There’s been enough talk in the media this month about people wanting to round us gays up, put us in camps, beat us straight, take our rights away and otherwise treat us worse than animals. That’s not what this post is about. Instead, I want to think about the casual, everyday homophobia that is so ingrained in our culture that the people who espouse it don’t even realise that they are actually being homophobic to begin with. Most of those people, if you called them homophobes, would be very distressed and upset and argue vehemently that they are pro-gay, and support equal rights.
What am I talking about? Well let’s start with a forum discussion about safe sex. The question was asked about when a condom is or isn’t appropriate in fiction. As an author, how this matter is addressed is important. Some publishing houses have concrete rules for when a condom must be used, even if it doesn’t fit with the arc of the story. One author I spoke to told me about a scene she’d written where the character has unprotected sex and it’s a pivotal plot-point. Imagine her dismay when she saw her publisher had altered the scene to include a condom. Cue hasty re-write.
I’m a realist, I want to write real, flawed characters. We all know we should use protection for certain activities, but I think we all know that not everyone does, for one reason or another. To my mind it’s just absurd to read a scene with a hot, hasty hook-up in a locker room or an alleyway or wherever someone might not be expecting to get their end away, and yet at the crucial moment someone has a condom handy. You’re in the shower at the gym but what, there was a condom wrapped up in your towel, or in your gym shorts? As if.
Books are not morality plays, you don’t have to sermonise to the reader. No-one has to tell you that murder is bad when you’re reading a slasher, do they? That being said, however, I do think that we have a moral responsibility to consider safe sex. And really, how many words does it take to write a condom in where it’s appropriate? About 4? (“He snagged a condom…”)
But what does this have to do with homophobia? I’ll tell you. Because part of that discussion got onto gay and straight representations of safe sex. (Okay, I admit, I started it). As a rule, straight people engage in risky sex constantly in fiction. It’s not just fiction, either. In straight porn condoms are almost never used, for front or back penetration. For gay porn, they always are. That’s a staggering double-standard. The insinuation, of course, is that you’re going to catch something from gay sex that you’re not from straight sex. The AIDS iceberg looms large.
Now we all know that’s a nonsense. New infection rates of HIV are highest and growing among the heterosexual populations of the world. But to read fiction, you’d think the only thing you can catch from straight sex is babies. Whenever straight couples do address unprotected sex in fiction, it’s usually in the context of, “it’s okay, I’m on the pill”. And there are, of course, a multitude of other sexually-transmitted nasties out there that – again – anyone can catch. But they never get mentioned, do they? I’ve yet to read a story where someone gets chlamydia, for example. It’s HIV or nothing, it seems.
One person in that discussion did recall an author who writes about safe sex between her straight characters, but – and this really blew me away – she thinks that author probably does that “because she’s got a gay son, so she’s more aware of the risks.” I had to step away from that one before I said something I’d regret. What that person was basically saying was that only gay people (need to) know about safe sex; that safe sex between the straight characters was an anomaly explained by the fact that lurking in the background is a gay man, with a gay man’s sensibilities about this issue.
It makes me want to scream.
Male gay for you is also another killer. I love GFY as much as the next person, but sometimes I want to weep because so many of those characters have problems with women. I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve had relationships with ‘straight’ women in the past, but that I steer well clear of any woman who has ‘issues’ with men. I can’t be doing with that shit. I may be a dyke, but I’m quite fond of men. I think the world would be a very dull place without them with it (and I’d have no friends!!). When I’m reading an m/m GFY romance, the last thing I want to read about is two men with problems with women. It devalues the entire romance, it leaves it open to the interpretation that they’ve only “gone gay” because women have treated them badly in the past.
GFY should be about the connection between two characters, intense enough to make them re-evaluate everything they thought they wanted. It should be deep and meaningful and significant. It should not be about turning away from an entire gender because of a few bad apples.
I read a GFY recently that was exactly that. Worse, when the MCs make the decision (spur of the moment, admittedly) to do away with condoms, they do so based on the fact that one of them had been tested, and one had been celibate. Well yes he had, except for sleeping with his (by then, ex-) wife, who, he was well aware, had whored round for the last couple of years of their marriage. But again, that’s straight sex, so you don’t catch anything from that, right?
There is a hypocrisy to such attitudes that really, really grates. And the sad thing is that the people voicing these opinions I genuinely believe don’t realise the implications of what they’re saying. They’d be mortified if I turned round and pointed out just how offensive their comments are. Not even all us gays get it, I saw a glowing review of the book I’ve just ranted about on a well-respected blog, run by a gay man, who called it “gay for you at its best”. I consider it GFY at its worst.
The problem we have is that this kind of casual discrimination is so ingrained in our culture that people simply don’t see it, and that, of course, is how the myth perpetuates. So why, you might ask, am I not naming names? Because I don’t want to mire people with the label “homophobic” who I genuinely don’t believe are.
Another gripe of mine can best be summarised by the expression sweet boys. I swear, if I never read that again it will be too soon. It’s become ubiquitous in certain circles to refer to a gay male couple of any age. I particularly hate this one because it infantalises queer couples and, by extension, queer sexuality. It’s like they haven’t grown up yet. Like a fully-fledged and rounded relationship between two grown men is something that people go “awww, bless,” over. I’m sorry, that’s just condescending.
