“Oxydol Poisoning” first appeared in Names We Call Home: Autobiography in Racial Identity, eds. Becky W. Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi (Routledge, 1995). This online version restores a scene originally excised in the Routledge publication.

Oxydol Poisoning

by Earl Jackson, Jr.

When I moved from Santa Cruz to San Francisco in 1992, my boyfriend Gilberto and I agreed that he would follow as soon as a decent job presented itself. In December, 1993, Gilberto accepted an administrative position at a dance company in the city, and we began to make plans. When Gilberto drove up two weeks before Christmas, however, he arrived empty-handed. Instead of laying down the rugs and imagining furniture arrangements as we had discussed on the phone the night before, he came to tell me the relationship was over. He could no longer tolerate my emotional unavailability and the way my obsessive devotion to my work dominated all other aspects of our lives. Since that weekend, I have made it a priority to understand and overcome my workaholism. Ironically, writing the present essay occupies a middle ground somewhere between part of the recovery process, and part of the resistance to that recovery, or at least part of the confusion I at times feel about where work stops and life begins. 1

I pose the following stories as questions as much as I offer them as explanations; my narratives neither presume nor will they propose an essential nature for any of the social identities they adumbrate. The personal history I venture here is thus also an interrogation of its own key terms, including “identity,” “race,” “gender,” and “class.” Although I do not attribute to any of these concepts a substantial “truth,” I insist upon the dynamic reality of their operations in all areas of personal and social life. I delineate this reality of effect most dramatically when I describe how Gilberto and I negotiated race, sexuality, class, and gender within our relationship, and how these terms conditioned that relationship and overdetermined its failure. Beyond the intellectual and political agendas that motivate and inform this experiment, I write this essay as a means of self-understanding, a reflective act within the very practice that occasioned my loss. I also believe both Gilberto and I deserve an analytical account of my emotional inertia that does not excuse it. This essay, then, is a critical inquiry traversed by a personal reassessment within the processes of mourning and healing; it is in places a recuperative commemoration of the joys and the victories within the relationship that its end should not efface; it is here and there an apology; perhaps a step toward self-forgiveness, and running throughout the text and sustaining its audacity, it is a love letter.

Oxydol Poisoning

I am a white, gay male academic from a lower working-class blue-collar background. I was born and raised in inner city Buffalo, New York, the third of four children. Both parents were from deeply rural Pennsylvania. My mother was raised Seventh-Day Adventist; my father was the youngest of nine children of a Pentecostal minister. Neither parent finished high school. I am the only child to attend college; to the best of my knowledge, the only other member on either side of the family to hold an advanced degree is a much older cousin, a doctor in Florida who became wealthy in the 1960’s prescribing diet pills.

Between the ages of three and five, I hovered close to my mother when she did the laundry, watching intently as she poured the Oxydol into the measuring cup. It twinkled with green, orange, and blue crystals. The powder reminded me of the parti-color cakemix that the neighbors used for their kids’ birthday cakes. From the T.V. commercials I habitually memorized, I knew that Oxydol’s “color bleach crystals” were especially formulated to give you the “whitest wash ever.” This frustrated me, because I wanted my clothes to emerge from the washer spangled with Oxydol rainbows. It seemed wasteful to have those beautiful gem-like hues vanish without a trace, and unjust that the crystals not only added no color but actually took color away.

Borrowing this child’s fascination and disappointment, I can refashion Oxydol into a double-duty critical metaphor first as a metaphor for the contradictions at the heart of dominant conceptions of “whiteness,” and secondly for the local politics of psychological structuring within my family of origin. To be “white” is generally conceived of as having no racial specificity; far from being considered a deficit, this absence of characteristics reflects the identification of whiteness with a transparency to a fundamental “human essence,” just as western Euro-American culture is considered “civilization” itself, whose male agent is the embodiment of the “universal”, as attested in the use of “man” and “he” to include everyone in a by no means disinterested abstraction. The privileged ineffability of “whiteness” is an effect of hierarchized binaries of “white” and “non-white” wherein the visible particularities of the latter mark that position as the “incidental,” the “local,” the “particular,” the “inessential.” “Whiteness” therefore is a metaphysical nothingness whose transcendent vacancy depends upon the peoples of color to secure at once the white race’s discursive self-erasure and its cultural monopoly, just as Oxydol’s white powder subsumes the color crystals that are the secret catalyst of the detergent’s “whitening power.”

In my personal history, the macropolitical construction of whiteness is intricately bound up with the micropolitical idiosyncrasies of my family’s particular forms of racism and sexism, as well as its psychopathologies and its whitening out of the internal violences. My religious upbringing was the first area in which I noticed the two functions of the Oxydol principle at work the erasure of internal differences, and the universalizing of the dominant peculiarities (of our family). I was raised Seventh-Day Adventist, which meant I followed the dietary prohibitions against pork and shellfish, and kept the Jewish sabbath. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday we were forbidden to watch television, to exchange money, or to take public transportation for the purpose of “idle pleasures.” The dietary laws and Sabbath were never explained or given any cultural context; they were merely presented as rules enforced with threats of certain damnation. The potentially interesting relation to Judaism was completely elided, and these elements of Jewish religious doctrine were reduced to the literalist dogma of fundamentalist Christianity. We were taught, in fact, that the Jews lost the right to be the chosen people because they danced, which was an act of carnality God could not tolerate.

My mother’s family was ruled by the iron hand of my grandmother, a humorless and vehemently sexophobic woman, in all likelihood psychotic, whose random acts of cruelty were excused, or whitened out as “Godfearing” parental guidance. Similarly, my mother’s actions, however bizarre, were “whitened out” if not through appeals to her piety, then simply by silent consensus. This is most vividly illustrated in the reception and transmission of one of my mother’s memories of my infancy, part of the folklore of me. When I was a baby I would not go to sleep without something to hold. Because I constantly played with boxes of detergent, my mother put me to bed every night with a box of Oxydol. Since she was out of Oxydol one evening, my mother substituted a box of chocolate cake mix. The next morning I was covered head to toe in the mix, looking, in my mother’s words, “just like a little colored baby.” She realized then that I had opened the cake mix because it smelled good to me. She concluded that she should only give me harsh smelling boxes such as detergent to prevent similar mishaps. As I grew older, my amazement and horror grew with each retelling of this story. No one listening to the story (the immediate family or relatives) ever wondered why, if the baby “needed something” to hold, he was not given a teddy bear or stuffed animal, rather than a box of detergent; neither my mother at the time of the incident nor any of her listeners ever inferred that if I could open a box of cakemix, I could also have opened a box of Oxydol, which might have injured or killed me.

A memory of my own that indirectly supports my mother’s Oxydol story also indicates my resistant adaptations of the images imposed on me. For several of the years I was in grammar school, every late January I bought a box of hard-powder candy Valentine Hearts, as multicolored as the Oxydol crystals, but emblazoned on each piece a phrase such as “Be My Valentine,” or “O You Kid.” The box itself also pictured the hearts and their messages. After finishing or throwing out the candy, I kept the box in my pillow case, hiding it when my mother did the laundry, keeping it there several weeks until it finally fell apart. It helped me to sleep to know there was something against my ear that said “I love you.”


My disappointment in the Oxydol color crystals was an early sign of a tendency that figured in the circumstances surrounding my parents’ first discussion of race with me during a visit to my paternal grandparents in Pennsylvania when I was about five years old. When we arrived in my father’s hometown, everyone was talking excitedly about the upcoming visit of the “wonderful colored preacher” to my grandfather’s church. I also became excited to see him, imagining someone entinselled and stippled like a rainbow trout.

On Sunday morning, I was marched up to the guest speaker to be introduced before the service. While shaking his hand, I turned to my parents and said in a perfectly loud, obviously disgruntled voice: “He’s not colored he’s just brown!” I remember the minister’s warm laugh and hug, and my parents’ and grandfather’s horrified frozen pallor before I was whisked away. That was the first time it was explained to me that some people are “colored” and that while some white people call them bad names, they are “as good as anyone else.” The “anyone else” in my parents’ lesson exposes the reinscription of white supremacy within liberal gestures toward racial justice. While ostensibly expressing a belief in “racial equality,” the “anyone else” presumes that the white multitude is both the standard against which others are to be measured, and the final court from which (qualified) validation of these others is granted or withheld.

Other seemingly “liberal” anecdotes subliminally supported the dominant discourse on race while promoting the family’s private pathologies. At least one of these stories was a particularly overdetermined complex of associations for me, because of the Seventh-Day Adventist indoctrination in which I was immersed from early childhood until age eighteen. Because I had been born with jaundice, I spent the first two months of my life in the hospital, under the care of a young black nurse. When my parents came to take me home after I had recovered, they had to pry me screaming from the nurse. In telling this story, my parents stressed how “yellow” I had been, how much I loved “that colored nurse,” and how much she loved me. She made them promise that they would “take care of her little baby.” Because this story was repeated so often in my upbringing, I internalized new meanings according to each stage of my childhood history when I heard it. The messages included: I was born “wrong” a particularly glaring example of the “original sin” emphasized in Sabbath School; my illness prompted my parents not to take care of me, but to abandon me; the illness was considered an unacceptable difference from what I should have been, a difference marked by an inappropriate skin color; because of my difference, I was entrusted to someone else, also visibly marked as “different.” When my parents finally claimed me, (when I was “white”), they were people I did not know, taking me from someone who had cared for me. They not only did not love me, but they devalued the person in the story who had loved me (my first caretaker has no name in the story, she was simply “a colored nurse” who lost her rights over me once my skin no longer marked me as “different”). The Seventh-Day Adventist worldview through which my origin was narrated further burdened my jaundice with meaning. The Adventists believe that a “yellow race” will overrun the earth, bringing about Armageddon. This fantasy supported the general anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1950s and early 1960s, since at that time everyone assumed the “yellow race” in question was Chinese. Therefore, being born with jaundice marked my birth as a conspicuous symptom of original sin and a portent of the agents of the end of the world.

During the years I watched the Oxydol crystals by day, and slept hugging the box by night, my best friend was Angie, a woman who ran the dry cleaning shop several houses down from my parents’ apartment. I spent afternoons listening to her stories as she pressed clothes with what looked like two hot ironing boards. I loved her laugh (she was a very large woman, and her laugh resonated through her body), but most of all I was fascinated with her ability to chew gum and smoke at the same time. My parents also turned this into an official memory. As they tell it, whenever they could not find me, they would look in the dry cleaners, where I’d be with my “big colored girlfriend.” Apart from the racist trivialization of the woman and her kindness, this story also diverted attention from dangerous information about the family. We moved from the apartment near the dry cleaners in 1959. This means I was between the ages of four and five when I was regularly disappearing, from a third story apartment with steep, dark stairs, down a street with extremely heavy traffic. Their neglect was hidden by the “charming” story of the “nice colored lady.” This story, like the previous one also expressed my parents’ indifference to their own failure to care for me and their devaluation the person who showed me love in their place.

