Thursday, September 1, 2011

Alan Bennett on Coming of Age as a Gay Teen in Yorkshire, 1950s

Alan Bennett, "Written on the Body," in Untold Stories (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005):

Thus it is that, though not ungregarious by nature, I have never since been a joiner, have avoided clubs and societies, and particularly those where women are not included; the absence of women, it seems to me, always bringing out the worst in men.  Unfortunately until well into my twenties, I regard sex as a club, too, and one to which I have no hope of belonging.  This begins at school, where sex seems an extension of organized games: the boys who are good at one are likely to be good at the other.  So being excused games was also being excused life.  There is always talk, of course, but skinny, fearful, and prudish, I take no part in these discussions, partly because I haven't yet acquired the proper equipment, but also because I am 'religious' and 'not that kind of boy,' and so am thought to disapprove.  I think I disapprove, too, though I am careful to overhear what is being said, while not always appreciating what my classmates get up to.  Innocent yet prurient, I am an unattractive youth (pp. 133-4).

Though Bennett is writing about his school days in Yorkshire in the 1950s, he might be describing here my own adolescence in a small town in southern Arkansas in the 1960s.  And so I wonder if there is a commonality to the gay experience--or, perhaps better, to some gay experiences--in adolescence.  To the coming of age of some gay boys in disparate places in the world . . . . 

His remark about not being a joiner (a theme that runs through this entire marvelous collection of essays, diary entries, short stories, etc.) precisely describes a thread that has run through my whole life, as well--including that aversion to being part of clubs or gatherings of men that exclude women.  I wholeheartedly agree with Bennett: all-male societies have a way of bringing out the brutality of men--something I sensed even as a very young boy, when my father and uncles gathered after Christmas dinner in a separate room from the women in the family, to sip whiskey, boast, and argue politics.  

While my brother Simpson doted on those gatherings, I avoided them like the plague, preferring to be with my mother, grandmother, and aunts, as they sewed, told stories, and made sly, catty comments to and about each other and about everyone else in the world.  All-male clubs frequently degenerate into barbarism--whether those clubs are clubs of Catholic clergy, of gay men (of Catholic clerics who happen to be gay men), of sportsmen, policemen, firemen, soldiers, etc.

The insistence of many societies around the world in the 20th and 21st century that patriarchal social elites have to begin opening up to women's membership has been on the whole a promising development.

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