Friday, September 23, 2011

Meditations on the death of Jamie Rodemeyer, a bisexual teen who killed himself in my home town

Below is a link I found to the full text of one of the most beautiful poems ever written in Spanish, called "La Noche Oscura del Alma," by San Juan de la Cruz:

San Juan de la Cruz lived in the 16th Century
It was this poem which became, in English, "The Dark Night of the Soul." That phrase has been butchered with overuse, as people often forget what the dark night of the soul meant in its original Spanish context. 

I will write about San Juan de la Cruz's poem tonight, because I think that 2012 will be the dark night of the soul for many men who struggle with same-sex desires, like the famous case of Jamie Rodemeyer. But I think San Juan's poem might be able to save some of them. Sit back and hear me out tonight.

Who was San Juan de la Cruz? And how can he help me understand the gay teen who killed himself in my hometown last summer?

San Juan de la Cruz saved my life.

When I was a Catholic teenager growing up in very dysfunctional conditions, confronting my mother's own troubled bisexual past, and then struggling with what I feared were blooming homosexual tendencies in myself, I might have easily fallen into despair and ended like Jamie Rodemeyer. Rodemeyer killed himself last September in Williamsville, New York, which happens to be the same (very small) municipality outside of Buffalo where my mother and her female lover raised me in the 1970s and 1980s. Rodemeyer attracted the attention of Lady Gaga--too late, of course. He was out of the closet as bisexual in Williamsville North High School (I went to Williamsville South) and couldn't deal with the turmoil of sexual alienation in that small town, so he killed himself after recording an "It Gets Better" video.

Lady Gaga tried to make Jamie Rodemeyer into a national martyr, on the same scale as Matthew Shepard in 1998 and Tyler Clementi in 2010. But as I have noted many times, gay tragedies only attract truly national attention when they occur in September or October before important elections, when politicians can use them as a wedge issue. In 2011, with Harvard and Oprah Winfrey both slathering praise on Dan Savage for "It Gets Better" already, New York State's gay marriage already firmed up, and Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed, Rodemeyer's death didn't have the spectacular timing of Tyler Clementi's leap from a bridge a year earlier. I hate to be so crass, but that's the truth. Jamie's death came across like the more than 30,000 suicides that happen in the United States each year. That is to say, it was not significant to make anybody take notice for long. 

Those who did write about Jamie Rodemeyer were quick to blame homophobia and slow progress on LGBT rights, which doesn't actually make much sense. Jamie's family seemed accepting of who he was, he had access to an Internet world that affirmed his sexual identity, and his state had just legalized gay marriage before he took his life.

More disturbingly for me, I know every nook and cranny of Jamie Rodemeyer's stomping grounds. I last lived in Williamsville in 2008. And I struggled with sexual anxiety with exponentially more difficult factors. When I was Jamie Rodemeyer's age, it was 1985 and homosexuality was associated with AIDs and child molesters--and nothing else. To add more pain to my situation, my mother was a lesbian and my father was not in the picture, but my mother's children and her partner's children (six in all) went to great lengths to hide what was going on. To this day I have siblings who have never talked about my mother's bisexual life history. And to top it all off, we were Puerto Rican in a Williamsville that was, back then, over 92% white.

I didn't worry about kids calling me "fag." "Spic" was the slur that made me panic. I worried about them smashing our windows or slashing our tires. A black family was driven off our block when I was in elementary school, based on accusations of stolen silver that sounded far-fetched. It is no wonder that on most weekends my mother and her partner took me to a mobile home community 45 minutes away, where many families with our unusual situation hid in the woods and pretended that we weren't living always a breath away from mob hostility.

And speaking honestly, I was right to fear racism more than homophobia. In 1992, a Dominican man was gunned down on Transit Road in Williamsville by a white man who feared he was going to rob him after a car accident. The man's name was Octavio Duran.

Yet Jamie Rodemeyer, who had every thinkable avenue to celebrate his desire for other males, killed himself. I never did.

