Saturday, June 2, 2007

Stopping Bravely At The Surface

Lamenting gay men's shallow obsession with looks is always good for livening up a slow session in a chat room or for taking a break while guy-watching at the bar. Of course, the complaint is almost always about other gay men's shallowness. I can't recall ever having heard someone moan, "I'm so shallow -- all I care about is looks. Personality doesn't matter to me at all." Very often the underlying complaint turns out to be that some hot guy has judged the complainer by his looks, not by his personality. That the complainer might pursue someone else's inner beauty doesn't seem to be an option.

Case in point: some time ago, five HIV-positive men wrote on about the adjustments they were having to make because of the effects of the virus and their medications on their formerly hot, buff, toned bodies. All of them wrote in terms of maintaining their own self-esteem, and argued that other men should appreciate them for their personalities, not for their deteriorating flesh. None of them spoke of rethinking their own attitudes to other men's looks; all of them took for granted that the gym-toned body of a porn star or an advertising model was the only desirable body possible -- but now, with their bodies failing them, they demanded that other men lose this obsession with "the perfect body", and look at their inner beauty. I can't say I sympathize with them much. Men like these think of being gay as a competitive sport, a view they're welcome to. But in every athlete's life a time comes when he can't cut it any more, for whatever reason. I am more interested in other ways of being gay. I want to suggest another possibility, one which I think all of us know on some level, but I don't often (if ever) see put into words.

We already desire men who don't resemble the porn video ideal, and we should indulge and celebrate that liking. Look around you: lots of guys who will never appear in a Tom Bianchi coffee-table book have boyfriends, often of long standing. I was never a hot hunky stud even when I was young; yet I've been able to find boyfriends, lovers, and a fair number of non-committed sexual partners. These boyfriends, lovers, and sexual partners weren't coffee-table book material either, but I didn't feel I was making do with second-best. There are many kinds of beauty and sexiness in the world. There are different kinds of "perfect" looks, if we understand that word to mean "perfect" for pushing my erotic buttons, or yours.

The trouble isn't gay men's fixation on looks in general, but their schoolyard determination to police each other's tastes, to narrow the range of acceptable desire to a junior high school level. In the early 1970s, when I was freshly out and socializing in groups of gay men, we would often compare notes on passersby in the Commons of the student union building. This was partly a way of bonding against the straight world, and of validating our desire for other men; partly, as with straight men, an erotic sharing of the people we rated. But it was also a way of ruling some men out of bounds as objects of desire. Some men you must want; others you must not want.

I soon learned that many of the men I wanted were out of bounds. I tended to like younger, boyish-looking men; but since we and the passing scenery were almost all college undergraduates, this didn't involve much of an age gap. (Need I mention that visibly older men were also out of bounds? Or non-white men?) Mostly, though, I think the men I singled out were just the wrong men. They didn't look remotely like porn stars, actors, or clones, and lacked the calculated, ironic masculinity that gay objects of desire were supposed to have. They didn't have gym-toned bodies; they were too thin or too chunky -- in short, they were just Average Guys, the kind of men who wouldn't stand out in the crowd. But they stood out for me. My media crushes in those days were Bud Cort in Harold and Maude and more esoterically, Hakan Hagegard, the Papageno in Ingmar Bergman's film version of The Magic Flute. Having already decided by coming out that I could resist pressure from the heterosexual majority, I brushed aside the same kind of pressure from my gay peers. It was years before I fully recognized it as pressure.

I think I was about thirty when an old friend told me that when some mutual acquaintances commented negatively on my taste in men, he told them cheerfully: "Someone has to love people like that; let's be glad it's Duncan, and not us!" Notice that even in my absence I could be the object of gossip and censure for failing to fit in. How much could it matter to them if I was attracted to men they didn't want, or if I didn't want men they wanted? A fair amount, evidently.

I don't know exactly who my critics were, but knowing my local community, I doubt that any of them came up to the community standards they were trying to enforce. (Someone has to love people like that -- I'm glad it's their boyfriends, and not me!) I wonder now how much of my outsider status among local gay men comes not just from my outdated, liberationist politics, or from my personal combativeness, or from having been prematurely openly gay (though all of these are surely factors) -- and how much comes from my liking the wrong men. I suspect too that I could get away with dating the Wrong men, if only I would pay lip service to the superiority of the Right ones. (This resembles the way that political right wingers consider it okay to dodge military service, as long as you vocally support whichever war you'd presently rather not fight in.)

The remedy is not to substitute another single look. The Bear movement valorizes a look the exact opposite of the Bianchi Boys', but too often bears can't affirm their own type without putting down others. I've heard a lot of sneering among bears at "twinks" and other undesirables. Not all bears do this, of course: when one guy in a bears' newsgroup went into hysterics over a rumor that some famous leather daddy had shaved off his famous moustache, several others tried to cajole him into a more sensible attitude. But "woof" and "eeuuww" among bears serve the same boundary-drawing function they do among other gays, or among straights: to police each other's desires. I'm in with the In Crowd, both because I would do Mr. X in a New York minute, and because I wouldn't touch Mr. Y with a ten-foot pole.

