Talking With Gay Psychotherapist and Author Stanley Siegel
By Owen Keehnen
(This interview originally appeared in 'Out' in Albuquerque (8/94), 'Metroline' in Hartford (10/27/94), and 'Wisconsin In Step' (12/94)
Have you ever been curious about the link between creativity and homosexuality? A new book explains that heightened creativity is honed among homosexuals as an adaptive strategy and survival method in a heterosexist society. And that's simply one revelation in this book.
UNCHARTED LIVES is a fascinating study by gay psychotherapist Stanley Siegel and straight Newsday columnist Ed Lowe Jr. The text is a mass analysis of how gay men develop through the eight male life passages from 'pre-emergence' to 'mentorin'’. The book is the result of numerous interviews and research. This data is balanced with Siegel's own dramatic mid-life coming out story.
Recently I had the chance to talk with co-author Stanley Siegel about the book and the fascinating psychological adaptations and tendencies in gay men. It proved to be a very enlightening afternoon.
Right off I want to discuss findings put forward by yourself and co-author Ed Lowe about the link between homosexuality and creativity.
I think that because gay men live in a society that is hostile to them, because they are oppressed, have few role models, and in most cases have no legal rights or institutions that support and honor us we became extraordinarily inventive in the ways we live our lives. The process of become gay, of accepting one's sexuality, is a process of living an extremely original life. The apparatus of a creative life begins early, when we feel we are different in some way but have no language to explain the difference. Young gay boys feel that almost always and consequently they often isolate themselves or are isolated by the outside world. Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming highly productive - drawing, writing, creating. Usually this stays with the person the rest of their life and is only enhanced by the challenges they meet later on.
What about uncreative gay men? Is this tendency dormant in them?
That's my general feeling. I think the more loyal and obedient we are to familial tradition the less room we give ourselves to stand back and create and to find and discover whatever originality we have in ourselves. There are gay men who still live within those traditions, within that very conventional life experience.
Do you think it's something biological, a genetic attribute?
In the animal kingdom animals adapt over time to evolutionary circumstances and those adaptations become genetically encoded, like the chameleon who changes to survive its predators. It may be true that for gay men creativity has been encoded genetically. There's no scientific evidence for that, but no one has ever tried. We haven’t been important enough.
From the perspective of UNCHARTED LIVES, gayness is a determining factor in every branch of life; it’s in direct conflict with the "my homosexuality is only a small part of me" attitude.
I don't believe it's one small section of anybody's life anymore than heterosexuality is a small fragment. I think it's a centerpiece. There are few centering facts in people. There's male, that's one who circumstance, and they're gay, and that creates another whole circumstance. I think that theory is a measure of denial. On the other hand most gay men pass through a stage in which their homosexuality is something they're extremely proud of and at that stage it's all they want to be connected to. Some get stuck in that and homosexuality becomes the only factor.
The book parallels your passage through the developmental passages of being a gay male, along with the research. In your case, a highly selective memory was your form of denial. What was the most unique case of denial you came across in your interviews?
I talked to a man who didn't recognize his homosexuality at all till he was I his late thirties/early forties. He had a sexual obsession to objects - eye glasses, sneakers…in no way did he associate it with homosexuality; it was the object that had been eroticized. When he finally came to terms with the conflict it was clear that behind all the objects were men. Uncovering the connections, he uncovered his homosexuality.
What was the conclusion of all your research?
That everyone in one form or another -- collapsed, accelerated, expanded, or slowed down - goes through developmental stages. The stages are very similar. With the exception of maybe one or two of the men interviewed gay men felt different as children. Most moved from that stage to recognizing the difference was sexual and then discovering the language for it is homosexuality. The entire series of life passages was quite an identifiable and definable path.
What typically sparked that first moment of awareness?
After reflecting most could recall a moment when they had feelings they later described as sexual. There were goose bumps when their first naked men. One man had a televi8sion yearning, a sexual longing for Dr. Kildare. There's an identifying moment for most people, but I don't think it's until adolescence that we connect the feeling of attraction to other boys.
What is the greatest hindrance to a gay man’s progression through the eight life stages?
Initially I think it is family. It's a remarkable thing about being gay that's different from being in any other repressed group. If you're black in a white society at least you have your family to identify with. If you’re gay, you're probably the only member of your family who is gay. In the process of identifying yourself as gay you in fact lose your family -- you separate yourself. Often when it becomes articulated the family rejects gay men. Also the reaction of peers interferes with our moving on and identifying ourselves as gay. As we move on in life there's larger society and the workplace. Developmentally, the threats change.
Going back to family, UNCHARTED LIVES also discusses the importance of developing a new chosen family. Why is that so crucial?
The process of becoming gay often involves losing many things, the heterosexual map, and often the connection to family either because the family rejects us or we reject the family because we feel different. What we do as social creatures is invent families made of like-minded people. That doesn't include families that are just homosexuals, most of our families include lots of diversity, people who are hetero, homo, bi, and non-sexual. The family is like-minded in that they share similar values and ethics and invent traditions based on their like-mindedness. There are certainly original families who share men's values and aesthetics, but generally we find and make that. It's one of our greatest strengths.
Many of your theories conclude in gayness being an attribute over being straight or conventional. If guys are mainstreamed and society lifts repressive measures, do you think we would lose the survival instincts we’ve developed?
I worry about the mainstreaming of homosexuality. We say this will get us our civil rights but I think the price can be very heavy in terms of discouraging ourselves and our young people from behaving in those creative and original ways. Our movement began over sex. The sexual revolution became the gay liberation movement. Sex is no longer on the gay agenda. That's a perfect example of how I think we're denying who we are in an attempt to gain the rights everyone else has. It's not a bad mission, I'm just not sure that's the best way to go about it…and I don't know what is.
Thanks Stanley -- and all the best to you and with UNCHARTED LIVES.