Monday, October 16, 2006

On gay activism and identity

Recent events have brought up to me once again the issue of gay activism. I am generally not prone to feeling of guilt on a non- personal level; I am generally satisfied with my level of compliance with civic responsibilities. But I am quite aware that the freedoms my partner and I now enjoy, a life in which the nature of our relationship is known to all who are interested and we are respected members of a mixed gay/ straight society (in fact, mostly straight), are the product of years of struggle and sacrifice on the part of many of our gay brothers. Both of us have been quite active in promoting the rights of other groups and minorities, and I myself have been involved with the Democratic Party during the 2004 campaign; so we are not exactly apolitical and distant from social issues. Yet we have nothing for the cause of gay rights. I don’t feel very good about this.

It’s not only a question of shirking political and civic responsibility. The implications of why I have not been involved with gay activism are not easy to face. As I know from my years as a Jewish activist (low key, but nevertheless out there), being an effective activist for the rights of a minority group in which one is also a member requires pretty much full self acceptance of one’s identity within that group.

As a Jewish activist I had not only to have emotionally dealt with any feelings of self hate that growing up in a mildly anti-Semitic environment may have provoked, I had to be willing to be identified with segments of the group not only whose ideas but also whose public image was radically different from mine. I belonged to the fully secular, even anti religious, leftist, university educated (and snobbishly elitist), Israel questioning wing of the Jewish community, and had to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jewish groups radically different from my own not only in content, but --- even more difficult--- in form and public appearance, including cassock clad, forelock wearing, religiously obsessed, homophobic Hassidic Jews. I have not only to defend their rights but also be socially identified with them. This is not the place for me to go into the trials and tribulations of carrying this off, but I think you know where I am heading here: I was--- or at least made myself--- sufficiently self accepting as a Jew; I’m not sure I’m there yet as a gay man.

I feel I can claim sincerely to be at total peace with myself as a masculine (not macho), straight acting, monogamous, homosexual man. I will give my partner a peck on the cheek or even on the lips at a train or bus station, but no more extreme public displays of affection--- but since my partner is from Milan and very socially reserved, he would probably not make out with someone in public even if he were straight, and since I also tend to be a rather private person, I don’t think I would, either. In short, we are pretty comfortable with our own image of what a gay man is.

I’ll go one step further: I don’t have any problem being with or befriending gay people with more radical gay images. I have close acquaintanceships with both rather effeminate men and with leatherboys. I am also quite aware that it was the “queens” who rioted and went to jail during the Stonewall period, not the straight acting, socially more acceptable gay men of my lifestyle. We all owe the “queens” both thanks and respect. Courage has nothing to do with machismo. But it is true that while I socialize with gay men with non- conventional images, I do, in fact, prefer to see them in a gay environment.

I of course have never hesitated to carry on a conversation in public with a nellie or leather clad friend, even if I was also with straight friends or colleagues. But I have to confess that my comfort level was not the same as it would have been in a gay environment or without the straights’ being present. I haven’t run away from such situations, but I don’t quite take them in my stride. As I said, I’m not quite there yet.

More difficult for me still is to deal with the rejection of my rather reserved and outwardly “tame” life style by those whose version of gay is either exclusivist or “in your face.” There is a sector of the gay leather community that is open and friendly to all comers, but there is another that is highly exclusivist that will, by policy, “ice” anyone they perceive to be outside of their narrowly defined group. I understand that since they are they are involved in potentially dangerous practices, they must know and be comfortable with people with whom they associate, but confronted with these guys, I feel as rejected as I did when a Hassidic Jew bearing forelocks and pale from studying the Talmud 12 hours a day, told me that I, as a secular Jew, am personally responsible for delaying the coming of the Messiah.

“Queens” are mercifully tolerant of more “up tight” guys such as myself and my partner (They are still probably the most effectively politicized segment of the gay community), but the more flamboyantly polyandrous guys (I have the impression that “promiscuous” is no longer politically correct.) tend to be moderately to severely scornful of those of us monogamous guys whose life patterns they see as running too parallel to those of conventional, straight society. I have no problem in engaging these guys in an intellectual exchange on this matter, in which they may have, admitted, some very valid points. Their position, however, tends to involve social and emotional rejection of gay men with a more conventional life pattern.

