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Book looks at lives of gay men through generations

by Brian Bromberger

Rutgers dean and author Perry Halkitis. Photo: Courtesy Oxford University Press
Rutgers dean and author Perry Halkitis. Photo: Courtesy Oxford University Press  

It all began with a homophobic rant by a Greek Orthodox priest at the June 2014 funeral of Perry Halkitis' mother where he denounced civil rights for LGBTQ people.

This verbal attack inspired Halkitis' 18-year-old nephew a week later to come out to him, his husband, and the rest of his family after much struggle.

"If his experience coming out is so difficult, then certainly the experience of those who are less fortunate in terms of their social circumstances would be even more challenging," Halkitis wrote in an email to the Bay Area Reporter. "And so I wanted to give voice to those ongoing experiences that gay men continue to face in terms of their sexual identity negotiation, in terms of their coming out."

This goal led to Halkitis' recent book, "Out in Time: The Public Lives of Gay Men from Stonewall to the Queer Generation" (Oxford University Press). Halkitis is dean and director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior & Prevention Studies in the School of Public Health at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

He is also the author of "The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience" (2014, Oxford University Press), about the coping strategies of HIV-positive gay men. The book was a Lambda Literary Award nominee and recipient of the American Psychological Association Distinguished Book Award in LGBT Psychology.

Halkitis, 56, spoke to the B.A.R. via an email exchange.

In his new book, through interviews with a diverse group of 15 men, Halkitis divides them into three generations: the Stonewall generation (men who came out in the late 1950s-1970s); the AIDS generation (men who came out in the 1980s-1990s); and the queer generation (men who came out in the 2000s-2010s). Halkitis defines coming out as a psychological process where gay men "announce, pronounce, and scream out" their sexuality. Halkitis believes that each generation isn't dealing with their own issues alone, but "what's essential to realize is that these crises are cumulative," he wrote.

"Gay men of the queer generation still confront the challenges faced by the gay men of the preceding generations, namely acceptance and inclusion within society and the continued battle with AIDS. Until we start to eliminate stigma and discrimination that creates the difficulty of coming out, and until we get rid of AIDS, fix the finances of this country, and equalize the playing field, nothing is going to get better."

The book explores issues of pride (including self-realization and affirmation), myriad identities, the closet and diminished health, (hyper) masculinity, intersectionality and racism, drugs, and switching from a deficit model of understanding gay men to a model of resilience, all within the context of a lifelong process of coming out, using vast social science research and statistics to bolster his theses.

At its heart, however, the book is primarily accounts of gay men telling their stories about how they came out, a process that has remained consistent, despite some differences, for over 50 years.

AIDS has been the primary motivator of Halkitis' career. He was involved in ACT UP and other AIDS organizations in New York City. A psychologist, Halkitis also holds degrees in education and public health.

"I was also a doctoral student, and I was working as an applied statistician, a psychometrician, and a researcher. I had this very dual life, and I felt this disconnect between what I was doing at night and what I was doing during the day. Plus, I was experiencing all the stigma and discrimination that existed for gay men and for those living with HIV in my work environment. It was unbearable to me."

He started working in the field of HIV research.

Halkitis believes that while mainstream culture has shifted, much of what it means to be a gay man, and struggle to maintain that identity, continues to the present time.

"Absolutely, political and social circumstances have changed in the last 50 years," he wrote. "What has not changed are the psychological processes of coming out. In the book, I describe the three generations as being in a room — for the Stonewall generation we live in a room where windows are sealed and it is dark and nobody can look in; for the AIDS generation — my generation — we live in a room with windows covered with blinds that are slightly open, people could look in; and the new generation, the queer generation, we live in a room with no window treatments at all. I sort of use that as a metaphor for what it's like to be out and open in the world about your sexual identity."

Halkitis is convinced coming out today is no different from what it was 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

"I think the psychological process is identical. I think what's different is the resources we have at our disposal. The internet ... despite all our criticisms of it, provides a venue for people to meet each other and to learn from each other, and that's easier," he wrote.

"I think media representations make it a little bit easier to be open about being a gay man," Halkitis added. "I think the views of America have shifted in the right direction, maybe not so much in the last few years."

One factor that has made coming out a bit less difficult is the web.

"The internet has opened up a world of people that they'd never know," Halkitis wrote. "And I think that if I was an 18-year-old now — when I was an 18-year-old in 1981 I didn't know where to go for resources — I didn't know what it meant to be gay, I thought I was the only gay person in the world. And the internet makes it possible to feel like you're not alone, and to talk to and meet people. So, I think it creates a social environment and a social network that is much bigger than I had ever imagined it could be, and that can only have a beneficial effect on the well-being of gay men. Huge supportive social networks are ultimately tied to one's health."

Some criticism
Halkitis received some criticism that his sample size of 15 men was too small and that they all lived in New York City.

"The problem with researchers who know a little bit is that they cause harm, and so the criticism of my book that it's only 15 life stories is probably from those who don't know a thing about qualitative research," he wrote. "But 15 life stories, life histories, is a pretty robust sample. Never does one begin to generalize from a small sample. But I can develop themes that I think are pretty fair to describe the population."

He wrote in the email that if he wanted to do a population-based study he would do one with thousands of participants, but that wasn't his aim.

"The goal of the book was to give voice, and so I don't think that the life experiences of a young man growing up in Manhattan is the same as the life experience of somebody growing up in Nebraska," Halkitis wrote. "My husband grew up in Long Island, 20 miles from the center of New York City; I grew up in New York City; our life experiences, while we are the same age, are radically different, so place does matter, context does matter.

