Thursday, September 28, 2006

On European Gay Life

Since I’m an American who has lived in Europe for the last 25 years or so, it might be of some interest for me to outline some of the differences I have observed and experienced between American and European gay life. I should say at the outset, however, that the quality of specifically gay life in Europe, which is in some ways better than that in the US, and in some ways more problematical, was not a major factor in my deciding to make my life here. I came to Europe and stayed because of work, because I fell in love with and established a relationship with a European man, and because I found and continue to find the quality of life in general here in Europe to be superior to what I had or could have in the US.

The most obvious difference between gay life in Europe and in the US is that
with the exception of retrograde Poland, the countries of the European Union offer gay people grater legal equality than does much of the US. Gay couples can marry in several European Union countries, and civil unions carrying rights approaching those enjoyed by married heterosexual couples are possible in others; discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legally considered a breach of human rights. Despite these advantages, however, this more secure legal status in no way indicates that everyday life in Europe is more “gay friendly” than it is in the US.

The more secure legal status we enjoy in Europe is a result of a general social situation having, in fact, only tangentially to do with attitudes towards homosexuality. Briefly stated, although the US was the first country to declare officially the separation of Church and state, this separation is now on much firmer ground in Europe. Historically, many European peoples have had to struggle to throw off Church domination, and the Church has failed too often in modern times to provide moral leadership; most Europeans, even those who are regular church members, support the idea that the Church should stay out of politics. Even in Italy, where the Church still has some political clout, the electorate has, in recent times, strongly asserted the separation of Church and state. Throughout western and central Europe, without a politically active and potent Church to turn homophobia into doctrine and then into law, the way is open for reason to prevail and for gay people to be able to claim their rights.

So, gay people have a stronger legal situation in Europe not necessarily because there is more popular tolerance of homosexuality, but rather because the Church (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish), which has been the major force in blocking such progress in the US, is politically much weaker here. On the other hand, the social situation, the general environment effecting gay people in their daily lives, may, in fact, be more positive in the US than it is in Europe. But again, the difference may depend not so much upon attitudes toward homosexuality as it does upon the general structures of the two societies.

In Europe, the relationship between the individual and his immediate and extended family, the social circle into which he was born and raised, his home- town, and his work situation is much less fluid and flexible than it is in the US. American cities provide refuge to millions of gay people who have fled limiting or overtly homophobic family, social and work environments in small towns or smaller cities. Much the same happens in Europe, but it is much more difficult for the individual gay man to pull off, and frequently the flight is partial and incomplete.

Both my American and my European friends seem to have pretty much the same proportions of family who has accepted, rejected, or accepted only conditionally their homosexuality. The Americans, however, seem to be much freer in being able to tell hostile, homophobic family where to get off. Of course, not all American gay men with “difficult” families are capable of physical and emotional separation, but the system itself doesn’t make it much more difficult than it is on a personal level.

The European family, however, is much tighter, and the social opprobrium against breaking ties with family is even stronger than the opprobrium against homosexuality. Even if a European gay man manages to move away to a different city, he is still expected to, and almost always does maintain very close contact with his family, even if they are inveterate homophobes. This situation is most extreme in Italy, where a man’s ties to his mother are legendary, but it is even true in the northern countries. It is, therefore, very difficult for a European gay man to separate emotionally from a family that refuses to accept his sexual orientation.

Contributing to this problem is the general physical immobility of European society. Most Europeans grow up, are educated, work, and die in or very near the city where they were born. Also, unlike more recent American society, changing jobs too often is seen, in Europe as a sign of unreliability, disloyalty, and general instability.

Most important, gay Europeans are gay, buy they are still Europeans. They may suffer under homophobic family, social, and work environments, but they still subscribe to those very same values that make it very difficult for them to break away. A gay Italian or Austrian guy with homophobic parents, friends, or boss hesitates to move to a different, bigger city or new job not only because the move is practically difficult; he, like his straight friends, would really prefer to stay with his family, childhood friends, and old colleagues in his home town.

When an American gay guy decides to flee Peoria for the flesh pots of Chicago or New York, he also can arrange for a soft landing. Perhaps because of the mobile nature of American society, there is the institution of support groups he can turn to in the big city. Moreover, Americans, again perhaps because of this physical mobility, tend to be able to make friends, or at least form close acquaintanceships, at every stage of their lives. Europeans, on the other hand, after their formative years ending, perhaps, with the end of formal education, find making new friends exceedingly difficult. It happens, but it requires a great deal of initiative and determination. For a European gay man coming to the city from the provinces, it is perhaps easier for him to find a lover than to develop a circle of friends. It isn’t just that others reject him; he himself is reluctant to extend himself toward new people. His culture has taught him that his circle of friends essentially closes after university graduation (and for many after high school or even elementary school, even if they have gone on to university).

