Saturday, August 30, 2008

Preaching To The Perverted

Immediately after watching this clip, I went looking for Terrance Dean’s Hiding in Hip Hop at the library, and I must report regretfully that it is, as Jay Smooth suspected, a “tell-all memoir,” though it's not that “saucy.” Dean lays on the misery very thick (not without reason: his mother and two younger brothers died of AIDS, among many other hardships he’s suffered) interspersed with basically pornographic accounts of his many sexual encounters with males, laden with loving, drooling accounts of his tricks’ muscular bodies and generous endowment -- not that there’s anything wrong with that! – and names changed to protect the guilty. If I knew more about hiphop, I could probably identify many of them, as some customer-reviewers at Amazon claim they can. Reading Dean’s account of his down-low sexual odyssey, I suddenly remembered a remark in Kobena Mercer’s ambivalent attack on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men (in Welcome to the Jungle [Routledge, 1994], 185):
In post-Civil Rights, post-Black Power America, where liberal orthodoxy provides no available legitimation for such folk myths, Mapplethorpe enacts a disavowal of this ideological “truth”: I know (its [sic] not true that all black guys have huge willies) but (nevertheless, in my photographs, they do).
This is part of Mercer’s explication of one of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, the infamous “Man in Polyester Suit.” However, it happens not to be true that all the black men in The Black Book have “huge willies.” And look at it this way: I know that not all black guys have huge willies, but nevertheless, in E. Lynn Harris’s novels, and in Terrance Dean’s sexual memory, they do. It seems that Dean never got down on the down low with even one brother who wasn’t fine, sculpted, and hung, with “luscious lips [and a] hard thick muscle standing at attention between his legs” (128), a “massive hardness” waiting to be squeezed, pulled on, and sucked. Even granted the special circumstances in which Dean moved (the upper echelons of the entertainment business) and granted that Dean probably selects the high points of his many one-night stands, I find this implausible. And that makes me wonder how reliable his story is in general.

I’ve also seen Mapplethorpe disparaged because he liked his young black men to be as “street” as possible. Judging by Dean’s experience, this is not a fetish limited to gay white men: gay black men also crave “thugs,” “hoods,” guys who radiate toughness and aggressive virility. And not only gay black men feel that way: Dean isn’t the only witness to rappers’ need to put up a tough front for their ostensibly straight audiences. As Jay says on his blog, everything Dean says about hiphop in the clip “is pretty much equally applicable to America in general.”

For most of Hiding in HipHop, though, Terrance Dean describes his resistance to thinking of himself as gay. Mostly he refers to himself as “down low,” and it’s interesting to see the varied meanings that now-trendy term carries. First, it means “secret” or “hidden”, or as we white gay men would say, “closeted.” But there’s an important difference. It seems to me that “closeted” is generally a word we apply to others, not to ourselves, while “down low” is becoming an identity for significant numbers of African-African men who have sex with other African-American men. There’s a paradox there, since one of the hallmarks of men who have sex with men is that they reject any identity label: they just happen to have sex, evidently by accident, with dozens or hundreds of other men, but they’re not gay or bisexual. (This tendency is not restricted to non-white men: when gay anthropologist Bill Leap observed male sexual encounters in the locker room and sauna of an upscale health club in Washington D.C., he found that gay men generally exchanged phone numbers and met elsewhere, while the men who had sex in the club vehemently denied that they were even bisexual, let alone gay.) Yet “down low,” which used to refer to any ‘illicit’ sexual relationship, heterosexual or homosexual, is becoming an identity of its own: Dean refers to down low clubs and parties, to his “down low family,” and so on. I suspect that in time we'll see men identify publicly as “down low,” forgetting the contradiction in being openly hidden. (But then, “gay” has similar contradictions, having gone from an in-group code word to a public identity, and now to a pejorative.)

At other times, “down low” has other connotations for Dean, as when he mentions that he and another man “didn’t enjoy being around crowds of gay men. We were down low and we liked being low-key.” In this context “down low” seems to translate as “straight-acting” in gay white men’s jargon. Again, “When I got back to MTV, I noticed there were quite a few openly gay black men, who I stayed clear of because I still wasn’t comfortable being around obviously gay men.” Dean here confuses “obviously gay” with “openly gay.” “Openly gay” means that one’s gayness is an acknowledged public fact, whether or not one fits popular stereotypes. Being openly gay, explicitly declaring which team we bat for, has been important for precisely those of us who wouldn’t stand out in a straight crowd, so that we wouldn’t be mistaken for straight. “Obviously” gay men may not need to declare themselves, though I’ve met a fair number of screaming queens who were sure that no one knew about them.

One of the more painful aspects of Dean’s story is that for all his intelligence and education – he did well in high school and was offered scholarships to several colleges, finally attending Fisk University – he has shut his eyes to everything that has been happening among gay people in his lifetime. Not just white gay people, either, though if he read anything about the history of white American gays he might spot immediately the similarities between the down-low life he knows and white gay life down to the late 1960s: not just the fear of exposure and violence, but the feelings of inferiority and shame, the double lives and isolation. But Dean seems not to have ever encountered the voices of African-American gay experience.

In his strange and conflicted book On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men (Broadway Books, 2004), J. L. King remarked, “It’s a helluva lot easier for white folks to accept homosexuality, because they have their ‘out’ Elton Johns and Ellens, their Queer as Folk and Will and Grace. ... Could a famous, popular black athlete ever come out like the Olympic diver Greg Louganis and get the same treatment?” Leaving aside the minor point that Louganis isn’t “white” but Pacific-Islander, like the former NFL player Esera Tuaolo (and see Keith Boykin’s article on black gay athletes), I’ll see King’s Elton John and raise him Little Richard and RuPaul. Black folks have their Meshell Ndegeocellos, their Alice Walkers, their Ma Raineys, their James Baldwins, their Audre Lordes, their Samuel Delanys, and a good many more.

It’s a pity that Dean apparently never stumbled on a copy of Joseph Beam’s Black Gay anthologies In the Life and Brother to Brother, or Marlon Riggs’s poetic video work Tongues Untied, though they appeared just as he was coming of age. At one point, when Dean is struggling especially hard in “the down low lifestyle,” he re-commits himself to church, “reading books on spirituality.” Why not some books on sexuality, or the intersection between sexuality and spirituality? By the end of Hiding in Hip Hop Dean has finally decided to come out, and he’s surprised by the amount of support he receives from his family, but he is still clearly extremely conflicted. Maybe his next book will have some better news.