Wednesday, July 1, 2009

And Even Thee's a Little Queer

I've complained before about the strange caricatures of American gay life that appear in academic writing about culture. I notice them most often in the writings of postcolonialist scholars of Third World extraction, recognizable in Aijaz Ahmad's discussion of "the incoming graduate student who comes from elsewhere, who studies under the full weight of the existing canonicity, who rebels against it, who counterposes other kinds of texts against the so-called canonical text," and who finds that the "liberal, pluralistic self-image of the university can always be pressed to make room for diversity, multiculturalism, non-Europe; careers can arise out of such renegotiations of the cultural compact. But this same liberal university is usually, for the non-white student, a place of desolation, even panic; exclusions are sometimes blatant, more often only polite and silent, and the documents of one’s culture become little sickles to clear one’s way through spirals of refined prejudice" (In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures [Verso, 1992], 84-85).

But these distortions also appear in the writings of well-settled scholars who seem quite comfortable with a gay or lesbian identity, As We Know It Today. (One of these days I must get around to a post about John Howard's award-winning 1999 work Men Like That, about darkest but still mostly white gay Mississippi in the years just after World War II.) I've often suspected that the conception many academics, whether they come from abroad or from the US, have of American gay life is formed by having come out either in college towns or in urban gay enclaves. They mostly meet, socialize with, and date other professionals, which is fine in itself, but gives them a skewed picture of what it means to be gay here.

Héctor Carrillo is a good, even exemplary, example of this pattern. He wrote an excellent book on sexuality and HIV prevention in Mexico, The Night Is Young: Sexuality in Mexico in the Time of AIDS (Chicago, 2002), so I settled down happily to read his contribution to the new volume of writings on engaged GLBTQ anthropology, Out in Public (ed. Ellen Lewin and William L. Leap, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). A "Mexican national" who had "led a somewhat open gay life" and "provided support to emerging AIDS-related services in Mexico City during the late 1980s", Carrillo also spent "eight years studying and working in the San Francisco Bay Area" (35). In 1993 he went to do fieldwork in Guadalajara, and discovered that "I was bringing with me more baggage than that which filled my suitcases."

Carrillo became aware of this when he
showed up at the office of CHECCOS, a local AIDS agency, to volunteer. The CHECCOS office was located on the second floor of a house in an urban, middle-class neighborhood, on a block where most houses had been transformed into commercial spaces. Seated at the only desk in a large room was the coordinator, with whom I had spoken a few days before over the phone to make an appointment for a volunteer interview. As I would have done when applying for a volunteer position in AIDS organizations in the Bay Area, I arrived with a copy of my resume and an elaborate speech about my skills and experience conducting HIV-prevention work in San Francisco and what I could offer to the organization.

... Looking a bit puzzled, the coordinator let me make my speech, while the other CHECCOS members listened attentively. When I finished, I asked what volunteer opportunities she might have for me. She simply pointed to the table where the brochures were being folded. In the AIDS organization where I had worked, folding brochures was a task given to the less-skilled volunteers. I had come with expectations of a "higher-end" volunteer job. But here all volunteers participated in all activities, most of which were of a rather basic nature. Despite my initial disappointment, this proved to be a large blessing in disguise. Activities such as collective brochure-folding or, as I later learned, even just hanging out in the office for hours, provided valuable opportunities for socializing and making contacts with people who later gave me entry into a number of social networks, gay and heterosexual [39].
Fancy that! I'm not quite sure whether Carrillo even now recognizes the comic aspects of this anecdote. Professionals writing for professional publication must be quite earnest, even in these postmodern times. At any rate, he never seems to recognize the downside of the professionalization that has overtaken AIDS and GLBT services, in the US and internationally, which was already ascendant when he got involved in AIDS work in the US. Folding brochures is for the "less-skilled volunteers"; I wonder what sort of skills the more-skilled volunteers exercise. Writing grant proposals, maybe, or negotiating with other professionals. I've never reached such skill levels myself, and I've become pretty suspicious of the way that such people take over the organizations, making them more concerned with the comfort levels of the professionals who run them than with serving the needs of their ostensible clientele. But of that, more another time.

Anyway, the other volunteers began asking Carrillo questions over the brochures. In 1993, at any rate, "by my presenting myself forcefully as a successful Mexican who attended graduate school abroad and who had expertise in the field of HIV prevention, people in the room were ready to accept what they thought was a necessity among homosexuals who were professionals: that I might be rather discreet about my sexual orientation" (40). In other words, gay Mexicans had their own "baggage," as Carrillo discovered forcefully, though he never puts it that way. (Why is it that only Americans have cultural baggage in accounts like this?)
For instance, one time I drove him [a younger gay friend called Enrique] to his English school, which was located on a street that was fairly dark and empty at night. I stopped about one hundred feet from the entrance and there was no one around. As Enrique made a motion to step out of the car, I moved to kiss him socially on the cheek, just as I did customarily when I said goodbye to my male friends in San Francisco. His reaction was vehement. Extremely upset by my action, Enrique asked me never to do that again in a public setting. He was very angry and concerned that someone from his school could have seen this happen. When I recovered from the shock of his reaction, I fully empathized with him. I would have done exactly the same when I was his age and living in Mexico City, as I was struggling to accept how to manage disclosure of my sexual orientation [42].
Later on, though, when Carrillo returned to Guadalajara from San Francisco, he
was greeted upon arrival with social kisses at the airport from Enrique and two other friends. This happened in front of a crowd of onlookers, likely most of them heterosexual, who were waiting for their friends and relatives to come out of the customs area. This time I was also shocked because I was not expecting that these men, who were now my friends, would take this deliberate action and turn the banal event of picking me up at the airport into an opportunity to make a statement about gay liberation. I took this to be as much about them as it was about them showing me that change in Mexico is possible. As we crossed, arm in arm, through the crowd that had witnessed this "openly gay" act, and in the absence of any negative reactions, we were all ecstatic about our newly achieved visibility [43].
As Carrillo recognizes, the change in Enrique's behavior probably had as much to do with what might be called "life-cycle" changes in Enrique as in Mexican society. I don't have any direct experience of Mexican culture, but I wonder if "social kisses" between males are always the big deal there that Carrillo makes them out to be, let alone "a statement about gay liberation" and "newly achieved visibility." The US appears to be the most hysterical about male-to-male affection of any society I know, but an airport is probably a bit more cosmopolitan than normal spaces, and social kissing wouldn't necessarily draw a lot of attention unless it was accompanied by screams and feather boas. Besides, even in the US, Carrillo would probably get much the same reaction to a social kiss of another gay man outside San Francisco or other gay enclaves. There is a wide range of out-ness among gay people in the most "liberated" locales.

