Martin Pousson’s Black Sheep Boy

From Martin Pousson's Black Sheep Boy
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Martin & me (in the 90s, obvs)

Full disclosure: I’ve known Martin Pousson for a long, long time. Decades, in fact. It can be a little awkward having artists as friends: will I like their new work? What will I say if I don’t? Thankfully, that’s never been a problem with Martin. He’s a master of language and a magnificent storyteller.

In some ways, Martin and I had similar upbringings. Our parents came from humble, country backgrounds. Our mothers strove to give us the best of everything: clothes, toys, an education, far more than they’d had growing up. Our fathers worked day and night to meet our mothers’ demands, and as a result, they figured less into our lives.

But Martin’s mother was ambitious in the extreme. In his writing, she’s always pushing, nagging, coddling, scolding, concerned about appearances and keeping up. (She reminds me a little of Rebecca Wells’ mom in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but so, so much crazier. And more real.) Not surprisingly, his mother figures prominently in his first novel/memoir, No Place, Louisiana, and in his second, Black Sheep Boy.

You might wonder how someone could wring two memoirs out of one childhood, but in Martin’s case, there’s plenty of material to explore, and there’s astonishingly little overlap between the books.

More importantly, they’re written in dramatically different styles. They’re companion pieces, best read together.

No Place, Louisiana is the fairly straightforward story of Martin’s childhood. I’d describe it as creative nonfiction: a real-life, start-to-finish story laid out in stunning prose.

Black Sheep Boy is told through vignettes, 15 stories of events that took place over the first 20-ish years of Martin’s life. They unfold, unravel, dip, and climb through chapters, paragraphs, and sentences comprised of pure poetry.

Put another way: in No Place, Louisiana, Martin goes from Point A to Point B to Point C, connecting the dots of his own story. In Black Sheep Boy, the connecting lines disappear, and Martin dives deep into the dots themselves, exploring and explaining how he’s come to be who he’s come to be.

As such, Black Sheep Boy doesn’t have a conventional plot; Martin himself is the throughline. Each chapter brings its own story, its own mesmerizing turns of phrase, its own climaxes — sometimes literally. It’s a magnificent read for anyone, but for this gay man of a certain age, it wasn’t just beautiful, it was a look at part of my own life.

Peeking out from a time machine

Provincetown galleon
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I fell asleep on the beach at Long Point, the sandy, sun-baked tip of Cape Cod, where the calm waters of Provincetown Harbor merge with those of Cape Cod Bay and eventually, the Atlantic. I awoke to the sight of a galleon–a real one, a seaworthy one, one with three masts, three decks, and miles of rigging, suitable for pirates, but used for tourists. It was quiet and massive, a magnificent spider skimming across low waves toward the swells of the open ocean.

You’ve had moments like this too, I hope–confusing moments that make you question not where you are, but when. The brief exhilaration of peeking out from a time machine.

I wondered how many others in that once-small, once-fishing-village had seen the same thing: a ship cutting across the waters, a hulking, man-made thing carrying away loved ones, messages, dreams. Wives praying that their sailor husbands would return home safely. Merchants hoping for strong trade winds and huge fortunes. Fathers and maybe even mothers remembering when they’d gone to sea themselves, before the flotsam of age accumulated around their waists, anchoring them to this remote spot.

If I were alive a hundred years ago, two-hundred, three-hundred–if I were my same self, my gay, yearning self–what would I have done?

Would I have turned my back on the ship, returned to my work, content that others were on the move, even if I weren’t?

Would I have chased it, shouted at the crew, jumped into the cool waters of the harbor, praying to swim faster than the wind in the ship’s sails so I could be carried away to another life, another view of another harbor where I might’ve found happiness?

Or would I have watched my last hope of salvation disappear across the horizon, walked into the bay, and tread water with the seals, enjoying their company until the sharks came and separated us, pulling me under?

