Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Straight vs. "Straight": Burning Down The Closet


I always felt like "a tomboy", not "a real boy". As such, I often fail to realize how “gay” I apparently seem to people. Never was I more unaware than during my four years at an all-boys’ Catholic high school. In my head, it was as though a straight girl had tricked everyone into thinking she was a boy and gotten into the almighty halls of hotness. At that age I aligned myself with twenty-something females who grew up in the 80s. I also I talked and acted like a girl in an 80s movie throughout my freshman year, even though I was now calling myself "Bob"As I slowly came out of the closet in high school, I became increasingly enmeshed in a more masculine image. Or, at least, I tried. I wanted to better the world by being the embodiment of a “gay tough guy”, an act I could never pull off since it only works when it’s authentic.



December 1999: The Peak of "Bob"

For years I’ve fought to remind people that guys with no relation to or interest in the hallmarks of “gay culture” can come out of the closet, too. This all originated from my experiences at St. John’s Prep. Personally, I have never associated my love of Madonna, Bette Davis, and the color pink with being a male homosexual. I don’t think that a straight man can’t be fond of such things. Quite the contrary, I pity our misogynistic culture for being resistant to such a concept. I associate it with having a fondness for femininity and fun. I associate the fact that I want to have sex with men with being a male homosexual. I take pride in my voracious sexual appetite because EVERYONE should. For one thing, it’s not about body lust—like Bette Davis, I can only be fulfilled if I’m convinced I’m in love with the person. But that person has to be a man. It’s how I am “wired”, physically. When I see a beautiful woman I react with awe and appreciation, because I LOVE beauty. But when I see a beautiful man my appreciation of beauty is subverted by the physical sensations that run through my body. There’s a lot of lust buried beneath the Catholic guilt and New England soil running through my veins. I’m helpless to it, and am certain I would be regardless of my gender or orientation. 

I hope this paper won't offend anyone, for while the message remains the same, the delivery was colored by loneliness. BITTER loneliness. But from the ashes of that hurt came the start of my personal mission when it comes to LGBT issues: to obliterate that fucking closet once and for all.

Robert E. Jeffrey 4/2/03

Intercultural Communications: Prof. Monique Meyers

     Gay or “Straight”:

Men and Homosexuality in 21st Century America



I spent a great deal of time trying to come up with a topic for this assignment. I went back and forth between issues that mattered a great deal to me, but were only vaguely related to the course objectives, and issues that would click with a more politically correct sensibility but with which I felt very little personal connection. Eventually I came back to an issue that has stirred my interest for the past several years. It is not an issue that pertains to my own culture or identity, but rather an issue facing a culture of which I am not a part, a culture that I am somewhat self-ostracized from.  The cultural issue that piqued my interest is the ramifications of the so-called “gay community” for heterosexual men questioning their sexuality.

The concept of “gay culture as threat” was borne from two conversations with close friends of mine over the past eight months. Both friends come from totally different social circles, have no contact with each other, and were totally unaware of the fact that the other had come forward to me with nearly the same confessions and suggestions. Both of these friends were people with whom I had felt open enough to disclose my own homosexuality. Both individuals were very accepting of this facet of my identity, but neither their response nor any other behavior would suggest that both men were actually going through their own sexual identity crisis before, during, and after my own coming out to them. I would learn this only when each of these men, on different occasions, contacted me through either phone or Internet interested in experimenting with me in gay sex.

The first friend who propositioned having sex with me underlined that it was part of an attempt to take his gay yearnings and “get it out of his system”. The second would, within a matter of hours, not only regret suggesting our having a sexual encounter (an understandable afterthought), but he even regretted ever telling me in the first place that he had ever felt any kind of gay feelings (a less understandable regret, as I felt the admission was a newfound form of openness and honesty). It was at this point that I realized my necessity to further explore this issue, though not with these two individuals; neither wanted to resurrect their respective situation, and both emphatically declined any further participation in this project.

