On Gay Modern Love: Kayla Rachlin Small Responds and Transcends

16Mar08

In which The Gay Recluse provides a postscript to our gay alternative to this week’s Modern Love piece in the Times by Kayla Rachlin Small. (For those looking for our informal-but-telling quantitative analysis of Modern Love, click here.)

Dear TGR,

I loved your riff on “The Steep Price of Your Forbidden Kiss” (a
title which, for the record, was not of my choosing).Your version
worked for me because I’ve long thought about the connection
between disease and homosexuality (as forms of alterity, and as
challenges to our culture definition of pathology). But moreso, it
made me proud as hell, because it got to the heart of the issue
upon which Thomas and I most differed.

To me, illness is a culture, an identity, a political issue.
It’s a status that 99% of the world sees as unfortunate and
oppressive. I’ve been bombarded with the message that if I
were a good person, I would say “CF doesn’t define
me!!” and “CF is not an issue in relationships.”
I have never been able to say those things.

I majored in Cultural Anthropology because I wanted to study
subcultures and the Other and the ways in which those
positionalities inform our values and symbols. I leeched onto gay
narratives because in them I saw community and art and rejection of
norms, and I believed I would someday find cystic versions of all
that. Eventually, painfully, I learnt that there was little CF
community and even less CF pride (Permanent banishment from the
healthy population isn’t something one is encouraged to
flaunt. Everyone wants to be healthy, goes the wisdom.)

I know now that I love all those gay stories and films because each
one makes me briefly believe in the promise of a parallel culture
that I may never get. Every July, the Gay Pride parade makes me
incredibly sad, because there it is in front of me, the
constitutional right to assembly put to the best use, and that was
exactly what I couldn’t do with “my people”
because of cross-infection risks.

This—wishing to embrace my disease and wave my freak
flag—was precisely where Thomas’ personal culture
diverged from my own. “The only thing I want is to be a
regular Joe, just normal,” he told me. My response was,
“I want the opposite.” One day as we waited in line at
the cinema I pointed out a poster for X-Men: The Last Stand and
said “I wish we could see that.” He scoffed. A few
weeks later, when we were joking about our genes, I referred to
myself as a mutant. He said, ““I’ve told you,
X-Men is not real.” Of course it’s real, I wanted to
tell him. It’s a metaphor for Otherness. If gay people get to
say “this movie stands for us” then certainly us actual
genetic mutants should get to do the same?

In preparation for the first time Thomas came to my home, I hung a
gigantic poster of five drag queens on the back of my bedroom door.
I caught glimpses of it while we were having sex. Yes, there I was
with someone “like me,” but there was something I
imagined in that poster that Thomas didn’t share: something
anti-vanilla, something involving pride, some kind of solidarity.

After I moved away from Thomas I thought hard (and wrote hard)
about this clash. And this I came to understand: I had my myths
just as he had his. It wasn’t as though I was honest and he,
emulating normal, was in denial; I’ve played Freak with just
as much intentionality. He wasn’t so different from me, after
all. He had the same desire to belong, to be part of something
established and dynamic, to burrow into a community and receive
clean lines of self in exchange. The only difference was that he
wanted to belong to the Normal and I wanted to belong to the
Abnormal. “That’s his myth,” said my favorite
professor when I showed her my first writings about Thomas, in
which I excoriated him for being traditional and wanting to blend
in. “And you have yours.”

I currently believe that who I am—who I see myself
as—has almost nothing essential to it. Cystic Fibrosis
can’t be the thing that’s made me, because Thomas (and
others) are SO different. Rather, as I wrote in “Modern
Love”, I am a product of the rest of my circumstances and the
stories I’ve loved and the people who have moved me and the
things that have seemed available, that have reached out to me as
if to say we will work, we will help you, adopt us, we are perfect
scaffoldings for these inklings of a story. Disease was the raw
material I was given to work with, but the person I became was just
one possible result. It’s an identity I made for myself just
as Thomas made his.

All that said, I still love him.

But I did move on. I now have a female best friend, M, who also has
cystic fibrosis; we share things I could never share with Thomas.
Given The Gay Recluse’s reinterpretation of my story, I
wanted to share this photo of M and I. We once again broke the
rules and, unlike Thomas, she was all for documenting it.

Finally, a coda to my story: in April 2006 (at which time I’d
seen Thomas at our clinic but had yet to speak to him), I visited
Berlin. Each time I rode the S-Bahn westwards I passed a building
bearing the word “UNTOUCHABLE” in enormous graffiti. I
photographed the building, just like I photographed a “Poison
Girls Club” tank top in a store window, for I believed these
things applied to me. A week after I returned from Berlin, Thomas
and I went out for the first time. In May 2006, after Thomas and I
had abandoned safety precautions for shared beer and body fluids, I
went to Berlin again. But when I rode the S-Bahn west I became
incredibly confused: where was the UNTOUCHABLE sign? As it turns
out, in the five weeks between my visits, part of building had been
knocked down. All that remained in view as that train barreled
toward Friedrichstrasse station was the graffiti that I’d
seen atop “Untouchable.” It read: SuperGays.

I took that second trip to Berlin with a close friend who is a
lesbian. We’re also both Jewish. One afternoon as we were
walking, she told me how much she liked being gay, how she liked
having something that made her different. I knew what she meant. I
said to her, “You know, if we’d been born fifty years
earlier, this, being Jewish, would have been that thing for us. Our
defining identity.” But we were born when we were, and we
each had been Othered in our own way, and I like to think
we’re damn lucky for that.

Kayla Rachlin Small (Click for Kayla’s blog, or go to http://krs.typepad.com.)


First Trip to Berlin: “Untouchable” and “SuperGays”

Second Trip to Berlin: “Supergays”

Kayla and M document a kiss.

E-mail Kayla at: kaylarachlinsmall [at] nycmail.com.

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One Response to “On Gay Modern Love: Kayla Rachlin Small Responds and Transcends”

  1. 1 fellowtraveller

    Kalya – congratulations on an excellent piece of writing in the NYT. That I’m in a similar position – mid-twenties, just graduated in social anthropology, with CF – makes it all the more resonant. When I read pieces of writing like yours – a public explanation and embrace of the strange (and sometimes painful) normal/abnormal liminality of CF, which I feel I ‘get’ more than anyone without CF reading it – I have a strong urge to get involved with the ‘CF community’ you mention. The condition clothes itself in normalcy, promising a ‘normal’ life and then slowly taking every vestige of that normality away. Ironically, at the same time, the vagaries of cross-infection deny the ‘sufferer’ the opportunity to find solace with others similarly affected. So the idea of a kind of extended CF family seems such a warm and comforting thought; facing down CF’s challenges with others in the same situation, taking them on together, ‘Team CF’.

    I’m not sure it’s ever quite worked out for me that way, though. Because much as I enjoy the occasional repartee on the subject of sputum, I spend a lot more of my time doing things that I have in common with other people. Although all of us with CF have this enormous fact of a medical diagnosis in common with each other, CF is also an enigmatically diverse condition; and so everyone has different complications, and progresses differently. Add to that the inherent diversity of people, generally, and it means that we’re about as mixed up as any other group might be. For me, it’s not a binary ‘in/out’, ‘pride/shame’, ‘abnormality/normality’, or (respectfully) ‘you/Thomas’ thing. As you say: “the person I became was just one possible result”- on a continuum of possibilities.

    All this said – I think if there was a CF community of people who wrote like you – I might be tempted to give it a go. Thank you, and keep up the great work!


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