Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Democrats and Gay Issues

Judging from recent statements made by both leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, I would surmise that we probably won’t be getting a clear statement from either of the Democratic candidates or from the Party that gay men and women are full fledged human beings. And if you think that such a commitment is too much to ask for in the current American political environment, since their waffling on the question of gay dignity was put forth in the context of morality, I would also surmise that we’re not even going to get a clear statement from the candidates or the Party insisting on the separation of Church and State. So, where does that leave the gay community politically, now, and when we vote in the 2008 elections?

Quite clearly, the discourse around “family values” is the principal area in which the Democrats feel vulnerable. The war in Iraq, corruption scandals, abuse of power, and manifest administrative in competence have left the Republicans almost without hope for 2008; their only card left to play is “morality” and political gay bashing. The Democrats can neutralize the Republican position on this issue by agreeing with them, or at least not opposing them too strongly. What do the Democrats have to lose? Their political analysts certainly have assured them that the gay community will vote overwhelmingly Democratic, anyway, regardless of the Party’s or the candidates’ position on gay issues.

The Democratic analysts are, of course, right. The large majority of gay men and women would feel much more comfortable with a Democratic administration and Congress, regardless of their official position on issues directly affecting gays. Despite their lack of overt and practical support, Democrats are still considered by most gays to be our friends, at least secretly. At least they tend not to be overtly homophobic (although I do find even Ms. Clinton’s “cover up” statement patronizing and ultimately fuzzy--- Gays are OK because they are willing to die in Iraq. Does that mean that our “patriotism” somehow cancels out our “immorality?”).

But should we simply sit by and silently watch as the people we hope will be representing us pander to the religious right and the homophobes? Should we insist more strongly upon a clearer and unambiguous statement supporting our humanity? And if we decide that we must take action, what, in fact, can we do?

Threatening to sit home on election- day would be both counterproductive and futile. Even in the unlikely eventuality that the gay voting population voted overwhelmingly along gay political lines, our community is not large enough to counterbalance what the Democrats might lose by overtly and strongly supporting us on the “morality” issue. And ultimately, what would we gain by another Republican administration?

The gay community has, however, weapons at hand at least as potent as our votes--- our time and our money. Commercial America has already shown itself quite aware of the economic clout of the gay community in increasingly gay oriented marketing campaigns: We are no longer even surprised by “gay friendly” advertisements and films. We are an economic force in America that must be reckoned with. Commercial America has seen it, and now political America must recognize it, too.

In like fashion, gays in America have shown themselves to be more present in political action than our numbers would indicate. Perhaps because we, for the most part, do not have families and children to worry about, we gays seem to be more likely to devote our time and efforts to political action than our straight counterparts.

In short, while I probably will wind up pushing the lever on election- day for the Democratic candidate, I will not contribute one penny or spend one minute of my time to support a candidate or party who does not fully recognize my humanity. This is the message that the leaders of the gay community need to communicate to the Democrats. They may be able to force us into voting for the Democratic candidate by default, but that will not be enough to elicit our active support. A deal needs to be cut with the Party, and soon.

Of course, any deal would have to take into consideration the homophobic environment in which the election will take place. It would be futile for us to insist upon the Democrats’ support for same sex marriage, but it would not be unreasonable, for example, for us to insist that the candidates help educate the American people to the fact that most of Europe, the area of the world from which the overwhelming majority of Americans and American cultural institutions descend philosophically, plus our neighbor to the north, Canada, have already given some form of legal recognition to gay partnerships. America is becoming increasingly isolated in an important human rights issue. The exact formula of the understanding between the candidates and the gay community should, of course, be a matter of discussion, but some understanding beyond the mealy mouthed waffling we have seen in recent days needs to be reached.

Of course, in order to make this strategy effective, the gay community needs to reorganize. We have to communicate, as a community, to the candidates and the party what we expect of them. Then, if and when financial contributions are made or political support is undertaken, such action should be made either through the gay community or in some way that makes it apparent that it is related to the candidate’s or the party’s support of gay issues.

This message to the Democrats should not be viewed as political pressure or blackmail. Every dollar or minute spent in support of a Democratic candidate is a dollar or minute less what could have been devoted to AIDS research, legal support of gay rights issues, counseling services, etc. It has to be worth it.

(A New York Times article published 16 March reports that the gay community has, in fact begun to use the strategy outlined above, and it seems to be working. Under pressure from gay organizations, both Ms Clinton and Mr. Obama have issued clearer, less ambiguous statements that they do not believe that homosexuality is immoral. Well, it’s a start. But just a start.)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

On gay norms of masculine beauty

Gay men, so runs the cliché, are obsessed with youth and conventionalized beauty. As a gay man who is no longer young by anyone’s reckoning, and who was never considered conventionally beautiful (or, at least never considered myself so), I should, if the cliché reflects more than a seed of truth, feel somewhat underappreciated in the gay community. Frankly, I don’t. Never did. While I may have many issues with trends and attitudes manifested by many of my gay brothers, I have very seldom felt marginalized either because of my age or because of my quotient of conventional pulchritude.

