19 February 2007

À la recherche des batailles du chat perdus

When one has attained a certain age, personal history and experience form a sort of pentimento on life’s canvas, a layering of actions and decisions and changes that lie under the surface, former selves and histories and beings and natures and states that simultaneously form the Procrustean bed of self as well as the milieu for the unknowable, the life to come, that which has yet to be painted. The accordion-like folds of experience and their effect on one’s perceptions are incommunicable, incoherent, above all felt and therefore somewhat outside of the realm of articulation. What marks the space between oneself at the age of eighteen and now? It is more than the accompanying physical deterioration. It is, to a certain extent, the construction of an edifice (a Superstructure?) upon a base (Base?). At least that is the teleological, straightforward (Left) Hegelian way of thinking of the development of the self.

Within our minds, the teleology may be plain, or rather perhaps it is the way we are trained to see the world, so we enforce the overarching ideology on a series of events or developments that may in fact be random, inchoate, tenuous. But inside, within the internal movie of our minds it all makes sense, if at times resembling an art house movie that resists straight narration. But to the others outside of our minds, the person we are now and the person we were then may be irredeemably collapsed and confused. This past weekend I had the opportunity to see up close and personal a pentimento of my own life reflected in the pentimento of another’s. Since this encounter of the self and the other and the other self is largely theoretical or rather a hypothetical narrative impinging on a series of potentially meaningless (or alternatively meaningful) events, I shall tell the first part, the Base, as a fable of self—

Once upon a time Oso R. was a young and sassy lass skipping and tripping her way in high-heeled clogs, Pippi Longstocking pigtails, and a gingham pinafore through the dreaming spires of Prestigious Eastern University, a lush green forest of misapprehension and potential, always potential. She met many other creatures of the forest who, like herself, were bewildered and afraid, or alternatively, valiant and full of shit. But this particular bosque at this particular point in time was alive with the sounds of youthful indulgences, which usually settled around a trinity of incomprehensible yet powerful spells: race, class, and gender. While having some correlation with materiality, in fact at this particular time in this particular place these spells were largely free-association metaphors towards a) all that was wrong with the world, and b) all that was wrong with ourselves and the bewildering forest we found ourselves in.

Moving on, some of us, through foolishness or bravery, found particular voices with which to call out among the trees and ferns of the bosque, revealing our brilliant colours that identified us to ourselves and others like us, while some other animals of our species preferred to remain hidden, the better not to be eaten by owls and lions and tigers and bears and the other aggressive, hateful creatures that stalked the palisades amongst us. Those who remained hidden were resented by those of us strutting about like peacocks, daring the predators to come out and engage us in battle, voguing on the precipice of student loans and sticker shock. We felt that while we carried the burden of representation within the bosque, those that remained hidden profited from their obscurity and betrayal of what we, at the time, considered our true selves: beautiful birds of the bosque. Of course, along came the day when we all had to leave the enchanted and delusional forest and leave as well the fairy tale where neat endings and exclusive states of identity gave way to the uncertainty of real life, or rather life as we have experienced it. Meeting many years later, far away from the enchanted bosque, two creatures of the same brilliant colour meet and eye each other suspiciously, thinking not of what has transpired in the years and miles since the forest but rather of the forest itself, and old battles largely forgotten except for the players themselves.

Jota was someone I knew at college, back in those heady, chaotic days of the eighties. I haven’t seen him since, basically, although I remember once spotting him in passing on Market Street in San Francisco a year or two after we had left Prestigious Eastern U, pointedly making myself known from a distance of twenty feet, then melodramatically looking away. Whatever antipathy existed between Jota and myself has, at least on my part, been long forgotten, although through the white noise of a forgetful memory I believe it had something to do with the closet (his) and righteousness (mine). At the age of twenty-one, it is easy to feel one has all the answers. Knocking on forty’s door, it is harder now to imagine a place of answers, surrounded as I am by questions with no easy or convenient answers.