Of course, if it were only a case of my own personal relationship with guys in these groups, it wouldn’t present much of a problem. I could cope as well as I could with being rejected or my own tendencies to reject on the basis of style and image, hoping that I would handle the situation better next time. But being an activist for a minority group means that you must be comfortable with all these groups and issues in order to be effective. Of course, it doesn’t at all mean that you have to be in agreement or share the position of all factions within the group; but you can’t feel threatened personally by the situation. And, as I said, I’m not quite there yet.


Blogger Raybob said...

Dear Bruce,

You left a comment on my blog recently that struck to the heart of some issues that I hadn't articulated to myself; thanks for being another set of eyes on my situation. And pardon me for replying here, but I can find no other way to contact you.

You mentioned that my comments on the men I had dated since my Big Breakup mentioned only physical attributes. True, and I did that on purpose: I wrote the entry more as a wry comment on my own self than on the men I had dated. With the exception of one on my list, they are all

12:18 PM  
Blogger Raybob said...

[Oops.] ... they are all intelligent, sensitive, and kind, and many of them were very, very good to me outside of the bedroom. I didn't mean to imply that they were not. Because they were.

Your sentence "Please fogive me if I'm off base, but you've not described nine love affairs, but rather nine extended tricks and infatuations. " is perfect, and was exactly what I was trying to convey; that I wasn't looking for the right thing, or at least not in the right way.

And the next one: "Or, again forgive me if I'm wrong--- I don't really know you--- you seem like a true submissive who yearns to worship and be dominated by his partner." is ringing more and more true to me these days. It's a surprising thought to have about myself, and also a pleasing one in some ways, though it makes me a little uncomfortable. I'm not sure if I want to call myself a "true submissive". But if the shoe fits ...

Long distance relationships don't work. I proved that to myself with my first partner. We did the long-distance thing for three years, and we almost fell apart. Had I had balls at that time, I would have called it quits instead of quitting my job and moving 600 miles to live in the woods with him with no hot water or indoor plumbing. I honestly don't know why I'm even entertaining the thought of the relationship with the guy in Vancouver, other than the simple fact that I would love to live there, and he seems like a nice enough guy who is nice to me outside the bedroom.

I do want the intimacy of a relationship. I'm finding that now that I have the opportunity for the first time in my life to have sex with anything that moves, I can't. My body won't do it. Nor will my heart.

I just wanted to say "thanks" for what you said. It's made me think ... (and my apologies for being so off-topic here; I have read this post, and need to think about it before I respond).

12:27 PM  
Blogger Raybob said...

Now, to the point of this post ... I'm not there, yet, either, but am homing in on being comfortable with the full gamut of my gay community-mates. I, too, am a little uncomfortable when talking to flamboyant queens in public, and I'm still trying to figure out why this bothers me so much.

My former long-term partner and I were relatively reserved, too, and were totally comfortable with that. He is far more reserved than I, still, and just can't stand any show of in-your-face-anything. Knowing his genteel family, I totally understand. Our immediate coterie of friends was mostly straight, too. His still are.

And yet, I still wonder where I fit in the 'community'. I've had a similar confrontation, not from a Jewish man, but from other queer people telling me that if I didn't get out there and be visible and vocal, then I was personally responsible for the lack of gay rights in this country.

What I really want to do is invent some kind of ray gun that deeply imprints the message, "live and let live" in the brains of everyone on earth. With this one exception (oh, the irony), I can live with all kinds. I just can't live with the ones who want me to change and live to a set of their standards.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Thanks for both your comments. In reference to my comments on your situation, I'm glad you didn't feel that I was being presumptious. It sounds as though you really do want the intimacy of a relationship. In your comment on one of Curtis' posts, you talked about "connecting." That's where it all begins, isn't it? (I'm an E.M. Forster fan, too)

As for you comment on gay activism, we seem to be pretty much in the same place on this. I think we both already know that the tolerance, live and let live ray gun is a futile hope. I do believe that we will eventually achieve the dignity and acceptance that are our right as men, but it's still going to take a lot of work and sacrifice. Being visible and vocal, however, may not be the only way to contribute. Each of us has to find his own way. You can't preach or attain tolerance by forcing people into emotional molds.

2:12 PM  
Blogger garnet david said...

Bruce, I also struggle with how I fit in gay culture and society. I don't much like the HRC crowd, who come across as elitest, at least to me. And I don't feel quite "gay" enough to fit into a "bar" type crowd. Everyone wants you to join their sect, even if it means excluding parts of yourself. Society is conformist, no matter how non-conformist each group's intentions are.

