Out Of The Shadows
Jad Salfiti in conversation with Walt Odets
The last decade has seen LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms advance significantly in the West. At least superficially, things have never been better. Yet, even today, in the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the midst of the digital revolution, many gay men are living troubling lives. Out of the Shadows might be the best gay book you’ve never heard of. It’s an ambitious stab at understanding Western gay male identity and trauma.
Having focused his practice on gay men over the last four decades, author and psychologist Walt Odets looks at the recurring issues he observed in his patients. He combes their stories together with his own personal life experiences. The resulting book is unique and thought-provoking in the ways it helps gay men see their scars as signs of honour, rather than shame. Though never an easy read, for those who stay the whole way, it’s a highly rewarding, nuanced and important addition to the growing canon of queer literature.
Jad Salfiti: Alright! Lovely to meet you, Walt. My best friend bought me a copy of your book, which his boyfriend gave him. Since reading it, I’ve passed it around the hands of many others. And while it’s trav- elling, I’m waiting for my copy to come back. Sorry, by lending it out, I realize I am unwittingly making you lose profit that you would have generated from book sales. But it is just so interesting, so revela- tory and astonishing. I just had to give the book to others to read.
Walt Odets: No, I understand.
J.S.: Could you tell me how the book came about?
W.O.: In 1992, we were still in the depth of the HIV epidemic. And in fact, my partner died on November 30th, 1992 at 8:15 in the evening. You know, that’s how it got stuck in my head. And I wrote this book called, In the Shadow of the Epidemic about being HIV negative in the age of AIDS. I did it to be helpful to people.
In the United States, people with AIDS had no money to eat… and there was a San Francisco organization that was helping feed them, and all kinds of support. And the head of the organization asked me if I would do an HIV negative event. They had about 35 people who worked in the or- ganization, and he thought that probably six or eight people there were negative. I said that’s fine. And so, when I got to the event, out of the 35 people who worked in the system, 28 of them were there HIV Negative. They were hiding the fact that they were HIV negative. They didn’t want to hurt people who had HIV. They felt shame about not having HIV for a variety of reasons.
I had spoken to a lot of friends, through letters, paper letters in the days when we did paper letters… and the book turned out to be very helpful to many people. It was about people that were HIV negative. How people, who were negative, could connect with those who were positive, and vice versa.
As I was writing it, there were a lot of things I’d love to talk about connected to gay men, and how gay men live and relate to each other. And I couldn’t do that be- cause I couldn’t put all that into this book, because this book was really about some- thing very specific. And so, I would make hand notes and I’d have a cardboard box on the floor, and I’d dump the notes in the box. By 2012, I had two of these book box- es jammed with these notes. And I thought to myself, so, I have two options here. One is I can go buy another box to make room for these notes. Or, I could use these to ac- tually make this book that you’ve thought about several times. And I decided to make the book because I felt that gay peo- ple were still living troublesome lives in many ways. And that I wanted people to understand themselves in a different way. So, I put some material in there about my- self, as inspiration.
J.S.: The book is littered with small vi- gnettes into your life. But also, your obser- vations as a therapist working with hun- dreds of gay patients…
W.O.: Yes, but you might not know this but my father was in the US a very famous playwright. Starting in the 1930s, in New York theatre, you know, half the men there are gay. Or in those days, they called them homosexuals. They lived together. Two men lived together and that sort of thing. So, I never grew up thinking there’s anything wrong with being gay. It had nev- er occurred to me.
I had this friend Stuart. When we were in grammar school, around 10 or 11 years old, we would spend the night at each other’s houses with the families, and so, Stuart and I would do sports stuff and then take showers together. In the shower, I noticed Stuart had the only pubic hair I had ever seen.
