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.