The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, October 12, 2002  

It’s More Personal Than You Think

Much ado, much posturing, and much bluster surrounds a controversial ad used earlier this week in the re-election campaign of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) against challenger State Rep. Mike Taylor (R). Some are calling it “gay baiting,” some question whether Democrats are being let off too easily, that there’s a double standard, while others are asking whether the ad “crossed the line.”

The ad in question uses footage from a television commercial produced for Taylor in the mid-1970s for a hair and skin care company he owned and operated. (A video of the Baucus ad that includes a portion of the old commercial can be viewed at Talking Points Memo and elsewhere on the web.) The reaction among bloggers has ranged from demonic rage on one side to a shrug of the shoulders on the other.

It’s tempting to conclude that the reactions vary depending upon the party affiliation or political philosophy of the observer, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I believe the varied reactions to the ad depend on factors far more personal than that.

Watching the video, I felt empathy for Taylor, but I was not embarrassed for him. His anger and vituperation surprise me, as does that of bloggers, particularly gay bloggers, who have reacted similarly. If the wardrobe, the setting, and the photography -- all of which are very much of the period -- remained the same and only Taylor’s activity been changed, say, to depicting him tattooing a rose on a young woman’s behind, I think I would have reacted the same way.

My empathy and its attendant cringing have little or nothing to do with the purported “gay-baiting” nature of the Baucus ad. I think the ad pushes the envelope -- quite a bit in fact -- and if I were Baucus I would like to think I would not have used it, but I don’t think it’s “gay-baiting.” Instead, my reaction was the discomfort we all have felt at some point when confronted unexpectedly with some aspect of or action from our past that while not humiliating per se, we would prefer be forgotten.

An easy and quite apt example is the feeling many people experience when the family photos albums are pulled out in front of guests, particularly a guest who has not had the pleasure of this walk down memory lane, and one must face one’s former self yet again. Perhaps it’s the awkward mid-teen period featuring braces, eyeglasses, and a nose that didn’t quite fit one’s face. Or a youthful foray into one or another sub-culture, be it as a budding hippie, biker, or Trekkie. Each of us has our moments.

We are faced with a choice in such circumstances. We can endure, once again, the embarrassment or humiliation we always experience on this walk back in time, and do so with humor or in anger. Or we can add a narrative to the photographic images that is in some manner exculpating, eases our discomfort, and casts ourselves in a more positive light. Or we can rewrite history -- virtually expunge the episode from our public biography -- by removing and destroying the incriminating photos so they never see the light of day again.

Taylor either lost or did not have the opportunity to choose option three, rewriting history. The tapes were not destroyed; his opponent, or someone acting on his behalf, came into possession of them. That left Taylor with two options: enduring the embarrassment (either with humor or in anger) or adding an explanation to soften the impact he assumed was associated with the images presented. Taylor opted for the first of these, along with the subset of that option entailing endurance in anger, and quite briefly at that.

We cannot know for sure, at least for now, why Taylor made this particular choice. Perhaps it is something about the cultural milieu of Montana -- Big Sky Country, where men are men and the women are capable -- as some have speculated. Or more important, how Taylor feels within that culture. But that really isn’t our business, and at this point, it simply doesn’t matter.

Just as not all of us can understand Taylor’s visceral reaction to this ad, we cannot always explain our own aversion to certain aspects of our past selves. “I am not that person anymore,” we say, either silently or aloud, and of course our family and friends already know this. They are not mocking the person in the photograph, they are laughing at the period or character or awkwardness depicted, with laughter that comes at the expense of themselves and the memories floating through their minds. We know this on a certain level, and yet the emotions rise. After all, seeing one’s spouse or significant other wearing patchwork bellbottoms in a photograph or home movie taken 25 years ago is, in most instances, unlikely to spark a serious reevaluation of the relationship.

Reinvention of our selves, either our inner or outer selves, is a natural part of growing up and growing older. Each of us has engaged in this process to some degree. I have no doubt Taylor has done so over the course of what I understand has been a successful life, but I care not, nor do I choose to speculate, whether that reinvention has anything to do with his sexual orientation. In fact, I seriously doubt it has.

I wonder, though, the extent to which my own life has affected the degree of empathy I feel for Taylor in this situation, which is quite considerable, and whether the life experiences of others explain the wide range of reactions to the event.

Now, reinvention of the self, I feel safe in stating, is a special talent, even a preoccupation, of urban gay men, particularly those arriving in the city from small towns and conservative families. Many psychologists and sociologists, to say nothing of novelists, have observed and documented this phenomenon. My observation of friends and acquaintances over the past 15 or 20 years certainly substantiates it, at least to my satisfaction.

It is not uncommon to encounter gay men in their late 20s and in their 30s who are remarkably different people -- at least on the outside, for public view -- than they were during their childhood, adolescence, and college years, or even than who they were a few years earlier. People change, yes, but some people change dramatically. And a culture that places inordinate importance on youth, beauty, muscularity, masculinity, wealth, and taste -- as the urban gay culture does -- virtually demands reinvention of those who wish to win its acceptance. Like many cultures, its structure is selective, rigid, and hierarchical; its members can appear hypercritical, intolerant, and unforgiving; and its norms are competitive, expensive, unrelenting, and at times ultimately destructive. All of these qualities intensify the higher one scales within the culture.

There are rules to the game to help one along, but the rules can change without notice. Keeping up is crucial, but just staying in the game can become an end in itself. Everything exists and occurs now, and in this moment. Thus, one’s past is of no consequence: look the part, act the part, and you get the part. One can forget or rewrite one’s past because every other player is doing the same thing. One need not even have anything in particular about one’s past in mind. Regardless, such collective suppression breeds fear: fear that the unexpected revelation, admission, or exposure will lead to rejection.

I suspect my empathy for Taylor is an outgrowth of having lived in this particular culture and the degree to which I have not outgrown its associated mindset. I am not saying Taylor’s life has been anything similar to my own or that he has had any experience with the prevailing urban gay culture. I am saying that having lived among many who wished away their pasts in favor of a new and exciting present has given me an insight into the aversion a person might have, for whatever reason, to facing the past unexpectedly, without notice, by surprise. I’m willing to bet many other bloggers might feel the same way.

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