The Amazon Trail
Susan, We Hardly Knew You
By Lee Lynch
Photo: E. Mulligan
Can you imagine what it would have meant to a gay kid with writing ambitions to have known that Susan Sontag was a lesbian? My anger over our inflicted secrecy has no bounds. I didn't know, could only suspect, given the society we live in, that a person like Susan Sontag might be gay. Ms. Sontag had no expectation of making her proclivities known, probably couldn't fathom that possibility and, given the negative attitudes toward homosexuality when she first became a lover of women, why would she want to? Could she have achieved the intellectual stature she did if her orientation had been known?
I think of Ellen Degeneres and Rosie O'Donnell dancing with glee before hundreds of thousands of viewers, out as out can be, their comedy in full flower, riches piling up around them, respect and adulation surrounding them. But more, I think of the young dykes they have freed by being out, the permission they have given, by being their full selves, for all gay people to be ourselves.
As accomplished and influential as Susan Sontag, thinker, writer, human rights activist, was, I am saddened that she was silenced by a gay-hating culture. I wonder if her path would have been easier, her steps along it lighter, had she been born in the decades of the liberation movements, as Degeneres was. I wonder if we would have had those movements without her liberal insights expanding world culture. I wonder if it took hiding her private self to set the rest of us free?
As free as we can be as the year 2009 lumbers through its infancy. Israel is in Gaza, rooting out its oppressors. The vote that ended gay marriage is being challenged in California (thank goodness Del Martin lived long enough to marry Phyllis Lyon). Caroline Kennedy may, if she becomes a New York State senator, continue her family's broadminded dominion. As free as we can be at a time when a gay pride sticker on a car incites four males to attack a lesbian in the San Francisco Bay area or when two transgendered people are shot in Memphis, Tennessee.
I am so angry at a society that forced my unknown gay ancestors into closets. What a tragic waste of energy that any gay aunt had to spend even a moment of her time pretending to be straight - what's so incredibly great about being straight? What a horrifying waste of intelligence: inventing secrets in order to hide and, as a result, denying generations of gays our heritage.
We are a strong people: talented at survival; clever at making up lies; geniuses of disguise. If, ages ago, we could have combined the intellect of Sontag with the comedic joy of Degeneres and O'Donnell, we'd no longer be squandering energy climbing Sisyphean mountains of law to win birthrights assumed by non-gay North Americans.
Regardless, we have made great progress. That we can even be thinking of same gender marriage boggles my mind. Yet, as reported at On Top Magazine , strong forces want to take it all away: last month "...the Vatican said it opposed a United Nations resolution calling for the universal decriminalization of being gay. They said they feared it would lead to gay marriage... Sixty-six nations have signed on to the non-binding statement; not among them is the U.S."
The Vatican is not exactly a relevant institution for me, but it makes the rules for one of the largest religions on earth. The thinking it represents leads to exactly the emotionally tortured kind of lesbian relationships we can read about in Susan Sontag's newly published journals (Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Those relationships should be a thing of the past. Gays now should have a decent shot at healthy unions.
In my early years, the dominant culture taught me, all gays, to hide everything real about ourselves. Telling the truth was not an option; we had a heavy habit of dishonesty. Lies flew to my lips sooner than truth. I never knew what harm I was doing to others as well as to myself. Later we rebelled not just against the world that sought to repress us, but against our own disease of internalized homophobia. We were able to see the value of our humanity. When Ms. Sontag came out, how could she imagine that disclosing her sexual preference could have had as powerful and positive an effect as her mind?
Ah, Susan, thank you for your journals, for telling us your secrets. You demonstrate with your words how right they were to muzzle us. Openness is the gay world's most powerful tool for change. Your silence may have protected you, but revealing your lesbian self protects those who follow you.
© Lee Lynch 2009
Lee Lynch, Author of Sweet Creek from Bold Strokes Books
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