Friday, September 18, 2009

On Vacation

I can't leave on vacation for two weeks, with no opportunity to write posts on my blog, without once again thanking my devoted readers for being here on a consistent basis, and without encouraging you to look for new posts after Sunday, October 4. Hopefully, I'll have lots to write about then, and I'll share it with you.

Thanks for being there, dear readers. You have no idea how much your support means to me.

Friday, September 11, 2009


When I moved to Vancouver in the late '80s, I became friends with Dale. Dale and I met when I answered a personal ad he placed in "The WestEnder," looking for a relationship. After dating a couple of times, and somewhat to my relief, Dale announced that I wasn't what he was looking for in a partner. Instead, we became the closest of friends over the next several years. Had it not been for him, I don't know what I would have done by myself in the big city.

Dale played a key role in helping me to realize myself as a gay individual, which excited but scared the hell out of me. He took me to gay clubs, like the Gandy Dancer and the Odyssey, where we had some of the best times two gay friends could. He took me to my first drag shows at Doll and Penny's, where I saw just how serious good drag queens took their craft. And he introduced me to Hamburger Mary's (which he affectionately called Hamburger Fairy's), one of the biggest greasy spoons for gays on infamous Davie Street. I lived in Burnaby at the time, and, had it not been for Dale, I probably would have spent my weekends at home, going nowhere near downtown, and missing out on everything that was fun and wonderful and exciting and intriguing and enlightening about being gay in your 20s.

To say that Dale was a character is a gross understatement. He had the quickest wit of any person I've ever known. He found something genuinely funny about anything and everything, and there was no end to the comments he made about people and things and situations that were so hysterical, he'd have us both doubled over in tears for much of the time we spent together.

Dale was filled with favorite expressions, like when we talked about whether someone was gay or straight, and Dale knew he was straight, he'd say he's "as straight as the hem on Lady's Di's dress"--this when Princess Diana was still alive and famous, in part, for her fashionable attire. Or when Dale thought that some gay fellow wasn't attractive, he'd describe him as having "a face like a can of smashed arseholes" (I can't tell you how many times I heard that one, to the point that it ceased being funny). Or when a gay fellow he knew thought he was better than anyone else, Dale would say expressively, "Well, smell her," which he used on me more times than I care to remember.

Yes, Dale had his campy and ribald side, making sexual comments that both shocked you and had you holding yourself to ensure you didn't have an accident in your pants. But he could also be very proper and respectful too, especially in social situations. I was never once embarrassed to be in Dale's company, whether at a fancy restaurant or at the Meridian Hotel for the decadent chocolate buffet. His etiquette was impeccable in those environments, and he was an example of charm and manners. It was from him that I learned you never go to someone's house for dinner without bringing over a suitable and tasteful gift. That bit of advice has done me well over the years.

For all Dale's insane ability to make people laugh--he even talked about performing on amateur nights at Yuk Yuk's, a comedy club in downtown Vancouver, which never happened because he relied too much on being unpolitically correct in order to be funny--he was difficult to be around. Many times, he didn't seem to want friendship from me as much as he wanted a willing audience to laugh at his jokes. Dale had to be constantly "on," performing for anyone and everyone within hearing distance. The bigger the crowd, the better. Dale was only truly in his element when he made people laugh, which made him both personable and annoying as hell.

Sometimes, I just needed a friend, someone to be quiet with, someone I could confide in, someone who would let me be sad or reflective, who would commiserate with me. But that wasn't Dale. And, not long after I met Chris, I spent less and less time with Dale. I wasn't comfortable around him anymore. I'd heard most of his witticisms before, countless times, and I needed him to be more serious than funny then. The energy he required of his audience to keep up with him and to laugh non-stop was exhausting. As fun, exciting, and vivacious as he was, I got to the point where I could only take him in small doses.

Dale worked for a beauty supply company in downtown Vancouver. The company provided everything necessary to operate hair styling salons--from combs and brushes to styling products, and from curling irons and dryers to chairs.

It should be no surprise that the beauty business attracts it's share of gay men, from stylists to shop keepers, and Dale, as a sometime flaming queen himself, was in the perfect position to get to know many of them. Being around other gay men all day not only gave Dale lots of interesting and amusing stories to share when we got together, but also allowed him to come into contact with lots of gay men, many of whom he found attractive and wanted more than anything to get to know on a personal basis.

