Monday, September 26, 2011

In the Room the Bottoms Come and Go

I'm reading Jeffrey Escoffier's history of gay porn, Bigger than Life (Running Press, 2009), and it's a good, informative read, but things keep catching my attention. Like this, describing the filming of a famous early hardcore feature, Boys in the Sand:
There was no top, no bottom -- indeed those rigid distinctions had not yet evolved among gay men ... [98]
Then, a few lines down on the same page, about the same film and the same period:
An old friend was present when the casting was being discussed and said to Poole, "I've got the perfect person for you. He's blond, six feet tall, and handsome. He's got a nice dick, a beautiful ass, and he does everything."
"He does everything." This is a nod to the fact that there were tops and bottoms in those days, though the terminology was somewhat different. A real man was a penetrator only (what would now be called a total top), while a queer was penetrated. In fact, the usual line among orthodox post-colonial Foucauldians is that sexual versatility is a modern and probably cultural imperialist development, while the active/passive dichotomy is traditional, indigenous, and natural. Of course, just like today, the boundary between those categories was highly permeable. In Barry Reay's New York Hustlers, which I discussed here a couple of months ago, he describes a gay male milieu built on a rigid distinction between Queers and Trade, while admitting that occasionally Trade got into being penetrated by Queers, but it still didn't mean the penetrated Trade were closeted Queers, only that being "pedicated ... merely enlarged his sphere of enjoyment and did not make him ‘queer.’"

I've noticed myself that as a post-AIDS development, the "top" is a fairly unstable category, held together with spit and tissue paper. I've been informed by several self-identified tops that they refuse to be penetrated because they don't want to contract HIV. (I haven't been able to get out of them why they think other men allow these "tops" to penetrate them; I suspect the question is too threatening to entertain.) An identity built on fear is not a very reliable one; I suspect that at least some of these "tops" will get drunk from time to time and allow what they never allow, probably without a condom. You don't have to be an essentialist to believe that refusing to be penetrated for fear of HIV is not the same as genuinely not enjoying or wanting the experience -- just like refusing to have sex with other men for fear of Hell doesn't make you straight.

But I digress. Here's another passage that snagged me, this time a quotation from Edmund White's States of Desire.
San Francisco is where gay fantasies come true, and the problem the city presents is whether, after all, we wanted these particular dreams to be fulfilled -- or would we have preferred others? Did we know what price these dreams would exact? [quoted by Escoffier, 118]
One reason I didn't get around to visiting San Francisco until I was nearly 50 (and even then it was because a friend bought me a plane ticket -- otherwise I might never have made the trip) was precisely that I wasn't all that attracted by the "particular dreams" it represented. When I've visited gay neighborhoods closer to home I haven't felt their siren call, because I've never wanted to be surrounded only by other gay men. That was why I chose to be openly gay -- admittedly, in a relatively gay-friendly college town -- because being isolated from straight people was never my "particular dream." I wanted straights to make room for the gay people who already lived beside them, not to let them have a gay-free environment. Besides, when I saw the spaces that gay men constructed according to their own dreams, I realized that once again I was a misfit, and I wasn't going to try to assimilate.

The final quotation (for today, at least). From the New York Times Magazine, January 3, 1971, quoted on page 117:
What distinguishes San Francisco from any place else is the style with which porn is marketed, its practitioners' attitude towards it and the tolerance most square citizens display concerning the whole question. The basic assumption, it would seem ... is that a "mature adult" is entitled to get his kicks any way he can, provided decent citizens don't have to witness the process and nobody gets hurt.
What stuck to me in this one was "decent citizens." Of course, if there's one thing we have learned in the last forty years, it's that "decent citizens" always keep porn, sleaze, and homosexuality at arm's length, and never avail themselves of these products, services, and practices -- right? Stop laughing. But it's amazing that this assumption is still so common. What is known, though it's hardly news, is that many "decent citizens" need the Red Light District out there so they can sneak away to it when they crave release from the straitjacket of "decency." One of the many problems with Scott Herring's "slumming" model is that he pays too little attention to the people who live in the slums: they're still the Other for him, no less than they were for the respectable folk he wrote about with such smug disdain.

What progress we (that is, gay people or GLBTQ+π if you prefer) have made is the emergence of respectable, "decent" Homo-Americans, gay people who also present themselves as above the sleazy, gives-us-a-bad-name behavior of some ghetto homosexuals. You won't find them gyrating drunkenly in backless chaps on a Gay Pride Float, or cruising around toilets and highway rest stops. Until they themselves get caught doing it, of course.

Escoffier has more sense than the Homo-Americans, of course; I'm not including him with the likes of them. He recognizes, chronicles, and even celebrates the parts of our history that many gay people would prefer to forget. It just seems to me that at times he leaves the dividing wall up from the other side.