Becoming a Man
This powerful autobiography by novelist, poet, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) activist Paul Monette, winner of the 1992 National Book Award for nonfiction, is in many ways as much a gay morality tale as it is a narrative of Monette’s particular life story. Personal history here becomes the means of illustrating the stultifying horrors of the closet and persuading the next generation of gays and lesbians to abandon this shadow existence of exile and self-denial for the freely integrated existence that coming out makes possible. As he recounts his difficult journey from darkness to light, from furtive acts of self-loathing to public acts of self-assertion, Monette regularly interrupts the chronology in the voice of the angry, dying forty-seven-year-old human immunodeficiency virus-positive (HIV+) gay man that he is, denouncing his oppressors and urging younger members of his “tribe” to embrace the liberating truth of their sexual identities. Part morality tale, part manifesto, the memoir is Monette’s urgent attempt to testify to what he knows: the deadly reality of homo- phobia in America.
In spite of his clear intention to provide a map of the landscape for young homosexuals so that they “may not drown in the lies, in the hate that pools and foams like pus on the carcass of America,” Monette’s book does more than this. It is, finally, about becoming a man. Gays and straights alike will recognize the harrowing rites of passage he identifies, the fears and humiliations that every boy must face in an American culture that prizes violent games, denies male intimacy, and demands success while providing too few images of what a successful man should be. Readers of Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (1988), in which Monette movingly chronicles the death of his lover, Roger Horwitz, will recognize the same fierce eloquence here, the same sure voice, by turns passionate and lyrical, documenting the loss and pain as well as the surprising strengths that came from suffering. In the earlier book, however, Monette wrote a love story; for all the grief at its core, Borrowed Time is a celebration of two men and their magical union, of their valiant fight against an unrelenting illness. In the present memoir he has written an angry account of the tortured road to that union and the need for a fight, not simply against AIDS but against all the forces that would sentence gays and lesbians to the coffin of the closet.
Anger colors much of the narrative. Like many political activists (and in spite of his admission that things are never simply black or white), Monette has divided the world into collaborators and resistance fighters. The bureaucrats and politicians and priests, the puritanical New Englanders of his childhood and hypocritical educators of his youth—all of these he skewers for their poisonous collaboration to legitimize hate and prejudice against gays. He attacks the Catholic church with particular savagery, partly because of its insistent policy of regarding homosexuality as an intrinsic evil, and partly because of his own formative grade school experiences with Irish Catholic thugs who gleefully bashed in the heads of “sissies” in school bathrooms. The smug demonization of “queers” and the blatant campaign to eradicate them amount, he suggests, to nothing less than genocide, something made increasingly possible by the alliance he sees between the Catholic hierarchy and the fundamentalist right. In the face of this bigoted assault on human beings and human rights, Monette advocates open defiance, refusing to retreat to the invisibility of a closeted existence. He repeatedly asserts that it is homophobia which is deviant, homosexuality which is natural (that is, naturally occurring as a transcultural phenomenon), even if it is not the norm.
Monette’s posture throughout the book marks him, in the theoretical debate within gender studies, as an essentialist rather than a social constructionist. That is, he regards homosexuality as biologically determined, something constituted by nature and therefore essential to an individual’s identity, rather than seeing sexual identity itself as something unstable and provisional, a construct produced by social interaction and the play of power in any particular historical moment. Monette understands that the history of same-sex relations long precedes the nineteenth century concept of a homosexual identity; he recognizes that what he means by “gay” may have been incomprehensible to an Athenian in the fifth century b.c.e. Nevertheless, the research of sociobiologists and the oral histories of other gays and lesbians persuade him that homosexual orientation is not a so-called “life-style choice”; it is no more a choice than eye color or foot size. This is a view he spent much of his life ignoring or wishing away, until at the age of twenty-five, paralyzed by these exhaustingly futile efforts, he accepted it as true, not as a tragic truth demanding some sort of wilted resignation but as a truth suddenly apprehended as profoundly liberating.
Finally the whole man could come into play. He need no longer feel forced to be a ventriloquist struggling to make the right sounds, a chameleon forcing itself into the appropriate social color, inventing himself again and again in the attempt to appear “normal.” Happily, he had managed through all the denial—the frustrations of therapy, of willed sex with women or desperate couplings with other closeted men—to maintain one deeply nourishing image of intimacy: “two men in love and laughing.” It was this fantasy that came alive at last when he met Roger at a dinner party in Boston in 1974, stepping from the isolation of his closet into the light and warmth of a loving, openly gay relationship.
Young Paul’s story actually begins in the years...
(The entire section is 2385 words.)