Talking of Michelangelo
Becoming a titan of Western art is never easy —nor, it seems, is achieving equality.
We’re all adults, right? I can talk freely?
This is the speed-dating portion of the story, so let me just dump everything on you all at once and confess — and this may represent the “deal-breaker” — I’m gay.
You know. “That” way. Artistic. Theatrical. A flick off the old limp wrist. Wearer of white socks. Swishy, lispy, queer, camp. A poofter, a nancy boy, a ponce. A friend of Dorothy. Whoever that is, and should she need another.
And it’s Gay Pride, and I’m 60, all of which combine to create, I’m awfully pleased to note, the ultimate, full-bore all about me scenario.
So let’s get started!
What was it like to be gay back in the ’60s and ’70s, when I was growing up? Everything was just peachy until 1969, when, for the record, I was a precocious 14-year-old with floppy blond hair, early version hot-pants and a 24-hour-a-day hard-on, attributes which, at 60, and usually minus the hot-pants, have approximately reversed themselves.
(And for those of you for whom history begins with the appearance of Lady Gaga, mentions of “Stonewall” refer to our gay watershed moment, in 1969, when patrons of an illegal, Mafia-run gay bar in New York City, tired of police harassment, fought back, precipitating a gorgeously dramatic full-blown riot and giving lie to the notion that the queer community can never agree on anything, because that was the night we did.
Weird coincidence: Judy Garland died the same day, adding a dollop of high tragedy, not to mention her finest moment of theatrical one-upmanship, to the proceedings. And please don’t ask “Judy who?”, we’ll be here for hours.)
Well, then. Until 1969, you lived your life like anyone else did: Going to school, riding your bike, playing whatever sports were suitable to the season, except curling; taking out the garbage, raking leaves and shoveling snow; listening to Ethel Merman in “Gypsy” and watching new episodes of “I Love Lucy”. It was nice.
Of course, there was that little extra task, of keeping under wrap the shameful secret of your terminal faggotry, your vileness, your perversion, your queerness; of containing the malevolent genie of deviance who, should he escape, would — with one twitch of his nelly, Arabian Nights curly-toed slippers — compel your parents to throw you out, or possibly declare you dead, depending on what passed for god’s tough love in their chosen rite; force your friends to abandon you, utterly, in disgust (unless you’d already gotten drunk on Baby Duck and made a sloppy pass at the latest target of your free-floating man crush, which meant you’d have to leave Dodge City anyway); and ensure your condemnation to an eternity of various fiery and hideously ironic tortures in the innermost circle of Homo Hell.
Otherwise, it was all pretty low-key.
Social life for gay men was similarly pared down. There were in fact two options.
To meet someone in the conventional manner, if you’d managed to work out that there was probably another one to meet, you went to a gay bar, often just a regular men’s tavern that either “tolerated” you or hadn’t clued in yet that there were cuckoos sashaying all over the nest.
If you were lucky enough to live in a big city, there would be a bona fide, dedicated gay bar, where you could butch it up or camp it up, drink cocktails instead of beer and tomato juice, and listen to your preferred music, even dance.
This was like attending gay university and getting your credentials for a lifetime of alcoholism and Eartha Kitt albums, a surprisingly popular career track.
Or, second option, there was meeting someone in a public washroom — the microwave method, as it were. Quick and dirty, this made up in sheer outlaw terror, speed and quantity what it lacked in anything approaching your preferred candlelight-Champagne-Swan Lake vibe or attentive quality, demonstrating once and for all that the genie in the bottle was actually that genial but unruly fellow between your legs; and that the nuns had been right all along for insisting on “hands above the covers” (though how on earth did they know?).
If you are aware of the tendency of gay men in those days to sit at home after dinner enduring the screech-issimo of Maria Callas, or getting all weepy on gin, acting out the entire party scene from “All About Eve” then deliberately botching a suicide attempt, these two options were why.
This, then, was pre-Stonewall, and our protective coloring, developed over centuries, was chameleon-perfect. All we required was no rocking of our tiny, exquisitely decorated life rafts. After Stonewall and its rioting drag queens, as if there were any other kind, and the emergence of “Gay Lib”, came the abrupt loss of our camouflage and underground status.
Or, second option, there was meeting someone in a public washroom — the microwave method, as it were. Quick and dirty, this made up in sheer outlaw terror, speed and quantity what it lacked in anything approaching your preferred candlelight-Champagne-Swan-Lake vibe or attentive quality, demonstrating once and for all that the genie in the bottle was actually that genial but unruly fellow between your legs; and that the nuns had been right all along for insisting on “hands above the covers” (though how on earth did they know?).
