Halfway through his National Book Award-winning memoir “Becoming a Man,” Paul Monette ’67 writes about his first time bottoming during sex. It happens in London, during the summer before his senior year at Yale. Standing at the railing overlooking Trafalgar Square, Monette is cruised by a man several years older, an ex-sailor who hadn’t returned to the U.S. after his service was over. When I read their sex scene, I was shocked by what I had read — not because of its content, but because I couldn’t believe it was published in 1992, and had won a national literary award. In the scene, Monette writes frankly about the man’s “horse dick poised … in the clench of my virgin pucker,” and realistically about the accompanying pain — “[like] sitting on a fireplug” — as well as the next day’s cramps.
I recount these descriptions for a reason, and so does Monette. On the very next page, “balking” at the sex details he has just described, Monette paraphrases a friend living with AIDS and asks, “Is this more than you want to know?” The answer comes from the same friend: “Rub their faces in it, Paulie. Nobody told us anything. You tell them.”
When I read “Becoming a Man” during the summer, I couldn’t help but think, despite the passing of 23 years, how prescient the quoted passages are in 2016. It’s true that the social and political context in which Monette wrote “Becoming a Man” is very different than the one we live in today. The memoir was published almost seven years after the death of Monette’s partner, Roger Horwitz, from AIDS-related complications, and three years before he would die from the same. The first protease inhibitor and use of HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy), which were the medical “breakthroughs” of the crisis, were still three years away; the Supreme Court wouldn’t decriminalize sodomy for another 10 years; same-sex marriage activism was in its infancy and “don’t ask, don’t tell” — a policy, which, believe it or not, was once considered progress — was a year away from fruition. The level of trans visibility we have today — which isn’t a whole lot — was unthinkable.
At the same time, our present is not without its own problems. I’d like to say the first time I went to Stonewall was a happy occasion, that I sashayed and twerked and maybe sloppily kissed a boy, but I can’t. Instead my first visit was to attend a vigil for 49 queer siblings who were murdered at Latinx night at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Even more disheartening was that the vigil, held at the place where queens and trans women of color made history, was hijacked by straight celebrities and politicians; it took hours of the crowd chanting “say their names,” before the organizers complied and read a list of the dead. The same week, I was texting a trans friend — a true queer hero if I’ve met any — who was traveling to North Carolina, the focal point of the recent so-called “bathroom debates,” to help lead a large LGBT rights organization’s efforts there. “Status update,” one text I received began. “Was chased off a porch by a white man sporting a Confederate flag tattoo on his bicep.”
These are just two of my own experiences; they do not touch on the increasing death rates of trans women, especially trans women of color; the reparative therapy-friendly resolution adopted by the GOP’s platform or the general bigotry unleashed by the current GOP presidential nominee. My intention is not to make a comparison of time periods, or to imply that one is worse than the other. Rather, I’d simply like to witness what I’m seeing, and to connect it with the impulse to write. In his AIDS memoir “Borrowed Time,” Monette, watching Roger die, asks, “What am I going to do without him?” The response from a close friend: “Write about him, Paul.” And, earlier in the book, when Monette refers to a poem he wrote about living with AIDS, says, “I was writing … groping at last toward leaving a record — to say we have been here.”
I want to think about acts of writing, and living, as a testimony of witnessing, of what it like to live in a specific moment, to move in its space, to push the limits of what can and cannot be said in certain settings. With that framework in mind, reading Monette’s detailed account of bottoming, and his refusal to apologize for it, was exactly what I needed this summer as I tried to comprehend the deaths of the 49 killed at Pulse, and the homo- and transphobia I heard when I talked to friends, turned on the news or opened my Twitter feed. Not because the literature in any way redeemed or validated the suffering I saw, but because it offered a concrete moment of resistance, of refusing to shut up despite the violent wishes of some that we will.
This beauty of resistance does not begin or end with Monette. Despite a literary scene that still haltingly publishes queer writers — especially queer writers of color — there are those who nonetheless take up the task of writing against erasure and marginalization. John Paul Brammer, an emerging queer Latinx writer, wrote a beautiful essay titled “Why I’ve Decided to Start Dressing More Femininely” for BuzzFeed after the Pulse attack that I think everyone should read. Saeed Jones, Jericho Brown, Rickey Laurentiis and Danez Smith are all queer black poets who are pushing readers to think about gender, race, sexuality and masculinity in poetics. Jacqueline Woodson, Naomi Jackson and Chinelo Okparanta are writing fiction for and about black queer women. And Brian Blanchfield and Maggie Nelson are using queerness to push forward the genre of creative nonfiction, in both subject matter and form.
What I admire about all of these writers is that, like Monette, they’re not afraid to “rub their [read: homophobes’/transphobes’] faces in it.” Part of that work is sheer bravery, and part of it is the pressure of knowing that if they don’t document their own lives and experiences — and those belonging to people who look, feel and act like them — who will? I read in all of these writers’ works not only a commitment to keep stock of how bodies, sex and desire exist in the world, but also a fierce dedication to pushing the boundaries, like Monette did in 1992, of what can be published and said.
After finishing “Becoming a Man,” I knew that Monette’s justification — or lack thereof — for his bottoming scene would be one I would return to in the future, when I would remind myself to write the things I want to write, to live the way I want to live, to feel the way I do. And I’ve already turned back to it several times since. I truly believe that literature can save lives; and I doubly believe that for queer readers of queer literature. My wish, then, is for every queer person to have their own literary moment. I promise it helps.