Tuesday, July 16, 2019

W for Wank

I've been working my way gradually through Chasing Danny Boy,* an anthology of stories about "Celtic Eros" -- apparently referring only to "Eros" between males.  The first story, "Puppydogs' Tails," was raunchy enough to draw me in, though most of the rest have been less appealing.

Eventually I came to the ninth story, "Dublin Sunday", by P. P. Hartnett.  It's about a middle-aged gay man, musing on his life: "It was another beautiful summer sunset, making him feel pretty bloody awful."  Luckily he has a full supply of "Oil, nipple clamps, dildo, magazine collection, videos, poppers, and Caverject" (loc 1351, Kindle edition).  Or maybe not so luckily.
His left hand was fingering the deep wrinkles in his forehead. He knew exactly how he’d pass the evening. He wasn’t really in the mood for what he was going to put himself through. But it was in his diary. W. Inked in: W for Wank

He wasn’t getting any younger. Who’d have him when he left sentences hanging? Who’d help him when he couldn’t be bothered with food anymore, or washing? Who’d be the first to make him a bowl of clear soup, tidy his bedclothes, do his laundry, help him to (and from and during) the lavatory? Who’d attend to his needs, day and night? Answer: no one. 

Just thinking about his life was enough to render him immobile, paralysed by regret and indecision and ruminations on what might have been. The purposelessness of it all, not to mention the incompatibility of pheromones, phobias, and fetishes.
Oooookay.  In case you're wondering, this passage is representative of the entire piece, right up to the ending sentence.  "He'd feel better after a good night's weep huddled in the far back corner of his wardrobe, chin on knees, sobbing for the humiliation and, worse, for the loss of he wasn't sure what" (loc 1622).  This is a believable picture of some aging men's situations, but what is it doing in a collection of stories about Eros?  It comes across as more of a cautionary vignette, propaganda from an anti- or ex-gay organization, and the protagonist is the kind of person who, disappointed or frustrated in lust, becomes a monastic dedicated to the extirpation of all pleasure -- not just for himself but for everybody else.

That bit about "Who'd attend to his needs, day and night?" particularly annoyed me. A lot of people have this attitude towards marriage, and I've been asked "What are you going to do when you get old?" myself.  So I should find an unpaid body servant to wipe my butt for me when I go gaga?  That's highly ... spiritual.  Whose needs would he attend to, I wonder?  Aging and its attendant debility is unpleasant and scary, but this is the mindset of someone who thinks only of himself, and supposedly in couplehood if not marriage the caregiving should go both ways.  If P. P. Hartnett wrote this story as an exhortation to gay men to find boyfriends, he chose a repellent way to do it.

I'm sixty-eight years old, and have been single for almost all my adult life.  As I told a friend not long ago, I know that there will be a last time I have sex, though I probably won't know it's the last time until long afterward.  I view this with something like detached interest.  I still take delight in human beauty, and am comforted by nonsexual physical contact.  (When I join others in singing Christmas carols at area nursing homes each year, I notice how important hugs and handholding and other touching is to the people there.  I give them as much as I can, which started out being difficult for a shy person like me who's timid about initiating affection with strangers; but I'm getting better, thanks largely to the example of our organizer, who's very good at it.)

I'm inclined to be snarky about people for whom sex is the central focus of their lives, though to be honest I'm a bit skeptical about their existence.  I don't think I know of any such person in reality.  In Andrew Holleran's later writings, the protagonists are older men who are either still trying to keep up with what Holleran dubbed "fast-food sex" or have given up on it.  But Holleran, who seems to be his characters' model, is a writer, and he evidently has an inner life that finds expression in writing, reading at least.  His portrayal of aging gay men is therefore highly skewed, editing out everything else that might give a life meaning or interest.

I'm not denying the value of sex.  It's probably not possible to distinguish altogether between the pleasure of erotic interaction and the pleasure of affectionate physical contact, but I'm certainly glad I've had numerous sexual partners, far more than I anticipated as a young gay kid who found it hard to believe anyone would ever want him.  At the same time, many other pursuits give my life meaning: the arts, intellectual interests, friendship, food, travel. When sexual opportunities or capacity dry up, these and more will I hope remain.  This isn't a boast: so far I've been amazingly lucky in my life, and I know it.

