It’s a longstanding stereotype that gay people are more artistically inclined than straight people. We do the hair, the flowers, the clothing, the food, the interior design. We write the poetry, take the pictures, and pirouette while straight people languish in doublewides filled with kitsch, taxidermy, and nicotine-stained overalls.
Is the stereotype accurate? I know it’s odd to say, but I do think the silver lining of oppression is enhanced imagination. Let me explain.
If you ask gay adults of my generation when they realized they were different, most say it happened by the time they made it to kindergarten and were around other kids. Whether you were overtly a sissy, a tomboy, or totally “gender-compliant,” you almost immediately intuited that you should disguise your nature. Now, it is popular to say that being gay should mean nothing more than being attracted to your own gender. That is absurd. Being gay is about love, which is a force far greater than a purely sexual and romantic one. It generally brings people together. It clarifies what impassions us and, really, creates by presence or absence the narrative arc of every life. Our love takes a different path and so, inevitably, do our perception and insight. That’s why you can’t change into a heterosexual.
But what does an isolated gay child do? Depression frequently occurs, but so does fantasy. By the time I was nine, I was lying in the backyard by the strawberry patch nearly every day with my friend Joel. There was a drain nearby that seemed bottomless. I told Joel stories of what was happening in this imagined underworld. One day, after school, I told my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Akers, about my stories and, instead of treating me like I was insane, she told me to write them down. Then she had me read them to the class at least once a week. In retrospect, I realize they were metaphorical accounts of my own life and a way of connecting positively in a world in which I couldn’t be myself.
Of course, it was not enough to totally deflect the bullying I experienced. I learned the hard way, for example, that you maybe should not heed the enchantment with sparkly things by fetching your mother’s broken rhinestone brooch from the trash and wearing it to Little League practice. But my stories did, in the mysterious and healing way the imagination works, nurture me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
You certainly don’t have to be a formal artist of any sort to profit from the imagination. That’s already happening. Absolutely everything begins in the imagination. Even when you’re sleeping, your brain is dreaming stories and images — metaphors, like the stories I told as a kid. So, the task is to bring intention to your naturally creative imagination. I laid in the grass and the stories arose spontaneously by placing my attention on the unknown world below me. Another kid picks up a paintbrush, dabs it in paint and moves it across paper. Another kid climbs in a tree to cry, sees a bird’s nest full of blue eggs and begins to wonder where the world originates. A probably straight adult awakens from a daydream with the solution to melt the Gorilla Glue that a woman has used as hairspray (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
I’ve heard stories like mine from clients, especially gay ones, for years. I always remind them that queer people have long been the spiritual and creative leaders of Indigenous cultures. It’s our job to tell the truth.
Years ago, I was asked by a school to speak to a group of gay and straight teenage boys. I employed my usual strategy. I asked the gay boys for the first time to describe their day-to-day experience. It was the same kind of bullying I experienced at their age. I asked the straight boys to respond. They unanimously denied the torment the gay boys described. They said they were too sensitive, acted like girls, and needed to “man up.”
“So, you don’t believe anything they are describing?” I asked. They were adamant. “Okay,” I suggested, “just for the hell of it, use your imagination and pretend what they are saying is true. How would you feel if you had to get up every morning and face that? Just pretend.”
The room went silent, things got very awkward, and the conversation got real. What was evident was that both groups woke up, if only for 30 minutes. That is the beginning of empathy, which is an expression of love, which is exactly what gay people can teach the world.