The sea sounds, a kind of muttering, a variety of voice; it is heavy with stories in a language we strain to follow.
A story is haunting me. In itself, this is not unusual; stories are central, indeed generative, in my life, but the particular story is peculiar. It’s old and I suspect most people know it. The tale goes this way: once there was a great kingdom on an island in the sea. Its capital was a glittering city filled with magnificent buildings, broad boulevards, canals that wound through markets and parks before returning to the ocean. Its people were learned in all the arts and sciences and – it was said – steeped in magic, too. But the deeper the people delved into the world’s mysteries, the more their learning made them prideful, and decadent. The story of the great kingdom is more than a catalogue of marvels and sins, it is a cautionary tale; the kingdom is destroyed, swallowed up by the waters. In some tellings, the destruction is a divine punishment and sometimes it is the result of ruinous war with newer, ascendant civilizations. But in every case it vanishes beneath the waves and takes its wonders with it, lingering on only in legends and in dreams.
From what deep place do these marine voices rise; what prompts them to speak?
The ancient tale came back to me at a supper I attended not so long ago. Pride Day was less than a week off, so, inevitably, it inserted itself in our conversation, and with it the related political questions, One young man, half of a couple I had only met once before and about whom I knew very little, became exercised about how media images of the gay community continue to over-represent leather people, drag queens, and political “radicals.” He said, “Those things are so…” His companion interjected, “so antediluvian?” Then the table laughed, except for me and my … what do I call him? My partner? No, we’re not in business together. Boyfriend? We’re grown men in a well-established relationship, not giddy adolescents just starting out. Husband? We have deep philosophical and political reservations about the institution of marriage and, despite more than two decades of shared life, have invited neither the church nor the state into our personal life. In the past, I have jokingly called him my accomplice and though that sometimes feels right, I will simply call him “my fella” here and note again that we didn’t join in the laughter.
One of the women in the group, a curator by trade, commented on how the pair were already completing each other’s sentences and asked how long they had been together. The fairer of the men smiled and said eight months, then leaned in and kissed the other man. It was a sweet gesture, the kind new couples make all the time, but the strangest impulse nevertheless seized me, and I found myself scanning the restaurant for responses. I am old enough to remember when homophobic violence was more common, so I am sure buried instincts about safety were part of my reaction. But I was also searching for the exits; I was put off by that word: “antediluvian.” Its meanings overwhelmed me: before the great flood; before the disaster; ancient, antiquated, primitive, primal. A lost world filled with potency and risk; the sunken kingdom rose to my consciousness upon hearing it spoken.
Ships sail through those voices, track their way through waves, pass over drowned towers, drowning still, in shadows and in memory.
My sudden, unnecessary nervousness was enough to remind me of how much positive change I have witnessed in my life. I came out at fourteen years of age, in Montreal. Given the kind of place my hometown was, and is, I found my way to a gay youth group run by men active in the then-burgeoning Movement. It was from them that I received much of my early political education. All of this happened less than a decade after Stonewall, which means that I have lived through much of the gay movement’s history and – to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the particular period of my life – been involved with it. I am delighted with the progress gay men (and other queers) have made towards full citizenship. There is less discrimination in employment and housing; blackmail and prison terms for consensual sex are a thing of the past. Same-sex desire is no longer considered a mental illness. How could I not be pleased with those things?
Still, the young men’s comment and peculiar diction troubled me, largely for political reasons. Calling something “antediluvian” – after all – requires that one knows it exists, or rather “existed,” since it implies one thinks it safely in the past. So, it wasn’t so much the men’s lack of historical awareness that rattled me. After all, they were young; people come to an understanding of history’s importance in their own time, and they have much of that ahead of them. What bothered me was that, with a single word, they disavowed what history they did recognize; they distanced themselves from it and I inferred, from past experience and much reading, the reasons they wanted that distance. Of course, relegating something to the past, condemning it as obsolete, is itself a very old political and rhetorical strategy.
How long the deep places have declaimed, how many ships been guided, led astray.
