Saturday, May 31, 2008

My college years

[This piece is the second installment of my reflections on my formative years. It will be helpful to read “Hapless in High School” (below) first.]

I will now address my UCLA years (1952-56). These were more congenial to me than the high school triennium, in large measure because most of the rowdies elected not to go to college, leaving the more serious students as my classmates. These in turn were reinforced by older people on GI bill scholarships, strongly committed to making something of the gift of their college years, together with other students from out of state.

Having abandoned my earlier interest in the natural sciences, I shifted to the humanities, with the aim (ultimately achieved) of earning my living by becoming a professor in that realm. I first thought of majoring in classics, then in history. Only in my third year did I settle on art history, a field previously unknown to me. This major appealed to me not as an artist (here I was only a dabbler), but because of the vistas it revealed that were broadly interdisciplinary. At first I was strongly drawn to Chinese art (and still am), but I ended up becoming a medievalist, a choice responding to a certain muffled spirituality in my make-up.

Apart from my formal studies I learned a good deal through conversations with advanced students in the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology. Ultimately, I found sociology uncongenial because of its tendency to regard human beings as simply mirrors reflecting contents projected on them by society. In this way, human agency disappeared, and agency was important to me because I wished to transcend Southern California and even the US by my own efforts, however strenuous they might have to be. Of course, with such works as "The Lonely Crowd" by David Riesman et al., sociology enjoyed much more prestige then that it does now.

The anthropology connection led to my reading of a paper by Claude Levi-Strauss, then quite obscure. The French scholar has proved one of my lifelong guides. Now I am reading him once again. As regards anthropology I was struck by its ambition to provide a comprehensive description of an entire society. Having previously been an enthusiast for Arnold Toynbee, I was drawn to such portrayals. Yet I wanted them to address high cultures. Europe beckoned.

By way of outreach, I continued to assuage my culture-vulture penchants by forming a college humanities club, called “Investigations.” Meetings were not popular, and I had to dragoon attendees. Such was the work of culture mongering--hard, but somebody had to do it.

Be that as it may, I’ll skip over these scholastic details, which are not exactly riveting. Instead, I turn to my sexual and social development. I will approach this matter indirectly.

Some years ago David Halperin, a gay professor of classics at the University of Michigan, proposed a course on “How to Be Gay.” This announcement provoked consternation, leading to a hostile discussion in the state legislature. What I think Professor Halperin had in mind was to explore the fact that becoming gay is inevitably a process. One does not achieve this orientation all of a sudden, as it were, freshly minted. The aha! moment simply does not occur, either at the point where one acknowledges one’s orientation to oneself, through introspection, or at the point of declaring oneself (coming out). Instead, there is a complex process of negotiation, extending over some years, in which one gradually adjusts one’s expectations to social and psychic realities. Much as we would like to, we cannot make our own situation, but must accommodate to what presents itself to us. I will illustrate this situation by discussing two gay circles, one of which became known to me after the fact, the other being one I participated in.

I have already alluded to the clandestine gay circle in LA High in my earlier piece, “Hapless in High School.” Only when I got to college did I learn from my friend Chuck McC of the true nature of this group. As it formed a contrast to the group that I actually joined at UCLA, I will now say something more about this earlier group, as it formed (retrospectively) a benchmark for my later experiences.

Chuck’s high school circle was essentially democratic. The boys either took part in group sex (generally jerking off) or made themselves available to others, if you will, as fuck buddies. While some members of the group were more prominent than others, there was no clear leader.

Above all, the binary differentiation between confirmed gays (queens) and “trade” (men available for gay sex, but not stereotypical) had not taken place. Some members of the circle probably assumed that they would “turn straight” one day (as Chuck ultimately did). The boys probably felt that, with their ready access to fulfilling type of sex that responded to their raging hormones, they were better off that most of their heterosexual peers, who had to be content with petting. The situation combined hedonism with flexibility.

How did the pattern that prevailed in this group originate? Was it like that Nicaraguan village of deaf mutes who invented their own sign language? Probably not, in that some of the boys had probably previously engaged in sex play with younger boys in circle jerks and similar gatherings.

I turn now to the main theme of this piece, the gay circle I joined at UCLA. The fluidity of identity characterizing the high school circle (which had of course disbanded) yielded to a fixed personality type, that of the queen. For many the new guise proved a lasting one. By and large, the individuals who had come together in the UCLA circle continued to see one another regularly after graduation, evolving into a social group they called “the Loved Ones” (an ironic reference to the Evelyn Waugh novel). I was a sometime member of the group, but once I moved away in 1956, had no further relations with it.

At UCLA the daily gatherings of the circle were charged with powerful underlying currents of cynicism and acerbity. These corrosive solvents surely reflected internalized homophobia, a condition difficult to escape in those years of conformity. Turned inwardly, the negativity served to consolidate the norms of the group. And in fact much of the dishing was of each other, and of other gays who did not conform to the circle’s "standards."   

Internally, a hierarchy was generally recognized. What was this hierarchy based upon? First, it depended on looks and “endowment." They were all size queens. While most didn't have much to offer in that department, this deficiency did not prevent them from making catty comments about the "meat" of men they saw. So looks mattered most. Grotesquely, this criterion was called "standards." The group had only the faintest idea what might actually constitute standards.

