Closing the kitchen door behind me, I vowed never to leave home again. I was resolute in this decision without fully understanding why, or what it was I hoped to avoid; I was only aware of the need to hide and a vague notion, fading fast, that my trouble had something to do with sex.
– Bernard Cooper, “Burl’s”

I wonder what people are really thinking when you pass them on the street. Where are they going? Why are they in such a hurry to get there? I can only imagine, and try to infer the answers from my momentary observation. I can look at someone’s clothes; I can see the color of their hair; I can even examine closer for the presence of a smile or a frown. But I cannot see beneath their surface. I have no way of knowing what is really going on inside of this person on the street, or the next one I will pass. There is an entire world kept hidden from me in each and every soul.

Throughout his essay “Burl’s,” Bernard Cooper subtly explores the idea of hidden identity, particularly in the case of homosexuality. The author as a young boy must acknowledge and learn to deal with his newly developing feelings and urges, a task that challenges his naive outlook. Most hindering, though, is his perception of the outside world as a threat to his own way of life. Unspoken rules and expectations of society present an immediate challenge to the child, who is only slowly learning the difficult truths about his own character.Cooper introduces the reader to himself as a small boy who is increasingly unsure of the realities of his world His confusion begins when he happens to see two strange women coming towards him on the sidewalk, and he notices that the approaching pair seems to be out of place on the street. In fact, upon closer inspection they do not seem to be women at all. He observes that they wear wigs and clumsily applied makeup, and even exhibit the shadows of a beard. When one of the women trips on a crack in the walk, Cooper “witnesses a rift in her composure, a window through which [he] could glimpse the shades of maleness that her dress and wig and makeup obscured.” In this instant, when the man’s true identity mingles with his female façade, the child cannot comprehend what he has seen. This “window” into the transvestite’s personal life is too much for him to understand, having been accustomed only to the simpler one-dimensional gender roles of his parents.

“Any woman might be a man,” as Cooper states. He is shocked by the presence of such people in the middle of the day, while his parents sit on the other side of a diner’s window enjoying their coffee. As they sit protected behind their transparent glass barrier, Cooper feels exposed, simply due to the transvestites’ own brief exposure. It is as if the simple act of walking down the street should be forbidden to anyone who does not obey the rules of polite society; that is, anyone who goes against the norm. At this point, it is difficult for Cooper to look at anything in the same way again, his perceptions having been so dramatically shifted by a traumatizing encounter. He is emerging into a world that seems harsh and unfair, and he must put up some type of defense against these strange dangers. Thus, the boy becomes more introverted and finds himself keeping his feelings from others.

Cooper’s essay then becomes an exploration not only of emerging sexuality in a young boy, but also of the dichotomy of different spaces, and their significance in relation to concealing one’s own identity. Cooper suggests the importance in the distinction between those places considered public and those considered private, as the boy is especially sensitive to the differences innate to each after his initial introduction to a variant type of sexuality. He prefers the confines of his home, and even of his parents’ closets, signifying that he himself is hiding something from the outside world.

The reason for Cooper’s preference of the small world of a closet is its inherent privacy, and therefore its safety. He feels more secure when he can be alone inside of his parents’ room, free to investigate their closets because “nothing typified the realms of male and female as clearly as my parents’ walk-in closets,” he writes. It is here that he can feel most comfortable, as his father and mother are so clearly defined by the contents of their closets, leaving no room for error or speculation. “It seemed as if nothing bad could happen as long as I stayed within those walls.” He feels that he can truly understand the world from this vantage point, his own private place. Yet he locks the door of his parents’ room behind him, in the attempt to keep secret his actions within the closet, because the boy himself soon blurs the line dividing male from female within this same setting. He begins to try on his mother’s clothing, noting that her shoes are “a lot more fun” than those of his father. He also begins to exhibit signs of blurring that line within himself. Cooper writes that he is able to switch back and forth between male and female mannerisms, a fact that unnerves his parents and makes them worry about his well-being.