One of the earliest accounts of a sunken kingdom comes from Plato, who wrote of it in both the Critias and the Timaeus. He named the lost realm Atlantis, attributed its foundation to the god Poseidon, and described it as a place of breathtaking bounty. However, he also described it as a terrible threat: a power that had to be fought back lest the best part of the world fall under its thrall. Significantly, Plato has his narrator recount how the story came to him from an ancestor of his who, in turn, got it from an Egyptian priest. Thus, with a single gesture, he situates the account as doubly in the past, incalculably ancient. In doing so, the philosopher suggests a narrative of progress, positions the sunken kingdom, despite its glories, as left behind, archaic, outmatched by the newer cultures that displaced it. His own city is offered as the pinnacle, the crowning achievement of that progress.
Although there would be countless other accounts of a lost civilization, suggesting other names and different, though ominously related, attributes – the sunken kingdom had two opposing faces from the very beginning: it is both paradise and doom. It is both the flower of, and the greatest threat to, civilization. The source of all knowledge and a place long since superseded.
It is the city we’ve forgotten calling to us about what lies beneath this surface and the next.
My supper companions’ discourse regarding media images of leathermen and drag queens shares a strategy with Plato; it suggests what they repudiate is outmoded, no longer an accurate representation of gay life now. It does this despite the fact that both types of people still exist; their objection wants to see them as left behind, and what remains of their communities as moral, political, aesthetic menaces: as unwanted. It wants to cast them in this light, I believe, because they don’t suit the story many in the contemporary movement want told, which is one in which a long political struggle has brought us to a place where gay men can sit – as we did that night – at a table as an ordinary couple and be accepted as such. It is a tale of “progress” in which achieving that gemütlichkeit is the summit, the logical endpoint of our age’s political progress, much as Plato’s system was of his.
In that vision, leathermen and drag queens are atavistic; they have failed to meet the criteria for normalcy and so are inimical to meaningful progress. This was not always the case, however. Ideas of what constitutes political gain have mutated even as progress has been made. The politics I learned as a young man were much more about social change, even transformation, than those championed now. Current terminology tells us something about this. The movement I first discovered was called “Gay Liberation.” Now one almost invariably hears the phrase “gay rights.” It may seem a small thing, but it is an evolution from freedom to privilege.
Among the deep temples, the submerged colonnades, aquatic things still move; is it they that stir the dead to speak? They that give them leave and cause?
In the weeks and months since that supper, images of Atlantis keep arising, unbidden, in my mind. The sparkle of sunlight on white-and-green marble, the glint of it in a torrent of rushing water. I ache to know what we lose when we raze one world and build a new one on its ruins. Nor am I alone in this; other tales of the sunken kingdom join Atlantis in my reverie: tales as full, overbrimming even, of strange arts and rituals, unknown technologies and incomprehensible ways of life. The accounts range from that of Theosophy’s founder, Mme. Blavatsky, so broadly picked up by later occultists, to the hazy longing of glam-rock icon Donovan and beyond, to game designers and filmmakers. From Plato’s prototype to Lemuria and Mu, a parade of imaginary worlds has passed through the literature and into legend. Why? All of them are buried under the sea and under the threshold of our consciousness. And all of them are cautionary tales of too-great ambition, of the desire to go too far, too long. But there are tales that echo these themes in other ways, that make a less overt appeal to the explicatory power of mythology. And we are, after all, speaking of myth here.
Below the light-dappled surface, weeds and towers alike reach out for us. Things swim around them, planets orbit around hidden suns.
To borrow the young men’s “antediluvian” terminology: one sees in the normalizing discourse that has transformed the political landscape and political imagination alike, a flood, a force that obliterates what once stood. I have seen the shift at meetings and in our literature alike. During the Gay Lib years, prominent activists and writers made arguments like this:
“Traditional marriage is a rotten, oppressive institution. […] Gay people must stop gauging their self respect by how well they mimic straight marriages. Gay marriages will have the same problems as straight ones except in burlesque.” (Carl Wittman. “A Gay Manifesto,” 2001).
