Who are the Gay People?

John Burnside

This essay appears in A Radical Fairy's Seedbed, ed. Bradley Rose.

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What are they Like?

First, I want to make clear that I am using the term Gay to refer to homosexuals who, on realizing that they turn naturally to others like themselves for sex and for love, have come eventually to acknowledge and to welcome the fuller implications of their way. Also, as Gay people tend to dislike being put into categories of any sort, including being called Gay, I want to emphasize that I use Gay to mean precisely those who have firmly resisted being forced into one or other of the two categories that are thought to comprise the whole human race. Lastly, I wish no one to think that when I impute certain qualities to Gay people I deny them to others. What I hope to show is how a syndrome of interwoven talents and traits make up a strongly distinctive Gay nature. In this I draw especially upon the Radical Faeries. These are Gay people who gather together to explore the many dimensions of Gay consciousness. The statements about Gay people I make here are in large part a distillate of Faerie wisdom.

I think that the best way to begin to tell who the Gay people are is to tell who they are not. They are not men and women. I am using the words man and woman to refer to the social constructs. To Gay consciousness a "man" is a stereotype, typified, for example, by John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger and adhered to more or less faithfully by any number of our uncles or dads or brothers. If you are a man, there are lots of prohibitions you must accept. There are words you must use very sparingly or not all; there are ways of standing and walking and motions of the arms, hands, and body that you must avoid at all cost as they would brand you instantly. You must never weep; indeed, about the only emotion you may show freely is anger. There are subjects you must not show even a slight interest in: poetry, ballet, fashion, body adornment, any field of thought appropriate to women, and so on. There are things you must show heartfelt dedication for: competitive sports, making money, hunting and fishing, business success, fame, dominance, and so on. Any boy who shows enthusiasm for interests not sufficiently connected with being a man is at once suspect. He probably will be dubbed a "sissy" at the least sign of deviance and if he persists, a "fag." He maybe subjected to great pressure, including violence, to pull him back into line or to keep him subordinated as one who is "less than male." His life can be hell up through high school, but he may spring back to his natural form when freed from peergroup pressures at long last.

Feminists have written eloquently of the kind of repression a woman, especially a Gay one, is made to undergo. Much of it is as coarse and blatant as that imposed on men but more of it is insidious and equivocal, making it even more difficult to get out from under. I have no doubt that the obstacles overcome by a Gay woman in reclaiming her true self are beyond anything I know, and I love my Dyke friends especially for their rock-firm independence of mind and heart.

Refusing to be products of the man/woman-making machine, Gay people must undertake to create themselves. Having no models to imitate, Gay people are free to adopt what they like from among the many ways there are to be. They search everywhere for promising leads, and, like spiritual magpies they take what they like from any system of religion or philosophy without feeling obliged to take the whole of it. Gay people continue to work on themselves all their lives, moving from stage to stage, growing in spirit, living in change, and rejoicing in being themselves.

But what of the society within the walls of total conformity? Who are these "men" and "women" in whom spontaneity is displaced by machine-like ritualizations? They represent specializations evolved over eons under selection pressures both biological and social that have shaped them into forms that assure their acceptance in tribal society and access to the resources of the group. For the male the archetype is the hunter-warrior, specialized for killing and for conflict. For the female the archetype is the bearer of young, specialized to nurture and preserve. Today, the hunter wrests bounty from nature by ruthless exploitation of natural resources, while the warrior carries weapons of absolute destruction. And the female, who is still expected to nurture and maintain, finds her powers as preserver mocked and overwhelmed.

Looking at these types, a Gay person of today asks why, in a world so polluted, so overpopulated, and in such grave danger of annihilation, since alternatives are still available for study among tribal people surviving in parts of the world where Stone Age conditions still in part prevail, the ancient archetypes have not been carefully examined and their meaning embodied in new forms. He asks of the men why the powers and strengths of the warrior are not employed against the forces of genuine evil that pervade the world and why as hunter the man is not custodian of nature, protector and enhancer of her bounty rather than waster and destroyer.