Not only is the cliché false; I would even suggest that those who insist upon the truth of the cliché examine their psyches for a touch of internalized homophobia. Such insistence implies that gay men are, at least in reference to their prevailing mechanisms of sexual attraction, soulless and superficial. The evidence, however, suggests that gay men are, in fact, more open, flexible, and inventive than their straight counterparts when it comes to setting norms for objects of sexual attraction. Despite the proliferation of images of young, muscular men in gay pin- ups and pornography, gay men as a group have, in fact, made a major contribution to the amplification and diversification of western society’s image of the sexually attractive man.

Most of us, both gay and straight, have a fantasy life populated, at least in part, by people who correspond to a socially determined cannon of beauty. This canon, of course, is hardly absolute, varying widely within a culture as styles and social conditions change, and varying widely from culture to culture. Marilyn Monroe, for example, would be considered fat by contemporary standards, not to mention Rubens’ or Renoir’s women. In like fashion, few contemporary observers of male beauty would consider Johnny Weissmuller’s (The original Tarzan) body particularly attractive. Hindu gods, Taoist immortals, and Buddhist bodhisattvas have been at various times throughout history represented with pot- bellies, double chins, and fleshy, undefined musculature. In short, there is no eternally fixed, universally accepted canon of beauty. What turns us on, or, more exactly, what we think should turn us on, is socially determined.

Obviously, these socially determined images do, in fact, have some effect upon our libidos, but just as obviously, they hardly represent the whole story in reference to sexual attraction. While both straight and gay men become excited by the current socially proffered sexual image, we also become excited, perhaps even more excited, by people who don’t correspond at all to such an image. A conventionally attractive straight man, who should have no problem in attracting even the most conventionally beautiful woman, can become wildly passionate over a flat- chested, rather plain girl, while a handsome gay man can lose his heart to a balding, overweight guy with crooked teeth. The paths of sexual attraction, for both gays and straights, are highly individual and truly mysterious.

Where gays and straights have parted ways on this issue, however, is in the degree to which they have allowed the reality of their sexual attraction modify the conventional norms. While there are certainly a number of straight men attracted to older, stout, or flat- chested women, the large majority of Western men attracted to these non- ideal types, despite their empowered social status, are hardly willing to assert their taste by trying to modify the accepted norms of sexual attractiveness. Within the straight world, such tastes are frequently viewed, even by those sharing them, as mild forms of perversion. The Hollywood starlet image reigns supreme. In a large segment of straight society, failure to procure a woman who is seen as a “trophy wife” is frequently seen as a shortcoming, if not a failure, by both the man involved and by his peers.

In contrast, gay men have been much more willing to allow the reality of their sexual tastes to modify the socially dictated canon of beauty. The prime example of this intrusion of non- normative sexual attraction into the constructed world of conventional images is, of course, the “bear” phenomenon. Despite having been bombarded with images of sleek, slim or muscular young men, a substantial portion of the gay community has found itself attracted to hairy, beefy, middle aged guys. More important, however, is they are not at all embarrassed to say so, and, as a consequence, hairy, beefy, middle aged guys began to stop hating themselves and their bodies (or, at least, hated themselves and their bodies less). At the insistence of the “bears” and their buddies, the guys with the bodies by nautilus have had to move over and make room for an alternate canon of male beauty. Moreover, perhaps as a consequence of the “bear” movement, the gay age- related images of desirability have also had to be expanded to include “daddies.”

Straight society is still far from experiencing such liberalization or from allowing their repertory of constructed, conventional sexual images to be influenced by the reality of their sexual desires. Straight men have constructed a rigid, unrealistic canon of female beauty that is largely accepted by its victims, that is to say, by women. Despite a very minor movement of older women who have begun publicly to resist the pressure to have cosmetic surgery, and small groups of heftier ladies who vocally oppose the pressure to diet, botox has become a household word and thousands of young women are driven annually into anorexia by prevailing rigid norms of female beauty.

Sure, lots of gay guys spend hours daily sculpting their bodies at the gym; there are also, of course, a good number whom have subjected themselves to the plastic surgeon’s needle or knife. But gay society still provides alternative images of sexual attractiveness. Such alternatives don’t seem to exist in straight society. If anyone seems obsessed with youth and conventionalized beauty, it’s straights, and not gays.

It is, of course, only natural that we gay men have more flexible and varied norms of masculine sexiness than the straights, since we are both the subjects and the objects of the process. It would be self- defeating for us gays to develop a narrow, rigid canon of sexual attractiveness, unrelated to much of what we feel, enjoy, and, in fact, are since in doing so, we would be running the risk of excluding ourselves from the game.