In both cases, these individuals were, supposedly, under the influence of some form of narcotic. The first person claimed to have been high on cocaine, while the second assured me that his statements were made while heavily intoxicated.  At the respective times of their contacting me, both had been involved in a steady relationship with a girlfriend with whom they had been with for a period of several years. Both indicated that they are predominantly attracted to females, but occasionally find themselves fantasizing about members of the same sex. While the first individual stated that he had never shared any kind of physical intimacy with another man, the second individual admitted to having had a number of sexual encounters with older men since the age of 18. In each case, he had met them discreetly after having corresponded with them for an unspecified period of time through the Internet. And according to what he said, despite this activity having gone on for approximately three years, I was the first person to whom he had ever revealed this dark secret.

I began to question whether the notion of “gayness” itself as we in the 21st Century perceive it is what is in fact so threatening to questioning and closeted individuals living under the guise of a straight identity. I wondered if many of these people were afraid to come out because they did not feel a part of the culture that is branded as being “gay” by so many homosexuals themselves. I wondered if the commonality in homosexual circles to use terms like 'queer' and 'queen' and 'dyke', reference films for camp value, and label anyone with a taste for high art as a likely homosexual may in fact threaten many individuals, offering a negative portrayal of the gay community, despite the attempts at quite the contrary.

One of the most interesting resources I was able to search through for a definition of “gay culture” was the book Queer, a 2002 coffee-table gay cultural studies work written by Simon Gage, Lisa Richards, and Howard Wilmot, with a foreword by Boy George. Endearing, highly entertaining, and well-intentioned though it is, the book also serves to reiterate all too well the very images that have come to often negatively define the homosexual population. Presented in a loose, scrapbook style, the book is a compilation of lists, essays, Q&A sessions, and biographies which all somehow serve to illuminate every aspect of gay culture. Queer seems intended to offer a virtual summation of gay culture in contemporary Western society, but in many ways proves so blatantly stereotypical that it could have been written as an anti-gay satire piece.

In Chapter 1 of Queer, the authors present a “Top 10” list of “made-for-straight flicks…that queer cinema-lovers just can’t resist” (Gage, Richards, Wilmot 30), something which I felt was most representative of the general tone and decidedly mixed message of the whole book. The films selected consist of Mommie Dearest, G.I. Jane, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Fried Green Tomatoes, Showgirls, Cabaret, Wizard of Oz, Serial Mom, All About Eve, and Thelma and Louise. The list consists of several renowned Hollywood classics, but their selection seems influenced less by stature than by potential kitsch appeal. The authors state that the film All About Eve’s “key elements of self-invention, transformation, and utter bitchiness that appeal to the homos”, and that “the overblown acting and showbiz glamour meant that the only people making up the bums on seats were the homos” in theaters showing the film Showgirls (Gage, Richards, Wilmot 31). 
                 Despite being written as a piece of gay-themed humor, I was struck by the impression that readers would likely come away with; specifically, that homosexuals like to watch English language, female-driven comedy/dramas that are loaded with kitsch and great to make fun of. To suggest such a narrow definition of “gay interest” is to suggest such a narrow demographic, and that this narrow demographic is intended to represent a significant portion of the population suggests little variation in this group of people. With homosexuals coming from all genders, countries, classes, races, ethnicities, and religions, interests in film would most likely be as varied as spiritual beliefs or shades of skin. The list and its text, while certainly amusing, ultimately ascribes to an entire group of people certain interests--and, by presupposition, traits that should inspire such interest—that simply does not represent the many varied interests and predilections of people born from so many different cultures and subcultures.