Those gay support groups that do have some success in Europe tend to center around specific sexual tastes. Continental Europeans--- the English are an exception here--- traditionally have a hard time joining clubs or interest groups, especially if the clubs involve a high degree of personal interaction. The cover of a sexual interest, however, seems to help them overcome their reticence in this regard. One of the most successful gay support groups in Europe seems to be the “bears.” I know several men who seem to have developed tastes in this direction not particularly because they are more turned on by hairy, hefty guys than they are by smooth, slim ones, but rather because the bear groups tend to be accepting, friendly, and supportive.

These sexual interest groups such as the “bears” seem to have a more important role in European gay life than they do in the US. Because discussion of personal problems or feelings with anyone outside of family or the most intimate, life long circle of friends is impossible for much of European society in general, gay men from non gay friendly social environments frequently have nowhere to go in this regard. The “bears” or other such groups become an ersatz family where, under what is sometimes at least in part a pretext of having similar sexual tastes, and isolated gay man can find a pal to talk to.

Obviously, such groups perform similar functions in the US, but there the individual gay man has many more options open to him. Specifically sexual opportunities seem to be about the same in Europe in the US; bars, baths, and bushes don’t seem to differ from place to place, and specifically sexually oriented internet contact sites and chat rooms have changed the nature of gay cruising as much in Europe as they have in the US. But because of European reluctance to open up to anyone but a childhood bosom buddy, making new friends or even engaging in a personal blog is very difficult. If personal blog sites do exist among gay Europeans (I, frankly, don’t know of any at all), I would assume that they would be used primarily by very young people.

The gay community in Europe is not nearly as well organized and politicized as it is in the US. In fact, when politically oriented European gays compare their organizations with what their brothers and sisters in the US have accomplished in this regard, there is generally much rending of garments, beating of breasts, and moaning about how unserious and uncommitted we in Europe are. The problem, however, has very little to do with commitment.

Political life and social activism in Europe operates almost entirely within the scope of the existing political parties. We in Europe do, of course, have important and resourceful gay activists, but they tend to relate to the existing political parties instead of building independent gay political and social action organizations. There are, of course, gay political and social action periodicals, but nothing on the scale or scope of the LA or New York gay newspapers.

All these factors considered, therefore, I would say that it is probably easier to be gay in the US, especially in a city, than it is in Europe. Despite much firmer legal status and protection, and despite more or less the same degree of acceptance by the straight community, European gay men have a somewhat more difficult time integrating their sexual identity into their everyday lives than their American brothers do.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Dose of Cavafy, After Overindulgence in Kant, Gay Political Correctness, and other Austerities

This morning, after several days of obnoxiously rigorous and dower intellectual activity, I went to the beach with an old friend, a well worn volume of Cavafy’s poems. It is one of the last glorious days of summer (Such splendorous crystalline perfection can’t last much longer.), and I could think of no one better to guide me along the brilliantly lit strand decorated with the languorous forms of those sun bronzed, fine muscled young men Italy seems to produce in prodigious abundance. Venice isn’t, after all, so far from Alexandria.

Cavafy is arguably our greatest homosexual poet. There are, of course, other great poets who happened to be homosexual (Auden, García Lorca, Rimbaud, Walt Whitman, just to name a few), but I can’t think of any other great poet for whom the transformation of homosexual love into poetry played nearly as important a role. But how can I extol the pleasures of Cavafy after even partially ascribing to the austerities of Kantian ethics, beating the drum for monogamy, and urging us all to be out, proud and comfortable with our sexual orientation?

Cavafy’s voice comes from a world totally outside such considerations. As Auden says in his introduction to the major English language translation of Cavafy’s collected poems, “The erotic world he depicts is one of casual pick ups and short- lived affairs….At the same time he refuses to pretend that his memories of moments of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.” So much for Kant. And for Cavafy, homosexual pleasure almost always has an undertaste of shame and the savour of forbidden fruit. So much for our liberated gay sensibilities and political correctness.