Straight norms, on the other hand, are determined, at least when women are concerned, by straight men with merciless lack of consideration of the mental health of the objects of their attraction, or, for that matter, even of their own mental well being. While it’s essentially women whom pay the price of these norms, these rigid norms also affect straight men by creating conflicted feelings about sexual interest in women who do not conform to those norms. If straight men with girlfriends and wives who don’t conform to the prevailing cannon of beauty feel comfortable and proud of their attraction for such women, they certainly don’t let us know about it.

Why, you may ask, should it matter what our norms of sexual attractiveness are and how they are constructed, if we continue to be attracted by a broader range of types, anyway? Clearly, the closer our socially constructed norms conform to who we are and how we actually live, the closer we come to self- acceptance. I would submit that once a gay man in our society accepts his homosexuality per se, thanks to this broader field of options in terms of defining what’s sexy, he is considerable more at peace with both his own body and the object of his sexual attraction than his straight counterpart. This, despite our marginalized status within society as a whole.

Equally important, understanding our more realistic approach to defining what’s sexy helps break down the fictitious image of gay men as variations on the Blanche Dubois theme, sad creatures in constant flight from reality. Unfortunately, this somewhat homophobic view of gay men is shared by large numbers of gay men themselves. As it turns out, however, the large majority of us are probably on firmer, more realistic footing in reference to what we desire, at least sexually, than most straight guys. The popularity of “bears” and other types on non idealized norms of gay male beauty gives us good reason to believe that once a gay man has accepted his sexual orientation, he is more anchored to reality and less conflicted in terms of his sexuality than is his straight counterpart.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Gaydar, or “The Thrill is Gone”

The death last week of Gary Frisch, the founder of the UK based on line gay dating service, “Gaydar,” and the outpouring of expressions of mourning from the gay community (topped only by that occasioned by the death of Lady Diana), has suggested an evaluation of the on line dating phenomenon. As an article in the Guardian on Frisch’s death states, on line dating has produced radical changes in the lives of perhaps millions of individual gay men and a radical change in our sense of community. Some of the benefits of on line dating are obvious; others are less so, but nonetheless important. Its drawbacks and dangers, however, while quite serious, are somewhat less readily apparent; moreover, it could be argued quite convincingly that when the pluses and minuses of on line dating are weighed together, we ultimately come out on the negative side.

One of the most obvious benefits of gay on line dating is that it facilitates contact between gay men living in small towns and cities with no gay facilities where they otherwise could meet. The guy in Moosejaw doesn’t have to wait until he can get to the big city to enjoy the company of another man; he can get in his car and drive a mere 50 or so miles to Slippery Rock to meet a guy he’s met on the net that evening. Of course, the guy might not be as sexy as he appeared in the dating service photo, or he may not even show up for the rendez- vous, but at least our horny lad from Moosejaw has a chance, even a good chance, to get his rocks off.

Even for guys in big cities, on line dating holds very definite advantages over the bars/ baths/ parks/ docks/ trucks, etc. It certainly is cheaper than the bars and baths, and safer--- at least in reference to marauding homophobic bands--- than the parks, docks, and trucks. Of course, in reference to safety, it is important to meet the guy you contacted on the net in a neutral place, a bar or a café, so you can chat with him in person for a few minutes; that will give you at least some chance of determining if you would be going home with a thief or a homicidal maniac. Actually, you are probably less likely to meet up with someone dangerous on the net, since it’s possible to leave an electronic trail of your contact. At least the smarter potential trouble- makers know that they can be traced.

But perhaps even more important than on line dating’s helping to overcome the practical problems of physical isolation, it helps to overcome the problems of emotional isolation. Many men of the pre- electronic generation complain that for years they thought that they, and the local hairdresser, were the only gay men in the world. Now, with large dating services such as Gaydar, the closeted, withdrawn, even the totally inexperienced gay man can see that even his kinkiest tastes and fantasies are shared by hundreds, if not thousands of men, some who live in his own neighborhood and are hot to meet him. Gaydar may not really help you to meet Mr. Right, or even dependably get your rocks off whenever you want, but with gay dating services, combined with gay blogging, no gay man need ever again to feel the sense of isolation that some of us felt before the development of electronic communication.

Those of you who have read my post on the pleasures and perils of gay blogging know that I am concerned with the complications relating to “keeping it real” caused by electronic communication. To be fair, however, some of the problems in this context are not exclusive to on line dating. There were problems in this regard even in the bar and bath scene; many of us remember the mind fuckers in the bars who would engage us in heady, sexy conversation for hours and then disappear into the night when it came time for any action; or the cock teasers in the baths who would cruse everyone but never connect with anyone. They probably are on the net now, engaging you in sexy dialogue, making appointments, and then breaking them, or never even showing up--- essentially the same problem we had in bars and baths, and perhaps even with the same neurotic people.

Of course, the electronic dating services are the mind fuckers’ paradise, with possibilities way beyond what is possible in a bar or bath. Not really wanting to connect physically or emotionally with anyone, a mind fucker can invent a sexy persona that may or may not be at all similar to himself. Sometimes he even posts a fake picture. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to live out one’s fantasies and to imagine someone else excited by them, but this is essentially a game at someone else’s expense and without the other person’s consent.

