The Man I Might Become : Gay Men Write About Their Fathers – ed. Bruce Shenitz

THIMB(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

‘The apples don’t fall so far from the tree.’ (or its variant ‘acorn’) is a phrase I have encountered three times in as many weeks, after having never heard it before. I suppose we all wonder why we have turned out the way we have, what factors shaped our becoming.

I suppose most men muse upon their relationship with their fathers and compare them to others’ One writer muses: ‘Once, in a restaurant, I watched a boy sit down in the next booth with his father and a group of friends. Tired from an afternoon of fishing, the boy proceeded to rest his head against his father’s shoulder, and then the father rested his head on top of his son’s, so that the two of them were folded together like chimpanzees that had just groomed each other. I could scarcely contain myself. The image of this father and son expressing their affection, their trust, their intimacy, in so unself-conscious a way, was astounding to me—it seemed so what I was never able to do with my own.’

There’s a theory put forward by those who seek to ‘cure’ homosexuals, that a boy grows up gay because his father was a distant, remote figure. I was in a group of men discussing this when someone pointed out, “Really? I would have thought that most people born before the 1960s had a distant father.”

Indeed, one of the contributors to this book attests: ‘I began to hear more and more stories that went against the grain: straight sons who found it nearly impossible to talk to fathers, and gay sons who had emerged from the coming-out process into a new honesty with their fathers.’

This book is a collection of essays by gay men about their fathers. The only ‘normal’, healthy relationship between father and son seems to be that of tai kwon do enthusiast and Korean Alexander Chee. (And possibly Paul Lisicky’s, though he doesn’t go into as much detaiul.)

An essay by Douglas Sadownick which should have been or prime importance, about the inner work needed to resolve father-son issues seems, to be, to be lacking. Whether it is an exercise in pop psychology or too profound as to beyond me, I cannot tell. He rightly identifies, however, the lack of an Oedipal myth for gay men. ‘Without an indigenous homosexual “myth of meaning” to inform our worthiest goals and libidi­nal yearnings, we are unwittingly and suicidally entrapped within the enemy’s value system, floundering, so to speak, like fish out of water.’

A Jewish man, writing after his father’s death and cremation shows a certain degree of one-upmanship: ‘. When I started writing this, I was the same age my father had been when he died; now I’ve got a couple of years on him. Losing him was hard, but outliving him is my vindication. ‘So you thought I was too aesthetic, too femme, too introspective to make it? You gave me a licking, metaphorically if not physically, for not being enoug­h like you? You got one thing right—I did make somebody a fine wife someday, and he and I are pretty happy that way. I’m still in reasonable health, a tenured art professor living in a big Upper West Side co-op with a nice Jewish doctor; at my age, you had moved into an urn’

Earlier, he had written: ‘gay boys often take a furtive seminar in the hypnotic allure of body hair, and shaving, and locker-room physicality. …..We were with our daddies, who were stripped to their tanned and muscular flesh, and there was plenty to drool over right here.’ But he ‘was unathletic, precociously intellectual, and displayed an alarming propensity for taking my mother as a role model. Like her, my talents ran to painting, theater, and dance—not the sort of career goals to boast about with his (father’s) weekly poker buddies. …..Daddy padded down the stairs, stared at the spectacle in groggy shock, and muttered sarcastically, “You’ll make somebody a fine wife someday.” The two paternal comments I heard and resented most were “You’re too sensitive” and “You think too much.” “Sensitive” was code for both artistic and homosexual, then considered more or less identical. And “thinking” meant questioning meant commie pinko—a type supposedly in bed with homosexuals, politically if not erotically. By fourth grade I fit­ted perfectly into the most dreaded stereotype of postwar Father Knows Best culture: the fruitcake/egghead/nonconformist who made a favorite target for the House Un-American Activities Committee. My classic jock dad just didn’t know what to make of his classic sissy boy.’

One man is only capable of intimacy when on drugs.

Bill Hayes’ father made amateur films. As a metaphor for family secrets, he describes finding old home movies with bits spliced out. This is how his father speaks to others about his son and what he is up to.

Kai Wright’s account of his relationship to his father was heart-warming. Hey are black and his father is a doctor who has not been corrupted by the money-making rackets of some. He tells Kai, “I have no knowledge or understanding of what being gay is about he wrote, winding into his close with a flourish of false humility, “but I do believe the best life is the honest life. It has lost me jobs and two marriages, but I must be true to myself and wouldn’t have it another way.” Mind you, I had to look up condyloma (genital warts), and perianal disease (itching, lumps or bleeding). Kai feels torn between being part of the black community and part of the gay community: In one area of social life after another, I found my body physically situated inside the black community, but my mind and heart floating somewhere else, alone in some undefined space. When I finally confronted my sexuality in D.C., I first thought I had found in the gay community a place to reengage. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the most important color in that community’s pro­fessed rainbow is white.” About his father: “The closest we’ve come is to dance around the issue of whether one is black first or gay first…… Whatever health disparities black gay and bisexual men faced were a function of race not sexual orientation, and should be addressed accordingly. For him, there is no gay, no straight, no female, no male—just black.” (Sounds Pauline)

Earlier: “I was the only guy on the football team who actually cried when the coach told us he was quitting.” I did the same when my first form teacher at secondary school left but think I viewed him as a surrogate father-figure.

What is the obsession with tank tops and other fashion disasters by writers of a certain generation?

Some issues cross cultural boundaries but this book is very American and I wonder whether there is an equivalent from a UK perspective which might be easier to relate to.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] on the side of a cliff or mountain. It was becoming more liberal in 1998. Bruce Shenitz also wrote The Man I Might Become: Gay Men Write About Their Fathers. Here, he explores a Dutch island – nicely enigmatic. Colm Tóibín discovers a Spanish Brigadoon. […]

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