Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Gay Role Models

The other day I posted a piece discussing the limitations of making lists of illustrious gays in order to combat homophobia, both from without and from within ourselves. To clarify, such lists have little, if anything to do with searching for or providing gay role models.

Identifying people whose lives and work provide us with intellectual and spiritual guidance and inspiration is essential for our growth, both as individuals and as a community. This is especially the case for us gay men and women since we have so long been victims of oppression and prejudice that there are few of us who can honestly deny having had sexual orientation related self- esteem problems, at least at some point in their lives.

But this is quite different from simply composing a list of famous people who happened to be homosexual. As a homosexual man, I find little strength or consolation in the figure of a homosexual artist or political figure who occasionally, or even frequently, snuck off to have a secret tryst with another man. Federico García Lorca is among the greatest poets of the XX century and even a courageous political figure who was murdered by the fascists, but his tortured and clandestine homosexuality hardly provides us with a useful role model.

Even men such as Leonardo da Vinci, whose homosexuality was well known but essentially unrelated to his accomplishments, don’t, as I see it, provide us with very useful homosexual role models. Leonardo is a source of constant admiration, almost veneration, for me as a civilized man (I like to think of myself as such), but in his case, the homosexual context is pretty much irrelevant.

Political figures such as Barney Frank, or the openly gay mayors of Paris and Berlin, or even political figures from the ancient world, such as the Roman emperor Hadrian, on the other hand, are much a different matter, as are artists such as Cavafy, E.M.Foster, Alan Ginsberg, Gide, Caravaggio, Lucien Freud, Fassbinder and Almodóvar. These are all men who integrated their homosexual identities with their political or artistic accomplishments. The politicians fully represent all their constituencies, unabashedly including themselves and us as gays (or, as Hadrian, set up monuments throughout the empire honoring his lover); the artists have created a universal art in which the acceptance of homosexuality is an implied imperative.

It’s not necessary, however, to limit our consideration of homosexual role models to those who have taken a public stance or created works with overtly gay themes. I also accept as homosexual role models men such as John Maynard Keynes and Walt Whitman who were privately open about their homosexuality, quite at peace with it, allowed it to inform a good deal of their work, but because of their times and social situation, could not be more direct and public concerning their sexual orientation.

I refrain from elaborating much further on the categories from which our role models should be selected. I have no intention of trying to establish a canon for qualifying as a gay culture hero. Those criteria should, in fact, be open ended and forever subject to discussion. Such discussion itself would be a sign of health and vitality within the gay community. My point is simply that in order to provide a useful role model, a figure should be something more than just illustrious and gay.


Blogger Sam said...


When I was in school, I was fascinated with exploring the lives and works of artists who were free and open with their sexuality... not necessarily just gay. Rimbaud, Artaud, Francis Bacon.. i found these figures fascinating because they easily broke the conventions of their day and environments. And, as you say, they integrated to varying extents, their sexual identities into their work and public personas.

Ultimately, the avant-garde is about being on the tip of the wave, being willing I suppose to be the *first* to break a convention, trash a rule, move into new territory critically or intellectually. Then (after many tests of course) the hoards follow, and the avant-garde is killed and assimilated in mainstream culture. The process of endless repetition and copying happens. I love watching this endless wavelike process, especially in the world of design, where it is rather easily perceived and enjoyed. Music forms another example.

I really became fascinated with a critic by the name of Georges Bataille, who started his career as a pornographer, and then became something of a culture critic and figure for the surrealists in the 20s and 30s. Though he was not gay, he had a fascinating, encyclopedic/indexical way of comparing the world of design and cultural production to the world of I suppose psychoanalysis (of the day) and intention/motivation. Many beautiful writings that explored the line between architecture as an imposer of order vs. architecture as an ennabler of disorder. To really oversimplify, to my mind, it is the tension between order and disorder that allow good minds to participate in the avante-garde.

Anyhow, I bring all this up only because I think, for myself anyway, that those who do lead integrated lives in which sexual identity--and a frankness and openness about sex in general--certainly are role models to me. Thanks for letting me ramble on here! Now i'm off to deal with the new sink.

7:22 AM  
Blogger thephoenixnyc said...

An interesting and nuanced take on the issue. Were yoru last two posts brought about by mymention of the wish that homophobes woudl be well served to know how much better their world would be etc. etc.?

9:33 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Your post did, in fact, start me thinking in this direction. Others added fuel to the fire, so to speak. Thanks.

9:42 AM  
Blogger gayuganda said...

