Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When they say it's not about sex...

You know the old saying: when they say it's not about the money, it's about the money.

When it comes to gays, many "obvious" truisms are turned around. A well-meaning straight male acquaintance of mine once offered his admiration (envy?) that since there were no women on a gay date, there was no one to say no. I didn't know whether to laugh or get offended, until I let myself understand that he honestly believed that I spent my nights in a never-ending orgy of debauchery. Or that I wanted to. Or maybe that he wanted to.

With a few more years under my belt to understand straight male sexuality a little better (if second-hand), it may be time for a little myth-busting. Here is my top-ten list:

1. Celibacy is about sex.

False. "Celibacy" means abstaining from marriage. "Chastity" means abstaining from sex. Americans (and American English dictionaries) often screw this up, and there is no need. Two valuable words, and two very different meanings. Since the 60's the former does not imply the latter.

Recently though, having stumbled across a rather interesting gay Mormon blog, I now have learned to my surprise that the latter does not rule out the former. There is apparently intention among some gay male Mormons to marry women with knowledge aforethought that sex will be the price of admission, not the reward. Perhaps a turkey baster will be involved (though I recommend alcohol, as it also helps you forget). Apparently the woman is okay with this idea. Who knew?

Count me out. Marriage can survive the lack of sex, but not of sexuality. That is a sham marriage, and both spouses deserve better.

2. Sexuality is about sex.

False. It is about the desire to have sex, a very different thing. Sex is, in the scheme of things, not very important to human beings, gay or straight. You may have heard the ribald saying that begins "When I was young and in my prime...". It's true. (If you don't know this saying, just take my word for it).

The nude fill straight bars and bathhouses with talk of sex, enchanting the uninitiated and initiating those so enchanted. Gay men, written out of the storyline early on, make do with talking to themselves, then too often make up lost time chatting up complete strangers. They learned this from straight men, in case you want to assign blame.

The naked have something far more important on their mind: sexuality. Not will they get enough, but will they be enough. For religious gays, then answer is no. Ouch.

For those who confuse the naked with the nude, you have led a deprived life. Stop now and read my favorite poem.

3. Gay men are obsessed with sex.

No, though magazines and websites would have you believe otherwise. For gay men, there is nothing casual about casual sex. One's entire self-esteem is on the line: the gnawing fear of inadequacy, the baggage of yesterday and tomorrow, the sudden realization that you have gotten fat in places visible only with clothes off, the suspicion that he who lies too easily with you today will lie as easily to you tomorrow.

What gay men really obsess about is getting old and dying alone. Without sexual allure, who would want us? We learned too early on about rejection, and too late how to live with it. Straight men rely on money as their last resort. In the gay world, money won't cut it. There are enough sugar daddies out there. Youth and beauty are priceless.

Unless, of course, you are married, like me. Then you have love that will last even as youth and beauty fade.

4. Straight men are obsessed with sex.

Close, but no.

What straight men fear (so I hear) is being naked in public, and they hide their nakedness in nudity: overconfidence masks impotence. They wear a variety of masks in public to will into being the perception of being in control. Sex in our taboo culture is power, and (straight) men learn to wield it cruelly in junior high just as bossy girls turn into awkward self-doubting teenagers.

Women (and you gay men out there as well), don't be fooled by this charade. There is a fascinating book by Norah Vincent, an out-and-proud self-proclaimed "dyke" [but straight people, don't use this word, it's just "lesbian" for you: you'll somehow just have to learn to live with the unfairness of this double standard.] Anyway, the book is titled Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again, and draws its inspiration from John Howard Griffin's eye-opening 1961 book Black Like Me, which documents the experiences of the author, a white man, who puts on black face to learn firsthand the anti-black prejudice of Southern whites, even from those who believed themself not to be racist.

The "obvious" analogy in a lesbian setting, the anti-gay and anti-woman sentiments that "no doubt all straight males shared", led Norah Vincent to go undercover (as Ned Vincent). Some things matched her own preconceptions: men hate looking foolish in front of other men and fear looking foolish in front of women. Some things didn't. Most every time she tried (as a man) to instigate anti-woman or anti-gay jokes when only other men were around, she rarely found a receptive audience (apparently one guy thought that she was misogynist and needed help). And she (as a woman) was shocked at what masks men wear even for their closest friends, letting out their inner turmoil only in bursts of anger, sadness, or martyrdom (where a woman is involved), but only for a second. Men are, after all, expected to "suck it up", or risk being seen as unmanly.

Straight men play it close to the vest, because they have much to lose. But not nearly as much as gay men do.

5. Gay man are just like straight men.

Definitely no.

For one thing, we have much better fashion sense. I used to believe that straight men were completely fashion-braindead, until the uglier truth dawned on me. Many men have their clothes bought for them by girlfriends and wives, both of whom have a vested interest in dressing down their man to keep rivals away. Men that dress themselves tend to go for the "I'm not gay, stop looking at me" outfit, like the dreaded low-cut jeans/tailored striped untucked shirt/square-toed dressy casual shoes uniform. Add a thin black sports coat for a more metrosexual look (which is grecoroman for dressing like you don't care if people think you're gay but making sure that they know that you're not).