But who can resist lines such as:

The fulfillment of their deviate, sensual delight
Is done. They rose from the mattress,
And they dress hurriedly without speaking.
They leave the house separately, furtively; and as
They walk somewhat uneasily on the street, it seems
as if they suspect that something about them betrays
into what kind of bed they fell a little while back.

(From “Their Beginning,” trans. Rae Dalven)

It seems that no matter how Kantian or post- Stonewallian we are, Cavafy’s lines go straight to our innermost souls. He speaks to the part of us that exists outside (or perhaps prior to) our sense of morality or social awareness. He is direct and honest about his feelings, his longings, his shame, and he asks, demands, the same of the reader. If the reader denies he ever had such feelings, the poetry has nothing to say to him. In that sense, Cavafy is supremely Kantian. There is no manipulation, no seduction of the reader. He speaks of shame, but is not ashamed to do so. He speaks to and evokes our deepest humanity. (But somehow, I still don’t think he would be Kant’s favorite poet.)

This sense of humanity goes beyond our sexual orientation. Cavafy’s honesty and comfort with who he is speaks not just to gay men but rather to a much wider public. Despite their directness and sensuality, his homosexual poems don’t seem to evoke any embarrassment on the part of straights. Like the case of the Barbarini Faun I discussed in an earlier blog, Cavafy provides another lesson in the power of being comfortable in one’s own skin.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Monogamy continued, or playing around with Kantian ethics

(I wrote this piece several weeks ago and have resisted publishing it, since it presents me in a light in which I prefer not to see myself. I really don’t believe I’m as much of an austere gay puritan as much of this piece may make me out to be. I really hope not! But in the interests of intellectual honesty, I really do feel obliged to publish it. I ask only that the reader read through to the end before he reacts.)

In dialoguing with one of the guys who has read my previous blogs on monogamy, I said I wanted to bring the whole issue out of the context of morality, a point to which my correspondent offered a certain degree of objection. On giving the matter a bit more thought, I have concluded that it is, in fact, probably impossible to divorce moral considerations from the question.

My correspondent discussed the immorality of betrayal, or breaking of vows of monogamy and consequently hurting your partner. But is sexual betrayal any less immoral if you betray your partner in a way in which you can be absolutely sure he’ll never find out? Is a theft or a lie any less immoral if it is never discovered? Also, as I responded to my correspondent, is sexual betrayal any more serious than other types of emotional betrayal, such as breaking confidences? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that considering the issue from the point of view of betrayal alone is ultimately going to get us very far.

We might just have to bite the bullet, risk being branded authoritarian, puritanical prudes, and discuss the morality of sexual promiscuity head on. It’s inescapable that from a Kantian point of view, and most modern ethical systems derive more or less from Kant, sexual promiscuity involves breaking a basic ethical principle, treating another human being not as an end but as a means, treating a man not as a man, but rather as an object. It’s not hard to see how engaging in promiscuous sex, or any type of sex that doesn’t take the humanity of the other person fully into consideration, flies in the face of this ethical system.

I can think of few acts that turn another human being more completely into an object or use him only as a means more thoroughly than casual sex. In fact, I must admit that at least for myself, when I was single and playing around, it was precisely the impersonal nature of casual sexual encounters that made many of them so wildly exciting. The super hot trick is the perfect foil for our fantasies, to whom we have no real responsibility, with whom we can be as free as we can allow ourselves to be. Of course, we wish the casual partner no harm; we even, very frequently, do everything we can so that he enjoys himself, too. But even there, our striving to please is most frequently an exercise of our own power and a source of our own enjoyment. The other guy is just the object that allows us to do this.

One could, of course, argue that since the other guy consents to this situation, he is exercising his rational will and is thereby asserting his humanity. Engaging him on this level, i.e., having sex with him, would not, then, be treating him as a means, but rather as an end. But what is the guy really consenting to? In agreeing to engage in a casual sexual encounter, the other guy, just like you, is primarily thinking of his own gratification. He is generally not thinking about how the other guy is viewing him. He is not agreeing to become a foil for your fantasies. So, he is not really agreeing to what you are proposing. And even if he did, it would still violate the Kantian ethical system in that one cannot morally deny his own humanity.

(I do, of course, dismiss the idea of throwing out the Kantian argument on the grounds that he did, several times, condemn homosexuality. This condemnation is based more on the prejudices and preconceptions of his times than upon his ethical system. This ethical system still provides a vald approach to the problem.)