As one becomes a bit more practiced in the manipulation of electronic dating, he also becomes more skillful in identifying the mind fuckers and out and outright frauds. “Keeping it real,” however, is a problem even in cases where the parties involved try to be sincere and truthful in their presentation of themselves.

The projection of oneself through just words and a few photographs is, in most cases, very difficult for the person not to control subconsciously. When we meet someone in an actual social context, in a bar, through friends, or even in a bathhouse or in a park, we project ourselves by what we say about ourselves spontaneously (in contrast to the contrived verbal presentations in our Gaydar adds), which is only partially under our control, and our body language, facial expression, etc., which are sometimes even less under our control. Our interlocutor has a fighting chance to see us, understand us, and react emotionally; we, in turn, must react spontaneously to him.

Contrast this type of interchange with that taking place between even the most sincere, frank, and honest people on the net. The verbal presentations are almost always carefully calculated, as are the responses. They are just as likely to correspond more to what the sender wants to be than what he actually is, and they are calculated to produce a specific, desired reaction. The photos, even if they are of the person involved, are also calculated to project the image of the sender wants to project. We are sending essentially the image of what we want to be, even when we are trying to be honest. All of this misrepresentation can occur without any conscious lying on anyone’s part.

The projection of this level of unreality can lead to something much worse than a disappointing evening. We all fall in love not with a 100% authentic person, but with a combination of that person and our projections of our own needs onto the other person. It supposedly takes about two years in most cases, for most of the vestiges of that projection to wear off. In relationships that work, the partners then proceed to love each other more or less “authentically.”

In relationships that begin on the net, a guy can very easily fall in love not only with his own projection, but also with the image that his partner is projecting, which may have more to do with what he wants to be than with what he is. This is also possible in actual encounters, but the likelihood is much greater with relationships that begin on the net. While there is a level of “unreality” to most love affairs, that level is much more complex and difficult to unravel when a meeting and the development of the relationship takes place electronically.

It has also been quipped that sites such as Gaydar have broken up more relationships than they have brought together. This is true not only because on line dating makes extra marital liaisons more available; it presents you with a selection of potential paramours that even the greatest lover on earth couldn’t consistently, successfully compete with. In the development of your relationship, you and your partner have stripped away your illusions about each other and about yourselves, but the on line paramours are open to all your, and their projections. Even if their photos aren’t air- brushed or professionally posed and lighted, most photos try to show their subject at what he feels is his sexiest. Simply stated, reality will have a hard time competing with fantasy. Even if you don’t contact or try to make a liason with one of the sexy guys on the net, cruising around the site and taking in the highly charged, over simplified sexuality the guys there project presents a real risk of diminishing your partner just a bit in your eyes. Unlike your partner, the guys on the net don’t leave the top off of the toothpaste tube. Not much good can come of this.

Don’t get me wrong. Far be it for me to diminish the role of fantasy in our lives! If sex is the spice of life, sexual fantasy is the hot pepper. But with sites such as Gaydar, the fantasy is created by supposedly real men out there, who also claim to be, or sometimes actually are, available, thus blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Lots of couples in stable relationships spice up their sex lives by looking at pornography together or going together to a place with a sexually charged atmosphere. But the fantasies generated by such events are clearly fantasies, appreciated and enjoyed as such. They are quite different from the fantasies generated by sites such as Gaydar, which claim to be real and realizable.

These problems would be of diminished importance if on line dating could coexist comfortably with the more traditional ways of meeting and making contact with potential sexual partners. But as many of us have experienced, and as the Guardian article brings out, on line dating has resulted in the radical contraction of the more traditional contact possibilities. In many cities gay bars have closed down and open air cruising areas have disappeared; they can’t compete with the comfort and ease, not to mention the economic advantages, offered by the on line sites. Gay human relations, as are all human relations, are difficult enough, in and of themselves, to keep from flying off into a whirlwind of fantasies and projections. Now that we are forced, more and more, to make contact through the abstracted world of Gaydar and its like, our hope of really being able to connect with people, not just as tricks or lovers, but even as friends, seems to be fading.

This gradual transfer of our emotional lives to the virtual, electronic world not only threatens to rob our lives of substance, it also takes away much of the thrill of encounter. Less and less frequently will we be able to experience the heart stopping excitement of a glance from a sexy stranger across a crowded room, or bathe in the warmth of his smile. When I met my partner (It was at a gay beach), we talked for about two hours, the intellectual, emotional and sexual excitement building by the minute. That, my friends, just doesn’t happen on the internet.