When straight men look at a woman, they are not worried about being caught. When a gay men looks at a (possibly straight) man, he is simultaneously 1) admiring his looks, 2) assessing whether he's straight, 3) if so, how long/frequently he can look without being caught, 4) if gay, whether the guy is looking back, 5) not getting caught showing interest in someone who will repay it with attitude, and 6) how to extricate body and self-esteem from the situation if any of the above goes wrong. Pulling all this off on a daily basis takes a lot of practice, and gay men come late to the game. Do straight men realize how much thought and effort goes into figuring out just how much alone-time a gay guy can spend with a straight bro before being outed as a mo. I know of no straight man (okay, maybe one straight man, my friend Brendan) who could handle all this insecurity and not go crazy.

Gay men also (usually) are not driven by overt competition to the extent that straight men are. Testosterone, and the aggression that it triggers, really does correlate with straight maleness. So does wrist size. Who needs gaydar when you have a tape measure. The wrist and lower forearm circumference tell all.

One thing gay and straight men do have in common. When both fail, they think deep down that they weren't "man enough". But with straight men, this feeling usually ends with the next conquest. With gay men, the feeling is only reinforced.

6. Gay men are straight women trapped in a man's body.

Okay, no one really believes this, do they? You do? Well then...

First of all, gay men are as intoxicated with male privilege in our society as straight men are, and are loth to part with it.

Secondly, one's sex (physical), gender (psychological), sexual orientation (attracted to whom), and sexuality (aroused by what) are different things, and falsely conflated in our repressed society. There are perfectly heterosexual men, who like being men, who like wearing women's clothes (they're called transvestites). There are gay equivalents (called drag queens). Some drag queens are actually female-gendered would-be transsexuals, stuck in a pre-op holding pattern. Others are perfectly contented gay men, who love the fashion (and drama) opportunities for self-expression that women's clothing allows, but don't want it cut off any more than you do.

Finally, when I'm not thinking of how fine Brad Pitt looks, I'm probably thinking of a math problem or the Mideast, not reading Cosmo or Elle. I hate shopping, don't need to go to the bathroom with friends for company, and don't get a thrill if my boyfriend shows up with some overpriced bauble.

7. Homophobia is like racism.

Except when it isn't.

Gay men can usually pass when they want to, black men can't. White gay men have to deal with one kind of oppression. Black lesbians have three kinds to contend with (and, it turns out, usually the gay part is not the most onerous of these).

Black kids grow up being hated by strangers. Gay kids grow up hating themselves. Blacks face oppression, gays repression.

Blacks have won the moral battle but are losing the demographic one. Conversely, although many religious still publicly revile homosexuality, their victory is hollow. God may be on their side, but time is not, and if polls are to be believed, their hostility is not likely to outlive them.

Many well-intentioned straight people are too eager to overlook the differences between straight and gay, and too reluctant to overlook those between black and white. In both cases, usually these well-intentioned straight people are oblivious to (or in denial of) the hurt caused by this.

Sexual orientation and race do strongly intersect with straight gender roles. Male privilege is what allows straight women to accept gay men much more easily than straight men can. It also explains why white man + black woman is so much more easily tolerated than black man + white woman. The fact is that gays and blacks will never be fully equal until men and women are, and this may be a long time coming.

8. You can love the sinner, but hate the sin.

Maybe Jesus can. The rest of you can't pull this one off. Just admit it. Why add hypocrisy to the mix?

Why does your husband keep leaving the toilet seat up? Laziness? Forgotfulness? No, it's about spite and control. You know he does that to assert his right not to. It makes you mad. You keep forgiving him, but he refuses to admit his sinful nature. Why won't he be more like a man should be?

What you really mean is, why won't he be more like you? The attempt to control and change the rational and self-interested behavior of someone who stands while you sit is not about making man in God's image, but remaking him in yours. No quote from Leviticus is going to change that bit of hardwired human psychology.

"Why can't a woman be more like a man?", Henry Higgens muses. Who is he kidding? Thinly disguised misogyny, dressed up as objective criticism. Strangely, Higgens does not obsess about why a slug, unlike a snail, is born without a shell. Clearly, it was less loved by God, born defective. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against slugs personally (though we would be better off without them). They just are not fulfilling God's mandate...

of pandering to your own preconception of how snails should be. Leave both snail and slug alone. If ever you are called to atone for your sins, odds are high that you will not also need to atone for those of your neighbor. Nor is it likely that suffering a shellless snail to live, or letting that gay man next door get married to the love of his life, will rank at the top of your list.

9. Civil union is the same as marriage.

Yeah, right. When you got down on one knee, did you ask your wife to join you in a blissful consensual domestic civil quasiheteroconnubial bipartite cohabitation contract? If you did, I hope she said no.

The fact that both you and I are making such a big deal about this proves, if nothing else, that civil unions are not "good enough". As with computer graphics, the more verisimilitude you achieve, the higher the stakes. We know the real thing when we see it, and an airbrushed version only reminds us that something (or someone) was left out.