But assume that there are people who only find meaning in copulation. That's fine, I don't care if  people have different priorities than I do. The trouble is that the protagonist of "Dublin Sunday" doesn't find meaning or fulfillment, or much pleasure, in sex.  When that's the case, it's time to try to remember if there's anything else that can give you meaning, or fulfillment, or pleasure.  If there are people like the protagonist, their situation is dire.  I can't see  "Dublin Sunday" as a story of Eros; I think it's a horror story.

*Edited by Mark Henry (San Francisco: Palm Drive Publishing, 1999).

Monday, July 15, 2019

Faithful and True

I don't know why I decided to pick up Gainsborough Pictures' 1945 melodrama The Wicked Lady from the display shelf at the public library, but it turned out to be a good choice.  It's an astoundingly raunchy film for the period, featuring adultery, highway robbery, multiple murders, gender transgression, plunging necklines and more.  Before it could be released in the US, several scenes had to be reshot with more modest costuming of the ladies, which shows the idiocy of censors: the glimpses of bosom are the least of The Wicked Lady's transgressiveness.  The title character, Barbara Skelton, steals her cousin's fiance, takes up robbery to get back a jewel she'd carelessly gambled away, finds she likes crime, has a wild affair with another highwayman, kills two people, and eventually is shot dead, dying alone as she crawls piteously on the floor of her lavish boudoir.

The Wicked Lady was based on a best-selling historical novel by Magdalen King-Hall. Lady Skelton is a semi-fictional character derived from the real-life Katherine Ferrers Fanshawe (1634-1660), celebrated with prurient delight in late nineteenth-century folklore.  In the introduction to a recent reissue of King-Hall's Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2016), Rowland Hughes shows that there's no contemporary evidence that Ferrers actually did any of the exciting things King-Hall describes, and it's likely she died in childbirth in London rather than of a bullet wound in Hertfordshire.  The legend of the Wicked Lady seems to have appeared full-blown two centuries after her death, ripe for exploitation by King-Hall and Gainsborough Pictures.  (There's also a 1983 remake starring - Faye Dunaway?)

I enjoyed The Wicked Lady and intend to have a look at Gainsborough's other "wicked melodramas."  What I'm interested in today, though, is what it implies about faith, especially now that liberal Democrats and Republican NeverTrumpers are wrestling with Robert Mueller III's apparent failure to vindicate their faith.  A popular motif in atheist / secular attacks on religion is the gullibility of people who believe in supernatural "fables told by Bronze Age goatherds." But there's nothing supernatural about what Russiagate believers hoped would be revealed, or about many other beliefs that people cling to without evidence or in defiance of evidence.  It's tempting to dismiss such faith as religious (or perhaps religion-like?), and I've been to known to succumb to that temptation myself, but I think it would be more accurate to turn it around: I think that "religious" faith is a subset of the way human beings think about and discuss the world, and it's not different in any important way from other beliefs -- even well-supported beliefs.  That latter is the scary part.

I just finished reading archaeologist J. M. Adovasio's The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery (Random House, 2002), about the controversies surrounding the first human settlers of the Western hemisphere.  Its core is the "Clovis bar," the belief held by many archaeologists that "Clovis man" was the earliest inhabitant, arriving about 12 to 13,000 years ago.  Adovasio's excavations at Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania during the 1970s were the first strong evidence that Clovis culture had predecessors, and he details the debates that raged over the issue.  He depicts his opponents as driven by an irrational refusal to change their position, though they don't see themselves that way: they see themselves as rational critics, doing the necessary work of Science.  He gives an exhausting account of a scientific summit held in Chile to evaluate another possibly pre-Clovis site, and while I'm basically sympathetic to the pre-Clovis position (for not particularly rational reasons), I can only rejoice that neither faction had the power to do more than hiss at each other.  Though apart from the scientific questions, there are real-world matters at stake: research funding, professorships, publications, etc., nobody was put to the rack or burned for heresy.  Given the very high emotional temperature Adovasio reports (and embodies himself), though, I wouldn't assume that torture and execution wouldn't have happened if the parties involved had the power to inflict them.

