Stories of Self-Awareness and Gay Culture We hear readings from When I Knew, Robert Trachtenberg's colorful collection of vignettes from gay men and women about coming to terms with their sexuality. And Andrew Sullivan discusses the subject of gayness with Linda Wertheimer.
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Stories of Self-Awareness and Gay Culture

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Stories of Self-Awareness and Gay Culture

Stories of Self-Awareness and Gay Culture

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up, Halloween set to annoying music. Jim Nayder, anyone?

But first, being openly gay has become much more accepted in mainstream American society, polite society, as we used to call it. But not so long ago, few if any gay people were encouraged to talk openly about their sexual orientation. Some wouldn't or couldn't admit it to their families, their friends, co-workers, church groups or even to themselves. In this year's book titled "When I Knew," photographer Robert Trachtenberg has collected stories from a variety of Americans who recount what it was like to realize they were gay.

Mr. JON KINNALLY (Television Producer): As a kid, I became obsessed with the man on the Doan's pills box. His back was so sexy. When my mom's supply ran out and she threw the box away, I went to the drugstore and stole another. I stuffed it down my pants where it's been ever since.

Ms. KATE NIELSEN (Writer): The Paramount Theater, 1965, Denver, Colorado. I was sitting next to my mother munching on popcorn, watching "The Sound of Music," and I wondered in my little five-year-old brain if it was wrong to want to be Christopher Plummer, aka Captain von Trapp. It was the only way as a girl that I could imagine being able to be with the beautiful Julie Andrews. I made my mother take me back to see the movie several times that summer, which she was more than happy to do as she just assumed it was because I wanted to be a nun. Not that I wanted to be with a nun.

Mr. MICHAEL ENGLER (Editor): I was in the seventh grade, about 12 years old, and all the boys used to roll their sleeves up to the tops of their biceps in a tight haphazard ring, and one day I noticed an eighth-grader named Larry Klein(ph) with his rolled up completely differently. I practically swooned when I saw it; I'm not sure exactly how I would have described the feeling at the time except to say that I felt as if I was discovering, you know, the secret to masculine adult sexy style. He carefully folded the cuffs of his shirt-sleeves up over themselves only two or three times, so that they ended up at the middle of his forearms--sort of flat and relaxed.

So I went into a stall in the boy's room and copied him. I remember checking myself out in the mirror and feeling particularly cool. At the end of the day my locker mates saw what I had done and derisively asked, `Why'd you roll up your sleeves like that?' And I said, `I like it. And Larry Klein wears his like that.' And he said, `Larry Klein is a fag.' Well, I felt completely ashamed, but I had no idea what he meant. But the next day I was reading Ann Landers' column in the Sun-Times and I saw a letter from a 17-year-old boy who said he was certain that he was a homosexual and should he tell his parents. Well, I had never heard that word before, but I instantly knew what it meant and that I was one, too, and that I would have to tell my parents one day and show them how I rolled up my shirt-sleeves.

Ms. JUDY GOLD (Comedian): So I'm 11 years old and I'm in Hebrew school, and every year my Hebrew school--I went to Hebrew school in New Jersey, but every year our Hebrew school class would go into New York and march in the Israeli Day Parade. So if you've ever been to a parade in New York, there's just crazy people, nuts, just mental cases all over the streets. So I see this woman as we're waiting to start marching holding this big sign. And on the sign it says, `My son was a homosexual and now he's not. He went to see Dr. McSamuels(ph) at (212) 555-0125.' And for some odd reason I just thought to myself, `Maybe I should write that doctor's number down.'

Mr. STEPHEN ORR (Magazine Editor): It was 1971. I was six years old and we lived in Abilene, Texas. My father was tossing a football with my brothers in the front yard. Seeing me sitting alone on the steps, my mother took my dad aside. `Dub,' she said, calling my dad by his nickname, `I think Steve is feeling a little left out. Why don't you ask him if he'd like to play, too?' So my dad walked over. `Want to throw the football some?' he asked. `I'd really rather go pick flowers,' I replied. And we did. My father, a former football coach, spent the rest of the afternoon picking flowers with me in a nearby field.

WERTHEIMER: You just heard from magazine editor Stephen Orr, comedian Judy Gold, editor Michael Engler(ph), writer Kate Nielsen and television producer Jon Kinnally, reading excerpts from their stories in the book "When I Knew."