10. Gays are never satisfied!

Try me. I can take yes for an answer.

I'll let you know in a few months, after the California Supreme Court rules on Prop. 8, which rescinded my right to marry.

In preparation for the horrible possibility of equal status under the law, I will try to think up a new obsession. Ideas, anyone?


Scott B. said...

Long post...only about 1/3 through it, and going to have to take a break. But first one question (actual question, not strategic question):

You said:
"Unless, of course, you are married, like me. Then you have love that will last even as youth and beauty fade."

I don't follow your conclusion that marriage can somehow force love into lasting. While I agree that a legally/religiously/culturally/whateverly committed relationship will likely last, on average, longer than the alternatives, I don't see that as even approaching a sufficient condition. Can you explain?

Zo Kwe Zo said...

I don't follow your conclusion that marriage can somehow force love into lasting.

It can't. But it does greatly increase the odds! As people age, they get more settled in their ways, pickier about what they will put up with, more comfortable with living alone. Their looks fade faster than their standards.

The role of children alters the economics for gay men relative to straight men. There is less demand to marry early, less supply to marry late.

Once married, most people come to rely on their partners in a mutually beneficial and satisfactory division of labor and become increasingly unwilling to risk present comfort with future uncertainty. Even without love, marriages become more durable over time.

Crudely speaking, love is a habit, not an impulse. In our culture, duty has lost ground to arousal, but it is by far the more important component.

Nonetheless, arousal is the yeast where duty is the flour. It doesn't take much, but without it you have only a lump of dough.

Scott B. said...

I think I asked the wrong question (your answer was great--it just answered the question i asked, instead of the one i meant to ask. my fault).

In the context of the original quote, and your added explanation, why does "marriage" (meaning a slip of paper from the city office) do this, as opposed to an agreement between two individuals?

I don't disagree with anything you said about relationship dynamics over time...just interested in why marriage alone enables those dynamics; or if not "alone" then why does it enable them more efficiently?

Scott B. said...

Let me give more context...a while ago, you said something about prop 8 "legally revoking your vows" or something like that. I responded, as did you, that the legal component would have no impact on your "actual" vows.

That's my question--if you're no longer "legally" married (hypothetically speaking), would the security, division of labor, etc...change? I don't expect it would...which begs the question of whether or not the piece of paper actually adds anything to you and your husband's commitment to each other. Personally, I derive no value from the legal aspect of my own marriage--my value comes my sealing (temple marriage). If the law were to be changed and my marriage was made void...Meh.

Please don't read this the wrong way--I'm not trying to twist you into a confession that "marriage" doesn't mean anything, so Prop 8 should be meaningless. I'm just interested in what the piece of paper actually adds--not out in society, but in your own home--to you and your husband's relationship.

Zo Kwe Zo said...

Twist away.

The legal heft of a state-sanctioned marriage is at least fivefold.

First, it is easy, inexpensive, and public. As public policy, it encourages positive social cohesion. As with opt-in vs. opt-out 401K, there is little microeconomic effect from encouragement short of coersion (cf. neither offers me any more privilege than the other), but there is great macroeconomic effect.

Second, divorce is expensive, messy, and public. All three discourage it. Here there is much more microeconomic effect, and though it cannot save a marriage doomed to fail, it can see you through difficult times.

Third, any state-sponsored discrimination in one area of life (however benign in practice) gives moral and legal force to discrimination in other more important venues. For example, without state-sponsored same-sex marriage, there is no (or less) federal standing to press for income tax equity. Without gay marriage, it is difficult to press for equal access to married student or military housing (even after the lifting of don't-ask-don't-tell). Even now, although my employer offers equal benefits to gay and straight employee spouses, the federal government taxes those of gay spouses. This is the next great battle, and we need to come armed with a valid state marriage certificate.

Fourth, an essential difference between civil union and marriage is that the former is offered as a privilege (created by the State), the latter acceded to as a preexisting right. What is granted can be rescinded later. There is less permanence to a civil union.

Fifth, legislative action (contrary to the beliefs of Prop. 8 proponents) is in this arena less legitimate than judicial action. Legislative victory is seen as a gain, using up goodwill and brownie points. Judicial action is the rejection of loss, more clearly emphasizing that it is we who were wronged. Though we don't seek reparations, we do seek restitution (when viewed retrospectively from a more just future, not from a less just past).

If the word restitution irks you, it is possible that you are confusing it with restoration. Restoration is about returning to a previous state. Restitution is about returning to a rightful state.

There are no doubt other good reasons, but any of the above is sufficient reason to value the equal application of legal enforcement of any societal norm without discrimination with respect to sexual orientation.

Few get married primarily for the practical benefits of marriage. Gays certainly need not be held to a higher standard merely to want what everyone else has.

As for me myself personally, the principle is personal. It is not only sufficient reason, it is the reason. I derive a great personal value from living in a just society, and feel great personal injury when unjustly deprived. Many have died throughout history for battles in which they had no personal stake save principle, so this should be nothing surprising to others. There is a word for beings that live only to advance their own personal welfare: animals.

I think you and I answer to a higher calling.