Unfortunately, while Dale was one of the most exciting personalities you could ever meet, he wasn't particularly attractive. His teeth were long and discolored--although a male stripper in a club once complimented him on his smile--and his body was tall, skinny, and grossly over-hairy, so much so that he often imitated Grover on Sesame Street, drawing a comparison between how the two of them looked and acted. Out of necessity, Dale relied more on his outgoing personality and wild sense of humor than on his physical appearance to attract other people and to befriend them.

Perhaps Dale thought of himself as a jet-setter, although not one who travelled the entire world. Instead, he left town for points south of the border as often as he could. Sometimes, work required him to travel to cities on the west coast of the United States, where he attended business conferences and product shows. In those cases, his expenses were fully paid for. But, most of the time, he travelled for pleasure, spending more money than he earned on an adequate but limited income to attend vintage car rallies and to link up with friends he'd made over the years.

I can't tell you how many times Dale returned from a week here or a weekend there, more animated than usual. He'd talk about how much fun he'd had, all the things he'd seen and done...oh, and all the attractive men he'd met. Then, he'd tell me he'd fallen in love--again. Yes, he'd met the man of his dreams. "Oh, Rick, if you could just see him," he'd say, "you'd think he was so handsome. And he has a hairy chest, just like you like." Dale knew how to get my attention, but, after awhile, even that reference failed to interest me.

"I'm in love," Dale would declare. How many times had I heard that before? I tried not to roll my eyes. It seemed every time he was away from Vancouver, he'd meet someone, fall in love, and have the time of his life. Then he'd return home, having charged much of his trip's expenses, brokenhearted that he and his man lived thousands of miles apart, when they were so perfect for each other.

Dale would try to think of ways he and his betrothed could be together again. When he'd saved up enough money (or more likely after he'd paid down his credit cards so he could charge more), he returned to San Francisco, Palm Springs, or San Luis Obispo, hoping to continue where they'd left off. Or maybe his new love interest would come up to Canada to spend time with him and to be shown a good time in Vancouver (and in Dale's bedroom). Either way, Dale was sure he'd make it work with whatever young man he'd most recently taken a liking to.

But none of his affairs ever lasted long. The logistics of maintaining a long distance relationship with someone he scarcely knew weren't realistic, and, soon enough, Dale settled back into his usual life at home--taking on the role of social butterfly, comedian, and life of the party. Only to start the routine all over again the next time he was out of town. I got so fed up with one story after another about how he'd found the perfect man, except he lived somewhere other than Vancouver, that I didn't want to hear about them anymore. I tried to be supportive where I could, but encouraging him to keep up with this predictable fantasy did him no good at all.

I couldn't understand how he'd do that to himself, over and over again. How could he put his heart out there, for all these different men, in all these different places, and not see what damage he was doing to himself by being unrealistic in his expectations of what could possibly come of what they so briefly shared? I didn't understand how he could set himself up for being in a continuous state of brokenheartedness.

The toll it took on him, emotionally, but especially financially, finally caught up to him. Around the time I met Chris, early June 1992, Dale told me he was broke. Not only was he broke, he was severely in debt. He'd racked up all of his credit cards to the limit, and he'd been in to his bank recently to talk about what he could do to get himself out of the massive hole he'd fallen into.

The bank wrote up a debt consolidation loan, pooling all of his credit card debt so he'd avoid paying outrageous interest charges, instead making one manageable payment to the bank every month. He was told his personal trips out of town had to end immediately. Dale was a different person then. Oh, he still had his sense of humor and his roving eye for every attractive man who crossed his path, but he was more of a home body now. He knew that if he didn't crack down immediately, he'd get into an even worse financial mess, and he might even lose his beloved apartment on Beach Avenue, not to mention his gay lifestyle in the West End.

It was then that I tried to get serious with Dale. Perhaps now he'd listen to me, since his financial circumstances had gotten as bad as they were. I wanted to know why it seemed like he always had to go out of town to find the man of his dreams. Why, in all the time I'd known him, had I never seen him with the same local fellow more than once or twice? Vancouver had a huge gay community, and there were plenty of attractive men that he could meet and develop relationships with. More than anything else, he wanted to find the right man, to settle down, and to build a life together. Why couldn't he do that with someone from Vancouver?