In the world of sports, homosexuality has always been a significant, if oft unspoken, cultural element. From the supposed homoeroticism of physical contact in male athletics to the controversial role of homophobia and anti-gay vitriol or violence, there is no question that the whole notion of gay men in sports is as provocative today as it was throughout the whole 20th century. In his 1998 book Jocks, Dan Woog, an openly gay author and soccer coach, examines the personal struggles of gay athletes in contemporary America. In a chapter entitled “The Suicidal Jock”, Woog tells the story of a young man named Greg, who is conflicted about his roles as “athlete” and “gay man”. As a high school student in the early 1990s, Greg lived what would seem an ideal image of an American teen male: a star athlete in soccer, lacrosse, and skiing; member of a church group; grade-A student; and the recipient of an academic/athletic honor from then President George Bush. However, and despite his string of steady girlfriends, Greg was a deeply closeted homosexual (Woog 92). In high school, Greg chose to respond to his homosexual yearnings by pursuing sex with women, assuming that “the more sex he had with women, the straighter he would become…but that approach never seemed to work” (Woog 92).

In college, Greg began to explore his previously repressed homosexual yearnings, but his search yielded little fulfillment. When Greg approached the student leader of the school’s gay alliance organization to confide in someone his most buried secrets, the student began trying to hit on Greg, seemingly using Greg’s vulnerability as a means of seduction (Woog 92). Greg found that the “gay people he saw on campus were ‘flamey’ or arrogant or used drugs” (Woog 92), and “seeing so many ‘flamboyant’ people…turned Greg off” (Woog 94). Greg “considers himself a jock” (Woog 96) and had thought “college would be a place to meet other gay jocks…with whom he could talk openly about anything” (Woog 95). Quite to the contrary, Greg found that his fellow athletes were all straight and often relentlessly homophobic. Despite this, Greg actually engaged in sexual activity with several of his “straight” lacrosse and soccer teammates, though “there was always an uneasy feeling that for [these teammates] it was nothing more than a sexual release” (Woog 95).

Unable to fuse his identities as an athlete and a homosexual, during Greg’s college years he attempted suicide on multiple occasions and purposefully engaged in risky or blatantly self-destructive behavior in the hopes of bringing about his own death (Woog 91). At the time of the book’s publication, Greg had still not completely come to grips with his identity. His parents refused to believe that their attractive, masculine, athletically gifted son was a homosexual and actually scoffed at his confession, telling him, “don’t even think that you’re gay” (Woog 90). At a gay support group meeting, Greg found that “because I didn’t ‘act’ gay, there were people who didn’t like me” and suggested that such stereotypically acting individuals “turn people like my parents against all gay people” (Woog 95).  Greg himself stated that he does “wish I could be open, out, not have anyone care other than that we’re all there for the same reason, to play. No one knows how much pain and suffering a gay male athlete goes through. I’ve spent hours crying in my room because people won’t accept me for who I am. So many people think gay people are limp-wristed fruits. [If I came out] they’d see a stereotypical gay person, not someone who’s on the dean’s list, who runs and works out and plays sports. I know they would not accept me for who I am” (Woog 96, 97).

One of the most well-known and well-respected gay activist athletes in America today is Bob Paris, a professional bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe who was thrust into the limelight as a gay man when he married his partner, model Rod Jackson, in 1989. Since then (and after the break-up of the couple in the decade to follow), Paris has been an active speaker and has authored several books on both gay-related issues and bodybuilding. In his 1998 book Generation Queer, Paris describes his own outlook on various gay issues through personal reflection and answering questions sent to him over the years. Like Greg, Bob Paris endured the pain of being a gay male athlete, and coming from a devout Southern Baptist family, he was often saddled with the guilt rooted in his religious upbringing. “In the eyes of those who hate queers ‘just because’, we are sinners bound for the everlasting pits of fire and damnation. That’s quite a burden to carry around throughout a lifetime” (Paris 9).