The conventionally religious will reject my suggestion as fiercely as the conventionally non-religious.  Both sides want to see religious faith as a special case, distinct from all the others and privileged.  One reason I don't see it that way is that religious believers, especially but not limited to Yahwist monotheism, lightly dismiss the religious beliefs of other believers, even other members of their own sect.  If faith is so sacrosanct, beyond rationality and question, why don't believers respect other believers' faith?

Sunday, July 14, 2019


I don't think I'll continue reading Walt Odets's new book, Out of the Shadows (FSG, 2019).  Right after the passage I discussed last week there came this:
For gay men, sexual attraction to other men is only one expression of something more formal, more fundamental, something that might be called a gay sensibility.  As I am using the term, gay sensibility describes the man's internal experience of himself, and his characteristic external expression of self to others.  Together, the two constitute "a sensibility," and a gay sensibility is often different from that of heterosexual men.  Sexual attraction is not the cause of gay sensibility, although it may influence and inform it; nor is the simple idea of the homosexual an adequate characterization of that sensibility.  The question I am raising -- whether or not gay men are homosexuals -- is not at all intended to dismiss the importance of gay sexual lives.  Sexuality is of central importance in all human life, whether acknowledged or not.  What it means to "be gay" has for too long been defined by others, and too much of that imposed definition has been incorporated into gay self-experience.  Being gay offers important opportunities that can only be realized if gay people can free themselves from the conventional idea of the homosexual.  Freed from this narrow characterization, gay people have lives that are, in some ways, like heterosexual lives and, in other ways, appreciably different.  Lives that express such complexity are often better, fuller, more authentic lives [20].
Odets might possibly make an interesting and useful case from this mess, but right now I don't have enough energy or curiosity to find out.  He allows that gay men are different from each other, but I can't see how to reconcile that acknowledgement with the notion of a "gay sensibility."  If erotic experience is only one expression of this putative sensibility, it would seem to follow that a gay male sensibility could express itself in erotic interaction with women as easily as it could with men, and that a man could have erotic experience exclusively with other men without having that sensibility.  In that case, it's hard to see why that sensibility should be called "gay."

This same problem arises in attempts to make sense of gender.  The psychological traits that are stereotyped "masculine" or "feminine" are really found in both / either sex most of the time, so it makes no sense to gender them.  Doing so just keeps people, whether they are professionals or laypeople, confused.  My sensibility is gay, not because I possess some indefinable gay essence, but because I am gay, so whatever sensibility I possess is a gay one.  In that I echo the "woman-identified woman" who asserted that whatever she wears, be it a gown or an army-surplus coat, it is by definition women's wear.  I am different from many straight men, but I'm also different from many gay men.  (I wonder where bisexual men fit into Odets's schema.)

I still disagree with his characterization of "the homosexual" as a concept consisting purely of sex.  In fact "the homosexual" has always been an incoherent conception, but it has always been more complex than Odets allows.  Foucault was correct when he wrote: "We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized ... less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself" (History of Sexuality, 1:43).  Gayish men had a good deal of input into the construction and elaboration of "the homosexual," not just as case histories but as thinkers and writers.  Perhaps Odets will take this history into account as he proceeds, but I'm not going to find out in the foreseeable future.

But I also object to Odets's stereotyping of heterosexual men.  It's not news that the social construction of heterosexuality has been restrictive and destructive of men's lives, as well as women's.  Nor should it be news that heterosexual men are as varied as gay men, and that there are large differences between cultures in the official definitions and limitations imposed on straight men.

