Hope Springs recently, and I’m still trying to wash out of my memory the image of Meryl Streep staring at a banana while reading the book Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man.  If you gotta ask …
  4. Cut down on ironing.  If you happen to be the same size, then in a pinch, you can wear your lover’s clothes.

There’s another moment in Hope Springs (I can’t believe I’m quoting this movie twice in one post) that strikes a much more serious note.  To rejuvenate their relationship, Meryl’s character stages a romantic scene, which comes off without a hitch.  She and Tommy Lee (Jones, not the rock star) begin to make love.  But then he opens his eyes, looks into hers, and promptly loses his erection.

The moment is never explained, but she is clearly convinced that he doesn’t find her attractive.  The truth, I believe, is a lot more complex.  Looking someone in the eye is extremely intimate, especially during sex—and intimacy is clearly this man’s problem, far more than sex itself.  Intimacy—the prospect of being seen, truly seen—scares a lot of people, particularly men.

Gay men may have it easier when it comes to the physical part of sex.  According to statistics I’ve heard, straight men have sex with an average of 6-8 people in their lifetimes.  For gay men, that’s a slow summer in their thirties.

But when it comes to emotional intimacy, I think it’s fair to say that we are men first, and gay second.  It’s not just that the grass is greener in the other yard.  It’s that the gardener in that new yard doesn’t ask as many questions of us, or have as many expectations.  It’s a lot easier to share your body than it is to share your heart.  That takes time, and patience.

So if the rituals of heterosexual courtship still puzzle me, it’s not because I don’t understand straight men or don’t understand straight women.  It’s that I marvel at their ability to bridge those gaps and still make it work.  Sometimes.  Half the time, I guess, if we’re to believe the divorce statistics.

In the end, we all have our challenges.  Sex might be easier for some of us, but relationships are another story.  Nobody gets away from those without a few scars.

It was fun in the old days, looking men in the chest, the crotch, every part of their anatomy except the eyes.  And fun was a reason to be happy.  But now, when I look intimacy right in the face, I have a reason to be real.

An Open Letter to John Boehner

Dear Mr. Speaker:

While I don’t reside in your congressional district and do not share your party affiliation, I am still affected by your actions as Speaker of the House. As a concerned citizen, I feel compelled to tell you how strongly I disapprove of your refusal to end the government shutdown. I don’t need to remind you that the votes are there, and that you alone have the power to end this fiasco right now. Instead of doing the right thing, you appear to be pandering to the extreme right wing of your party, who clearly have no respect for the democratic process. The ACA is the law. It was approved by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and affirmed by the Supreme Court. You are, in effect, holding the government budget hostage because the Republicans didn’t get their way. Sorry, Mr. Speaker, but disappointment is one of the byproducts of democracy. As Abraham Lincoln said, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

In order to win elections, the GOP has coopted the ignorant, in the form of the Tea Party, and you are now paying the price. A true leader is a person who educates, not one who bends to the tyranny of the clueless. If you fear being primaried, then motivate the responsible voters in your party, or bring the Tea Party out of its willful ignorance. Don’t make the rest of the country suffer while you go through a family squabble.