"I don't think there's anywhere in the book that I actually claim that it's one-size-fits-all. In fact, what I go out of my way to show is that one size doesn't fit all, and that every experience is different. But let's not also make believe that the life of growing up in New York City is easy because the criticism that you raise in this question is also the short-sightedness of the people who say it. Just because you grow up in Manhattan doesn't mean that your coming out is going to be easier, not if you're a child of working class immigrants, not if you're from a highly religious, black family. So let's not make it all about location and use these glossy global understandings, to try and show how science works."

Halkitis noted that while HIV infection rates have declined for teenagers, they have risen among men ages 25 to 34.

"HIV risk increases as people become sexually active and so it's not surprising that 25-34 is that age group in which we see the highest rate of new infections," he wrote. "This is when gay men are beginning to explore. I also think it's where young gay men begin to understand their role in the world and their understanding in negotiating their relationships and dynamics with other men. The models we've built over the last 40 years in HIV are based in social-cognitive rational ideas. Yet love and emotions are not rational, and often decisions are made in the context of a relationship with another man that lead to risk. That's something that we have not done a very good job at thinking about.

"You know, when PrEP first came out there was talk about the idea of putting people on PrEP when they were most risky, and that's when they are with casual partners, but I say put them on PrEP the second they get into relationships because as soon as you introduce love and emotion, all logic and reason goes out the door."

He wrote that it was unsurprising that the epidemic is lodged in marginalized communities.

"The more stressors young gay men face, the more likely they are to become infected and so that's why you see not only in HIV but in any health problem, more stressors in one's life which means worse health outcomes," he wrote. "So that is the pattern we continue to see in HIV."

In reference to continuing infection rates, Halkitis has no patience for older gay men who scorn younger gay men who seroconvert.

"I had very intense arguments with people in my generation and they would say things of that nature, and I would push, 'You'd be having condom-less sex if you were 20 years old now, too, because you were doing that at 20.' And they would agree. Sex is not a rational decision-making process."

Halkitis contends that otherness, the sense that we are different and live outside hetero norms and culture, remains the way gay men understand themselves, which, if unchecked, can lead to loneliness and social isolation that can be hazardous to their health.

"Othering is a concept that I talk about a lot, whether it's about race, culture, sexual identity, or gender identity. It's about being made to feel like you're not part of the mainstream. And certainly, [President Donald] Trump and his deplorables have done a very good job of othering lots of people in this country," he wrote.

Taking responsibility
While Halkitis recognizes how straight society creates problems for LGBTQ people, he feels gay men must also take responsibility for their own issues.

"We do quite a number on each other," he wrote. "We have expectations of how we look and how we act, on our skin tone, our clothing, our bodies, and our pecs. And those take tolls on the well-being of gay men, too. I like to think — and I think it's true — that the new, younger generation is better about fighting those monolithic perceptions of what it means to be a gay man, and actually taking a very narrow view [and] making it much more expansive. And so when I say that we have to take responsibility for our actions I am talking about gay men treating other gay men with love, respect, and dignity, regardless of what they look like, smell like, how tall they are, what clothes they wear, how big their penis is, or how big their pecs are."

Halkitis is blunt about the gay community's failure to own up to its racism.

"The terms we used to describe each other, and I talk about it in the book, the fetishizing that goes on around men of color, these are hugely problematic," he wrote. "The segregation that exists, that continues to exist in bars and clubs. These are all issues that continue to be very real in the gay population.

"So we need to have open and honest conversations within our populations about what it means to be a gay man," he added. "I think the younger generation, the queer generation, is leading the way, focusing us on conversations that are complex about intersectionality, race, culture, power, privilege, gender, and sexuality, that allow us to advance what it means to be a gay man."

Halkitis also talks about toxic masculinity, in which being male is equated with physical and psychological domination, and its effect on gay men, especially ideas like bottoms are less masculine, high voices are more feminine, and a muscular physique is more manly.

"You know, 20 years ago I wrote a series of papers that sort of traced toxic masculinity to AIDS, and the idea being that for a long time gay men were thought of as effeminate, sissy, faeries, weak," he wrote. "All of a sudden, AIDS came along and that stereotype was realized physically, and so gay men turned to steroids because they had to for their health, but others because they were combating this perception of them as weak, frail, and dying, which is what was going on.

"And so, like many men in our society, gay men also espouse this hypermasculine conception of what it means to be a man, a man who's based on power: sexual, financial, physical, and emotional conquest" Halkitis wrote. "And that kind of masculinity is not conducive to a good relationship with people and with partners. That kind of masculinity diminishes others who don't espouse it."

Halkitis contends that dealing with many of these gay issues works better when you put them in a context of resilience of how men can thrive rather than what men may be lacking.

"The traditional deficit model of the health of gay men talks about what we do wrong and I like to think about what we do right — for every 20% that are using meth, 80% are not, and for every X% that are having potentially-risky HIV-transmitting sex, a larger percentage are not; so I think it's about how we frame behavior: we can think about what we do wrong instead of what we do right.

"And if you think about everything the gay population has been through over the course of the last 50 years, through history, the fact that we are as effective, as powerful, as successful, and as well-adjusted as we are, is a sign of resilience," he added. "And quite frankly, we've had to be resilient. If you are a young, gay person and are trying to figure out your place in the world and you feel different, you're developing skills that make you tough. So a little adversity makes people a lot resilient, and so I like us to start focusing on what we do right."

Halkitis emphasized that there's no one path to becoming a gay man or realizing one's gay life. But long, hard experience has taught him that gay men must continue to fight for their place in the world or these rights could be taken away at a moment's notice.

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