And so, he was over something that night of the house and I said, “I’m gonna look at the hair on your penis”. And he said “okay”. We took our clothes off. We were lying around messing on the bed. We weren’t having sex, really… We were mess- ing around with each other. And I was looking at the hair and all that. And my father walked into the room. And he said, “Oh, I didn’t know you kids are busy — I was just gonna say goodnight”. And then he sort of waved as he was going out of the room, closed the door again. So, Stu- art said to me “oh boy, now we’re gonna get in trouble!”. And I said “for what?” I thought maybe he’d like a broken dish at dinner or something that I didn’t know he did. So, I said “why are we gonna get in trouble?” And he said, “well your father’s gonna call my parents and tell them what we did”. And I didn’t even know what he was talking about. And so, I told my father the next day “Stewart says you’re going to call his parents and get him in trouble”. And he said, “For what?” and I said, “for when you walked in the bedroom, we were messing around on the bed”. And he said, “Well, his parents have probably told him some stupid things…you tell him that I’m not going to be calling his parents”. And then, I started to walk out of the room and he said, “No, wait a second. You have to know that these are the kinds of things you make your mind up about when you’re older”. And so, I had a different life… Most of the people I work with, maybe 300 dif- ferent people I’ve worked with in therapy, I’ve had maybe two patients lead similar families.
J.S.: Why was your dad like that? Have you ever tried to interrogate how your dad ended up that way? Like, obviously he works in the theatre, but still, you know, there are many people who work in spaces that are inhabited by many LGBTQ+ people who are not tolerant?
W.O.: It was just in his nature if you read about him, I mean, he was very famous. He was, you know, considered one of may- be the four most important playwrights in America in the 20th century. He was very erudite. He was interested in people and he was very psychological. And he subscribed to all of these psychology mag- azines and so on… he was just… he knew people. He was interested in people. He wrote about people in his work. I think it was just a natural and normal thing.
J.S.: This leads me to a question I’ve been thinking about for a while. Do you think that homophobia or racism or any form of discrimination stems from an incapacity to understand that there are people in this world that aren’t the same as you — like some kind of ’block’?
W.O.: Well, I think there are people who are uncomfortable with people who are unlike them. A great part of it is certainly that I don’t think there’s any man in the world who can’t have sex with another man. It is just simply in our nature, and men are taught that they’re not to do this and that and are further taught to car- ry shame — even if they think about it. I would imagine going way back, you know, maybe 2000 years — this idea of heterosex- uality is simply a way to keep a society or- ganized and of organizing social groups.
J.S.: Do you think more people are capa- ble of developing romantic and sexual con- nections with men, that we’re only seeing a fraction of those who will acknowledge it because actually, society was primed to push a heteronormative agenda?
W.O.: Yeah, I think that’s all correct. Where are you currently?
J.S.: I’m in Berlin. Probably the world’s queerest city.
W.O.: I hear that from people.
J.S.: Yeah. Well, actually, you know, by coincidence, your book cover has a pho- tograph on it by one of Berlin’s most cel- ebrated queer photographers, Wolfgang Tillmans. The photograph is of someone I actually used to see in Berlin’s clubs all the time, he also goes to my gym actually. How did you end up with a Wolfgang Till- man photo on your book cover?
W.O.: The publisher suggested some pho- tos, and they said he’s a well-known pho- tographer. I didn’t know who he was but
there’s something kind of sexy about the neck, you know? I thought it was a good photograph. I thought there was some- thing erotic about it. And very kind of boyish in a way, because he has his face, turned away from you, and there’s some- thing about a neck. I mean if you’re lying in bed with a guy, you want to lick his neck — why not?
J.S.: In the opening of the book, you speak about the problems of the term ’homosex- ual’. It’s called ’Are Gay Men Homosexu- als?’ And, here is a short passage:
“There are two different perspectives on what makes a man “a homosexual.” The first — the heterosexual perspective is that homosexuals are “men who have sex with men.” The gay man’s perspective, briefly put, is that he is “attracted to other men.” The difference between the two descrip- tions is important: the heterosexual iden- tifies a single, objective behaviour, the gay man an entire internal life of feeling. While the straight man may feel support, indifference, fear, or contempt for the idea of “the homosexual,” the gay man has more complex feelings, in part be- cause the term has historically been used to stigmatize. “Are you a homosexual?” is easily, often correctly, experienced as the opening salvo of an attack. The majority of gay-identified men do have at least a marginally conscious sense that being gay is about more than sexual attraction or sex; but many gay men have been swayed by the heterosexual definition and have accepted the narrow, behaviorally defined identity.”
It’s quite an opening. For those who have not read your book, can you elaborate on this opening passage?