Words of wisdom

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From my dear friend Brick and his deeply NSFW blog (seriously, mom, don’t click that link):

 “Eventually something you love is going to be taken away. And then you will fall to the floor crying. And then, however much later, it is finally happening to you: you’re falling to the floor crying thinking, ‘I am falling to the floor crying,’ but there’s an element of the ridiculous to it — you knew it would happen and, even worse, while you’re on the floor crying you look at the place where the wall meets the floor and you realize you didn’t paint it very well.” – Richard Siken

Orlando, religion, the South, and me

Southern Baptist Church in Manhattan
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Many of my gay friends bear the scars of religious upbringings. Some more than others.

I know, I know. The stories of the Young Gay trying to pray away his alleged sins, trying to hide his clandestine hook-ups with curious friends and knowing strangers, trying to avoid handsy priests and youth ministers after choir practice or during lock-ins: these are the stereotypical stories that draw the media’s attention, sell books, spawn movies and plays.

But just because they’re stereotypes doesn’t mean that they’re not true.

* * * * *

I was raised in the Southern Baptist church in the middle-of-nowhere Mississippi. Difference and diversity were as foreign as subways and discotheques.

I was a poor match. As soon as I figured out what “gay” meant, I knew that “gay” meant me. And I knew that that was bad. Our preacher said so, my teachers said so, my family said so.

I spent a decade running from myself — hiding from myself, really — denying my urges, wishing I could be “normal”, and fooling around with plenty of guys on the side. Living that kind of double-life required loads of secrecy and Olympics-level mental gymnastics.

Even now, long after I’ve given away my last fuck about what people think, I’m still wary of religion. Christianity is the scariest monster under the bed, but honestly, all faiths make me skittish.

Which is why I was surprised to get this message from my sister-in-law on Sunday: Continue reading

Orlando

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At this point, I feel like the things we’re saying about Orlando have been said a thousand times before: homophobia, Islamophobia, hatred, love, acceptance, America, sorrow.

But of course, we can’t stop saying those things just because they’ve already been said. We can’t stop acknowledging these tragic events when they happen — and of course, they’ll continue to happen, perhaps even more so now, as the LGBT movement makes greater gains around the globe. We’ll see pushback, backlash, and some of it will be bloody.

I may say those things myself at some point. But today, I’m not feeling especially articulate. So here’s someone else saying them, someone smarter than I, with better hair, and with an adorable British accent:

Reflection

Snow White magic mirror
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I’ve known some dark people, but no one perfectly black.

Even my goth-iest friends, the ones who swore that their insides were the color of tar didn’t come close. Not because they were posers, but because: hold a flashlight to the back of your hand and watch your palm glow red from the light. Skin is translucent. Even the darkest, most shriveled heart of the crustiest, most shriveled curmudgeon pulses with color.

Metaphysicists have said it for years, and physicists agree: everyone reflects light. We absorb very little of it. The sun, the hanging lamp in the kitchen, the candle at that restaurant, radiate light, and we give it back, re-formed in our own image. We’re all mirrors. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to see a damned thing.

Does nature really abhor a straight line?

City grid (Philadelphia, PA)
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When you see a hill, a tree, a shimmering blue lake, what’s the first thing to cross your mind? Do you think:

“Damn, that’s pretty.”

Or is it more like:

“That would look better with a Starbucks.”

Who was the first person to look at a grove of trees swaying in the breeze, cock her head to one side, and see them in her mind’s eye, stripped of leaves and stacked six feet high to create a wall, a hut, a house?

Who was the first person to look at a crossroad and envision a stop sign, giving birth to order and disorder and lawyers in one fell swoop?

Who was the first person to imagine a strip mall, and did it look as bland and cheap to him as it does to us now?

What I’m really asking is: are humans naturally disposed toward order? And if so, is that a unique trait, or are bird nests and dolphin pods just variations on a theme? Is it just opposable digits that helped us dominate landscapes, or is it something deeper, an innate need to categorize people into neighborhoods, cities, countries, to shoehorn knowledge into words, papers, books?

Or, put another way: does nature really abhor a straight line, and if it does, does that make us unnatural?

(Inspired by a quote I read somewhere–possibly in Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, but don’t hold me to it–that could be paraphrased as, “An ordered life is one that wasn’t lived”. Or maybe, “An ordered life suggests that you were preparing for death all along”. Either way, it was striking.)