I had known Jota was in residence in Cold City, and he I, and a visit by La Antropóloga to Cold City in the fall was an opportunity for a reunion, of sorts, but was missed, for reasons which are now clear: He didn’t want to see me. La Antropóloga knew Jota in graduate school, when whatever issues regarding his sexuality had been resolved and he was in fabulous! mode, Gay variant. I did not follow his career closely at the time, but knew what I did about his life from La Antropóloga and later Prancilla, who had also made his acquaintance at some point. Academia’s one degree of separation working its magic inexorably, in the pathways and nodes of knowledge from disparate and disconnected sources coming together and falling apart. In any event, after graduate school, a couple of contract jobs, and a bad experience, Jota decided to leave academia and enter a sort of professional and benevolent activism, in which he has been quite successful. Aside from a strangely snarky moment over the summer, when Jota revealed a personal detail about me in a decidedly gratuitous and purposeful manner to Prancilla (remember, we knew of each other’s presence but had not actually even seen each other at the time), which did raise some red flags (Why the snark? After 15 years? Let it go, Mary!), I was vaguely aware that sooner rather than later we would meet again. Why I felt strangely nervous about this seems curious to me, as I couldn’t even remember the nature of any disagreement between us. But sometimes one makes a stronger impression on others than in one’s own mind.

We had our reunion, for what it was worth, last week. It was an unmitigated disaster. Arranged by La India Bonita, ex-colleague of Prancilla and someone who strikes me as truly invested in sociability as a human (and humane) condition (and who has excellent taste in cheese) via the mechanism of a pre-opening cocktail, I knew going into it that I was to meet Jota again chez elle. He unfortunately has not been apprised of the surprise reunion. Needless to say, the look on his face as I walked into the room in all black and looking pretty good if I must say so myself (I had dressed to meet faggots, which is to say elegantly) was priceless, in a sort of horrifying way. Whereas for me the once and future encounter with an old collegian promised to be at worst a slightly awkward moment, he clearly had little desire to even be sociable in the most basic sense. After a strange and tense greeting, he proceeded mostly to ignore me, surrounded as he was by old chums and La India B., who he has known for several years. I made some initial forays into friendly banter, mostly ignored or cooly received with one-word answers. I waited patiently for any question inquiring as to what exactly I had been up to for the last 15 years. You know, basic sociable exercises. None were forthcoming. So, I too became cool, and we suffered through 45 minutes of discomfort, while his boyfriend guzzled wine (3 glasses, not that I was counting) and La India B. wrung her hands nervously, the dear. I excused myself to smoke a cigarette on the front porch, and as Jota and his boyfriend left the gathering, Jota offered a breezy and deeply chilled goodbye. Ice cold. Oh My!

When I told the story to Mr. Gordo, he asked me, incredulous, what exactly had I done to Jota? In all honesty, I cannot remember anything that bad, aside from the general dyspepsia of ideological excess that was characteristic of our time at Prestigious Eastern U, although the memory of our encounter on Market Street reveals perhaps more antipathy than is warranted by my vanilla narrative, and my mild memory of nothingness was clearly not shared. All of which made me wonder both about how our former selves follow us into whatever life we find ourselves, as well as the vulnerability of knowledge, of intimacy, how seeing someone who knew us as a different person can be either an opportunity for the rich tapestry of change and memory or alternatively a terrifying descent into uncomfortable and embarrassing revelations, or rather, the potential for such revelations, and the risk they entail for the narratives of self.

There are so many theoretical avenues to follow here: is Jota embarrassed because now he is a “professional gay” and I knew him when he was still a pathetic closet case aligned with the forces of heteronormative reaction (not to, ahem, put too fine a point on it)? His preemptory strike against me in conversation with Prancilla last summer seemed a strange case of information exchange and brinkmanship. Unfortunately (for him, at least), what he told Prance was not really a secret, so I had no problem addressing it; the aggressiveness of the moment is what is striking. Why was he telling tales out of school? Or is the issue that Jota has left academia in a way that suggests that his departure was not wholly and independently chosen? Is there a professional ressentiment combined with angry memories of whatever transpired between us in the enchanted forest? Once, I was very close to a peer in graduate school, and there came a moment when our relationship ended primarily because of the intimacy we had developed. The Fierceness called this person the Vivisector: someone who could not stand to be “known” beyond a certain level, who needed to excise (vivisect) the people who were familiar with her (conocer) on an intimate level. Most of us desire and treasure such relationships, however for others they threaten to destabilise the person who exists here and now, the "real me" person of l’instant.
And if hard feelings still exist so many years later, I think acting like a Mean Girl is just silly, now, with all the water that has gone under the bridge (like many in academic circles, I knew quite a lot of what has transpired in Jota's life, if through chismes and hearsay, and am sympathetic as both a professional and a person; I can only imagine he must have the same information on me, although his response to this information is impossible to measure with any certainty). Fighting old battles, however, is not a tendency exclusive to our weary national political class. A few years ago, through the auspices of Big Sis, I was reunited with an old college chum who I hadn’t seen for about ten years, and we spent a desultory New Year’s Eve all together in New York, at a party hosted by someone none of us knew. During the course of that evening’s many, but many drinks, my old chum turned to me, and in a blaze of inebriated effusiveness told me, point blank, “You’re a lot nicer now than you were in college. You were such a bitch!” As one is wont to write online nowadays: well, DAYUM! Recovering, and cool as a cucumber, I responded by saying “Well, I would hope so. It has been ten years.” What is striking and powerful is that generosity was not the first response of either my old chum or Jota in meeting me again after so many years, whereas I think my first response is generous (I went to the party, didn't I?), is to give the benefit of the doubt, is to realise that where we existed before was in many ways not real, not cogent, not clear, and on top of it all we were teenagers.

