Friday, May 13, 2016

I Want a Boy Just Like the Boy That Married Dear Old Mom

The gay men's discussion group I sometimes attend will be taking up the question "Are Gay Men Different from Straight Men?  Why?"  The trouble with any question like this is that it assumes that all gay men are alike, and all straight men are alike.  But in most groups that aren't defined very narrowly by sameness, the differences within the group are greater than the average differences between it and whatever group is being compared to it.  When a group is stigmatized as gay men have been, it is all the harder to build a representative sample; if you limit your sample to openly gay men, then you're not talking about all gay men, and you can't make any assumptions about the closeted.  Some people would distinguish between men who "identify as" gay and men who are homosexually active (the famous Men Who Have Sex with Men) but even the gay-identified vary widely.

In any case, it depends on what traits you're comparing.  Most gay men have penises, for example, probably the same proportion as straight men.  Most of us want to copulate with other males, and we tend to downplay the extent to which many of us want to copulate with females as well.  (In that respect, of course, we're the mirror image of straight men.)  Many of us construct multiple conceptions of what gay men are: sanitized for dealing with heterosexuals, eroticized when we're in gay environments; gender conformist for heterosexual audiences, gender nonconformist for each other.  I expect that stereotypes will rule at the discussion group, as they so often do.

I'm currently working through another book I happened on at the library: Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, published by Beacon Press in 2014.  Some of the contributors are gay, and one of these writes of his first gay friend, who approached him at a gym (page 23):
I certainly wasn't like the other guys there.  I was brown, hairy, and chubby.  I was twice the size of any of the other boys.  Was it my Arabness, my otherness, that intrigued Corey?  Was he fetishizing me, as so many did after 9/11?
September 11, 2001 was several years in the future, so unless he is a prophet I doubt it was on Ramy Eletreby's mind when he met Corey.  But I laughed aloud when I read this passage, because on the previous page he'd written:
Staring at boys at the gym was my treat.  I convinced myself that Allah had provided me with eye candy so I could satisfy my urges without crossing any lines.  The furtive glances I stole at those surfer boys -- white, hairless, perfect -- changing in the locker room was Allah granting me pleasure.  In secret, of course.  I never spoke to anyone.  I felt like a creeper.  And I was.
This is typical of people, including non-white gay men, who complain that they are or might be fetishized by others: they fetishize others quite freely, but you'd better not fetishize them, and they assume that any interest shown in them must be fetishizing, ill-intentioned, oppressive, dehumanizing and degrading.  (A similar common pattern is that you should overlook my lack of conventional hotness and be attracted by my personality, but I have the right to desire you based solely on your surfer/model good looks -- I'm not interested in your personality in the slightest.)  It might be that Eletreby has gotten over himself since then, but nothing in his essay indicates that he has.  I can't even tell whether he is aware of the irony in his complaint.  Self-pity rules his contribution.  Is that what gay men are like?

Incidentally, the editors of Salaam, Love are both female.  Previously they compiled Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women (Soft Skull Press. 2012), and in the introduction to their newer book they write that Love, Inshallah "resonated with readers around the world.  Including men.  They started to ask 'Where are our stories?'  We dismissed the inquiries with a laugh. 'Please!  Guys don't talk about this stuff.'" (vii).  I was annoyed by this stereotype, which ought to be obviously false -- men have written vast amounts of love poetry, and most of literature is about their feelings and love lives.

But then I wondered why the editors didn't make what seems to me a much more pertinent response: "You want a book?  Fine, do it yourself."  Wanting someone else to bell the cat is of course a common human impulse.  But men have as much access to publication as women do (indeed, several of the contributors to Salaam, Love are already published authors), and one of the primary anti-feminist reflexes is men expecting women to do the emotional and other service work that they ought to do themselves.  (When women comply by telling them how they need to change, another popular reflex is to complain that all women do is focus on the negatives.)  It would have been a salutary project if men had taken it on, for their own instruction and edification, but being good women, Mattu and Masnavi took on the burden.  The results are mostly predictable, with several writers falling back on millennial snark and irony to avoid dealing with their feelings.  The main exception to my mind is Ibrahim Al-Marashi's "The Other Iran-Iraq War," which addresses not only emotions but politics on a level that his fellows miss.  Check out Salaam, Love from the library, and read Al-Marashi's piece; the rest, as far as I'm concerned, can be skipped.