The majority of my baby pictures (from several months to 1-2 years old) show a child in various crawling postures alone on a large metallic kitchen table. In most of these, the table is bare; in some there are stacked cans of evaporated milk. There are no other figures in any of the pictures. There are several pictures of a woman holding a baby as far away from her body as her arms could stretch. I only know this to be my mother from her statement to that effect. She hated the glasses she wore in those years so much that she cut her head out of every photograph before placing them in the album. Although I can picture the living room of the apartment in which we lived at the time, I cannot locate any member of my family there with me. I can see, however, Ann Southern emerging gracefully from the revolving doors of an office building, pausing to let the words “Private Secretary” lattice their way across her wicked, “I-know-more-than-I’m- telling” smile. And Gail Storm defiantly gripping the rails of a tugboat as it bleats out “Oh Susannah!” And, Ann B. Davis, hands on her hips in a gesture of goodnatured exasperation, in her role as Schultzy, the neutered lesbian housekeeper for Bob Cummings on “Love that Bob!” 2 My sustained memories of either of my parents begin around 1963, at least five years after this period. At this time, my mother was the blur on the other side of the Oxydol; my father was a rumor connected with the black steel lunch pail and coffee thermos in the sink in the morning. They were the shadowy stagehands for the incandescent reality of Lucille Ball and Imogene Coca.

My imagination was populated by less savory characters as well, because of my mother’s habit of taking me to horror films, beginning with The Creature from the Black Lagoon, when I was three. I experienced my first unwieldy erection in the Ellen Terry Theater one evening in 1959, during a screening of The Brides of Dracula. The other film that had a powerful influence on me that year was Thirteen Ghosts, in 3-D. Famous Monsters of Filmland did a cover story on Thirteen Ghosts the month of its release, and after I had seen the movie, my brother, with my mother’s permission, cut out the cover photo and hung it over my bed. The image was a woman’s living corpse, in such an advanced degree of desiccation that the skin and the skull had fused into one gnarled texture the color of burnt toast or cakemix. Her eyes were simply holes that gaped on tremulous pools of blackness, like the shadows that percolated from my closet when the door was left ajar.

The horror films fit into a larger construction of the world as inherently menacing, thus justifying the agoraphobic isolation in which my family encased itself. Although it was actually sterile and devoid of nurturance, my parents constantly portrayed our “home” as a unique oasis of safety and security in a perilous universe. Any need for real emotional support was deferred by and displaced onto an exaggerated survival instinct, conflating the absence of physical threat with the presence of love. The geography of terror was structured around the binaries of “Them/Us,” “Outside/Inside” and “Danger/Safety.” These spaces increased in relative safety levels as they decreased in size and moved closer to the constrictive circle of “home” itself. The largest division was between the East Side of Buffalo, which was the black ghetto, and the West Side of Buffalo, which is where we lived. Here the family’s pathology was perfectly congruent with the prevalent discourses of racism and fear-mongering that characterized city politics and white working-class attitudes of the time.

The public “East Side-West Side” macrocosm, however, broke down into “the Neighborhood-Our House,” divergently paralleled by “the Relatives-Our Immediate Family.” My cousin Marion and my aunt Bonnie had married physically abusive alcoholics, Murray and Paul, who beat both women and their children frequently, at times severely enough to require hospitalization. Neither of the women ever pressed charges. Bonnie’s husband often kicked her out of the wheelchair to which polio had confined her, forcing her to crawl on her stomach to the phone for the ambulance, in front of the children. My parents would go to the hospital and commiserate, but they never did anything since it wasn’t “their business.” They often would congratulate our “immediate family” by contrasting the placid calm of our house to Marion’s and Bonnie’s. We were often asked, “Aren’t you glad you have Dad for a father and not Murray or Paul?” or, “Aren’t you glad we don’t get drunk and beat you up?” I wondered why there wasn’t a third choice. At family gatherings, however, Paul and Murray were treated just as if they were any other family member. I interpreted this to mean that none of us children would be protected from violence or abuse if it were to occur. I was right.

The Tints of Gender Troubles

I often forgot my father was alive. I raised my hand when the class was asked who did not have a dad. I was always on the verge of asking my mother to sign me up for the Big Brother program. Even I considered my faulty memory peculiar, since my father came home from work around 4:30 every afternoon, ate supper with us, and spent the rest of the evening behind a newspaper. Although my father was traditionally masculine, he was very quiet and extremely withdrawn. He had no friends, preferring to spend his leisure time fishing by himself or rebuilding the house. 3 My father’s nonpresence did not provide an alternative model of “masculinity” to that which my psychotic uncles represented for me. I wanted no part of that, nor of the boys on the street who seemed well on their way toward that kind of manhood. Like their fathers, they seemed rough, dull, and needlessly aggressive and cruel. I hated sports and competition, and tended to stay by myself; I preferred reading comic books and making friends with the squirrels in the backyard and the neighborhood dogs. I even trained a crow to eat out of my hand and sit on my shoulder.

Evidence of the social changes of the 1960s trickled into Buffalo; which were sporadically noted with perfunctory bewilderment by my mother and other neighbors on their porches. Whenever the subject of interracial couples came up, my mother, or another neighbor would say, “It’s always a white woman with a colored guy. You never see the other way around. That’s because men have more sense.” This puzzled me, given my parents’ earlier assertion that “colored people are just as good as white people.” It also encouraged my already growing identification with “women,” first of all, because the women in interracial relationships seemed to be operating on the non-racist belief that my parents espoused more than my parents were, and secondly, because I did not want any part of the “sense” I saw displayed by the men in my neighborhood or in my family.

Like other aspects of the family-society interface, this public declaration of allegiance to the norm was marred by occasional intimations of a private deviation. Whenever the peculiarly recurrent rumor arose that there was “Indian blood” in our family, it was usually dismissed with the joking refrain, “Of course, on your mother’s side.” I assume this qualification derived from and supported the idea that racial mixing occurred through women, since men “had more sense.” Note, however, that this association itself does not make sense, because the assignation to the matrilineal family does not indicate the sex of the person or persons who had brought this blood into our stock. Furthermore, such fingerpointing neglected another unspoken aspect of family history: my paternal grandmother was from the Louisiana Bayou, and her first language was French Creole. Nevertheless, the idea appealed to me greatly because I wanted something that guaranteed an identifiable physical difference from my father and all other “men.”

My initial fascination with my (matrilineal) cousin Yvonne lay in the way she embodied this promise of a difference within. Yvonne claimed she had been told at an early age she was part Objiwe. Of Marion’s five children, one was a pale brunette, three were blonds. And Yvonne was beautiful. Her skin was the color of café Mocha, and she had long, chestnut colored hair, and huge dark eyes that glistened in ways she could control. I loved playing with her because she was an incurable tom boy, which meant she had all the good qualities of “boys” without the brutish machismo. She was very handy with tools, strong, imaginative, and very brave. She had defended me from bullies more than once. I always felt protected in her presence even the day I sat with her on the curb where she was vomiting her grape Nehi into the sewer grating because her father had just broken her ribs with a baseball bat for dressing like a boy. We were outside waiting for the ambulance, hoping he had passed out by then. I assume Yvonne got the majority of the beatings because of her color, her exposure of one of the secrets.

My father was color blind. Even as a small child, this was a source of smug satisfaction for me; I associated the sex-linked gene for color blindness with a congenital grimness that for some reason was celebrated as a masculine ideal on this planet. My nuanced color sense I considered a gift developed outside the grey regime of the men without color. My passion for colors and their spectacular display founded my long history of disappointing my father. When I was five I used to help my father tending his garden by sprinkling cinnamon on the ants attacking his peonies. The spice is instantly fatal to the insects. One week when we had run out of cinnamon, giving the ants time to bivouac and recoup, I promised my father that I would use my savings to restock our cinnamon supply that Friday at the grocery store.

But when I discovered a kaleidoscope in one of the aisles, I decided to let the peonies fend for themselves. My father allowed me to buy the toy, but sighed and sadly observed that without the cinnamon the flowers had no protection against the ants. Although he did not buy any cinnamon himself, his resignation clearly exonerated him from my act of criminal negligence. Guilt nagged at me as I peered down that long, magical tube. As my eye reveled in the prismatic effects of these florescent shape-shifters, their riotous splendor confirmed my vision as other than and richer than my father’s, whose masculinity impoverished his spectrum, robbed him of rainbows. But the spectacular excess of the kaleidoscope also was the mark of shame for my complicity in the destruction of the more orderly beauty of my father’s cultivated flowers. My indulgence at the lens tokened the weird appetites that would overflow and corrupt the abstemious peonies because of my betrayal.

As I grew older, this conflict between the extraordinary and the natural evolved into the more publically current metaphorical systems of normative sex and gender constructions. While my mother’s sexist mode of condemning interracial relationships inadvertently encouraged my cross-gender identifications, my parents invoked racial stereotypes to discourage my infractions of gender norms when the child’s hope for the Oxydol crystals evolved into a young teen’s flamboyant fashion sense. On seeing the clothes I bought or admired, one of my parents would warn: “Do you want people to think you’re colored? Only colored men wear clothes like that. And they can get away with it they all carry knives.” The message here was manifold: (1) certain colors broke gender codes; (2) these colors also suggested a cross-racial identification; (3) an identification with or (even unintentional) emulation of the cultural expressions of another race is self-evidently negative and to be avoided; (4) black men are armed and dangerous.

Conjoining two usually unrelated stereotypes of black men (“colorful dressers” and “knife carrying”) places the burden of literal self-defense on a man who wears certain colors rather than questioning the right of the hypothetical assailant to attack someone because of their mode of dress. Here racist discourse functions to foreclose from interrogation a gender system that condones brutal enforcement of an arbitrary cultural code. Using these racial stereotypes also allowed my parents to regulate gender norms within the family without directly addressing issues of gender or acknowledging that I was transgressing rules I should have internalized and accepted as so natural that neither correction nor coercion should have been necessary.

My mother occasionally gave voice to the otherwise unarticulated familial concerns over my “gender trouble.” Whenever my potential infractions were too obvious, my mother would say, in the presence of my father: “Your father is going to have to have a talk with you one of these days.” Although the anger with which she said this made it sound like a threat, I always wondered what was taking him so long. He never responded to this statement, usually remaining behind his paper or staring out at the garden, wondering how the roses were doing. As time went by, she said this with more urgency and an exasperation I think partially directed at my father for his complete uninvolvement in these conflicts. He never ultimately found time to “have that talk.” During my rather slow puberty, concern gave way to anxiety, flaring up more violently in my mother’s responses. When I was between the ages of twelve to fourteen I was a rather effusive storyteller. At times, when I was in the middle of telling a story I was particularly enthusiastic about, my mother became enraged, slapping me as hard as she could and shouting, “Why hasn’t your voice changed yet! You sound like a girl!” My father merely receded farther into the distance beyond his newspaper.

