March 6, 2006

Identity: Voice and Visibility

Last Saturday night, after a movie with friends, my friend Jenna and I went to a bar for some drinks. Jenna is my next-door neighbor, and has been dating my roommate from last year for ten months. We’re pretty close. We ordered our drinks at the bar, then made our way to the back, past the pool tables, to a booth to talk about the movie. As we walked past the pool tables, a group of four guys in flannel shirts and scruffy beards checked her out. As we sat down, we heard “Hey cutie—Ditch that fag and come hang out with us.” We ignored them, didn’t even reference their statement except with an eye roll. But throughout our conversation, their male gaze continued and the word ‘fag’ repeated in their conversation, the only intelligible word of their drunken mumblings. It was apparent that they were all about the sexual objectification of my friend and the sexual ‘degradation’ of me. We were both victims. But neither of us did anything.

“Ditch the fag.” With the simple act of walking from the bar to the table, I was already acknowledged, judged and dismissed. It’s hard to tell whether the fag comment came from an accurate gaydar reading on their part, or only the generic insult given to men outside their group, men who look weaker than they. At either rate, the remark is still a cutting one, a definite insult. “Come hang out with real men,” they implied. “Come to our easily defined world where we as the epitome of masculine work out, wear beards and act aggressive. Ditch the guy of dubious morals you are with, he is nothing. Watch as we diminish his self worth with his dismissal as a minority, one below our rule as athletic young white men. He can’t give you what you want, ultimately.” So much is in that one word: fag. I hear the word ‘fag’ and I tense up, always. I hear it from drunk guys and my jaw clenches and my fingers curl into fists, just in case.

But I have no reason to prepare the fight or flight response. I don’t bet much, but if I were in Vegas I’d put the odds on the four solid-looking drunk men rather than the skinny gay guy. I couldn’t have put up much of a fight. I’m not much of a fighter anyway, physically or intellectually. The words never come.

For example, a few weeks ago in one of my English classes, we read and discussed a Minnie Bruce Pratt essay on anti-Semitism and racism. The professor divided the class into small groups. Perhaps segregated would be a better term to use, as all five boys in the class, myself included, were grouped in the back corner while the groups of girls congregated intermitted throughout the class.

The prompt for our small-group discussion was to respond to a question that Pratt asks the reader in “Identity: Skin Blood Heart:” “If you and I met today, reader, on Maryland Avenue, would we speak?” The prompt was simple, with an understood subtext: how do men and women react differently when meeting people in strange and potentially dangerous situations?

Not being one to give in to stereotypes easily, but as a group of guys expected to talk about our feelings, the conversation was sparse and Hemingwayesque, at best.

As we all sat, absentmindedly paging though our books and fumbling for phrases, I overheard the group of girls on our left talking, about how as young women they often don’t feel safe walking home alone late at night, and how there’s an awkward societal disjunction as young women, walking alone in the evenings, how they tense up and become hyperaware of their surroundings, their minds start racing about rape whistles, mace, and making fake calls on their cell phones for the illusion of company.

I sat, and was listening to the other group, and I realized how much I identified with the women, as a gay man, as opposed to the other straight guys in the group. I hate it when that happens, being in the middle in a male/female dichotomy. Identifying, or at least relating more to a feminine frame of mind, is really not what a young gay man likes to associate himself with. By saying that we as gay men are somewhere in the middle, it means that I’m less of a man. I’ve seen the bad movies from the fifties, and read enough bildungsromans to know that it wasn’t long ago when I would have been called a ‘sissy boy’ or a ‘girlyman.’ Even though those words have, for the most part, been delegated to period pieces in favor of angrier insults like “homo” or “faggot,” I still feel resentment when the comparison to femininity is made.

That being said, girls and gay men have a lot of societal issues in common. While girls must maintain the constructed persona of the pure and innocent, virginal woman in order to keep up society’s expectations, gay men must keep their libidos and their sexual advances in check, not flirting with anyone who would beat them up and leave them in an alley; gay men are expected to ‘pass.’ While women have to be careful walking home at night, and hope not to get kidnapped and sexually assaulted, gay men have to be careful walking home at night, and hope not to get kidnapped and crucified on a chain link fence in the outskirts of the Wyoming prairie. Women have to deal with catcalls and whistles as they walk past. Gay men have to pretend not to hear the word ‘faggot’ muttered under breaths.

