Monday, November 19, 2007

"No fats, no fems," or, Love in the Time of Internalized Homophobia

We live in the age of str8. It is all around us. The phrase “str8-acting” appears almost ubiquitously in personals ads. Listen to enough gay men talk and you will hear it innumerable times. What strength, what mystical power, lies in this short, three-letter, one-number word that is capable of dominating the minds of countless posters on craigslist’s m4m section?

If you are confused at this point, let me explain: str8 is a term within the gay male community which translates roughly to the word “straight” as it is used to connote heterosexuality. To be st8-acting, that is, to act str8ly, is to never express effeminacy, as we as to do any number of the following things:

1. Have an athletic physique, but not too athletic, as that would make you self-obsessed, which is not a very str8 attribute. (For reference, see the archaic pejorative, ‘Gym Bunny’)
2. Wear polo shirts as often as possible, and if that is not str8 enough, baseball hats as well.
3. Post on craigslist
4. Dislike not only fats, but also fems. (These terms refer to overweight—term applied loosely—and effeminate men, respectively. The two, put together, constitute the traditional str8 valediction on craigslist.)
5. Constantly clench all muscles in one’s wrist, so as to prevent limpness.
6. Disdain all things not str8.
Obviously, the term str8 itself dates back no farther than advent of internet slang, but the underlying concept has existed for as long as high schools have had locker rooms.

I have written before about the necessity to critically analyze desire, as it relates to the “Lesbian Sex Wars” of the 1980s. Certainly, the same applies to the str8 phenomenon—although, with a major difference. Unlike the 80s lesbian sex radicals, who embraced sexual role-playing through such things as butch-femme presentation or BDSM, there is no play here. Most personals from str8-acting men do not seek effeminate men, as butches and femmes might, but exclude them. It is like butch-femme in that str8-acting is a presentation of identity that extends beyond the bedroom, in one’s day-to-day life (as opposed to, say, leather fetishists, who, excepting pride parades, rarely venture out in the day in straps, a thong, and commando boots). However, the conscious exclusion of all things gay is what is often extended by the str8-acting man.

In the same post, I discuss sexuality as a form of personal expression. Accepting this, the question that begs to be asked is, what is being said? Is this just a facet of what John Weir calls “…a collective case of Stockholm syndrome…” (“Going In”, 28)? It certainly looks that way, simply an extension of the same problem to the hyperanonymity provided by the internet. However, there are also significant distinctions because of this.

Str8-acting is a complete disconnect from the gay community—many of these men are still in the closet, while others are out, but, as far as I can tell, tend not to associate with any other gay men, or, if they do, do so with other str8-acting men. It is an attempt to retain as much of the power and privileges of masculinity as possible, and as a necessity of doing so, recreates the heterosexual masculine response to gayness—revulsion, disgust, or disdain. If sexuality is an expression, str8-acting seems to be saying, “I’m no faggot.”

There is nothing new to a bunch of gay men lusting after straight men. Obviously, Wier believes so, citing the popularity of Marky Mark as a gay icon as being because, “…he looks like the guy from high school gym class who spent half his time exciting your ashamed desire, and the other half shutting your head in his locker…” (28) But it goes back well beyond Wier—in the classic 1968 (which is to say, pre-Stonewall) play Boys in the Band, pictured above, we see “six tired, screaming, fairy queens and one anxious queer” getting together for a birthday party and verbally assaulting each other until the host decides that he wants them to play a “game” where they must call the one man they have always loved. The result is that one by one, we see them admit that they are still haunted by their rejection from the heterosexual men of their childhood—Bernard, the sole black character, delivers the most troubling lines, where he reveals that the object of his desires was the son of the white family his mother worked as a maid for, mimicking the same fetishization of power through the lens of race. What has changed since then?

