Sunday, November 22, 2009

Are "selectivity" and "aloofness" essential "virtues" in building relationships? The "real" argument for gay marriage?

Back in the 1970s, when I was into the “polarity theory” expounded at the Ninth Street Center (in the East Village in New York City; now it is the “Paul Rosenfels Community” (link)) I took to the idea of “selectivity” in forming personal attachments and relationships. I relished the idea of feminine polarity “submission” if I idealized the person (man) that I would “submit” to. Likewise, the I understood that the masculine personality would want to cherish or value the person in his domain. In any case, the “selectivity” seemed to mean that the psychological mate, the person really “cared about” was “worthy” of such emotional devotion. The fact that one would be so selective would be a hallmark of the “unbalanced personality” (masculine objective or feminine subjective -- it was all combinatorial, like modern physics or cosmology).

I recall a book in 1989, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America will conquer its fear and hatred of Gays in the 90’s (New York: Plume, 1989), p. 360, in the authors proposed a “self-policing social code” in which the gay man pledges “I’ll drop my search for Mr. Right and settle for what’s realistic.”

I also recall that “extreme selectivity” and penchant for spending a lot of time alone was double edged. In Dallas around 1980, I dated a Ph D clinical psychologist who claimed that his best trait was “aloofness” even though he had once been married himself. Other people see introversion and secretiveness as dangerous, a schizoid trait at best, maybe a potential terrorist at worst (in some FBI profiles online).

But in the 1970s, the key point about all this selectivity (and avoidance of unwanted intimacy) was gay life was still relatively private. In a quasi-commune where some men never ventured north of 14th Street and worked odd jobs in the village (like cleaning apartments) in order to “adapt” economically, some things would get around. Paul Rosenfels, one of the founders of the Center, thought that it was a good thing that the Center remain fairly isolated and that people’s lives be relatively contained and separate from the outside world. But that’s nothing like today, where an open Internet with trolling search engines, and a tendency for many people to cut-an-paste and transmit a lot of things marked private, and a tendency for many people to become Twitter-queens, makes one’s supposedly private standards for people suddenly very public. The whole change in our concept of both “privacy” and “fame” invokes a perturbation of our whole concept of civility, where personally held convictions about virtue stay somewhat inside when around others (especially in the workplace, especially when supervising others). Now, everything is findable and potentially public and pervasive; one has to develop intermediate policies about not mentioning one’s Internet activity at work, for example (to avoid an “anti-selection” problem).

In the 1970s, 80s, even 90s, self-development was somewhat a private matter and one’s own business. Responsibility for others came as a result of one’s choices (such having a baby). Now, the idea of responsibility has become less voluntary, more like it was in the 50s, as we find that public self-indulgence (a feminine vice) leads to a moral backlash. Now, we are reminded that a lot of people, especially in other parts of the world, don’t have the “luxury” of choosing who they will care about. Teenagers are forced to raise their siblings (created by their parents’ intimacy, not their own). Sometimes childless people wind up with custody of their sibling’s kids after a family tragedy (as in the movie “Raising Helen” or the miniseries “Summerland”) ; imagine writing a screenplay where the surviving sibling is gay and perhaps the straight sibling never “knew”. And many people have to deal with the intimacy of eldercare, as parents often live longer with disability than before, with fewer children (and grandchildren) to care for them.

We’ve gotten used to thinking of selectivity of persons for emotional intimacy as a fundamental individual right (in the workplace, not respecting it can constitute sexual harassment); yet a few generations ago, married parents had considerable power in demanding emotional blood loyalty from their descendents as one of the perks of the marital commitment. Today, we face a necessity to recognize filial responsibility as possibly legally driven (by state budget crises affecting welfare and Medicaid as well as general decency and demographics); we see responsibility for others, chosen or not, as part of “paying your dues,” and a virtue in its own right.

It’s well to ponder how the “involuntary” nature of a lot of relationships, sometimes taken on by LGBT people, could drive the argument for same-sex marriage. Equality is about a lot more than just equal benefits for domestic or marital partners. It’s about how singletons, those who didn’t “settle for what’s realistic” fare, too. Maybe aloofness and solitude aren’t such unquestionable virtues after all.

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