Despite being among the most recognizable and sought after gay activists in America, Bob Paris has suffered significant criticism from the group of people whom one might expect to be the most supportive: fellow gay activists. In Straight From the Heart, the 1994 co-autobiography written by Bob and his then husband, Rod Jackson, Jackson reveals that in the wake of their highly publicized marriage, the couple “found that some of the gay press was pretty hostile toward us…we were surprised at how little support we got from them” (Jackson-Paris 242). Jackson noted that Paris “worked for years to rise to the top of his sport”, but that because “most of the gay publications couldn’t make [the] distinction” between a bodybuilder and a gay nude model, the gay press failed to acknowledge that “he was still a professional athlete” (Jackson-Paris 243). Jackson goes on to say that “we were talking about love, family, and marriage and children, and many of the gay people who worked in the gay press at the time didn’t like what we were saying. We were just saying how we were trying to live. They criticized us for talking about monogamy…they criticized us constantly. We were talking about civil rights denied to gay and lesbian people simply because of our status” (Jackson-Paris 243-244).

Bob Paris finds criticism with the gay press and even the accepted norms of gay rights activism on numerous occasions in Generation Queer. On his convictions in a Higher Power, Paris states, “when you’re queer, according to the cynics, belief in anything even remotely spiritual is against the rules (Paris 28)”. Paris later admits that he often finds himself “wondering whether or not the entire concept of queer rights could ever truly succeed given the fact that so many of the movement’s journalists seem to spend more energy tearing down gay activists, over what could only be construed as quibbles, than fighting enemies" (Paris 166).  Paris argues that the only means of achieving equal status and openness for gays is through unification in the face of a common goal. Paris acknowledges that “when you have such a diverse group—many having sexuality as the only trait in common—all parties must continually find ways of setting differences aside in the interest of achieving a greater good. Common ground must be found and cultivated. The pettiness of labels…cannot, must not, stand in the way of working toward common priorities and goals that move toward a fully just society” (Paris 44).
As gay studies essays and books have always put a (rightful) emphasis on homophobia and its ramifications as causing factors in the plight of men to leave the closet, it may seem more than a bit strange to focus on aspects of gay rights activism as being similarly effective in creating an uncomfortable environment in which to come out. What I find somewhat distressing in the wake of my encounters with “questioning” men is the entire notion of a “gay culture”. Unlike, say, black culture, there is no ethnic linkage between the members of gay culture, nor is there the sense of making a choice and commitment to a shared set of beliefs, as is the case with various religious cultures.
Most would concede that homosexuality is not a personal choice, and many would argue that it is a genetic trait; regardless of one’s stance on the perennial “nature or nurture” debate, there is no doubt that homosexuality spans all racial and ethnic borders. As such, I would argue that gay culture is a construction of gay artists and activists, whose visible contributions laid the groundwork for what is known as "gay culture", or perhaps just simply “gay”. Gay culture is portrayed as less a demographic than it is a club that anyone of non-heterosexual orientation can join. This 21st Century variation on the “Grand Old Party” theme is, on the one hand, an inviting opportunity for young gay men and women to feel that they are not alone in the world. However, it also creates issues that burden any sort of group scenario: sharing, definition, absorption, and exclusion. It is this aspect, present in gay culture because of its self-creation, which I find potentially threatening to young men on the road to coming out.
The inability of many men to come to terms with their non-heterosexuality not only reflects a particularly dark side of the world in which we live but also, ultimately, harms everyone in such a position. Bob Paris suggests “although our gayness is a small part of who we are, we still live in a world that makes it into a big deal. Being queer [should be] something of a ‘so what?’ issue…we get to ‘so what?’ by telling our stories, by revealing our secrets and letting the world know that we are here and aren’t going away. Every time you cross the line, telling someone in your life about your experience as a gay person, you have participated in important activism. Our collective mission is to replace the old rocks of false myth with newer, stronger rocks of proud self-declaration” (Paris 20).
For this paper, I have journeyed through personal experiences and correspondences and reinforcing documentation from writers and academics and “everyday people” attempting to better understand the complicated world in which young men are expected to come out of the closet. My question was why, in the year 2003, is it still such a terrifying prospect for men to come out as gay or bisexual, and after personally leafing through books and interviews and articles and statistics, I myself still cannot answer that. Individuals like Bob Paris and “Greg” are representative of a potential majority within a minority: homosexuals who are simply not inclined to fit the stereotypes set forth by the bigoted, and in many ways underlined by the contemporary construction known as “gay culture”. Not unlike a man or woman feeling left out by the opposing ethnicities of his or her biracial identity, a homosexual or bisexual man may feel conflicted about his identity due to a failure to fit nicely into any stereotypical categorization. I would argue that it is this sense of being left out which keeps many men, including my aforementioned friends, from coming face to face with their sexuality.
Gay culture is vital to maintaining awareness and assuring that those in various depths of the closet feel that they are not alone. However, gay culture should be redefined to imply a sort of “network” of millions of people whose similarity in sexual persuasion invites the incorporation of numerous other cultures, as opposed to a sort of Millennial melting pot in which being gay means being absorbed into a stereotype-ridden universe of “dos” and “don’ts” and ultimately derision. Gay culture should be inclusive, not exclusive, and thus it should be less associated with any one, single image, inviting men from all walks of life to stand side-by-side, united and content with themselves and their role in the world. As Bob Paris states, it is through coming out of the closet, identifying your sexual identity and your identity outside of sexuality, that one person can impact those around him enough to alter the preconceived notions of what it means to be gay.


