Thursday, September 3, 2009

Observations and Questions

I received an email yesterday from one of my devoted readers in response to my most recent post entitled "What is Being Gay?" She said that she's read and thought about my "being gay" themed posts for some time, and she's been formulating questions and observations that she wanted to share with me. I read her email with great interest and wanted to respond right away; however, as I thought about it, I realized I had an opportunity to clarify issues related to being gay not only for her but for all of my readers. I wrote her an email, asking if I could use the content of her email as the basis for a post, and she said yes.

Incidentally, I especially loved her questions and observations for two reasons: 1). Because I appreciate that she has an interest in understanding gay people better, which I applaud her for; and 2). Because, to my dying day, I suspect, I will continue to work on improving the reputation of gay people in general, so we're not looked at according to the prevalent stereotypes, and so, ultimately, we're accepted for the human beings we are.

This, then, is my response to her email:

The whole sex issue, which I wrote about at length in "On Being Gay," is a concern for my reader. She writes: "I think you are right when you say that being gay or straight has very little to do with the sex issue, if at all. So why has it become such a big deal with the gay community?"

Wow, what a loaded and, I think, complex question. And what an opportunity for me to help people try to understand what the connection is between gay people, especially gay men, and sex. Where should I start (and, remember, this is my perspective only; other gay people may have a completely different point of view)?

I don't think it helps that the label affixed to us is "homosexual." In a previous post, I wrote about hating that word, because, as a label, it places an emphasis in the minds of many people, straight or gay, on sex between two men, or two women, that doesn't begin to describe what two people of the same gender are capable of sharing, if they care to. Or does it?

I've had many, many years to think about why sex appears to play so much more of a major role in the lives of gay people, arguably, more so than between straight people. I mean, think about it, anything associated with being gay, particularly a gay male, has a sex theme to it. Here are a few easy examples:

An anthology of short stories I own called "The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction," including work by some of the most well-known and accomplished gay writers, such as E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, and Edmund White, depicts on the cover a rough pencil sketch of a young man leaning against a shuttered window. The young man is naked, his pubic hair and genitals unmistakably visible.

I remember what I thought when I saw this cover on the bookstore shelf: Why a naked young man? Why does he have to display everything? Why is everything right up front?

If you're going to include a drawing on the cover, why not make it a couple of young men, fully dressed, and positioned in such a way that anyone seeing it would know they are a loving couple and in a committed relationship? Why not represent a more positive image of being gay, not the same old trite and inaccurate one?

Another example: Joel Derfner's sort-of memoir called "Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever" (a good book, but far too pretentious). The cover depicts several small drawn silhouettes of an obviously muscular young man in provocative poses. The middle silhouette shows the same young man wearing a bright, pink G-string, kneeling on the floor, legs spread open, hands up and behind his head. Presumably, then, the other silhouettes are all intended to show the young man naked, although the details are blacked out.

Again, why the emphasis on sex and not on something that represents both gay people and Derfner's book in a respectful, not to mention tasteful and nonsexual, manner?

Finally, the latest issue of "XTRA! West," the local GLBT bi-weekly newspaper, is filled with picture upon picture and ad upon ad of partially undressed to nearly naked young men, their bodies muscular, their poses erotic. Open the cover, and there's a full-page ad for Steamworks Men's Baths, featuring a picture of a naked, twenty-something hunk with a full beard, hairy chest, and towel draped over his genitals, his skin glistening with sweat.

Several pages into the newspaper is an ad for Priape, a GLBT store on Davie Street, depicting the back of a naked young man, the word PORN tattooed in old English-style letters across his lower back, and rear end completely bare and visible.

Even an ad for Moxie's Classic Grill, a restaurant also located on Davie Street, shows a young man from waist to chin, his shirt completely unbuttoned, displaying his tight abs and shapely pecs. Does someone want to tell me what a young man posed in this way has to do with eating at a restaurant? I'm sure the patrons of Moxie's are not permitted to wear their shirts wide open while having dinner. What's the connection? And what's the inappropriate image this creates about gay men in general?

Historically and culturally, images of sex seem to be how the gay community is represented, sadly, perpetuated by the gay community itself. Apart from being attention getting, the entire emphasis in gay culture is on sex. It would appear sex defines us; it's who and what we are. Sex is gay, and gay is sex. They're interchangeable. To pay attention to these, and so many other, sources, you could be forgiven for thinking that's all gay people are about.

With such a continuous emphasis on sex in the gay community, coming from every conceivable direction, it should be no surprise that the gay community, as a whole, is highly sexualized. The images are open and constant and provocative, and the message is "sex is good" and "sex for sex's sake."

When it comes to the actual act of sex between gay men--and probably, to some degree, between gay women--I've long theorized that, despite sex being the most physically intimate act between two people, it's still considerably less risky than emotional connection. That's right. Many gay man have sex, lots and lots of it, with many different partners, potentially risking their lives in the age of HIV and AIDS--especially if they engage in sex without using condoms--because 1). gay men, straight men--there's little difference when it comes to sex drive; 2). they are literally incapable to relating to each other on any other level; and 3). they are so self-loathing, because of what society at large has told them about being gay, that they are driven to have sex with each other but not to build a life with a cherished partner.

