by Ted Kerr
[check out his queer polaroids]
Who gets to disagree with perceived progress within gay communities?
Sitting in a workshop entitled Bringing Sexy Back at the recent National LGBTI Health Summit in the US, the room was engaged largely in a sexy conversation on the semantics on how much they agreed that polyamory should be re-welcomed back into queer culture until one young man swam against the verbal current of the room and stood up for monogamy. The 30 or so people gathered at the session were respectful of him but you could feel even the air in the room seemed to pity him after he spoke.
We live in an age still influenced by homophobia, AIDS phobia and intolerance of difference that leaves gay men to explain to society including the medical profession, the government and the media what they do with their bodies. This tension to report adds stress to conversations within gay communities regarding topics such as barebacking, and polyamory relations. These internal conversations are further troubled by what a friend pointed out to me during the summit, there has been the intellectualization of queer (ness) and AIDS that has emerged in the last 20 years. In light of this I think there is a sense of surveillance within these conversations people are careful to be credible, wanting to be able to justify and validate what they are saying.
In a way, gone is discussion steeped in first person experiences and feelings, in place are theories, and stats. In a way this move towards intellectualizing queer (ness) has benefited progressive thinkers who can reach for academia and queer theory to help back up what they are saying. What I am noticing during many discussion is that largely it is conservative voices that are at a disadvantage since many of them are basing their positions in the personal- their values, their experiences, and their fears. In the face of cool, calm, backed-up, liberal voices, conservative voices often come across as misguided and/or ineffectual. This has got me thinking about the question; who gets to disagree with perceived progress within gay communities?
In theory the answer is everyone is able to disagree. But I think that this is not entirely true. I think that it takes a large amount of social and supportive capital to disagree or share conservative values within the gay/queer context. This capital I mention is what provides someone with the confidence to stand up for what they believe in and know they will be supported if they are ostracized within the discussion. Capital is also the confidence of knowing that you could be right.
I also think that for the most part conservative voices within the gay/queer context come from marginalized communities from within and so are further disadvantaged. The politics of oppression come into play and conservative voices are labeled, judged as being reactionary or to a degree homophobic. Because gay men are being attacked en mass for issues concerning what they do with their body if voices within the gay community then also question what other gay men do with their bodies they are seen as being a voice of the oppressed and are seen to be homophobic and oppressive themselves.
If we step back we can see that there is a thin line between what the majority may be judging gay men for and what gay men may be questioning themselves. But there is a line and as gay men we have the opportunity to question and converse among ourselves about what we do.
I think again about the young man in the Sexy Back session. Sitting there it was obvious that he was overwhelmed by what he was hearing. You could see that notions of sexual liberation 2.0 were bruising the very foundations he had built his gay identity on. In a way coming up and out as gay is for some a series of negotiations of self-acceptance as well as hand picking which lies, myths and truths about the gay experience you are willing to deal with.
For the most part these lies, myths and truths center on promiscuity. In the shadow of AIDS-as-a-crisis there is a mainstream judgment of gay men who have many sexual partners as irresponsible and at the same time there is a fetishization of perceived slutdom both within the gay community and from the straight community. There is a sense for some gay men that having many sexual partners is expected. The young man in the Sexy Back session mentioned this pressure and alluded to the internal work he has had to do to find the truth of the matter for himself along with finding his own personal comfort around articulating that monogamy is important to him. He did not have intellectually rigorous arguments to back himself up. He had his morals and his upbringing to guide him.
I return to the thin line and suggest that for the young man sitting in the Sexy Back room the act of a gay man sleeping around because he feels that society expects it of him and a gay man sleeping around because he wants to looks the same- and maybe it is. The room although respectful of difference was also obviously frustrated with him and his point of view.
I couldn’t help but think that we often confuse localized, internal, focused, conversations about ourselves with larger issues around defying or craving legitimacy from society at large. So engrained in some queer men’s minds are their desires to either oppose or accept mainstream legitimacy that all issues funnel into their relationship with society. Sometimes when we are talking about monogamy or barebacking that is all we are taking about. Maybe we do a disservice by always bringing in a holistic worldview. Sometimes smaller is better.
In the end, in an era where many men bemoan the lack of ‘community’ it is incumbent on us to hear out diverse and opposing voices. While community is built on people coming together it is congealed by diversity and opposing dynamics. Tension creates bonds if respected. As gay men we do not need to justify our actions. We do have an opportunity to silence the surveillance and have conversations among ourselves and be there for each other to see other points of view.