This is not to serve as an apologia for my past selves, my past behaviours, my past attitudes (and maybe, on second thought, that is part of the[ir] problem). What it is to say is that moments of this type of pentimento, either at a miserable New Year’s Eve party surrounded by strangers or at an awkward reunion over really good cheese, are disturbing even for those of us who live (or consider ourselves) within the moment of transparency, when old and new selves combine on the canvas. Part of the tragedy (although to use that word strikes me as hyperbolic in this case) of whatever is happening with Jota is that we actually have quite a lot to talk about, in terms of the academy, the profession, Cold City, and everything else that potentially bonds gay men together. Such petulant refusal is not only a sign of immaturity, but also of the loss of community, of a lazy and judgmental relationship to the heavy lifting of community-building that gay men in particular are often guilty of, given the absolutely horrible way we can treat each other, given half a chance. Jota made me feel horrible and uncomfortable at a cocktail party. Hurrah for him. Up with Gay Pride! A small pathetic revenge, in my book, for crimes (if any) so long ago as to be meaningless. What? I gave you shit for being in the closet at college, when you were surrounded by out gays and lesbians including other Latina/o lesbians and gay men, all working so you could later accept yourself with some modicum of decency? Deal. We all were in the closet at some point, but some of us tried to avoid using that position to hurt other gay people, either through words or actions. Can you say the same? Deal, baby doll, because we've got bigger fish to fry nowadays.

It is easy to mouth the words of community, alliance, and coalition, but it is where the rubber meets the road that really counts. And that also entails looking in the mirror and getting real with oneself, and others, about our complicated pasts, frustrating presents, and potential futures. But a dialogue implies two, not one, the ability to listen as well as talk. And I am not terribly interested in engaging in a one-sided conversation. I can have that alone, in the comfort of my own garret, staring into the blue haze of my twentieth cigarette of the day.


Paris said...

Isn't it funny how queer academics struggle to identify the source of the bitchiness: is it the queerness or the academy? Both are artificially (therefore to some extent intentionally) formed communities and both seem to reward the aggressive displacement of insecurity (crapping on your teammate).

Hard to resist, especially for the quick witted, but ultimately boring.

Flavia said...

This post really resonates for me, too--it's so hard for me to relate to people who hold grudges after years and years, well past the point that anyone remembers what that grudge was about in the first place. Life's too short, and there are too many genuinely hostile, unkind people out there for us to manufacture enemies out of those who should by all rights be our friends, associates, or sympathizers.

(Love the images for this post, though!)

Anonymous said...

What a lovely fairy tale! PEU was very much like that forest.

I remember one day in the dining hall when an Asian-American woman passed by our table of radical POCs. She had had an operation that made her eyes appear more "Caucasian." We began to chant, "Two lines, two lies! Two lines, two lies!"

The woman just cried and cried.

If I saw her today, I would probably apologize for that day. I still think such an operation is a sign of self hatred and internalized racism. However, instead of seeing her as my enemy, I would probably feel pity for a young woman who had been taught to hate herself. I might have chosen a different way to make her politically aware and not subjected her to more taunts and jeers. Looking back, it seems that both racist whites and our table of radicals were giving her, in part, the same message: "You're Asian!"

From reading your post, it seems as if you are unsettled by the fact that actions from your past can still have consequences in the present.

