One of the happiest days of my life was the one a couple of years ago when I stopped writing a bi-weekly column for a gay magazine, Etcetera, which has since gone out of business.
I wrote the column, called "Out of Bounds," seven years and, although I knew it would be controversial because of my natural tendency to be a provocateur, I was unprepared for the sheer animosity I often drew from other gay people.
I found that as long as I kept things light and funny, people were complimentary. But the moment I criticized the usual political agendas of the '90s, I became the anti-Christ. In other words, many gay people treated me exactly the way the dominant culture has long treated gay people. Keep quiet, be pleasant and amusing, and you'll be fine. Start departing from the norm and you'll become a loudmouth who needs silencing.
Explicitly open sexual behavior, even its description, is the most unacceptable and the dominant culture has long attempted to castrate gay people. Given psychology's pathologizing, religion's demonizing and the state's criminalizing of sex with a member of your own gender, gay men and lesbians until very recently could not openly express the very sexual difference that identifies them.
And when gay people refused to go away, there developed the inane love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin argument. By its logic, one can safely identify as gay as long as one doesn't have sex or disclose it. That leads to policies like the military's don't ask, don't tell. If abstinence or closeting of desire fail, then the sex has to be treated as a dirty joke. One readily sees how ineffective such strategies are. The exclusionary military policy, which is routinely abandoned in times of crisis, has resulted in discharges for homosexuality in excess of the number before its adoption. I doubt it's a coincidence, too, that in a culture that insists on a new recloseting of sexual desire or treating it like a dirty joke, the incidence of HIV infection among the young continues to increase.
What could be simpler to understand? No matter how much you allow gay people to become otherwise visible, if you try to make their sexual difference invisible, you create a new variety of the closet that, like all oppression, produces more suffering.
That many gay people themselves have bought into this weird blend of denial and oppression in the interest of appearing "normal" is perplexing. For a while, I routinely watched other columnists I knew to be as promiscuous as me write screeds trying to foist "family values" on gay people or pathologize the exuberant sex lives of other men. The ultimate case was Andrew Sullivan, whose book Virtually Normal advocated "normalization" of homosexuality and set marriage and military service as the gay political agendas of the '90s. Sullivan, a devout Catholic, was cautious enough to mention (if understate) his own exuberant sex life in his writing but turned out to be practicing the most radical form of gay sex around: unprotected anal sex as an HIV-positive male.
It was my opposition to desexualizing and normalizing of gay identity -- calling the right to marry a trivial goal in a world where gay kids like Matthew Shepard are murdered, for example -- that brought the most anger on me from other gay people during my Etcetera years. I've been thinking about this because the annual gay Pride celebration is coming up June 27-29. The degree to which sexual behavior should be openly exhibited at the Pride festival is a perennial issue. Conservative gay people complain that they want to take their mamas to Pride but are horrified when men in leather wave at the crowd with sex toys or transsexuals and thong-wearing drag queens show up at all. Of course, it doesn't seem to occur to such people that their mamas might be capable of realizing that their Abercrombie-and-Fitch baby boy isn't going to become a piss slave, just because a leather master appears in the same festival.
Still, it was something of a surprise even to me that when a friend applied to advertise his Internet sex site at the market held during this year's Pride, he was told his deposit was being returned because the event has become a family affair. How then to explain that among the sponsors of the event are a phone sex service and two magazines with advertising for sexual services? Happily, the Pride powers reversed their decision -- after I made an inquiry -- but how depressing that their initial response was to accommodate the puritanical ambience Mayor Shirley Franklin's administration has brought to the city rather than protesting it.
One of gay people's function in culture is to demonstrate that the active expression of the erotic, in all its weirdness, is healthy. We have as much, perhaps more, of value to teach the dominant culture in that respect than we have to gain by the culture's granting us the right to marry because we look so normal.
During the next few weeks, I'll be examining various aspects of gay culture as Pride approaches.
Cliff Bostock, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in depth psychology. His website is www.soulworks.net.
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