When Cooper suggests that any woman could be a man, he is exposing the secrets of an entire group of people – or at least suggesting their presence. The idea of hidden identity is explored here, not in the manner of a comic book superhero protecting his secret identity from villains, criminals, and overzealous fans; instead, it is the idea of hidden identity as a means of self-defense, protecting one’s self from society and the eyes of those who do not, or cannot, or refuse to understand.

Cooper is then taken to the gym, in order to perhaps instill some more masculine traits in the wayward boy and set him straight, as it were. His first introduction to the gymnasium is an awkward experience, in which he feels out of place and ill at ease, as if he is too exposed. When Cooper is taken to the room in which the gymnastics class is to take place, he notes that “unlike the cloistered air of a closet, the room seemed incomplete without a crowd.” This statement further suggests Cooper’s subconscious preference of private dwellings over public domains. The gym, however, can be seen as a representative of both private and public space.

Richard Rodriguez briefly describes this phenomenon in his essay “Late Victorians.” “The gym is at once a closet of privacy and an exhibition gallery,” he writes. He acknowledges that while the gym is a place exposed to the outside world, a fact which is exacerbated by the presence of tall mirrors on all four sides of the room, it is also a private place, protecting him from direct contact with those around him while he is confined within its walls.

Rodriguez, like Cooper, is a gay man discussing the purpose of hidden identity in society. He addresses the theme of closets as a private place, specifically in the realm of homosexuality, but does so much more cynically than does Cooper. As he says, in a world in which such things are never thought about, much less discussed, ” ‘Coming out of the closet’ is predicated upon family laundry, dirty linen, skeletons.” Such things as homosexuality are meant to be kept hidden, away from other people and the rest of society, never to be talked about. Consequently, for most of his life Rodriguez has felt the need to keep his own sexuality concealed from others. He, along with Cooper, has created a separate “inner life.” This private world cannot be infiltrated by society, and so is safe from judgment or persecution.

The relationship between private and public spaces is explored further in an article by New Zealander Chris Brickell, for the magazine Gender Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. He contends that public space is automatically constructed as heterosexual space, and that while heterosexuality is omnipresent, homosexual identities in public are often regarded as having “escaped” from their rightful place – the private sphere of the home, and more specifically the closet.

Brickell claims, however, that the only definitions of a space are social, rather than physical. He writes that “despite their contingency…the notions of separable ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres and spaces have come to have somewhat material existences, as people bestow meaning on them and behave and believe accordingly.” Thus, the closet is considered to be a part of the private domain, while the city streets have been declared public. The young Cooper operates within these boundaries, and he naturally expects others around him to do the same.

“The idea that homosexuality is only tolerable if it remains in private retains a significant presence in contemporary popular discourse,” says Brickell. “An intolerable breach of boundary is perceived to occur if lesbians and gay men attempt to occupy public spheres and spaces.” Therefore the notion of a true, complete identity remains hidden from the public view – as only the external version of one’s self is revealed, in reality showing only half of the individual – whereas the author notes that one is free to do whatever they like within the bounds of their own privacy.

This view of homosexuality in society allows the reader to understand why the young Cooper feels much more secure within his house than he does out in the open, on the streets or at a bus stop. He experiences a scary encounter while waiting for the bus to take him to his first gymnastics class when a mysterious man drives by, leering at the boy in a suggestive manner. Cooper’s early fantasies that the man might be the local pet store owner, a handsome man who he felt attracted to “whose tan chest, in the V of his shirt, was the place [he] most wanted to rest [his] head,” are soon revealed to be false hopes, as the strange man continues to circle the block and the terrified child quickly runs home to his mother.

Even in this incident, though, Cooper demonstrates conflicting feelings. On the way home, he repeatedly turns around to be sure that the stranger is not following him, and is “both relieved and disappointed” when he fails to see the man’s car. As a young boy, Cooper is clearly still confused about the nature of the feelings that he keeps hidden.

It is at this moment, when he is once more in the safety of his own home, that the author declares his desire to never again leave its boundaries. He does not want to have to deal with his unnatural feelings in public, so he would rather be himself at home than put on some façade on the street. But his recent experiences have revealed the world to him in new ways. The boy has matured quickly in just a short time, and now sees that society is keeping things hidden from him, in much the same way that he is becoming more and more hidden from society.