For example, last week as I headed downtown I passed a group of about twenty international students being shown around.  They were all black Africans, mostly male, and two of them were holding hands.  They looked a bit uneasy, almost defiant, but they held on.  I presume they had been told that in America, men holding hands is taken as a sign of homosexuality.  Even many if not most gay men would make that mistake.  In many cultures, even quite homophobic ones, people of the same sex hold hands in public.  But in the US, any public display of physical affection between males is a fraught business.  (That 'affection' in that phrase generally is a euphemism for eroticism says a lot about our moral impoverishment.)

Even within a culture, manhood is an incoherent concept.  For an easy example, consider the attempts to limit artistic expression to males, to defend it as an inherently male capability, at the same time that male artists' manliness is often suspect.  For another, consider male bonding: men are supposed to be heterosexual, but they are also supposed to form powerful, even intimate bonds with other men -- yet they can never be sure they haven't gone too far and crossed the line into homosexuality.  Freed from the narrow and self-contradictory characterizations that constitute gender, everybody has the opportunity to build lives that are better, fuller, and more authentic.  I don't believe that a "gay" or a heterosexual sensibility is necessary for doing so.

The quip that gay people are different from straight people except for what we do in bed has been attributed to more than one gay sage, but I've never seen a good enumeration of what the real differences supposedly are.  Harry Hay was one of those sages, and I think it's significant that he not only wanted to define a gay spiritual sensibility, he based it on a biological-determinist theory of our origin and nature.  Odets objects to the born-gay dogma; I wonder if he realizes that Hay believed we are born fairies. For that reason I feel free to reject the claim, which feels to me like one more attempt to force us all into boxes instead of encouraging us to explore and own our complexity and richness.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Mortal Kombat in the Heavens

The dirtbag Right loves to wave religion around, which doesn't particularly distinguish them from many liberals and progressives and leftists.  So of course I've been seeing numerous liberals scolding the Right for, as they see it, "distorting Scripture."

Daniel Larison, whose work I mostly like, praised this article by Bonnie Kristian attacking Mike Pompeo for "misrepresenting the Bible to gin up war with Iran."  The article is a rebuttal worth reading, it contains some important arguments, but it falls down here and there.  The author focuses on Pompeo's use of the biblical Book of Esther, which she says "is a story of different kinds of courage, of God working in unexpected ways, of assurance of eventual justice for the downtrodden."  The trouble here is that Esther is notorious for not mentioning God, or his working, at all.  The only other biblical book that doesn't mention God is the Song of Solomon, which is about sex; of course that hasn't stopped theologians, Jewish and Christian alike, from interpreting it as an allegory of God's boner for Israel, or Christ's for the Church.

Kristian is right that Esther "is not a lesson on the longstanding malfeasance of the Iranian people. Esther offers no commentary on Islam, which did not exist when it was written. It is not included in the Jewish and Christian scriptures to tell us Iran is bad."  If anything, it depicts Persia/Iran as a haven for Jews after the bad guys who conspired to harm them were exposed and punished.  But that's something else Kristian papers over, what this article calls "the bloodthirsty bits": Haman, the royal official who led the plot against Esther's people,
was hanged, or more likely impaled; the Jews were given permission to "destroy, kill and annihilate" their enemies, with their women and children (8:11), a permission of which they took full advantage. Esther asked for an extension of the bloodletting (9:13) and for the impalement of Haman's 10 sons; 800 men were killed in the capital Susa and 75,000 elsewhere in the empire. The Jews were saved, Mordecai was promoted and the events have been celebrated on the Feast of Purim ever since.
That's presumably what Bonnie Kristian meant by "eventual justice for the downtrodden."  It's probably the part that Pompeo likes best, and that inspires his agenda on Iran.  I wouldn't accuse Kristian of misrepresenting the Bible, exactly, but she certainly de-emphasizes to the point of erasure the part that most resonates spiritually for Pompeo and other right-wing supporters of Israel -- including the Israeli government -- who'd like to treat Iran as Esther did.

Lest someone complain that Esther is the Old Testament, for chrissake, and the New Testament is about love, it's not full of hate and vindictiveness and judgment like the Old -- that's just not true. The New Testament is full of bloodthirsty fantasies of "eventual justice for the downtrodden," from Jesus' constant threats of eternal torture to the extravagant blood-in-the-streets-to-the-height-of-the-horses'-bridles visions of the Revelation.  And as I pointed out recently, the video-game ultraviolence of the Revelation is perpetrated by the good guys, the servants of the Lamb, not by Satan's minions.

