November 17, 1998.
Dear Allan Johnson,
I just read the excerpt from your book in the latest issue of Ms. and wanted to write you about it.
How smoothly it draws me in, a reader taking the time to send a thoughtful email from out of the blue, “and wanted to write you about it,” the “it” being The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, published the year before.
I read on, slowly at first,
You are such a vagina,
then more quickly as I realize what this is,
We know, of course, that you are gay and that you must have hated your father. What a traitor to your sex you are.
And then his name, or the one he gives, you never know with email.
I pause, disbelieving and yet also knowing that it had to happen sooner or later. I go back to read it again and a flutter takes flight in the pit of my stomach as his anger detaches itself from the words on the screen and drifts slowly into the air around me.
My first hate mail. A singular event in a writer’s life.
I read it a third time, as if repetition will make it less than what it is, render it harmless by turning it into something else, like a word said over and over until it has no meaning at all, just a sound becoming more and more peculiar and unfamiliar.
Not the usual vulgar terms for female genitals, but plain, almost clinical, not fooling around, getting right to the heart of it.
You are such a vagina.
I wonder, did it occur to you that the word you’ve chosen names that part of your mother’s body through which you came into life? That part of any woman’s body without which none of us would have been born, that ancient sacred metaphor for the source from which all life comes, what nurtures and sustains us? Did you imagine the hatred for women’s bodies, for your mother’s body, or perhaps a sister or a daughter or a woman you lie beside at night and claim to love, the hatred beneath this insult men so routinely use on one another or hold in reserve against every man’s fear of being singled out in this way as one of them?
But, there’s more. Of course, we know that you are gay and that you must have hated your father. What ‘we’ is this? The editorial or perhaps the royal, as in we who are fit to rule and know that you are not, because you must be gay and gay trumps everything, making you not one of us, the real men, and so whatever you say means nothing.
Except that what I wrote was enough to bring him out, which is more interesting than the question of who I’d rather sleep with, which he doesn’t take as a question at all, which is even more interesting, the assumption that he knows who I am from a few pages of a book he happened to read.
A classic double bind. To ‘defend’ myself that I’m not gay, pointing to my 27 year marriage to Nora and my children and grandchildren and on and on, is to agree that the charge needs defending against, that gay should trump everything, but this time he got the wrong guy. And to let it go is to take my place on the outside, as other, not a real man after all.
A gay vagina.
What a concept.
Who hates his father.
I should call dad and tell him who I really am, a gay vagina who hates him and always has, except that he wouldn’t understand, certainly not the gay vagina part, but also the other in the face of this love we’ve had for the almost sixty years I’ve been alive, the hugging and kissing when we meet and say goodbye, the ‘I love you,’ on the phone. But see, here it is, I managed to sneak it in that yes, I do love my father and always have, which doesn’t mean, of course, there were never times I had little good to say about the man I thought he was.
I saw him just a few months ago on a speaking trip to the west coast. Just turned 92 and all humped over from crumbling vertebrae, hugging is for him a thing of the past except for a crab-like sideways embrace we sidle into. He is better now than he was, when he needed help pulling down his pants to go to the bathroom and couldn’t sleep for the pain. He smiles as I walk through the door of the apartment he shares with Geraldine, his wife and my othermother for almost 40 years. Well, hello, Allan! and I call out Vladimir!, accenting the second syllable as he’s taught me to do in proper Russian fashion, Vladimir Ivanovich Ivanovski. He is Norwegian, named Valdemar, and not Russian, but learned the language from the Navy during the Second World War. It is a small ritual between us, this playing with language that instantly identifies me on the phone, It must be Allan, my hateful gay vagina son.
I stare at the email on the screen and wonder at how this stranger came to think he knew me or, more likely, needed to think he did. But there, I’m doing it now, thinking I know what he thinks and why, and for the same reason, because I need to know, to have some idea of him, because he threatens me, frightens me, as I must him. We defend ourselves in different ways – he calls me vagina and makes up my life, and I turn him into a man who hates women and is frightened of the truth – but defense is what it is in either case, this making the other up, pretending that we know.
And so, I wonder, what have I done to frighten him enough to track me down (Ms. didn’t print my email address) just to insult me, to try to frighten me as much as I apparently have frightened him?
A traitor to your sex
to maleness itself, a side to be taken, requiring loyalty and trust, which can then be betrayed. Which I have betrayed, and so, he does not feel safe with me, nor I with him who has found me out.
He expects me to be loyal to him because we share a common sex, to put him before and above all women, mother, grandmother, wife, daughter, granddaughter, sister, friend, a ridiculous idea and yet I am sure that this is exactly what he means. And he is not alone in requiring this of me or any man.