W.O.: Yeah, the term homosexual, defines people in terms of their sexual behaviour, which is ridiculous. I just think that it’s simplistic and tells you nothing about peo- ple. So that’s why I placed this chapter at the beginning of the book. I just think that a gay sensibility, a true one, is more com- plex, more interesting, more open, and more explorative. And in various ways, it’s one of the reasons that women get along with gay men so well, and can actually talk to them. You share a certain kind of sen- sibility and emotional expression in gay men. That you find much less often with men who are straight, you know, when they were three years old, said, you know, they say things like “boys don’t cry”. In early development, boys are taught that they’re supposed to behave in a certain way, while girls are allowed to cry and al- lowed to express emotion. They’re allowed to do all kinds of things that boys of that age aren’t allowed to do.
J.S.: Now, something that also piqued me in the book, was the definitions of different kinds of sex. One of them you call ’sports sex’. Sport sex is for play. Other times it can be something more profound and an expression of love. In my mind, most sex that happens gay, straight or otherwise is purely for fun. Love is developed through spending lots of time with someone and becoming closer emotionally. Sometimes, sex and love coincide. And sometimes not. Most of the time not. Maybe, we should be taught that at school?
W.O.: Yeah, I mostly agree with that. I’ve seen it work in many different ways. When I had sex for the first time, I actually fell in love with the person. And I can’t tell you what it’s about. You know when you have sex, and touch people, and you move with people, all of that is also a way of talking to people.
J.S.: In a speculative future, what if we found love partners that we connected with emotionally and intellectually, and had a closeness with and kept sex sepa- rate? Is this a reasonable thing to say? This is a bit of a taboo to talk about, but often in relationships, people meet, there is a lot of sexual chemistry, and then it kind of fizzles out. Sometimes after six months, sometimes after six years. But, what if they just skipped the sex and just went straight into non-sexual relationships that were built on compatibility and having sex with other people?
“How two men structure power in the re- lationship cannot, and need not, rely on traditional gender roles, which have done little good for anyone; just as gay men must invent themselves, they must invent their relationships.”
W.O.: We can certainly be in love with an- other person, and experience each other as emotionally connected, and intellectual partners without having a sexual relation- ship. I believe such issues vary hugely with different people. For example, many gay relationships remain highly sexual, but other men are simply uncomfortable with sex, have physical or medical problems, or have sexual desires that do not connect well with loving partners (BDSM is one example) In many extended relationships, sex also often wanes. I don’t believe that there’s much difference in sexual values and shifts between gay and straight cou- ples.
J.S.: I’ve noticed in the last few years the rise of ’therapy-speak’. The therapeutic discussion has really entered the main- stream and is embraced, particularly by the new generation. When I look back on older generations, I sense conscious or unconscious resistance to therapy, what are your thoughts on that?
W.O.: I think it’s true that therapy is much more widely accepted now. And you know, there’s this resistance, there is an effort for a person to deny their internal life, which is there… I mean, it’s floating around in there. However, men are trained to be pragmatic, to move through life in a prag- matic sort of way. You know, “you can do this, you put the spare tire on the car”.
J.S.: What does queer mean to you?
W.O.: I mean, to me, I mean, someone who’s willing and able to be indepen- dent, to be himself whatever the context. I think it’s a good word. It’s like “he’s an oddball”. “He’s very funny”. “He laughs all the time”. And then it can fall in the other direction. He’s queer because he hides. I think that word is used so broadly and differently, I’m not sure how to an- swer it, but actually, I like the word, you know. I mean, be queer yourself. If being queer means being yourself, I think that’s a huge success. You know if you’re queerly disconnected from others, that’s a differ- ent kind of problem.
J.S.: Now I was about to ask you next, why do people end up gay? I then checked my- self and wonder why do we have to explain our sexualities? Why do we have to keep explaining it? Why are people straight? And I guess the argument will always be, “oh, well, they can reproduce” but… then so can gay people.
W.O.: I don’t know why people are gay, I think for many different reasons. people like to fancy the idea that they were gay because they were born that way. We don’t know exactly what that means — there are things in neurological or genetic systems that make people gay and all of that, we don’t truly know anything about how that works. And then, I’d like to take that com- ment and say so what, who cares why we are or are not gay? The point is that we have a 25-year-old or a 50-year-old, and that person feels gay.
