FEATURE

Under the Skin

Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men's Lives Walt Odets. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 368 pages. $30

FOR MANY OF ITS ADVOCATES throughout the 1990s and 2000s, gay marriage seemed to promise deliverance from gay politics itself. The mammoth engine of the marriage equality campaign hurtled toward a finish line of full legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples, after which everyone could finally head home, giddy and tearful, to husbands and wives. Andrew Sullivan, more honest about marriage equality’s conservative thrust than most of its architects, heralded its eventual achievement as the End of Queer History: Marriage, he wrote in 1998, “is, in fact, the only political and cultural and spiritual institution that can truly liberate us from the shackles of marginalization and pathology.” On the day of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states, Freedom to Marry president Evan Wolfson announced his organization’s shuttering and confessed, in the daze of fresh triumph, “I have to really figure out, you know, like, who am I when I’m not Mr. Marriage anymore?”

David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yuko Mishima: Saint Sebastian, 1982, acrylic and spray paint on Masonite, 48 × 48". © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz, Courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W

Though resisted by many queer activists, by 2015 marriage equality had become central to gay and lesbian public life. The post-Obergefell hangover was widespread: If the victory was as total as promised, what work could possibly follow it or be left to do in its wake? Walt Odets’s Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives steps into this confusion with welcome insight and a shift in emphasis. “For gay lives,” Odets writes, “the granting of legal rights and authentic acceptance are two different issues in a society steeped in phobic aversion to real diversity.” To pro-marriage polemicists like Sullivan, gay particularity was attributable to our formal exclusion from mainstream institutions. When gays were no longer treated differently by law, he and others reasoned, we would cease to be different, compelling straights to finally welcome us into the social fold. Odets, a clinical psychologist with thirty years of private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, airs what may look like dirty laundry to those who harbored such hopes. The overriding emphasis on marriage equality has pressured gays and lesbians to adopt a scrupulous regimen of self-love, turning any lingering shame into its own shameful secret. (One of Odets’s patients, Amado, confesses to having preempted a man’s rejection by telling him, “The more you get to know about me, the less you’ll probably want to know.”) Even among those of his patients—older, financially secure, monogamously partnered gay men—who might appear best positioned to reap its benefits, Obergefell has been no panacea for Sullivan’s “marginalization and pathology.”

Out of the Shadows mostly forgoes political or legal analysis. Odets decries the dead end of assimilationist agendas, but his true focus is the more amorphous and, in his view, determinative problem of social stigma. Gay men suffer from a “composite” trauma, he argues, in which shame and fear instilled in early life are reactivated in adulthood by proximity to HIV and AIDS. The ubiquity and intensity of societal homophobia mean that no gay child reaches adulthood unscathed; even loving family and a supportive community are not enough to shield them from the awareness of being aberrant and hated for it. Amado’s feelings of romantic failure, for example, get traced back to adolescent anxiety about disappointing his parents. Other patients Odets sees have survived abuse or bullying, or have attempted suicide. Isolation, numbness, and incapacitating self-doubt are so common in his book they start to feel routine.

This substratum of shared childhood trauma is compounded by the later trauma of HIV, which plays out differently for gay men of different generations but affects them all. In his first book, In the Shadow of the Epidemic (1995), Odets explored the then-unrecognized psychological toll that AIDS was taking on HIV-negative men, for whom the deaths of lovers and friends were compounded by survivor’s guilt. Though the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, in 1996 began to make HIV a chronic but manageable condition for those who could afford it, the epidemic is far from over: HIV transmission rates remain high for gay and bisexual men across race, class, and age groups, with black and Latino men at disproportionate risk. In 2017, the CDC reported that a full quarter of all documented new infections in the United States were among black men who have sex with men. Odets’s insistence that the virus still shapes the lives of both HIV-positive and -negative gay men is itself a necessary intervention.