It is not our desires, it would seem, but instead, the change seems to be one of self-presentation. Much of this, certainly, is structural: the internet affords a level of privacy and anonymity that allows men to have sex with other men without having to recognize their sexuality publicly in the way that going to a club, or a bar, or even subscribing to a magazine would. However, I do believe that much of it has to do with where the gay rights movement has placed us at this very time—in other words, that the str8-acting phenomenon is representative of a sort of sexual zeitgeist.

Just as gay male culture has changed over time, so has gay male sexuality. If you seek evidence for this, look no further than the AIDS epidemic. AIDS fundamentally restructured the way that gay men had sex, functionally ending the regime of sexual hedonism, creating all the rules of safe sex, most notably. It has a profound impact on the ways in which gay men dealt with their sexuality—from Larry Kramer’s admission that at the time he wrote “Reports from the Holocaust,” he had not had sex for 5 years, to Andrew Sullivan’s description of the farcical recreation of the circuit in “When Plagues End,” to Paul Rudnick’s 1993 play, Jeffrey, concerning the title character’s attempts to navigate sex and love at the tail end of the most intense period of the AIDS crisis. Of course, AIDS was unique in gay history precisely because it was so sudden and so disruptive of the sexual culture of gay men, and as such, the ways it affects sexuality are clear and apparent. However, I strongly believe that these changes are constant throughout gay history—and I wonder, when we live in a time when gay neighborhoods in major cities across the country are seeing their residents leave for the suburbs, or get priced out by gentrification, at the same time that the image of gayness presented by organizations like the HRC, as well as by popular media, is a suburban ideal couched in sameness, whether it’s any wonder that the same rhetoric has entered our desires.

This post isn’t really all about str8-acting men. Str8-acting men are simply an embodiment of the age-old gay desire, one that goes all the way back to Mattachine when they said that “gay people are just the same as heterosexuals except for what they do in bed,” (Adam, “The Homophiles Start Over,” 69) that is, to be a straight man who has sex with other straight men. We suffer from a sort of sexual slave mentality whenever we find ourselves attracted to a straight man. We fetishize heterosexual power and by doing so internalize its hold over us. This is largely what I was attempting to get at with my post on Riggs—that Riggs’ main question—what keeps black men from loving each other and, thus, loving themselves—still needs to be asked more often by gay men of all races in regard to all other gay men. We still need to learn how to love each other, and to love ourselves.

God, what a saccharine ending—I suppose I’ll have to throw in something nuts to go out on. I know…

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Marryin' Kind: Thoughts on Gay Marriage

Oh god, I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. Ok, deep breaths, I think I’m ready. I think I’m ready to actually take on the ‘M’ word on the blog. I thought I could avoid it—I thought wrong.

You see, to say that I feel inundated with the subject of gay marriage would be a gross understatement. I got my marriage fix the spring of and summer after senior year of high school, when I worked for the Freedom to Marry Coalition in Boston, right as all of that shit was happening. I figured, as a young gay activist, let alone a young gay activist living in Massachusetts, it was the natural place for me to be. To a certain extent, it was—it was the largest mobilization of gay men and lesbians in the area in a very long time—it was successful—it was history in the making. At the same time, I found myself feeling, like many young gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals that I knew, incredibly distant from the whole thing. We all supported the movement, of course, but it didn’t really feel like it made terribly much of a difference in our lives, and wouldn’t for a very long time.

I pretty accurately summed up my own personal opinion on the subject in the last stand-up comedy performance—‘straight people have a lot more experience with this stuff, and they seem to fuck it up every chance they get. This is what we want? I know it’s discrimination and all, but this is kind of like complaining that you were rejected by a cult.’ Reading the articles “Why Gay People Should Seek the Right to Marry” and “Since When Is Marriage a Path to Liberation?” for the second time in my Carleton career, I again find myself agreeing with both articles. Ettlebrick’s critique of the race and class privilege underlying much of the struggle for gay marriage is very valid—however, I’m not so sure that her arguments as to the structural effects of achieving marriage rights are. To some extent, I feel that the existence of marriage rights, rather than undercutting queer struggles to legitimize relationships that do not conform to the marriage ideal as Ettlebrick suggests, simply empowers those who wanted to conform to that ideal in the first place. Now that we have marriage in Massachusetts does not seem to me to mean that gay men and lesbians envision themselves living a domesticated, suburban life any more or less than they did before. There is a fundamental disconnect between the ways that queers marry each other and the way straight people do—so long as we live in a heterosexist society, coming out will still disconnect queers from heterosexual expectations of marriage. When we do marry, it is a far more conscious choice, much more on our own terms. Gay men and lesbians in Massachusetts are not getting marriage at 25. Many are choosing not to get married at all. It is fundamentally different, and still allows for a wider understanding of what constitutes a family or a relationship.

