I’m talking gay stereotypes. The bulldyke, the screaming queen. You know them, I know them. Heaven forbid anyone should write about them. Because, y’know, they’re stereotypical. Most gay people aren’t like that. Most gay people hate to be associated with people like that. Most gay people are ordinary men and women just like you and me who feel no particular urge to fill their lives with glitter and sparkles.
How dull for them.
I’m a scene queen. I admit it. I moved to Manchester when I was eighteen years old, starry eyed and excited because I’d seen the (original) Queer as Folk and I thought that was going to be my life.
Guess what? It was.
For three years I lived it up in the Village (only the straights call it Canal Street, darling…). And no seasonal queen was I. I refer, of course, to those gays that only come out of the woodwork for one week in the summer when the weather’s glorious and we’re celebrating Pride and it’s actually cool to be gay. Nope, even in deepest, darkest December I was there, back in the days when Essential VIP cards were gold; when Hollywood Showbar was still the Hollywood Showbar; when Santa propped up the bar at Thompsons and no-one knew about the hidden room in Mantos. When you could *gasp* smoke inside.
And guess what, my pretties? We camped it up with the best of them. There was glitter and sparkles and promiscuity and hedonism and all the stuff that is supposed to be so frightfully terrible about being gay. And we loved every single second of it.
I was actually out in the Village last Saturday night (and I have the blisters to prove it…) and I couldn’t help notice that if I wrote a story about the scene as I saw it, I’d be accused of stereotyping and doing a disservice to our culture. Worse, I’d be accused of being homophobic, because I was perpetuating a negative myth about queer experience.
Well since when did being camp become a crime? Male effeminacy is a new dirty concept. Ditto promiscuity. Ditto drinking and drug taking and generally being anything less than a completely responsible and upstanding citizen. It’s no-longer the acceptable face of being queer.
Raincheck. It was the drag queens who fought back at Stonewall. It was camp that first pushed the boundaries. Our debt as a community has always been greatest to those who refused to be invisible, those who stood up and demanded that they be seen and heard. Camp has a great and noble and – yes – subversive history. Camp is these days derided as sexless and infantile. Wake up. Camp was a signifier of sexual availability, and as such was a powerful tool in the queer arsenal.
But it’s not just camp that suffers. Any representation that shows gay men (in particular) as frivolous, promiscuous or irresponsible is considered bad form these days. Never mind that any scene is marked by scores of young men with no ties or responsibility engaged in a culture of (minimally) heavy drinking. And we’re not supposed to say that at least some of those guys hook up on a regular basis? Get real. That’s not a gay thing, it’s a man thing. It’s a youth thing. It’s no different to what straight men and women do every single weekend. But that’s not the stereotype, is it?
Speaking with gay men and women about m/m, many of them lament the almost total absence of the scene from those books. I’ve noticed it myself, and I think I’m one of the few who does, on occasion, represent the scene as I lived it. Not just an isolated chapter set in a gay bar, but a proper scene, a place where people meet and congregate, that helps them form their identities. A place that normalises our experiences. I know why it’s not there – because most of the authors are straight women. It’s no criticism of them, they just don’t understand the value of having your own place, where you don’t stand out from the crowd for all the wrong reasons. They can’t possibly understand that. Which is why, when they do mention gay bars, they are simply that – a place to go on a date or for a drink with your friends. There is no comprehension of the wider social worth of the scene.
I know, of course, that not every gay is a scene queen. Through geography or personal choice or whatever some people will never engage with the scene. But it’s no surprise that so many of us flock to the big cities when we come out and gain our first independence: we want to live our lives openly and honestly and that’s the place to go to do so. So, so many of the people I’ve spoken to over the years have repeated the same thought that I had when I first stepped onto those hallowed cobbles in Manchester almost ten years ago – I’ve come home.
I’m proud of my involvement with the scene. Yes, looking back sometimes it feels like someone else’s life. Yes, I did things that maybe weren’t advisable and that would horrify my mother if she ever found out. There is undoubtedly a dark side to all that hedonism. A number of my friends brought home nasties from some one-nighter that lasted longer than the memories of mediocre sex. Some of them will live with those nasties permanently. I watched a man die in the bathroom of a club while people stepped over his twitching body. I’ve seen a lot of things that will stay with me for all the wrong reasons. It’s easy to compile the statistics and start moralising.
But guess what, I’ve seen other things just as bad – if not worse. I’ve seen the self-harm scars; I’ve seen a man fleeing an arranged marriage; I’ve seen a father denied access to his children after he came out; I’ve seen a man knocked over and killed by a driver who swerved towards him because he was walking to a gay bar. Only a year ago a young man was murdered in Liverpool because he was seen leaving a gay bar. That stuff still happens. It is at times like that when we need the solidarity and the united outrage of a community behind us. Denying that community when its public face becomes too inconvenient, but then relying upon its support and assistance when they come for you, is wholly unacceptable.
The problem I have – the big, big problem – is that often when I see people attempting to represent a truth about queer experience they are shouted down for ‘perpetuating negative stereotypes’, for doing a disservice to our community and even – shock! horror! – being homophobic, because clearly they can’t imagine a gay man being masculine; non-scene; conservative, even. Of course they are. It takes all kinds to make a world. For every bear and scene queen and drag queen and gym bunny there’s a couple living quietly behind their white picket fence with a dog and 2.4 children, who hold down steady, responsible jobs and whose idea of daring is finishing the bottle of chardonnay on the same night they opened it. Just like with straight people, we are a diverse community and our life experiences encompass every possible scenario.
