Bloomington, Spring 1983
When I was in grad school in English in the early 1980s, we had to learn all about Great Literature, which meant long, boring novels about heterosexual men lusting after women.
And we had to watch Great Movies, which meant long, boring movies about heterosexual men lusting after women.
A group of English grad students went to the Nuart Cinema for "art films" every couple of weeks. All horrible AND heterosexist:
Tempest, with John Cassavetes having sex with Susan Sarandon on the beach.
The Return of Martin Guerre, about a Medieval Frenchman who comes back to his loving family.
Sophie's Choice, about a young writer (Peter MacNicol) who falls in love with an elderly concentration camp survivor.
Koyaanisqatsi, shots of crowded city streets and things going by on conveyor belts.
The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson falling in love in Indonesia
Liquid Sky, about heroin users who kill each other while aliens watch.
Fanny and Alexander, 3 hours of Swedish kids watching their relatives do boring things.
Joseph ("Joe" in the straight world) was a grad student in history, concentrating in Enlightenment Europe, fluent in French and German, and a fencing enthusiast with an impressive physique.
I tried hard to date him, and he did consent to share my bed a couple of times, but he wasn't particularly interested. He liked husky, hairy blue collar types, auto mechanics and repairmen. One day he was elated because he had managed to seduce the custodian at Ballantine Hall, right down in the boiler room!
At the Nuart, we were strictly closeted, of course -- coming out to a heterosexual friend in 1983 would result in, at best, a horrified stare and a stammer of "Whoa, back off, man!"
So I didn't talk about gay subtexts, or point out attractive men on screen.
But Joseph went even farther to maintain a heterosexual facade. He joined in the nonstop discussions of feminine beauty, saying things like "You'd have to be an idiot to leave a hottie like Nathalie Baye (in Martin Guerre)" and "I kept waiting for Susan Sarandon (in Living Dangerously) to show her breasts!"
One night he kept it up even after we said goodnight to the other guys and returned to Eigenmann Hall: "I can't believe how sexy Meryl Streep (in Sophie's Choice) was!"
"Don't you mean Peter MacNichol?"
"Oh, right, right." He grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, I was still pretending to be straight."
When you grow up being told over and over that same-sex desire does not and cannot exist, you become very sensitive to subtle signs of erotic interest: a glance that is a little too open, a little too much attention to detail.
Gradually I became aware that Joseph noticed women. When I referred to a female classmate, I might say "She sits behind us in Chaucer class." He would describe her hair and face. He looked women up and down, evaluating their breasts and curves in the same way that he evaluated the biceps and baskets of burly truck drivers.
Was it possible that Joseph could be bisexual, and not know it?
One day I invited him to my room for a Domino's pizza, and asked "Did you ever have sex with girls, before you realized that you were gay?"
"Oh, yeah, sure, who hasn't? How could you avoid it? When you're on the fencing team, the girls are all over you. Hotties, too!" He caught himself. "I mean...well, you know what I mean..."
"Not really. I'm not attracted to women at all."
"Me, neither!" Joseph protested. "I'm gay! I mean, what straight guy fantasizes about big, burly truck drivers with gigantic stick shifts?"
"It's not always a matter of one or the other. Some guys like both." I picked up a copy of Playboy (displayed prominently on my desk to keep up my heterosexual facade) and opened to a page at random. "For instance, if she walked into this room and offered to kiss you, would you accept?"
"Well, sure, who wouldn't? Being gay doesn't mean I'm dead!"
"I wouldn't. No way!"
He stared. "But...I like guys...." he said in a small voice.
"I know. It's like, after a lifetime of heterosexual brainwashing, realizing that you like guys is a joyous, liberating experience. Then, when you find yourself attracted to women, you think that the brainwashing worked after all. You feel like a traitor. But let's face it -- some guys like guys, some guys like girls, and some guys like both. There's nothing you can do about it."
Joseph denied it again, but soon he revealed, with a sigh of relief, that for dating, romance, and long-term relationships, it was men only. But for sex, and for noticing attractive people on the street, he was into both hairy, husky truck drivers with gigantic stick shifts, and thin, athletic women with long brown hair. It was nice to not have to hide anymore. At least among his gay friends.
Fine, always nice to help someone recognize their true nature. Except Joseph somehow got the idea that all gay men were attracted to thin, athletic women with long hair. He began pointing them out to me with the avidness of a hetero-horny jock.
One Sunday night he knocked on my door to tell me that I had missed a really good episode of One Day at a Time.
"Why, did Max (Michael Lembeck) take his shirt off?" I asked.
"What? Are you kidding?" he exclaimed. "There was a really hot close-up of Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli), cleavage and all!"
"But...she's a woman. Why would I...."
"Who cares if you're gay or straight? If Barbara's cleavage doesn't get you going, man, you don't have a pulse!"
Um...some people are straight, some are bi, and some are gay. They all have pulses.