A week before Chris and I moved to Victoria, in August 2000, I received a phone call from a friend Dale had introduced me to years earlier. Paul asked me if I'd been in contact with Dale recently, and I told him I hadn't. Occasionally, when Chris and I had been out walking or bike riding, we'd seen Dale on the street. He was always happy to see us, and, sometimes, we stopped at a coffee shop for refreshments and to get caught up. But it never took long for me to learn that Dale hadn't changed much--that he still demanded an audience to feel good about himself, and he still told many of the same hackneyed jokes. Often, I couldn't wait to get away from him and to return to the quiet and peaceful life Chris and I had made for ourselves.

Paul asked me if I had the latest issue of "XTRA! West," the local GLBT newspaper. I did. He asked me if I'd read it, and I said I had. Then he asked me to get it and bring it to the phone. I put the phone down, found the paper, and returned. Paul told me to open the cover and look about halfway down the first page.

What I saw jolted me. There was a small black and white photograph of Dale, with the heading "Proud Lives" above it. I went on to read that he'd passed away recently; that his quick wit and sense of humor would be missed by all those who knew him; and that a memorial service was scheduled to be held at a church he'd attended for a year or so.

To this day, I don't know how Dale died. I knew he had a brother in town, Gary, but I didn't know where he lived or what his phone number was. I knew Dale had been sick, with cancer and heart problems, but I hadn't really known a time with Dale when he hadn't been sick. The only thing worse than his non-stop attention grabbing was his chronic hypochondria.

For as long as I'd known him, Dale always had something wrong with his health. Any time he had my ear, he loved to describe his ailments in detail, and, strangely, he seemed to always know the medical term for every health issue that beset him. Where his health was concerned, Dale had cried wolf so many times that I'd learned to tune him out. He always overcame everything that afflicted him, looking the picture of health whenever I saw him.

Now he was dead.

I've had a lot of time over the years since to think about what must have claimed his life before he turned 50, the age I'll be in less than a month. And I have my own idea of why Dale passed away. Yes, he'd had heart problems, not to mention all kinds of other health challenges, and any one of them may have caused his death. But, more than anything else, I suspect the real issue Dale had with his heart was one his doctor couldn't diagnose or treat. I'm convinced that Dale's perpetually broken heart finally did him in. I'm convinced that he had set himself up for failure in the relationship department so many times, falling in love with men that could never be his, that his heart exploded in a million tiny pieces, never to be whole again.

I'm also convinced that Dale, for all his outgoing personality, and quick wit, and sense of humor, was a homophobe, especially where he was concerned. I believe he allowed himself to fall in love, to the degree he could, with men from out of town because only then was he comfortable enough to face the reality of his sexual orientation. It was so much easier for him to put himself through the temporary misery of breaking up with yet another man who would never be his, than it was to settle down with someone from Vancouver, someone with whom he might be continuously disappointed when the fantasy of being in love wore off, and when he had to look at himself in the mirror and see that he was the same fag he often criticized others for being.

To this day, I know that for all his talk of being in love with men he'd met in American cities, Dale never experienced real love in the truest sense of the word. He never experienced the deep, rich, and textured love that comes over time from giving yourself completely and thoroughly to another human being. That starts with loving yourself and who you are, and extends to accepting love from someone else because you know you deserve it.

As I look back on the Dale that I knew all those years ago, I'm saddened that he never had the relationship with another man that he said he always wanted. I'm saddened that he never accepted his homosexuality enough to open his heart to a man who was available to love him back, and not another fantasy he spent a few days with in yet another American city. And, above all, I'm saddened that he never learned to love himself, not as the funny man that everyone else tuned into, but as the special and wonderful and beautiful human being that he really was. What a shame and a tragedy.

Gay/Straight Alliance

This past Saturday evening, Chris and I had over our next door neighbors for dessert and refreshments. The patriarch is Phil, and he's in his early 50s. Mandy is the mother and in her late 40s. Lindsay is the only daughter, and she just entered grade 11. And Jeffrey is the only son, who started grade 8 this September. The family is good people, and more than with any of our other neighbors, Chris and I have really hit it off with them.