In fact, at my twenty-year high school reunion in 2008, I was confronted with a dark secret about my high school years in middle-class Williamsville: I was actually somewhat popular. I had more friends than most of my peers. After seventh grade I never got bullied. At times I was rather mean to other people, which preoccupied me with guilt more than delayed rage. I flirted with guitar and piano lessons, was a fairly good marksman with the rifling team, and learned Latin dance as well as ballet. For two years I was editor in chief of the high school newspaper, president of the French and Spanish clubs, and the ring leader of a Rocky Horror Picture Show clique that took over a run-down midnight theater in nearby Cheektowaga. I wore makeup, nail polish, and women's stockings because everyone at that show dressed in drag. By the time I finished high school in 1988, I was ranked ninth in the senior class and was offered full scholarships to the University of Michigan and SUNY Buffalo. I turned those scholarships down when I got a letter in the mail in April 1988, notifying me I was accepted to Yale University.

Ever since the Jamie Rodemeyer story broke, it has haunted me, quite literally. I didn't want to blog about it or even think about it. Part of me was furious at the kid for not sticking it out, and for being what I would call cruel to his family. And perhaps, to me, as a fellow townie. Gradually, though, my anger veered away from Jamie and next at the gay movement that I believe drove him to suicide.

I don't think it's fair to say that homophobia or antigay bullying drove this young man to kill himself. I just don't think that's what happened at all. And the worst thing to do in response would be to focus ever more attention on gay issues. If anything, that's what caused Jamie Rodemeyer's death -- an unhealthy amount of attention to sexual identity, which is noticeable all across America as a result of an overly invasive gay movement. 

You see, I had crushes on boys in high school. I even had a threesome with two of my best friends at the age of thirteen. At times it pained me to think of how I might end up, if the feelings didn't go away. Of the three of us who hooked up on one drunken night, one seems to have turned out straight, the other gay, and me bisexual. But we didn't get hung up on labels when this happened that night in 1984. We enjoyed each other's bodies and didn't talk about it afterwards. I was already a prowler by my late teens and knew countless places to look for hook-ups, both with other boys in my high school and soon, I learned, in the vast world beyond. So it was a natural transition for me after my mother's death in 1990--I was homeless in New York City for only a few weeks, before I quickly fell in with a street gang made up of bugarrones and drag queens. Do you hear sadness in my voice? If you do, you're projecting. It was a rough life but it was mine and I celebrate it with no regrets.

So why would someone from my town in much more accepting and favorable conditions willingly give up his life? Why, when I was willing to descend into the gay underworld at the age of 19 and do all kinds of wacky illegal things to keep my life going? (And I always confess to my students, drag queens and sleazy gay men paid for my last year at Yale after I was readmitted.) 

Here's my hunch. Because people weren't constantly talking about gay issues around us, we didn't have to talk about it with each other or anyone else. In fact, we didn't have to think about it if we didn't have to. And that freed our energies to do other things. I learned French and Italian. One other friend went on to become a great fiction writer. And the third got married and took over a family business. 

Is the closet really such a horrible place? I have long thought, no. Especially not for high school. Being in the closet means you still have choices. The ending of your life story isn't written yet. Maybe what happened is a freak event. Maybe it's a trend. You don't have to figure it out right away, if you are in the closet. There is no pressure. 

The closet is a place of freedom. Which is what the gay movement got terribly wrong once ACTUP pushed the slogan "Silence=Death" on people, circa 1989, just as I was arriving at Yale.

It would be great if everybody in America could change and not have any discomfort with homosexuality. It would also be great if men stopped raping women, nations stopped engaging in wars, and rich people willingly donated all their surplus to charities. But within the world that we inhabit, there are sometimes useful and beneficial compromises that fall short of perfection. Hence, the closet.

Dan Savage and Lady Gaga killed Jamie Rodemeyer. They killed him because they and the cultural movement they spearhead have thrust adult categories and ponderous political issues onto the bodies of helpless adolescents who don't know how to make sense of it all. Not because the society is homophobic, which New York isn't; but rather, because adolescence is tender and vulnerable. Growing pains make everything seem harder and more ominous than it needs to be. Pubescence is no battleground on which to wage wars over gay marriage, adoption rights, or immigration policy for same-sex partners. So why force a kid like Jamie to decide whether he's gay or straight or bi, when he still isn't old enough to work at Santora's Pizza? (Where I worked, and acted like a diva for the three months I lasted there.)