This policing assumes that sexual desire is a natural -- indeed, genetically programmed! -- response to very specific and fairly rare physical traits, a gift of the genes or the fruit of long intense labor in the gym. Talk of gay men's obsession with "looks" usually means only one look: the kind of men whose photographs appear in photography books aimed at a gay male market, with just enough variation permitted to include some chest hair or a tasteful sprinkling of salt and pepper in the severely trimmed beard. That, and only that, is beauty; it can be objectively determined and scientifically measured. No one else has any looks to be attracted to. Either you've got it, and may commune with the other members of the inner circle; or you are condemned to the outer darkness, jerking off to photos of the elite, wishing that others could see your inner Ryan Philippe, buried beneath the flab and acne.

I suppose there must be some gay men who genuinely can't get it up for anyone but a Tom Bianchi model, but I don't believe they are a majority. (Personally, I'm not sure I could get it up for a Bianchi muscle queen; they look grotesque to me. But to each his own.) After 35 years in and around gay men's communities, I know that most gay men can and do take genuine delight in men who don't fit the porn star ideal. Some may feel that they are settling for second-best, just as many gay men feel that being gay is second-best to being straight; but not all do.

The models and celebrities who are promoted as ideals for all the world actually represent the lowest common denominator of beauty: the faces and bodies which large numbers of people can agree are desirable. Because they are comparatively rare, access to their images can be controlled and parcelled out, as posters or magazine photos, or the vast peep show of movies and television. But the media couldn't do this if people didn't already have a tendency they could exploit.

Now, please bear in mind: I'm not saying that these lowest common denominators are unattractive. What I'm saying is that they aren't the only people who are attractive. Go ahead and fantasize about Ben Affleck or Matt Damon or whoever is the current Hollywood flavor of the month. And if Ben or Matt comes knocking at your door to tell you he must have you or he'll die, accept him with my blessings. (I'm burning a light in my window for Eric Tsang myself.) But if you're so busy fantasizing about starlets and models that you can't see the guy across the street who will never get closer to Hollywood than a studio tour on his vacation, but who for some reason stirs your deeper feelings anyway -- well, it's your loss.

People who like competition can dream of winning the love of one of these lowest common denominators, and being envied by millions; which means that only one person in millions can get what he or she wants. The rarity of these ideal objects of desire is assumed to be part of their appeal: being desired by millions supposedly makes them special. Oddly, being one of the millions who desire them doesn't stigmatize you as one of the ignorant, debased masses. Since polls show that about 75 to 80 percent of Americans consider themselves above average, I suppose each of the drooling millions sees himself (or herself) as standing out among the crowd, the One who will win the lottery for the heart of the Homecoming King.

Let me try to make this as clear as possible: I am not telling gay men (or anyone else) to have sex with people they're not attracted to. I am not arguing that gay men should change their sexual tastes, trying through sheer will-power to crave non-buff non-hunks; if anything, it's most critics of gay male looksism who talk as if they believed that. (Close your eyes, think of England and fuck his personality. It's an odd notion to encounter in individuals who believe that we are born with our sexual desires genetically programmed into us, and that they are absolutely impossible to change.) I'm not even saying that my taste in men is superior to that of most gay men. What I am saying is that our tastes are already broader than we admit.

Why don't we admit it, then? Damned if I know. As I said at the beginning, (other) gay men's shallowness and obsession with superficial beauty is virtually a cliché, and has been for a long time. It's widely, almost universally believed. Everybody knows that gay men are, like, totally obsessed with looks. But what everybody knows is often false, and this case is no exception. (A related case where what "everybody knows" is false is the belief that nobody desires gay men over a certain age -- 30? 25? -- the "nobody loves you when you're old and gay" line.) Again, the complainers are usually the ones who are obsessed, though they project it onto others: for example, the aging men who aren't interested in other aging men, but who complain that younger men won't look at them. It's always the other guy who is supposed to compromise his sexual integrity.

Aren't people's personalities important, then? Of course. But, having neither X-ray vision nor telepathy, I can't look inside a person and see his personality. The thing is, bodies matter too. If personality were everything, we could just find ourselves nice women for lovers and save ourselves a lot of grief. If gay men (and not only gay men) will simply acknowledge the desires we already have in their full range -- not just the narrow range peddled by our peers -- we'll find a lot of beauty and sexiness around us.

It's a common gripe in the chat rooms that guys who claim to be "VGL" (Very Good Looking) very often are not. I think, though, that someone who labels himself Very Good Looking is telling me something about his personality. I'm just as skeptical of guys who bill themselves as "nice," "friendly," or "great personality." Unlike physical traits, personality can be evaluated over the Net. Not perfectly -- cyberspace discriminates against people who can't express themselves fluently through a keyboard -- but over time you get a sense of who you're talking to. If you are a nice guy, others will figure that out for themselves.