But there’s been a tremendous effort, at least in the US, to promote the idea that people are born gay because of certain neurological or genetic features. There may be something to that, but it’s clearly not the whole story. I’m sure there are no gay genes in people that make them gay.
J.S.: So, I have to ask do you have another book in the works?
W.O.: I have one in the works, it’s a dif- ferent kind of book. It’s a kind of mem- oir about my family and my growth. Something I don’t like is that if I wrote
about my family; I’d have to talk about celebrities. And I really don’t like that, I’m talking about the most obvious one, that’s Marilyn Monroe. She was treated as a thing.
J.S.: I’m intrigued now, what is your con- nection to her?
W.O.: I can just tell you briefly that I know her because she was a friend of my fa- ther’s. She had come to New York to work with an acting coach named Lee Stras- berg. And when she came there, she didn’t have a place to live. She ended up staying in our apartment for maybe eight or nine months. And people would run up to her and say, “who are you?”. And I think they just thought “Well can’t be Marilyn Mon- roe, but it looks a lot like her”.
They would run up to her and try to pull out a piece of hair, you know, or a piece of clothing or something like that. And it scared me as a seven-year-old and I went back to my nanny whose name was Hel- en and said “you know, people aren’t very nice to Marilyn. And she said “What do you mean? I said, “Well, they’re like, they want to pull out pieces of her hair and things. They treat her the way I treat my toys. I play with them and when I’m done, they just throw them in the corner”.
So, in any case, the point I’m making is this thing about using people as things; that bothers me a lot. And that’s the risk in my doing this new book because I don’t want to talk that way to people.
Well, Marilyn and gay people get tangled up and the difference between things and people. And it’s remarkable how many people are treated like things. This is kind of what stopped me from writing that second book. I don’t want to write a book about things. And so I thought, I’m just throwing that in at the end because it was my that was my first experience with the ’things’ problem, because of the way she was treated on the street. Gay men are treated as things, they are treated as fags.
J.S.: Was Marylin Monroe a nice person? Do you remember what she was like as a personality?
W.O.: Yeah, she was very intelligent. She wasn’t who people thought this ’thing’ was.
J.S.: She wasn’t this caricature, this dumb blonde bombshell. I saw a clip of her sing- ing and strumming a guitar once from the film Down in the Meadow and she wasn’t what I expected. She wasn’t this sexual cartoon character. Or that Rabbit, what was she called? Jessica Rabbit! In the film, she seemed like a very sweet, gentle soul.
W.O.: She was that but she was very intel- ligent. And she was very funny. She was just fun to talk to. I saw her until she died. We stayed in touch because she moved out to California. We had moved to California and she moved out to California. So, she was nearby and I would see her and she liked kids. She never had a child of her own. She liked kids, but she died in 1962. And there’s a lot of controversy over how she died.
J.S.: We’re coming to the end of our con- versation, though I’ve loved chatting. A question has just come to my mind. We all come from heteronormativity, so we’re all to differing degrees independent of it as queer or gay men. But does the gay com- munity run the risk of creating new inflex- ible, homonormative norms and shaming other gay men who fall out of line?
“Shaming does not enhance self-care, it dispirits the effort, and it encourages the shaming of others, who are in turn dispir- ited. Shaming has no place in any kind of education, especially in education for gay men who have been raised in shame and long been shamed for the very sexual behaviour that education most hopes to change.”
W.O.: I’m not aware of “homonormativity” among gay men, though some gay men do carry “homonormal” values that affect gay relationships and often damage them with “expected” behaviour. I am certain that gay men have a wide array of ways to live their lives.
J.S.: If what you say is gay men often have more developed internal lives, but even some do not. Then the same would stand for straight men, who would also be on a spectrum. A straight man with a very de- veloped emotional life probably would be very lonely and frustrated dealing with other straight men.
W.O.: I’d clarify this piece by saying that because of the complexity of being gay in straight societies, gay men very often have more developed internal, emotional- ly examined lives. Others often avoid that internal exploration and live not as “gay” men, but as men who have limited connec- tions to other men. I have known many men whose “gay life” was about nothing more or less than the regular use of sex workers. I also know that there are many men who have lived conventional hetero- sexual lives but have a great deal of emo- tional insight.
J.S.: Thanks so much, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you!
W.O.: You’re welcome.