We talked about a lot of things over the course of three or so hours, but I saw an opportunity to talk to Lindsay about something I'd wondered for a long time. I asked her if there was a gay/straight alliance club at her school. For those unfamiliar with this, the gay/straight alliance club is intended to create a greater awareness, understanding, and acceptance of the differences between gay and straight students in grade school, ostensibly to put an end to the teasing and bullying of gay students just because of their sexual orientation.

(I have to say this: I know that kids are far more sophisticated today about things like sexual orientation than I ever was way back when, so I'm convinced students who identify themselves as being gay know there's more to it than just having sex. Or at least I hope they do. Perhaps I'm naive, but I just don't think the opportunity to have gay sex while in high school comes up all that often, which allows young people to realize there is something more compelling about being gay than sex.)

Anyway, in answer to my question, Lindsay told me that the school she was about to enter grade 11 at, and which she attended last year, didn't have a gay/straight alliance club. She added that she didn't think one was necessary. She said most of the school knew of at least one openly gay student, but she was sure everyone accepted him regardless, and there was no need for a gay/straight alliance club.


Doubtful as I was that this was the case, I made some comment that I was impressed with how much had changed in the public school system since I attended, and that I was grateful this one gay kid didn't have to go through the hell I did. But what I really wanted to ask Lindsay was whether she had ever spoken to the gay student to ask him about his school experience. I wanted to know if he'd tell her there was no need for a gay/straight alliance club. In short, I wanted to test for myself what she'd said to determine if it was really true.

So let's play "what if" for a moment:

What if a new male student arrived at school, and he was a real flamer? What if everyone saw him mince or prance or sashay down the hallway to his classes? What if he had a limp wrist and gestured exaggeratedly? What if he spoke in an affected way when he opened his mouth? What if he wore his straight-legged jeans inside a pair of high boots? What if he wore a bag over his shoulder that looked like a purse? What if he carried his school books in the crook of his arm and not at the side against his leg? What if he was hopelessly inept with a ball, any ball, in P.E. class? What if his gym teacher expected him to take showers in communal stalls at the same time as all of his jock peers? What if he enrolled in drama, singing, or typing classes? What if he volunteered to work on the debate club, or to write for the school newspaper?

With all due respect to Lindsay, is she telling me that all of the students she attends school with would accept this young man just as he is, and none of them would tease, ridicule, or taunt him whatsoever if he did one or more of the above?

If that is really and truly the case, then I'm deeply impressed with the school system these days and with students in general. And I'm overjoyed that this young, gay male student is able to truly be himself in a school filled with peers he is very different from.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Question

Today was an exercise morning. Since the weather was good, and I had a book to drop off at the public library and a deposit to make at the CIBC Instant Teller, I decided to walk downtown, a distance of two or three miles. You know, kill two birds with one stone.

When I arrived at CIBC, just before opening time at nine-thirty, I walked up to the Instant Teller, pulled out the two cheques I had to deposit, and discovered I didn't have my CIBC Convenience Card. Chris's and my accounts are joint at BMO now, so, naturally, I grabbed my BMO bank card and left my CIBC card back home in my wallet. Oh, well. I told myself I'd have to return to the bank some other time to make my transaction.

Across the street at the Civic Centre, I dropped off my book at the public library. Just as I was walking away, something occurred to me. Since I had my BMO bank card, I could make my deposit into our joint account there, withdraw in cash the amount I needed to for my payment, , then walk down the block to CIBC. Only trouble was, could I deposit cash to my account at another branch without presenting my bank card? I was willing to find out.

I stood in the queue at CIBC for a few minutes, looking at the teller line. There were six tellers in all, five female and one male, and I was reminded of CIBC, Capri Centre, in Kelowna, when I worked there in the early 1980s. We had four wickets then, three usually manned by women and the one closest to the front counter filled by me, head teller at the time. I wondered how the young man felt about working with all those women, whether it made him uncomfortable, and if he'd been teased for being the only male in a branch filled with females. I had been, but maybe things were different now.

He was tall and thin, with short dark hair. He looked like he was in his early to mid twenties, his skin olive-colored, and his ethnicity perhaps Hispanic. I was surprised to see that he didn't wear a tie. When I was a teller, I always wore a tie, except for a couple of weeks one summer, when my manager called Personnel at Regional Office in Vancouver to ask if I could go without one during our hottest weather. Maybe the young man today didn't have to wear a tie because of the more casual business district in downtown __________, I thought. I was happy to see him more comfortable than I was for so many years.

