Friday, October 18, 2013

The Dating Plan for Broadening Your Horizons

The primary reason I went to San Francisco in August was to attend another meeting of the Gay Men's Salon.  This session, the third I've attended, was on race, racism, and diversity in the gay community.  About forty men attended, and the discussion was wonderful.  It's a credit to the organizers that they were able to structure it so as to give people a chance to speak seriously about a touchy subject.  This was the second meeting dedicated to this topic, and it looks like there will be more.

There was a divide between those who thought of the problem in terms of individuals -- fear, ignorance, resistance to change, avoidance of difference -- and those who thought in terms of systems.  I tend to stress the latter myself, but I recognize that they're ultimately inseparable.  Among the many problems we touched on was the question of "interracial dating" -- not only between whites and non-whites, as one participant pointed out, but between different groups of non-whites.  This is certainly an important matter, especially in a multiracial city like San Francisco, and the discussion was at its best when we were talking about the problem, telling each other our experiences, and listening to each other.  Since I know I'm prone to talk too much, I worked hard to listen to the other men in my subgroup, and I learned a lot, some of it profoundly depressing; maybe I don't want to move to San Francisco after all.

But it bothered me toward the end of the meeting, during the concluding summaries, that some of the other discussants put dating at the forefront of ways to deal with racism.  A couple of people urged everyone to date outside your comfort zone, learn to accept difference, broaden your horizons, and so on.  This was the gospel they thought we should carry to the world outside the discussion group.  (Since most of the men present were, almost by definition, already aware of racism as a problem in American society -- including gay male San Francisco society -- and had come to this meeting specifically to move outside our comfort zones, this advice was mainly preaching to the choir.)

I've heard this kind of advice before, and maybe, when I was much younger, might have given it myself.  But some of the men who offered it last night were my age and older.  Do we really want someone to date us in order to broaden his horizons?  Hi, I'm going out with you as part of my personal journey to become a better person by accepting change, overcoming my fear, and rubbing up against difference; so please hold still for a few minutes while I suppress my discomfort enough to rub up against your difference...  Many of us -- gay white men, as well as people of color -- have had the experience of being used by others to educate themselves, not to mention showing others how evolved and enlightened they were: See? I have homosexual / Negro / Oriental friends, I am not narrow-minded and prejudiced.  See how exotic / graceful / witty they are!  This is an old problem that has been worked over for at least a century.  (I recently read the first volume of the Library of America set of Harlem Renaissance Novels, and got to see white allies of the Negro again through the eyes of their proteges.)

I have mixed feelings about being used like this; in some ways it bothers me less now than it did when I was younger.  It is one way of getting through barriers that otherwise might remain in place.  We all need education, gay people as well as straight, and those who are willing ought to do the educating.  But while friendship, dating, romance, sex, and so on are helpful, they aren't enough.  You also need to educate yourself.  One advantage of being a reader, promiscuous or not, is that you can learn a lot and prep yourself for dealing with real people without making a fool of yourself too much.  You can learn the history, and Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog posts at the Atlantic are an easy, accessible, excellent source for that as he shares his reading on American race history with his readers.  This post is a good place to start; then maybe this one.  (I don't know of anyone who's doing this kind of writing about gay people.  Maybe I should try.) You can learn in advance what not to say, what ten greatest well-meaning liberal faux pas to avoid.  If you're lucky enough to have a friend or friendly acquaintance who's willing to educate you, fine, but it's only considerate not to push their indulgence too far.

Of course, people who see interracial romance as one path to the end of racism mean well.  They surely don't mean (do they?) that we should grit our teeth, maybe take some Xanax, and spend a lousy evening trampling on each other's (metaphorical) toes from clumsiness and resentment at having to do this.  It doesn't have to be this way.  The second man I dated was African-American.  (The first, a white boy from deepest Southern Indiana, was almost as different from me as his successor.)  I didn't respond to his overtures to broaden my horizons, but because he was beautiful and he wanted me.  We saw each other several times in my first year away at college, but we never got to know each other all that well; my fault primarily, or if not I'm willing to take all the responsibility.  But I didn't see it as his responsibility to teach me anything (except to kiss, which he did very well).  If he had talked about it, I'd have listened -- despite my own love of talking, I'm a good and interested listener -- but I don't remember it ever coming up.  When I've dated Asian men, they sometimes asked me "Do you like Oriental men?", but it seemed more a flirtatious than a serious question, since I was after all dating them.

