Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘gay’

5 Ways to be Kinder as a Gay Man

It can be easy not to care about politics and activism – and even easier to not care when people try and tell you that you should. This isn’t a post about that, but being kinder has significant impact on peoples’ lives. Everyone knows the sensation of dwelling on someone having done or said something really unnecessary, unhelpful, or mean, and how it can leave you rubbed the wrong way for the rest of the day. Hopefully you might also be able to think of a time when someone said or did something they really didn’t have to, but which stuck out, and made you feel good about the world for a moment. Being gay often situates one within a community – or at least a population – who can and do still experience rejection, hostility, discrimination… though increasingly, happily, many also don’t. In some particular ways, the gay community doesn’t necessarily recognise the ways in which it now has it good, and how the things we say and do can be unintentionally damaging. But what can an individual do about it? Especially without getting caught up in a world of politics or social justice that might not be at all for you? I would say – think about how you can be kinder. Below are some examples I think are important.

1. Avoid expressing your sexuality as ‘liking penis’ (or hating vaginas)

‘How is that unkind, I just do!’ You might say. But… not all gay men have a penis. If you’re a gay, transgender man trying to make your way in a community that situates your sexual desirability around something you may not have, then that can make you feel pretty excluded. There are of course, gay cisgender men who absolutely can be and are attracted to, have sex with, fall in love with trans men without fetishising them – without positioning them as some kind of exotic sexual curiosity. No-one is saying who you have to be attracted to, either – though taking a moment to ask yourself how central genitals are to your sexuality (if they are) and why, might be an enlightening exercise. Either way, this simple bit of awareness can go a long way to making gay communities a bit kinder for trans guys.

2.  Think about the broader implications of having ‘no fat’, ‘no old’, ‘no camp’, ‘no asian’ or other categories on your dating/sex apps

This is a predictably polarising point, with some arguing ‘it’s just a preference’ and others making arguments that it represents serious problems with hierarchies in the gay community, and how these are examples of racism, ageism, and other serious issues. Again – no-one is saying that you have to be, or can be, attracted to everyone. But there is a really significant difference between ‘having preferences’ and articulating that there is zero, absolutely zero possibility of talking to a person because of their occupation of a particular category. People ignore people, or say ‘no thank you’ all the time on these sorts of platforms. By doing the romantic or sexual equivalent of a 1930s style ‘no coloureds’ sign in a shop window, what this says is that no matter who you are, no matter how nice you are or whatever, your race/weight/presentation/age comes first. You are reduced to that thing – which makes people feel horrible. People don’t have direct control over who they find attractive, but again, there is value in examining why it is you feel the way you feel about particular groups of people. Giving someone a sign that you’re not interested without making it about a trait that can be the source of all kinds of degradation or exclusion is simply… kinder.

3. Respect campness

There’s a lot that can be said about this, but something I’ve definitely heard is gay people who feel that camp or effeminate gay men ‘are embarrassing’ or bring the gay community into ‘disrepute’. The first point I’d like to make in relation to this, is if this is about fear of association? That you don’t like the idea of mainstream society looking at you as a gay person and thinking of feather boas, drag queens, and high heels ? If so, then you have to accept that what you’re doing is saying to those who are far more likely to be victims of homophobia that they should simply stop doing what ‘makes the bullies bully’, rather than challenging what bullies do as wrong. Further, if we look at history, it wasn’t ‘straight acting’ gay men who did the terrifying, life-endangering activist work of activism such as Stonewall – it was transgender women of colour, effeminate gay men, and butch, queer women for the most part. The people who couldn’t hide. Some camp people will of course be shallow, bitchy, loud, annoying. Others will be deep, sensitive, quiet and delightful – in which case what you’re objecting to isn’t actually campness, but a construction that attempts to excuse the policing of femininity within men. Also, your masculinity (if you identify as such) shouldn’t feel threatened by camp, fabulous queens! If femininity threatens your masculinity through association, then perhaps your masculinity could benefit from being reconstructed in terms that aren’t oppositionally opposed to, or propped up by the denigration of femininity.

