Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Swish Beneath the Swagger: Liberating Our Queer Selves

Fans keep asking, "Brent—why no blog entry last week?" 

Actually, no one asked. But I create these little scenarios in order to justify writing another post at midnight when I should be sleeping. The answer to this koan is, I've been busy looking for full-time work, like a lot of folks these days. My hippie friends (that's most of my friends) insist it's because of Mercury retrograde. According to them, computers and other tech devices fail when Mercury seems to move backwards (as seen from Earth) several times each Earth year. 

It's a bad time to use electronic devices or sign contracts they tell me. I tell them I need to find a job.  Did Mercury make my computer crash, really? I tend to think it's because I make computers break by looking at them. Either way, I'm grateful to some wonderful friends for their help and support in getting back online. 

Owing to all this busy-ness, I haven't had time to report on some of my recent wanderings yet, so in the meantime I'm trotting out an older essay of mine. It made waves when it first appeared in the Bay Times in 2008 (I received more angry letters to the editor than just about any other editorial that year!) and led to my participation as an interviewee in the film The Butch Factor, now on DVD and appearing on the LOGO Network.

Christopher Hines, the multitalented director of The Butch Factor, a documentary about gay men's relationship with masculinity and with themselves, first saw my article in its longer form, "Queer Liberation? No Thanks, We'll Pass." The think piece first appeared on queer scholar and dandy phenom Trevor Hoppe's fabulous academic/populist online journal, Beyond Masculinity—which is also well-designed, clean and pretty, especially when you compare it to other academic-type sites. I  then went on to present "Queer Liberation?" at Hunter College in New York City at the "Twilight of Queer" conference in 2008. (Trevor, BTW, also appears as an interviewee in The Butch Factor, bringing a refreshingly un-butch irreverence to the doc.) 

An mp3 of me reading the essay (at about 15 minutes—not for sissies!) is available for free download here.

Or, you can read the shorter version here, edited by Lewis Nightingale, who coordinates the Bay Times' "Sparks!" column through his association with The Community Initiative, a local nonprofit whose mission is to help gay and queer men find community and thereby lessen depression, HIV risk, and the many other deleterious effects of isolation. The Community Initiative regularly sponsors support groups, retreats, political actions, and panel discussion. This Thursday, the Community Initiative is hosting a panel discussion titled "The State of Gay Media in SF" at 7pm at the GLBT Historical Society, 657 Mission Street #300 (between 3rd and New Montgomery). It's sure to get lively.

And now, here's that article I promised...

The Swish Beneath the Swagger: Liberating Our Queer Selves

Published: January 3, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Times

photo by Rink for SF Bay Times

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I've witnessed many of my gay brothers metaphorphose over time. Now 32 [34 now] and having been outand politically active in the gay community here for half of my life, I often run into the skinny, soft boys I knew from queer youth groups in Hayward, Berkeley and Oakland, newly transformed into hulking Adonises. I even occasionally see some of them at the gym, where I seem to spend as much time as they do. We’ve abandoned our dreams of turning heterosexist norms on their heads and embracing our deviance. After years of trying to be accepted by our straight peers, we gave up and ran for the hills of San Francisco. There, we learned the same lesson over again that was drummed into our skulls as kids: If you want to make it in the world, kid, you’d better turn that swish into a swagger.
Despite living in what many refer to as the “Gay Mecca,” I still feel an intense pressure to conform, and the rules eerily resemble the ones that the jocks used to enforce in gym class. Don’t move your hands too much when you talk. Don’t lisp. Don’t smile or make eye contact with other boys (well, with one new proviso: only if you want to have sex with them). And don’t let anyone accuse you of being a 90-pound weakling. Get big, big, big. Size matters.
The Castro is full of men who are on their way to or returning from the gym. A lot of these guys would get winded just from walking to their mailbox, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. They’ve made a career out of pumping iron, all in the ironic effort to emulate the thugs who pantsed them in the schoolyard.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m certainly not immune. I understand the desire to be considered attractive and healthy, but there’s something frightening about a community of men who are bulking up their bodies to achieve some predetermined definition of masculine perfection, meanwhile neglecting the fragile psyches that drove them there in the first place. When I visit the Castro, I see a lot of hurt little boys hiding inside the suits of armor they’ve created. As gay men, I think it’s time we ask ourselves: What is the armor for? What, or whom, are we protecting ourselves from? From gay-bashers? Doubtful. If Stonewall taught us nothing else, it taught us that an artfully thrown beer bottle is far more effective at deterring physical assault than a high-definition six-pack. No, we’re protecting ourselves from one another - that is, we’re protecting ourselves from being rejected by other gay men. Having left our homes and old lives behind, we need desperately to find love and acceptance, and the possibility of being rejected yet again, by yet another community, for being soft and effeminate - or even sick, dirty, or contagious - is too much to bear. So we head to the gyms, there to sculpt physiques that look strong and healthy. Then we go to the locker rooms, where we keep our heads down and hone our finely tuned peripheral vision, just as we did in high school. If we make connections there at all, it is in the steamrooms, where faces and eyes are obscured.
It’s a sad tale, I know, and one I fear will add a new label to my already-chafing nape: cynic. Am I risking ostracism yet again? Who wants to be around a cynic, after all? After all those hours I’ve spent in the gym, the last thing I want to do is earn the scorn of other gay men. But if I am critical, it’s because I’m an idealist. It’s because I love men, and gay men in particular. And I think we can contribute more than we currently do - to ourselves, to each other, to the broader culture. I believe our presence as queer outsiders in a heteronormative world is illuminating. But we can only bring our own kind of light to the world if we are, in fact, present - here, now. Present to the reality that we will never gain political, social, or personal acceptance by disappearing ourselves, subsuming ourselves to bland, outmoded notions of masculine identity.
Queer liberation means being accepted as we are. For that to happen, we must each start by accepting, and being, fully ourselves - masculine, feminine, somewhere in the middle, or maybe somewhere entirely outside of the gender binary. We’re almost there, too. In coming out of the closet, we jettisoned expectations about who we were supposed to be in order to find out who we really were. Along the way, many of us gathered with other gay men in urban enclaves. And although it’s understandable that once there, we reverted to imposing those old, familiar expectations on each other, that strategy hasn’t brought us any closer to personal or political liberation. It’s time to make a change.
It’s time to let go of those tired old expectations and give ourselves permission to be who we really are. This will require letting go of a lot of fear, the fear that drove us into the closet in the first place: the fear that we would be punished for failing to be just like the other guys in the locker room. But guess what? Now we are just like the other guys in the locker room, in the gyms we’ve made for ourselves in places like the Castro - so why are we still afraid? If we let go of the fear and look each other in the eye, we will see ourselves in each other. We will see the beautiful, queer, imperfect boys - and men - that we were meant to be all along.