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Ninth Street Center Journal

Daring to be Deviant
by Robert Rose

      "Do you remember," he went on, "writing in your diary, 'Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four'?"
      "Yes," said Winston.
      O'Brien held up his left hand, its back toward Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.
      "How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?"
      "And if the Party says that it is not four but five -- then how many?"
      The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston's body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O'Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.
      "How many fingers, Winston?"
      The needle went up to sixty.
      "How many fingers, Winston?"
      "Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!"
      The needle must have risen again, but he did not look at it. The heavy, stern face and the four fingers filled his vision. The fingers stood up before his eyes like pillars, enormous, blurry, and seeming to vibrate, but unmistakably four.
      "How many fingers, Winston?"
      "Four! Stop it, stop it! How can you go on? Four! Four!"
      "How many fingers, Winston?"
      "Five! Five! Five!"
      "No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four. How many fingers, please?"
      "Four! Five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!"
      Abruptly he was sitting up with O'Brien's arm round his shoulders. He had perhaps lost consciousness for a few seconds. The bonds that had held his body down were loosened. He felt very cold, he was shaking uncontrollably, his teeth were chattering, the tears were rolling down his cheeks. For a moment he clung to O'Brien like a baby, curiously comforted by the heavy arm round his shoulders. He had the feeling that O'Brien was his protector, that the pain was something that came from outside, from some other source, and that it was O'Brien who would save him from it.
      "You are a slow learner, Winston," said O'Brien gently.
      "How can I help it?" he blubbered. "How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four."
      "Sometimes, Winston, sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane."

-- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
(Signet Classic Edition, 1961, pp. 206 - 207)

Winston's therapy is ultimately successful -- he finally and unreservedly believes everything that O'Brien tells him. Society completely wipes out his individuality, and that is the central tragedy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, my favorite book as a teenager. I must have read it at least five times, and its images remain vividly in my mind. George Orwell was not a homosexual, and neither was his character Winston Smith, but this book spoke more directly to my developing homosexuality than any other. And it is one of the few books I still keep.

In the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four sexuality is entirely at the service of the governing elite, its only legitimate purpose reproduction. The overt act which leads to Winston's capture by the Thought Police is a forbidden love affair with a co-worker, Julia. In a world of enforced asexuality, Winston chooses the deviant path of celebrating sexuality. He is drawn to it, seemingly with no choice -- sexuality is part of his human potential and he cannot deny it.

But, as O'Brien pointed out elsewhere in the story, Winston's deviance began much earlier and at a deeper level than a mere love affair. He was guilty of "thoughtcrime" as soon as he began to see himself as an individual with desires apart from those permitted by society. Orwell's message is that Winston Smith chose a deviant path not out of weakness but because he was a man of great integrity.

Similarly, our world is one which is coercively heterosexual. The idea of choosing to be gay seems ludicrous to most people, even most gay people. Who would choose pain and confusion over pleasure and certainty? Those to whom truth and right are absolutely essential to their psychological well-being. Homosexuality is part of our capacity as human beings, and individuals with enough honesty and courage cannot deny it.

I know that all the members of my family, with the possible exception of one, at one time or another actively experimented with their homosexuality. Why did they turn away from it? I might understand if it was simply because of an increasing interest in the opposite sex. But that does not explain why the subject almost never came up in family discussions, and then only in ways that suggested that homosexuality as a lifelong orientation was clearly undesirable and a source of great unhappiness for those unfortunate enough to be afflicted with it. Naturally, I avoided these discussions as much as possible.

No, a better explanation must take into account the fact that homosexuality in our society breaks the rules when it is seen as something other than a sickness, or a passing phase, or anything beyond furtive activities. Conventional wisdom is so overwhelmingly against homosexuality that it is not surprising that most people suspend any capacity they may have for independent critical judgement on the subject in favor of relatively mindless conformity. The penalties for thinking and acting independently are too great. Choosing homosexuality as a way of life, against all the odds, is a radical reaffirmation of the worth of the individual over society. Most people give society the benefit of the doubt.

When I first became aware of my homosexuality as something which set me apart from my peers, at the age of 12 or 13, I was also conscious of the fact that being gay connected in some way with the best things about me -- the high value I placed on personal integrity, my sense of justice. And yet, like Winston, I did not see that my deviation developed as a result of these very qualities. I agonized for years over the reality of my homosexuality, wishing that I might outgrow it some day. I would have had to outgrow my integrity to accomplish that. I saw four fingers, and no matter how hard I tried I could not see five.

In today's world, homosexuality is a choice which demonstrates the power of individuals to shape their own lives. But the really deviant choice is more fundamental. My primary reason for coming out wasn't to belong to a new social group with which I could identify sexually. I came out to be more myself. Three years ago I was in the hospital, facing death for the first time as something more than an intellectual abstraction. All of my life I had expended a great deal of energy in an effort to conform, and I realized clearly while I was convalescing how essentially futile all of that was. The bottom line was that my happiness was paramount. Coming out as a homosexual was the most dramatic example, but not the only one, of choosing to explore my individuality.

New ways of thinking and acting are always deviant, by definition. It is up to those of us who are not afraid to be individuals to demonstrate the great value in making deviant choices. As deviants we know that society attempts to enforce conformity by closeting what is really true about human nature and straitjacketing those who suggest that genuine human morality is independently discovered, not socially imposed.

Homosexuality may not always be a deviant choice. But until society acknowledges and allows for experimentation with the full range of human possibilities, there will be a need for deviant choices of some sort. And people who value their individuality will continue to break the rules. In today's society, we are the psychological pioneers and, yes, we may fail in big ways but our successes will chart a future course for social development.

-- reprinted from The Ninth Street Center Journal 6, Autumn 1986


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