The picture is taken inside of the Massachusetts State House in anticipation of one of the major votes in which anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments were voted down. I was looking through pictures from the same-sex marriage movement on flickr when I happened upon it. And what’s this? Who could that be at the left edge of the picture? I don’t know, but he looks pretty cool.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Gay Is, Gay Ain't

I’ll start by stating that I love Marlon Riggs. Having seen “Black Is, Black Ain’t” a few years ago, I was blown away by the artistic and innovative ways he deals with intersections of race, sexuality and gender, and I was just as impressed with “Tongues Untied.” One of the most poignant segments was his narration over footage of him walking down Castro street, describing seeing another black gay man, and instead of making eye contact, avoiding him, and the other man avoiding Riggs. He wonders in the narration, what it is that keeps black men from loving each other, and in doing so, from loving themselves. Immediately, I thought about how this question applies to gay men of all races, and the ways in which we construct our sexual desires (a favorite question of mine).

I recognize that this is a dangerous path to walk down, that it is not uncommon for whites to read or watch pieces by people of color and desire to decontextualize it into their own experience. This is not my aim, and I do not want to devalue the specificity of Riggs’ work to black gay men. I do think, however, that Rigg’s movies allow for a critical understanding of the function of race in gay male sexuality that extends beyond any one community—and extends beyond the gay community itself.

Riggs’ piece enters into a long discourse on the sexualization of black people in American society. This discussion within the black community, which goes back at least a century, which is expounded on in such works as Invisible Man and the Black Power movement’s exaltation of “Black is Beautiful,” gives Riggs a powerful framework within which to examine his own desires, his own self-perception, and that of other gay black men. It is one that, unfortunately, is rarely seen in the gay community outside of black intellectuals such as Riggs.

Part of this, especially within gay white writings, is due to the invisibility of whiteness. Allan BerubĂ© writes about it in his piece, “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays,” in the section, “My White Desires,” (possibly an allusion to Newton’s piece, “My Butch Career,”) how, when sleeping with another white man, the illusion of a raceless gay experience is created. Moreover, he explains the safety and comfort that entails—the feeling, however valid or invalid it might be, of a common experience of gayness between himself and his sexual partner.

I’ve always wondered myself about the effect of gay male honesty about sexuality on the ways we treat members of our own community of different races and ethnicities. Gay men of all races are notoriously honest about the ways we perceive men of different races. We all know the stereotypes, the hypersexualized and aggressive black man, the submissive Asian, etc. I instantly recall a white friend telling me that he has no interest in black men, because he feels intimidated by them, or an Asian friend telling me that he could never be in a relationship with another Asian man because they are too “sissy.”

I further wonder how the extreme growth of pornography through the internet has affected this. Gay porn, just like its hetero counterparts, operates under fairly strict racial stereotypes. Moreover, as a medium, pornography is meant to be criticized less than just about any other form of media—as such, I’ve always gotten the feeling that when we consume it, we are subconsciously accepting the terms of the medium. Those terms, beyond simply the white sexual ideal, are a white sexual subjectivity—that all men, regardless of race, must see themselves within the framework of that ideal.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

well, here it is. One night, three weeks of work. I feel accomplished. Hell, I feel positively Divine.