What to do? I don’t really know. But it’s quite clear that there’s no going back. Somehow we’ll have to find a way to rebuild our ability to connect with each other in a thrilling and substantial way in the context of, or perhaps despite, electronic communication.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Perils, and pleasures, of gay blogging

Now that I’ve been blogging and reading other gay men’s blogs for about six months, I’ve begun to form some ideas about blogging, especially gay blogging, both for myself and towards what seems to have developed as a significant cultural phenomenon. The discussion I would like to open here pertains, however, to those gay blogs concentrating primarily on ideas, feelings and experiences relating to gay life. I am not interested here in those gay blogs dealing primarily in pictures of beautiful men or sexy stories; such blogs differ from straight blogs of the same type only in their sexual orientation. There’s nothing wrong with them; they’re just not very interesting for my purposes here.

Blogging allows me to discuss ideas about gay life in a broader forum than my own, personal life affords me. I put out an idea or an observation and, at least theoretically, I can get direct reactions and feedback from an unlimited spectrum of opinion. In my personal life I have a fairly large circle of friends I can discuss these issues with, but this spectrum is ultimately still comparatively narrow and pre- selected; they are, after all, my friends. Also, their reaction is frequently influenced by their relationship to me. None of these factors limit the blogosphere.

I generally limit myself to discussion of gay issues. While I enjoy commenting in other people’s blogs on any number of topics, I restrict my own blog to gay matters, since in that specific field I find feedback from this very broad spectrum particularly valuable. While there are several other areas of interest I could blog about, my professional and private life provides a sufficiently large forum to discuss these issues and therefore, I don't really need to blog about them. For a discussion of gay issues, however, blogging provides me with a unique opportunity.

Also, quite frankly, since I am not a professional commentator of gay issues, I can be somewhat free and adventuresome with what I say on these matters; I have no professional responsibilities in this area. Even though blogs supposedly afford a certain anonymity (more about this later), and my professional reputation would probably not be at stake, I still would not permit myself the pleasures of intellectual speculation in a field where I feel professionally responsible.

I feel fairly comfortable with these intellectual limitations I have placed on by blog. The emotional and existential realm, on the other hand, perhaps requires some further explanation. My blog may seem to some denizens of the gay blogosphere somewhat impersonal, distant, and, if you will, tight- assed. In comparason to most other gay blogs, even thoise devoted to ideas, I don't really present much of myself. Of course, even in discussing ideas, you reveal your emotional make up and even aspects of your existential reality at almost every turn; but I seldom make such revelations directly. I don’t discuss my personal life directly, and I make references to incidents from my own background only it they serve to illustrate an idea I want to get across.

I don’t discuss the details of my relationship with my partner since I regard intimacy to be, as I’ve said in other places, an essential ingredient in the mortar that holds our relationship together. I try not to be too judgmental or doctrinaire on this matter, guys, but I really can’t understand people, gay or straight, who discuss details of their relationships in a public forum. Certainly, problems in a relationship can be so painful that a guy feels he has to let loose and open up to someone. But if those problems become so acute, and the two partners are so incapable of negotiating them with each other, that a violation of the intimacy that binds the relationship seems necessary, then perhaps the guys involved need to reevaluate their relationship.

Also, from a practical point of view, what happens when your partner discovers your blog and sees what you’re telling total strangers about him? I can’t imagine that it would help matters much between you. Or perhaps you don’t want it to, and it’s a way of telling him off without having to confront him directly. Sorry, but certain judgmental terms such as “cowardly” come to mind.

Equally baffling are those people who habitually comment on such intensely personal blogs. We all have a certain tendency toward voyeurism--- I’m certainly no exception. Sometimes such comments stem from a sincere desire to help by giving a soul in obvious anguish a bit of support or a perspective on the issue that may help him resolve the issue. Most frequently, however, such habitual commentators view the blog as an alternative to a television soap opera. These people should think about getting a life for themselves.

I admit that the value I place on intimacy in a relationship may be related to my living in continental Europe. Americans and Brits seem to be much more willing to blurr the line between their public and private lives. The sex lives of American and British political and other public figures are considered fodder for public consumption and the public seems to have no problem in making the parties pay politically for perceived transgressions (Bill Clinton, Lady Diana- Prince Charles).

On the European continent, on the other hand, people tend to respond with shock when someone transgresses the line between the private and the public. This week, for example, the wife of the ex Prime Minister of Italy published a letter in a major newspaper demanding a public apology from her husband for having flirted openly with some starlets; the letter clearly intimated that the ex PM had been somewhat less than an ideal husband. The only group that supported the wife was the feminists; most other Italians, both friends and enemies of the PM even agreed that he is sleaze, but they generally condemned the wife’s letter as outrageous. You don’t wash dirty linen in public.

Of course, none of this applies to blogs discussing other types of personal topics in which intimacy isn’t an issue: passionately held political or social positions, problems at work, decisions concerning decorating, even questions of style and clothing. There is nothing problematical about seeking a broader forum for those issues than what everyday life affords.

But this brings us to what I consider the major peril of blogging: Blogger friends. Why should this be a peril, you may ask? It is inevitable, if you’re a regular blogger, that you develop a feeling of closeness, even affection for some of your regular blogger contacts. Even in a rather theme- oriented blog such as mine, there are commentators whose contact I really treasure; such relationships are assuredly even more intense in the more personalized type of blog. This is one of the pleasant, even beautiful aspects of blogging.

