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EastWesterly Review is proud to present the first chapter of Chad Denton’s A Sodomite in Jerusalem, a work in progress that explores sexuality in America from personal, historical, and public contexts. A departure from our usual satirical mode, “Entering Jerusalem” melds the coming out narrative with cogent criticism of America’s dysfunctional relationship with its lesbian, gay, and bi communities.

--E.W. Wilder

I. Entering Jerusalem
by C.S. Denton

“Well, first of all I don't think anyone has any rights. I think you fall out of your mother's womb; you crawl across open country under fire; you grab at what you want, and if you don't get it you go without; and you flop into your grave. So you have to make up your mind whether to grab what you want, fight for it, or ask for it, because otherwise you will lose.”
- Quentin Crisp, “How To Have A Lifestyle”

The night I first fell in love – or rather the night I finally let myself realize that I was already looking up from the very bottom of the pit – was catastrophic. I really do believe that most people's first encounter with love is catastrophic, probably uglier at least in the long run than the first encounter with death, but for me it was a special brand of catastrophe. In less than a second and in a flash of emotion I was thrown out of the proper order of things, off that straight road you can see all the way to the end from childhood to college to getting engaged (preferably a couple of years after college, you know) to having children and settling down, whatever that means. Where I found myself instead was on a crooked path no one had ever bothered to tell me about and where I could not even see five steps ahead of me. All I knew for sure was that I would have the same destination.

His name was Paul. We were friends in high school and happened to have washed up into the same social circle. Even though it has been over six years since I left that school that had the looks of a prison and the personality of a factory, I still carry around a photograph of him that I haven't lost, thrown away, burned, given away, cut up, or buried. I could never explain even to myself why I still have it, beyond the fact that I am an unrepentent packrat. Maybe I simply don't want to give myself the luxury or the punishment of ever forgetting what he looks like. If I was just insane enough to share his photograph in this space, I would right away place a bet that no one who saw it would think, oh God, he's very handsome. But I honestly thought he was then and I still think he is now.

Studying the photograph: his skin was somewhat pale, spoiled chaotically by the brown dots bestowed by a Native American heritage and by the freckles emerging from good, strong doses of Irish blood. Sometimes he grew his reddish-brown hair long, which suited him very well, although I never told him that. His body was strong, his smile sincere, his eyes shining. Even though the photograph is wrinkled and faded, I can still decipher the brightness of those dark eyes very well. Most of all I remember he was kind, and better yet always aspired to be kinder, especially to his many friends. While I don't think he was then what society would call 'mature' he understood pain, not physical pain of course but the deeper pain of the mind and soul, and without any education in psychiatry or religion he knew only by instinct a few treatments to soothe the hurt.

That was the exact reason I began to really, deeply, achingly love him. I had been driving him home after we had met with a few friends when I broke down under some rough emotional weight and had said aloud those idiotic yet poignant things teenagers often say. I have to admit that now I don't remember a single word he said now, only that he had mapped out the right words to steer me out of my funk. For the first time I could see that someone had concerns about what I thought, what I felt, and whether I was happy or unhappy. After I assured him I would be fine, I returned home believing with utmost devoutness that I would never have to feel alone again.

I did love him before that night, but afterwards all the escape routes eroded. I spent so many hours alone imagining what it must be like to be enveloped in his strength, to look into those eyes of his in the daytime and in the dark, to navigate his back with my fingers as he snores, to share everything I thought, believed, wanted, and dreamed with him over one of my horrible dinners, and to argue with him over the proper procedure for washing dishes or negotiating a treaty over the issue of how to spend this week's Friday evening.