There’s been an interesting debate about straight attitudes to queer relationships this week, prompted by the banning of hen (bachelorette) parties from a very famous American gay bar. The bar’s position is that it’s deeply insensitive of those women to enter a queer space and celebrate their entitlement to a ceremony denied to the bar’s patrons. I agree with that policy wholeheartedly, but I’ve seen arguments every which way. Some people argue that it’s discrimination, and just because it’s the gays discriminating against straights for once that doesn’t make it right. Some people think that those women are our allies and we should be coveting closer interaction with them. Some people think that it’s straight money going into gay coffers, and that’s always a good thing. On the other hand some people think that those women aren’t allies at all, they’re only there because they think it’s ‘daring’, and that it’s a safe space. That they treat going to a gay bar like a field trip to the zoo. That they have no right imposing on our safe space.
I’m in the second category. Yes I’m the first to point out that we’ve made our own ghettos and we really need to think about getting out of them, but the fact remains that there are precious few places as it is where we can go and be ourselves without constantly looking over our shoulders or garnering unwanted attention – however positively meant – just because we’re indulging in the odd PDA. There was a bar in Manchester’s gay village that I used to frequent all the time in my first year living in the city, but it got overtaken by the straights. It started with groups of women on a Friday and Saturday night. When they were welcomed, they returned with their boyfriends; they extended those visits through the week. It got to a point where midweek you’d find whole crowds of straight people who’d come in after work for a couple of drinks.
Not only did the whole atmosphere of the bar change, but it wasn’t long before we, the intended patrons, began to feel very unwelcome. Somewhere like Manchester, where there are so many gay bars, it’s not a big deal, we all just moved on. About a year later I got talking to the owner and he was lamenting the fact that no-one who was actually gay came into his bar anymore and I explained to him that it had got really straight and we all felt uncomfortable being there because there had been comments, looks, etc. He asked why we hadn’t complained to the bouncers because he’d have evicted anyone who was causing trouble. The problem was that they weren’t causing trouble exactly, they were just letting us know that they weren’t happy with us being there, so we left. Had it been a smaller town, with less places to go, maybe we’d have fought for our right to our bar. Instead, it was easier just to leave.
Letting in the women opens a floodgate, because if they enjoy themselves then they want to go back with their boyfriends in tow. In small numbers that’s not a problem, but as that example proves, it can result in the entire demographic changing.
And then there’s the issue of their behaviour when they are in the bars. Because, let’s face it, large groups of women on big nights out aren’t exactly renowned for their ladylike behaviour. They screech and they squeal and they flail around all over the place. More irritatingly, they go to gay bars because they think they’ll avoid being casually groped by every Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to leer at them (why, pray tell, wear such tiny outfits if you don’t want attention…?) but why oh why do they think that kind of behaviour is appropriate in reverse? One guy I spoke to described an incident the like of which I have witnessed many, many times over the years: a group of women come into a bar, a couple zero in on a cute gay couple and start touching them inappropriately, flirting badly and complaining loudly to the men themselves that it’s such a “waste” that they’re gay (a waste of what, one is desperate to know…). Then they ask if they’re “really” gay, and if they’re sure they don’t want some of what these women are so obviously and pathetically offering. The men say no. The women get aggressive. In the story I was told it ended predictably after a couple of the women called the guy and his boyfriend “stupid faggots” for refusing to kiss on demand, like some kind of performing act.
Ladies, a word of warning. If you call someone a ‘faggot’ in a gay bar, it’s not going to end well for you.
And don’t even start me on how they treat us lesbians. When these women decide to go to gay bars, they’re thinking exclusively in terms of gay men. Gay women are a phenomena they do not want to encounter, and when they do, they’re rude, they’re aggressive and generally I want to pluck their eyes out with a rusty spoon. And I like women. A lot. *nudge, wink* But the behaviour of these groups makes me want to renounce my entire sex.
I remember taking a straight female friend out in Manchester for the first time. I think I spent the entire evening reciting a monologue of “stop staring, stop pointing, stop saying that or for fuck’s sake keep your voice down…” It wasn’t a fun experience, even before she dragged aside the girl I’d miraculously managed to pull and threatened to break her legs if she didn’t bugger off sharpish. *sigh*
So okay there are still lines drawn in the sand between gay and straight, and sometimes both sides get defensive when someone strays over to the “wrong” side. Perhaps we’re our own worst enemies, because we want inclusion into straight spaces, but we want to keep our places sacred. The truth is I think that gay bars are an important part of the socialisation process for young, newly-out gay people and without them our community would be a lot more fractured and isolated than it otherwise is. I’m not talking about the actual experience of drinking and dancing and copping off an all the rest of it, I’m talking about the normalising experience of being in a place where the majority of people are like you. That’s something no straight person will ever understand, because that is straight experience. It means everything to us and nothing to them to be in an environment where you don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
I’m all for straight people trying to understand our community and our experiences – by going to gay clubs, by reading or writing gay romances, whatever – but I think more people need to bear in mind that most of the realities of our experiences are simply beyond comprehension for the majority of straight people, and that received wisdom about our culture and attitudes isn’t always right. More, I think the appropriation our our spaces and experiences by people who don’t really understand what they’re talking about is wrong, plain and simple. I’m not saying straight people can’t empathise, but I think they need to accept that a lot of what we deal with on a daily basis simply has no straight equivalent.
I think Cassandra Clare got it right in her latest Mortal Instruments offering, where Alec is explaining to his sister how he feels about people’s reactions since he came out. He says “it’s not a single stab wound that you can protect me from, but a thousand little paper cuts every single day.” Stupid, offhand comments and actions that the people who drop them often don’t even realise are offensive or even downright cruel. Belittling our relationships, insinuating that we’re rife with disease, invading our spaces and suggesting that we’re somehow lacking, or immature, or damaged. We’re none of those things. We’re just ordinary people trying to live and love in a world that doesn’t understand and often rejects who we are offhand. A little thought could go a long way towards making that experience a hell of a lot easier.