Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Ancient, Glittering Eye of the Beholder

Sherman Alexie, the great American Indian poet and novelist, has an entertaining meditation on gay men in athletics at The Stranger, inspired of course by Jason Collins's coming-out.  One of the many things I like about Alexie is the ongoing presence of male-to-male desire and sexual expression in his work, alongside heterosexuality.  (His venture into filmmaking, The Business of Fancydancing, features a gay American Indian poet as protagonist.)  But something is a bit off in this piece.

Alexie begins:
As a straight-boy jock, I have been showering with large groups of naked men for decades. And these showers have not taken place in bathrooms where we straight men yell at one another from modest private stalls. No, we athletes clean ourselves in large, communal Roman gladiator bathhouses. My high-school locker room's showerheads were placed so that we boys soaped up while facing one another. And we did this soaping while standing two feet apart.

In other words, I, Sherman, a heterosexual lifelong basketball player, have seen a lot more cock and man-ass than many gay men.
This may well be true, though I'm not sure it has much to do with being a jock.  Gay non-jocks have taken PE classes all along, and as a group we've probably seen as much naked male flesh in communal showers as straight men have.  That may be changing as communal showers have given way to "modest private stalls," but that will also cut down the the numbers for straight men, including athletes.  Have I mentioned before the time, around 1990, I was told by some college-age youths, former high-school swimmers, that they'd never seen each other naked -- they always showered in their swimsuits?  They were shocked, shocked! to learn that I and the other gay man on the panel grew up with communal showers for Phys. Ed. and the requirement that everybody shower naked.  American males seem to have become even shyer in the decades since then.

Alexie goes on to describe his sagging charms (he's in his late forties now), comparing them to the even more decrepit charms he still sees in the locker rooms: "mountainous guts that make my chubby belly look like a foothill. I see butt cheeks that look like two Sasquatches playing tennis. I recoil from feet so gnarled, hirsute, and abused that a hobbit would suggest a pedicure."

Then he raises the perennial question:
So why do certain homely straight men worry that gay men are even remotely interested in sexually harassing their concave asses? If strange women don't amass in large numbers to jump your bones, then why would packs of gay men hunger for you?
A commenter on the article took it further, remarking "the irony of the most ass-ugly, fat-greasy, Jabba the Hut looking guys thinking that Gay men are just lining up around the block to touch their booty."  Darling, hush your mouth!  Those ass-ugly, fat-greasy, Jabba the Hut looking guys are known in the gay community as Bears.  They have their own fan club, and they oppose resolutely the idea that only models and twinks are erotically desirable.

Anyway: first, this is irrelevant to the main theme of the article, namely Jason Collins and the NBA.  "If he does play in the NBA next year," Alexie opines, "I'm sure certain teammates might feel threatened by his presence in the locker room."  But those "certain teammates" are highly unlikely to be "homely," to have "concave asses" or "butt cheeks that look like two Sasquatches playing tennis."  On this logic it would be a reasonable inference that they have reason to feel threatened by a gay man in the locker room.  I don't think they do, but Alexie seems to think otherwise.

Second, the dismissal of other people's concerns about sexual assault on the grounds that they are too ugly to have anything to worry about has been challenged by feminism.  Many female rape victims have been told by police and prosecutors that they couldn't possibly have been raped because they're too old or fat or ugly or deformed for any man to bother with -- hell, they should thank the guy or gang who took pity on them and gave them some dick.

This is not to say that being eyed in the shower is equivalent to being raped, though traditional patriarchal notions of honor hold otherwise -- hence the veil, hence the chador, hence generations of Catholic schoolgirls (and -boys) being required to wear a covering in the bath so they won't be aroused by their own flesh.  It's only to say that dismissing another person as too repulsive to be desired by anybody says more about you than it does about the other person, and it doesn't speak well for you.

It seems to me that a better answer to the fear of the Homo in the shower is to point out that you can't know which men in any given group are gay or, more to the point, bisexual.  The openly gay jock may well find your chubby butt unappealing; the closeted married guy around whom you feel safe may be contemplating it with lust, and considering how you might best be seduced.  Or not.  That's the trouble, I suspect: the invisibility of other people's thoughts and desires.  I can tell you from my own experience that just because a man doesn't have an erection at the moment, it doesn't mean he couldn't muster one in the right circumstances, or that he wouldn't like to.

The fear of the Homo in the shower is the fear of men who don't want to know, don't want to be told, and don't want to think about it.  I'm reminded of the presumably straight online movie reviewer who lamented that, because of Brokeback Mountain, he could no longer watch the friendship of two young male animals in an animated film and consider their antics "completely innocent." Homosexuality, like so many things, is invisible until you know about it -- and then it's everywhere.

Like most people, I probably overgeneralize from my own experience.  I got over feeling exposed by nakedness in the locker room almost as soon as I first had to do it, in seventh grade.  I certainly noticed that some other boys were beautiful in my eyes, but I never felt compelled to jump any of them.  Only once, in more than twenty years, did my body betray me with an unwanted erection in front of others -- but I'd also noticed that straight guys got wood in the showers too, and joked about it, so I didn't worry about it; it didn't have to mean anything.  Later, when when I was running regularly in my late twenties, and had a locker at the university gym, it occurred to me that if every male who looked at other males in the showers was gay, there were no straight men.  Comparing oneself to others is probably unavoidable, and in areas where such comparison leads to feelings of inadequacy and shame, the comparison will often be done furtively rather than frankly.

No matter what you look like, there can be no guarantee that no one will ever admire your body in the locker room.  So you have to get over it.  This doesn't mean that gay men are entitled to treat their/our objects of desire rudely, but if we are just like straight guys, then some of us probably will.  As Alexie continues, on the subject of being hit on by other men: 
My first thought is "Men are boundaryless animals." My second thought is "Women have to deal with this shit all the time." My third thought is "How flattering." My fourth thought is "I wish this dude hitting on me was cuter."
Not bad, I guess, but "boundaryless animals"?  Why shouldn't people of either sex indicate their interest in those they're attracted to?  What boundaries does Alexie think we should have?  I think our boundaries should be consideration for others and trying to leave them lots of room to say No, or to say Yes.  I know this isn't all that easy in practice, but I'm not holding my breath until sex education includes sessions on the negotiation of erotic encounters.  Something like that would surely help, but some people of all sexes and all sexual orientations do have the rapist's mentality, a refusal to take No for an answer, so there are always going to be abuses.  What we need to focus on, I believe, is to find ways to minimize the abuses and treat each other well.  I must say I'm always amazed by those people (they usually seem to be men) who think that overt hostility and denigration is the way to get into someone's pants.  Maybe it works for them?  This is what makes it hard to generalize about unwanted sexual advances: they aren't always compliments, it isn't an honor to be desired by someone who thinks of copulation as a way of abasing and degrading his partner.  (Which is, let me stress, an unfortunately ancient and respectable view of copulation in Western culture at least.  But that's another post.)  But often such advances are compliments and should be received as such; and it's always permissible to turn them down.

The fear of the Homo in the shower, then, is more complicated than Alexie and many others believe.  One of the solutions is to teach people how to treat each other better where sex is concerned, but that's not acceptable to enough people to make it feasible.  A pity.