Bruce, it sounds as if you are in the same piece telling us the criteria for being a role model, and at the same time telling us that you are not.
Matter of fact, no role models or heroes follow any particular rules. They just are.
People, communities, and societies have very illogical reasons for the choice of their heroes. And the one who may be my hero, because he satisfies my criteria may not be your hero because he does not satisfy your criteria. Osama bin Laden is a hero for some, as is Bush to others. Have any of those who choose to emulate the two sat down and made conscious decisions as to why they should be their heroes? Hardly likely.
Gay people are like all other people. We will choose our heroes for reasons that may not follow your logic. And one of the reasons we may choose them is simply because they were gay and prominent.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

GayUganda, I don't mean to sound flip, but if want to take prominent gays like Ted Haggard or ex Congressman Foley as homosexual role models, or J Edgar Hoover for that matter, far be it for me to try to prevent you from doing so. By your logic, one can, of course, have no objection.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Will said...

A secondary subject would be the intricate interaction of psychological and socio-political realities that allowed one man to be as out and integrated as those you present as trul role model material, but suppressed others among their contemporaries to varying degrees.

Fritz and I have a dear friend who made his career in the military. Highly skilled in management, he rose to a good rank and plum assignments. When he and his long term lover (now husband as this is Massachusetts) celebrated the 20th anniversary of their meeting, all the top military brass in the area came to the party and celebrated with them. This was at the pre-Iraq height of "Don't ask, Don't tell," and I was astounded at how this accomodation had been reached.

When G and I were alone one day, I brought up the subject and asked how it could happen that he was so out to the very officers charged with drumming homosexuals who identified themselves out of gthe military. He gave me his sly fox wink and said, "Honey, if you know how to work the system and you've got the balls you can do anything you want." I suspect he might make your list.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Yes. Absolutely. Being able to take charge of one's own destiny, in an ethical manner, of course, tops my list of cardinal virtues.


7:11 AM  
Blogger gayuganda said...

Well Bruce,

I would leave out Haggard and Foley. Will's friend would make it, as would the American president who managed to have his lover with him in the White House, Oscar Wilde even if at death he could have subscribed to Ex-Gay etc.
The point is, too little logic is used in selecting role models or heroes. For gay people and those who are not. So why demand the extra burden of responsibility of us to have special criteria for our heroes?

1:21 PM  
Blogger Gray said...

A very interesting subject, Bruce! I hadn't given it much thought until now, but I have always wondered why I would grimace sometimes while reading lists of "famous" gays.

Still, while agreeing with you (and most of the comments), Gayuganda does have a point. Individual feelings about who is or is not a "roll model" is, pardon me, so individualistic.

One part of the "gay world" may select the closet cases that you mentioned simply because they were able to obtain and hold their powerful positions despite being gay. [That's very important to some people, unfortunately.] My personal feeling is so very similar to yours, of course, that I cannot defend that way of thinking for long.

2:27 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...


The important thing is that there be an open and ongoing discussion on this issue. The gay community sould, of course, be concerned with developing role models, but of course, one's personal selection of models must be left to the individual. I am simply objecting to these mindless lists of "illustrious gays." Criteria and profiles should be discussed, not with the idea of developing a canon, but rather with the idea of making people's ultimate choice more meaningful.

5:38 AM  
Blogger RIC said...

«Criteria and profiles should be discussed, not with the idea of developing a canon, but rather with the idea of making people's ultimate choice more meaningful.»

Some times what comes last says it better... I couldn't agree more. That idea you went through in your post gays my think they're proportionally superior just made me think a lot and gave the creeps indeed... I believe there's nothing I could want less than that, as far as the gay community is concerned...
Once again, thank you so very much!
Wish you the best! :-)

4:26 AM  
Anonymous Jacko said...

Hi Bruce-

I am a 43 year old man in the process of coming out. It's been six years and I am starting make a concerted effort to shed the shame I learned growing up in a world with only negative things to say about gays. Your post is really terrific. I have adopted Barney Frank as a role model but I hadn't fully thought about why. I tended to think that simply not hiding the fact that I am gay was all I needed to do, but I'm seeing how important it is to go beyond that. Ironically my partner of 5 years is someone for whom being gay is an integral part of the work he has become know for and he has been a great role model for me. However, I must mention that part of my shame, strangely, comes from within the gay community itself. Since I first started dating men I have been told time after time how straight I seem and it has always been presented as a compliment. I learned that acting straight made me very attractive to many(but certainly not all) gay men . Strange as it may seem, it kept me somewhat closeted even within the community. Also, when I’ve come out to straight people I have heard things like “That’s cool, at least your not some big queen.” While I’m somewhat open about the fact that I am in a relationship with a man I find myself suppressing qualities within myself that would be considered “typically gay”. So it has been important to me to look up to men who don't just "happen to be gay" but men who live it completely without self sensor.

1:34 PM  

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