Straights Read This: I Hate You. Or, Ben Is Fed Up And Likes To Swear.

Obviously, the title here is largely in jest. But I am tired of hearing in class, every single fucking time that anything we read doesn’t cater directly to straight liberals’ self-imagination as Redeemers of the Faggots, that the piece is too abrasive to be ‘effective’ in the constant gay struggle to make heteros like us. I’m tired of the arrogant heterocentricity of claiming this about internal critiques such as a queer manifesto (or the above picture). Last I checked, we have yet to read a piece beginning, “Straights Read This:” so maybe, just maybe, people shouldn’t read as if every time a queer person opens their mouth, they have to be subject to how straight people might react.

I’m tired of the only acceptable model of advancement being couched in sameness. I’m tired of the silencing of anger, of radicalism, of deviation from any norm that comes from both within and outside the community, because we have to convince straight people that we are all just. like. them. I’m tired of the assumption of whiteness, of middle-class-ness, that this entails. I look at white middle class heterosexuals and I think, if that’s what I have to be to be accepted, I’m fucked—and not in a good way. Heterosexuality is fucked up. It’s oppressive. It’s got all sorts of baggage in the way of gender, class, and race. It’s abnormal and unnatural. It’s a social disease.

Anger works. ACT UP showed us this. Just ask these folks. It was their passion and anger that forced a straight society that was completely content to let gay men die into acting. It wasn’t because straight people were so nice as to accept gay people a little bit more. It wasn’t because of the progress of some mythical apolitical medical community. It wasn’t because society had just “progressed” far enough that people could do this (how does that even work?). I know that it’s a giant mindfuck to think that gay people could have any influence on straight society, but it’s true. It was all them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Girls Just Want to Have Fun, or, A Dangerous Dykotomy

Lillian Faderman’s chapter on the lesbian sex wars of the 1980s begins with two quotes, one by Ti-Grace Atkinson, who says, “I do not know any feminist worthy of that name who, if forced to choose between freedom and sex, would choose sex.” The second is by Pat Califia, mocking cultural feminists. We are supposed to identify with the latter. The first is supposed to be laughable in its closed-mindedness and repressiveness.

I don’t think I disagree with the quote. Certainly, the dichotomy is false, although it is ambiguous whether the writer recognizes it as such, however, if those are the battle lines drawn, I know where I come down. Were we to rephrase the dichotomy as being between lesbians having better wages vs. better sex, where would you stand?

Now, obviously, things aren’t so simple. But they aren’t as simple as Faderman posits them to be, either. She constructs the argument as being between cultural feminists, rigid, boring women who like rigid, boring sex, and sex radicals, who she sees as a revolutionary vanguard in empowering women through their sexuality. She’s right on a number of things, such as that the essentialist attitude cultural feminists held toward sex is exceedingly confining, however, she can’t really seem to engage the cultural feminist argument that “Feminism must be about more than exploration of feelings, [the cultural feminists] declared: feminist thought stresses analysis of the political significance of feelings, which the sexual radicals had failed to do in their enthusiasm for ‘improving’ lesbian sex lives.” She is relatively uncritical in her extolling of sex radicals for trying to “…gain access to what has historically been a main bastion of male privilege—freewheeling sexuality.” I find this problematic for a number of reasons.

