afternoon [in 1978] Toby Marotta and I were waiting for a bus at the
corner of Castro and 18th, in the heart of San Francisco's best-known
gay neighborhood. All around us were men intentionally projecting
themselves sexually. It was a warm day for San Francisco and many had
taken the excuse to discard unnecessary clothing. Guys wearing only
cut-off jeans, some with skimpy T-shirts or tanktops, many
bare-chested, were walking or leaning suggestively against lamp posts
or buildings. They searched each passerby suggestively,
sexuality upset me. While as a
counterculturalist I considered myself liberated, I had very strong
notions, many of them learned from the feminists I worked with at the
Tenderloin Community Mental Health Clinic, about what kinds of
behavior were "politically correct." I had notions developed during
my experience as a monk about what kinds of behavior were
"spiritually pure." And I had notions deriving simply from my own
sexual sensibilities. Perhaps because of my political and religious
background, I'd come to feel "superior" to people who seemed to me
too concerned with their bodies.
Like most such
feelings of superiority, I
suppose, these were really just compensations for feelings of
inadequacy. I've suffered from what might be called the "Woody Allen
complex." I've wanted to look like a Robert Redford and to have
people desire me for my masculine beauty. But the fact is that I
don't look like Redford and do look more like Allen--or like Saint
John of the Cross (I could never shake my monkishness). I have been
more respected for my intelligence than desired for my beauty. I
resented the sexual prowess and obvious good looks of the men walking
along Castro Street. These were the homosexuals, I thought, who were
supposed to be effete sissies, but here they were, almost all
handsome, manly, and vital. Some of them put Robert Redford in the
class with Woody and me. Yet for all their good looks, I did not see
them as happy.
As I stood on
the corner, I watched the men
avoiding eye contact as they passed one another. They glanced
furtively, looking away quickly when someone appeared to look back at
them. They seemed almost afraid of being caught in the act of
cruising. I recalled reports I had heard from clients at the Clinic
of how they'd felt rejected and put down as they cruised Castro
Street. I recalled their stories of the futile hunt for "Mr. Right,"
the fantasy lover. I recalled their acknowledgment of how such
fantasies, based on particular kinds of sexual attractiveness or
physical appearance, seemed to keep them imprisoned in only the most
superficial assessments of people.
about the myths of karma. I saw
men trapped in webs of their own unwitting design, rejecting and so
being rejected because they were looking for a fantasy ideal that
just didn't exist, looking for someone attractive and sexy yet
missing out because, hoping for some ideal still more attractive and
more sexy to come along, they passed up real
I recalled my
own experiences of walking down
Castro Street and feeling invisible, unable to make civil eye contact
with other walkers. I recalled the fears that I'd woven for myself a
karmic web from which I could never escape. And I thought that the
solution-what I often told my clients might bring them some
relief-was to cut right through the karma by fleeing from this
I was feeling
disgusted with all the
sexuality I saw around me, yet struggling to feel compassion for the
suffering homosexuals hiding behind their masks of pretended glamour.
I remarked to Toby that if we could have some influence in the world,
how wonderful and merciful it would be to free these suffering
homosexuals from their imprisonment in the sexual ghetto.
Toby looked at me
quizzically. "What suffering homosexuals?" he asked.
I described my
perceptions of the surging
moving up and down Castro under the bright afternoon sun. Toby said
he didn't perceive things that way at all. What he saw were liberated
gay men, enjoying the sunny day, reveling in their sexuality,
delighting in the beauty of their own and others' bodies, showing off
to one another, sharing their delight, and exulting in their
all the sexual rejection and
internalized self-hate?" I objected.
whole point," Toby replied.
men are free from fear and self-loathing. They're not suffering
queens and oppressed faggots. They're being natural and open in the
styles the subculture has developed. They're behaving just like
everybody else walking on a public street, acknowledging friends and
acquaintances, noticing an attractive face now and then, but being
pretty oblivious to the passing stream. Most of them aren't feeling
sexual rejection because they're not out hunting sex. They're on
their way to the supermarket or the drugstore.
most of them are aware of the
sexual tension in the air; they enjoy it; that's partly why they're
out here today. Some of them are cruising for sex, especially the
ones in the bars," he allowed. "But even then they're doing that
because they enjoy the game; it's a sport, a way to spend a lazy
afternoon. It's not all that serious to them."
felt in myself an odd change of
consciousness. Just as switching the lights from a dim and cold blue
to a bright and sunny amber can abruptly change the mood on a stage,
so in my mind a filter switched. I saw what Toby was seeing and
everything was different. Instead of a repressed demimonde, full of
desperate, suffering, compulsively sexual homosexuals, I felt
surrounded by gay community, full of natural, happy, liberated gay
men. Instead of karma, liberation. I was astonished by how
differently I experienced the world around me and how differently I
experienced myself standing on that street corner.
"Why do you
think they're desperate?" Toby
asked, breaking into my astonishment.
I started to
explain, but stopped myself, not
wanting to spoil my vision. "Well, I don't know; your explanation of
it all is much more appealing than mine.
explaining the liberationist
politics to which he attributed the emergence of vital gay
neighborhoods like the Castro. I listened half attentively, half
noticing that the bus we wanted was coming, and half questioning what
my sudden change of consciousness signified.
As we got
settled on the bus, I was still
feeling dismayed. We both fell silent as the bus motor, revving to
carry us up the hill, drowned out our conversation. I was thinking
about Toby's question. I saw the men on the street as desperate
because that jibed with my own experience and the report of more than
one person I'd talked to in and out of the Clinic. I wasn't only
projecting my own prejudices or neurotic conflicts onto the scene.
But Toby's version wasn't wrong either. Strangely, both perceptions
were true. Both realities were present together, superimposed on one
"Beauty is in
the eye of the beholder. One
man's meat is another man's poison," I thought tritely. I recalled
the Buddhist saying that the unenlightened live in an unenlightened
world, the bodhisattvas live in a bodhisattva world, buddhas live in
a buddha world.
crested the hill and started down the
other side. The motor groaned as the clutch engaged to slow us down
for the steep descent. After a couple of stops it was time to
transfer to another bus. I began to explain to Toby, after we'd
alighted, how the universe must be very amorphous, never fixed or
solid, how it must be that both my clients' reports and his
description were equally true.
Toby did acknowledge
that there were people in the Castro who were suffering and who did
feel the burden of years of homophobic indoctrination and who spread
their unhappiness to others. But he wouldn't agree with me that the
truth was so arbitrary. He insisted that he could scientifically
document his perception. In fact, he said, he was beginning to
through his research.
He did allow,
however, that metaphysically my
point might be valid, and that as a therapist it was logical for me
to focus on the experience of those needing help. It became clear to
me that my goal in therapy should be to change the clients'
perceptions so that what looked to them like a world of misery became
instead a world of happiness. Obviously, when people perceive the
world as desperate, hostile, unfulfilling, and sick, they tend to act
out those qualities and to create around them that kind of world, for
themselves and for others.
conversation continued all through
By the time he left for home, Toby and I had agreed that the way to
change things was to see the world with different eyes so that
instead of vulgar and threatening it appeared benign and
Search of God in the Sexual
Underworld: A Mystical Journey (Morrow, 1983) by Edwin Clark