“You’re going to meet the most extraordinary men, the sexiest, brightest, funniest men, and you’re going to fall in love with so many of them, and you won’t know until the end of your life who your greatest friends were or your greatest love was.”
When Sean Penn, acting in the character of Harvey Milk, said this to one of his young gay assistants in the award-winning 2008 film Milk, I was deeply disturbed. I was watching the movie with a friend, and he seemed to be particularly taken by this line: “that’s a beautiful thought,” he said. I was similarly struck by it, but in quite a different way. I said, “Wow, that’s depressing!”
The vision Penn describes is that of a life of love, one filled with filled with friendship, romance, and joy. It’s a fluffy, light-hearted, attractive sentiment, and it probably closely corresponds to the attitudes of many in the gay community. Yet, digging deeper, his statement also connotes a life of shiftless, inconstant, probably misdirected love, one of serial monogamy or polyamory, at the end of which there is nothing and no one left. All that remains is “you,” contemplating indecisively on the past. In a life like Milk describes, we can’t even figure out which loves were the greatest, which friends were the dearest--they all blend into the whirlwind of our existence and eventually disappear. Is that really the kind of life we should all aspire to, hopping from one bed to another, never finding a true, ‘greatest’ love, never settling on and keeping one true friend?
For many people, that kind of lifestyle works well for them, and kudos to them for having figured out how to enjoy what seems to have become the accepted norm. For me and some of the people I know, however, Milk’s vision may be (or become) their reality but not reflective of their values or their goals.
I’m thinking of one gay friend in particular; his name is Farid. We are fairly new friends, having NOT met on the website I have described in many previous posts (and as such I was notably more intrigued and relaxed in getting to know him). When we started talking, I felt instantly connected to him. He is not only one of the most physically beautiful men I’ve had the pleasure to meet, but he also has a wonderful personality. With time he modestly revealed to me a very rich and contemplative intelligence. Over the last few months, I have gladly let many hours slip by while talking to him, happy to lose track of time while learning about him and his life and soaking up what he has to say. He is in his forties (like most of my friends, quite frankly), a man with many life experiences and the philosophic spirit to show for them. His eyes, full of tenderness and friendship, also betray a haunting discontent and sadness.
I always knew that Farid was both something of an optimist and a pessimist about gay life. He came here as a mature adult from a culture where homosexuality was strongly suppressed and gay life virtually nonexistent. Unable to confront his sexuality in this environment, he never had an opportunity to explore his love for men until he came to Canada. He’s an optimist in that he continues to put himself out there, fully out there, not ever hesitating to love. While opposed to the drugs and drinking scene, he enjoys going out to gay establishments (one in particular) to dance, and he has formed some truly great friendships with people he’s met in the gay community. As a consequence, his romantic/sexual identity has, whether he admit it or not, become a significant part of who he is. He genuinely wants a life of love, one with another man to cherish. No matter how discouraged he may be when things don’t work out, he knows he’s meant to love another man, and this fact continues to motivate him. The ‘right person’ is out there, Farid believes, and he won’t stop until he finds that special guy. Whoever he is, he will be a very lucky man.
All of this I’ve known for a while. However, Farid’s feelings of anger and despair, the pessimism that I am more inclined to prescribe to myself, was something I didn’t expect to hear out of him. Recently, he described to me, in more detail than ever before, the story of his romantic life, one that closely reflects the lifestyle Milk/Penn so proudly offered to his gay followers. He told me how, when he first got involved with a man, he thought that his “chum” would be the person he would cultivate a relationship with for the rest of his life. Farid had sex with this first boyfriend, but things eventually fell apart, and Farid couldn’t understand why. The disappointment was real and penetrating but not daunting, for eventually Farid was back on the playing field. He would meet a man, become his ‘chum,’ have sex with him, enjoy his company, even sometimes move in with him. And each time they would drift apart, often in a matter of months (max a year or two) for one reason or another. He told me that this happened so many times (and continued until recently), to the point that it became all he expected. The strongly sex-centred nature of the gay community/culture, and its members while enveloped in it, he believes encourages this kind of romantic superficiality. At a point, he found himself meeting guys and being persuaded to have sex almost immediately, followed by a complete collapse of the incipient relationship after one or two rolls in the hay. A religious man with a strong appreciation for tradition, he was disgusted by his behaviour and that of the people around him. These were not his values or beliefs, which he felt had been debased. In fact, he used that same haunting expression that Michel (see “A Virus with a Face”) employed to describe the night he was infected with HIV—“I lost myself.” But unlike Michel, there was a clear sense of regret in Farid’s crisp, intense, fast-paced French. He repeated it over and over again—“I lost myself, I really lost myself, my values, the very person that I am. I couldn’t continue like that.”
One of his great passions and goals in life was to love a man, but instead he was having sex without ever knowing the closeness and lasting intimacy that he sought. On recounting his story, he went so far as to conclude that he’s “had enough of sex.” To qualify this sentiment, Farid noted that the few times he was able to establish a longer-term relationship, he was happy to have less sex so as to work on building a deeper connection. He further expressed a great appreciation for heterosexual lifestyle, in which children often form a strong foundation to a relationship and force both parties to mature and redefine their priorities. He correspondingly posed the question, “what is there between two guys to make them grow and evolve similarly with each other?” Furthermore, after years of experience, he has come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible to build the kind of relationship he was looking for in the gay culture that he knows, which focuses too much on the “sex” in sexual orientation/identity (of course, I must qualify that he is referring more to the gay male culture). He went on to say, “the gay culture is truly the poorest and most miserable on this earth; it isn’t even a culture, it’s an attitude, and an ugly one at that. You and me, we’re not lucky.”
Normally I’d argue, rationalize, and grapple with what Farid has to say, picking apart his arguments and putting them to greater scrutiny. However, this time I want his story stand alone in this article, just as he describes it. His words are true to his experience, something that he has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about. Gay life has been cruel to him in many ways, from his inability to live freely before coming to Canada to the maddening disappointment once he was finally able to express his love for men. However, what I find most striking is the paradox between his words and his actions. While his story suggests that he has lost hope for finding a meaningful relationship in the gay community, he hasn’t. In fact, he told me, “I am like you, a scientist, I’m testing a new hypothesis.” He’s now trying to forge a common bond with romantic partners on a spiritual and intellectual (values) basis first, putting these above other considerations. And he has found a new romantic interest in this regard, a kind Mexican man he hopes to start a relationship one day! If that strategy toward building a relationship doesn’t work out, he said “I’ll move on to the next hypothesis.”
To conclude with a neo-Platonist sentiment, his passionate desire has clearly pushed him to continue the good fight and strive toward that higher love he has in his mind's eye and deep in his heart. As for me, I too cannot resolutely condemn my sexual identity, even after absorbing his story (and others’) and experiencing my own disappointments. If I and he weren’t gay, we would never have met and become friends, and to me that would have been a far greater travesty.