Dr. Walt Odets, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, has been doing psychotherapy with gay men for thirty years. His new book, Out of the Shadows, is a distillation of what he’s learned from us. It is a deeply thoughtful and insightful book, and I strongly recommend it.
In his account of the last half-century, there have been three pivotal years in gay men’s lives – 1969, 1981, and 1996. In 1969, the Stonewall uprising ushered in the era of Gay Liberation, when millions of gay men made a collective decision to live their lives openly. In 1981, a scant twelve years later, AIDS arrived, “leaving in its wake devastating death, desolation, and shame, as well as a legacy of incredible courage and heroic action…” In 1996, new and effective treatments became available, “…and they would allow gay communities to slowly return to something resembling every-day, noncombat lives.”
Today “our communities are no longer united by a radical, in-your-face liberation movement or a struggle for biological survival. Without liberation or plague to unite us, today’s gay communities – still living in a highly stigmatizing American society — are surprisingly divided on what it means to be gay and live a gay life…. However the differences are understood, this new postepidemic era has offered us the possibility of finding and living lives as ourselves, both as individuals and as communities that do, after all, have some common interests.” How shall we achieve this authenticity? Shadows is Odets answer to that question.
First, Odets insists that we acknowledge the many difficulties that gay men still face. We may imagine that today – with increased visibility and more social acceptance, effective treatments for HIV, and gay marriage – we’re now in Shangri-La and our personal and social struggles are behind us. Through moving, personal stories of the lives of 25 men, including his own, Odets reveals the obstructions that characterize gay lives today. We live in a country where we are often still reviled and stigmatized, and many of us still carry the scars of early-life rejection and ostracism. Many older gay men still live with the trauma of overwhelming loss in the epidemic. And many of us still struggle to find love and connection in a world that has taught us that being gay is only about sex and untrustworthy bedfellows. In the face of such issues, Odets offers many possibilities for fuller, richer lives, including sexual lives.
Second, Odets challenges the hopeful myth that we can find our authenticity and fulfillment simply by aligning with a gay community. “So-called gay communities in American have always been more defined by their outsiderness than by the diverse characteristics of their insiders…I have spoken with innumerable young men who grew up as outsiders and moved to San Francisco’s Castro in the hope of belonging in a large outsider community. Many have been deeply disappointed, and many live in loneliness and a new form of outsiderness, still hoping that ‘the gay community’ will take them in.” But “The futures of young gay lives will not be transformed through assimilation into gay communities seeking seamless internal unity, or through assimilation into an often-ugly, divisive, contentious American society. The transformation will happen when, one by one, each man discovers who he is, and makes a life for himself that expresses that self-discovery. Gay lives will be diverse, but all will share one important aspect: they will be honest lives that stand on authentic self-acceptance.”
Andrew Holleran, author of the seminal gay novel Dancer from the Dance, says of Odets’s book: “Out of the Shadows is several books – a snapshot of three generations of gay men and the effect AIDS has had on them, an argument for the gay sensibility in a time of assimilation, and a memoir. But most of all it’s stories, fascinating stories gleaned from the gay men who came to Walt Odets for talk therapy. They make it both riveting and moving. A gay man could read this book as if his life depended on it – and perhaps it does.”
Next time I’ll discuss one of the central themes in Shadows – the concept of “gay sensibility” – and why Odets believes that gay men are not “homosexuals.”