It's true off the net, too. Even in a one-night stand, interpersonal chemistry and compatibility help make the difference between good and bad sex. If you go on seeing the same guy awhile, you will increasingly deal with his personality whether you want to or not. Does he show up when he says he will? Does he notice whether what he's doing in bed feels good to you? These things matter even in the most fleeting sexual encounter, and they are expressions of his personality -- as how you treat him is an expression of yours. You can't photograph a personality. It exists in time, and only through time do you get to know someone else, no matter what he looks like.

What I'm saying here will probably mean little to those American gay men (both of them?) who are fully satisfied with their sexual and emotional lives. That's fine. I'm addressing those who are dissatisfied, but not to tell them what they can do to change other gay men -- those other gay men are you yourselves. (As for me, I already like the Wrong Men, remember?) Here are some ideas for changing ourselves. They're not final or set in stone. Other people will have other suggestions. We need to hear them too.

First, don't say derogatory things about other people's appearance, or about the kind of people they find attractive. You're not obligated to have sex with people you find unappealing, but you're not entitled to insult them either. Try not to be one of those people who take the existence of people they consider unattractive as a personal affront. The fat woman next door, the old man (he must be, like, at least twenty-five!) who smiles at you at the bar, the gross guy at the gym with hair on his back -- they aren't living just to ruin your day.

Second, turn off your TV for a while, and pass up the next two or three (or more) Hollywood films. Buy some non-glossy magazines, magazines without undraped models pimping for clothes, underwear, toiletries -- and read the articles. Box up the porn collection and put it out of convenient reach for a month. Looking at commercial media images tends to make me dissatisfied with the real people around me. I find myself wanting one of those guys in the catalog, who may be for rent but they aren't for sale. I suppose there's no reason why commercial media shouldn't capitalize on the human tendency to flock like sheep and go bleating after someone else's goal, but we don't have to give them our money -- especially for a "commodity" that's in abundant supply all around us.

Third, look at the real people around you. If your local bar is too dark and smoky for you to see them, find a better-lit alternative. If you are lucky enough to have alternatives in your city, use them. I've had a lot of good experience in gay discussion groups, as a way of making friends and even for finding boyfriends. Talking in a group takes the pressure off each individual, giving you time to see someone's face, to see what happens to it when he talks, and to hear what he has to say.

If you live in a city large enough that its gym queens can fill a club, so you can pretend that no other gay men exist, then you also live in a city with alternatives to that scene. If you spend all your gay social time in such clubs, don't blame the "media" or even "the gay community" for pressuring you into it.

If you don't live in a city that large, then you will see gay men who aren't gym queens whenever you go out. Stop pretending that they're second-class trash who shouldn't be let in (that's you, dummy), and start looking at them. Ask yourself if you have a personality, though, before you deign to approach; you might not be, indeed probably are not, good enough for them.

Finally, if you're bored all the time -- and "bored" turns up with disturbing regularity in chat profiles, sometimes as a mere code word for "horny" but often as simple truth -- then you're boring. No matter where you live, there are things to do, people to meet, interests to cultivate. If there really aren't, then find something that interests you and do it yourself. I'm a big believer in DIY (Do It Yourself), so I urge people to start gay book groups, gay baseball teams, discussion groups, choruses, antique shopping outings -- whatever -- where they don't exist already. (Contrary to one gay man's indignant reaction when I mentioned these ideas to him, this is not "Balkanization." Putting everyone together into one big Nuremberg rally is, however, fascist. People need to learn to live in and enjoy a world of difference, not try to eliminate it.)

A crucial requirement is that whenever it's possible, these activities and events should be public, announced in local community calendars or their equivalent, not just restricted to your clique and their boyfriends. Otherwise you're shutting out the people you need to include. It doesn't matter if everyone in the group is cute, or "straight-acting," let alone "hot." There will be pressure to be more selective, lest people think that the group is nothing but queens; this pressure must be resisted, and jeered at. It's okay to have purely social friendship circles, even cliques, but we also need public group-based activities that are open to anyone who's interested in them. Newbies should be welcomed by at least one established member of the group, whether they're cute or not.

So, join me at the (rather ample) margins of gay male life: those of us who like non-buff non-hunks, and don't feel we're making do with second best. Let those who just have to date gym queens segregate themselves in the circuit parties and the exclusive clubs; it'll keep them out of our hair. Though I suspect, to be honest, that some of the gym queens will eventually notice that life is richer, more interesting, more humane at the margins. Some of them already harbor guilty longings for the nerd next door. There's plenty of room, even for the lowest common denominator of looks. Join the conversation, guys, and explore the rest of your selves.