4. Try and empathise with those in the closet

‘It’s 2016, no-one cares, just get over it already’ – It can be so tempting to feel this way, especially if your own coming out was a bit of an anti-climax, either an affair of celebration, or indifference amongst those you know. Also as time passes by, it’s easy for any anxiety up until that point to be dismissed – ‘oh I was so paranoid but I really had nothing to worry about really, I should’ve known’. It might seem obvious to say, but not all circumstances are the same. There are still people who get kicked out by their families, have people change how they see you, change how they treat you. People deal with this in all kinds of different ways. If someone says they’re ‘straight but just like guys’, I might be thinking a couple of things, likely sympathetic things. No-one gains anything from saying ‘yeah right, face the facts buddy’. A community that engages sensitively with those who probably need it most is kinder and more supportive than one that doesn’t.

5. Don’t assume that a guy with a boyfriend is gay (or a guy with a girlfriend is straight)

There might be a fair old likelihood, but you know, bisexual people exist. Pansexual people exist (though not according to spellchecker). All kinds of sexuality and gender configurations exist. What about the queer guy who ended up in a relationship with a transgender woman, accepts her womanhood, but doesn’t identify as bi, or pan? There are lots of relationship experiences where the boundaries of sexuality labels breaks down a bit. Avoiding assumptions generally is a good way for people to feel like you’re considerate of their potential to exist.

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On ‘Straight Acting’ and Stonewall.

Yesterday, I came across an article written by Noah Michelson provocatively titled ‘If You Think ‘Straight Acting’ Is An Acceptable Term, You’re An A**hole’. I would say the article is well worth reading, as it evocatively considers some of the concerns with Roland Emmerich’s new film ‘Stonewall’ – namely the accusations of historical inaccuracy, whitewashing, and homonormativity¹ in order to try and bring the film to a wider audience.

Michelson makes the point that:

Being “straight-acting,” for a gay man at least, is directly related to how convincingly he is able to present traditionally masculine mannerisms. The term is so markedly offensive because its very existence insists that there is a particular, instantly identifiable manner of being gay (defined by effeminacy). And what’s more, those qualities are seen as patently unattractive, undesirable and wildly dangerous.

He discusses his own experiences of policing his forms of self expression to articulate a more normative masculinity, in order to protect himself from queer bashing. He remarks how he regrets this, but poignantly asks whether he’d even be here to regret it if he hadn’t – emphasising increasingly how ‘same-sex’ attraction in and of itself doesn’t render one a victim, but the expression of transgressive masculinities and femininities amongst women and men respectively (and those who cross over or identify as neither in particular) puts one at risk. Now, there are those queers who, in the interests of their own safety, or their own ability to socially navigate the world they’re in with the least possible hassle will engaging in ‘straight acting’ actively. Then there are those who simply find that their default state of being is to articulate themselves in an unremarkable, normative manner. There is of course nothing wrong with that. I would however encourage those who have identified or do identify with the term ‘straight acting’ to ask – why do you? How is this identification situated within a larger social narrative and context which shapes who each of us are and how we feel? If you are concerned with how others perceive your masculinity in relation to your sexuality, why is that? Given that masculinity and femininity have large, complex narratives, can you see that when you say you’re ‘straight acting’, what people take from this will never be as simple as pure, value-neutral description (whether they realise it or not)? This can be articulated by different people in different ways to serve very similar ends. A common example being dating app profiles with caveats such as ‘not as camp as I look’, pre-empting judgement from a gay audience which has a clear hierarchy of value.

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Emmerich inserts the fictional protagonist Danny into the narrative of the film in order to “provide a very easy in” for a straight audience. One can understand the desire to want your film about an incredibly important civil rights event to reach and educate as many people as possible. There’s two important problems with this however. 1 – It didn’t remotely happen that way, and 2 – It throws the non-normative queers who were there doing what they did under the bus in order to pander to those potential viewers whose acceptance comes with terms and conditions of palatability. It also raises the very important question – have queer people moved so far away from the scary, dangerous activism of the past that is now spoken of reverently, these brave heroes, that we daren’t tell the story how it was for fear of making less headway with creating queer acceptance than we could?