Or, like this: “Release all the armor […] We must be open at all times for sexual activity; in fact not make it an in-between action, but make every action sexual.” (Charles Shively, “Indiscriminate Promiscuity as an Act of Revolution,” 1991).
Or again: “Our purpose is to urge all such men […] to become traitors to the class of men by uniting in a movement […] to change ourselves from non-masculinists into anti-masculinists.” (Steven Dansky, John Knoebel, and Kenneth Pitchford, “The Effeminist Manifesto,” 1997)
Such affirmations are about difference, which makes these authors very different from many we hear today. Take, for example, the moralizing assimilationism of Kirk and Madsen’s After the Ball or Sullivan’s Virtually Normal, or this from Bruce Bawer’s A Place at the Table (1993): “But the movement has suffered ever since [its beginnings]from the counterculture’s baleful influence” (31).
The comments made by my dinner companion mirror this shift and rhetoric; that much grew clearer as the conversation continued. The early, radical vision is what “leathermen” and “drag queens” became metonyms for that evening. These are the dirty remnants of our pre-equality past that must be left behind as we move forward on our journey of progress – viewed in this ideological context as seamless assimilation – even though it was in communities of precisely such people, such “outsiders,” that the vision of freedom was born. These were the first builders of our house, the first crafters of our place in the world, and we should think twice before we abandon their learning and their arts to a rushing flood of normalcy, of sameness.
There – where the ships pass over the highest flooded towers, where the not-dead voices speak most clearly, the sailors set down their work and add their voices to the tale; add to the store of wonder.
Atlantis in the West, Lemuria in the Pacific. And Mu. And Avalon. So many island kingdoms lost; so many tales told over and over. And rewritten always; always molded to the hunger in the ear and the need for more. Always the magic, always the greatness, always the angry rejoinder and a terrible fall.
I’ve heard so many of them and still do. I cannot help but ask myself why they come back so insistently. And why others might want an account of this world that had less place for wonder and for chance?
The union of sea and sound, the voice and the deep is never ending; it is a call for love: a kind of tide, a living current.
Increasingly, the once-deeply sought vision of full citizenship is flattened, is one of normalization; it is a vision of inclusion rather than of change and difference. That is a significant change: one that, despite its recentness, has become the main account we give of ourselves, which is to say it has become a kind of narrative. It connects to the vast sea of story, including the one haunting me.
The account runs (in a very abbreviated form) something like this: in the late sixties a group of brave men, women, and gender-nonconforming folk started a movement to claim their rightful place in society. In that struggle the men – in particular – gave themselves over to a decade of hedonism and riotous sexual adventure. Then AIDS happened and laid waste to it all. Some, the hateful, called it divine punishment for the excesses of the strange new world that had been created. After much battle, our community emerged from the plague serious, mature, and committed to a well-mannered movement that earned us the right to marry and establish normal, healthy couples and households. It’s a tale that neatly parallels that of a proud city punished for decadence. It mythologizes even as it explains, gives the old world a kind of gloss: corrupt, nearly demonic from one perspective, but hedonistic and paradisiacal when viewed from a different one. Even as some seek to distance themselves from this world, it continues to call others. It was a time and place that made self-expression and exploring the diverse complexities of what it might be to be human, central. Such a way of being is both magical – the kind of creative brilliance that created “safer sex” in response to a plague – and a reason for disavowal, or condemnation, by any movement that conceives of “progress” as a slow retreat from difference, which is itself the definition of assimilation. But conversations still happen in which the time before the great disaster is described with awe, rendered a sort of saga. One may read, for example, Patrick Moore’s argument regarding gay men’s pre-Aids sexual communities in Beyond Shame as a kind of performance art in this light. And the lingering power to enchant is also confirmed by a cast member near the start of James Franco’s recent film Interior. Leather Bar. That man expressed his interest in being part of the movie, which attempts to recreate lost footage from Cruising (a document from very near the end of the earlier stage of gay life,) as being tied into his desire to “live the gay dream.”