But the danger is that these blogger relationships become as important, even more important to you than your actual friendships and social contacts. Real life is complicated and messy. Friendships, if they matter at all, involve responsibilities and can frequently have real consequences, some good, some bad, some mixed, in your life. Blogging friendships, on the other hand, are easy and if uncomfortable, can be discarded without trouble or consequence. They involve no real responsibility.

Worse: If you’re skillful, you can put together a circle of blogger friends who consistently tell you exactly what you want to hear. They become almost like the imaginary friends some of us had as children. I know people who have retreated almost entirely from actual social life into their world of virtual friends. Even if we don’t allow our retreat into a blogger reality to develop to this extent, there is an inevitable struggle between our blogger, and our “real” life.

This is why I try to remain “on topic” in my blog. It would have been fun, for example, to get some of your opinions concerning the decoration of our newly acquired Paris apartment. But for me, at least, it’s hard enough to keep my blog in its place in my life. Bringing purely personal issues into my blog would, for me, only compound the problem.

And then there’s the problem of anonymity. Briefly put, guys, it’s an illusion. You must take it for granted that eventually family, friends, spouses, lovers, ex- lovers, enemies, enemies’ lawyers, etc. will wander into your blog. Google has made this even more likely. Most of us give enough information in our blogs that identification by people from our real life is quite easy. “Discovery” happens so often that I must assume that people who put self incriminating or embarrassing information in their blogs, under the assumed protection of anonymity, are ultimately dishonest and really want to be discovered.

None of this means that I have the least intention of stopping blogging. As long as I can keep my blog on the level of a discussion of gay issues, I’m confident that it will continue to be, as it has been for these last six months, an (at least for me) satisfying intellectual and personal experience.

Friday, January 26, 2007

It’s not just the Pope, Evangelicals, or fanatical Muslims…

Readers of this blog will have noted that I frequently attribute much of the problem we as gays have in achieving self- acceptance and social equality stems from monotheistic religion. Although I have made it clear that my objection is to all monotheistic religions, I have come down hardest on Evangelical Christianity, while other commentators have aimed their barbs at the Pope, priests, and the imams. Since, however, as I have mentioned, I was born and raised Jewish, and since I still remain to a very large extent influenced by the Jewish intellectual tradition, I should make it clear that I in no way exclude my own religious background from my J’accuse. I point the finger not only at the centuries old Jewish tradition, but also at threatening and dangerous elements within the contemporary Jewish community.

It probably is the case that the Children of Israel, along with their invention of monotheism, invented homophobia. The ancient world was otherwise relatively free of this curse. One can argue whether homosexual relations enjoyed the same status as heterosexual sex among the Greeks and Romans; nevertheless, prominent figures of the ancient world, Hadrian and Alexander, for example, were recorded uncritically by contemporary chroniclers as having had homosexual relations. David and Jonathan aside, not so with Judaism.

While it may be that some of the authors of the David and Jonathan story did, in fact, imply a homosexual relationship between these Biblical heroes, this aspect of the scriptures has never even been seriously positively discussed by rabbinical commentators, who, in fact, determined the intellectual and spiritual direction of Judaism. The possible Biblical “gay” couple may very well be the vestiges of a pre Biblical Judaic legend, developed before the Children of Israel decided to separate themselves from the rest of the ancient world. The story of David and Jonathan, while providing some vain hope for homosexual religious Jews, is really not of any significance in terms of the formation of Jewish attitudes toward homosexuality.

It can be claimed that Judaism’s Biblical injunctions against homosexuality began as a survival tactic encouraging every possibility for procreation of a small, numerically weak tribe struggling for a foothold among powerful neighbors. It also can be debated that Christianity and Islam, both much more transcendental than Judaism, and therefore having greater problems with sex in general because of its physical, non spiritual nature, would have developed homophobia without Judaism’s prodding. Whatever the case concerning the origins, rationale, and influence of Jewish homophobia, scriptural Judaism must bear the responsibility of having presented this “gift” to western civilization.

It is, of course, true that Judaism, because of its very firm, non transcendental nature, has much less of a doctrinal problem with sex in general than do the other monotheistic religions. It would seem, then, that its problem with homosexuality would be more easily overcome. In addition, the rabbis have historically been very skilled at explaining away Biblical injunctions that they no longer see as convenient, so, the famous injunctions against homosexuality are not really an insurmountable obstacle. I’m sure they could explain them away, if they wanted to. What, then is the problem?

It seems that the same material definition of reality that protected Judaism from the pleasure depriving transcendentalism that plagues Christianity and Islam exacts its toll on Judaism when it comes to homosexuality. The problem for Jews ultimately is that homosexuality is, in the traditional view of things, not socially productive, or in concrete terms, no grandchildren for Mom and Dad.