At the head of the line, I waited for the next available teller. The young man's customer walked away, and, quietly, he said he could help the next person. I walked up to his wicket, and I asked if I could make a cash deposit to my account at another branch without a bank card. When I worked at the bank, eighty-six years ago, anyone could deposit to anyone's account, especially cash. I hoped the rules and regulations hadn't changed.

Joey, the young male teller, pressed a few keys on the computer in front of him and asked for my phone number. Next, he asked for my first name, then my last. Finally, he asked for my birthdate. He took the ten $20 bills I'd placed on the counter between us and counted them. He asked me how much my deposit was for. I confirmed the amount of $200.

As Joey input the deposit details in the computer, he said to me, quietly, "It says you're 49." I clued in he was talking about my age. I guess the computers are more sophisticated now than when I was a teller.

"I'll be 50 in less than a month," I responded.

"You don't look it," he said. Then, in a voice that made his sexual orientation a secret no longer, he asked, "What's your secret?"

I was caught off guard, both by the compliment and the question. When I'd gotten up this morning, I'd dressed in my workout gear, and I'd combed my bed head, placing the flattened and messy hair the best I could, which light wind had ruffled during my walk anyhow. Huffing and puffing on my walk downtown, I was tired and sweaty standing at Joey's wicket. I can't imagine that I was worth looking at, let alone complimenting, yet there he was in front of me, an attractive, and obviously gay, young man, asking my secret for aging well. When was the last time I'd been asked that--by a gay fellow?

Times have changed. As a teller all those years ago, would I have asked a male customer, old enough to be my father, what his secret was for not looking as old as his chronological years? Not a chance in hell.

First, straight men don't ask each other questions like that--ever. So, if you do, your sexual orientation is a given. No way in the early '80s could I have risked asking that question of an attractive man, in part, because, no matter what everyone else may have thought, I wasn't gay. I might have looked at every attractive man who walked into the branch with an expression that unmistakably said I was attracted to him, but I wasn't gay.

Second, if I'd had the good fortune to wait on said handsome man, it was all I could do to get the words out that I needed to complete his banking transaction, let alone ask him how the hell he looked so good for his age. And looking at him directly while he stood in front of my wicket was nearly impossible, since I was too ashamed to let on that I found him attractive and would have liked to get to know him better.

And, third, there's surely a complement implicit in asking such a question, but I suspect few men, especially straight men, would appreciate it coming from another male. So wasn't Joey the least bit concerned that I might be offended by his question, bring it to his manager's attention, and get him into trouble?

Or did he somehow know I was gay before he asked me? As I walked away from the branch, I wondered how he could have known. I doubted my flame had burned that brightly when I walked in, and I'd only said a few words to him. Then it occurred to me that he'd seen my bank profile, and that my financial advisor had likely recorded Chris's name as my partner. Still, I thought Joey had been forward with me, much more so than I would ever have been.

I'm afraid I didn't have a good answer. I was too flustered by the unexpected compliment, and I couldn't think of anything during those final moments as he finished my transaction. (Of course, afterward, lots of answers came to me: I don't drink, smoke, drug; I eat right, exercise, take care of myself; I'm happy for the most part; and I'm deeply in love with the most wonderful man I could ever ask for.)

I'm not dead, right? The complement from Joey was unexpected but welcome. I recalled the words, "What an ego boost," Chris had uttered when we'd been on board a BC ferry en route to Horseshoe Bay from Departure Bay several years ago. It was late June, the sun was brilliant, and the temperature warm.

A tall, handsome, young man removed his shirt and laid bare chested on an upper deck of the vessel. Digital camera in hand, I crouched within a few feet of his head and snapped numerous pictures of his muscular torso and hairy chest, while he lay relaxed, his eyes closed. Chris was convinced he knew I was there taking his picture, and that, not only did he not mind, but all the attention he was getting, even from other fellow, had been an ego boost.

My ego was boosted this morning too, when Joey asked me a question I had no good answer for at the time. I wondered if he'd been attracted to me, even if his question had been a form of come-on. Who knows? Maybe I flatter myself.

But, as I walked home, listening to tunes on my iPod, the late summer sun warm against my skin, perhaps my step was just a little lighter than it had been on the way downtown less than an hour earlier.

