January 1999

The velveteen rabbit and his friends




A friend of mine emailed me recently, quoting this passage from a children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. He prefaced his quotation that here was an "exchange which we, especially gay men, might have had in our process of coming to terms with ourselves, those around us and love."

For a long time he lived in the toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and no one thought very much about him. He was naturally shy, and being only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon every one else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real. The model boat, who had lived through two seasons and lost most of his paint, caught the tone from them and never missed an opportunity of referring to his rigging in technical terms. The Rabbit could not claim to be a model of anything, for he didn't know that real rabbits existed; he thought they were all stuffed with sawdust like himself, and he understood that sawdust was quite out-of-date and should never be mentioned in modern circles. Even Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by the disabled soldiers, and should have had broader views, put on airs and pretended he was connected with Government. Between them all the poor little Rabbit was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse.

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Christmas and New Year stretch is when most of us have our annual test of party endurance. 1998/1999 was no different for me. And like most other years, the majority of the parties I went to were gay affairs.

I don't know how representative my observation is, but looking around my friends, gay men tend to have mainly gay friends. They seem to have a comfort level with each other that cannot quite be replicated with straight friends, nor even with lesbian women. Perhaps, in the words of the Velveteen Rabbit, they are Real to each other.

In many ways, we feel we are not taken as Real by the straight world. They wear their badges of wives, husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends, whom they bring to office parties and family weddings, and whose photographs they carefully arrange on their desks. Their conversation is always on the basis of a heterosexual world, of children, divorce or career climbing (when the topmost rungs of the ladder are often closed to unmarried men). If you have no story to tell along those lines, then you're left in the cold.

Sure, you could be proud to be gay, and tell them about your boyfriend, and about your last gay divorce, how that pariah dog cheated on you by sleeping around every week. A few would be intrigued, but many would shuffle away from the details. And you'd never know where outright hostility might come from.

Sometime in October, I attended a houseparty where, as far as I could tell, all the other guests were straight. I met a 20-something civil servant, and in the course of a conversation with him, he mentioned that one of his best teachers he remembered was a certain Lucas Thio (not his real name). He said he was thoroughly inspired by him in mathematics, and that from that year on, it wasn't number-crunching drudgery, but a beautiful flight of the abstract. Or something to that effect; I can't remember the exact words. Anyway, I had once known the same Lucas Thio, and I knew that he was gay, but I didn't let on. The civil servant and I talked bit more about this mutual acquaintance, and then moved on to the subject of Indonesia (where his family was from) and politics. He was an interesting young man, and I was proud that my friend Lucas had played a little part in shaping him.

Then I went to refill my glass, and when I got back, he had joined another conversation about the sacked Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar's trial on charges of sodomy and corruption (charges which he denied) was just beginning, and it was then all over the newspapers and a hot conversation topic. I overheard the young man say to the others, "Frankly, I find all these homos so disgusting, the less said the better!"

Here was someone who counted as one of his best teachers, a gay person. He did not even know that. What he knew of this teacher was but a veneer of the real person, and if someone were ever to tell him that Lucas was gay, I suspect he'd rather reassess Lucas than his own mind's construction of the world. Oh, the injustice of it all!

Gay people face these slights every day of their lives. Some of us struggle to get our word in. To set the record straight. But it's a tiring uphill task, telling those who feel superior that they have no reason to do so. We retreat to the comfort of like friends. But even this recourse is no magic; it takes a while to bear fruit. We have to go out and find gay friends, and then work through all the devils that have been playing havoc with our sense of self.

Looking for friends is stressful -- how to introduce myself? what will they think of me? will they accept me? Looking for gay friends, at a stage of life when you yourself are terrified of revealing your own gayness, is a quest of courage no straight person can ever imagine.

But, say you've found a few people. Well, you still have to become friends, which means gradually opening up to each other. Alas, that's easier said than done, for we're all taught by society to be guarded about our foibles and fantasies, our failures and our fears. Others may ridicule us, or quietly write us off. When you're the new boy on the block, you don't know the conventions, the rules of the pecking order, you don't know you're not the only virgin. You feel very stupid to have such a hang-up about it, yet you don't dare ask the question of others. Of course, you know in your frontal cortex that in any case, everyone was a virgin once, but it still doesn't make you feel any less stupid.

You feel daunted by those with beautiful physiques and pretty faces. Or by others who have wonderful loving boyfriends, when you don't even know how to go dating, nor whom to ask. Even in the gay world, there are those who seem Real, like the mechanical toys who think they are very modern, or the model boat who never misses an opportunity of referring to his rigging in technical terms. And always, you're the one stuffed with sawdust. You're not Real.

But stick around long enough, and it's "a thing that happens to you." When your circle of friends "loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

I am glad I have such a circle. Actually, it's not one circle, but a few overlapping circles. Met up with most of them through Christmas and the New Year. They're friends I've had for years. We've grown in our own ways, together, from a time when we were in the closet, or half in the closet, to a time when we're out of it, or half out of it. We've seen each other fall in love, and fall out of love. We've seen each other run, stumble, pick ourselves up and run again. Sometimes after the wrong boy, sometimes a not-so-wrong one. Sometimes after a wrong job, sometimes no job at all. Our contact occasionally lapses, but when we meet up, our conversation picks up from where we left off without a break. We know each other right through, we even read each other without a word being said. None of us are beauties, none of us are young anymore. Mercifully, most of our hair has not been loved off, our eyes not yet dropped out and we're only slightly loose in our joints and just faintly shabby. However, all of us have been fools, or taken for a ride, at some time or other in our lives. But, no matter. In fact, all the more are we dear to each other. I hope we are Real to each other.

And I can't thank them enough for their love.

Yawning Bread