At about the same time, my cousin Yvonne was also the subject of familial “concern” over gender issues. Marion was “nice” and longsuffering and “really loved” her children, but didn’t know what to do about her husband. She did, however, know what to do about her daughter. When Yvonne was 12, Marion found a love letter Yvonne had written to another girl. Marion had her committed to the State Mental Hospital in Buffalo, a locked ward. She was there three months and Marion refused to visit her or allow her to come home. Eventually they transferred her to a juvenile facility on the Hudson River (where most of the other girls had either been heroin addicts or convicted of violent crimes.) She spent three years incarcerated there, when her grandmother, Gretchen, signed release forms and had Yvonne transferred to her guardianship, saving Yvonne from at least two more years there and a possible prison term. I was elated. We started seeing each other again right away, and when I was sixteen, Yvonne began sneaking me into the lesbian bars downtown practically every weekend for almost two years. These bars provided a more supportive environment and a more complex sexual politics than gay male bars would have. For a variety of reasons, moreover, the lesbian bars were far more racially mixed and highlighted the daily realities of class dynamics more openly than gay male bars of the mid-1970s (or, in most cases, of the early 1990s).

Double Bind / Original Sin

By the time I entered school, I was a rather morbid child. In the images that composed me, I was stranded on a desert of stainless steel and Formica, raised at arm’s length by a headless woman who bundled me up with toxic substances and consigned me to the graces of a ghoul gibbering above my crib. In kindergarten, when the other kids wanted to play house, I wanted to be the maniac holding them hostage. Or I told them to be bugs, and I was a can of Raid. When I pressed the top of my head and hissed they were to belly up and die. My favorite game was “vampire”; my mother let me wear her black apron as a cape. None of the kids really liked these games, and I became a loner, a tendency reinforced by being the only Seventh-Day Adventist child in the class. In my solitude, the games took on variations. The cape occasionally came off my shoulders and became an apron again. Or a skirt.

I was also an unusually bright and intellectually curious child. I taught myself to read beginning when I was three years old, memorizing how words looked on the screen during commercials when the voice said them. Someone must have helped me after that, but no one can remember who. The first book I ever read from cover to cover was called It’s Johnny’s Birthday! which I carried around with me until I was in Kindergarten. I treasured that book because it signified my achievement and because it was about a boy whose parents, friends, and family showed their love by celebrating his birthday the fact of his existence. In the back of my mind I knew I had never had a birthday like the one Johnny had. While reading the book made me realize this (the association between the Oxydol powder and the particolored cakes of other people’s children was not accidental), the act of reading was an accomplishment I hoped would gain me the love and attention I had not yet received. When this failed to win my parents over, it only made it more obvious there was something missing in the family itself. Actually there were two things missing: love, and the kind of recognition and encouragement in intellectual pursuits a child with my curiosity needed.

The only books my parents owned were the Bible, a child’s illustrated version of the Old Testament, and a set of Do-It-Yourself manuals. My parents and many of my relatives freely admitted that they had never read a book in their adult lives, and could not see the interest in doing so. The only outlet for my hunt for knowledge was Sabbath school and the Seventh-Day Adventist self-study correspondence courses. My studiousness further enmeshed me in the Seventh-Day Adventist doctrines of self-loathing and fetishized misery. These lessons were followed by written examinations that I took and sent in. With the corrections came specific instructions to guide my moral development. One of the questions was: “If you really enjoy something, what should you do?” The correct answer was “Fear It.” In my answer, I mentioned that I collected comic books and loved reading them. When the exam was returned to me, the accompanying evaluation read: “Any sense of personal pleasure should arouse suspicion and prayer. The devil enters our minds through our sense of enjoyment. Therefore, anything you enjoy is a likely potential for sin. It is better to give it up than risk losing the true rewards of New Jerusalem.” They then instructed me to sell my comic book collection and give the proceeds to the Church, which I did. For several months I refrained from buying any more comic books, and when I finally did relent, I did so with a profound and nagging sense of guilt that stayed with me for years.

A similar guilt was given me about being “proud” of accomplishments or talents. I was told I should be ashamed of my pride in my ability to read, particularly because overwork in learning, like any self-interested focus upon the functionings of the mind (these included therapy and consulting Ouija boards) was an invitation for demonic possession. My erudition tragically facilitated my internalization of these lunatic notions instead of their rejection. This paradox informed my ambivalence toward my own intellectual energies, even to the extent of focusing my “religious” humility on a point of my personal history, my birthday, for at least two reasons. First of all, the topic of the first book I had learned to read fixated my guilt over my intellectual pride on that image. Secondly, if I could be ashamed of my excess pride in my reading ability and in my desire for a birthday celebration, I could rationalize my parents’ disinterest in me as religious righteousness in action.

My birthdays became ritual dramas of my acceptance of the cruelest judgments placed upon me, as expiation of my dual sins of pride in my intelligence and my need for people to acknowledge me as special. My eighth birthday was “celebrated” in Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania at the house of my cousins, Althea and Ken. It was Ken’s birthday party too. In the middle of the party, the radio announced that Marilyn Monroe had been found dead of an overdose in her home. This was the end of the party for me, and somehow the end of all parties. A few months later, I began crying uncontrollably watching the duet between Marilyn and Jane Russell in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, broadcast for the first time on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies.

My older sister Sandy had married when I was in kindergarten, but lived only a few houses down the street. She had never finished high school, and had very little sense of the world, but she was an formidable figure with an ineluctable will. For my ninth birthday she decided to throw me a large party in my parents’ backyard, in order to get me out of my shell. She invited thirty kids (with whom I never played and whom I generally either detested or feared and hid from). It was an excessively hot day. I was not participating in the games with the enthusiasm that Sandy expected. When I told her I wasn’t feeling well, she picked me up by my neck and pulled me into my parents’ family room where she shook me until I was dizzy (I was on the scrawny side; Sandy was tall and around two hundred pounds), telling me what an ungrateful child I was, how much she had done, etc. She worked herself up into such a righteous frenzy that she beat me up to calm herself down. She swore I would never have another birthday party again. Later that evening, when it occurred to someone to take my temperature, it turned out I was running a fever of 102°. I had chickenpox. Somehow, my sister’s uninformed “curse” had already been internalized by my family and myself, and in spite of the subsequent discovery of the cause of my unappreciative demeanor, no one ever attempted to celebrate my birthday again. Even in my adult life, I have never allowed myself to celebrate it either.

An Unsentimental Education

By kindergarten I was reading at approximately a third-grade level, and the teacher used to bring in other teachers for demonstrations of my ability, something which made my parents very uncomfortable, and increased the other children’s disinterest in playing with me. By third grade I was thoroughly bored with grammar school. I used to watch the fourth grade teacher, Mr. Williams, talk with the other teachers in the hall. I had heard him speak French once, which seemed to me like a magic act I dreamt of being able to manage myself one day. I prayed that I be assigned him for fourth grade. He had a reputation of being a “hard” teacher, which I assumed meant he would offer more and be more challenging. He was also somewhat scary, too. Beyond being the only male teacher in the school, he was famous for his corporal punishments: whacks across the palms with the top edge of a triangular ruler, and making the offender squat on his or her haunches with outstretched arms on which he then placed dictionaries.

The last day of the school year, along with the final report cards we received a note announcing the name of next year’s teacher. I lucked out. I had been assigned Mr. Williams and so had my best friend Patty. I was elated, but still a little nervous. But Patty started crying. She said her father would have a fit when he found out she was going to be taught by a “nigger.” (Her father did in fact have several fits in reaction to the news; the fit in the principle’s office secured his daughter’s transfer.)

Mr. Williams was wonderful. He had a florid style of speaking that was rich in vocabulary, and resplendent with detours and asides that were for the most part lost on me except for the proof they offered that the world was larger and more complex than the one I had seen so far. I was an extremely attentive student, and responded well to the challenges he offered the students, challenges it never seemed to occur to him would be met. He noticed me immediately and took an active interest in my education in his class and in getting me out of the public educational system, if possible, thereafter.

One lunch hour, Mr. Williams took me with him to Sears where he had several errands. I had never seen a teacher outside of school, and I never saw them do things like “drive” or “shop.” I was thrilled. Through this glimpse of his “private life” I got the sense that his eloquence and multilayered wit had several purposes. In class they enhanced his story telling, encouraged vocabulary building, and supplemented the blandness of the textbooks with a more three-dimensional skepticism. In his interactions with the smug and suspicious store clerks, Mr. Williams was neither patronizing nor apologetic, but his modes of speech expressed his recognition that his presence as the only black customer in an all-white world challenged their worldview in ways they could not articulate, and his intelligence and erudition was itself an act of creative and defiant survival. I loved being seen with him, and identified with him when their questioning looks drifted from him to the little white boy holding his hand.

Mr. Williams had several conferences with my parents, first to convince them that I was an “exceptional child,” but that my potential needed to be developed in special schools. They listened politely, but it was evident nothing was sinking in. At home my parents discussed what Mr. Williams had said exclusively in terms of “those colored” who “know about their social programs.” At the third meeting, Mr. Williams detailed the procedures of entrance exams to private schools where he had some influence and assured them I would merit a scholarship. They assured him that I only “seemed smart” in a “normal” environment and that a new school would probably be too scary for me, since one where everyone was really “smart” would make me seem “dumb.” This was the only occasion I had ever seen Mr. Williams plead with someone. The repressed incredulity with which Mr. Williams listened to my parents was the first external corroboration of a suspicion I never wanted verified: there was something fundamentally wrong with the people who had absolute authority over me; they were not qualified to make decisions concerning me that no one else would have the power to correct. In saying goodbye to them, Mr. Williams glanced at me with a look of helpless compassion, hoping that someone would succeed in saving me from the fate to which my parents were so complacently consigning me.

Mr. Williams lived up to his reputation in dealing out corporal punishments to those who broke rules, but it was relatively easy to stay inside them. Toward the end of the year, however, most students who had never been hit with the ruler started to disobey on purpose, in a counterphobic parody of their earlier fears. Mr. Williams must have been aware of this too, but went along with it. Perhaps it happened every year. When I did it, as I stood in line waiting, I knew that my deliberate talking out of turn was an attempt to get Mr. Williams to punish me for what my parents had done to him, for their refusal to take him seriously, and for their refusal to take me seriously. I wanted to be punished for being a white lower-class statistic, for being unable to escape the injunction to become “anyone.”

An eighth-grade social studies teacher also tried to persuade my parents to allow her to arrange for my admission into a private high school. She knew that Lafayette High School, the public high school in my district, was one of the worst in the city and would not provide the kind of educational challenges I needed. I feared going to Lafayette because of the reputation of Mr. Lefkowitz, a former Marine drill sergeant who was one of the gym teachers there. Again my parents refused to consider it. Throughout my childhood, my family’s patterns of interaction tended to reinforce for me the social ideology and the religious dogma of my environment. Now that I was older, however, my parents’ decisions about my schooling seemed to me a wanton assertion of authority that freed me from all personally felt obligation to such authority both in terms of behavioral control and in terms of the “truths” asserted, since their attitudes and actions betrayed the irrationality of the values that they reflected. The utter disregard for my education and my intellectual curiosity intensified my skepticism regarding the family’s opinions on gender and race to a complete repudiation of them. These messages were enmeshed in the family fantasy geography of safety and danger, that had been now conclusively exposed as a hoax. All the violence I saw occurred on the West Side, where my uncles lived. The only place I knew of where a child had been nearly poisoned was my own house. The only person who physically assaulted me was my mother.