It would be one thing if Dan Savage and Gay, Inc., were pushing gay discussions on young people and at the same time promoting an ideology of low-pressure boundless exploration to be supported by a warm and welcoming queer community. The truth is, Dan Savage thinks bisexuals are lying to themselves and are really gay and need to come out right away for the good of the movement. What kind of message does that send to Jamie Rodemeyer, who at the age of fourteen considered himself bisexual and may have dreamt of marrying a woman and having children? Dan Savage is also extraordinarily nasty, both to homophobes and to gay people he disagrees with, and as a gay figure he teaches his gay fans to act the same way toward other gays. So there is no way to enjoy Dan Savage's It Gets Better campaign without being prodded out of the closet through a traumatic process, into a community of people who repay you for your sacrifices by treating you like dirt and playing with your head.

I am mad at the people who killed Jamie Rodemeyer -- but that would be Dan Savage, Lady Gaga, and Gay, Inc., not the supposed bigots of Williamsville, New York. Tell someone that they're born gay and don't have a choice to be anything else, and that they have to join a catty, competitive, and unsupportive social network exemplified by the Queen Bitch of Them All, Dan Savage, and guess what? You present a young kid with a bleak road map. He may decide he'd rather go on to the next world rather than live the life you have foisted on him.

But Gay Inc. doesn't understand this. Instead of backing off, the gay movement probes even deeper into the middle schools and high schools of America, prompting kids to come out of the closet before they even have pubic hair. And gay leaders have declared war on any orthodox form of Christianity, thinking that Christian taboos are what cause young gays to kill themselves.

In Williamsville, New York, Christian taboos saved me from Jamie Rodemeyer's fate. I went to Catholic mass every week, sometimes several times a week. The Polish priests, most of whom were likely homosexual, gave me comfort and understanding. I confessed my sins to them, including my desires for boys. They didn't tell me I was going to Hell. They simply prayed for me and encouraged me to master my temptations. Their message was what I needed. Had someone delegitimized Christian faith to me in that tender state, then yes, I might have felt lost and despondent, even suicidal. Instead, I took the message to heart and gained control over my sex life long enough to get a BA in Political Science from an Ivy League school. 

And then, there were the poems of San Juan de la Cruz. A Polish priest who had learned Spanish in Central America knew that I was troubled by multiple things at once, so he gave me a booklet of San Juan's poems. Suddenly homosexuality took on new meaning for me, as I heard the voice of a sixteenth-century poet declaring his love for Jesus Christ in words that bordered on pornographic. I sat reading his love poems to Jesus in the front pew of a church on the West Side, looking up to gaze at Christ's muscular, gorgeous body hanging from the cross. Homosexuality wasn't anything new, I realized. Men had wrestled with it since the beginning of civilization. San Juan de la Cruz taught me to direct such feelings -- master them, but do not let them become the master of my soul. If homosexual desire could help a Christian visualize himself as the Bride of Christ, then the desire is a gift. And if you slip -- hey, there's Sunday confession.

I wonder what might have happened to Jamie Rodemeyer, had he lived my life instead of his. What if he had grown up in the conservative 1980s, when Christianity still held a certain moral force in people lives, and the power to reconcile oneself to difficult urges such as homosexuality? What if he contended with racism and a scorned family structure, which would have forced him to become tough and self-reliant as a young boy while also putting sexual desires in perspective? By 2011, when he walked the halls of Williamsville North High School, the gay movement had mocked, reviled, and debunked Christian answers to ancient problems, without coming up with any new answers that were anywhere as good. 

In researching Gilded Lilies, I realized the dark truth about the modern gay movement (after Stonewall). It is killing men who love men. On every indicator -- rates of depression, eating disorders, suicide, HIV contraction, drug addiction, loneliness, and anxiety -- men who love men are worse off than other men, and worse off then men who loved men forty years ago, before homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders. Openness, easy access, quick affirmation, and clear identities have not saved men who love men. These things are killing them.