If I was born a straight woman instead and he was drawn to me, how would the story have gone? At a guess we would have dated for about a year – passionately for about the first half of that time, then lukewarmly for the second half – and talked about going to the same college most of that time but not really meaning it. Very likely I would have lost my virginity to him; if he had any special role to play in the absurdist theatre that is high school, Paul was the ideal boy for an average girl to sacrifice her cherry. Then when it was time to write the ending of our relationship (and without a doubt the coup de grace would be delivered by college, that grim reaper of teenage relationships) it would have drawn to a close with the standard melodrama, but after the tense phone calls and the lengthy conversations with concerned friends, the wounds would heal – and they would definitely heal, with very little or no ugly scarring – and we would have parted good friends, our love a paragraph or even a footnote in both our histories.

But I was not born a woman and even if he shared my inclinations then, given where and when we were, things would have never gone by anything resembling that script. He was a Christian, although frankly he was not as devout as he thought he was, and as far as I could tell at least mostly straight. He didn't have strong feelings one way or another about gay people, especially since at our high school homosexuals were a strange species and at the time were hard to uncover even on network television and in the newspapers.

And me? I told most friends I was straight, a few that I was bisexual (but I would lie and claim I was still mostly interested in women, even though I never dated one and men were all I thought about). I never really thought about what my family or People would think, even though growing up in rural America it was the definition of madness that I did not. But how could I worry about that when I didn't have the vocabulary to express myself? To be 'gay' was not even an option on the menu; it was something for people who existed on the edge of my vision and on the outskirts of my experience. Frankly I could not be ‘gay.’ This was how things were, even as I went to bed, my thoughts of Paul hot on my mind. I have come to spread the terrible news that there are no limits to the truly awesome power of self-denial.

It has been very wisely said that the opposite of love is apathy, not hate. As my love for Paul was shut away and became cancerous, I became quite talented at hating him as much as I loved him. I struck at him through our friendship. More than once I intentionally made him cry, turning that beautiful sentimentality that had helped me love him into a piercing weapon, and even more times I joked about and crafted entire comedic routines around his misfortunes, particularly the misfortunes he had with a steady, faithful series of girlfriends. I was like a child on the playground, torturing and taunting the girl he secretly liked very much. Meanwhile I lived only for the times I could enjoy his presence, especially the rare times we were alone together, and I never stopped hoping for another night like the one we shared together even after I laughed when I heard that he had wound up with a woman that allegedly attacked him with a knife some afternoon.

Incidentally, college did sever our friendship like it did our relationship in that parallel universe where I have breasts and a convenient opening. At least college gave it the mercy killing it needed, although my feelings, as shattered as they might have become, lived on. By a certain point, as I came closer and closer to finally setting myself free, I only wanted to meet him one more time to discuss all the things that had happened between us, so we both could at last understand. If I remember right, I attempted a reunion twice, but because of one thing or another it never panned out. When I look again at that photograph and think on our dead and fossilized friendship, I still wonder, despite myself, what he thought of me, this confused and stupid boy who would have given almost anything for just a one-hour conversation with him, and what might have happened to us in another and better world.

Although a certain crowd of folks would despise me for using the vocabulary ( but they would despise me anyway), that night I had been born again. Naturally I am not saying this was where and when my homosexuality started – as the rebuttal to the old argument that homosexuality is a choice goes, does any straight person remember when he or she first started being attracted to the opposite sex? - but it was when, if only deep inside and secretly even to myself, I fully realized that the people I would ever intimately love in every possible sense of the phrase would be men.

One time when I was a senior in high school a guy I had never spoken to for more than five minutes but was close to a good friend of mine called me. He was painfully shy over the phone, and after only introducing himself as this friend's friend he asked me if I was gay.

“No,” I replied without the hint of hesitation. He might as well have asked me if I was a reptile.

“Oh” was all he could say. Then I said, “I'm sorry.” I could never figure out what I was apologizing for. Even now I hope he realized I wasn't lying out of cruelty.