Kristian's piece on the abnormality of the Pledge of Allegiance is much better.  But she, no less than Mike Pompeo, can't seem to represent the Bible in all its messy complexity.  It's not necessarily invalid to use stories, ancient or modern, to comment on current events and controversies, but one should at least try to get the details and the context right.  I'll be having more to say about this soon, perhaps including Bonnie Kristian's well-meant but inadequate attempt to resolve the role of religion in American political life.  But I have numerous other examples by other writers who dwell on the specks of biblical misrepresentation in their brothers' and sisters' eyes, while ignoring the beams in their own.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

What's in a Name? (Quite a Lot)

At first I thought this was just a minor quibble, but then I realized it was more important than that.

Dan Savage answered a letter this week from a gay man who likes what might be described as "destruction porn" (look at the column for more information), and finds that there's a lot of online manga porn in that mode, but its protagonists are depicted as "giant prepubescent boys."  Does this count as pedophile porn, even though he's not attracted to prepubescent boys?  Dan provided a definition of pedophilia: "Pedophilia, according to the best and most current research, is a hardwired sexual orientation—one that can never be acted on for moral and ethical reasons."

I've argued before that "sexual orientation" is the wrong word for pedophilia, first of all because the term refers to which sex one is erotically attracted to, and children are not a sex.  This is a consequence of the ambiguity of "sex," which can refer to the configuration of one's reproductive organs or to copulation.  Off the cuff, I propose that something like "erotic fixation."  "Erotic" refers specifically to desire, so it's less ambiguous than "sexual," and "fixation" has the virtue of implying that the condition is fixed, not easily mutable if at all.  "Orientation," despite what we are often told does not have such an implication.

But, second, the problem isn't a purely semantic one.  When my city tried to add "sexual orientation" to its human rights ordinance in the 1990s, religious bigots objected that it would protect pedophiles as well as homosexuals.  They could, and I believe did, point to statements in the sexological literature which declared pedophilia a sexual orientation.  Whoever wrote the proposed amendment had forestalled this by defining sexual orientation as referring to homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual.  The amendment passed, but was overruled by a state law prohibiting municipalities from adding to the state human/civil rights law.

I submit that it would be a good idea to stop referring to pedophilia as a sexual orientation because of the confusion generated in many people's minds by the term's ambiguity.  This confusion extends not just to the ignorant and uneducated, but to educated people who are in a position to make policy, including judges and sex researchers.  (I winced at Dan's remark about "the best and most current research," because so much of the best and most current research on human sexuality is wrong-headed and just plain wrong.)  In the long run it could be used as a weapon against civil rights protection, and if you think things couldn't go in that direction, you haven't been paying attention for the past few years.

It's timely to bring this up because of Jeffrey Epstein's arrest, which has generated a predictable shitstorm in the Force, with many references to him as a pedophile.  I've noticed that when people are challenged on the accuracy of that word with regard to men who pursue adolescents, they often defend themselves by admitting that they're not using the word accurately but like who cares?  I think they like the clinical feel of the word while getting off on its emotional boost.  It's not necessary to label Epstein a pedophile to see him as a vicious abuser who should be behind bars.  But as with the rape of adults, there's a lot of outrage that I find suspicious.  Everyone will be furious about rape and the abuse of children in theory, but in actual cases they lack conviction.  The Roman Catholic coverup of priests' abuse of children is a prime example: the Church is second to none in denouncing immorality, but when it came to a paradigm case (thousands of them, in fact) of conduct it officially condemns in the strongest terms, it couldn't follow through.  The Penn State scandal of recent memory is similar: devoutly Catholic men in positions of responsibility simply seemed to sleepwalk when confronted with the abuse of children.

