Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw
me approaching or passing
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood or the negligent leaning of their flesh
against me as I sat
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told
them a word
Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman
While one of my esteemed classmates challenged Whitman’s boundary-less largess, I wholeheartedly believe that one can love someone without ever having exchanged words.
This was not the first reference to Whitman’s hyper-connectivity with every human being he encountered, saluting “all the inhabitants of the earth,” as he said. And that included prostitutes, prisoners, pirates, thieves, murderers, and lunatics among others. These humans comprised his chosen democracy and connecting to its manifold members didn’t require verbiage. Each is a metaphoric “leaf of grass”—distinct, important, part of nature, to be celebrated.
I am annealed to the idea of the body as a home for the soul and the soul as a conduit to democracy. Throw in a bit of homoeroticism and I’m there, baby.
Yet I am willing to question myself. Am I my own worst stereotype, a gay man who grew up on anonymous encounters and convinced myself there was emotion attached? I think not. In some cases, of course the sexual gymnastics were void of emotion. But in others, a sense of brotherhood, joined with a profound feeling of love, prevailed. With my soul, I was expressing something beyond the sexual act.
I do not believe this phenomenon is the province of gay men (or of men presumed to be gay) since I have also felt deep love for women; a woman that I silently exchange glances with just might result in an ineffable, instantaneous but fleeting love affair. And I feel certain that many heterosexuals, male and female, have shared this sensation.
When I first made love to Philip, I did not even know that his name was Philip. I also did not know his age, his occupation, his educational background, or where he lived. In those days, prior to the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, gay men often met in the darkened hallways of bathhouses where a communal desire to “only connect” (thank you, E.M. Forster) drove us into each other’s arms. We communicated but an abundance of words was not required. The uniformity of a white towel wrapped around one’s waist was the ultimate costume of democracy.
In the Eighties, when I was in my thirties, I was confronted with death (after death after death after death after death), my commitment to the art of acting transitioned from the narcissistic dreams of onscreen stardom to the day-to-day realities of depicting something (HIV/AIDS) only my soul could express. My soul, my body, my voice, and empathy: all aligned with purpose, to write as well as act.
Through the prism of that wrenching reality, I found purpose. I was able to rivet. In fact, I’ve been unable to stop: riveting, riveting, riveting. With all of my being, I related to Whitman’s deepening expression of democracy as he sat by the beds of dying soldiers in the Civil War. Death is the great democratizer.
The seeds of my blossoming had been planted early on, as a child in St. Louis, Missouri, with a grande dame of an acting teacher, who insisted that her young wards learn, above all else, the art of empathy. It was not a word that she employed but it was a powerful tool that was implanted in my consciousness and would manifest in my work.
“Do not see yourself as different than,” she intoned in a distinctive diva baritone. “You are the same as everyone you see. Always, always, look for yourself in others.”
Embracing otherness is the wellspring of great art. To be given this gift as such an impressionable age was a gift that somehow overshadowed a childhood that was fraught with the perils of familial alcoholism and mental illness, passed from one generation to generation like a broken baton.
Philip—the man with whom I shared museum walks in Amsterdam, romantic dinners in Paris and even a trip down the Nile—died at age 42 after our brief four year marriage.
Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding
kisses (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battlefield spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there I the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not
a tear, not a word
“Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” Walt Whitman
This part four of a five-part series.