It's the difference between two men kissing and two men having intercourse--kissing, for many gay men, is off limits because it's intimate and is reserved for when emotional connection is involved, which isn't often; while intercourse, on the other hand, is just sex, simple release, and you don't have to have any feelings for the other person to have it--you only need to be physically attracted.

So what came first? The images of sex that led to the prevalence of sex? Or the prevalence of sex that led to the images? Don't ask me. All I know is, these images don't represent me, as a fifty-year-old gay man, in a monogamous and committed relationship, living in the suburbs of Metro Vancouver, minding my business, living my life in the best way I know how--and trying, in my own small way, to change the image of gay men and women for the positive. There's lots of work to be done.

As long as we continue to represent ourselves as overly sexualized beings, at the detriment of everything else that makes us full and complete human beings, the community at large will continue to look at us in an understandably deplorable way, and, worse still, we'll never have the respect for ourselves that we should, and that would lead to better and more fulfilling lives.

My loyal blog reader continues: "I can appreciate your struggles growing up, feeling you were different from everyone else. But is that something only gay people struggle with?"

Absolutely not, dear reader. And you go on to make an important point. We are all different in one way or another, whether we're a member of a visible minority, "...the kid with the big nose or ears that stick out, the one that's too tall or too short, or the one with the thick glasses...." And there are cruel people throughout our society, but especially in the public school system, where most of the teasing and taunting take place--at least in my experience--who pick up on the differences, whatever they are, pass judgment on them, and use them against you. Don't ask me why that happens, it just does. I guess they must have nothing better to do.

Having never been teased or taunted because of anything that wasn't related to being gay, I can't speak for whether teasing for being overweight, for example, or teasing for being gay amount to the same thing.

But here's what I will say: For many people, there's a moral issue around being gay. Most people who are disgusted by gays take a stand on moral high ground, telling gays they are repugnant and repulsive, claiming what they do is wrong according to the Bible, and they will burn in hell for doing it. Being gay is a right or wrong issue for many people, which is not the same, believe me, as having a big nose or wearing thick glasses, because there's nothing morally wrong or right about either of those.
Teasing is teasing, no matter what one is being teased about, and there can be no question that the effects on the individual being teased are pretty much the same. Self-esteem is always attacked, and much of one's adult life is spent trying to build up that self-esteem all over again, one baby step at a time.

But, had I the choice to be teased for performing well in school or for being gay, the decision would have been easy one. At least I wouldn't have been left to feel like I was an abomination. And I suspect I would have recovered much more quickly from being teased over the former than the latter, which I still deal with to some degree even today.

Finally, my reader makes the following points: "I will admit that I am not comfortable around most of the gay people I've met over the years--and it's not because they are gay. It's because they feel the need to make sure I know they are gay, in every way they possibly can. That's not normal. It's not giving me an opportunity to know them aside from their sexual orientation. No wonder straight people have a skewed perspective of the gay community."

Amen to that.

I don't believe I've ever gone out of my way to proclaim that I'm gay, because I've learned over time that it's not something I'm proud of or not proud off--it's simply who I am.

But, if I were to put myself in the heads of gay folks who've felt the need to ram their sexual orientation down the throats of the straight people they encounter, I might justify what I do by saying that I've lived under the repression of our predominantly straight society for so long, and I've been made to feel so miserable about myself--even to hate myself for what I can't help being; and I've struggled so long and so hard to come to a place of self-acceptance, and to find where I belong in the world as a fully-realized gay person, that I want to shout from the mountain tops that I'm here, and I'm queer, and I'm not going away. (As I've written these words, perhaps I've had an epiphany about what true gay pride is, which had largely eluded me before.)

There's no excusing the unfortunate behavior of anyone who's offensive, whether she's boorish, or insistent that everyone knows she's gay. Either way, she demonstrates little class and respect for fellow human beings.

On the other hand, the battle for self-acceptance as a gay person is one of the greatest struggles an individual will ever have--both internally and externally. Arriving at a point of self-acceptance is hard-fought in our homophobic world, and the compulsion to proclaim who you are, loud and clear, to everyone within hearing distance, is greater for some gay people than it is for others.

At the risk of sounding flippant, my recommendation is that, next time a gay person gets in your face about being-gay-this and being-gay-that, you should say that you see their flame burn brightly, and you appreciate what they've been through on their journey to self-acceptance. But they might want to bring down the pilot light just a little. Any beef they might have with straight people not accepting them as they are is not with you. Perhaps they could save the vociferous proclamation for someone else who really needs to hear it. Or they could turn up their flame full blast at the annual Pride parade (watch that they don't burn themselves), which is the perfect place to be out, loud, and proud.

Many thanks to my cherished reader for the great observations and questions, and for giving me the opportunity to speak up as a gay person who doesn't agree with everything gay.

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