Friday, March 24th, 2023

Surviving (barely) the bad old days

Coming Out Twice:
Then and Now

by Edward Proffitt

Published by Xlibris

Published November 8, 2006
Nonfiction (memoir)
136 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

May 25, 2017

Educated at Cornell and Columbia, Edward Proffitt (1928–2012) was a professor of English at the Catholic Manhattan College. 1 His 1962 M.A. thesis was The mastery and the mercy: an explication of G[erald] M[anley] Hopkins’ “The wreck of the Deutschland,” and his 1967 dissertation was The structure of experience; explications of the mature poems of G. M. Hopkins. Neither title nor those of the various textbooks he wrote or edited are included in his memoir, Coming Out Twice: Then and Now, nor is there any indication in the text of what classes he taught (or who his theses advisors were).

 As the title makes clear, the focus of the memoir is on the difficulty of being both respectable and gay during the 1950s and ’60s. Proffitt was aware of his sexual attraction to male bodies by the age of nine and had fraught relations and relationships with closeted peers during his college years. He professes not to have believed that his nature was wrong yet spends seventeen years in intensive (four times a week) psychoanalysis with someone intent on steering him away from the homosexual “garbage self.” “Every day,” he recalled, “I woke up feeling, well, yes I’m gay, but tomorrow I won’t be. I lived for that tomorrow, thus wishing my life away” (76).

He had been nonplussed by his first explorations of not-so-gay homosexuality of the 1950s; those he met were desperate, furtive, and justifiably afraid of violence and/or exposure, not least from NYPD personnel. What he wanted was monogamous love, but it seemed impossible to find or to craft…especially with a Christian Scientist (Brad) who did not even deliver good sex (let alone any intellectual compatibility or capacity to return love).

I was gay with no way to be gay, indeed without any idea of how to be gay, of what gays do, and what gay really means. After all, I was raised to be heterosexual (4243).

George, his first love, introduced him to “Nan” with whom he proved himself able to have enjoyable sex and married in 1968. They produced and raised a daughter and a son, both of whom accepted Edward eventually coming out and divorcing (Nan left him), though his ex-wife became increasingly bitter about having been central to his “living a lie.” He tried hard to banish his homoerotic feelings but became increasingly sick (manic depressive, exacerbated by downing two liters of gin a day) and bloated (280 pounds). Eventually, a real doctor (he refers to psychiatrists and non-MD orthodox Freudian psychoanalysts as “psychos”) put him on effective psychotropic drugs (lithium and more).

In 1993, Proffitt moved from Rockland County to within walking distance of Manhattan College (in Riverdale), slimmed way down, came out at work (to the dismay of many closeted colleagues), and had some sexually frustrating and discouraging relationships. The reader does not need to infer that he was attracted to “gold-diggers”—he recalls answering an ad of someone whose ad proclaimed himself to be a “gold-digger.”

Pushed into taking disability/early retirement by homophobic colleagues (many closeted homosexuals), he moved across the country to Palm Springs. There, he had to shed the tweaker with whom he moved but eventually found a soul mate (whom he did not consider another gold-digger, though readers might). They traveled extensively, and the author of the memoir comes across as happy to have made it through homophobic times (not emerging for the second time until HIV and how to avoid infection by it were understood).

I have read a lot of gay memoirs, especially those about surviving the bad old days and eventually overcoming internalized homophobia, which seem to have been enforced with particular venom by New York City neo-Freudians (see the memoirs by Martin Duberman and Edmund White, in particular). Like James Merrill (A Different Person), Proffitt recalls divorced parents, the lack of adolescence, 2 and the common sublimation of forbidden desires into literary/academic pursuits. Merrill wrote that “only a very foolish moth expected any good to come from his affair with the flame,” an image Proffitt also invoked. Merrill refused to risk marriage and children (foreseeing the costs to them of the protective camouflage of marriage). Unlike Merrill, Proffitt was too repelled by tricking to do more than masturbate while thinking about men and, later in his marriage, masturbating to porn tapes. (He was “the marrying” kind, though finding a male of the same kind was very difficult.)

I think that Coming Out Twice is one of the best memoirs of generation before gay liberation. I have not even mentioned Proffitt’s very interesting mother, to whose memory he dedicated the book. Sylvia Dee (1914–67) was the nom de plume of a divorced woman who published fiction with some regularity in women’s magazines and wrote the lyrics of many popular songs, including “Chickery Chick,” “Too Young,” “Please Don’t Talk to the Lifeguard,” and the much-covered “The End of the World.” Her manic-depression went undiagnosed and untreated. Edward inherited half her royalties (she had remarried) and, eventually, shares in the Gannett Company (a holding company that owns USA Today, The Arizona Republic, etc.) from his mother’s mother (who had also had to fend for herself and had a newspaper career).

Nor have I indicated the frequent dark humor—or the regrettable failures of proofreading and a failure I find particularly surprising in someone who had three Ivy League degrees and as a professor of English to realize apostrophes are not needed to indicate plurality (this is not a failure of proofreading). The book is, nonetheless, quite readable and lacking in self-pity, for all its chronicling of pains of growing up and living in a society intolerant of same-sex love.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


  1. Which confusingly is located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx; before 1922 it was on 131st Street in Manhattan.
  2. “Gays in this culture did not have (and for the most part still don’t have) an adolescence. I couldn’t bring my boyfriend to the prom or neck in the back seat at the drive-in. I couldn’t even have a boyfriend… I had no role models, and most important, no peer group. My relations with my peers [including some furtive sexual connections in his mother’s house’s bomb shelter] were all hollow because all were phony on my part. When I think of my teens, I feel loathing of my internalized loathing, but mainly longing and regret, an aching pain that can never be fully compensated for.” (37–38)

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.