Only with great difficulty could a homely person occupy one of the higher spots in the pecking order. Under exceptional circumstances this status could be achieved by marshaling the resources of the second and ultimately decisive quality. That was the ability to dish and give attitude. We did not use the term at the time, but attitude was indeed the key. It emerged in the verbal sallies that qualified (dubiously) as wit, and in the hauteur of a challenging gaze that ostensibly summed up the confrontational stance of the group. "She for he" put downs were common.

Under circumstances less benign than the college setting, group members would have been repeatedly beaten up. Their bravado was hollow--but as it was never put to the test, they could continue to nourish their illusions. And of course to keep “camping up a storm,” the latter-day gay version of the venerable bohemian practice of “épater le bourgeois.”

The solidarity of the group, such as it was, was reinforced by a pervasive scorn and belittling of outsiders. Sometimes these targeted individuals were the subject of “reading” in which their pretensions to heterosexual normality were supposedly exposed as a sham; they were gay, but just not willing to acknowledge it. In reality this process of reading was counterproductive, because in applying it an otherwise desirable male would be removed from the “trade” pool. Thus tarnished, he could no longer serve as a sexual object. We did not want to sleep with people like ourselves. By the way, such ascriptions were not always inaccurate. I remember scoffing when I heard that Rock Hudson was gay. I should not have.

By now it will be clear that the group could not boast many positive features. Puffed up and preening because of their sense of being special, the members had little incentive to change their ways. Yet the group showed one remarkable distinction, one that would have been less likely before and after: it was salt-and-pepper--that is, it consisted of about ten black member and ten white members. In that era of Brown v. Board of Education and the rise of the civil rights movement, the times were achangin.’ Even in liberal Southern California, though, there were many who remained uneasy about “race mixing.” We played on this uneasiness. It was another way of skating close to the edge.

A serpent was loose in this Eden (if so it may be termed) in the form of the Vice Squad of the Los Angeles Police Department. By and large, this insidious organization did not operate on the UCLA campus. But when members ventured out into the city for sex, they were eventually going to be arrested. I do not know of any of these men who were not. Their smugness and attitude availed them naught when they were entrapped in this way. Evidently, the cops were particularly hard on black guys who were found with white partners. As I noted, racial animosity lurked just beneath the surface in the LA of those days. Probably it still does.

Unlike the high school circle, there was no intragroup sex, as all the members of the band were “sisters.” To have sex with each other would be incestuous.

Functioning as a kind of pseudo-family, the group carefully controlled admission, and those who did not measure up were either relegated to a suppliant position on the fringe, or excluded altogether. I was one of those men assigned a marginal status.

My polar opposite was Victor S., an überqueen, who affected long hair, heavy make-up, and gender-ambiguous clothing. He majored in French, naturally. Victor’s high-pitched shrieks were a startling ostinato punctuating the gatherings of the group, which regularly occurred in one of the school’s cafeterias. Eventually, the college authorities forced Victor to clean up his act. In retrospect it seems that he was ahead of his time, a prefiguration of current trends in advanced gender bending. But that is not the way he was received in those days. This strange creature was basically antisexual rather than gay. All the same, he expended a lot of energy putting down other gays as being less human than he was for not being proud and open, and failing to conform to his peculiar criteria. In short he was a scold. Nonetheless, Victor served the group as something between an idol and a mascot. He symbolized our defiance.

With all the negativity infesting this UCLA group, why would anyone want to join? Well, it was the only game in town, or so it seemed at the time. Otherwise, one was condemned to a desert of loneliness in which one had only straight acquaintances with whom one could not really discuss one’s feelings. All the same, the apprenticeship this group provided to an emerging gay person was seriously damaging.

To what extent was the UCLA queens group typical? At the time I did not know any other such circles, so that I cannot judge from personal experience. However, John Grube, a Canadian scholar, has interviewed a good many older men of this period. His research indicates that such circles--replete with hierarchy, rule enforcement, and constant bitchiness--were common, probably the norm.

Above, I said that the UCLA queens group was the only game in town. Maybe that was so for our college campus, but it was not true for the larger world of the city in which we lived. In 1950 Los Angeles gave birth to the first successful US gay rights group, the Mattachine Society. To be sure, these folks had some issues of their own: they were much too respectful of the views of psychiatrists, for example. Still, the Mattachine Society signaled the rise of a new type of homosexual assertion, one based on pride and not marinated in self-pity and internalized homophobia as the UCLA group regrettably was.

I did not participate in the rise of Mattachine in those days, because ignorant UCLA queens warned me to stay away from it. But no matter, for later I was to become friends with the heroic band who started the movement that redeemed gay people--with Dorr Legg, Don Slater, Jim Kepner, and Harry Hay. I would not have missed this company for the world. And their cause was destined ultimately to triumph, putting the self-hating faggots our of business. A very good thing.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am reminded of my post about George Maharis, busted for solicitation by LAPD in the late Sixties, but who wore the bust with pride. Now there was a man's man, not the Truman Capote, Paul Lynde, and other "queenie" types. Then I knew in my heart of hearts, gay men came in all packages, until I saw "Boys in the Band," and thought maybe this endeavor really is not worth the effort. If any feature characterized the Seventies, it was the "macho" gay man (e.g., Castro Clone, Village People), and with that security of manliness, it was then easy to accept the nellie queens as part of the constellation, not the stereotype I had come to believe.

I enjoy these stories, Wayne, and a couple of anchoring dates might give it a more historical, as well as personal, flavor.

10:39 AM  

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