HIV named 30 years ago

HIV
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Sunday was an important day, and I missed it. It was the 30th birthday of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

Not the virus itself, obviously, which had been around for decades. Just the name.

That chronology of thing-first/name-second reminds me of the history of homosexuality, which seems apropos. Same-sex attraction had been common since the dawn of time but was only given a name in the late 19th century. Then it became something that could be dissected, discussed, treated. It became a legitimate, identifiable threat to mainstream straight folks, not like the vague sin of “sodomy” that anyone was guilty of committing.

I digress.

On May 1, 1986, the journal Nature published a letter from a team of researchers struggling to come up with a name for the virus that causes AIDS (which went through its own nomenclature crisis and was once known by the charming acronym GRID, or Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease). The virus had been identified by researchers three years earlier, but it took them until 1986 to prove that it was the cause of AIDS. And thus, they needed a name.

The letter was entitled “What to call the AIDS virus?”, and it listed seven issues related to their decision to go with “HIV”. Among the more interesting was issue #2:

(2) Though the name should clearly link the viruses to the disease with which they are associated, it should not incorporate the term “AIDS”, which many clinicians urged us to avoid.

The scientists didn’t bother to explain why they were urged to avoid referencing AIDS in the virus’ name. Was there uncertainty in the scientific community about the link between HIV and AIDS? There still is today, though not among reputable scientists. Or were the clinicians trying to distinguish between AIDS-related opportunistic infections that already had perfectly good names like encephalopathy and Kaposi’s sarcoma and the virus that opened the door to those infections?

Maybe I’m being nice, maybe I’m being too naive about the heterosexism and homophobia that ran rampant in the medical community of the day, but I choose to believe the latter.

Anyway, happy birthday, HIV. Here’s hoping that you live to see very, very few more, you little, microscopic asshole.

Transphobic ‘bathroom bills’ reveal what’s on men’s minds (and it’s not good)

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Most of the opinion pieces I’ve read about America’s current spate of transphobic “bathroom bills” employ the same handful of criticisms. To wit:

  • The laws discriminate against an already-marginalized group.
  • The laws are especially harmful to young people coming to grips with their own trans identities.
  • Forcing trans men and trans women to visit restrooms that align with the sex they were assigned on their birth certificates invites more confusion than legislators have bargained for.
  • There are no documented cases of anyone ever misusing trans-friendly bathroom policies to harass women.

And less frequently:

  • These hateful pieces of legislation do nothing to strengthen sexual assault laws. Sexual assault was, is, and will remain illegal, no matter where it takes place. If right-wing legislators really want to protect people against predators, there are far more effective ways to go about it than targeting trans people.

All important points, to be sure.

But what I find weird and, frankly, downright offensive in these discussions is the appalling, retro stereotypes they perpetuate. The proponents of these bills/laws are usually men, who talk about women as if (a) they weren’t in the room, and (b) they were completely incapable of identifying and defending themselves against sexual predators.

Continue reading

19

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Jonno and me, 15+ years into our relationship, on our second 'official' anniversary, at the top of Provincetown's Pilgrim MonumentThe first anniversary is always the most important. After that, we think in multiples of five. Five, ten, 25, 50, 75: those are the anniversaries that get noticed. Those are the ones we celebrate or mourn.

I can’t be certain why that is, but I’d guess that after a while, the process of remembering becomes too taxing. It requires too much effort to get worked up by something that happened so long ago: a marriage, a death, the founding of a nation, a natural disaster. It’s all in the past, right? There’s no need to pull out the confetti or the photo that makes you cry every single year.

But of course, if you don’t mark every anniversary, if you let them slip by, they become less important. The events they commemorate become vague in our memories. They people those events have touched become forgotten, overlooked.

As of today, Jonno and I have been together 19 years. I admit, we’re not planning a blow-out celebration (not that we ever do, honestly). I don’t think we’ve even bought each other gifts. But I’ll do my best to spend the day thinking about him and not taking him for granted.