Somehow over these years of kissing men myself, even as my mind has expanded beyond pornography (not to mention the chaste substitutes of my teen years), I neglected to notice Quentin Crisp – and, now, I’m severely disappointed that I didn’t bother to see him perform in my first years in New York, his last on Earth.
Watching An Englishman In New York whet my appetite for this incredibly witty, insanely droll and insidiously insightful raconteur, and I have spent quite a few hours this week researching his life and work and watching more movies and clips about him. As antiquated as he was in so many aspects, there was something so decidedly modern about him, and in many ways, ahead even of our time.
There is so much to take in on first glance of Crisp – particularly for one who had confused him with Oscar Wilde. It’s rare to see such an effeminate man, even in the queenier circles of New York, and it’s even rarer to see that kind of effeminate man.
Quentin Crisp did not embody some campy version of femininity and he certainly didn’t embody any kind of common gay aesthetic. He was a total individual in any time and in any scene. He spoke of having lived out his personality at the age of 68 (he lived to be 90) and described “the clock [stopping]” — how he was frozen in who he was all those years. I’ve heard it said by many gay men that such extreme flamboyance, especially as practiced and pronounced as Crisp’s, is an outdated form of expression by a marginalized group of people with no pride and no healthy way to exist as themselves. Even Quentin Crisp explained his dressing womanly and wearing make-up, etc. as the way he made himself openly gay, to remove the question so that, whatever the outcome, everyone would be sure of who he was at first glance.
I relate to that so much. I know that part of my motivation for the flamboyance in my personality (besides my innately somewhat effeminate disposition) has always been to remove that question – as if I’m just more comfortable in a world where I always know that everyone knows I’m gay. I think one of the things that was most difficult about my childhood was feeling invisible, like I didn’t fit in and yet no one noticed. There were the inevitable well-intended comments: “When you’re older and you start dating girls…” “When you find a wife and start having children…” I longed for a tattoo on my forehead proclaiming “queer.”
Most people are not gay and being around them without them knowing that I’m gay makes me feel like I’m keeping a secret, something shameful. Yet it’s awkward to constantly out yourself. Straight people don’t have to announce that they are straight. I think I sought out ways to negate the issue, to let my behavior, my mannerisms be the queer tattoo. People could accept it or reject it, but I wouldn’t have to feel I was hiding anything. Feeling open, I feel good. So years ago, I embraced my gayness and, as I’ve made my way in the world, I’ve let my “faggot” flag fly.
Now as the world changes, I see a younger generation with very different attitudes toward gender roles and sexuality and a more fluid approach to individuality, a move away from labels. And, of course, I am far closer in age to those kids than I am to Quentin Crisp. But a lot has changed very quickly since the Sexual Revolution and then AIDS, and I came into the world right in the middle of all that – not on the other side of it. This is what makes me a New Old Gay.
One of the recurring themes in Crisp’s work was the idea of the “great, dark man” who doesn’t exist. The idea was that he, and presumably most gay men, long for a strong, mysterious person to carry them away, like a handsome prince, and that the conundrum was this desire for a masculine man who would cease to be masculine if he actually loved Crisp back – masculine men don’t love other men.
I’ve been wondering how this plays out for me, and for the New Gays. If we are free to be who we are wherever that happens to fall on the Kinsey scale or the scale of masculinity or by any rating at all, then what are we looking for, who are we looking for? Someone with a complementary chart? What does that mean? Does an aggressive bottom need a passive top? Should an effeminate athlete be with a masculine artist? This can descend into the didactic, but in essence, does our modern liberation save us from Crisp’s dilemma or merely complicate its terms?
I’ve often thought of myself as hard to match and seen this as at least a significant reason for why I’ve never had a long-term relationship. For all of my effeminate traits, I can also be very alpha-male, domineering even. What kind of guy is right for me? I don’t think I’ve ever found one. But I’m not turned off by other guys’ femininity. I don’t seek a straight-acting man. I have accepted myself for who I am enough to not recoil at my own qualities reflected in others.
Do I tend to have the hots for guys like me? Not typically, but then again, we’re a dying breed.