Odets is seventy-two years old; many of his patients, like him, are older men who lived through the worst of the early epidemic. Through their stories and his own memories, Out of the Shadows revisits the fifteen years of unrelieved terror between HIV’s first appearance in 1981 and HAART’s availability in 1996. One patient, Aaron, recalls moving to San Francisco in 1994 and finding it “a fucking mess, much worse than I’d imagined. I just had no idea until I saw it—it felt like Bosnia. I tried some to make friends, but almost everyone I met would be dead before the sun came up.” When his roommate dies, he inherits a dog that has lost six previous owners. HAART slows but doesn’t stop the deaths, so he gives up on making new friends; anyone gay might be lost at any moment, and no one else would understand the devastation he has witnessed.

Survivors of the early epidemic are followed in Odets’s account by two subsequent cohorts: a middle group of men who mostly came out after 1996 but are old enough to have absorbed an ambient cultural association between gay men, AIDS, and death; and a younger group, born since 1988, who “have never known HIV as almost inevitably fatal.” But rather than proof of HIV’s loosening grip on gay life, Odets discovers persistent fear and judgment about the virus among his patients in their twenties. Even as they report high levels of unprotected sex and low levels of testing, many young gay men with no direct experience of the disease avoid their HIV-positive peers. His twenty-seven-year-old patient Jason attests to a racist dynamic in which white men assume that HIV “is something normal people don’t get,” making it difficult for openly positive men to maintain social relationships and pursue sex, even in San Francisco. Despite having friends who are positive, Jason concludes, “I think getting HIV is probably the worst thing that could happen to me.”

Out of the Shadows balances its bleak portraits with a faith in therapeutic self-reflection. Odets’s clinical method is to help patients make unconscious feelings available for conscious assessment, so that deeply ingrained behaviors can be recognized and altered. He encourages Amado to “note the effects of his opening lines” as he continues to experiment with dating; resisting the impulse to preempt rejection may bring him different results, which will in turn “slowly change his self-experience and his sense of what he had to offer another man.” The end goal for patients is variably and vaguely named— “authenticity,” “wholeness,” “self-discovery,” “being oneself,” and so on—but Odets trusts that he’ll know it when he sees it. “True self-acceptance is readily recognizable,” he assures his reader; “it is largely free of needless explanation, apology, and pandering, and free of reactive, unrealistic self-confidence and compensatory false pride.” Whatever form it takes, the horizon is ultimately an individual one: Working through trauma is “a complex internal effort, undertaken in a social context.”

But what does the book promise for gay communities, collectively? Odets is committed to the idea of diversity but only sporadically attentive to its practices. He criticizes marriage politics for marginalizing “nonconformers” and fracturing gay
social worlds, but his proposed solution to those failures is perhaps even more atomizing:

The futures of young gay lives will not be transformed through assimilation into gay communities seeking seamless internal unity, or through assimilation into an often-ugly, contentious, and divisive American society. The transformation will happen when, one by one, each man discovers who he is and makes a life for himself that expresses that self-discovery.

The push for marriage equality did not simply introduce a potentially “inauthentic” compromise for individual gay men. By constraining our vision to the couple form, the movement diverted energy and resources from other, more expansive political struggles, including against employment and housing insecurity, school bullying, sex ed, hate violence, gentrification, and barriers to accessing HIV/AIDS-related and gender-affirming health care. Though Odets acknowledges this backdrop, his scale of analysis—and the tautological imperative that “we act out of who we are”—risks further narrowing our imagination.

Which may be inevitable, given Odets’s therapeutic aims. He writes perceptively about the more local task of constructing an identity with others, risking the vulnerabilities of love and sex without the safety net of social sanction. That challenge still defines gay lives. I should probably confess my deep aversion to the language of “authenticity” that Odets so values—gay life has, for me, also promised freedom from the ambition to do love, sex, or selfhood rightly or naturally. Having read Out of the Shadows, I still don’t know if my gay identity is “whole” or “expressive of internal agency,” or if I’m acting out of the me that’s most me. I do feel sure that I owe the person I am to the communities and the politics that beckoned me away from the person I once was. Call it a shadow, a trauma, or simply a past. I trust that Odets has saved many from it, and his book might save many more.


Sam Huber is a writer and graduate student living in New York.