So I was pleased to read this tweet last night, criticizing a "class analysis" of the Epstein case: "we non-rich have our shares of pedophiles among us and plenty of families without epstein money have found ways to bury sexual abuse without a powerful prosecutor at their disposition".  She's exactly right.  The radical feminist movement of the 1970s paid a lot of attention to the sexual abuse of children, with many women reporting their own horrifying childhood experiences, encountering a wall of denial from the adults around them, including parents, when they tried to complain.  It was largely and predictably ignored by mainstream society.

Much of the reaction by commenters to vanessa bee's tweet was just as clueless, basically: wait, what? what are you talking about?  Bee continued trying to explain: "yes, the scale, the SCALE, obviously. i’m just saying poor & working class people do this shit, too. and put other things ahead of their class, partisanship, or safety of kids, in order to cover up other people’s abuse."  Children are blamed in the same terms as adults, too: seductive little Lolitas who've been "sexualized" by their mothers, etc.  As the Epstein case proceeds, we'll certainly see more attempts to blame the victims.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


I went to San Francisco last month for a meeting of the gay men's discussion group I like to attend when I can.  The topic this time was "Life After Pride."

It took me awhile to realize that "Pride" referred to the accumulated apparatus of Gay Pride observance, not to the individual, non-institutional pride in being gay that is the primary sense of the term for me.  When someone says that they're gay and proud, I don't take it as a pledge of allegiance to the Human Rights Campaign and to the corporations for which it stands, or as a cheer for Our Team and its merchandise, but as a rejection of the shame that our society has always insisted we should feel.  My understanding played no role in the discussion, either as the organizers planned it or in what we talked about that afternoon.  The subject was the institution of Pride parades.  That's a valid topic, to be sure, and we found plenty to say about it.

I've always been ambivalent about "pride" as the word for a stance of LGBTQ affirmation, and I know I'm not alone among gay people in that, but I think I am in a minority.  In choosing the word, the movement followed the example of Black pride, which involved the same rejection of shame by people of color in a racist society.  I doubt it would have caught on, though, if many of us hadn't found it agreeable.  At the same time, association with the institutional manifestation of the annual Pride parades assured that its meaning would drift to refer to floats, marching bands, parade marshals, and flag-waving.  Which are not bad in themselves, perhaps, but they're not the point.

The increasing involvement of corporations was predictable, and probably unavoidable in a capitalist country.  We are Americans, after all, and we're used to everything in our lives being commercialized, branded, bought and sold.  And why shouldn't our institutions tap into the same mechanisms of sponsorship, trademarks, and endorsement that pervade every other American institution?  For most gay people, there's probably no conflict in the idea, though it's also American to lament the commercialization of Pride, no less than we lament the commercialization of Christmas at the same time we participate eagerly in it. What could be more assimilated than that?

A major theme in last month's discussion was that Pride had once been principled, political, and now it's just a big raunchy party.  I argued then that this is at best simplistic and unhistorical, and I wish I'd come prepared with evidence.  But it's a common complaint among the gay men I talk to, and like most nostalgia it's just amnesia turned around.

Luckily, I found a book that gave me some of the evidence I needed: The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History (NYU Press, 2019), edited by Marc Stein.  It assembles contemporary reports of the Stonewall uprising and the changes that it inspired in the gay movement, along with the first commemorations on both coasts.  You don't need to trust historians' reconstructions of what Pride used to be, you can see how it looked at the time.

From Document 184, Kay Tobin Lahusen's report for Gay magazine, 20 July 1970:
The flyer from the umbrella committee of sponsoring groups stated: "We are united today to affirm our pride, our lifestyle and our commitment to each other.  Despite political and social differences we may have, we are united on this common ground.  For the first time in history, we are together as The Homosexual Community." ...

