He wrote wistful poems full of angst about secret unrequited love, hatred of self, worship of beauty and doomed youth. This fit my mood entirely.
Two years later my high school English teacher, in an attempt to get through to me, asked if I had ever read any literature that I found meaningful. I reluctantly admitted to her my secret passion for classical poetry and she, with triumphant joy, suggested I unpack Housman’s poems for my senior year research paper. I did. The result was my first A+ grade. From that moment, I changed. The taste of success was totally new to me and thereafter I craved that flavor again and again.
That moment of self-esteem helped, but did not cure my broken heart. When I researched Housman’s life, I discovered that the poems I loved the most, those love poems that I pretended he wrote to me, were about the torment and terror he was in being a homosexual at a time and place when sodomy was punishable by death or imprisonment.
Housman was not my only connection to homosexuality when I was 17. My father, who had a seasonal box seat at the Metropolitan Opera House, often took me to see the performances.
It surprised me when, at these events, he would point out all the “fairies” with uncharacteristic disdain. It was no wonder that my gay brother never even came out to himself until my father died. Even after he came out, he never was in a relationship and lived and died without the life’s blood that intimacy provides. My brother told me shortly after his diagnosis that he was against the legalization of gay marriage, something about not screwing around with the foundations of civilization.
The closet was a nasty place where shame and self-hatred grew tentacles in the dark that threatened to suck the life out of an already small space. Housman described it 70 years ago and, until very recently in historic time, not much changed.
“Others, I am not the first have willed more mischief than they durst…More than I if truth were told have stood and sweated hot and cold and through their reins of fire and ice fear contended with desire…But I like they shall win my way lastly to the bed of mold where there’s neither heat nor cold but from my grave across my brow plays no wind of healing now and fire and ice within me fight beneath the suffocating night.”
Although Housman wrote several poems that clearly stated that death was preferable to homosexuality, (“If by chance your eye offend you pluck it out lad and be sound… but play the man, stand up and end you when your sickness is your soul”) nevertheless, he was also way ahead of his time. He was angry that society dictated to him what was normal.
“The laws of God, the laws of man, he can keep who will and can, not I, Let God and man decree laws for themselves and not for me and if my ways are not as theirs, let them mind their own affairs. Their deeds I judge and much condemn, yet when did I make laws for them?... But, no, they will not, they must still wrest their neighbor to their will, and make me dance as they desire, with jail and gallows and hellfire…”
In the 1800’s, Housman knew something that I don’t believe my brother ever embraced. He knew, or at least suspected, way before the medical establishment in modern times removed homosexuality from the list of psychological pathologies, that homosexuality was normal and as natural to someone as the color of their hair.
Regarding Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for sodomy, Housman wrote, “Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrist? And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists? And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience –stricken air? Oh they’re taking him to prison for the color of this hair.”
On this momentous occasion of the passage of the Marriage Equality Law in the great State of New York, which furthers the cause of a just civilization, I will write this letter:
To my brother Steven and A.E. Housman,
You did not live to see it, but you deserved it. You deserved to openly love the one you loved. You deserved to not feel shame. You deserved to be proud of the community that fought relentlessly for equal rights under the law for all of those like yourself who suffered in the past. You deserved respect and honor. You deserved to nurture and teach children. You deserved to have your unions recognized by the human community and sanctioned by holy matrimony. Unlike what the detractors say, “that this is the beginning of the end of civilization,” you deserved to see the majority of people say “No.” This is the beginning of civilized, compassionate and empathetic treatment of our fellow human beings. I wish you were here to see this. But there are millions of us who are witnessing this today and in your names we say hurrah!