The Dark Night of the Soul

In honor of Jamie Rodemeyer, I include below San Juan de la Cruz's "Dark Night of the Soul," with the Spanish and English interlaced.

I read this poem when I was Jamie's age.

Maybe if he had read it, he would have been drawn into the "dark night," thinking the poem was an encouragement to see death as liberation and peace. That is not how I read it. If Jamie read it that way, maybe he would have killed himself.

When I read the poem, I saw in the lines a different message: Death, it seemed to me, was finality. The permanence of death is sublime, ending any hope of revision or editorial changes to one's life. However it comes, it is destined to be beautiful, eventually. But the dark night of the soul, when one finally has to let go of this world and its physicality, is neither something to be taken lightly, nor something to rush into. 

When I was Jamie's age, I believed I had great things ahead--things to do, books to write, men to love, women to love, and most of all, children to father. The image of the lily at the end struck me as a symbol of the seed a man leaves behind in the form of children. Since I grew up in an era when people didn't obsess so much about homosexuality, it was not unusual for me to have messed around with boys but still see a wife and children in my future. I couldn't rush into the dark night of the soul, until I had finished what I came to this life for. 

But what would Jamie see in this poem? The world around him obsessed about sexuality and probably sent him the message that he would never be able to have a wife or father children of his own. Maybe, his mentors told him, he might adopt. But Jamie might have found such a scenario largely implausible -- first, to find a male partner in the mean marketplace of gay dating, then to contrive a custody arrangement, only to have to deal with a biological mother somewhere in the mix... It might not have been as compelling a draw to remain living, as marriage and fatherhood were for me in the closeted Reagan Era.

I don't know if Jamie ever read this poem. But I hope wherever he is resting, he hears it. It is meant for him.

Jamie Rodemeyer, Rest in Peace

La noche oscura, by San Juan de la Cruz

    Canciones del alma que se goza de haber llegado al
    alto estado de la perfección, que es la unión con Dios,
    por el camino de la negación espiritual.

Songs of the soul that rejoices at having arrived at the high state of perfection, which is union with God,
For the road of spiritual negation.

  En una noche oscura,
con ansias en amores inflamada,
(¡oh dichosa ventura!)
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.                     5

In a dark night
With rattled nerves in loves, so inflamed,
(!oh blessed journey!)
I set out without being noticed,
With my house already being put to rest.

  A oscuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfrazada,
(¡oh dichosa ventura!)
a oscuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.                     10

In darkness and yet safe,
By the secret mounting steps, disguised
(!oh blessed journey!)
in darkness and in ambush,
with my house already being put to rest.

  En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz ni guía                             
sino la que en el corazón ardía.                 15

In the blessed night,
In secret, that nobody could see me,
I gazed upon nothing
Except another kind of light, nor was I guided
But by the one that in my heart was burning.

  Aquésta me guïaba
más cierta que la luz del mediodía,
adonde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía,
en parte donde nadie parecía.                    20

That one that guided me
More certain than the light of noon
Where awaited me
The one whom I knew well, myself,
In a place where nobody else appeared.

  ¡Oh noche que me guiaste!,
¡oh noche amable más que el alborada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!                  25

Oh you the night that guided me!
Oh fair night,  sweeter than the sunrise!
Beloved man with beloved maid
Beloved maid in the beloved man transformed!

  En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.               30

In my breast, the blossoms,
What I bury for him alone is kept
There it stayed sleeping
And I bequeathed it to him
And the cedar branches fanned the air.

  El aire de la almena,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.                  35

The air of the battlements
When I arrayed your locks
With your peaceful hand
In my neck, was a wound,
And all my senses were numbed.

  Quedéme y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el amado,
cesó todo, y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.                     40

Place me here and forget about me,
I laid the cheek upon the beloved man,
All is ended – and leave me,
Leaving my worry
Between the lilies, a forgotten thing.