But this is why I insist that people have the right to date, and have sex with, and have relationships, those people they want.  Desire isn't rational.  As I've said before, no one has to have a "good" (rational?) reason not to want to have sex with me, nor do I have to have a "good" reason not to want to have sex with someone else.  But this doesn't excuse bigotry.  I've had weird discussions with gay men who would attack, for example, "stereotypical" men in the most hostile, even bigoted terms.  When I or someone else called them on it, they would say hypocritically that they were sorry, they just weren't attracted to such men.  That wasn't the problem, however, because what they'd been saying up to that point had been more about attacking such men's mere existence.

The other side of this is what's often referred to as "fetishizing" race.  Yeah, it happens, but it happens in all directions, intraracially as well as interracially.  (Tom of Finland's drawings are the visual equivalent.)  People often talk in fetishlike terms about the people they find attractive and romantic.  Clearly I'm not the only person who finds this practice unappealing, but a lot of people use it to excite themselves and, hopefully, the people they're pursuing.  I don't know how often it works, but if it turns a man on to do it, he probably doesn't care much whether it excites the man or woman he's courting.  On the other hand, I presume it works sometimes; maybe some people are excited by that kind of approach, or maybe they simply figure that someone who uses it is horny, easy, and easily disposable afterwards.

For example, in the mid-1990s a gay Asian-American academic quoted this e-mail message he'd received "from a self-described 'rice queen'":
Hi, they say opposites attract, so I am looking for an unabashed snow queen with nice patties!  To rest upon my snowey [sic] slopes ... I have written to over fifteen Asians on this BBS but none of them has replied.  Can you give me some helpful hints?  Don't worry, I can take critisisms [sic].*
When I showed this note to a white heterosexual female friend, she snorted, "They should see what men say to women!"  As I already said, such language is common in human courtship rituals and discourse about sexuality, interracial and intraracial. When Terrance Dean and E. Lynn Harris write about black men who desire other black men, the style is similar, or at any rate analogous.  Gay male bottoms fetishize gay male tops, lesbian femmes fetishize themselves, black men fetishize black women, and gay Asian-American men fetishize "white knights" until they decide to become "sticky rice" and fetishize other Asian men. (Imagine someone asking you "Are you sticky?" as a conversational opener.)  Something of the same kind must have been involved in classical Asian male homosexualities, such as the cult of cross-dressed boy actors in Japan and imperial China: both countries produced moist verse celebrating the charms of boys in drag.  And the clumsy, offensive come-on is a staple of heterosexual comedy.

Notice that the "rice queen" acknowledged that his approach wasn't successful: "over fifteen Asians" had already ignored his overtures.  Even leaving politics out of it, you'd think that a minimally sentient adult would figure out that his line wasn't working.  If you want something from someone -- access to his or her body or mind, say -- isn't it obviously prudent to try to treat them with respect and interest, even if you have to fake it?  Evidently not, though the rice queen may have thought he was behaving respectfully.  But so much of human courtship behavior seems to be based on aggression and insult, on the assumption that a prospective partner must be tricked or harassed into complying.  ("You've got something I want, therefore I hate you, so you should give it to me.")

