The Gay Bullshit Detector

Jan 23 2013 @ 1:44pm

Daniel Mendelsohn reflects on the way being gay, with its frequent “knowingness and irony and the sense of access to special codes and secret knowledge,” has impacted his sensibility as a critic:

I was doing an event with James Wood a couple of years ago when my first collection came out and somebody asked me, “Do you think your being openly gay for so many years as a writer influences your criticism even when you’re not writing gay things?” And I said yes because you’re trained as a gay person to smell bullshit a mile away. You know when people are bullshitting because you’re bullshitting so much yourself, just to get by; so you know when people are faking it. And that is a kind of tool that comes in very handy as a critic. You’re always looking for the secret hidden patterns, the secret codes that will unlock something for you—because that’s what you’re trained to do as a gay person. So I think I’m always a gay writer in that sense because the tools that I acquired just from being a gay person are necessarily the tools you need as a critic.

Or a blogger, for that matter. Readers will not be surprised by my admission that I am often alert to weirdness on the surface that others dismiss (a flight from Alaska to Texas? Abu Ghraib pictures that just happen to look exactly like approved procedures? an effeminate Pope with a super-hot room-mate and red Prada slippers?) and that I do not have much of a filter between my head and my laptop. I think both are just the way I am (my mother makes me look like a pillar of discretion and, for some reason, I’ve always just wanted to know more about things).

But I’d also be lying if I said my sexual orientation is irrelevant. As Daniel notes, when you know you are different, especially in your teens, you keep very careful tabs on what is regarded as “normal.” You become obsessed with giving nothing away. You have to develop much sharper skills of human observation, and learn how to mimic what comes easily to others. This is one pet theory of mine about the long history of gay involvement in theater and art. The art of mimesis comes early – as part of self-defense. That’s why I put this new Youtube from Towleroad at the top of this post. Jacob Rudolph is explaining that for much of his teens, “acting: was his only option.

But then there is the opposite. What happens when you decide to tell the truth about yourself knowing it could divide your family, alienate friends, threaten careers, etc? Coming out – much more often in the past but still true now in many places – is a form of liberation into truth. And the truth really does set you free. I once described the impact of my first kiss with another man as being in a black-and-white silent movie that suddenly becomes full of color and sound. Then I came out as HIV-positive (because I could not ethically write about a subject I felt I had to write about without being honest about my bias). The result? A scarred soul from the hatred that came my way from so many gays, but a psyche highly trained to observe and pathologically unable to keep what I see in front of my nose as a secret.