My skepticism led me to investigate both the larger social systems in which I was growing up and the family’s history that was whitened out in its official self-delusion. Quite unexpectedly, my mother herself volunteered important information about the family I had not previously suspected: my older brother and sister were not my father’s children. My mother’s first husband disappeared in 1943, leaving her with a two-year old boy (Gary) and an infant daughter (Sandy). She obtained a divorce decree in 1945. In the 1950s she received word that her ex-husband was serving time in a State Penitentiary for masterminding a cartheft ring. During his disappearances during their marriage, he had been impersonating a minister in several outlying towns, performing bogus marriage ceremonies. This item was invaluable in my early demystification of both the family’s “normality” and the morality of compulsory heterosexuality. My mother’s ex-husband’s charade meant that many couples married between 1941 and 1959 in the upstate New York Erie, Pennsylvania region lived in “sin” their entire lives, spawning a generation of bastards. Even a marriage between two “godfearing” Christians could be the result of a criminal’s sick sense of humor.

In the whitened out version of my mother’s family history, she was one of six children: Keith, Genevieve, Gretchen, Marion, Lois (my mother), and Bonnie. Once when Marion was a senior in high school she had said that one of her teachers was “pregnant,” which enraged my grandmother, who struck her violently and told her never to use that word in her presence again. The hypocrisy here is particularly invidious, because Marion, although raised as my grandmother’s daughter, was actually her granddaughter. My mother’s older sister, Gretchen, had conceived her illegitimately. Marion was simply raised as Gretchen’s sister. (Even as a teenager and adult Marion was never allowed to call Gretchen “mother”.) The same fate befell my mother, meeting a traveling salesman in 1934. Pregnant, she left high school. In 1935, Bonnie was born and raised as my mother’s sister. Bonnie was born in 1935, and contracted polio only a few weeks after the vaccine had been approved and distributed nationwide. Given the polio epidemic at that time, was it simply the family’s rural isolation that prevented Bonnie from receiving the vaccine in time? Or was it the family’s shame that kept her out of public notice? And why, as a little girl of seven, was she sent to an institution over 100 miles away from her home for five or six years? More whitening out the family’s history at the expense of its children? She spent several years in The Cripple Children’s Guild and was confined to a wheelchair her whole life. I did not find out she was my half-sister (instead of my aunt) until 1977, when I was in graduate school. Therefore when my parents wrung their hands helplessly over the battered crippled woman in the hospital, and when they compared our family favorably to Bonnie’s, they suppressed the fact that the woman abandoned to the maniac she married was my mother’s daughter.

Hard Knocks

I made two friends my first semester at Lafayette High School who were as alienated from school life as I was. Hoak was a mildly retarded boy who commuted to school from the orphanage in which he had been raised since infancy. Manuela had recently moved to Buffalo from New York City, and was horrified to learn that less than five percent of the student body was “Hispanic.” I liked going bowling with Manuela’s family because their laughter at my game had none of the derision that I had come to expect. I also loved to hear the ease with which Manuela and her parents glided from English to Spanish, reminding me of Mr. Williams’s magic act with French.

Lafayette was approximately thirty-five percent black and sixty percent white. Between 1967 and 1969 there had been significant unease and occasional violence between black and white students. My gym teacher, the dreaded Mr. Lefkowitz, began the year with a bizarre means of diffusing the racial tension. In one of his early “pep talks,” he said something like this: “Some of you guys are white, and some are colored. But I don’t want to hear anybody calling anybody ‘nigger.’ You all come from families and are just regular guys whatever color you are. The only guy who might be a ‘nigger’ is one that’s so useless even his folks didn’t want him. . . . Right, Hoak?” Hoak laughed nervously. This launched a weekly campaign of focused abuse, including a medicine dodge ball game whose only rule was to “hurt Hoak as much as you can.” Hoak had tremendous stamina, but the strain showed increasingly as the semester wore on.

One day in the locker room we had another “pep talk.” Lefkowitz took on a tone of good-natured “pal,” that reeked of venom and usually forebode a cruel denouement. In this talk, Lefkowitz occasionally addressed Hoak as if he were his “buddy” and his cruel treatment had been a means of “toughening him up,” turning Hoak into “a regular guy.” As if this line of argument had convinced himself and Hoak, Lefkotwitz concluded, “See, I did all this for you. I did you a favor. You’ll do me a favor now too, won’t you? It’s only fair. We’re buddies now, right?” Hoak nodded eagerly, but the rictus of his smile and the overly bright glaze in his eyes betrayed his fear. He knew he had no choice but to go along with whatever was coming next, but he was hoping against all reason that it would not be more of the same. Lefkowitz continued, “This dodge ball is a little flat, and my air pump is broken. Can you finish blowing it up for me, for your old pal, Mr. Lefkowitz?” Hoak said, “Sure.” Standing in front of Hoak who was seated on a bench, Lefkowitz secured the ball between his legs, and extended the tube to Hoak’s mouth. While Hoak was thus engaged, Lefkowitz winked at the other boys and motioned with his one free hand toward the shadow on the wall. It looked as if Hoak was fellating Lefkowitz. Lefkowitz began encouraging and complimenting Hoak on his ability: “That’s great Hoak. You got a great set of lips.” The next week Hoak was not in school. During roll call in a gym class a week later, Lefkowitz announced that Hoak had suffered a nervous breakdown and would be transferred to a “special school” after he was released from the hospital. Lefkowitz added, with mock regret, “Once a reject, always a reject.”

The Audition

I made it through the first semester without serious incident. One afternoon shortly after Christmas break, however, Mr. Lefkowitz was waiting for us in the locker room. He told us not to change because we were going to the auditorium instead. Everyone was seated in the first rows of seats, and the place was semi-dark accept for the stage. One of the seniors who assisted Lefkowitz “manned” the spotlights. Another put a chair on the side of the stage. Lefkowitz told me to sit with all my books on that chair. He announced to the class: “Today we’re going to teach Jackson how to walk and act like a man.” I was ordered to walk across the stage, carrying my books. Whenever he or one of the class decided my walk or way of holding the books was too effeminate (every time for about ten times) one the senior assistants leapt to the stage and knocked all the books out of my hands. I had to scoop them up, and start all over again.

Finally Lefkowitz directed me to pull the chair to stage center and sit on it. The assistant turned a pin spot on me. There were whispered instructions to the oldest of the senior assistants, muffled laughter, and then a momentary silence. Then the assistant spoke from somewhere in the row of boys that was only sporadically and vaguely distinguishable as shapes in the blackness. The voice told me what masturbation was and how to “do it.” Thanks to my sheltered Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing, I had never heard of this before. I concentrated on remaining expressionless. I would not acknowledge the voice with so much as a movement of a muscle in my face. My eyes focused on nothing. I stared blankly ahead, without the expectation or desire to see anything beyond the inane blur of the footlights and the inky emptiness of the auditorium. I was on a spaceship looking out the window, in a cheap, unconvincing sci-fi movie. All alone. Hearing nothing except static on the radio, an unintelligible message from an irrelevant ground control.

Whether or not Lefkowitz turned the class attention to me in order to maintain the racial truce he had established by scapegoating Hoak, my situation was fully implicated in the prevalent discourse on racial, sexual, and gender identities. 4 It was one of the “Oxydol” functions of whiteness that facilitated strategic value in the choice of victims. Both Hoak and I could be considered racially unmarked because we were white. Denouncing a black child as a “reject” or a potential “fag” would have still meant inciting white student hostility against a black student, something Lefkowitz knew would have been counterproductive. Because “whiteness” has no “characteristics” (in its privileged self-definition as universal) both Hoak’s and my racial identity could be ignored in favor of the intolerable “difference” that eclipsed it. Therefore, even if black kids were bullying either one of us, the white kids would not perceive it as a race-related conflict. This strategy, however, was subtended by the tragic irony that the adult leading the gang of young men in his charge against an unarmed person whose only crime was the appearance of “difference” was a Jewish man who came of age during the Holocaust. This irony was particularly painful to me because I felt an affinity to Judaism as a religion that my mother’s Church had at once imposed on and withheld from me.

The forms my persecution took demonstrated the horrible adaptability of the logic of hatred. Hoak was hated because he was “stupid” and his “imbecility” was the grounds for the suspicions he was a “faggot” because he didn’t know any better. I had just made the honor roll, and my “brains” and my bookish habits were now the symptoms of my “faggotry” I could be despised for being bright with the same intensity as Hoak could be for being dumb. The white picket fence and meticulous garden surrounding my house, my abhorrence of dirty jokes and the religious stringency of my upbringing were circumstantial evidence for doting and attentive parents. The students used this misconstrued “parental overprotectiveness” as a focus of their hectoring of me, just as his parents’ neglect had been the cause and vindication of their aggressive contempt for Hoak. My relationship with Manuela became a mark of my sexual/gender confusion. Being seen with a girl was usually regarded as a sign of heterosexual conquest and butch assurance. My friendship with a girl betrayed an identification with women and unorthodox sympathies with them.

The absence of a “Hispanic” student presence allowed the white students to use racial slurs against Manuela in taunting me. They would not have done this had she been black, not only because there would have been swift retribution from the black students, but also because the victimization of me had as one of its purposes the maintenance of an equilibrium between black and white male students. 5 But I suspect that the use of Manuela’s race also figured in the covert communication and the stabilizing functions of this form of terrorism. By attacking me for an interracial friendship as a symptom of my homosexuality, the white boys could join the black guys in a truce on the basis of a common enemy of masculinity, while obliquely setting the limits of that truce to a peaceful coexistence within the contexts of the school environment. My friendship with Manuela transgressed both gender and racial boundaries; by touting these transgressions as stigmata of my sexual perversion, those boundaries were resecured. Heterosexuality required dating women but not liking them. Similarly, the provisional racial harmony between blacks and whites precluded crossracial understanding. The foreclosure of real interracial relations as a structural necessity for the school’s black and white “unity” was expressed at the expense of a third race, so that the assertion could be made and denied at the same time.

Needless to say, the news of the incident in the auditorium spread throughout the school, and open season was declared on me. I had to have several alternate routes both to school and on the way home to avoid packs of boys who would jeer, jostle or beat me. In the cafeteria, chairs and occasionally tables were turned over on me, my tray was often kicked out of my hands, by bag lunch trampled. The student monitors were among my most violent attackers, and the teachers on duty were often “jock” types who pretended they thought this was innocent horseplay in which I was participating and finding as funny as everyone else. 6 Like my family, the school was an institution of arbitrary but rigidly enforced discipline that paradoxically offered no real protection or security. Hallways were monitored heavily, and movement was severely restricted. During the Cafeteria hour, students were allowed only in the cafeteria or the basement in which the cafeteria was located. It was not permitted to go outside, to go to other floors, or to use empty classrooms. Whenever I eluded my attackers my going upstairs or using an emergency exit, I was subject to disciplinary write-ups and detention, if caught. I started skipping school frequently.