And what calls out for love, those rising voices, will endure – because they wait for a response, and every passage over water promises.
Of course, we use narratives to mythologize the past too. They are stories we tell about our history, our struggle to make change, just as Plato’s was an account of the emergence of his culture and a justification of its primacy. Narratives are powerful things, they not only help us to make sense of change, but they can help bring it about, so it’s important to ask what stories one tells and how one tells them. We must ask things like: what story creates more space for freedom and choice? Which opens up the greatest number of possibilities? And what does it mean to cast one’s history as a great disaster, a comeuppance, to coat it in legend, distance, and unreality?
My caution here should not be taken as a rejection of the real political progress made over the years; nor should it be taken as rejection of all the goals of that progress. The desire to see one’s primary relationship receive official recognition is reasonable; it would be absurd to argue otherwise (and I am in such a relationship). My hesitation relates to the ideological forms around which the struggle for recognition has constructed itself, with the kind of story those forms tell about the nature of intimate relationships, with the devil-may-care insouciance with which a movement turned from potentially more interesting stories. Why has progress been conceived of as simply fitting into a system that was once seen as the problem, as oppressive (and is arguably no less so now)? And my hesitation isn’t negated by the vestigial nervousness that seized me at supper, that relic of my distant past. Yes, a feeling of riskiness seized me because that was once what being gay involved: risk not only in the sense of being subject to danger, but also as a willingness to take chances in pursuit of pleasure, knowledge, community.
Nor do I wish to suggest that dissenting voices have utterly vanished; I see myself as one and I write from within a community of others who share my political concerns. Moreover, anyone with an internet connection can testify to the fact that an interest in sexual experimentation and adventure continues as it always has, however hidden and publicly disavowed. It’s just that the dominant discourse, the one that comes from powerful NGOs like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), for example, whose primary focus in recent years has been with issues of marriage and military service, can’t be construed as particularly transformational; their programs aren’t about creating a more diverse and complex world, but about fitting into the one that already exists. Those voices that want more substantial change find their space in the conversation far more limited that those that don’t. That, in itself, deserves consideration.
Progress that is paid for by the reduction of difference is not healthy progress. The impact of the loss of biodiversity on ecosystems is well known. What then might be the impact of monoculture on human life and politics? Perhaps an unyielding sameness in which little changes because there are so few catalysts to change. I think many of us already sense this, which is why we mythologize a world in which difference was not simply present, but celebrated. And that is why it returns in our dreams, our fantasies, our films and books even as it is shoved to the margins of the actual, public world.
Let the ships pass and the drowned voices tell their tales, and let us remember that anything that has sunk may someday rise. May someday seek the sun once more.
The night I came home from the supper that inspired this text I lay awake beside the man I love and watched the thick blue light that filtered through the blinds move on my bedroom ceiling. It flowed and drifted, puddled and spread and retreated. It looked like water, like I was drifting underneath it. When at last I slept the magical marine images that had so obsessed me did not fade. I dreamed I walked by the seashore one night, on a holiday I’ve never actually taken. I walked by the sea on a night that was windless and nearly silent and I paused to look up at the waning moon. It struck me as sad; for some reason tears welled in my eyes. Then the quiet broke slightly. I heard a tinkling, a short series of nearly metallic-sounding notes. There were no buildings nearby; I knew they came from the sea, from somewhere in its depths, somewhere under the surface. They were delicate, beautiful, and unfamiliar; they were filled with longing and something in me responded. I wanted to dive into the water, swim down to the unseen, unseeable source. I wanted, desperately desired, to take a chance on discovery. I found myself wondering how long I could hold my breath; how dangerous might this be? Then I woke up and found myself in a world with no place for so delicate, so seductive a music. And I found myself wondering, still, how long I could hold my breath. How soon the water would come back. Because it always does.
And if the sea continues speaking; how can we reply? What is the response to so great a power; what shape an answer to the deep?
—From CNQ 97 (Fall 2016)