By Henry Woodward-Fisher
Joel Derfner ‘95 is not your conventional Harvard graduate. After fleeing the South as soon as he possibly could, he received a B.A. in Linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be completely wrong, as the word he had been translating as “who” turned out to be not a noun but a verb. Realizing that linguistics was not his métier, he moved to New York to get an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from the Tisch School of the Arts. He subsequently became the author of the acclaimed book Gay Haiku and more recently, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead. Thus, it seems there still lies hope for those of us who seem super-glued to a career path. We thank Derfner for losing linguistics so he could write lines like these, from Gay Haiku:
My seventh birthday; I weep at Barbie’s Dream House. How could you not know?
Derfner’s opening words to an over-the-phone interview are not surprising. “I’m alright, I’m sitting here. I’m knitting a wallet,” he states matter-of-factly. “It seems to be going fairly easily so far—it’s lavender.”Elton John offers a very witty foreword to Swish; this foreword is quite clearly a feature that stands out to any gay man–in fact, to anyone–regardless of sexuality.
How did you actually manage to get a foreword by Elton John?
The book came out and it wasn’t doing as well people hoped it would, and Random House was going to sell the paperback rights – y’know, it was just bad. Then I got an email that said: “Dear Joel, I’ve been asked by Sir Elton John to contact you, because he read your book and absolutely loved it and would love to talk with you! What’s your phone number?” and I was like – “Yeah right!” It was signed: “So and so, personal hairdresser to Elton John.” And I was like, can you be serious? Just ridiculous. So I couldn’t sleep in the middle of the night, and I thought–what if he really means it? So I sent in my number and the next day Elton John called me and gushed about my book, and said he’d be happy to help in anyway he could.
The road to becoming the gayest man ever is surely one lined with many fruits. However, there must be both advantages and disadvantages; how compatible would such a lifestyle be with the Harvard environment?
Well, I think it’s essentially compatible with the Harvard lifestyle in that it’s a quest to be better than everybody else, to be more excellent than everyone else. That’s what Harvard students do right? The story in the book about me having lunch with my editor and him saying, “Oh, you could write a book about that,” is completely true. Most of the book is completely true; I mean, not the bit about how I committed hara- kiri – shockingly, the blades were very dull.
I ask how the book would have turned out if it was called Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Harvard Man Ever?
Probably the same, because I’m really obnoxious and name drop Harvard like twenty times in the book. Which I really didn’t wanna do…okay, let me think about the question that you’re actually asking. I don’t think my personality was formed enough yet, not that my personality is formed now! You can ask my boyfriend and my therapist. I don’t think I was mature enough when I was at Harvard to be able to focus like that. The book basically looks at all these stereotypes of gay men, and it’s obvious there’s some truth in that, but it’s not like you wake up one morning and you’re like, “Oh I’m gay, I guess I have to develop an interest in aerobics.” However, when I was 18, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was interested in everything.
Post-university life and life in college are two very different experiences. How do you feel this transition translates between being out as gay at Harvard and following graduation?
It’s no different. For me, it’s no different. I live in New York, I live in a gay city, I work in gay fields, everyone I know is gay, everyone related to everyone I know is gay. [laughter] People actually have to come out to me as straight! Like the aerobics instructor, I asked him out and he was like, “Actually, I’m, erm, straight.” “What? Er, what are you doing here?” So for me there really was no difference between being gay at Harvard. Though if I remember correctly, I was one of two out students when we got there.
What do you think is the most fabulous to come out to your friends and family?
Oh my God! The most fabulous way? It would involve feathers, the Weather Girls’ ‘It’s Raining Men’, and lots and lots of fake diamonds. I mean…do people have to come out anymore?
Some people do still actually have to come out.
Oh they do? Well, I came out to my parents when I was fifteen. They may very well be the only people, they and a few other people, that I ever came out to. Otherwise it was just obvious. I mean, come on!
For some people, though, it’s not all that obvious. The defined coming-out experience is still a prevailing model. What are the best ways to deal with issues such as self-insecurities and coming-out related anxieties?
Medication, and then eating and then exercise. But, really medication is all you need. Whatever anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication works for you. I think so much of that is caused by deeper anxieties, insecurities and self-loathing that really have nothing to do with what our bodies actually look like, if you can just take drugs until you stop hating yourself.
It sounds like a resolved situation then. What about dating experiences at Harvard?
There were truly none. I don’t know if it’s different now, but nobody really dated. We were all too driven.
What do you think are the actual chances of finding your husband- or wife-to-be in this way?
“Oh, we met in a bathroom stall in Lamont!” is not what you really want to tell your grandchildren. Unless, erm, maybe it is. I think online is terrific for sex. It’s sort of guaranteed, people aren’t flakes and maybe at Harvard they could be. In New York, they’re basically not. However, it is entirely possible: I met my boyfriend, now of seven years, online. There were about four seconds when there were gay social networking sites that weren’t about sex, and it was on one of those sites that I met Mike; if we were in Iowa we would be fiancées.