The first time I was suspended for skipping school I was amazed at the logic on which the officials operated: they punished me for not attending classes by denying me permission to attend classes. To me this just meant three days without the risk of getting beaten up at school and without having to hide in the streets all day, since I was ordered to stay home. After returning to school, I was required to take a day-long battery of tests, to discover if there were some particular reason for my truancy. Administered by the itinerant school psychologist who made the rounds of several inner city schools, the tests included interviews, Rorschach, coordination, etc. At the end of the morning, the psychologist determined that there was indeed “sufficient indication” that I was seriously emotionally disturbed. He assigned me to weekly appointments with a therapist at a nearby clinic. The therapist was a dashing young man, whom I immediately trusted and, of course, for whom I suffered a deep transference love. I admitted that I was gay. He insisted that homosexuality was a neurosis that could not support a healthy relationship or lifestyle and that it could be overcome with work. His central focus was to convince me that my conflicts were not with the school or my family, but arose from my laziness in not giving heterosexuality a chance.

In my sophomore and junior years my skipping increased in response to the increased violence against me and the utter boredom I experienced in most of the classes. Latin was the only class I attended regularly and in which I participated wholeheartedly. Although I was barely passing everything else, I maintained a 99-100 average in Latin for three years, and in my junior year, when I was at my most desperate, I won a New York State Classical Association commendation for excellence in Latin. Home life became more tumultuous as my disciplinary problems with school continued. When I was a junior, my sister entered Lafayette and also began skipping school. This was actually one of the first major signs of the severe agoraphobia that would soon render her totally housebound. My mother, however, believed Michelle was just copying her older brother’s behavior. Therefore I was subject to my mother’s rage whenever I skipped school, but also whenever Michelle did.

One afternoon shortly after the tensions began surrounding Michelle’s school attendance, my father astonished me by taking me aside confidentially. He told me that we had to be very careful not to “worry” Mom, because she was going through “the change of life.” He did not specify what this was, but his hushed tone meant that it was one of those things never mentioned. What at first seemed like my father’s admission that something was “wrong” with my mother’s way of dealing with situations, turned out to be the Oxydol defense yet again. Instead of drawing attention to my mother’s lack of control, the once whispered innuendo of “the change” functioned to excuse any of her excesses and enjoin us to silence. It also placed the responsibility for my mother’s behavior on the children who were the targets of her terrors. The real event of menopause cannot account for the frequency and intensity of the “attacks” nor the duration of the condition its invocation supposedly covered (approximately three years).

Weekday mornings became so fraught for my mother that the anxiety over whether or not Michelle and I would go to school that day triggered attacks before either of us had even woken up. School days often began by being jolted out of bed by my mother’s screams. Running downstairs, I found my mother lying face up on the kitchen floor, eyes glassy, shrieking like a parrot. She quieted down as soon as I began rubbing one of her hands. I continued rubbing her hand until her eyes looked as if they were registering her surroundings. This ritual sharpened my observational skills and developed my physical reflexes because my mother often swung at me once she was aware of my proximity.

On two occasions, after reviving my mother on the kitchen floor and dodging her punches, I ran down to my older sister Sandy’s house, where Michelle was standing rigidly behind the swing set, staring into space, unspeaking, with her hands gripped tightly around the swing chain. I had to pry each finger from the chains one at a time. She remained unresponsive or partially incoherent for several minutes. Although I remained outwardly calm in order to revive her, I was terrified that Michelle’s state would set my mother off again, who would take it out on me as the cause of Michelle’s difficulties. These scenes did not leave me much fortitude to face my own traumas awaiting me at school, or for my duties as a stockboy in a drugstore after school. My sister stopped going to school at all before her freshman year was finished. That year and several years thereafter I tried to convince my parents to take her to therapy. They insisted there was nothing wrong with her except that her older brother taught her how to drop out. My father told me that I must have been “born mean.” My sister stopped leaving the house when she was sixteen. At the time of this writing she is thirty-seven. She has still never left my parents’ house, except for two annual visits to my older sister’s house, five doors down the street. Even in the dead of summer, this journey requires slacks, a longsleeve shirt, a full-length coat, and hood.

I spent most of my junior year in the park between the Albright Knox Art Gallery and the Historical Museum, reading for hours on end. I still get a chill picking up Proust, because I read all of Remembrance of Things Past in that park through a Buffalo winter. My progress was slowed by the gloves that made turning pages difficult. But the frostbite I got when I decided to take them off put the gloves back on for the rest of the season. At work in the drugstore, I scooped up any pills scattered on the floor and either stockpiled them in my jacket or swallowed them by the Coke machine in case the random combination might make me feel better. At the end of my shift, sitting on the basement steps of the pharmacy above the rattraps, I wondered if it were time to kill myself yet. But I could not give the kids and teachers at school the satisfaction of knowing they “had been right” about me “all along.” My contempt for everyone I knew saved my life several times.

By the first month of my senior year the school had had enough. I was expelled. As part of their compilation portrait of me as an incorrigible offender the school officials disclosed the reason the psychologist had found me “seriously disturbed” two years previously. During the initial interview the psychologist had asked me what I wanted to do professionally. I told him I wanted to make films. I said that I was fascinated with the technical aspects of filmmaking and that when I went to the movies, more than the plot, I was interested in the editing techniques, the lighting, the relations between image and sound tracks, etc. He wrote on the evaluation that this was the sign of a very troubled youngster. According to his expert testimony, “Normal people watch a movie for the story they couldn’t care less about how it was made.” On the official record of my expulsion I was listed as a “detriment to the morale of the school.” The head of the English department added her own assessment: “I feel sorry for any college stupid enough to accept this boy. He should get a job sweeping in a garage and try to stay out of jail.” The truant officer and whoever else was in the room seemed surprised and disappointed that I was not crestfallen, or even particularly discouraged at this news. My initial response, in fact, sounded closer to elation than despair. “You mean I never have to come back here?” I cooed. “No, we mean you cannot come back here. Don’t look so happy. We’re ruining your life.” “I don’t think so,” I replied, mustering my best Barbara Streisand bravado.

At least the mortification my parents suffered at my expulsion explained why my eighteenth birthday was not celebrated, if not the previous seven. I intended to celebrate this one myself, because I now had my draft card, which then was legal proof of age accepted at liquor stores and bars. The liquor stores had a special florescent lamp by the cash register which somehow verified the draft card’s authenticity. With that card in my pocket (despite the dread of its other implications) I went off to the downtown library, where I spent a great deal of time. I met a black guy there in his thirties, very smooth talking and really nice. He reminded me of Mr.Williams. He asked me to come home with him, but I bowed out, uncertain of the nature of his interest and not really wanting to experiment sexually. I was also afraid of his neighborhood, the “East Side” of my parents’ nightmare-ridden cosmology. I said I had things to do, but I would be back the next day around the same time.

The following day we talked in the library lounge for a while and then he offered me a ride home, saying his friend with a car was waiting for him at the back entrance (facing the east side of Buffalo the main entrance being on Main Street.) I accepted and got in the back. We were driving for quite a while when I mentioned that the direction was wrong. They informed me thay had other plans and everything would be fine as long as I stayed cool. They took me to a basement apartment whose inside door was guarded by a German shepherd on a chain. The shades were all drawn tight. We were so far in the East Side I wasn’t sure if I was more afraid of remaining in the basement with them or risking the street by myself. They took turns raping me. I felt guilty about not resisting, but I didn’t know how or what good it would do. I also became angry with them for interfering in my attempts to free myself from my parents’ racialized horror stories. At one point I made a mental note to observe the exact address when I left (however that would come about) so that in a few weeks I could send them an anonymous chocolate cake that would have poison in it. I wondered what kind of poison couldn’t be tasted through the mix. I thought better of it, realizing I couldn’t kill anyone just for raping me, and because it might be misconstrued as racist. And I was afraid they would give it to the dog.

Eventually I heard them tell me it was time to go. They drove me as far as the parking lot of Sears, which, like the Library, bordered the East and West sides. This was the same branch to which Mr. Williams had brought me nine years earlier. Once the pair drove off, I decided this was a good chance to get my draftcard plasticized. I always liked the popcorn at Sears, in the long bag imprinted with a man’s head the shape of a popcorn cylinder. The popcorn vender was directly next to the card plasticizer. It was my lucky day. Not typical for a birthday. I walked home, eating the popcorn, occasionally checking to see if the blood that was darkening the top of one of my socks had dried.


One year after I was expelled I snuck back into Lafayette High School, found a room where the proctor did not know me, and took the New York State Regents Scholarship exam. The school had done its job so miserably that of the over 400 students who had taken the examination that day, I was the only one to win a full Regents’ scholarship. The school officials were furious and tried to block the award, but they had no legal grounds to do so, since there had been no precedent to make a ruling against an “expellee.” I enrolled in SUNY at Buffalo and was ecstatic about studying. I worked very hard, excelling at German and my English literature classes and earning a 4.0 average my first semester. My mother said, “That’s nice, but you know you will fail. You know you’ll start getting in trouble just like you did before. Why not save us the grief and embarrassment Dad can get you a janitor’s job at Chevy.” I continued to get 4.0’s and each time it was met with similar dismissals. I decided to leave the country.

I went to school in Austria. I was enchanted with Europe. Growing up where I did, it had never occurred to me that one could live in a beautiful environment. I won a Deutsche Akademische Auslandsdienst (DAAD) scholarship to the University of Würzburg. Living in Germany, I wrote home telling of travelling to Egypt (sailing the Nile in the Sudan), touring the Soviet Union, etc. My younger sister answered my letters with synopses of television shows she clipped from TV Guide and mounted on cardboard, to show me what I was missing. Hearing of my decision to study Japanese in graduate school, my aunt Genevieve (the sole remaining devout Seventh-Day Adventist) wrote me to tell me that I was wasting my time on frivolous things. If I came back to the church and studied the teachings, when New Jerusalem was established I wouldn’t have to settle for trips from country to country, I could fly on my own power from planet to planet. She also reminded me that it would be a yellow race that would overrun the world before the Second Coming. My aunt was prescient. This was 1976. It would be a few more years, when Japan emerged as an economic superpower while the U. S. steel and auto industries collapsed, before the title of apocalyptic monster would be transferred from the Chinese to the Japanese.

I escaped, but not entirely. Outside of my particular academic interests, I failed to compensate for, or even sufficiently monitor, the areas of knowledge and skills that had been excluded from my upbringing. In September, 1980, I entered a Ph.D. program at Harvard. I had lived in two European countries, travelled all over Western and Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and Japan, and held a Master’s Degree from Cornell University. Nevertheless, I decided to open a checking/savings account at the local bank that had an “IRA” sign in its window, marveling at the daring of a financial institution that would so publically announce its support of the Irish Republican Army. I attributed the bank’s politics to the large Irish community of Boston and the radicalizing influence of the two universities in this part of Cambridge.

Such lacunae in my education supported the class-based shame that I carried with me long after graduate school. In fact, my lower-class background has been a far more serious hindrance in my professional life than my homosexuality. I am not referring to an elitism I have perceived or any deliberate exclusions I have suffered. Often the “lower-class subject” has internalized her or his disqualification so thoroughly that direct oppression from “above” is rendered virtually redundant. In my case, I exacted oppression where there would have been none forthcoming. Like many working- class people who have become academics, I suffered from a feeling that I was a “fraud” for many of the first years of my teaching career. After overcoming this feeling, I still suffer from a reticence to initiate sustained social contact with colleagues and others in my field on a basis of assumed equality. It never occurs to me that I would be afforded the same respect or collegiality that most fellow (at least the white male) faculty members I know take for granted.