That being said, we can now return to the issue of betrayal (sexual or otherwise). The immorality of betrayal consists not in the fact of betrayal itself, but rather in its ultimately involving an overt or covert lie. A lie is ultimately the manipulation, without his consent, of another human being, and hence, it denies his humanity. If my partner assumes my fidelity, and if I go on a business trip and have a wild night with a stranger, never confess, and my partner never finds out, I am nevertheless denying his humanity through the covert lie involved; I am manipulating his feelings and beliefs without his consent.

O.K. That’s the logical ethical argument for monogamy. But I have to confess that while I have no intention of cheating on my partner, the whole business strikes me as a bit austere. Kant is almost inhuman in his insistence upon our humanity. I still can’t condemn my friends who enjoy (even obsessively) wild nights at the baths or a dance with a stranger. And as I’ve said in other contexts, if my partner is seduced in a moment of weakness by a pair of fetching eyes, it will not destroy the years of trust and intimacy we have built together. And maybe here we have reached the limits of logic.

Friday, September 08, 2006

On religion

As I said in the intro to this blog, I am a rationalist who believes that the Enlightenment was one of the more noble human endeavors. So, I don't really have much patience for religion. I am, in fact, quite at peace with my rejection of that enterprise.

I can, however, understand how some people, including gay people, need to associate themselves with some sort of "higher power" (for want of a better term). While I do not share their need, I don't question their sanity.

I do, however, question the sanity of those of us gay men who insist upon identifying themselves with any one of the several monotheistic religions that have ruthlessly persecuted homosexuals for eons. Some conventionally religious gay men desperately search religious scripture or church history for some sort of legal or historical loophole that allows homosexuality; others try to ignore the religion's condemnation of homosexuality and seperate it out from the rest of religious doctrine. Frankly, these efforts strike me as rather useless and even counterproductive and their practitioners seem to be engaged in a rather bizarre and ultimately unrewarding form of masochism.

The problem is that transcendental theistic religions such as Christianity and Islam can't logically ever accept homosexuality, since they deny all persuits of purely physical pleasure or earthly attachments such as romantic love unrelated to procreation. They have a big problem with sex in general, let alone homosexual sex. Judaism, while less transcendental, simply can't get around the biblical injunction, although the rabbis are sometimes pretty good at explaining away inconvenient biblical passages. And, of course, we do have the example of David and Jonathan. But still, I really don't hold out much hope for Judaism either (since the rabbis haven't done much to explain away the biblical injunction against homosexuality, but continue to explain David and Jonathan as a "chaste friendship.")

So, guys, in terms of the major Western religions, it really isn't going to happen. They have persecuted us to the point of frequently denying our humanity not because they want to be mean, but rather because homosexual sex and love undermine the keystones of their dogma.

Although certain factions of individual churches may offer us a certain amount of tolerance and even accept gay clergy, these are essentially political concessions that deny or ignore the religion's own internal logic. Ultimately, asking them for substantial and lasting acceptance is like asking water to flow uphill.

So, guys, give it up, or as many of you have suggested, have faith in yourselves or, if you must, look into a non theistic or polytheistic religion.

As for those guys who insist upon staying with traditional western religions simply because they were born and educated in them, all I can do is ask them to remember that an unexamined life is not really much of a life at all.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

On aging as a gay man

Since I am 63, I suppose I really should say something in my blog about aging as a gay man. I should, however, make clear at the outset that this is not a topic that preoccupies me very much; I really don’t often think about my age and, in fact, even regard people 15 years younger as my contemporaries. But perhaps my lack of concern with the topic is, in fact, part of the issue.

It seems that many gay men feel that growing old presents a special problem for gay men not shared by straights. The alleged gay obsession with youth and beauty supposedly brings us closer to the position taken by women on this issue. But it is conventionally accepted that women resort to make- up and cosmetic surgery to maintain their youthful power to attract men, while this solution is still not viewed among most men as an acceptable masculine solution to the problem of a turkey neck, sagging chest and ass, or wrinkles. Straight men are supposed not to care (but many of them, believe me, secretly do), while gay men supposedly live in terror of being branded aging queens or, in fact, even think of themselves that way. For most gay men, cosmetic surgery is still viewed as an attack on their masculinity.