The rabbis condemn homosexuality in essentially socially utilitarian terms; even the most mystical, theistically oriented Jews, such as the Lubovicher Hassidim, condemn homosexuality almost exclusively on these grounds. It offends God only indirectly, in that it supposedly harms society. But for a Jew raised to define himself essentially in terms of his role and use in society, this is a pretty wrenching condemnation. The young gay Jewish adolescent winds up being tortured by the idea that he is failing his family and his people; for a young Jew this is as painful a sense of guilt as sinning directly against God and getting on the train for Hell is for a Christian.

In a way, gay Christians have it harder at the beginning but perhaps are better off in the long run. Since a desire in itself can be sinful even without attempting to fulfill that desire, they are forced to confront homosexual desire head on. The lucky ones understand how absurd this all is, and turn their backs on the religion that put them through such agony.

For Jews, however, a desire is morally neutral unless acted upon. The potentially gay Jewish adolescent is tortured by his homosexual desires not because they are a sin against God, but because he understands the anathema they will bring down upon him and his family if he acts on them. He understands that if he can just bring himself to marry a woman and have children, everything will be “all right” despite his desires. No rabbi will ever condemn him because he gets hard thinking about a man, even if he confesses it to him; just as long as he’s a good boy and doesn’t act on his longings. So, his religion and his homosexuality in itself never come into open conflict; all he has to do is deny a large portion of himself.

In short, while Christianity offers no quarter for a homosexual since his desires themselves are sinful, Orthodox Judaism offers a solution for a gay Jew, but at an extremely high price. As a result, many gay Evangelicals and Catholics from religious homes finally leave the church and are free. Orthodox and even more liberal traditional Jews, however, tend to pay the price and remain in the religious community. Of course, it would be better if they left, and in that sense, Christians are better off.

The Orthodox Jewish community has now mobilized and formed an organization, JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), which regards homosexuality as a curable illness and claims it can help homosexual Jews change their sexual orientation. Although the organization is clearly homophobic, the expressed motivation for its foundation was not exactly homophobia; it’s that previously, the only organizations offering such a service were Christian, and these organizations had converted several Jews seeking their services to Christianity. (Nothing drives the Jewish community crazier than conversion of Jews to Christianity; they’d rather we suck cock!) In fact, being so concerned with emotional motivation, as I suggested, is not really very Jewish; what matters is what you do. Essentially, the Orthodox community has adopted a Christian attitude and methodology to block conversions to Christianity.

If you have a strong stomach and steady nerves, I suggest a stroll around the JONAH web site. Or maybe prepare yourself with a few stiff drinks. This is no Bible thumping, fire and brimstone on- line ministry. It’s put together by extremely sophisticated people, and its on- line library of readings--- with articles fully reproduced--- contains some well crafted (but nevertheless revolting) pieces by major conservative Jewish intellectuals, such as Norman Podhoretz.

The secular, liberal East Coast Jewish community may essentially be on our side, but they’re obviously not the whole story. If you thought that contemporary Judaism might be a safe haven for gays, think again.

(An extremely thorough, intelligent and detailed discussion on the topic of Judaism and homosexuality by Ian Silver can be found here)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On childhood wounds

A few days ago I read a post describing the pain and humiliation of a gay man who had overheard someone referring to him with a homophobic epithet. I could empathize fully. I’ve felt that same pain and sense of shame in similar circumstances. What interests me, however, is why we, even those of us, men ostensibly quite comfortable with our sexual orientation, react with such hurt and humiliation. When we were still in the closet we thought that once we were out, that gnawing fear of being called a faggot would go away. It didn’t, and it won’t.

Many of us have come to quite solid terms with our homosexuality. We are out to family, friends, and at work. Many of us are in partnerships, some of these partnerships even recognized by the state, and do not in any way hide or disguise our sexual orientation even to total strangers. If, then, we are so comfortable with our homosexuality, why does it hurt so much when someone calls us a fag or a queer?

I can't accept that this vulnerability belies any residual self- hate concerning our homosexuality. Just because you cringe when someone calls you a faggot does not at all necessarily mean that you are in any realized manner uncomfortable with your gay identity.

The fellow writing the post likened his reaction to the pain he suffered when he was taunted with being a faggot or sissy as a child, and he wonders why he feels the same way as a man. I would suggest that the pain we now feel in such circumstances is not just similar to the pain we felt as children; it is, in fact a reawakening of that same pain. The wounds our childhood tormentors left on our defenseless and vulnerable hearts are evidently still there, incurable and permanent.

I would offer as substantiation that other types of insults, unrelated to childhood torments, can produce anger or even shame, but they do not produce the same searing humiliation. You can insult my looks, my intelligence, my ambition, my nationality, my politics, etc, and you will make me uncomfortable, even provoke me, but you will not make me want to go and hide, as you do when you call me a faggot. The only other type of offense that makes me burn with humiliation is anti-Semitism, another theme of childhood nightmares.