Since the Gay ones are by their nature directed away from heterosexual imperatives, it makes no sense to them to be specialized for a role in reproduction or for any role, for that matter. Why indeed are men and "women" necessary? Why cannot everyone simply release energy for the task at hand, guided by compassion and good sense? Gay people work in every field without feeling the need to form a personal identity from their work. To themselves, they are not defined by their occupation or family role or by fame or achievements. They conceive of themselves as pure consciousness active in a real world they help to create.

The concerns of those who maintain the institutions of society and bear and raise the children are necessarily centered on self and projections of self. Gay concern is focused outward. The human capacity for love that shows itself in the devotion and self-sacrifice of those who bring forth young and provide a steady nest for them finds its expression in Gay people in service. Gays are overwhelmingly present in fields ranging from the most intimately personal to the most global in reach, with special emphasis on the spiritual. Gays function superbly as mediators, confidants and advisers, historians, poets, artists, philosophers, mathematicians, healers, and teachers, and in each of these fields they are typically innovators and explorers.


What are they like, these Gay people?

Well, the ones I know best are at ease with themselves and with others. They are merry and loving, gentle and open. They are not dogmatic, judgmental, domineering, argumentative nor manipulating, nor do they respond to others who may try to engage them at such levels. They are laughing people, and equally ready with tears. They are very bright and witty, and they love good talk. In talk they place no restrictions on the range of their voices, love to giggle, will scream with astonishment and pretend dismay or swoon with mock embarrassment, and they are constantly acting out and giving wicked impersonations. I have never heard small talk among them, and they are always ready for intensely serious discourse. They love digression and are masters at it, almost never failing to return to the main concern. They love theater, and they are marvelously responsive audiences. They find delight in being alive and have a tremendous capacity for enjoyment.

They are great creators of fantasy, yet they strive always to be rooted thoroughly in reality. Life to them is for love and for play. They love non-possessively, with full regard for the whole being of another. They are ruled by their hearts as by their minds, and their first response to those they encounter is compassionate. Play means in Gay consciousness living every moment at its highest potential. For them the play of feeling and imagination is primary in all things, but a main thrust of their gift for creativity is expressed in what they call their projects. A project is something that one has dreamed up and has launched on its way to being realized. Most Gay people have several projects, with some on the back burner and one or more at any given time getting close attention.

These traits and qualities that Gay people show may well be those qualities of human nature that all people have if they are not deeply identified with and constrained in roles. Roles channel the energy of impulse into rigid preformed pathways. People are drawn into roles to gain power, possessions, and predominance, where they spend their lives in struggling over these with one another. As outcasts, Gays have the opportunity to learn that beyond basic necessities possessions are burdensome and dominance is only a puffing of ego. If a Faerie values money it is because money is useful to pay rent and fund projects. Power to control others is odious to him, and showing off would be a tedious waste of time. He dislikes and avoids rivalry and competition and is as disdainful of authority and rank in others as he is to letting himself be blindly followed. Renouncing these "rewards" means that the Gays have no hidden intent in relating to others; they can be trusted. As they decline to compete, they are no threat. Yet their many gifts make them valued counselors to the powerful. This is why Gay people so often walk where angels fear to tread!

A Faerie likes best to be among other Faeries, but every Faerie I know has a group of people who are not Gay with whom he shares an unbreakable bond. These are people of integrity and spirit whom he values and supports as they do him. A Faerie relates to others subject to subject so far as the others will meet him there. With children, animals, trees, and living things generally Faeries feel a close affinity. Faeries are most at home in a natural setting and they draw strength from nature.

