Monday, June 1, 2009

"Maurice" (1987) and the Gay Journey to the 21st Century

An e-friend and I were discussing the 1987 Merchant-Ivory film “Maurice” recently. For those who may not have seen this movie or read the E.M. Forster novel on which it’s based, it’s a loosely autobiographical gay love story that Forster wrote in the World War I period, but which he never published. Maurice was published posthumously in 1971.

Maurice touches on themes central to Forster’s fiction, including the furtive code within which those living unacceptable sexual relationships had to function in post-Victorian Britain, the lethal hypocrisy that the English class system expected of its upper and middling ranks, and the appeal that working-class men had for closeted gay men of the upper classes who perceived the lower-class approach to sexuality as franker than that of their class.

I get to see "Maurice" at least once a year (and then, usually several times) because an elderly friend who visits us yearly adores “Maurice” and insists on our renting it for him when he’s with us. I suspect that some of the themes in the novel are autobiographical for our friend. He was born just as Forster was writing “Maurice,” grew up in an aristocratic Polish family which expected him to go a-soldiering and forced him to go to Paris and take a law degree before he entered the army, though his inclinations were strongly towards art.

After he finished school, he joined the Polish army and found himself captured by the Germans during the second war. He led a fascinating life after this, which took him to Italy, where he was able to fulfill his boyhood dream of studying art, and where, I gather from many stories he tells, he found working-class Italian young men very alluring—and so he began his life of gay sexual encounters while he lived a strictly closeted, and devoutly Catholic, life.

Somehow, our friend has managed to keep all this together—the strong, right-leaning and rigidly “orthodox” Catholicism, the free-wheeling gay life, the aristocratic presuppositions and expectations, the closet. And he finds his experience mirrored back to him in the story Forster tells, and can’t get enough of the movie, watching it over and over when he’s with us.

When I mentioned to my e-friend Janet in a recent email that I expected to be watching “Maurice” again with our visiting friend, she wrote back to say that she remembered watching the movie with her lesbian daughter when the daughter was a teen, and this was the first time she and her family had ever seen a gay character in a movie. Janet adds, “How things have changed. That is no longer considered bold and isn't THAT good?!”

Janet’s absolutely right. A world of things has changed since 1987, and anytime I watch “Maurice” again, I, too, think about those changes.

I have a sharply incised memory of my first time seeing this film. I had begun teaching theology at Xavier University in New Orleans two years earlier, as I completed my dissertation. When I took that job, as far as Steve and I knew, the start of our vocational lives would definitively separate us, and we would perhaps have to go our own ways professionally and otherwise, since the chances of our both getting teaching positions in the same place were small.

Then, to our surprise, a year later, Steve found a job at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, and we were able to resume our life together while teaching theology at two different Catholic institutions in New Orleans. We were—it goes without saying—closeted, as we had been in graduate school

There was no other option, not one about which we had the slightest clue. As far as we knew, not another soul in school with us was gay or trying to determine his or her sexual orientation. And it wasn’t that sex was a taboo topic, in our Catholic theological school. It’s that gay sex was specifically taboo as a topic of conversation.

We knew of priests studying theology with us, who were conducting more or less open affairs with laywomen or nuns, as they pursued their degrees. Quite a few of our lay classmates led fairly free-wheeling sexual lives—but free-wheeling heterosexual lives—and no one raised any eyebrows about this. In fact, in some respects, their candor and their flaunted heterosexuality earned them brownie points with our professors, some of whom were themselves involved in the free-wheeling activities with their students, and who were capable of withering insinuations about those assumed to be queer.

But of gay sexual lives or gay sexual encounters: nary a whisper. Total silence. In which Steve and I colluded. I can remember, really, only two occasions in some six years of study in which anyone ever even mentioned the topic. One was when a friend of mine, a brilliant theologian whom I much admired, who was a married man, recounted a story from his early married days, in which he and others came to know that one of their friends was gay because the friend sought to commit suicide when the man he loved jilted him.

My friend told this story without sympathy for his friend who turned out to be gay, and the coterie of fellow students to whom he told the story received it without sympathy. The point of the story was that gays were that way—hyper-emotive, fragile, pitiful creatures who could be counted on to go over the edge when those they imagined they loved did the right thing and scorned them. This was hardly an atmosphere conducive to coming out of the closet—as the other tidbit I recall from those years, the retching sounds another friend made when someone mentioned homosexuality, further suggests.

There were no gay people—not myself, not Steve (though we had been living together intimately for some thirteen years by the time I left graduate school to take a job), not anyone else, including a handful of classmates who have now come out of the closet, but in those years, never breathed a word about their sexual orientations or natures to anyone. There were no gay role models, no gay stories to be told—insofar as I knew—in that post-Vatican II Catholic theological environment which had successfully incorporated the idea of sexual freedom for heterosexual people, including even vowed religious ones or ordained clerical ones. And where married heterosexual students used birth control as a matter of course, though the ethical norms that prohibit artificial contraception are precisely the same, in Catholicism, as those prohibiting homosexual acts.

And so to “Maurice,” a scant two years after I finished my graduate studies—and a year after Steve and I reunited in New Orleans, both of us teaching theology, both of us closeted. Because we knew no other option. And because we knew that coming out of the closet would spell the end of the professional vocational lives we had just begun. And because we were, fatuously and unbelievably, still lying to ourselves even at that late date, telling ourselves stories about the “phase” we had been going through, which would one day end and free us to marry a woman.

