June 9, 2015

Neurologist/Author Oliver Sacks and French Ambassador to the U.S. Gérard Araud: Two Very Different Gay Lives

The first story below shows the damage done to many gays by internalized homophobia. The second story is an example, I hope, of the prospects for gays now that their sexual orientation is increasingly viewed by others -- and themselves -- as just one facet of their personalities.

Oliver Sacks' Tormented Life as a Homosexual
I'm a long-time fan of Sachs. I loved the movie Awakenings, based on his 1973 book of the same title. The 1990 Oscar-nominated film starred Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. It tells the story of Sacks' work with a group of patients who had been warehoused for decades in a home for incurables. Afflicted with a rare form of encephalitis, these people were brought suddenly back to life by Sacks in 1969 after he administered the then-new "wonder drug" levodopa. I have also enjoyed reading Sacks' other books, like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which details some of his patients' case histories.

My interest in Sacks increased when I was diagnosed with Parkinson's because levodopa is the drug of choice for treating the symptoms of the disease. Ironically, Awakenings star Robin Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson's three years before his suicide last August. It's reported that he had learned he was showing signs of the Parkinson's-related dementia. Put "Robin Williams" in the search box to the right, and you'll find other commentaries about this sad case.

In February, I posted the full text of the blunt, eloquent op-ed piece Sacks wrote in the New York Times about his recent terminal cancer diagnosis.

When I heard that Sacks' memoir On The Move had been published, I did an Amazon.com one-click to order it. My daughter noticed the book on my reading stand and mentioned his homosexuality. I was startled. That was news to me.

I did wonder about this photo of Sacks on the cover of his book:

Image result for oliver sacks on the move

I checked the book's index for "homosexuality" and found that Sacks acknowledges his homosexuality and his struggles with it. But I found his comments simply factual, with little indication of the strong emotions that must have accompanied the facts.

I turned to Google and found a terrific essay in the current issue of Vanity Fair written by Lawrence Weschler, who had worked with Sacks on a possible biography back in the early 1980s. Sacks described to Weschler
how he gradually became aware of his homosexuality, a fact that, to put it mildly, he did not accept with ease; and how, following college and medical school, he had fled censorious England, first to Canada and then to residencies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where in his spare hours he made a series of sexual breakthroughs, indulged in staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation, underwent a fierce regimen of bodybuilding at Muscle Beach (for a time he held a California record, after he performed a full squat with 600 pounds across the shoulders) and racked up more than 100,000 leather-clad miles on his motorcycle. And then one day, he gave it all up -- the drugs, the sex, the motorcycles, the bodybuilding. By the time we started talking, he had been pretty much celibate for almost two decades.
Sacks tried to convince Weschler that his homosexuality was "a terrible blight, a disfiguring canker on his character." He wondered if there was any way Weschler could tell his story "without the homosexual stuff." Weschler became convinced that the insights Sacks gained from his epic drug binging were key to his professional development as a doctor, and gave him unusual insights into his patients' struggles. Weschler felt "there was no way to tell that story without exploring the sexual self-censure that had led him to seek escape in drugs in the first place."

Given their impasse on this issue, Sacks decided to scrap the biography. He told Weschler he'd prefer they just stay friends, which they did. Weschler says that he and several other close friends tried over the years to purge Sacks "of his self-contempt and self-denial regarding his sexual nature... to no avail."

Happily, Weschler reports that the self-censure slowly fell away as Sacks entered his 70s. He allowed himself to fall in love with writer Billy Hayes, the author of The Anatomist (about Henry Gray, author of the classic reference Gray's Anatomy). In his memoir, Sacks notes that he has always been shy, and inclined to live "at a certain distance from life." He was surprised when he fell in love -- "for God's sake! I was in my 77th year." That unexpected development required relinquishing "the habits of a lifetime's solitude," like decades of meals that consisted mostly of cereal or sardines, eaten "out of the tin, standing up, in 30 seconds."

I hope his relationship with Hayes continues as Sachs deals with his terminal illness.

Gérard Araud: Being Gay Is No Big Deal
In Sunday's New York Times, Maureen Dowd devoted her column to Gérard Araud, France's new ambassador to the United States. Openly gay, Araud doesn't want to be known as the gay ambassador. "I don't want to be reduced to one dimension."

The French Foreign Ministry only recently broke decades of reticence about his sexuality -- acknowledging his role as the first French gay ambassador to Washington, trumpeting his support for gay marriage, and revealing that his longtime partner, photographer Pascal Blondeau, has moved into the official French residence.

The photo behind Araud (above) was taken by his partner Blondeau. The two share homes in New York, Paris, and Greece. Though they've been together for 19 years, they have no plans to marry. "I am not interested at this moment in marriage for myself," Araud says, "but I don't see any reason why anyone should be denied this right."

He adds that the fight for marriage equality in France rattled him. "I thought my country was very enlightened, especially on sexual matters. I was totally astonished by the violence of the reaction of the opposition."

Before coming to Washington, Araud was France's ambassador to the United Nations. According to Dowd, he was such a star in the job that the Foreign Ministry asked him to start tweeting. He famously texted his fellow U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power: "On behalf of the French mission, I have to tell you: you are beautiful."

Araud's first stint in Washington -- a counselor on Middle East issues -- came in the late 1980s. He concedes that Washington's culture has come a long way.
The city has developed and is more sophisticated. In the eighties, the city was basically only government. Everyone was sleeping, eating, loving, talking government. It was not a real city in a sense. Now it's a real city.
But he still finds Washington "provincial" with its early-bird dinners at 6:30pm. He also complains about our "sad" men's suits where "their pants are much too large, the crotch is coming down, they have no imagination and the colors." As for our out-of-the-office clothing, he says it is "awful-- they take the first jeans they find. They don't care."

He has tweeted that the invasion of Iraq was "an unmitigated disaster." In another tweet, he advised Americans to acknowledge:
Yes,  invading Iraq was a mistake. Yes, the French were right. When you say it, you feel relieved.
You go girl!

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