This pattern is reinforced by my internalization of the rhetorics of self-effacement in Japanese social interactions. While these strategies of behavior are not “neurotic” in their original contexts, the thoroughness with which I embraced them repeated the contradiction of my intellectual history in that my capacity for learning supported a tendency to internalize self-deprecating psychological templates (such as my Seventh-Day Adventist correspondence courses). My extension of these forms of social communication to non-Japanese contexts combined my familial psychopathologies with my class-based shame.

On the other hand, I am a very performative teacher and lecturer. This is primarily because I love teaching and have developed this teaching persona as an integral part of my pedagogical strategies, but it is also because I can be more comfortable in my position of “doing my job” certainly a characteristic of a working-class psychology. The stark contrast between my colorful presence at the podium, and my shy, rather retiring tendencies “off stage,” make me seem aloof or disinterested, a misperception that might encourage the very snubbing I mean to avoid. On top of this, my psychosocial conditioning can also lead me to misread acceptance as rejection. And my juggling all of these contradictions can lead to some pretty complex scenarios. Like the following.


In the winter of 1992, Judith Butler invited me to give a paper at a small conference she had arranged at Berkeley. I was in top form: content, delivery, and engagement, were quite well received; I had clearly impressed many people, including people I admired greatly. Such circumstances usually incite a backlash. This was no exception. In the afternoon sessions, although still feeling quite included in the discussions, I happened to be standing near the person who had arranged the conference on two or three occasions when she was inviting individual participants to a dinner that evening. Because it had been women she was inviting each time I had overheard her, I concluded that the dinner was a “women only” event. My tendency toward preemptive self-exclusion suspended all rational thought. Any number of things should have told me that my supposition was totally unfounded. Nevertheless, I convinced myself, and I went off depressed to a malt shop then took a cab to The Steamworks, thinking that sex would be a consolation.

My lecture at Berkeley included highly theoretical reflections on gay male porn films. At the baths, waiting for my locker number to be called to get a vacant single room, I sat towel-clad in the video room, turning myself on watching the same porn films on which I had waxed so eccentrically eloquent. I wanted them to turn me on to motivate my own “show” to the fellow viewers. I wanted to be used. Once I got my room I took the towel off, and kept the door open, laying facing the hallway, legs spread, feet flat on the bed, knees slightly raised. Men walking by took longer and longer looks. Men circulating through the maze of open doors started reappearing in front of mine at shorter intervals.

The one I wanted to enter, however, was a black man approximately 6’3” with a chiseled body and a crimson jockstrap glaring from his ebony thighs. On his third pass, he stopped in front of my door. I saw others watching him from farther down the hall. I willed my surrender to undulate at him. He came in without saying a word, and remained standing as he slipped off the jock strap. When he heard the gasp of one of the onlookers behind him, he shut the door firmly but slowly. With the same self-assuredness he reached for a condom, tore the envelope and slipped it on in a continuous flow of meaningful movements. Leaning his knees on the bed, he poured lubricant on his erect penis, then some on his fingers with which he worked me like a vengeful engineer. He gripped my hips in both his hands, and with one swoop he pulled the lower half of my body up to him as he thrust definitively into me. He continued to hold my body in the air as he built his rhythm up. I watched in the mirror. The sheen of his sweat reminded me of the photographs of Paul Robeson I looked at and intoned a subdiscursive mantra about my unworthy awe of his socialist martyrdom to deny the breath that his beauty had knocked out of me. In the mirror striping the room I looked like an aberration of the light that slipped from his body, a smear of phosphor I knew his thrusts would soon render me on another plane. I was an envelope, an organic curiosity that appended him, like the giant squids that were rumored to whisk away Canadian sailors off the coast of Nova Scotia during WWII. He was in this squid and more real than the being that encompassed him. I was like the dried squids restructured to stand and be used as a tokkuri in Japan you poured hot sake into the hollowed out body, and when done, when you were intoxicated from the spirit you had filled the squid with you ate the squid. I wanted to deliquesce in the mirror after he had used me up. The pulsation between us that was my interior was like a Miroslav Vitous bass improvisation an analogy for the stop action film of a Mayan pyramid constructed itself, but the soundtrack was a tessellation of crescendos until the last one cancelled us both out.

Earlier that morning, I had transgressed the deep structure of my lower class upbringing, and had a reaction. I was able to project my internalized devalorization onto the conference participants, transforming an invitation to collegiality into an institutional rejection. I assuaged my hurt feelings with recreational sex but this sex was not merely anesthetic or diversionary compensation. In singling out the black man, I replayed my gesture of surrender to Mr. Williams to punish me for my parents’ limitations. This passion play was in no way degrading. I was also transforming the rape on my eighteenth birthday into a scenario in which I was in control, through which I reclaimed my sexuality from the memory of an assault which had nothing to do with it. I extricated my desires and my capacities for pleasure and the potential of interracial “intercourse” (of various kinds) from the paradigm of victimization. And I did this at The Steamworks, located at the border of Berkeley and Oakland, a Northern California variation on Buffalo’s East Side-West Side geography of racialized fear. A couple seconds later, he giggled. I laughed experimentally. He giggled again, and said, “Who would have thought?” His voice was very sweet. His name was Milton. He thanked me for “taking the wind out of his sails.” The silent, sculptured predator had evaporated. But that was the persona I had needed for my fantasy, and he needed for his and he needed my need for that persona for his fantasy, whatever his fantasy might have been. We met in the ricochet.

These contradictions also determined some of my difficulties with personal relationships, most clearly with my relationship with Gilberto.


On the bus downtown I told myself that there was no sense in placing a “Personals Ad” if I resented the time required to meet the people who responded. This guy in particular sounded worth the gamble of a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. But Sunday was a premium work day. I was teaching two rather demanding classes, and my play, which was going up in three weeks, still needed script rewrites. I couldn’t even think about the book. Arriving at the Java House early, I spread my books and papers out on a table facing the entrance.

Seeing him in the doorway, my first thought was, “I hate that shirt.” It was an Hawaiian shirt of glossy silk that seemed to pick up the cacophony of the street glare framing him and twist it into floral truisms. But his smile belied that noise. Once Gilberto sat down, I realized the garishness of the shirt had been a trick of the light. If his shirt revealed an elegant simplicity, Gilberto’s apparently easy-going, almost guileless demeanor invited the closer engagement necessary to appreciate the gradual efflorescence of a complex and often reticent personality. He was sizing me up, but I was not aware of this right away. I did notice that my enjoyment of his company increased as time went by. Two hours passed. I didn’t look at a bus schedule. He suggested a walk. I thought I’d go as far as the bookstore, check in there, and head home. It was on the way to the bus station anyway. Gilberto loved book browsing as much as I did, and I found my usual pleasure in roaming among the shelves amplified and refracted through his. He suggested, very shyly, that we have dinner together, and I was surprised hearing myself agree so enthusiastically. He offered to cook, and I didn’t even mind shopping with him, something I usually deplore. It was fun.

Dinner was wonderful. He drove me home, and I invited him in to meet my cat, Jane. He stayed quite a while. While we talked, he lay on his stomach on my futon couch. I sat on the floor across from him, by the TV. I thought there was something deliberately inviting in the way he was situated and the quality of his lingering, but it seemed too delicate, too special to acknowledge or even to attempt to verify at all. The next day, when I told my friend Benjamin I had spent so much time with a blind date on a Sunday and I didn’t have a panic attack about not getting work done, Benjamin asked if the guy performed any other miracles, like rainmaking.

Gilberto’s present and past impressed and moved me. He was born in Texas, the youngest of nine children. His mother grew up in a Texas border town and his father had immigrated from northwestern Mexico. While Gilberto was still a baby, the family moved to a small town outside of Fresno, California. In his preschool years, Gilberto was his mother’s constant, effervescent companion. He loved to dance to the radio while his mother ironed clothes. She tied the toddler to the bed-post with her apron strings so he could dance and jump on the bed without falling. Like me, Gilberto learned to fear and dislike traditional masculinity, identifying more frequently with the women in his family, who seemed more loving, reasonable, and imaginative than the men. Also like me, Gilberto was the only one of the children to leave “home” in order to create a kind of life impossible to imagine within the world of his upbringing. He studied Art History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and then stayed on in Santa Cruz, beginning a successful career in arts administration.

My identifications with Gilberto in these aspects of his life were tempered by my awareness of the differences in our respective histories, an awareness that was the source of my admiration for him. The tendency of his family to stay together cannot be reduced to the same inertia and agoraphobia prevalent in mine. The relative stasis of Gilberto’s family can also be attributed to the restricted opportunities for Mexican Americans, and to a need for economic and cultural solidarity. 7 Although Gilberto left home, he took with him a sense of the importance of preserving his heritage and culture against Anglo-dominant homogenization, a struggle he learned about in grammar school.

In second grade, the teacher gave the class a special assignment. Each child was to ask her or his parents from what country or countries the family had originally come to the U. S. The next day each child in turn was to go to the map in the front of the class, place the tiny flag provided in the country of origin, and tell the class a “fact” about that country. When Gilberto’s turn came, he dutifully placed the flag in Mexico. Before he could begin his sentence, the teacher interrupted him, demanding to know why he had placed the flag where he had. Frightened and confused, he replied, “Because my family is from Mexico.” The teacher made a sound of exasperation and waved him away, saying, “Sit Down! You didn’t understand the assignment. No one is from Mexico. I meant you were to find out where in Europe your family was from. Next time get it right.” He never mentioned Mexico or Mexican customs in school again, and he never spoke Spanish if any of the other students or the teachers might hear.

Unlike many children traumatized by such treatment, Gilberto persevered in speaking Spanish at home and retaining it in his adult and professional life, even after moving away from home and a Spanish speaking community. He admitted that while he was proud to be Mexican American and to have retained his fluency in Spanish, he was shy and uncertain about using Spanish in front of “native speakers” of the language. I leant him a copy of Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands. His response touched me deeply. He was staggered by her discussion, description, and examples of the various kinds of “Spanish” she used in daily life, and her valorization of the hybridized Spanish typically spoken among Tejanas and Tejanos. He had never seen his form of Spanish in print before, and this was very important to him, particularly because much of it was the language of his mother.

On our second date, I invited Gilberto in for tea, even though I detested tea, and had no idea if I owned any. Remarkably, there were some tea bags in the cupboard. But I did not manage to do more than note their existence. Gilberto never got that cup of tea, although that faculty rental townhouse essentially became “our space” beginning that night. But there was little time for a “honeymoon.” In the first months of our relationship, I was extraordinarily busy. The following year I was coming up for tenure review. It was imperative to have at least a book contract in hand by January. Since coming to UCSC, I had never been awarded either course relief or a sabbatical, so I needed that summer to write enough of the book to send it to the press for review by August, to allow time for readers reports and a decision in time. I also loved my work and relished the total immersion the summer afforded. I worked from early in the morning until early evening, when Gilberto arrived. I was usually either exhausted or still preoccupied with the work I had been doing, but Gilberto was angelic in his understanding and support.