You went after Jota when he was at his weakest. It was a time when outing people was a political necessity. Despite the political efficacy of outing, you have to acknowledge the inherent violence of such tactics. You were working for the greater good, and closet queers could not be given a choice; they needed to be pushed, heckled and jeered out of the closet.

Whether it was politically legitmate or not, your actions left a residue that your activism cannot explain or brush away. If you had hurt a heterosexual homophobe, the case would be different. The difference, I think, is the fact that closet case is a closet case because of society's homophobia. What also makes a huge difference is the fact that he did eventually come out, and it is clear that he needed more time to come to grips with his sexuality.

When all is said and done, you left your mark on an individual and he cannot forgive or forget. You, on the other hand, simply want to move on: "Get over it, beotch!"

Neither approach is a healthy one.

If you feel some regret for what you did or had to do, then apologize. Now I am not saying that you aren't owed an apology as well. It seems like both of you did and said things you now regret. However, an apology admits that political necessity does not hide the fact that you both hurt each other; that needs to be acknowledged.

Todd said...

That Jota blew a perfectly good opportunity to remind you of the psychological trauma you inflicted upon him is sooooo telling. Too proud and still so angry. What a complete waste of time.

I'm flattered you've stopped by my blog, Oso. I can't hold even a birthday candle to your eloquent ramblings!

Oso Raro said...

Intriguing comments here, esp. the last two from Anon and Todd. Anon's own remembrance of cat fights past was particularly resonant. I think I may have been at that table in the dining hall! At least, such moments of youthful thuggery remind me a lot about that time. I also like the way that Anon characterises that time as one of necessity as well as excess, for all the post-partum handwringing, let's remember to contextualise: we LGBTs and RPOCs were surrounded by the (largely) white children of privilege with attitudes of disdain and dismissal that we were, in part, reacting against, and which were vicious, mean spirited, and prevailing. Resistance was the unusual option for most of us, Jota being one example of someone choosing an easier path.

More largely, I'm not really invested in Jota himself and his feelings (as he was so incoherent about them), but in the moment of our encounter. So, the focus of this post is really me (of course), and not Jota (or as Todd puts it amusing, "That Jota!" a double entendre in Spanish LOL). I don't necessarily feel guilty about what happened then, in another place and time, but I am conscious of the travelling nature of external impressions and how they can differ from one's self-conception. So, for instance, I know I had somewhat of a mixed reputation at PU: I was one of several campus starlets, who like any starlet, had viciously clawed their way to the top (or in this case, I suppose, the middle). But behind that façade was a vulnerable person too, exposed and vulnerable and also dealing with a whole lot of stuff not from the internal position of hiding but working it all out on stage, like Brittany Spears. How mortifying! How can one ever recover from such moments? Can one ever move beyond the craziness of the performance, the thrown wig, the tantrum, Betty Ford? My encounter with Jota tells me the answer is no, but rather than lamenting that no one understands me (bleh), I consider it part of my larger glamour.

Mr. Gordo has been inquiring as to why I am so "invested" in my encuentro with Jota, but again, this is not so much about Jota as about me, my own self-conception, and reputation. Don't make the mistake of thinking of Jota as a shrinking violet, for I can assure you he was/is not. Or as one off-site commentator mentioned yesterday, Jota plays the "cute guy" card. In some ways, I think this tension between Jota and myslef is also the tension between the "Beautiful" Gay Man used to getting what he wants, and the "Ugly" Other with an unauthorised voice. This was certainly at play at PU in both the way the children of the white overclass regarded us, as well as the micro of Jota and myself. Fags like me are supposed to be ashamed, not vocal, not powerful. And sometimes these things for some gay men don't change, even after many years. I still think that Jota has a gay ghetto attitude of "Who is this Fat Queen and who does she think she is?" thing going on.