If you are aware of the tendency of gay men in those days to sit at home after dinner enduring the screech-issimo of Maria Callas; or getting all weepy on gin, acting out the entire party scene from “All About Eve” then deliberately botching a suicide attempt, these two options were why.
This, then, was pre-Stonewall, and our camouflage, developed over centuries, was chameleon-perfect. All we required was no rocking of our tiny, exquisitely decorated life rafts. After Stonewall and its rioting drag queens, as if there were any other kind, and the emergence of “Gay Lib”, came the abrupt loss of our protective coloring and underground status.
Now we needed to cope with our fabulous new problem: For with a sudden flare of police searchlights and a sounding of emergency sirens outside an obscure Greenwich Village bar, we had been rendered visible, like helpless specimens of exotic small game chased from their dens, easy pickings for the hunters’ clubs and nets.
Without rights, respect, dignity — without a flicker of understanding or compassion — our Pyrrhic victory had won for us a “freedom” that could only be endured, not yet lived.
At least now, with our new visibility, we could be certain of one thing: that the people who’d called us “vile” really did mean it, after all. They really, really did.
Around this time, say, 1972, butch, simpatico spinster aunts and “funny” unmarried uncles were wont to issue the following, well-meant pep talk:
“Don’t worry, dear. You know, Michelangelo was gay!”
(This was like getting everything you wanted for Christmas compared to my mother’s war cry, “You don’t have to flaunt it, you know!”, a cry which squeezed every last drop of blood out of the brief emotional trajectory from thinly-veiled hysteria to aneurysm.)
Michelangelo was gay. What could this possibly mean? Why were they telling us this? Was it one of those too-clever adult jokes? A precursor to another one of those “talks”? We waited for the next dusty maiden-aunt kiss, the next funny-uncle pinch, and sure enough: Michelangelo was gay.
Perplexity. Paranoia, even. We mulled it over, and we mulled, and we re-mulled, and we mulled yet again. Michelangelo. Gay. It was opaque, like a door opening onto another door. Mull, mull. Was it a meme? A Zen koan? Was this a coded set of instructions, our top secret dossier?
Our — assignment?
The code was cracked, the penny dropped.
Michelangelo… ! Gay… ! Of course! How could we not have seen this!
The air that morning — how well I remember it! — was filled with the thwacking sound of moist palms hitting foreheads, and once we’d all clucked our tongues at each other, rolling our eyes as if to say, “Isn’t that just like silly old we?”; after the final reverberations of our silvery, self-deprecating laughter and our abashed chuckles had faded, we knew what was expected of us and we did not flinch.
That was the day we rolled up our sleeves, preparatory to becoming, one and all — yes! — Michelangeli, titans of western art! Talk about destiny!
No eyelash that moment but that was touched by a single, crystalline tear.
This was not going to be easy — no mere stroll in the Giardino Bardini for us! — but in our hearts we knew that soon, perhaps in only a few, short, soul-destroying decades, we would stand proudly beside you — or possibly in a separate-but-despite-what-you-might-think-more-or-less-equal-ish part of the building, so no one would get upset that we were in the same room as them, but still — !
With the god-given artistic flair of gay men, and the rustic, overly-equipped tool belts of our lesbian sisters, we would, take damn well what it may, claim our rightful place in the queue at Sobeys with the rest of you.
And so began the fight for equality. Ish.
We admit, the stress got us down at times. We chafed, oh yes. We had our moments of envy.
How lucky you heterosexuals were to have no pressure greater than to be accountants, used-car salesmen, Pittman shorthand secretaries, nuclear physicists! No goal weighing on you heavier than cleaning lady, teacher, nurse or captain of industry!
We began to detest the responsibility we had shouldered; on our darkest days we feared the struggle had substituted for the victory. Such bitter arguments with the Pope, those unending negotiations with the Medici! The backbreaking work on the Sistine Chapel, the mountain of invoices for Carrara marble — hell, the non-union lavoratori — !
The sheer frustration might have crippled less enterprising, less determined minorities, but — little Michelangeli to the person, triumph we did.
Flow! Flow, crystalline tears!
And all those museums around the world, not to mention the airport gift shops and eBay stores, filled fit to bust with our iconic masterworks and the tawdry knock-offs thereof, well —I hate to brag, but I think that speaks for itself.
As does the miniature “Statue of David” on my bedside table. You know, the lamp-ashtray combo, with the built-in alarm clock. ~