Carrillo also discusses his experience of homophobia in Mexico, such as the time the police raided a workshop on HIV transmission and risk assessment he had been invited to lead in Guadalajara. They had been informed "that a homosexual orgy was going to happen there that morning" (45), but withdrew when informed that they'd been misinformed, and "the training was able to continue without further incident."

"Perhaps the most blatant form of homophobia that I experienced while in Guadalajara" -- more blatant than a police raid? --
was during a talk to college students in a Jesuit university. ... This university has a reputation for being rather progressive, in part because the Jesuits are regarded as being among the most progressive and socially-conscious among the Catholic orders. The students were great, and they had some good points to make and many questions. What I did not anticipate was the bomb that the professor threw at me in the last minute when, after more than an hour of presentation and conversation with his students, he asked me if I was gay and, upon learning that I was, proceeded to disqualify everything that I had said in class by suggesting, rather directly, that my sexual orientation made me less than credible. This was a blow, and one that stayed with me for days after, because it came from someone who I did not expect could hold gay people in such low regard [46].
I have to remind myself that Carrillo is at an awkward age, gaily speaking: old enough to be an assistant professor, yet too young to remember when it was simply taken for granted that only heterosexuals could be "objective" about homosexuality. (This tactic isn't dead yet.) It might not be appropriate to ask an older colleague in his own classroom if he is straight, and if so, to declare that his opinions on homosexuality are therefore biased and "less than credible" -- or even better, to point to his clerical celibacy as disqualifying him from saying anything about human sexuality, hetero or homo. In Carrillo's place, I'd only have fumed at myself for not having challenged the man's bigotry. Maybe San Francisco is too sheltered an environment? This event could not have occurred more than a few years after the Vatican's PR assaults on the gay movement, attacking antidiscrimination laws and legal recognition of same-sex couples; are the Jesuits so "progressive" that Carrillo could have expected one to dissent that much?

I don't believe so. Carrillo says that
Only once ... did I experience the raw violence of the insults that heterosexual strangers sometimes feel entitled to shout at gay men. As we left a restaurant after a very enjoyable lunch, a car with four young men shouted at us several gay derogatory epithets as they drove by. They did not stop, and this form of violence took place took place in a fleeting moment and rather unexpectedly. ... I thought that it was an important event as part of my research. As an adult I had never before been called names because of my homosexuality, and this was a reminder of what many men and women, particularly those who do not conform to gendered expectations about demeanor, suffer on an ongoing basis [45].
First, I object to the inflationary rhetoric in this account. Language can be upsetting, but if being called names is "raw violence", what can you call being hit in the head with a gun butt? Second, Carrillo has led a charmed and sheltered life if he'd never been called names because of his homosexuality before. Most of us don't escape it by hiding in gay enclaves either. An anecdote of my own: During my first (and so far only) visit to San Francisco about a decade ago, I was waiting for a traffic light to change on Castro Street. A young blond woman, well-dressed, in a shiny red convertible, screeched "Faggots!" as the light changed, and sped away with her tires squealing. This in the very heart of Gay Mecca.

Antigay violence, real violence as opposed to the "raw" kind, is far from unknown in places like San Francisco and New York. If anything, gay enclaves are sitting-duck targets for bigots; people were assaulted as they left one of Bloomington's gay bars, in the heart of the downtown area. If it took being called a maricón in Guadalajara to bring this reality home to Héctor Carrillo, then it was a relatively painless lesson. I wouldn't wish a more painful one on him.

I realize that I probably sound more harshly critical here than I really mean to be. Let me repeat that The Night Is Young was a fine book, and I have great respect for Carrillo's work. The essay I'm dissecting here is intelligent and it's to Carrillo's credit that he reveals his own limitations and ignorance so honestly. It just baffles me that someone can do gay activism and AIDS work in two different countries for decades, and teach at a university to boot, while retaining such deeply rooted ignorance of the day-to-day realities of gay life. (Sometimes I wonder if it's a literary convention of professional writing to be Shocked! shocked! about such things. Sort of like the Ignorant Disciple trope of much spiritual-path writing, which requires that the novice be dumb beyond all credibility so that the Teacher can instruct him -- and the reader -- patiently.) If he were the only person of whom this is true, it wouldn't be worth mentioning here; what bothers me is that the pattern is so common, so widespread. Even worse, it is perpetuated in the publications that still-younger GLBT students will be given to read.