Seeing with Different Eyes
from In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld
One Saturday afternoon [in 1978] Toby Marotta and I were waiting for a bus at the corner of Castro and 18th, in the heart of San Francisco's best-known gay neighborhood. All around us were men intentionally projecting themselves sexually. It was a warm day for San Francisco and many had taken the excuse to discard unnecessary clothing. Guys wearing only cut-off jeans, some with skimpy T-shirts or tanktops, many bare-chested, were walking or leaning suggestively against lamp posts or buildings. They searched each passerby suggestively, invitingly.
This blatant sexuality upset me. While as a counterculturalist I considered myself liberated, I had very strong notions, many of them learned from the feminists I worked with at the Tenderloin Community Mental Health Clinic, about what kinds of behavior were "politically correct." I had notions developed during my experience as a monk about what kinds of behavior were "spiritually pure." And I had notions deriving simply from my own sexual sensibilities. Perhaps because of my political and religious background, I'd come to feel "superior" to people who seemed to me too concerned with their bodies.
Like most such feelings of superiority, I suppose, these were really just compensations for feelings of inadequacy. I've suffered from what might be called the "Woody Allen complex." I've wanted to look like a Robert Redford and to have people desire me for my masculine beauty. But the fact is that I don't look like Redford and do look more like Allen--or like Saint John of the Cross (I could never shake my monkishness). I have been more respected for my intelligence than desired for my beauty. I resented the sexual prowess and obvious good looks of the men walking along Castro Street. These were the homosexuals, I thought, who were supposed to be effete sissies, but here they were, almost all handsome, manly, and vital. Some of them put Robert Redford in the class with Woody and me. Yet for all their good looks, I did not see them as happy.
As I stood on the corner, I watched the men avoiding eye contact as they passed one another. They glanced furtively, looking away quickly when someone appeared to look back at them. They seemed almost afraid of being caught in the act of cruising. I recalled reports I had heard from clients at the Clinic of how they'd felt rejected and put down as they cruised Castro Street. I recalled their stories of the futile hunt for "Mr. Right," the fantasy lover. I recalled their acknowledgment of how such fantasies, based on particular kinds of sexual attractiveness or physical appearance, seemed to keep them imprisoned in only the most superficial assessments of people.
I thought about the myths of karma. I saw these men trapped in webs of their own unwitting design, rejecting and so being rejected because they were looking for a fantasy ideal that just didn't exist, looking for someone attractive and sexy yet missing out because, hoping for some ideal still more attractive and more sexy to come along, they passed up real opportunities.
I recalled my own experiences of walking down Castro Street and feeling invisible, unable to make civil eye contact with other walkers. I recalled the fears that I'd woven for myself a karmic web from which I could never escape. And I thought that the solution-what I often told my clients might bring them some relief-was to cut right through the karma by fleeing from this place.
I was feeling disgusted with all the impersonal sexuality I saw around me, yet struggling to feel compassion for the suffering homosexuals hiding behind their masks of pretended glamour. I remarked to Toby that if we could have some influence in the world, how wonderful and merciful it would be to free these suffering homosexuals from their imprisonment in the sexual ghetto.
Toby looked at me quizzically. "What suffering homosexuals?" he asked.
I described my perceptions of the surging crowd moving up and down Castro under the bright afternoon sun. Toby said he didn't perceive things that way at all. What he saw were liberated gay men, enjoying the sunny day, reveling in their sexuality, delighting in the beauty of their own and others' bodies, showing off to one another, sharing their delight, and exulting in their liberation.
"But whatabout all the sexual rejection and internalized self-hate?" I objected.
"That's the whole point," Toby replied. "These men are free from fear and self-loathing. They're not suffering queens and oppressed faggots. They're being natural and open in the styles the subculture has developed. They're behaving just like everybody else walking on a public street, acknowledging friends and acquaintances, noticing an attractive face now and then, but being pretty oblivious to the passing stream. Most of them aren't feeling sexual rejection because they're not out hunting sex. They're on their way to the supermarket or the drugstore.
"Of course, most of them are aware of the sexual tension in the air; they enjoy it; that's partly why they're out here today. Some of them are cruising for sex, especially the ones in the bars," he allowed. "But even then they're doing that because they enjoy the game; it's a sport, a way to spend a lazy afternoon. It's not all that serious to them."
Suddenly I felt in myself an odd change of consciousness. Just as switching the lights from a dim and cold blue to a bright and sunny amber can abruptly change the mood on a stage, so in my mind a filter switched. I saw what Toby was seeing and everything was different. Instead of a repressed demimonde, full of desperate, suffering, compulsively sexual homosexuals, I felt surrounded by gay community, full of natural, happy, liberated gay men. Instead of karma, liberation. I was astonished by how differently I experienced the world around me and how differently I experienced myself standing on that street corner.
"Why do you think they're desperate?" Toby asked, breaking into my astonishment.
I started to explain, but stopped myself, not wanting to spoil my vision. "Well, I don't know; your explanation of it all is much more appealing than mine.
Toby began explaining the liberationist politics to which he attributed the emergence of vital gay neighborhoods like the Castro. I listened half attentively, half noticing that the bus we wanted was coming, and half questioning what my sudden change of consciousness signified.
As we got settled on the bus, I was still feeling dismayed. We both fell silent as the bus motor, revving to carry us up the hill, drowned out our conversation. I was thinking about Toby's question. I saw the men on the street as desperate because that jibed with my own experience and the report of more than one person I'd talked to in and out of the Clinic. I wasn't only projecting my own prejudices or neurotic conflicts onto the scene. But Toby's version wasn't wrong either. Strangely, both perceptions were true. Both realities were present together, superimposed on one another.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One man's meat is another man's poison," I thought tritely. I recalled the Buddhist saying that the unenlightened live in an unenlightened world, the bodhisattvas live in a bodhisattva world, buddhas live in a buddha world.
The bus crested the hill and started down the other side. The motor groaned as the clutch engaged to slow us down for the steep descent. After a couple of stops it was time to transfer to another bus. I began to explain to Toby, after we'd alighted, how the universe must be very amorphous, never fixed or solid, how it must be that both my clients' reports and his description were equally true.
Toby did acknowledge that there were people in the Castro who were suffering and who did feel the burden of years of homophobic indoctrination and who spread their unhappiness to others. But he wouldn't agree with me that the truth was so arbitrary. He insisted that he could scientifically document his perception. In fact, he said, he was beginning to through his research.
He did allow, however, that metaphysically my point might be valid, and that as a therapist it was logical for me to focus on the experience of those needing help. It became clear to me that my goal in therapy should be to change the clients' perceptions so that what looked to them like a world of misery became instead a world of happiness. Obviously, when people perceive the world as desperate, hostile, unfulfilling, and sick, they tend to act out those qualities and to create around them that kind of world, for themselves and for others.
The conversation continued all through dinner. By the time he left for home, Toby and I had agreed that the way to change things was to see the world with different eyes so that instead of vulgar and threatening it appeared benign and supportive.
From In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld: A Mystical Journey (Morrow, 1983) by Edwin Clark Johnson.