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 Berubé 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.

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