If the enemy of my enemy is my ally, then women and gay men are on the same side. We both walk the streets like Red Riding Hood, needing to be wary of the Big Bad Wolves: the drunken frat boys and the Reactionary Conservatives. But our shared villains attack us with different weapons: rufies versus baseball bats, legislation against birth control versus legislation against equal rights, delegation to the domestic sphere or to the closet. But while women are fighting for equal wages and family-friendly workplaces, gay men are fighting for equal rights and anti-discrimination laws, the right to have families in the first place. We are too weak to make significant strides separately, and our problems are too varied to join our forces.

As I was thinking this, forming the words of my internalized monologue while paging through the essay, I was thinking about why I didn’t want to open my mouth in class, and try and explain myself It’s easy to understand why I let it slide at the bar that night, but this is different. Arguing the finer points of sexual preference with predatory drunk guys is one thing, but why wouldn’t I mention this in class, in a controlled environment, with sober young men who were at least open-minded enough to sign up for a class dealing with sexuality. I’m usually much more open about my sexuality, at least with my friends, especially when it comes to my neuroses and sexual experiences. Well, not sexual experiences, but experiences when my sexuality has dictated the tone in a less-than-flattering way, when I have to be more conscious of my sexual preference that most other people have to be, ever. The vulnerability of gay men is a unique experience, one that’s hard to put into words, only instincts. There are certain bars that I refuse to go to anymore, after walking in and not feeling safe; I’ll definitely think twice the next time we go to that bar, if we go at all. I transferred schools after my freshman year when my passive-aggressive roommate left homophobic messages on our whiteboard: Silly Faggot, Dicks are for Chicks and tore down the HRC sticker I had up. There are times when, like girls, I have to be superaware of my surroundings when walking home alone and bumping into strangers. If girls are ‘asking for it’ by dressing and acting like sluts, then gay men are ‘asking for it’ by their clothing and demeanor as well. I worry about straightening my posture, maintaining stoic hips, and widening my stance, butch it up so that I feel more secure. I have to wonder if my jeans are baggy enough, my shirt is loose enough, my shoes more sporty than classy. Even if Madison is a different place from where I grew up, the much-hyped liberal hub of the Midwest, things aren’t exactly perfect here, either.

In January 2006, four students were arrested and charged with felonies for sexually harassing a GLBT liaison in one of the dorms. They woke him up around 3 in the morning by banging on his door and screaming, “I hate fucking faggots! Die!” They spit on his door, made threats for his life on the whiteboard on his door, and went around the building, ripping down posters that advocated GLBT events and activities. Editorials in the school newspaper about the event ranged from decrying the hate-crime laws to students angry that the fact in the paper it mentioned that two of the suspects were members of a local fraternity, giving Greek life a bad name, from alumni saying that this was the definition of a mountain being forged from a molehill thanks to the socialist attitudes of the city to explanations that the only reason the story was in the newspaper was due to the dry news spell that happens at the beginnings of most semesters. I didn’t read anything about how terrifying that must have been to wake up to death threats, about being harassed for doing your job, trying to foster a welcoming community for those living in the dorms and becoming a victim. I read nothing that took his side.

But I didn’t write a letter to the editor taking his side, either.

I didn’t stand up for myself and for gay men at the bar, in class, or in the local media. Three times, and in three different situations did my voice fail me, and yet each time I thought about it. I thought about it, but decided against it. Why? I’m an English major, with a double minor in creative writing and GLBT studies, and yet the words never come when dealing about my own sexuality. I’m in denial. I just don’t want to deal with it. I’m not good at putting my personal into the political. I always want that distance, that buffer, if only for my own imagined security.

I’m at the point where I just want to be me, I just want to ‘pass’ in the heterosexual, ‘regular’ world. This is a society where gay is the ultimate buzzword, in politics and in the media. Being part of such a visible minority can end up being stifling, where I always feel expected to be political, to be the entertainment, to live up to stereotypes, to speak up in class to give the ‘gay’ interpretation of the reading. I want the invisibility, the ability to join the norm, or at least pass as a member of the norm at times. It’s not so much as a desire to renounce my sexuality, but to be able to lose that as my master status, to reposition my identity, or have others reposition their thoughts on my identity, to ‘go back into the closet’ socially, at least. I won’t have to deal with feeling obligated to talk about it, in bars, in class, anywhere.

(Edit. This is a rough draft of a paper I'm writing for my English class, a creative nonfiction essay contrasting the political and personal. Besides, it beats yet another post about how Brokeback Mountain lost the Best Picture Oscar last night.)
Here lies a most ridiculous raw youth, indulging himself in the literary graces that he once vowed to eschew. Now he just rocks out.