The thousands of marchers filed into Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, moving past two gay couples at work (?) breaking the world’s kissing record. . . . The only planned activity in the Park was sponsored by Gay Activists Alliance, which provided an abundance of body contact by conducting sensitivity games in the soft grass of the meadow. Their gay love pile—composed of dozens of warm, wiggling bodies in one fantastic heap—let forth the most spontaneous, if inarticulate, yelp for liberation heard all day. Throughout the meadow, gay couples cuddled, kissed, laughed, and listened to themselves being described by announcers across the band of their transistor radios. Television cameras ogled at the open show of gay love and affection and solidarity. The Gay-In went on until well after sundown, after which GAY’s reporter was told love knew no bounds.
From Document 185, "1200 Parade in Hollywood, Crowds Line Boulevard, The Advocate, 22 July 1970:
Over 10000 homosexuals and their friends staged not just a protest march [my emphasis], but a full-blown parade down world-famous Hollywood Boulevard.

Flags and banners floated in the chill sunlight of late afternoon; a bright red sound truck blared martial music; drummers strutted; a horse pranced; clowns cavorted; “vice cops” chased screaming “fairies” with paper wings; the Metropolitan Community Church choir sang “Onward Christian Soldiers”; a bronzed and muscular male model flaunted a 7 1/2–foot live python. 

On and on it went, interspersed with over 30 open cars carrying Advocate Groovy Guy contestants, the Grand Duchess of San Francisco, homophile leaders, and anyone else who wanted to be seen, and five floats, one of which depicted a huge jar of Vaseline, another a homosexual “nailed” to a cross. ...

Laughter and applause also followed the Gay Liberation Front Guerrilla Theatre entry, a gaggle of shrieking “fairies” wearing gauzy pastels and being chased in all directions by stick-wielding “cops” sporting huge “vice” badges, the “Vaseline” float also entered by a GLF group, the several clowns in costume and white-face, and a nodding and bowing “witch doctor” in grass robes and African mask entered by the Society of Pat Rocco Enlightened Enthusiasts.
As I argued in the group, there was plenty of raunchy partying going on in Pride at its origin (or should I say "Nativity"?).  The same sort of crude, shameless, offensive behavior that offends many now was present in 1970, and given the lower visibility and harsher repression that had characterized gay people's lives up till then, it would have been even more shocking at the time.

Which isn't to say that these marches weren't also "political."  The turnout for the first Christopher Street West Parade was smaller than it might have been, for example, because of "the long battle to get a Police Commission permit, which was finally resolved only two days before", according to the same report.  They had political overtones and ramifications simply by virtue of being open, uncoded, massive LGBTQ public events.  They were not, however, "political" in the same way that demonstrations and protests against discrimination and repression are; but they weren't intended to be.  They were intended, first and foremost, to be fun.  It was just that gay people having fun in public -- not just in bars subject to raids and other harassment, but in the streets and parks in broad daylight -- had an inseparable political dimension.  That considerable numbers of gay people reject fun as a political goal just indicates how assimilated we are.  What once defined Puritanism -- the fear that someone somewhere might be happy -- is something that many of us can relate to.

People sometimes ask if we still need Pride.  On one hand it doesn't matter: Pride celebrations under whatever rubric are almost half a century old.  (Though they commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969, they began a year later, in 1970.)   They're popular events, they have a lot of mainstream support, everybody enjoys a party.  And it's no small achievement that a cultural creation of one of the most despised groups in America have in my lifetime become a highly visible, taken-for-granted feature of American life.  If the observance is shallow in many ways, among gays no less than among straights ... well, so is the observance of Christmas and other holidays.  It seems to me that the press/media coverage, including the reporting of the history, is on the whole better than the coverage of Christmas, maybe because it's still more contested.  If people are open to knowing the history, it's easy to learn each summer.  Need it or not, Pride is not going to wither away in the foreseeable future.