I guess that the horrible fact is that there is no way, no matter what we do later in life, that we can heal those deeply planted wounds from childhood. No matter how secure we feel as gay men, we carry those wounds within us; they are ready to open up and bleed at the least provocation.

Each of us copes with these wounds in his own way. I honed my intelligence and wit dagger sharp and at an early age learned how to strike back very effectively against homophobic taunts. The price of this defense, of course, was that I grew up regarding my intellectual faculties as a weapon instead of a source of pleasure and understanding. It took me years of emotional reorientation to begin to set this right. Other guys become painfully shy, avoiding contact wherever possible. Yet others are “in your face,” flaunting their “queerness” before anyone can attack them for it. I wonder how much of our lives are formed around protecting ourselves from the pain that prodding these wounds causes.

Recently, I ran a post discussing the limited usefulness of the generally shared gay practice of making lists of illustrious gays. Obviously, such lists are an attempt to cope with these wounds. I, frankly, don’t think they do much good in this regard. They remind me of my father’s attempts at consoling me after anti-Semitic incidents by reminding me that Freud, Einstein, and Marx (We were proudly pink-o) were Jews. It didn’t do a damn bit of good. There isn’t any effective balm; we can only try to protect future generations.

There should be some way to protect potentially gay children from this spiritual mutilation. What such childhood taunts do to people who develop gay and the stubborn permanence of the wounds they leave should be part of all teacher education programs, and gay organizations should be insistent on this point.

That the immediate perpetrators of this damage are other children is, in fact, irrelevant. Children are no longer permitted to taunt other children because of their race or religion. Any school that would allow this would soon find itself with legal problems. There is no reason why such a standard of behavior should not be applied to sexually related taunts.

In addition, it was not always the other children who inflicted these wounds. Frequently, it was the teachers themselves who encouraged these taunts, either directly, through derogatory comments they themselves made, or indirectly by showing indifference to the sadism and bullying of some of the children in their charge. The possibilities of taking legal, or at least professional disciplinary action against such teachers should be investigated.

In recent years we have developed, especially in the US but now increasingly in Europe, a heightened consciousness of psychological dangers to children. You can’t pat the head of a neighbor’s child without arousing fears of pedophilia. Nevertheless, we as a society still permit and even condone merciless, sadistic taunting of potentially gay children. The agents themselves may be children, but it is most frequently adults who form the context that not only allows but also encourages this behavior.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Gay Role Models

The other day I posted a piece discussing the limitations of making lists of illustrious gays in order to combat homophobia, both from without and from within ourselves. To clarify, such lists have little, if anything to do with searching for or providing gay role models.

Identifying people whose lives and work provide us with intellectual and spiritual guidance and inspiration is essential for our growth, both as individuals and as a community. This is especially the case for us gay men and women since we have so long been victims of oppression and prejudice that there are few of us who can honestly deny having had sexual orientation related self- esteem problems, at least at some point in their lives.

But this is quite different from simply composing a list of famous people who happened to be homosexual. As a homosexual man, I find little strength or consolation in the figure of a homosexual artist or political figure who occasionally, or even frequently, snuck off to have a secret tryst with another man. Federico García Lorca is among the greatest poets of the XX century and even a courageous political figure who was murdered by the fascists, but his tortured and clandestine homosexuality hardly provides us with a useful role model.

Even men such as Leonardo da Vinci, whose homosexuality was well known but essentially unrelated to his accomplishments, don’t, as I see it, provide us with very useful homosexual role models. Leonardo is a source of constant admiration, almost veneration, for me as a civilized man (I like to think of myself as such), but in his case, the homosexual context is pretty much irrelevant.

Political figures such as Barney Frank, or the openly gay mayors of Paris and Berlin, or even political figures from the ancient world, such as the Roman emperor Hadrian, on the other hand, are much a different matter, as are artists such as Cavafy, E.M.Foster, Alan Ginsberg, Gide, Caravaggio, Lucien Freud, Fassbinder and Almodóvar. These are all men who integrated their homosexual identities with their political or artistic accomplishments. The politicians fully represent all their constituencies, unabashedly including themselves and us as gays (or, as Hadrian, set up monuments throughout the empire honoring his lover); the artists have created a universal art in which the acceptance of homosexuality is an implied imperative.

It’s not necessary, however, to limit our consideration of homosexual role models to those who have taken a public stance or created works with overtly gay themes. I also accept as homosexual role models men such as John Maynard Keynes and Walt Whitman who were privately open about their homosexuality, quite at peace with it, allowed it to inform a good deal of their work, but because of their times and social situation, could not be more direct and public concerning their sexual orientation.

I refrain from elaborating much further on the categories from which our role models should be selected. I have no intention of trying to establish a canon for qualifying as a gay culture hero. Those criteria should, in fact, be open ended and forever subject to discussion. Such discussion itself would be a sign of health and vitality within the gay community. My point is simply that in order to provide a useful role model, a figure should be something more than just illustrious and gay.