Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Becoming a Man (by Paul Monette)

Paul Monette begins his memoir (published in 1992) with a quote from a gay man, Walt Whitman:

I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Manahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or large that dents the water,
Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.

...And, from then on, it's one ass-kicking moment after another:

Forty-six now and dying by inches [Monette had AIDS], I finally see how our lives align at the core, if not in the sorry details. I still shiver with a kind of astonished delight when a gay brother or sister tells of that narrow escape from the coffin world of the closet. Yes yes yes, goes a voice in my head, it was just like that for me. When we laugh togehter then and dance in the giddy circle of freedom, we are children for real at last, because we have finally grown up. And every time we dance, our enemies writhe like the Witch in Oz, melting, melting--the Nazi Popes and all their brocaded minions, the rat-brain politicians, the wacko fundamentalists and their Book of Lies.


We may not win in the end, of course. Genocide is still the national sport of straight men, especially in this century of nightmares. And death by AIDS is everywhere around me, seething through the streets of this broken land. Last September I buried another lover, Stephen Kolzak--died of homophobia, murdered by barbaric priests and petty bureaucrats. So whether or not I was ever a child is a matter of very small moment. But every memoir now is a kind of manifesto, as we piece together the tale of the tribe. Our stories have died with us long enough. We mean to leave behind some map, some key, for the gay and lesbian people who follow--that they may not drown in the lies, in the hate that pools and foams like pus on the carcass of America.

...and, perhaps my favorite...

Vatican II castrated itself, and the rosy 60s are no more. A new Inquisition is in full cry, led by the rabid dog in brocade, Cardinal Ratzinger of the Curia, the malevolent divine who laid down the law that loving gay was a matter of "intrinsic evil." In the decade of the AIDS calamity I've come to see the church of the Polish pope as a sort of Greenwich Mean of moral rot--thus in my small way returning the compliment of Sturmfuhrer Ratzinger. Hardly a week goes by that we don't hear from the pope's minions in the colonies--O'Connor in New York, Mahony in L.A.--spewing their misogyny and homophobia, delirious with triumph that sex finally equals death.

...It's interesting to be a gay man in 2011, reading this not-so-distant account of the AIDS epidemic. Much has changed, thank God. Also, I think one of the many thrills I get in reading this memoir is: encountering the voice of a gay man who is not at all worried about seeming nice. May more of these voices start to be heard. (It's like spending an hour in the entertaining, unpredictable company of Larry Kramer.) ...Lastly, I'd like to point out that Monette did just what he set out to do. He left behind "some map, some key for the gay and lesbian people who follow." It's like the Bible for me--this account of one man's transformation from shit-eating, closeted ghost to warm-blooded human being. Monette begins as a talented, self-loathing crowd-pleaser who earns a spot at Yale. He hates his life and works very hard to seem straight. And, at some point in his twenties, he decides to drop the charade. He decides just to play the role of himself, and people notice and listen. "Becoming a Man" won the National Book Award...I first encountered it on the syllabus of a "History of AIDS" course when I was a talented, shit-eating Yale undergrad--just a few short years ago.


  1. my all time favorite book from my all time favorite author. how many times I return to the quote, "Yes, yes, yes. It was just like that for me" because in every area of my life that I have imagined I am different or alone, I have always found others, and the only way out is together.

  2. I agree--terrific book. Thanks for reading!