Dec 8, 2013
Posted on Sep 8, 2012
By Mr. Fish
“The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.”
There’s a famous story about Truman Capote hanging out in a bar in the Florida Keys in the 1970s when a woman, set at a queer zigzag by booze and poor impulse control, approached his table, lifted up her shirt, held out an eyebrow pencil and asked him to sign her navel. Motivated by the desire to be left alone so that he could continue his conversation with Tennessee Williams, he acquiesced to the woman’s request and spelled out his name in an ellipse around her bellybutton, writing all 12 letters as if they were numbers drawn on the face of a clock. Unaware that he had committed his autograph to flesh in clear view of the interloper’s perturbed and equally inebriated husband, no sooner had Capote watched the woman walk away than he found himself looking up at her incensed spouse who had returned to the table with his wife’s eyebrow pencil, his eyes full of venom and his body language replete with expletives.
There was, by now, complete silence in the bar, the man having made no secret of his outrage as he strutted across the room, his apparent jealousy inspiring the crowd to anticipate if not fisticuffs than at least the wretched sound of what passers-by outside might mistake for the skinning of an un-anesthetized chinchilla. “Since you’re autographing things,” the man growled while unzipping his fly, reaching in and hauling out his penis, “why don’t you autograph this?”
Speaking slowly and turning the syllables over in his mouth as if to savor the flavor of his own tongue, Capote looked up at the guy and lisped lazily before a rapt audience, “I don’t know if I can autograph it, but perhaps I can initial it.”
I first heard that story when I was 15, right around the time when I discovered that I was gay. At least I thought I was. This was back before I figured out that what I really was, was just sexually convivial, self-obsessed and so contemptuous of propriety that I would’ve grown a middle finger out of the middle of my forehead had I been able to, just to avoid being like all the ticky-tacky robots surrounding me, smoothing their hair and testing the stench of their breath against the palm of their hand, all the while wondering whether Jesus wanted them as a moonbeam or a buttercup. Being gay was what my physiology chose to do instead of chain-smoking or shoplifting. It was an expression of nonconformity that had less to do with some deep-seated urge to suddenly proclaim my affection for one type of sex over another and more to do with my desire to lodge a formal protest against convention. I hated the idea that heterosexuality was perhaps the most widely relied upon yardstick with which society measured normalcy, as if comparing straight sex to gay sex was somehow dissimilar to comparing pancakes to waffles and that declaring a lifelong allegiance to the yumminess of one while simultaneously decrying the putridness of the other was somehow akin to a moral act.
Equally infuriating was the presumed courageousness with which straight society typically infused its anti-gay bigotry, as if courage, like allegiance, was not a morally neutral virtue. After all, it is seldom the courage to be principled and civilized that keeps you alive on the battlefield, but rather it is the courage to be ruthless and cutthroat and as far from your empathetic center as possible. Of course, if that is what courage is, then what does that say about cowardice, particularly the cowardice of those who wholeheartedly embrace a prejudice with all the incuriosity of any group that prefers to stay in line and follow the leader as compared to those who might prefer to question the wisdom of forming the line in the first place, and then confuse the sensation of moving forward with advancing? Doesn’t the physics of human morality insist that below the neutrality of courage there exists something like purposeful wretchedness and willful ignorance?
I was determined to be gay, even if I had to sleep with other guys to do it, because, just as it was with racism and sexism, homophobia was not founded in reason so it could not be destroyed by logic. In fact, to merely talk about why it might be wrong to hate gay people made discrimination against homosexuals little more than a matter of opinion, no more substantive than announcing a dislike for argyle or Mexican food or dogs in sunglasses. It was for that reason that I believed homosexual affection had to be actively and deliberately demonstrated in venues where it was deemed most contemptible. Fags, I believed, needed to have the sensationalism of their lifestyle made mundane by the sort of repetitive and monotonous public display that straight society used to render gay relationships so full of voodoo in the first place.
Ironic that a mass movement predicated on the appeal of sodomy would be so incendiary to so many people who live their lives with their heads up their asses.
What worried me most about suddenly wanting to have sex with other boys was not the emotional and physical abuse that decent society required I either experience or worry about experiencing, but rather it was the immediate acceptance that I predicted my mother would offer upon seeing me step out of the closet. After all, here was a woman who owned a three-legged dog named Bleu, a table lamp full of living sea horses, a green dwarf parrot that ate nothing but fried chicken and peanut butter, and a closet full of wigs, water pistols and rubber hands; plus, she had the largest collection of orphaned heads lifted from every puzzle in every pediatrician’s office that she’d ever set foot into. How do you shock somebody like that and establish yourself as a rebellious personality? How do you not feel like just another benign eccentricity with all the cultural significance of a ceramic Easter Bunny that poops M&M’s or a roll of black toilet paper or a set of plastic hillbilly teeth?
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