I am very, very comfortable with myeslf in general. I don't believe I should or can get along with someone just because they're gay. I support gay causes and vote appropriately. But my friends are chosen for broad common interests.

I sounds like you are evolving toward the correct balance of political outness for you.

Nice blog. I see you are new since August. Welcome.

3:10 PM  
Blogger garnet david said...

Bruce, you wrote this in reference to part of the leather crowd,

"I understand that since they are they are involved in potentially dangerous practices..."

What did you mean?

3:17 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Thanks for your comments. I, too, chose my friends on the basis of common interests shared values, not on the basis of their sexual orientation.

As for my reference to potentially dangerous practices, I, frankly, took this from a leather site that justified their exclusivism in this fashion. The site refered to rather unfortunate experiences some guys had had while in bondage situations with people outside their group. I would have to agree that being in bondage with someone whom you don't know well is potentially dangerous.

3:51 PM  
Blogger garnet david said...

Absolutely. In fact, I think that idea applies to all circles of friends. Trust is the key currency.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I get the "gay" obsession, the "identity" dissonace, the "hurt" and "wounded" psyche, the "fragmented" lives, the "rebel subversive" appeal, the "flesh peddlers," the "drug-release of inhibitions," and all the other cultural "gay" icons.

What I don't get is why we put up with it. As an incorrigible pluralist, anything goes. Few things are off the realm of possibility (pedophila, being one). If Foucault is your hero, so be it. If anonymous tricking tickles your fancy, it's still available. But it all is hurting some of us in that place where "identity" and "queerness" are someone else's battles. Even "queer" San Franciscans, perhaps indebted to their mentors' jadedness, are figuring out that another f**ck won't make them happy. But it never has. It's just another form of obsessive-complusiveness that has "been scripted" as our raison d'etre. Hot men are hot, but not a reason to scr*w everyone of them. For heaven's sake, we are supposed to herald some pride, but a simple excursion to parades eye candy as if was all meant for consumption. We buy the store lead-in, and then want a refund for its failure to "meet our expectations."

It's all a bit empty from my perspective. Yes, dropping acid, E, or who knows what, and dancing till morn was an extraordinary experience, one I thoroughly enjoyed repeating for a time. Using "meth" may find a new avenue no one would otherwise explore. But it was always a diversion, always a means to take the sting out of "hook-ups" that cared not a wit, nor we in return. I'd hoped that that phase was merely a passing one, one that would allow us to love openly and honestly and not betray our vulnerabilities.

But for god's sake we're humans. We may express our human love differently, but that should not make us less human. I'm giddy that some of our newbies aren't so willing to compromise. After all the psychic damage, the aftermath of AIDS, some of our younger men realize that being human is all we have to offer. Their definance against the "mantra" and emptiness is so extremely positive, so vulnerable, and so human, we may yet have made it worth while. Men loving men is truly extraordinary. It may mean we gay men finally have come of age. But the resistance is no less virulent (however emaculated). Our hopes may yet be dashed, but only because we surrendered.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Ur-spo said...

my comments are not so long; I enjoyed your entry and applauded your bravery to be matter of fact with your discomforts and less than completed process in this journey.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Bruce, I'm reminding you and myself that living as openly gay men, in our own families with partners and other assorted mothers-in-law and what have you--some even with adopted children--we are to today what the drag queens were in the Stonewall days. There is no more strong statement you can make than to live your life openly with your partner, as you see fit... all the while making friendships with your straight neighbors as well.

I'm also reminded of lessons learned from the Culture of Black America, of which i am a part, having grown up in Atlanta. On rare occasions that I witnessed a black friend act white, i felt the same shame as when a nellie friend would butch it up, subverting who they are to please a complete stranger. For the most part, Black folks, as they say, know how to "keep it real," something I appreciate more and more, the older I get.

We have to keep it real and just be ourselves without worrying what the damn Joneses think. More and more, I find the Joneses want to know more intimate details of my life together with Steven than I'm often willing to divulge.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


I am not sure that my partner's and my providing an example of an "out" gay relationship is enough. Don't I have an obligation to defend the rights and full social integration of other gay men whose life patterns are less conventional than ours?

Even on the level of social acceptance, I feel pretty sure that some of our straight friends would not be so friendly if we were effeminate or if we had an "open" relationship, even though some of them or their straight coupled friends openly cheat on each other. They would not accept from gays what they, at least tacitly accept from straights, or in fact, do themselves.