The spirit of the Gay people is very evident in these times when, because of AIDS, death walks among us with terrible insistence and asks his awful question, asks who you really are. If I am he who built up a pile of power, ego, wealth, and status, I know death will take it all, but if I have made myself of things eternal like beauty and love, truth and laughter, the best part of me will never die. The famous AIDS quilt is surely one of the most moving and spontaneous creations of a people ever seen. Each cell of the quilt emits a light deriving from the singular beauty and indomitable spirit of one person, and the conjoining of seemingly infinitely many of these creates a field of surpassing beauty that glows of the tough yet tender love that makes of all Gay people one. The quilt celebrates the bursting through vast sadness of a light that death has been unable to smother. It affirms the great purpose that informed those individual lives and that will always be carried through, no matter what the pain, by Gay people: to be real, to be loving, and to reach for the best. the most joyous, and the deepest levels of experience that life can offer.


Where do they Come From?

If gay people (with a small "g") are those who turn in love and sexual yearning to people of their own sex, Gays are gay people of spirit who take seriously the verdict of their contemporaries who reject them for being "different" and set forth to discover the joys and satisfactions of who they really are.

The crown of Gay being is a way of loving, of reaching to love in a way that far transcends the common mode. This way of loving is based upon the deep understanding that one can have of another who is like oneself, of forming with another, subject to subject, an extended being whose wing spread is more than the sum of its parts. The Gay capacity for this way of relating derives from homosexual orientation, through which the "normal" principle of rivalry, conflict, and competition towards others of the same sex may be suspended and its place taken by erotic attraction. Conversely, Gays can extend deep love to others of opposite sex in friendship that, unclouded by the strain of sexuality, enables a Gay man with a woman friend to see her as she really is and with true appreciation of her value. Heterosexuality is cast quite otherwise, at least in its usual form, but women heterosexuals have said at times that they too aspire to this kind of love. By extension, Gays find it natural to extend subject to subject relating to all others who can respond in like manner. Walt Whitman based his hope for democracy on this kind of love uniting all citizens, and Jesus's admonition to love your neighbor as (nobly) you love yourself seems strongly to suggest it.

Every Gay person is unique, since each works to fulfill and develop the necessarily individual qualities every human being possesses at birth. Not that a movement of the spirit that is so radical is accomplished all at once or from the start with full grasp of its meaning. For many Gay people, if not most, this search entails great suffering, alone and without support or sympathy, against pressures directed against the very inner forces that for Gays constitute reach and growth. Their offering of same-sex love alarms and distresses those for whom distance, competition, and conflict are the proper way of relating. Their resistance to being shaped into man or woman of acceptable type arouses resentment. Because their respect for the being of others gives rise in them to a loving concern for animals, plants, and all living things, the "normal" practices of hunters and the unfeeling destruction of natural environment grieve them deeply. To survive physically, Gays must study the others and learn to imitate them; to survive spiritually, they must find a path that differs radically and learn to inhabit very different worlds.

Gays set out very early to uncover the resources of the environment. While regular little boys are practicing to achieve skills in throwing and catching balls and little girls are learning to nurture dolls, Gays wander about in search of a wider world. Often they find resources in the opposite sex and its preoccupations. They test the various adults they have access to, and sometimes they find an aunt or uncle who senses that this one is somehow special and gives covert support. They soon learn that the old people are a great source of love gone a-begging. Nearly every one of us recalls a teacher who opened doors for us along the way. Sometimes a wise elder of the family, often a grandmother, would create space for the odd little one so intent on strange interests and undertakings. Overwhelmingly, it was to books that our adventure turned, and with what wonder and delight! Books not only opened a whole world to explore, they revealed as well a great realm of creativity: plays to draft the other kids to put on, poetry to speak and write, pictures to inspire great thoughts and deeds.

Many Gay people remember childhood as a time of so much pain that they avoid trying to recall their early days; yet despite unending harassment it was then that they laid the basis of their eventual apotheosis, and it was then that they first showed the major qualities that characterize Gay people: the capacity for love radiating freely to people of both sexes and to living things generally, in a world that so often seems to delight in cruelty; the sympathy and knowledge that make Gays outstanding counselors and mediators; the refusal to accept rewards offered for conformity in place of the right to criticize and to explore the ineffably alluring world outside of boundaries; the capacity to move without the approval of peers, to be unconcerned for "fitting in"; and the self-reliance and the independence of spirit that is the hallmark of Gay nature.