In the sense I prefer, we certainly still do need pride, though maybe the co-optation of the concept by Pride Inc. would make it worthwhile to find a better word for the concept.  But young LGBTQ people are still struggling and suffering; that alcohol and drug abuse, depression and other problems are widespread among LGBTQ people of all ages.  Whatever you want to call it, many or most of us still need to feel good about being gay.  Pride marches may hold out the promise of something better somewhere, but they aren't enough by themselves.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't have them, but we do need something else, something more, as well.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Soul of a Man Trapped in the Body of a Man

I've begun reading Walt Odets's Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men's Lives (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019).  Here's how the first chapter, "What Is a Homosexual?", begins:
There are two different perspectives on what makes a man a "homosexual."  The first -- the heterosexual perspective -- is that homosexuals are "men who have sex with men."  The gay man's perspective, is that he s "attracted to other men."  The difference between the two descriptions is important: the heterosexual identifies a single, objective behavior, the gay man an entire internal life of feeling.  While the straight man may feel support, indifference, fear, or contempt for the idea of "the homosexual," the gay man has more complex feelings, in part because the term has historically been used to stigmatize ... The majority of gay-identified men do have at least a marginally conscious sense that being gay is about more than sexual attraction or sex; but many gay men have been swayed by the heterosexual definition and have accepted the narrow, behaviorally defined identity.  In today's gay assimilationist politics, gay men often explain themselves to heterosexuals with the idea that they are "attracted to men, but otherwise just like you."
Like most binaries, this one has some value, but it breaks down pretty quickly.  I think that heterosexuals also think of male homosexuals as essentially female by nature and in mentality. This conception certainly typified a great deal of professional and clinical discussion from the late nineteenth-century onward, which focused not only on sexual behavior but on the postulated feminine nature of the invert.  It's a concept shared by many gay men even as they resist it for public-relations purposes.

One reason for the binary Odets advances here is the difference between how I see myself and how others see me.  It's the old subjective/objective divide, which I thought had mostly been abandoned as oversimple and inadequate.  I'm reminded of Graham Shaw's comment on the New Testament stories of Jesus' disciples breaking rules of Sabbath observance, that these stories
also portray a fundamental contradiction in the religious viewpoint they convey.  For paradoxically the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face.* 
Contrariwise, observant Jews could feel their deep sincerity in keeping the Sabbath, while Jesus and his crew could only see the shallow exterior conformity.  So I don't think that Odets's point has specific relevance to gay people.  The same divide turns up internally to the community, as respectability-minded gay people deplore the shallowness of leathermen gyrating drunkenly on Pride parade floats, though those leathermen are probably perfectly respectable bankers and businessmen who think of their behavior very differently in their minds, perhaps as healthy role models in contrast to all the screaming nellies.  But if you're a gay man who's just been voted salesman of the year by your real estate company, why not celebrate with an amateur drag performance?  It's the gay thing to do!  I'm not sure how that fits into Odets's classification.

I'm not happy with the sex / attraction distinction here either.  "Attraction" in this case means erotic attraction, the desire to have sex with someone.  Some gay apologists have tried to de-emphasize sex in favor of some other essential gay quality, but at best it's disingenuous, at worst it's collaborating with bigots -- agreeing that buttsex is nasty, but trying to claim that real, decent homosexuals just stay at home and crochet antimacassars.  Even the people who advance this position don't really believe it; at best they're engaging in doublethink.

Perhaps Odets is trying to see the heterosexual position as an assumption that "men who have sex with men" do so without desire or affect, for some mysterious reason.  But many gay men share that assumption, at least where other gay men are concerned: I'm a free spirit, you're just a slut!  I suppose it's all right to draw the sex / attraction line as long as "attraction" is defined so as to exclude copulation completely; unfortunately, its advocates seem to have trouble avoiding such a definition.

I've noticed myself that "we're just like you except for being attracted to men" backfires by reducing gayness to sex, a stereotype those who use this claim are trying to reject.  But I object to it because it also assumes that all straight people are alike and all gay people are alike.  I strongly reject any attempt to define for me the right way to be gay: there are many right ways to be gay.  I'm also a bit uneasy about Odets's reference to "assimilationist gay politics," since I don't think that "assimilation" is a coherent idea or strategy.  I don't agree with people who advocate some kind of gay assimilationism, because they have an unrealistic idea of what straight people are like, and equally unrealistic ideas of how prejudice works.

Well, I'm only on the first page of Out of the Shadows.  I've liked Odets's previous writings, so I'll read on and see where he takes his argument.
* Graham Shaw, The Cost of Authority, Fortress Press 1982, p. 246.