Although they accept us, there is still a double standard in their attitudes toward gays. We have heard more than once from our straight friends, "You guys have a better, more stable relationship than most of us." Fine, but what if we didn't?

I won't even go into our social problems if we were into leather.(But perhaps this is unfair. Our straight friends would be uncomfortable with straight leather people, too.)

The Jewish and the Black communities have made progress because they have understood that the communities had to remain united in their fight for legal and social equality. I know that within the Jewish community, all sorts of battles were waged, but there was always agreement that a consesus had to come out of it in terms of battling discrimination.

Also, perhaps my situation is a bit different from the norm on this issue, Sam. I have spent most of my professional and private life involved with promoting a tolerant, polycultural society. Such a position informs both my profession and my own, personal self definition. I have actively defended and promoted the rights and social integration of lots of folks I wouldn't necessarily want to bring home to mother. Why shouldn't I be as proactive when it comes to the gay community?

1:17 AM  
Blogger RIC said...


I believe I don't feel too well about this either. I've always seen myself as a quite reserved guy. And to be honest I've thought for a long time "nellies" and "queens" just gave homosexuals a bad reputation, as my straight friends still think today. Not to mention other gay subgroups much less known around here, no doubt about it.
The gay identity issues arise from that very diversity, I'd say, even if I know no human group is homogeneous. The point, in my opinion, is how you can cope with all your own experiences as far as those other subgroups are concerned. I mean, you just cannot switch off your own life background and say to yourself: "from now on, I'll fight for my group's rights no matter how diverse the people it comprehends". A few years ago I considered the possibility of doing some work for a political party that has a quite attractive agenda concerning LGBT. But I just couldn't do it… I confess. I'm now sure I didn't rise above myself. I just kept thinking: "I cannot communicate with that people. There's no way I can do it. To a certain extent, it was even more difficult than convincing some straight friends of mine that I wanted to do that kind of work. I some times think I might be able to do it if only I were a bit younger… But I have no evidence of that. And I take it as just an excuse.
But this country of mine is also quite peculiar as far as many - far too many - things are concerned… For instance, sharing the same peninsula with the Spaniards hasn't brought us closer to them, on the contrary, I'd say. Just an example: a while ago I posted - in Portuguese - about the gay adoption law (whose discussion in our Parliament has been postponed ad æternum, in spite of a socialist absolute majority…), and some Portuguese homophobe hacker tried to destroy my blog…
This is how things still happen in Portugal… Can you imagine something similar happening in Spain, Italy or France? I don't think so. A residual fascist mentality still prevails even in younger generations already born and brought up in democracy. That's what hurts the most.
In the meantime, I can only hope my being aware of the problems may be of some help to the gay community. No point in dreaming much further.
Thank you!

5:53 AM  
Blogger Gray said...

Perhaps you are "...sufficiently self accepting as a Jew;" and you may not be sure that your are "... there yet as a gay man." Perhaps you are "...a little uncomfortable when talking to flamboyant queens in public." But why are you "...still trying to figure out why this bothers...[you] so much."

You, I and a multitude of others were born in a time when moralism, religion and nationalism were pounded into our heads. From the time we were born we were told what was right and what was wrong from people who had the same thing done to them.

Like (Ivan Petrovich) Pavlov's dogs we have been classically conditioned to be embarrassed when we are around those that society deems "different" and to salivate when we are among those deemed "normal."

Does it bother you because we were "programmed" or does it bother you because you feel we are not doing enough to, if you will, *untrain* ourselves and others?

Can... will anything ever change? Perhaps our blogs will help. Perhaps we should do more in an open and honest fashion. Only by our educating others will the trend ever be halted or reversed!

But, my fear is, are we too set in our ways to think that we can be effective? Or, more pointedly, am I too afraid to get fully out of the closet and join the younger gays in changing society's image(s) of what "gay" is? I'm trying to figure that out now.

Thank you for such a thought-provoking post!

6:29 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Dear Ric and Gray,

Thank you both for your carefully considered and helpful comments. Forgive me if I try to answer them both in the same response.

I am convinced that our attitude toward effeminacy is, if you will, a "Pavlovian" reaction coming from our own experiences of persecution and oppression. Many of us "masculine" appearing guys were either tortured by taunts of "sissy" or "fairy" as children, or lived in fear that such taunts would be directed toward us if our contemporaries found out our secret. I feel we shun our more effeminate brothers because of what we fear we may be carrying inside of ourselves.