The Gays are those who refuse to give up their childhood honesty and eagerness for experience. Not attracted by money, power, or status as rewards for conforming to mass mores, they devote their energies to their main pursuit, which I believe could be summed up as living life at its highest potentials. Gays spend the time mainly in creative activities. Their pleasure is in work, which for them is play, insofar as it is work on what they often refer to as their projects, and Gays are in fact remarkably gifted, often with talents in several different fields.

When they stop to examine their relationship to the world around them, Gays are wont to exclaim, "I love being Gay!" Looking at the processes of the world as beings not immersed in it nor caught in its delusions, they find great amusement in the self-importance of the many, who are as unconscious of the source of their desires as they are of the inevitably frustrating outcomes of their actions. Gays feel they may call every belief to question, move as the spirit beckons, for they answer not to presumptuous authority nor custom nor even law but only to an inner love and deep concern. As to authority and public opinion, remembering that their dream of love of their early years was deemed to be vile, they grant themselves perpetual release from obligation to these and unceasingly search worldwide for right ways of being.

Best of all, to my mind, is the multidimensional freedom to love that Gay people claim as their right. One such love very special to them is the love for dear friends of the opposite sex. Equally wonderful is the bond they make with nongay people who have won their way to clarity of mind by struggles of their own and who join forces with their Gay friends in glad recognition. There is also the special delight of very many Gay people with children, whom they recognize as kindred souls, remembering what great need they had as children to be allowed to grow in the ways natural to them. Gay people recognize that children are real persons and treat them so. Delightful beyond compare is the love that is possible for them with their chosen mates, love that values the true self of the other equally with oneself. For closest to every Gay heart is to be fully one's very own true self. Love that honors this exultation is ultimate fulfillment.

In genetic terms, I feel that Gay people concentrate in themselves hereditary traits whereby humans, who tend otherwise to be rigidly conservative of their hard-won cultural gains, are able to gain space in which to move in new directions and adapt old ways to new requirements and possibilities. But there is more than biology at work in this, we are more than our genes, for just as each of the arts is an instance of the breaking away of a human faculty from service to survival needs in order to provide means for expression of spiritual life, so Gay people are divorced from reproduction of the species to become agents of discovery of new ways of loving and of new freedoms of the human mind.

Some gays deny that they are different, save in the one way which they, though few others, consider to be of small import--their homosexuality--but I believe that Gays are so very different from the mainstream as to constitute a distinct ethnic group. They have a language of their own and their own lively society with its distinctive ways and rituals. Their tendency is to be both critics and innovators and to be concerned with revival and with conservation of important cultural values. Their work in the world is highly valued albeit illnaturedly received if they are known to be Gay. Their spiritual life suffuses all they do. They seek no guidance from authority but make continual reference to inner vision and insight. They dislike equally to be ruled by others as to be rulers themselves. These and many other shared traits constitute a vital bond of kinship for Gays, and they have deep need for the company of one another. Being too long in the regular world is for them spiritually exhausting. I think most Gay people show many of these qualities, and I have not met one who lacked them altogether.

In the traditional life of the Zuni Indians, as Will Roscoe has shown, children that were seen to be different from the others in these ways were freed from the usual obligations assumed upon maturity and allowed to choose the fields in which they would make their own contributions. If our society were to awake to its benefactors, Gay children would be given such freedom as a matter of course. If Gay people could be made aware early of who they are and what a unique destiny is theirs if they would grasp it, many more would find their way to realization of their special powers and responsibilities.

John Burnside is lifelong partner of Gay Movement Founder Harry Hay. The above essay appears in A Radical Fairy's Seedbed, ed. Bradley Rose. (available from Nomenus, P.O. Box 70358, SF, CA 94117). Used with permission.


Last update Dec 15 2000