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Quentin Crisp and Me
On Friday night I will be participating in a panel discussion at the Grey Lynn Library, called Finding Our Stories. It is one of many events making up this year's ride Festival. We'll be exploring all kinds of texts, including books, films and music, that inform and affirm the construction of queer identity.
The notion of queer identity would be an interesting starting point for the discussion about how language shapes our understanding of ourselves. I prefer to think of myself as homosexual because it's less loaded with meaning than queer. It's a statement of physiology and biology. There's never been any choice for me, in fact quite the opposite. My three heterosexual experimentations were baffling, unnatural experiences. I was trying to make myself enjoy something in which I had absolutely no interest. I was out of alignment with my true self. For me sexuality is a primal driver, very centrally connected to my sense of who I am.
Born in the sixties in the Hokianga to eccentric, artistic parents, I felt absolutely out of sorts with the world from a very young age. My earliest memories are that I had something inside me that felt like a grubby little secret. I was repelled by boys my own age, becausethey were rough and boisterous, but I was also undeniably attracted to them. As I grew older and my sexuality became more obvious to me (I could name the issue), I would fantasise about teachers, and become sexually obsessed with older, good looking, sporty boys. It was a contradictory mix of intense fear and attraction, which I could discuss with no-one. Hardly any wonder that entering puberty I would experience intense personal unhappiness that I now recognise as depression, something I learned to manage only when I was well into adulthood.
There was nothing to affirm my feelings; no gay teachers, programmes on television, books, or gay parades. I liked television programmes like The Flying Nun and I Dream of Jeannie, because they were campy and escapist. I wanted to be Jeannie, pursued by the handsome Larry Hagman. I identified with the female leads because they were, like me, attracted to men – paradoxically my homosexuality played out in these heterosexual fantasies. Being by nature a lazy reader, I recall few books from childhood and adolescence apart from Lord of the Flies, an exclusively male narrative about bullying, hatred and social control. The first text where I truly saw myself reflected back at me was the telemovie of Quentin Crisp's biography The Naked Civil Servant, first shown in New Zealand during the 1980s. The movie was an epiphany, so many elements of my own childhood present. The girlfriends, the dress-ups, the effeminacy, it was all there. More than that was Crisp's bravery as an adult, as a man, being utterly true to himself in excrutiating circumstances. It was a turning point for me andprecipitated a fast-tracked coming out.
Perhaps it is the absence of homosexual text in my growing/up that means that many of my favourite writers are gay men. A friend gave me Edmund White's biography A Boy's Own Story when I was on the cusp of coming out. I very much identified with his middle/class childhood filled with eccentric and successful friends of his mother. I later read the follow-up The Beautiful Room is Empty, a detailed description of the excesses of sixties gay culture before Stonewall; lots of sex in public toilets and quaaludes. My mother, also a writer, had read the book at a literary conference in Germany. I think this may have fuelled her anxiety about what might become of me once I gleefully unleashed myself onto Auckland's gay scene. She may have cooed soothingly when I first came out to her, but a few weeks later she screamed at me, after much ruffling of her newspaper, "Why did you have to give in?!"
One of my all-time favourite books is The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I thought its structure was very inventive and the prose was gorgeous. It was the prose more than the light narrative that drew me in. I also liked the way that as a gay writer, Cunnigham wrote about much more than the gay experience. He placed himself at the centre. This is always how I have wanted to live my life, not living on the fringe; I'm an integrationist and believeI have as much personal power as any heterosexual. Over the years I have sometimes wondered whether this has been a naive positioning, but it will always drive me.
I have immersed myself in Maori children's rights issues for example. I like the idea that a gay man without children, can place himself in the centre of this discussion. I have a right to be there, I have an informed opinion. Bigots will argue that homosexuals undermine the institution of the family but the opposite is true. Absent of the obligations to children, we play a central role in caring for our ageing parents; our heterosexual siblings are so often pre-occupied with their own family commitments. When we choose to have children, this is carefully planned. Gay fathers and mothers I know are very committed parents, the intricacies of shared-parenting worked out long before their children are born. These children have privileged upbringings, financially supported by two sets of parents, surrounded by a diversity of successful adults. These new stories now need to be told, because literature is by nature a political exercise, reflecting cultural change and moving it forward.