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A Closet of One's Own : BECOMING A MAN: Half a Life Story, By Paul Monette (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 243 pp.)

June 28, 1992|Robert Dawidoff | Dawidoff is the author of "The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage: High Culture vs. Democracy in Adams, James and Santayana" (University of North Carolina Press). He chairs the history program at Claremont Graduate School

Nobody has written this book before, but countless men and women have lived the life Paul Monette describes in his new autobiography. "Becoming a Man" tells the story of the closet that most gay men and lesbians inhabit from the time they intuit that their sexual orientation is stigmatized, when the apparatus of society and the intimacies of family become rapids to be negotiated.

Monette's memoir details the half-life of a talented and attractive boy who is smart enough to see that his own nature is something he needs to disguise and sensitive enough to try to heed the culture's message by denying it. "Becoming a Man," then, is the story of Paul's inventive, determined and hopeless attempt to be the kind of man convention in the 1950s and '60s required. It is a remarkable book, an unsparingly observed and beautifully written account of the knowledge gathered in the course of self-suppression, and of how that knowledge is soured by the alienation between what a gay person needs to know in a homophobic society and what a gay person needs to know to be whole and true.

Heir to traditions of aspiration, pride and class unease, Paul Monette was born into an American family on the rise, town people, French-Canadian and English-American. He was gifted, attractive and success-bound from the start, but two things complicated what should have been his rise. His brother was disabled, and this lent his own life a shadowed intensity. And Paul liked boys, not girls; he was that second- scariest of '50s things, a sissy. Paul learned early on that this was not a good thing to be in his family, in his neighborhood, in his school, in his culture.

The power of this riveting book is in part the application of Monette's acute intelligence, his ceaseless observation and his cagey wit to a simple, impossible problem. American culture demanded of Paul--as it still demands of lesbian and gay youth--that he be the one thing he could not be: straight. "Becoming a Man" tells with unmatched clarity what homophobia was like for him and what it made of him.

At Andover and Yale, Paul learned more about the boys and men he loved and what happened to gay men in the years of suppression and silence before the Stonewall Rebellion. (In June, 1969, a crowd of angry gay men resisted a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village. Gay Pride parades, including today's parade in West Hollywood, commemorate this important landmark in the gay-liberation movement.) His outer success, his charm and his friendships masked an inner horror, anxiety, secret and guilt-ridden satisfactions of desire, self-hatred and a gnawing sense of unreality. Crushes were hammered into painful friendships on the anvil on self-repression. Faked intimacies, forced encounters and loneliness composed his love life.

Monette's is a compelling story of cultural adaptation, of how the conventional culture forces its unchosen into service roles: the best friend, the fabulous dinner guest, the poet, the designer, the wit. Monette describes this with a power and a directness that is thrilling and painful for those of us who know firsthand what he is talking about. For those who have been unaware, this is a necessary book. Indeed, part of the point of "Becoming a Man" is how heterosexual privilege, like racial and gender privilege, is the false privilege of unawareness.

Little boys taunt and abuse sissy playmates--and often enjoy sex with them--to convey the message that is isn't OK for boys to be girlish and for men to love men. These bully-boys grow up into men who feel comfortable and entitled in society and can keep cowed the men and women whose passions might threaten the sexual order. Some gay men and lesbians recognize this early and refuse to participate. The Stonewall Rebellion was led by people who refused to be cowed, people who often scare the closeted gays as much as they do the straights. More common is the experience Monette describes:

"I speak for no one else here, if only because I don't want to saddle the women and men of my tribe with the lead weight of my self-hatred, the particular doorless room of my internal exile. Yet I've come to learn that all our stories add up to the same imprisonment. The self-delusion of uniqueness. The festering pretense that we are the same as they are. The gutting of all our passion til we are a bunch of eunuchs, our zones of pleasure in enemy hands. Most of all, the ventriloquism, the learning how to pass for straight. Such obedient slaves we make, with such very tidy rooms."

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