The recipient of the rice queen's missive goes on:
Why are Asian males the subject of desire of so-called rice queens?  A Japanese American I met on the board wrote in his short-lived print newsletter, Daisuki-Men, that there are three reasons: China Doll syndrome (i.e., Asian males are seen as feminine); perception that Asians are submissive; and the rice queens' obsession with things Asian (as indicated by decorating their residences with Asian knock knacks).
As usual in complaints about the rice queen phenomenon, the possibility that desire plays a role -- that Asian men might be sexually attractive to Caucasian men -- isn't considered.  The gay Asian men I've known uniformly and derisively dismiss the notion that rice queens are all tops looking to penetrate submissive Asian males.  Even Richard Fung, the author of a widely circulated paper on images of Asian men in gay pornography, admitted that when he talked with other gay Asian men "of what actually happened when we had sex with white men", they discovered "that we don’t play out that [submissive] role and are very rarely asked to." **  There's a lot of racism and homophobia in this discourse: racism, in the (barely) unspoken assumption that people of different races could not possibly desire each other sincerely, but only work out scenarios of dominance and submission between them; homophobia, in the idea that all sex between males involves the abjection of the receptive partner by the insertive one.  There's an obvious contradiction here between the corollary that gay men should stick to their own "race," and the result that Asian men will then be degrading each other sexually instead of being degraded by white men. 

I haven't seen as much discussion of the "rice queen" in the past few years.  I suspect that as a generation of American-born Asian gay men has come of age, they've found their way into gay communities of their age peers, and struggled to mainstream themselves.  That doesn't mean racism isn't still a problem for them, but it does mean there are more of them in the community, so they're less of an exotic anomaly there, and being culturally American they're a bit harder to stereotype.  But I'm speculating here, from too little data.

A reader of this blog has asked me to write about interracial dating, especially between Asian and Caucasian men, and I've put it off partly because it's such a big subject on the one hand, and seems like a no-brainer on the other: of course people of different "races" should date each other if they want to.  Culture is a bigger obstacle to getting along, as well as different experiences with racism.  If a relationship lasts, the partners surely will learn from each other, but I don't know if that's a good reason to get involved in the first place.  On the other hand, people don't have to date interracially if they don't want to either.  This post isn't my official Interracial Dating post, though; I hope to write that before too much longer.

The queer anarchist writer Paul Goodman wrote forty-odd years ago:
I recall when Growing Up Absurd having had a number of glowing reviews, finally one irritated critic, Alfred Kazin, darkly hinted that I wrote about my Puerto Rican delinquents because I was queer for them.  Naturally.  How could I write a perceptive book if I didn't pay attention, and why should I pay attention to something unless it interested me?  The motivation of most sociology, whatever it is, tends to produce worse books.***
I loved this when I first read it, just as I loved the passage from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus where one character informs another that interest is a greater emotion than love.  I was young and naive then.  Later I learned that sexual desire doesn't necessarily inspire interest in its objects: for many people it seems to block interest, as the lover plugs the beloved into his or her fantasies.  Besides, interest can stand alone, without Eros to drive it.  There's always friendship, for example, and neighborliness.  I think that interest in the experiences of other people, without an eye toward possible rewards for ourselves, would go a long way toward ameliorating and even eradicating racism in America, but it must include intellectual interest and curiosity, not just the sexual or romantic varieties.  That also means recognizing that being nice to each other, and interested in each other, while good things in themselves, won't eliminate the systematic institutional racism that permeates American society and does so much harm.

* Daniel C. Tsang, "Notes on Queer 'N' Asian Virtual Sex," in Russell Leong (ed.), Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience (Routledge, 1996), p. 159.

** Richard Fung, “Looking for My Penis.” In Bad Object Choices (ed), How Do I Look?: queer film and video (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991). Reprinted in Russell Leong (ed.), Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience (Routledge, 1996), where this quotation appears on p.  194.  Fung's paper is cited and his analysis of the depiction of Asian men in gay North American pornography is quoted in virtually everything I've read about gay Asians, but this passage, which undercuts his argument, is never quoted.  I'll say more about that if I ever finish my big post on the subject.

*** Paul Goodman, "Memoirs of an Ancient Activist," originally published in WIN magazine in 1969 and reprinted in varying versions over the years.  I quote the version in Len Richmond and Gary Noguera (eds.), The Gay Liberation Book (Ramparts Press, 1973), 28-29.  I later tracked down Kazin's review of Growing Up Absurd, curious to see what "darkly hinting" looked like, but I can't find any such insinuation, either in the original magazine review or in the book republication.