The issue of gay fear of aging, however, involves several myths, the most important being perhaps the gay obsession with youth and beauty itself. If such an obsession exists, it is hardly limited to gays. The middle- aged straight man who cheats on his wife with a younger, more physically attractive woman is, in fact, a cliché. Men in general seem to be, at least in part, biologically wired to gravitate toward younger, sexually active and fertile partners. It probably has to do with increasing our reproductive potential; it is, therefore, not our gay identities, but rather what is straight in us that send us toward young, strong, and physically healthy partners. It is, hence, not really a gay problem.

The parallelism with the straight situation can be carried even further. Just as many women are genuinely turned on by older men because of the power and protection they project, a fair number of younger gay guys prefer older men precisely for the same reasons. (I am talking about authentic sexual attraction--- not about sexual predators of either sex or orientation looking for sugar daddies.) This attraction seems, moreover, to be somewhat independent of active or passive sexual roles. Healthy older gay men who have kept themselves in decent shape, are well groomed, and who have not made themselves ridiculous by trying to seem younger through make- up and a dye bottle will confirm that there always seem to be enough younger men around to keep them busy.

There are, of course, problems. If an older straight man wants a female partner of his own age, he will have little problem finding her. In fact, he’ll have to fend aspiring aging girl friends off with clubs. But an older gay man looking for a contemporary as a partner--- who doesn’t want to deal with the generation gap--- will have a much harder time. Most older gay men, since they are, in fact, men, prefer younger partners and thereby are unavailable to their contemporaries.

Even more difficult is the role reversal required of the no longer young, protected guy who has to assume the daddy role later in life. This is not simply a matter of physical sexual roles, but much more importantly one of who protects whom. But the situation need not be so bleak. Just as there are young women who get off on protecting their aging husbands, there are young gay guys out there who find great fulfillment in protecting their aging partners.

So much for the youth part of our alleged obsession with youth and beauty: How about beauty? This is, in fact, an easier issue to handle. Canons of both male and female beauty have been constantly in flux throughout the ages (Marilyn Monroe would be considered fat in 2006 and most 1930s Tarzans would seem to have unremarkable bodies to us.) There really are no absolutes here, and as the general population ages in the West, it’s likely that the “ideal man” will also begin to look older. In the gay community, the “bear” phenomenon has also made canons of male beauty much more flexible in the last few years.

The major problem is, in fact, not so much one of attracting sexual partners but rather one of our own self- image. Straight men, who are most likely just as vain as gay men, have less of a problem adjusting their canon of male beauty to conform to an ageing face and body, since they are not overtly attracted to the younger version of that face and body. Because they have no internal younger standard to compare themselves against, they more readily accept their status as potentially attractive older men. They may wish they could play football the way they did at 25, but they don’t really care much about looking 25.

A gay man, on the other hand, is--- to be honest--- generally turned on by a handsome 25 year old guy, at least physically. And in gay sexual attraction, there is almost always an element of desired emulation. Most of us, in our heart of hearts, really wish we looked 25 no matter how often we have evidence that we are sexy at 60. We may have a bevy of young bucks groveling at our feet --- precisely because we are 60 --- but we still wish we looked like them and not like the bundle of sags and wrinkles we see in the mirror. A lot of this problem is really in our heads, guys.

Another area in which ageing may be more of a problem for gay men than it is for straights has to do with a loss of control. We all, gay or straight, get older and thereby suffer a process out of our control, but it may be that the control issue is more serious for us. For most straight men, their sexual identity is simply a matter of fact; for us, on the other hand, the discovery that we are homosexual was frequently fraught with fear, confusion, and denial and in many cases the feeling that our sexual orientation was somehow imposed upon us without our consent. Our sexual identity itself becomes something beyond our control.

Even those of us (and lets hope it will one day be all of us) who have accepted our sexual orientation and are happy with it may still at times feel that our homosexuality is a trick nature has played upon us--- God made me gay---. And aging is yet another one. The straight guy grows up seeing his sexuality and his aging process as integral to himself; a gay man may very well look upon these phenomena as something imposed upon him, things they he may even enjoy, but still things beyond his control.

This intensified feeling of helplessness may be why many gay men obsess about getting older. Even those who have partners who love them, active sex lives, and a circle of admirers seem to spend more effort than straight men do on staying in shape, grooming, staying sexually active and other things we can do to counteract the onslaught of the years. These measures are, of course, things we can do to reassert our control over our lives. It may be just an attempt to regain control, and not so much our desire to attract, that makes us go on that diet, sends us to the gym, or has us pay $75 for a haircut.