When “Maurice” arrived in New Orleans soon after its release, we were, of course, eager to see it. In my year alone in New Orleans, I had seen—for the first time in my life—two films, both on television, featuring gay characters. Both were AIDS-themed.

One of these was “An Early Frost,” in which a young gay man played by Aidan Quinn is forced to come out to his mother because he was HIV+. The other was a biography of Rock Hudson that explored the open secret of his life—his gayness—which was definitively revealed when the public discovered he had AIDS.

I remember weeping—heavily, constantly—through both films, but in particular through the Hudson movie. What hit me especially hard in his story was his recognition that the secret—the open secret—he had so closely guarded, and for which he had sacrificed so much, was farcical. His life was already an open book to millions of people. His AIDS only made public what many people already knew—and so the tragedy of those years of hiding and shame and pretense, when he could have been living with dignity and some self-respect, if he had only realized how transparent the walls of the closet in which he lived actually were.

How could I not identify with that story, living as I did in my own transparent closet—in a relationship of over fifteen years (by this date), with the same man, both of us all the while pretending to be lifelong bachelors disappointed in love? It is important—crucially so—that people living as we had lived for so long find stories that fit their lives and echo their experiences. It was important that we discover we were far from the only gay persons in the world.

How could we fail to see “Maurice” as soon as possible when it came out in 1987, then? When a friend of ours with whom I taught at Xavier—who also happened to be HIV+, though he had told few people other than Steve and me at this point—invited us to see the movie, we quickly accepted.

But we knew as we did so that this could be a dangerous act, something so innocuous and simple as going to a movie. With a closeted gay man whose gayness was something of an open secret on the campus of the Catholic university at which I was teaching. In a very Catholic city whose Catholic community was, in some ways, an overgrown, gossipy small town, where it was particularly dangerous for someone teaching in a seminary—as Steve was—to be seen at such a movie. A gay movie.

We went. We were enchanted. We saw ourselves in the film, something that almost never happened in movies at that time, and we felt our love affirmed. And then the movie ended, and whom should I see standing in the back of the theater than someone who taught in my own theology department at Xavier. With her husband, also a theologian who taught at another Catholic university in New Orleans.

There was no avoiding the encounter. My colleague had planted herself at the exit door of the theater in order to force me to see her—to force me to see see that she had seen me. That she knew. And that she would use that knowledge, now out in the open, so to speak, to her advantage.

I knew already that this colleague was deeply homophobic while she professed to be tolerant and inclusive. She was an ex-nun, her husband an ex-priest. The community of those teaching theology in Catholic universities in New Orleans was dominated—as it was elsewhere in the nation at that time—by married former priests and nuns, many of whom had left the priesthood and religious life during Vatican II, often to marry, with theology degrees in hand paid for by the church.

I did not find—I have not found—this community at all welcoming of gay people. There is a constant undercurrent within this professional theological community, which now dominates many theology departments in Catholic universities, which maintains that “normal” people were systematically driven out of the priesthood and religious life during and after Vatican II, as the church gave preference to and winked at the growing presence of gays in the seminary, in rectories, and in convents.

My colleague was among those who believed, and who stated, this. She did so frequently and vocally. She maintained that the hierarchy has an animus against married layfolks, and that gays have it easy within the church, because so many bishops are, she thinks, closeted gay men.

Though Steve and I had scraped very hard to find money to put ourselves through graduate school, working at any job we could find to make ends meet as we studied, and though her education and that of her husband had been paid for by the church, she believed that she and her husband were placed at a disadvantage by the church, while doors opened for gay folks. Though she and her husband found immediate employment—and in the same city—at Catholic universities, when they left the priesthood and religious life and married, and though Steve and I had no such certainty of finding jobs together, and almost certainly would not have been hired had it been known we were a couple and/or gay, she persisted in believing that the church treats gay folks with conspicuous favoritism.

That’s my memory of seeing “Maurice.” Looking back, it seems ludicrous that going to a movie with the man I loved, in the company of another closeted gay man, should have been a dangerous act, an open declaration of something the schools at which we taught would not countenance.

And yet it was precisely that, and the way in which my colleague in the theology department at Xavier used her knowledge that I had been at this movie proved precisely that. In a year or so, Steve found himself out of a job when he was unilaterally denied tenure by his seminary’s rector, though faculty and students had voted for him to be tenured. When he applied for an opening at Xavier, the colleague who had seen us together at “Maurice,” and who was convinced in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary that gay men are privileged in the church, blocked Steve’s attempt to get that job, precipitating our move to another place, where we found ourselves both booted again in the course of a few years—and where we, thanks be to God, finally dispensed with the dysfunctional closet game.

And so perhaps that homophobic colleague was a vehicle of grace for us? Perhaps. I surely would not want to be closeted any longer, not for all the world and its pomp and ceremonies, nor would I want to be teaching at a school at which I was expected to remain in the closet.

But some of the hard knocks, the assault on my faith, the attacks on my human dignity, the loss of jobs with no explanation when we have both worked exceptionally hard within Catholic institutions that claim to respect human rights? Those I would gladly have foregone. Except that without them, I probably would not be telling this story now.