Glitter and Be Gay

Benedict Luckhurst

Glitter and Be Gay is the title of a song from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, based on a novella by Voltaire. The sexuality of the composer and conductor Bernstein (1918-90) has long been the subject of speculation and debate. Humphrey Burton’s significant biography, published in 1995, several times suggests that his subject may have been gay. Certainly, while still a student at Harvard, Bernstein befriended many of the leading musical figures in New York, a large number of whom were gay; composers such as Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, Samuel Barber, Gian-Carlo Menotti and, later, Stephen Sondheim, who collaborated with Bernstein on West Side Story. In this respect, Bernstein, like many of his contemporaries, guarded his privacy. Arthur Laurents, another of Bernstein’s collaborators on West Side Story, said that he was “a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”

In Candide, Cunegone, the daughter of a baron, escapes a war that destroyed her family. She is forced to maintain her lifestyle by sharing herself with several important Parisians, thus she sings of her need to conceal her unhappiness by laughter and a cheerful demeanour.

Glitter and be gay
That’s the part I play
Here I am in Paris, France
Forced to bend my soul
To a sordid role
Victimized by bitter, bitter circumstance
Alas for me, had I remained beside my lady mother
My virtue had remained unstained
Until my maiden hand was gained by some grand duke,
Or other 

Ah, ’twas not to be
Harsh necessity
Brought me to this gilded cage
Born to higher things
Here I droop my wings
Singing of a sorrow
Nothing can assuage 

And yet, of course, I rather like to revel, ha, ha!
I have no strong objection to champagne, ha ha
My wardrobe is expensive as the devil, ha ha
Perhaps it is ignoble to complain –
Enough, enough
Of being basely tearful
I’ll show my noble stuff
By being bright and cheerful
Ha, Ha, Ha – 

Pearls and ruby rings
Ah, how can worldly things take the place of honour lost?
Purchased, as they were, at such an awful cost!
Bracelets, lavalieres, can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes from shame!
Can the brightest broach shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name? 

And yet, of course, these trinkets are endearing, ha ha!
I’m oh so glad my sapphire is a star, ha ha.
I rather like a 20 carat earring, ha ha!
If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are 

Enough, enough, I’ll take that diamond necklace
And show my noble stuff
By being gay and reckless!
Ha, Ha, Ha!

A popular portrayal of gay life is one of promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, and unhappiness. The promiscuity tag may well be due to the fact that gay men are said to have more sexual partners in a lifetime than any other group in society. We also have the highest rates of depression, suicide and STDs. And yet our disposable income is said to be higher and our taste in clothes, furnishings, and the finer things in life more highly developed that in any other cultural group. In short, if we were to accept these facts about us as in any way accurate, at a superficial level ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ would make a fabulous gay anthem. How appropriate a song would this be for us? If it is true in terms of garnering trinkets, might it also be true that the trinkets mask a deep unhappiness or restlessness in the lives of gay men?

While we should exercise some caution in drawing a direct correlation between the experience of gay men in the USA and our own experience here in the UK, there are sufficient similarities to suggest, as Alan Downs does in The Velvet Rage (to be reviewed in a future edition), that there are signs that not all is rosy in the gay men’s camp, that “somehow, the life we are living isn’t leading us to a better, more fulfilled psychological and emotional place” (Downs, p2). He recommends that priority be given to finding a way to confront “substance abuse, hyper-sexuality, short-lived relationships, depression, sexually transmitted diseases, the insatiable hunger for more and better”. Only then are we likely to find the “joy, happiness, fulfilment and love” we claim to be seeking (Downs, p. 3).

In Christian terms, true happiness, the fulfilment of our deepest longings, and the calming of the restlessness in our hearts come to us in the embrace of God. In Broken Hearts & New Creations (DLT 2010, pp. 66-67) James Alison sets out a process consisting of four moments in the discipleship of Christ: namely, “‘stripping away’, ‘spluttering creativity’, ‘turning’ and finally ‘belonging.’” Admittedly this does not readily translate to the secular world, but for Christians, gay or straight, the process of becoming authentic disciples requires the challenging work of self-exploration. Let us admit to the fact that as believers we too can distract ourselves, acquire ever more ‘things’, do more, experience more, become indispensable, but still something eludes our grasp, we are never quite happy/content enough. The goal can never be achieved while we hold to the view that our identity, our value, depends on what we have, or what we do, or what others think of us; that is the construct of a false self.

James’ four ‘moments’ is a form of spiritual detoxification. It is not a programme that has to be undertaken sequentially; as he points out, sometimes elements of them occur simultaneously. I recommend that you either read the chapter in James’ book (Discipleship and the shape of belonging) or download the original talk from his website (http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng31.html) to find a detailed explanation for each of these ‘moments’. Although he does not specifically address in this chapter the attainment of joy, happiness, etc, the question of identity, of ‘self’ does arise. James says, “Discipleship of Christ is the process by which that protagonism of gratuity which [Christ] inaugurated by going to death for us, and which we sometimes call the giving of the Holy Spirit, reaches us and enables us to start to live as if death, fear, ignominy and shame were not” (p66). True happiness, etc comes only through the integrity and maturity that result from sustained spiritual effort, and not from more transitory pleasures that may come to us in the course of our lives. As we move more deeply into our inner being, it is inevitable that some unpleasant things will come to the surface. Allurement, denial of the light, the garbage with which we can fill our lives are powerful and negative forces intent on seducing us back into their clutches. The consoling factor is that the stronger and more overwhelming the temptation to regress is, so the closer we are to the source of all joy, happiness, fulfilment and love.

As Cunegone discovered and the song ultimately declares: “not all that glitters is gold”.

This text has originally been pablished in the Quest Bulletin no. 61 (Autumn 2011)

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