Obviously, I will not side with cultural feminists in their disdain for promiscuity, for casual sex or multiple sexual partners—but I will share their concern about the gender implications of lesbian objectification of other lesbians. Uncritical investigations of sexual desire, like Faderman’s, conceptualize sexuality as some kind of self-contained, unchanging thing. It is neither. Desire is, at least in part, about where you place yourself in the world, your relationship to social constructs such as gender, race, etc, and the various implications of said constructs. It changes as your relationship to the above changes—for example, many gay men I have known have remarked that they were always only interested in being a ‘top’ before coming to a critical understanding of their own gender and distancing themselves from masculinity. It is also problematic to see sexuality as something fully self-contained—sexuality is simply an intimate and private form of expression. It should be seen as such. For example, I have just as much of a problem with people who express racial prejudice in the bedroom, such as white people who explain that they’re simply “not into” black men or women, as people who express it in other spheres of life. This is why I tend to be cautious of an uncritical understanding of bondage and S/M. In the gay male community, which is my own primary means of understanding these issues, I find it troubling when men desire to dominate other men, as it is so often a problematic assertion of hypermasculinity. I am also uncomfortable with men being only able to see themselves as sexually desirable when tied up and whipped. This general feeling extends to lesbian and heterosexual analogues. I do not find it surprising that the men who go to pride parades dressed in full leather regalia are often the same men who berate and even sometimes spit on men who seem too effeminate. It’s not universal, certainly. But the implications of a sexual fetishization of violence, denigration or other forms of dehumanization I find potentially disturbing for any community.

Dear Larry Kramer...

Dear Larry Kramer,

Thanks for all the hard work.


P.S. I still hate you.

I don’t think anyone is really supposed to like Larry Kramer. Known for his huge ego, messiah complex, misanthropy and acidity, one always gets the feeling that in the preschool class of gay activists and writers, Kramer was the recipient of the feared “does not play well with others.” Kramer has spent the past three decades carving a place out for himself as an oftentimes radical gay activist who, unlike other gay activists, especially radical ones, offers nothing but scorn for a gay culture that, in his mind, is too focused on sex to get anything done. His work includes such titles as Faggots and The Tragedy of Today’s Gays. His major theatrical work, The Normal Heart, is quite clearly a retelling of his role in founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the early days of the AIDS crisis, where the main character, like Kramer, just wishes that gay men would listen to him when he tells them that if they could only get each others’ dicks out of their asses for a second, maybe they could mobilize.

Kramer states himself pretty succinctly in Reports from the Holocaust where, after a list of ways in which gay men are denied the privileges of straights—marriage, employment and tax benefits for partnership, joint ownership of property, having children, etc.—he states, “So, rightly or wrongly—wrongly, as it turned out—many gay men decided to make a virtue of the only thing the straight world didn’t have control of: our sexuality… Had we been allowed to marry, many of us would not have felt the obligation to be promiscuous… Thus I think a good case can be made that the AIDS pandemic is the fault of the heterosexual white majority.” (274) Now, there are arguments to be made that the denial of structures such as marriage were a major factor in the development of a sexual regime of promiscuity among gay men, Kramer seems to be missing the forest for the trees in his last assertion. The “good case” that he wants to make is much clearer than he thinks—the fault goes to the heterosexual white majority in that the establishments that they had control over systematically refused to care about gay men dying.

The problem, as I see it, is that Kramer blames straight society for promiscuity, his hated enemy. Essentially, he is saying, “yes, it’s our own fault, but you made us this way. We’re so fucked up because you wouldn’t let us be enough like you.” His own sexual conservatism comes out when he asserts in the above quote that promiscuity was something that most gays were coerced into—a process that begs the question, who’s doing the coercing? Earlier in the article, he notes that he has not had sex in 5 years, himself too emotionally scarred by losing a lover to AIDS to even touch another man. While I certainly will not fault him this, I wonder, what is it that caused Kramer to be unable to find intimacy in an epidemic when other men, even Akbar and Jeff, above, could? Now, I’ll give it to him that gay men are fucked up, big time, as a gay Jew (like Kramer), it is difficult to identify the more neurotic of the communities that I am a part of (the answer, of course, is that gay Jews are the most neurotic people on the face of the planet). But the reason that we are is not that we are not allowed to be like straight people. If we were allowed to live like straights, the problems, the self-hatred, the hatred of other gay men, would persist. These are the results of the violence imposed on gay men through homophobia, heterosexism and masculine ideals. By accepting a heteronormative, psychological understanding of deviance from the domestic ideal as freakish, abnormal, and problematic, Kramer does a disservice to gay men, to those with AIDS, and to himself.