GAY AND PROUD
a Review of As We Are
by Don Clark PhD
Boston: Alyson Publications
Review Copyright © 1988 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
In the 1970s a spate of introspective, reasonably-voiced, warm-hearted, spiritually inclined humanist authors published a number of eminently accessible books about loving oneself, loving others, and in general living the life of a decent human being. The most successful of those authors -- Malcolm Boyd, Hugh Prather, and Don Clark among them wrote in a kindly style that gave their simple observations the ring of wisdom, and gave to their most intelligent insights the folksy aura of homespun common sense. What made Clark unusual in this company was not his successful middle-American profile as a clinical psychologist who had been married and was the father of two children, but that he was outspokenly homosexual.
In his 1977 book Loving Someone Gay, Clark was among the first psychotherapists to state unequivocally that being gay was not only not a bad fate, but that it had positive aspects that might counter-balance the hassles gay men and women had to put up with from frightened, unenlightened, and uninformed ordinary citizens, as well as from extraordinary bigots. "For me, being Gay is an asset, not a liability," he wrote. "It means there are additional options open to me, things I can do. Being Gay does not mean that I am unable to have satisfying heterosexual relationships but that I am able to have satisfying homosexual relationships" which, he pointed out, was quite a different experience from that of most heterosexuals, whose culturally ingrained homophobia limited them to heterosexual relationships.
Clark was not just writing about explicitly sexual experiences, however, but about the inability of most western adults particularly men to physically express or even recognize their affection for other people of the same gender. His implications went beyond sexuality to the wider concerns of humanistic psychology and the inability of most western adults to see past any of the dictates of their fairly primitive acculturation. Loving Someone Gay, which was based in Clark's own experiences coming out, even implied that gay people were more likely than heterosexual people to know themselves deeply because, like members of other oppressed minorities, they had been nearly compelled by the circumstances of their existences to examine the meaning of their lives. Consequently, Clark thought, on balance they were better prepared than most people to make constructive use of the feelings associated with their sexuality.
The implications contained in Loving Someone Gay are made explicit in Clark's most recent book, As We Are. The opportunities as well as the difficulties inherent in being gay have been exacerbated by the AIDS crisis, writes Clark, and altogether have provided the forum in which the gay community as a whole has "found inner resources that we had only glimpsed before. We have learned that our lives truly depend upon throwing off the identity given to us by the surrounding world and making our own difficult discovery of ourselves, individually and collectively."
As We Are is a book about the emergence and maturation of this gay identity, and about the ways in which it continues to change. First and foremost, As We Are is dedicated to supporting that individual and collective gay identity as valuable in itself, and in a throwback to an earlier view of homosexuality that also anticipated debates about third genders that were yet to emerge in the transgender communities several years after this book was written to seeing it as especially valuable because "we gays are not stuck with the man's point of view' or the woman's point of view'.... We may well be able to identify with both parties."
Second, it is dedicated to "the likelihood that a gay man or lesbian is more fully developed [than other people] in his or her caretaking ability." Clark's evolutionary argument is that very early in life the child who is destined to be gay becomes aware of "a dim perception of being unwanted." Later, the child's same-sex affections make the parents uncomfortable. The child then "senses the discomfort and becomes wary in an environment that seems unsafe.... A positive result of this phenomenon is that the child is likely to develop heightened sensitivity." In a world of prejudice and misunderstanding, the emerging gay adult seeks security, which "comes from an enduring feeling of belonging or being wanted." As a result,
We gay men and lesbians have done far more than our share of tending the needs of the young by feeding, clothing, comforting, and educating. We have also done far more than our share of healing, nursing and tending the needs of the adult community with building, gardening, negotiating, teaching, guiding, counseling, entertaining, cleaning up and beautifying the environment.
Finally, As We Are is dedicated to individual and community growth through what Clark describes as seven states of awareness: Conception, Darkness, Blinding Light, Necessary Contradiction, Commitment, Sacrifice, and Balance. Though the order suggests a pattern of evolution, "individuals move from one state to another in unique patterns, often revisiting one state or another before moving on to a new one. The general direction is toward Balance, a state we all desire."
At the end of this book Clark devotes several pages to the last years of his friend, Jon Simms. Simms was well known in San Francisco as founder of the Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps, the Gay Men's Chorus, and other musical groups that have carried on without him since his death in 1984. In a conversation the two men had in 1982 Simms remarked, "Maybe the only sin most of us are guilty of is limiting ourselves." That seems like a good message to take from As We Are, and it points up my only objection to the book as well.
In his desire to redefine the implications of homosexuality as ability rather than liability, Clark seems to imply that homosexuality is a better option for living than heterosexuality. While I don't wish to debate the veracity of his position here, it does seem to me to contradict the credo of the book, which is that it is better to know and live the truth, whatever that may be, than not to know the truth or not to live the truth one knows. I'm sure Clark would readily agree that a person might examine him- or herself and discover a heterosexual rather than a homosexual bent, and still live a nurturing, supportive, and loving life. So perhaps what seems to me to be a modest over-reaction to living his whole life in a homophobically blindered society is Clark's way of reinforcing his commitment to his own gay identity and the support he wishes to provide to the gay community.
Like Clark's earlier books, As We Are is a gentle reminder that the difficulties people face in life are not only problems to be overcome, but are also opportunities for growth and enrichment. In the face of the world-wide AIDS epidemic that still ravishes our friends, lovers, children, parents, and siblings of all genders and all gender preferences, it takes a certain amount of serenity to tread a psychological and spiritual path such as the one Don Clark walks. Since he walks his path with a fine grace, Clark must have some such serenity, which it is once again our opportunity to share through his writing.
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