Cooper hesitates from telling his parents anything about his feelings, even about the transvestites that he has seen on the sidewalk, because he is sure that “they would have reacted with censure and alarm.” The boy cannot look at anything in the same way again, wondering what that he sees is actually real, and what is a false front designed to deceive. He speculates, “Men in dresses were only the tip of the iceberg. Who knew what other wonders existed – a boy, for example, who wanted to kiss a man – exceptions the world did its best to keep hidden.” He already feels ashamed of himself, before he can even fully understand what his feelings mean, and therefore continues to hide further within himself. This image of an iceberg captures perfectly the inner turmoil experienced by the young Cooper. Although a small portion of the mountainous creation is visible above the oceans’ watery surface, the bulk of its mass floats beneath the waves, never seen by passerby who assume that there is nothing more to the massive form than that which meets the eye.
But what about the version of himself that Cooper does show to the world, even while keeping most of his feelings deep in secrecy? There must be some validity even to this pretense, for any expression of one’s self is indeed a part of his true identity, no matter how seemingly incongruous the two may be.

In an editorial for The New York Times titled “What You See Is The Real You,” Willard Gaylin holds the opinion that the part of someone’s character that matters most is that which is shown outwardly. He challenges the idea of an “inner man” as anything but a fantasy, and refuses to listen to those who claim that someone who commits evil deeds could possibly be a “good person” on the inside. Gaylin writes that “you are for the most part what you seem to be, not what you would wish to be, nor, indeed, what you believe yourself to be.”

Does this mean that a transvestite is truly a woman, and that Cooper is a heterosexual boy? Of course not. What Gaylin is arguing is that we cannot simply forget the external in favor of the supposed internal self. He reviles the “prevalent tendency to think of the ‘inner man’ as the real man and the outer man as an illusion or pretender.” There must be some reconciliation between the two for any sense of a single, true self to emerge.

Gaylin notes the importance of both perspectives in learning more about a person’s character. Both the internal identity, that which may seem hidden, and the external identity, which is shown to the world, combine to form a greater whole. He writes: “The inside of the man represents another view, not a truer one. A man may not always be what he appears to be, but what he appears to be is always a significant part of what he is. A man is the sum total of all his behavior.” Therefore, while the thought of the “inner man” is often a more intriguing concept than that version of an individual which we see clearly for ourselves, we must acknowledge the presence and importance of both in shaping a person’s sense of identity. After all, the “tip of the iceberg” only floats because of the deeper whole.

Whereas Cooper and Rodriguez feel the need to preserve their inner selves as separate entities from the versions that they show society, Gaylin stresses that this can be appreciated only in conjunction with the personality seen by the rest of the public. The “inner man,” he says, is no more of an actual identity than that which is readily available for all to see. Due to the expectations of society and the rules thereby set forth, however, one must constantly wonder if the version of the world he perceives is the same as that which lies beneath the surface. Cooper’s naïve youth can attest to this, as he has seen for himself the possibility that things are not as they seem. Even at the diner, many features do not seem real: “Wax carnations bloomed at every table. Phony wood paneled the walls. Plastic food sat in a display case: fried eggs, a hamburger sandwich, a sundae topped with a garish cherry.” Now everywhere he looks, he is forced to wonder about the validity of the world around him.

Works Cited:

Brickell, Chris. “Heroes and Invaders: Gay and Lesbian Pride Parades and the
Public/Private Distinction in New Zealand Media Accounts.” Gender Place and
Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography
. June 2000: 163-179.

Cooper, Bernard. “Burl’s.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. 2nd ed. Ed.
Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 153-62.

Gaylin, Willard. “What You See Is The Real You.” The New York Times 7 October,
1977.

Rodriguez, Richard. “Late Victorians.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry.
2nd ed. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.
493-504.

This essay was written Nov. 2003 for the NYU course “Writing the Essay.”

Advertisements