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.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Being Gay

Here are two more quotes from E. Lynn Harris's memoir "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," which are related to Harris's hope to change the perception of gay men through the writing career he was about to embark on:

"I prayed that if it was [God's] will, He would give me the words and courage to write, to tell the story of people like [my close, gay, male friends] Richard, Randy, Willa, Larry, and myself and make people realize that being gay wasn't just about sex, but about love." (p. 230)

"I told my aunt that she didn't understand what being gay was about and that I couldn't wait until my novel was published so it could help people understand that being gay was as much about being attracted to the same sex as it was about my spirit and soul." (p. 239)

Amen! That's all I have to say. Amen!

For too long, gay men themselves have created the perception that all we're about is having sex. Images of gay men in the media and at the annual Pride parade, for example, depict muscular men or skinny twinks, nearly always undressed, creating the illusion that when we're not having sex, we're thinking about it. Unfortunately, this makes us as a whole appear one-dimensional, and it doesn't allow for the wide diversity within our community.

For most gay men, sex is no bigger, or smaller, a part of their lives than it is for the rest of the population. In reality, the majority of us are interested in all of the same things--from maintaining mutually rewarding relationships with family and friends to succeeding at our jobs, and from extending ourselves within the community in meaningful ways to understanding why we're here on earth and how to fulfill our purpose.

My advice to straight people, then? Don't get caught up in all the images of the gay community. Recognize that you're only seeing a very small part of who we are, and that, just like in any large group of people, a wide range of diversity exists within our numbers.

But, even more importantly, as I've written before, think about gay people as being human beings first, because that's what we are. Just like you--whether you're female, black, Asian, blind, physically challenged, short, whatever--we're not the sum total of the label our culture affixes to us. We are human beings first, all of us, despite our differences, and we deserve to be considered on that basis.

I think straight people get hung up on the mechanics of sex between two men, and that turns them off or disgusts them. So my next bit of advice? Don't ponder the sex between men thing. When I see a straight person, I don't think about him or her having sex. I don't care what straight people do in bed together, so why should they care about what I do? Let's get our minds out of the bedroom and focus on all of the important things that make us who we are.

Over the years, I've done a lot of thinking about what it means to be gay, or why I'm gay. Of course, there's the biology thing, and I don't deny that. In fact, I strongly believe being gay is biology first. But I don't think that's the full story.

As Harris suggests in his two quotes above, I think being gay is about connection to another human being of the same gender, not just physical but emotional, intellectual, and spiritual too. Yes, like straight men, I could connect to women in the same way they do. But there would be something in that connection that, for me, would lack in significant ways.

Growing up, I never had a good connection with the men in my life--not with my father (who, when he wasn't physically unavailable, was emotionally unavailable); not with an older brother, which I didn't have; not with a grandfather; not with a cousin or an uncle; and not with a close friend. Hence, to a large degree, being gay for me has been about the search for connection with my own sex, perhaps in order to validate my masculine identity or my sense of belonging with men as a whole.

But there's more to being gay than just that, at least for me. Without the strong male influences in my life, and with dominant female influences, consciously or unconsciously, I discovered that I lacked in areas. I wasn't like other boys. I had effeminate characteristics and mannerisms, and I identified more with females than with males.

As I physically matured, I didn't see in myself what I saw in straight men. I wasn't muscular and strong; I couldn't grow proper sideburns or a beard; I didn't have a hairy chest. To me, all of these physical attributes were so identifiable with straight men that, to not have them meant that, at least in my mind, I wasn't a man.

Thus, from day one, what I sought in a mate was what I didn't have myself. Among other things, in Chris, I found someone who was strong, physically and emotionally. He could grow sideburns and a full and impressive beard. And he had a hairy chest and stomach. In that sense, and despite being gay himself, he was more the physical male that I'd always wanted to be. And, perhaps through him, I was vicariously able to fulfill the part of me that I couldn't myself.

In some respects, I suspect Chris is also the father, or older brother, or relative, or close male friend, that I never had, and he's taken on the symbol of masculinity in my life. By connecting with him, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and by being fortunate enough to have someone with his physical attributes want to be with me and to love me, I've felt validated as a man, and, in my own way, I've taken my rightful place at the table with my gender.