"THIS IS WHO I AM.....YOU CAN LIKE IT OR NOT!" 
Not surprisingly, it's my favorite Madonna anthem of all. 

I wrote this paper when I was unable to cope with a certain straight guy not loving me back. I wanted someone who I refused to believe could never want me, and wasted years trying to defy what wasn't meant to be. I'm embarrassed to say it's the same unrequited love of my Catholic school eraI was used to being rejected by men, but I wasn’t prepared to be so wrong about 'my First Love'I could deal with a guy not liking me, but this seemed like a cruel test of fate, my own Of Human Bondage. That’s the movie that was playing on my TV right before the last time I ever spoke to him, in February 2001. Two years later, I was a particularly boring person to be around because I was constantly glum and complaining about “the one that got away”I was convinced his same-sex desires were overridden by a more defining passion for sports, the military, and financial success, traits that did not correlate with his perception of what it is to "be gay". I may have been right, but it doesn't concern me now. At that time, it enraged me. 

From my bitterness sprung a desire to start a new alternative to gay culture, an alternative based on shared ideals between all genders and orientations.  But I deeply regret that I did not, at that time, have a better understanding of my complex transgender identity. In retrospect, I am truly embarrassed that the transgender demographic was not even touched upon in the paper. I must underline that I did not mean for the tone towards openly gay men to sound so resentful. It was not internalized homophobia, but it was not entirely unconscious—I felt REALLY left out by gay culture as an overweight twenty-one year old. Thus I apologize if my attempt at something positive occasionally comes off as hostile. For better or worse, I doubt that it would have if more cute guys had been talking to me at the age when I wrote it. 


Works Cited

Gage, Simon, Richards, Lisa, and Wilmot, Howard. Queer.
Thunder Mountain Press. New York: 2002.

Jackson-Paris, Bob and Rod. Straight from the Heart.
Warner Books Inc. New York: 1994

Paris, Bob. Generation Queer. Warner Books Inc. New York: 1998

Woog, Dan. Jocks. Alyson Publications, Inc. Los Angeles: 1998

2 comments:

  1. Your writing is beyond excellent. I am certain that if you keep at it and never let yourself feel defeated, you'll accomplish everything you've ever hoped for. Best wishes to you!

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    1. I cannot begin to tell you what your words mean to me and how much I will ALWAYS treasure them, Palmina. Thank you so much for giving me inspiration to pursue my dreams by not only reading my work but by sharing such an unforgettable reaction. To say I appreciate it is an understatement, and I wish the very best to you as well!!! :) xo

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