Gilberto considered a primary relationship the most important thing in his life, and he devoted himself to each relationship wholeheartedly. He was giving and understanding to the point of self-sacrifice, certainly characteristics he had seen in the women of his family. But he was not merely repeating a pattern unselfconsicously. One of the reasons he worked so hard at a relationship was precisely because he had seen how unhappy these women were within the relationships to which they were resigned. He was determined to have a relationship that was completely fulfilling, a kind of relationship he had never seen growing up. Unfortunately, his earlier efforts met responses similar to those his mother and sisters experienced. His boyfriends treated him appallingly, essentially taking him for everything he had to give and abandoning him when they had used him up.

But now Gilberto was with me. I could not believe my luck. I mean this (and meant this) quite literally. I could not believe someone so wonderful would want to be with me as much as Gilberto did. I had not done anything to earn it. Therefore, in the back of my mind, I did not believe Gilberto’s feelings for me. In fact, the very profusion and clarity of his demonstrations of those feelings I interpreted as evidence to the contrary. The horror stories about his ex-boyfriends also supported my skepticism of the devotion Gilberto showed me almost immediately. He wanted to do only what he assumed I wanted, and our schedule was structured according to my needs. He was happy, even gleeful in arranging things this way, and resistant to my attempts to make the decisions more mutual. My healthy misgivings about Gilberto’s attentiveness to me, however, also disguised my unhealthy suspicion of anyone’s attraction to or affection for me, stemming from my own insecurities. I could not see what Gilberto saw in me, and instead of trusting his perception, I diagnosed it as a symptom of his unresolved psychological conflicts. I told myself that what he seemed to think was love was an obsessive pattern that at the moment we both enjoyed, but was bound to burn itself out over the summer. If it did not, I would probably have to persuade him to see a therapist. In my defensive fear of love, I dismissed Gilberto’s affection as a psychopathology. While I believed my affection for Gilberto to be genuine, I felt obligated to express it “unselfishly,” by leading him to treatment for the illness of loving me. I foresaw the sign of his recovery his abandonment of me. I had already entrenched myself in defenses against this outcome, although it was these defenses that ensured it. Even his patience with my work schedule and my forms of withdrawal only made me doubt his feelings for me all the more.

Just as in my family’s history the psychopathological systems supported the oppressive politics of class-race hierarchies in Gilberto’s and my relationship liberal politics and “political correctness” at first served personal neuroses. During the early stages of our courtship, when Gilberto’s descriptions of my features he found appealing included the whiteness of my skin a kneejerk silent speculation about possible “internalized racism” protected me from really hearing him. My qualms about sounding like a neocolonialist eroticizing the “racial other” excused me from responding to him reciprocally. I did not hold on to these defenses very long, however.

The first week we met, Gilberto encapsulated his personal-political philosophy for me: he hated men, especially white men. In the context of his other statements and considering the objects of his affections, it is easy to unpack this declaration. By “men,” he meant the kind of dominant heterosexual male who not only fit the standard definition, but who also found ultimate value and meaning in fulfilling that ideal. That “ideal” admitted cultural variants, ranging from the overly developed sense of entitlement of the white yuppie to the agonistic paranoid vigilance of the jock, to the machismo of his father and brothers. Gilberto’s emotional and sexual bonds with certain men evince a distinction he made between biological sex and ideological gender identities.

An analogous distinction can be discerned in his “hatred” of white people and the erotic and aesthetic attraction he admitted his lovers’ pallor held for him: for Gilberto, “white” was not so much a genotype as a belief in the naturalness of white dominance and white Euro-American cultural monopolies. In other words, if the skin color of his love object was one focus of Gilberto’s erotic investment, it was not the determining feature of a uniformly politicized racial category. The critical difference between “white” as a racial characteristic and “white” as an ideology also structured a specific pattern of affection between us. He often told me he did not consider me “white,” meaning he did not see me as a proponent of that ideology. I hasten to emphasize, however, that I locate the significance of Gilberto’s statement solely within the idiolect of our relationship; I do not extend this to any illusory extraracial exoneration, nor do I imply that I refuse “to identify” as white. I introduce this merely as one of the ways in which we each negotiated our respective racial identities as well as each other’s in the configurations of our intimacy. While Gilberto occasionally expressed his affection by disassociating me from the “white race,” I expressed my affection for him by facilitating his reintegration with his Mexican-American “identity.”

The first summer we were together, one evening we were out having a beer and the subject turned to birthdays. I winced, because I always avoid telling people when my birthday is. This time it was particularly uncomfortable for me, because that day happened to be my birthday. When he asked me when mine was, I named a date at random. “November 1,” I lied. He jumped “That’s amazing mine’s October 31! We can celebrate ours together.” I kicked myself under the table, but decided not to tell him the truth until it was too long after my actual birthday to celebrate it. Instead of slipping into my habituated depression over my own birthday, I focused on Gilberto’s. I promised him that on his birthday we would be in Mexico, the first time for both of us. I wanted to share his first experience of Mexico with him, and wanted it to be a birthday gift from me.

The trip proved a unique convergence of several miracles. I initially conceived of it as a celebration of Gilberto’s birthday (his “identity”), as well as a celebration of his Mexican heritage and his mother’s language. We undid the damage of his teacher’s ignorant pronouncement, reminiscent of my sister’s reckless declaration of my unworthiness to have a birthday. Gilberto’s initial amazement at how well he could function in Spanish there soon filled out into a new sense of confidence and a confirmation of all aspects of himself. I was so proud of him. I could no longer ignore the fact that I had fallen in love with him, too. In other words, I had to admit to myself he was in love with me, and it wasn’t necessarily a mistake or a neurosis.

We rented a car and explored the Yucatan. I got very good at map reading and “investigating.” Off the beaten track of a beautiful tiny beach town called Akumal, I discovered a tucked away grotto called Yalku, famous for its nesting parrot fish. We drove to Akumal, and followed my map into the bushes until we reached this beautiful secluded lagoon, technicolor with all sorts of marine life. We also were enchanted with Akumal. We promised each other to stay in Akumal for his birthday the following year, which we did.

At the beginning of our stay in Akumal, Gilberto took a snorkeling lesson and then taught me. We snorkeled all over our beach and then borrowed rickety two-speed bicycles from our hotel and rode eight miles through the jungle on horrendously rocky dirt paths to Yalku. Snorkeling there was like entering the kaleidoscope, but this time the world was both fantastic and real, in all the colors that my father would never see, including the color of the lover who had taught me how to breathe in this world. We saw barracudas basking underneath us, constellations of triggerfish, damsels, and blennies. I got nipped by a moray eel, in front of whose cave I had been dangling my leg. Mexico was a miracle.

Both trips to Mexico were rare breaks in my all-consuming fervor for work. Writing the book took twelve to sixteen hours a day. Once I had moved to San Francisco, it frequently happened that Gilberto drove up on Friday, only to spend the weekend on the living room couch reading, while I continued to type on the computer, occasionally pleading “just one more hour.” The first deadline arrived and I sent the draft manuscript and outline to the press. Now all I had to do was wait, and while waiting, do the rewriting, the polishing, and draft the projected chapters. Therefore, I was just as busy and obsessed after the project’s first goal had been met as before. Now the chapters took even longer, I frequently stayed up all night writing, or got up at three or four AM to begin, leaving Gilberto to sleep alone. In January I received the contract, which increased my intensity of work because this meant that the book would actually be published. This also meant I wrote during every waking moment and all weekend every weekend, because I was now back at teaching. Gilberto was still understanding, and, although disappointed, he forbore.

Because I had realized early on that my parents had never loved me, I faced adult emotional life with a contradictory sense of despair and entitlement. Since the only people who could arguably be considered under obligation to love me had not, I had no basis for expecting anyone else to love me. On the other hand, precisely because my parents had not loved me, I was also susceptible to an unconscious belief in a sympathetic magic, thinking life owed me someone to love me, to restore the balance of justice my parents had thrown out of whack. My response to Gilberto was often structured around these two effects of my emotional deprivation. I at times simultaneously, at other times alternatively, refused to accept his love, and yet took it for granted as my due. While the origins of these attitudes are understandable, neither of them contributed to responsive capacity conducive to a mutually fulfilling relationship. Both left Gilberto out in the cold. The refusal to accept his love was far more common. My taking his love for granted, while initially the rarer of the two responses, however, was actually the one that Gilberto cultivated, eliciting it through both positive and negative reinforcement.

Gilberto loved acting as the caregiver, the one lavishing attention on the other, but hated it when the attention was returned, or if he were made the focus of special attention. One of the first times I tried this was a disaster. I took him out to a new, fancy restaurant that had just opened, and laid it on thick that I was doing this “for him.” It was the first time he was aggressively unappreciative, petty, surly, and in general unkind and abusive. When I finally protested, “Gilberto, you have never treated me like this before,” he seemed to realize what he was doing and snap out of it. After apologizing he reminded me of the many times he had told me that he could not tolerate such attention.

If, coming home after a meeting or a late class, I became overly expressive about my happiness in finding him there, or told him how much his support and love meant to me, he pushed me away, dismissing what I said in a goodnatured rebuff that also carried a peculiarly ominous tone of conviction in his voice, calling me drunk or saying that he wasn’t going to listen to sweet talk from a bottle. Although I had told him stories of my heavy drinking days in years past, he had never seen me in such a condition and in fact he knew that my obsession with the book made me abhor the idea of being mentally impaired, however pleasant, and that I limited myself to one or two beers a week, if that. Therefore I took this to be another message that such direct expressions were intolerable and would not be acknowledged as valid. This conscious interpretation was supported by my own aversion to being blamed for something I did not do. Now what I did not do is to tell him I loved him. I also hate rejection, especially rejection of a feeling I find difficult to offer in the first place.

I should have pushed him to examine the motivations behind his rigid altruism and to consider the effects on the relationship if such attentions were to be exclusively unidirectional. Instead I let the vehemence of his response reinforce my tendency to withdraw; I assumed my covert expressions of love and appreciation were understood and found satisfactory. I retreated into my work for several reasons now: as a defense against his love; as a protective response against the rejection I felt from his refusal to accept from me the attentions he gave me; and as a way to demonstrate the love he would not let me utter directly. This was going to be the greatest, most stunning book ever written in gay studies, so that it would honor the dedication to Gilberto that I kept rewriting on a secret file when he slept or when he was not home. I was like a ten-year old riding my bike past my “sweetheart’s” house, calling out “Look, no hands!” My self-imposed Sisyphean labor and Gilberto’s indulgence of it were highly overdetermined for each of us. We formed a feedback loop around my writing that also circumscribed the hide-and-seek which kept us engaged in our love and our need. Gilberto loved my “academic self” and my writing, and I loved his love of them. In devoting myself to my work I addressed that love while hiding from his love of me. While at first his positive responses to this movement in our dance seemed to reflect his investment in my acknowledgment of his love, I gradually realized it also was a sign of his investment in my hiding from his love for me and my hiding, or encoding, my love for him. To Part 14 Gilberto started complaining in our second year. He had decided to give up on the relationship while I was away for a week as a visiting scholar for the Center for Japan Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I could tell something was up when I called him. He was very cold and unresponsive. He was even worse when he picked me up at the airport. I talked him into trying again, and promised to try myself. I still wanted more than ever to take two weeks off for Mexico instead of one, even if I had to lend him most of his fare. I also promised to find a therapist for my workaholism beginning in January when the insurance cycle would permit it. In the meantime, Gilberto decided to see a therapist in Santa Cruz shortly before we left for Mexico, to clarify some of his ambivalence toward his family and to come to terms with his childhood. This astonished me, because he had always said he did not believe in them. He had two sessions with the therapist before his work schedule, our vacation, and then preparations for his move to San Francisco in December made it impossible for him to continue with her.