Andrew Sullivan is with us in the studio. He wrote the lead story in this week's New Republic magazine called The End of Gay Culture. In that story, Mr. Sullivan suggests that gays and lesbians in the United States are now and will forever be part of the American mainstream--that is, part of polite society. He says there is no longer room nor reason for a distinct gay culture.


Mr. ANDREW SULLIVAN (The New Republic): Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now what do you think? Are the stories we just heard in one way or another still occurring all over the United States?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes. I think at some level or other, they will always occur because there will always be that moment, even in a society which has complete equality for homosexuals, in which the young child or the young girl or boy will figure out that he or she is very different than his or her peers. I found all of those stories very touching and funny, and I relate to them and I think people will relate to them forever. And in that sense, gay culture is not over and will never be over. But today, unlike when I grew up, your average kid will have such a different idea of what it is to be gay, they won't be seeking this out from the most obscure places. They won't be like that fellow who'd never heard the word `homosexual.' They will have been bombarded with the reality of gay life. Not only that, they will know that they will also be able to get married one day and therefore their entire future will be very different in their own minds.

And when I figured out I was gay, the first thing I also figured out was, `Well, I'll never be able to be married like my mom and dad.' I looked to my future like this big blackness that I don't even know where I'll fit in. And the wound that that created in a lot of us takes a long time to heal, and that wound is not as profound anymore for young gay kids today, which I think is an enormous achievement.

WERTHEIMER: You suggest that these kids have grown up in a whole different world, a different America, and the thing that I thought was so interesting was that you said that they would not have grown up with, you know, a sort of older generation of gay men and women who would have handed down the memories in the way that black culture does.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Gay people as a minority are different from every other minority because of a very simple fact, which is that if you're an African-American kid or Latino kid or a Jewish kid, you grow up into a black or Latino or Jewish family by and large, and you learn what it is to be black or Jewish or Latino from your parents and grandparents, from the history and culture and collective identity of the people around you. A gay kid is brought up in a straight family, and they have to learn later in life what it is to be gay, and what they're learning today is radically different than what it was yesterday, so the speed of change within gay culture can be far greater than the speed within African-American culture or Latino culture. In other words, it can change much more quickly than any of us, I think, ever imagined it would happen.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that a gay identity is a thing of the past, I mean, is sort of understanding or sensing something about a person's gayness--is that gone?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I think that there will be gay identities, plural. Imagine right now. When you look at gay kids in college today, many of them are indistinguishable from their straight peers. They dress the same, they have the same interests. They aren't corralled into some sort of identity that they have to adopt to be gay. And that's a loss in some respects. At the same time, it's an enormous gain.

WERTHEIMER: The loss of it--what you call in your article a uniform gay culture. So something, I guess, you can sort of put on like a uniform or identify with.

Mr. SULLIVAN: And people did put that on as a protective shield, as a way to defend themselves in terms of the broader culture. And I have to say also I think that where the old gay culture exists, by which I mean a sort of gay culture identified by extremes of masculinity or femininity, they're going to last longer and be more tenacious as cultural manifestations in red states because they are responses to oppression. So that ironically the strongest allies of the old gay culture are, I think, the religious right and the Republicans because they're creating and keeping the environment which made that gay culture, whereas you go to Massachusetts or New York or California, you see a much more diverse array of ways of being gay.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think about the idea of assimilation? Is assimilation a wholly good thing?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I like to use the term `integration' rather than `assimilation' because what integration means is that you can retain your individual identity while being treated equally and being among the other. I mean, my generation will be the first to ask ourselves, `Well, should I get married to my partner?' We're the first generation to have our mothers nagging us on the phone. `You've been living with this guy for a year and a half. Why aren't you married yet?' Because before that, they couldn't even have asked that question. But now there is a choice. Some gay people will choose to stick to and embrace and innovate the old gay culture into something new and very gay. And others will become indistinguishable from their straight peers and disappear into other institutions and ways of life. There will be a diversity, and that's the goal.

WERTHEIMER: Andrew Sullivan, thank you for coming in.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at The New Republic magazine. You can read his blog at For pictures and anecdotes from Robert Trachtenberg's book "When I Knew," visit our Web site,

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