There certainly can be no rational justification for this discomfort on our part. Certainly, the more "nelly" segment of the gay community has more than proven its guts and courage. It was, as I mentioned before, the "queens" who rioted for our rights, were beaten and went to jail; not us "butch" guys. They press the buttons that were programmed inside of us by our tormentors. Our discomfort with them is an affirmation of our own persecution.

Perhaps for those of us who are older, more reserved, and not quite able to man the barricades, what we can do is keep on telling the younger generation what it was like before Stonewall. Gray, you have started to do this with your blog; there should be more of this. I, myself have a lot to say on that matter. Perhaps if not only younger gay people, but even straights knew what it was like back then, they might be more interested in protecting and extending what we have accomplished.

Ric, it's very discouraging to hear about the situation in Portugal. Frankly, my idea of Portugal was quite different since I had the impression the Portuguese tended to support the idea of a polycultural society (relatively liberal immigration policies-- in comparason to other places in the EU; fairer treatment of the Macanese, in contrast to what the English did with Hong Kong Chinese, etc). Of course, it is naive to think that tolerance in one area necessarily implies tolerance in another.

8:59 AM  
Blogger RIC said...

I most certainly have to agree with you. Your arguments are the strongest, and as I was reading your response I was re-living some moments I went through in my life...
As to our so-called tolerance, I believe it has everything to do with the so many contradictions of our society. Immigration laws are still quite favourable because unexpensive labour force is of course needed, and there are people in Europe willing to work for a few euros because those few euros are more than what they'd earn in their own country.
As to gay matters, the official discourse is no doubt quite tolerant, it became even fashionable to be tolerant towards gays. But that's just show off, in my modest opinion. Everything stays the same as, for instance, the discrimination against HIV positive people, gays or others.
Thank you, Bruce.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Raybob said...

"Don't I have an obligation to defend the rights and full social integration of other gay men whose life patterns are less conventional than ours?"

Bruce, you live with a man. By the vast majority of the world's standards, that's not at all conventional. You are, in your way, just as much "unconventional" as I, simply by the fact that you don't hide your relationship with your partner.

Deep down, if you feel that it is your business to defend the rights of others, then do so. I say that simply being unapologetically yourselves is an important act toward defending the "live and let live" ethos.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Before I came out (about 8 years ago,) I had a preconception of gays being "queens." Since volunteering in the GBLT community (for AIDS awareness,) and doing community theatre, I've come to realize that there is a HUGE spectrum of gay people. I really try hard not to judge ANYONE that's gay; I try to see the best in people although that is sometimes extremely hard.

Show me a gay person who is not, at some level a bit self-conscious or completely without hangups about his/her identity!

Let's support each other!

7:24 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Thanks very much for your comment.

I agree wholeheartedly. And I would also second the idea that gay activism is a very valid route toward more complete gay self acceptance.

It's pretty much sure that if we don't support each other, no one else will.

10:06 AM  
Blogger garnet david said...

Bruce, I featured a comment from this post on my blog. Both you and the commenter, Gay Species, are linked. I trackbacked your post here.

Just thought you might like to know.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Bruce, I just came across this new story re: the outing of a very high up evangelical christian; thought you might be interested in following another surreal thread in the saga:

Hope you are well!

7:59 PM  
Blogger Fletcher Beaver said...

For a bunch of articulate, intelligent men who are self-aware and obviously interested in the world around them, I don't get the "discrimination/homophobia" directed towards effeminate, gay me. It is, actually... um... I'm sorry, despicable.
It reminds me of a story about a (for want of a better expression) "straight acting" (I actually hate that term) gay man who was being poofter-bashed in a park, by a big, burly bloke. In between being smacked repeatedly in the head, he saw a car screech to a stop and someone coming running towards him with a steering lock in his hand. He thought he was going to cop a hiding from a second bloke, be finished off, if you like.
The next thing he heard was a bloody-curdling scream emanate from the second man. The basher fled.
The second man kept coming. As the second man got to the man lying on the ground, the second man did a full ballet leap over the injured fellow, with the words,
"Don't worry darls, I'll get him."
I'm sorry, but I know who I'd choose to be on my team, if I had to.
I think you all need to get over it.

7:05 PM  

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