What I object to, in the strongest possible terms, is denying any part of that experience, or criticising a way of life because it’s not yours. The queers who do that are a hundred times worse than the straights who hate us, because they have profited from the actions of the gaudiest of our community; they rely on the campaigning of the few in order to allow them to lead their entitled lives in the way they want. It is thanks to the drag queens that homosex was first decriminalised in America. Don’t turn around now and sneer at them. Get on your fucking knees and kiss their spangled platform boots.
It is not just the self-loathing among us who reject the ‘stereotypes’, however. That great and noble readership of m/m – straight women – are also quick to jump on anyone who represents gay men as anything other than strong, virile, non-scene masculine men with conservative jobs. Why? I can’t help but feel that this is a readership hyper-aware of the issues that the queer community face. They are on the alert for homophobia, because they are very, very keen to demonstrate just how accepting they are themselves. That’s not a criticism. Were more people like that, we’d live in a much happier world. There is, however, a downside. Their experience of queer culture is understandably limited. There’s a great thread in the GR M/M Romance Group’s forum titled “Are there any gay people in your life?” The answer is usually somewhere between 0-2. Most of their experience and understanding of our community comes from what they see on the news, and what they read in the books they so voraciously devour.
The problem with those sources is that neither are completely representative. I’ve banged on enough about the formulaic nature of m/m (as opposed to gay romance, and gay/queer fiction). When we make the headlines it’s usually because we’re fighting for our rights or there’s been a tragedy. Both representations are polar extremes of the everyday life of most queer people. They’re both true, but they’re not the whole truth.
But do those readers really want representative, warts-and-all portrayals of the queer community – the good, the bad, the ugly-but-covered-in-slap? I don’t think they do. M/M gives gay men a face that is acceptable to the masses. They’re everymen who happen to sleep with other guys. I was talking to a guy recently who does outreach work with MSM. That’s men who have sex with men. They don’t identify as gay; usually because of their social or religious backgrounds. Often they’re married men with families. They have sex with other men on the sly, and no-one in their lives knows what they do. The big problem facing these guys is one of risk. If they’re married you can guarantee they’re not using condoms at home anymore, which means that if they buy condoms and the wife finds them, there’s going to be an unholy row. So they don’t buy them.
Then there’s the places they go. They’re not looking for boyfriends or commitment, they’re looking to get their rocks off as quickly and as efficiently as possible. They haunt the bath houses and the seedier clubs that the self-loathers would like to pretend don’t actually exist. They pick a man, any man, and they take their chances. The new infection rate of HIV transmission within this group – and by default their wives/girlfriends – is high and rising. Reaching out to them is difficult because they don’t identify as gay, they don’t want to think about what they’re doing, they don’t want to talk to other gay men. They are not looking for help, they’re looking for sex. There is simply no point approaching them and trying to counsel them or get them to admit that they might just be queer because they will flat out reject it. Outreach work with this group is difficult and the rewards are few. The objective is a simple one – get them to use condoms. Don’t broach the moral rights or wrongs of what they’re doing, don’t push them into admitting to being something they’re not prepared to admit to being, don’t do anything to drive them further underground in their desperation to remain hidden. Just get them to wrap it up.
In a lot of ways, I think m/m has a great deal in common with MSM. Not that in m/m you’ll find cheating or unsafe sex, no, what I’m talking about is that attitude towards being gay. Because so many m/m men aren’t gay – they’re men who have sex with men.
We’re currently trapped in a vicious cycle of homophobia and accusation and counter-accusation. There’s the self-loathers who decry any stereotypical representation of our culture. Then there’s the straight allies who also decry those representations – ostensibly for the same reason (both groups say the stereotypes are homophobic) but actually for very different reasons (the self-loathers hate them because they’re self-loathing; the allies hate them because by doing so they’re bettering their own credentials as understanding and accepting allies to our cause). So each side is pushing its own agenda by belittling and denying a perfectly valid and common facet of queer experience. Which fundamentally exposes both of those positions as intrinsically homophobic in themselves. If you can’t handle queer experience unless it’s presented in a way that you find acceptable, I’m sorry but you’re homophobic, whether you’re queer yourself or no matter how strong an ally you consider yourself to be.
We march under the rainbow flag. Our bywords are inclusively and acceptance and understanding. We exist in every creed and colour and class and combination on Earth, and we always have. We have a proud and diverse and unique history. Let’s not forget that, let’s not belittle it. If you say acceptance, mean it. If you believe in valuing all people equally, then live it. June is Pride Month in America and many other countries around the world. Those beautiful, colourful creatures marching down a high street near you are paying homage to a great moment in our collective history – the moment when a group of drag queens that the police assumed would make an easy target stood up and fought back. Be proud of them – honour them. They defied the law and convention in order to do what was right. It is because of them that we now have a real chance at equal relationship recognition for the first time. We have come a long, long way since Stonewall. Let’s not forget the pioneers who led the way.
Happy Pride to everyone attending an event this month. Bet ya can’t wait until August, when I’m attending at least two, if not three, UK Prides. Prepare for some messy, messy posts 🙂