Another time, much more recently, I had gone to visit in the area where I grew up and while at a store a man younger than me, probably nineteen or twenty if not a little older, had given me the look over and made a number of strategic smiles and glances when I looked over his way. Even though he was bolder than I was then, he reminded me of me, stuck in Jerusalem without the means to reach out across the void to a fellow traveler. I should have been happy – happy that someone in the same place I was has more courage than I did, at least – but instead I felt depressed and angry: depressed at the catalogue of lost opportunities and lost experiences I will always have to carry with me; angry at the area I happened to be born in, at the revolting idea that it has to take 'courage' to do something heterosexuals do without a care every day, and at this thing I call Jerusalem.

My formative years were spent around the core of rural America in one of those regions of the country so helpfully slapped with the label of 'red state.' It would be too easy to say that Jerusalem is solely geographical and that being confined to its borders was what conditioned me to submerge my romantic and sexual feelings so completely they might as well have been locked in a lake of ice. Also I could never sanely argue that the ideal or poor conditions for a gay childhood are evenly distributed through this country; a gay child would, if he was magically given a choice, much rather be born in a well-to-do college town in New York than a small isolated town in Iowa. But I will write that Jerusalem is not a matter of 'blue' versus 'red' or the so-called 'elite' versus the so-called 'Moral Majority.' It is not affiliated with any political group or religion or agenda. Instead it is intertwined with American culture all the way from that small town in Iowa to that college town in New York and at all points, big and small, in between.

There is much talk in these reactionary, post-everything days about how all the lengthy campaigns in feminism and civil rights and even gay rights have gone too far or have become bumbling dinosaurs. There are people who, like Bolsheviks in 1917 thinking they were putting down the cornerstone for a classless society, believe they now live in a world that has not only killed discrimination, but has buried its corpse and are getting around to dealing with the stench. The old isms now just get in the way. Even though they cannot define what they mean by feminism, it is the reason they cannot find a girlfriend that reminds them of their mothers. Even though they keep using the phrase 'Political Correctness' it is just a mantra, sharp but meaningless, to try to banish their enemies crawling out from the ruins of the Old Order sinking slowly in the swamp at the edge of public consciousness. Well, they may admit that homophobia is still a problem, but, they ask with regal indignation, how can you complain about that car ad with that guy who might be interpreted as effeminate? Aren't you being too sensitive to stereotypes? Don't you care a single iota about freedom of expression?

This attitude is, in my view, not just limited to people who might be labeled as 'conservative' nowadays. The Hollywood elite, the infamous Great Satan of Flyover Country that is supposed to be the omnipresent, omnipotent champion of the 'gay agenda,' don't like to seriously, honestly think about homophobia either. Frankly, in my estimation Hollywood can be as much a province of Jerusalem as almost anywhere in America.

Sure, j'accuse Hollywood, the entire entertainment industry! Deep inside I can't help but feel guilty of some sort of treason or another. After all, it was a regiment of titanesses, marching down from a celluloid Olympus – Mae West, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, etc. etc. - to make jihad on the stale gods of gender and to turn the stone-faced men's world topsy-turvy, that gave lesbians and gays endless inspiration, whether it was Dietrich's gender-bending in Morocco, Bette Davis' masculine femininity (or feminine masculinity?) in almost any film she was in, and Joan Crawford's turn as a lesbian-in-all-but-name in Johnny Guitar. Even during the fabled Golden Age of 'American values,' it seems, Hollywood was as good at breaking the laws of gender constraints as it was at making them.

The history of Hollywood and American homosexuality is nonetheless not a friendly one. In the beginning, gay characters were never ever explicit, although of course the audience was supposed to understand. Naturally, too, they always died, sometimes by their own hand, sometimes not. This changed with the times, although in the 1970s and 1980s there were myriad films where, like the archetypical Norman Bates (who sadly also happened to be one of the few famous instances of a gay man – or rather a character meant to be thought of as gay - actually being portrayed by a gay man), gay characters were sometimes homicidal lunatics, their sexuality just a symptom of some mental illness that pushed them into becoming amateur Jason Vorheeses: Waiting for Mr. Goodbar, Cruising, The Fan, and Dressed To Kill are all particularly notorious examples, probably all still haunting the shelves of the nearest mom n' pop rental store.

