“I really love your writing!” someone yelled at me as I walked back to my car after a Queer Nation protest in the early ’90s.
“Thanks!” I shouted.
“But you have a real problem with women!” she shot back. She must have heard me rolling my woke eyes as she caught up with me as I got in my car. “Seriously,” she repeated, “you have a huge problem with us!”
She was right, but I was blind. That’s an agonizing truth about being human. The worst parts of ourselves are often embarrassingly visible to others long before we notice them, if ever.
This memory came back to me recently when I heard that the 1982 short film “Carnival,” about the Athens band Limbo District, was going to be shown at the Plaza Theatre. It was made by painter Jim Herbert, who was a professor of art at the University of Georgia at the time. I hoped Herbert was going to be at the event and planned to take a painting of his to the screening and ask him about its meaning. I learned he wasn’t going to be there, so I didn’t go, having a client scheduled at the event’s time.
I bought the untitled painting at the Frankenburg-Guthrie Gallery in Athens when I was living there around 1973. I was 24 and married. The watercolor features a woman in bed with someone while an airplane looks bound to crash between her legs. Around the same time, I bought an artist’s proof by Thomas Prochaska, “Another One,” of a desiccated woman in bed with what looks like a hugely bloated, bloody fetus floating beside her. And then there’s the large photo montage by Richard Hill that depicts an adolescent boy in Edwardian clothes standing between a naked woman and a fuzzy bunny. It’s directly across from my front door.
Obviously, these works depicted my own ambivalence about women, especially as a deeply closeted gay man who derailed his life by getting married at 20. Freud observed that whatever we repress returns to us with increasingly greater force. I hung these pieces on my walls for at least 40 years without any thought that they depicted the messy complications of my messed-up mommy complex. My partner would hide the works when his family visited us. I thought that was comically provincial of him until my eyes opened.
While the art does reflect my personal struggle, it certainly represents a cultural one too. The Herbert and Prochaska pieces were both created about the time Roe v. Wade was originally adopted. When the Supreme Court rescinded the decision, effectively freeing states to outlaw abortion again, I unsuccessfully attempted to reach both artists to see if the works I owned were intentional comments on the abortion debate in the early ’70s. At the very least, they demonstrate how we are all imprinted by the culture and the way so-called woke sensibility can confront our self-image. Yeah, during this same period, I wrote a letter to the new People magazine complaining about some foot-kissing feminists. I’m embarrassed.
I haven’t seen the new “Barbie” film yet, but it points to another more recently acquired addition to my wall display of feminine mystique. In 1998, the 18th annual National Barbie Doll Convention was held in Atlanta (during the same week as the 20th edition of the original gay circuit party, the Hotlanta River Expo). I went to the Barbie convention’s huge market and ended up buying four photographs by Barbara King, whose mother was there selling Barbie collectibles. Barbara’s photos show Barbie being blow-torched, turned into a sandwich, dismembered, and boiled. This reminded me of the afternoon I watched my niece Jocelyn torturing her beloved Barbie by hanging her first by her feet and then by her neck. Both Barbara and Jocelyn demonstrated the love-hate relationship America has with Barbie and is, I’m told, the point of the new film.
My point, simply put again, is that none of us are entirely immune to the acculturated lunacy of systemic bigotry. To the degree we don’t acknowledge this is the same degree to which it will reveal itself as baldly as a TikToker in blackface. Undoubtedly, we’ll see this come up as some dumb white gay boys engage in their annual condemnation of Black Pride because, you know, there ain’t no White Pride (except like every day). The solution? Try pretending that you actually are wrong. You’ll be amazed how much further you see when you realize you aren’t that insightful.
Cliff Bostock, Ph.D., is a former psychotherapist who now offers life coaching to clients in search of creative solutions rather than diagnostic categorization; cliffbostock.com, email@example.com.