When Gilberto confronted me on my return from Ann Arbor with his unhappiness great enough to make him willing to leave me, I was I able to look more closely at a fear that was at the heart of my pain and confusion at the restaurant when Gilberto had responded so negatively to my expression of affection. At the point I knew I had to acquiesce to his refusal to accept such expressions, I began to worry about the relations between Gilberto’s one-sided giving and the fate of his other relationships. I feared that some of the exploitation and neglect Gilberto suffered at the hands of his ex-boyfriends (which is what made them “white” in his narratives) was to some extent, if not elicited, certainly supported by his insistence on their participation in his altruism. Such unbridled giving eventually spoils the recipient; it may have even conditioned shifts in Gilberto’s boyfriends’ deportment to levels of selfishness that Gilberto deplored in his father’s and brother’s behavior. I wondered when my capitulation to this rule would exceed his level of tolerance, rendering me the kind of bastard my predecessors had eventually proven to be? At what point would my compliance guarantee Gilberto’s dissatisfaction? And how could this relationship, however “individual” and idiosyncratic, remain isolated from the racial makeup of its agents, and how could Gilberto be expected not to feel his personal anger confluent with a social and cultural anger at the history of Anglo exploitation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, even if the disequilibrium in our relationship was initially of Gilberto’s express construction? We had reached that point. I am not suggesting that I had been trapped, nor do I attribute the cul-de-sac at which we arrived to a no-win situation of meeting a demand and accepting the anger that meeting such a demand incites. This is not a neurotic conundrum, but a sociopolitical contradiction, not merely a personal victimization from a repetition compulsion, but a particular, local instance of the incessant yet metamorphic tragedy of institutionalized racism as a fundamental cultural horizon. Retrospectively mapping the ways the “personal” and the “political” intermeshed in my years with Gilberto leads me to conclude that one of the reasons race is such a profound dynamic in interracial relationships, is, paradoxically, because of a kind of default social epistemology that facilitates the reconstruction of any interpersonal situation in terms of racial politics, even if race was not a principle element in the minds, motivations, and actions of the parties involved.

Even when the intrapsychic and/or interpersonal dynamics have no discernible (or merely tangential) relation to issues of race, these moments, and the subjective and intersubjective complexes constituting them, can be retroactively resignified (or reinterpreted) in terms of racial politics. Neither our individual social histories regarding race nor the histories and contemporary situations of the larger social order (and of the embedded, subordinated, and contestatory subcultures therein) will allow any moment of our relationship to remain insulated from racial meaning. When people who knew Gilberto see me with one of the white men I have dated since our break-up, they often comment, “Oh, I thought you liked Latinos.” But when people who had not known Gilberto see me, they do not say, “Oh, so you like white men.” The discrepancy of inference is another example of the epistemology of white hegemony that renders “white” an essence without particulars, and white men beings without characteristics. (I assure you that the white men I date have plenty of characteristics far more compelling than the incapacity of their skin to retain pigment.) When I had first met Gilberto, he had only dated or had been in relationships with other white men. Mexican, Chicano and Latino gay men in the area who had seen Gilberto with his partners at the gay bar in earlier years assumed that he was “white identified” and repressing his identification with his ethnic heritage. Given that Gilberto was only twenty-eight at the time I met him, and that he had been in a series of monogamous relationships lasting from several months to several years, and considering the paucity of eligible gay men in Santa Cruz and the far smaller number of “out” gay men of color, the racial make-up of Gilberto’s partners cannot be immediately ascribed to an exclusive preference for white men or an internalized racism. Furthermore, even if he had made a conscious decision not to date Chicano/Latino men, this choice may have been based not on racial identity but on gender politics, since Gilberto associated Chicano male styles of self-presentation with the oppressive and homophobic behavior of his father and brothers.

On the other hand, even if there is no discernible racial determination in Gilberto’s object choices even if we could prove their shared whiteness coincidental it is impossible to foreclose racial politics from these relationships and Gilberto’s erotic life. Why? Because the tension between the “fact” of his partners’ race, and the signifying excess of “race” that can never be reduced to a “fact,” structures a contradictory and heterogeneous discursive field in and through which these relationships develop and articulate their multidimensional particularities.

I learned this lesson viscerally through the certain loss of Gilberto and from facing the enormity of his hurt and anger then and thereafter, beginning that Sunday in December when it turned out that one of the other agendas in Gilberto’s therapeutic sessions had been to clarify his resolve to leave me. He needed more out of life than our relationship promised and he could no longer wait for me to find time to live. In insufficiently exorcising the most abject self-identifications any dominant ideology would impose on its lower-class subjects, I acted in ways that made me a “white male” in Gilberto’s lexicon. The longterm effects of my “Oxydol poisoning” obscured from my critical awareness the peculiarity of my obsessive ambition and its monstrous costs; the longterm exhaustion and rage from struggling against an Oxydol-whitened world left Gilberto little option but to leave. In a ghastly irony, my neurotic fear and shame-based behavior drove Gilberto to the very act my insecurities had coincidentally predicted at the beginning of the relationship: he found a therapist to cure him of me. Realizing now that his love was not a symptom, I know too late Gilberto’s giving up on me was not a “recovery,” but a loss for us both. It is not a loss that a critical insight can ameliorate, nor a political conviction vindicate. But it is nevertheless crucial to develop a new analytic understanding and articulate a politics through my reflections on this loss, if I am to resist this class subjectivation and disengage from this mode of my racial identity.


One morning in late July, 1994, the dentist told me I had to have an emergency root canal within the next two days. I crawled into bed as soon as I returned home. Despite my anxiety and the pain in my jaw, I fell asleep quickly and dreamt that I was back in Akumal. It was early morning and I had just started snorkeling. I pulled the banana I smuggled from breakfast out of my swimming trunks and was instantly swarmed by the yellow and black sergeant majors. A few more yards, they were joined by the more graceful and furtive jackknives, just as always. When it got a little deeper, individual fish cruised by: a jewel fish, a Spanish hog, a neon goby. Beneath me I saw some grouper and just ahead was that queen Angelfish nested in the anchor I told Gilberto about the day before. I hoped she would stay put until he came. Swimming a little to the side, I catch sight of the black and green triggerfish that Gilberto discovered the first day we tried snorkeling. One of them had just blown a sea urchin over, exposing its belly. The other trigger was poised, ready for the kill.

I suddenly realized I had not yet surfaced, and I was still breathing regularly through the tube. I finally got the hang of Gilberto’s lessons. I felt safe and warm in the sea, but mostly because even though I could snorkel by myself, I knew Gilberto would be by any minute, tapping me on the shoulder and pointing at the surface. When I come up, he’ll say, “Hey Doc! How’s your mask? Does it need adjusting? Breathing ok? Guess what? Over toward the pier I saw three big yellow cow fish. Wanna see?” He was always spotting cow fish, but I could never find them. Soon we’d walk back to the shore for a piña colada in the sun. Later when we walked over the rocky areas, I’d see if I could still get him to squeal by petting the big iguanas. I doubt it unless just to make me laugh.

Then I woke up, strangely refreshed and much calmer. I still felt the warmth of the sea in the dream. And the sense of safety, even though I woke up before Gilberto appeared. But then again, he taught me to snorkel. So I was already safe, and he was already there. With me. In the safety he taught me how to create for myself.

Most of these reminiscences are sad some very sad stories. But amid, before, and beyond all these sad stories, there are a few stories that are still true, stories whose miraculous “have happened” cannot be erased or undone. There was once a lonely boy in upstate New York who made friends with crows. Years later, in central California, a mother would secure her baby son near her in order to indulge yet protect him from his wild dancing joy. When her baby son grew older, he would take the crow’s friend to bed and whisper “I Love You” in his ear, so that the older boy would never need to resort to an empty Valentine again. And the older boy, in return, would take the dancing young man south for his birthday, to prove once and for all you can most definitely be from Mexico. I address this belated love letter to these two little boys, and the young men, and older men they became; they remain for me the not altogether lost heroes of a romance whose possibility says more than I can write. 8


1 When I first met Gilberto, I told him repeatedly that I wasn’t always this preoccupied and unavailable he just happened to meet me in the middle of finishing my book. I would be “better” once it was done. I left him sleeping alone night after night, getting out of bed to work on the book, keeping the cats quiet who insisted on getting up with me and sharing my chair. Now I tell Ken I’m not always this preoccupied, he just happened to meet me as I’m finishing this difficult autobiographical essay. I will be “better” once it’s done. Tonight, like several other nights, I have gotten up, leaving him alone in the bed, to work on this essay, I sit poised on the edge of the seat, shushing the cats as they snuggle between my back and the back of the chair.

2 Davis would reprise the character in the 1970s for the Brady family, but tone down the butchiness.

3 My father was a genius with his hands and could build or fix anything, but never attempted to teach me even the most rudimentary of his skills. When my older sister’s male children were growing up, however, my father taught them carpentry, let them help him with various projects, and took them fishing. My mother would often say (in front of me) that the grandkids were good for Dad—they were like the son he never had.

4 The racial truce Lefkowitz concocted presumed a sense of a shared, normative heterosexual masculinity underlying and thus subsuming racial differences, a gendered and sexual identity that was entirely fictive—a fantasy created by the enjoined animosity against that individual posited as this masculinity’s antithesis, when in fact it was this oppositional or negative relation the “queer” represented that constituted that masculinity. Dominant male heterosexuality is a deadly hoax—in that it requires violent acts of defense against non-belligerent, non-seductive others, suggesting that male heterosexual identity is so tenuous and its maintenance so costly, that the mere existence of alternatives must be viewed as a threat.

5 On the other hand, if Manuela had been black, I could have been the target of the heterosexual “territoriality” that it was rumored black male students acted on if they saw a white boy with a black girl. This is another element in the gender-specific construction of interracial relations that my mother and her neighbors observed from an entirely different perspective, albeit both factors militated against interracial relations for white heterosexual males.

6 In neither the bullying of Hoak nor myself, did any of the black students take an active or initiative role. It seemed to silence them.

7 Arturo Islas’s novel The Rain God depicts this phenomenon beautifully. For a formal schematic of the differences between “identification” and “empathy” that constituted my positioning to Gilberto, see “Responsibility,” pp. 150-52.

8 I would like to thank: Becky W. Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi, who are the only two colleagues who could have persuaded me to attempt this experiment and the only two editors to whom I would entrust this text; Samuel R. Delany, whose inspiration is legible throughout my narrative; Steve Johnstone, who lovingly endured all the symptomatic behaviors the writing process caused, and still made my fortieth birthday a very happy one; Jeremie Elisha Curtis, who woke me one night because he was afraid, and one morning because I was; and Kenyon Brown, who, along with my cats Gus, Jane, and Ron, offers me the most effective antidote to Oxydol poisoning any boy could hope for.