Conventional Wisdom – some would say Common Sense – declares that Of Course Things Are Better Now, Aren't They? Two specimens very often dragged out as pristine examples of this state of 'betterness' are the long-running sitcom, Will & Grace, demonstrating allegedly how network television, a much more conservative (supposedly) arena than the movies, has been willing to explore the 'civilization' of the American homosexual, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, where gay men cheerfully tap into their vast genetic knowledge in order to serve up advice on clothes and cooking and fashion to hopelessly masculine heterosexual men.

Will & Grace is based on the premise that any ongoing series with a gay male character has to be watered down with an intense female friendship that verges on heterosexual monogamy. To make the show as digestible as flavorless yogurt to America, both gay men on the show, Will and Jack, are paper-flimsy skeletons of characters with a colorful myriad of stereotypes pinned on. Here is a rough sketch of what a young gay person might learn from a decent episode of the series, that to succeed as part of American gay civilization he has to be:

  1. Utterly shallow and materialistic, even by honored American middle-class standards.
  2. Incapable of functional, truly intimate relationships if you follow the Will or Jack model. Involved in an endless series of one-night stands and meaningless flirtations if you follow the latter model; practically verging on chastity if you follow the former model.
  3. Your cultural tastes, way of living, and even your lexicon are all mapped out by your sexuality. The gay community is only slightly less hostile to the concept of the individual than the Nazi community.

While Will & Grace crafts an image of the gay man as the Other, Queer Eye finishes the job by domesticating the Other and turning gay men into yet another product in the vast cultural wasteland. Post-Queer Eye, with its images of gay men playing servant and guru to the average citizen, modern gay man is the toast of America, at least until he goes about saying that his romances are as complex and beautiful and valid as any heterosexual's and ought to be recognized as such. At the moment I can't help but wonder if any of the people that voted en masse to deny their friends' and relatives' and co-workers' the right to marry their lover of the same sex came home that evening to watch the new episode of Will & Grace, particularly to laugh at the latest alcohol and lust-fueled antics of that 'classic fruit' Jack.

In recent films too, whether helping the glamorous heterosexual couple on their way to a Cinderella ending or hilariously on the verge of raping the male hero (as in the recent as of this writing Wedding Crashers), gay people, when not simply exotic half-characters conjured up for a few easy jokes or a plot point or to earn a few social relevance points on the director and screenwriters' resumes, are painted in terms that can only be described as 'blackface.' Of this tendency, Queer Eye and Will & Grace are probably the most egregious repeat offenders. Nonetheless, both shows are held by self-proclaimed representatives of the gay community and non-gay cultural scientists alike as signs of changing tides in Hollywood or even as hammers breaking down walls in the American consciousness, letting the 'gay experience' pour into the mainstream. Somehow I have a gut feeling that, when T.D. Rice first sang “Jump Jim Crow” to a packed audience, there is no reliable, historical evidence that African-Americans at the time gushed about 'acceptance' and 'becoming mainstream.'

Rural or urban, blue or red, liberal or conservative, Jerusalem can be everywhere. And even those of us who are openly gay absorb society and the entertainment industry's messages, ridiculous and self-contradictory as they may be in the broader view, like photosynthesis. In Homosexual Oppression & Liberation, Dennis Altman describes how pop psychology seeped into his and other gays' minds: “It takes little imagination to see how corrosive such internalization can become, for it is difficult to withstand the conventional wisdom even when it contradicts our own experience.” Nowadays we have the entertainment industry to show us in textbook detail exactly how we're supposed to be.

What is Jerusalem? It can be a number of things, but Jerusalem is not always a close-minded small town or rural county that holds you down and away from love and life like a trap or unsympathetic parents that refuse to refer to your life-partner as anything but your friend or the homophobic e-mails you keep getting from your uncle even after you tell him to stop or the law your countrymen voted on in herds to try to stop you from having access to the very word "'marriage." Sometimes it's only something that stays with you and holds you down and back.