But all of this is neither here nor there, for as I tried to emphasise in the post, this is a hypothetical. We do not have Jota's side of the debate, if this is even a debate. I have regrets similar to Anon's in terms of rhetorical excess, but I prefer a conversation on that time, a meeting of the minds, as opposed to conventions like an apology or as La Antropóloga put it in a phone conversation, an email to "clear the air." There is no air to clear, there is no relationship to salvage. This is not about Jota and me, but about the dimensions of the conversation at that time that Jota still carries in a visceral way, or as Todd puts it so well, "Too proud and still so angry." Was I "a Bitch" at PU? Yes, of course. But too often post-bitch conversations revolve around or devolve into bourgeois pieties of apologia. I'm willing to have a clear-eyed conversation of who and what we were back then, and now, but not exclusively from the perspective of being the (bad) Bitch. Bitchitude has material bases in reality and power, and the continuing inability of Jota and others from PU to understand that time back then in this way reveals not so much about our individual actions as about the continuing dimensions of power and self-myopia, my own included. Or as the sassy starlets of "The Women" put it so well, "Get wise to yourself, sister!" I think I recognise my limitations and dimensions of personae, although that doesn't mean I don't have more to learn. I am not willing, however, to help Jota move to that stage. I would have hoped that twenty years would have taught her more.

I don't want (more) drama, I want conversation that recognises my humanity as well as status of paragon at that time, in the same way I can recognise and honour Jota's development out of the closet into something else. This was a favour he seems unwilling to grant me, which is fine, but effectively ends the conversation.

Anonymous said...

Maybe la Jota is just ashamed of selling out her sexy latinoness to a closet case White male in a powerful position, becoming another Maria and keeping house for him, with the Prestigious Eastern U. degree down the drain, and she's just jealous of you Oso? After all, he's washed out of academe, and is trying to cleanse himself with all the Lady Bountiful work she does now? It just may be that you, with your proud out in-your-face persona, may represent some undealt-with monsters in the closet of his Jota soul . . .

Bruce said...


Fogive me for reading your post more as an historical document than as an exposition of a contemporary problem. You see, I got my graduate degree from a prestigious eastern u. also (If the initials PU that you site are not ficticious, the same one you did) but in the middle 1960s--- pre Stonewall, etc., but during the Viet Nam debacle, when some of us "came out" to avoid being sent into the Southeast Asian meat grinder. It was also somewhat possible because of the 1960s sexual revolution. I'm not a gay historian, but I wonder to what extent these factors played a role in bringling about the watershed of Stonewall.

By the time of your days at PU, I was already temporarily out of Academe (25 year hiatus--- I'm back in again.) and safely ensconced in Europe. I missed the mass coming out of much (sadly not all, or even a majority, but...) of the US gay community, so your post give me a glimpse of what was going on with "my people" during that period. Frankly, Oso, I'm rather happy I missed it. It sounds rather painful. Perhaps things were almost better for us in the unenlightened 1960s.

Oso Raro said...

To Anon 2: Meow!

To Bruce: My PU is not the same as your PU, but the similarities are such that they are most likely analagous. However, I'm not sure a measurement of better or worse is useful here, in terms of historical paradigms and time periods. Pre-Stonewall sexual politics for LGBT people have a fairly bad reputation among post-Stonewall LGBT people, not the least of which was the material and political strictures and punishments for lesbians and gay men.

Perhaps another way to think about it is that each period possesses its own zeitgeist with unique and idiosyncratic challenges specific to the moment, not better or worse necessarily, although I would venture to argue that the politics of sexuality in the 1960s, while vociferous and argumentative, have an advantage over the pre-Stonewall period, following Duberman ("Cures") and others. However, to even say that is to give in to a teleology of progression which is not necessarily true, and has continually caused dissension in the LGBT community over experience, perception, and identity politics.

In the end, however, you are correct in reading the post as a historical document of sorts, rather than a statement on the here and now. To quote Stein, "There is no there there" in terms of the here and now for this situation...

Bruce said...


Don't get me wrong. I'm not defending in any way pre- Stonewall LGBT sexual Politics (Were there any?). It's just that our lives at PU, despite Viet Nam, were probably much more pleasant than yours. Until it all came tumbling down with Nixon in the early seventies, even elitist intellectuals were sure that the "Age of Aquarius" was about to dawn and that peace, freedom and justice would reign.

Also, we have to be careful with chronology. When I was an undergrad, at an even more prestigious, non Ivy League eastern college, in the late 1950s early 60s, all gay people were in the darkest of closets. Discovery of gay activity, even at the most liberal college in the country, would have resulted in immediate, permanent, expulsion. By the time I got to PU in the mid 60s, things had loosened up, not because what gay people had done, but because of a general, momentary, liberalization. Or was it because the upper class white, Christian boys at PU were so socially secure that they, in terms of gay activity, claimed a right to do anything they wished. There was also the mimicking of Oxford and Cambridge, with their permissive attitude toward homosexuality.