But treason to one thing is always, at the same time, loyalty to another. One is never just a traitor. To what, then, am I loyal, what do I choose over solidarity with men? Well, it must be women, which is why I’m such a vagina. It’s true in a way, being more drawn to women than to men, which goes back a long way, to grade school where I never understood the polarizing separation of girls from boys at a certain age, the taking of sides, the antagonism across a gulf of desire and attraction. It was girls I sent notes to in class and followed home after school and suffered over at dances and parties. But, it was not, nor is it now, a matter of loyalty. I liked girls and boys and did not feel the need to ally with one in opposition to the other.
But if I had to choose, if I had to place a bet on the best chance of intimacy, deep friendship, safety, and love, the possibility of an open heart, I’d take women every time.
But I don’t think that’s what he’s upset about, whether I prefer the company of women. He’s onto bigger stuff, sexual politics, gender and power, the system of male privilege that is the ground he stands on, depends upon, believes in, and when another man writes and speaks out about that, it is a serious business. My treason is not to him, but to a larger political order with a long history and a deep institutional base, and only through that to those who benefit from and identify with it, who cannot see where it ends and they begin, who cannot help but hear criticism of it as a personal attack on them.
My loyalty is not to men and not to women. I refuse the choice. It is to life and clarity and what is true. And to justice, the enduring sense in every human being of what is fair and what honors the dignity and spirit of living things. To this I’m loyal and from this my treason comes.
Almost always, whether I’m speaking on race or gender, there is among the questions at the end one in particular, usually from someone older, most often a mother or a wife, worrying aloud about sons or husbands, what will become of them, who they might be if not who they are.
How did I come to do this work?
What was it that made this so important to me?
How does a straight white male wind up challenging his own privilege?
Sometimes the question seems rhetorical
What the hell do you think you’re doing?
but more often there is a pause in the asking, a recognition of difficulty and pain, a sense of being lost, not knowing how or where to go from here, that comes to wanting to know how I got to be this way, was it something in particular, did something happen, some moment of awakening.
How did I get to be this way? Is that what this is about, some way of being that I got to in such and such a way, and so can you if you just know how? What happened? What did someone say or do, what did I see or hear that turned me around, rearranged my psychic furniture and set me on this path?
I look out over the audience – it has happened so many times, being asked this question, that I could be anywhere – Oregon, Indiana, Georgia, Texas, Ohio, Maine, Kentucky, Idaho – and I think, I have no idea. Then a long pause as I consider once again whether to let that be my reply, feeling the weight of expectation bearing down, not good enough, having no idea of where you came from, how you got to here. But, I want to say, you’re asking me the wrong question, or the right one wrongly put. Because who we are can never come down to just one thing. We might tell ourselves if only this had happened or that had been avoided, but it’s never that simple, because everything is connected to so much else. If I say that I came of age in the ‘60s, would that be it? But millions of straight white men came of age back then and never dreamed of doing what I am doing now. One of them may have sent me that email.
In my mind, I’m standing in a room, walls lined with photographs from my life, some black and white, some in color, some dog-eared and broken, others fresh and glossy, some familiar and some I’ve never seen before. Hanging from the middle of the ceiling is a giant crystal ball, many-faceted, like in a dance hall, that turns and reflects the light in tiny fast moving illuminations, never pausing long enough for me to see anything in particular. Just endless moving light and a sea of fragmented images that mean nothing by themselves. Add or take one out, even close my eyes, and it’s still the same, because it isn’t an idea or a string of facts leading to some conclusion, but closer to a feeling, a sense of something close by, separate, but all around.
I think it was the potter, Mary Caroline Richards, who described poetry as what ideas feel like, which would place the origins of a life closer to poetry than to science. And all that we can do is sit among the images and memories, the fragments of a life, and try to see them better and what is coming next.
For years I dodged the question because I didn’t know what to say. But it’s also true that part of me didn’t want to know, didn’t want to go deeper into the loneliness of a traitor’s life, into what it took to become and what it takes to live as a straight white man surrounded by people whose privilege my work is dedicated to oppose. I have now come to a place of reckoning where I feel I must respond, that the work itself demands it, and what follows is the result.
From A Traitor to His Sex: A Memoir (unpublished) © Copyright 2010 by Allan G. Johnson. All rights reserved. This article may be quoted, reprinted, or distributed for noncommercial purposes only and with an attribution to Allan G. Johnson, www.agjohnson.com, and this copyright notice.
Similar essays and more can be found at Allan’s blog, “Unraveling the Knot.” To visit, click here.
For more of Allan’s work on issues of gender, see his book, The Gender Knot.