I would say that if LGBTQ support is *dependent* on whiteness, normative masculinity, middle-class status, conventionally attractive embodiment – all the checkboxes of Danny that make him the least marginalised of the marginalised – then it is worth very little. Further, it’s 2015. Shows and films with casts not centred on whiteness, cisness, etc. have demonstrated their ability to be both commercially and critically successful – one needs look no further than Orange is the New Black. I believe that the film would actually have had a better impact on queer rights and empathy for oppressions faced in terms of sexuality and gender if Emmerich had dared to be more accurate, rather than worrying about the most socially conservative end of the spectrum. The comparatively slow limp of transgender rights and protections demonstrates exactly what happens when we try to gain acceptance by sweeping the more difficult queers under the rug. The irony that the charity ‘Stonewall’ only added trans to its remit this year is ridiculously long overdue, but not surprising due to this homonormative precedent. The very fact that Emmerich has been so heavily criticised is evidence that a mainstream audience could handle the more complex intersections of marginality the real historical figures experienced.

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It’s a fair question to ask what the problem with Danny’s role in the narrative is. Stonewall is famous for being a turning point, the explosive tipping point for LGBT (but let’s be honest, mainly G) rights. Therefore it’s easy to assume that the ‘mainstream gays’ who are visible and in many Western contexts doing relatively okay were also there. Not so. Those men and women with same-sex attraction in the 1960s who could hide it, often did. The straight actors were only to peer out of their closets after the radical queers had fought for some space for them. Emmerich would’ve done well to realise this, and recognise that his film had a duty to the queers still most marginalised today who fought *because* they had no other choice. Stonewall is a story for all queers, for all people to be inspired by, but not at the expense of de-centring the real, brave people who fought.

It’s very important then, to recognise the difference between what being ‘straight acting’ can mean in the world, and what it means when it’s inserted into this film which will be taken by many people as a representation of what happened. This may explain then, why when a historian of Stonewall, the only surviving member of the Stonewall  Street Youth, and other queer writers and experts were asked what they thought of the premier – the results were overwhelmingly damning. Emmerich has also said “as a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay”. Maybe, just maybe, this film wasn’t about you, Roland. Maybe it also wasn’t about potential audience members who would deem The Stonewall Riots unacceptable if they saw them led by (as Michelson says) “non-white transgender people, genderqueer individuals, drag queens, butch dykes and sissy men”. Maybe that’s why Miss Major Griffen-Gracy, one of the few survivors of the Riot itself, said “How dare they do this again” of the film.

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Miss Major – Photograph credit to Annalese Ophelian.

It’s ironic that the historian David Carter explains that whilst he liked the characterisation of Ray, in reality Raymond Castro was “a very masculine guy, a generous guy – and very conservative-looking. He wasn’t effeminate – he never went in drag. He didn’t prostitute himself, either”. Emmerich had an opportunity to include a character who embodied a normative masculinity, whilst retaining historical accuracy – a bit of a godsend given that was important to him in this historical sea of queers that were more difficult to market. Why that wasn’t done is open to speculation. But if telling the story of Stonewall was important to Emmerich, as he says it was, but positioning the trans women of colour who were absolutely central to the events (Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Riviera, Stormé DeLarverie, and the aforementioned Miss Major) as the *main* characters, the central narrative, was too difficult… then maybe he shouldn’t have been the person to make this film.

1 – Whilst this term has been used in different ways in different contexts, the most common, and how I use it here, was popularised by Lisa Duggan in unpacking how heteronormativity can be assimilated into LGBT culture, practices, and identities. Heteronormativity is (often insidious or unconsciously manifested) practice that positions straightness, cisness, and normative gender and sexual roles as ‘normal’. That isn’t to say there is necessarily an explicit articulation of homophobia etc., but that in positioning particular qualities as normal (rather than common, or relatively frequent) one includes a moral dimension to the description – that positions particular others as ‘not normal’. Heteronormativity can manifest in such simple interactions many non-straight people will have experienced – an acquaintance say, asking a guy ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ or a girl ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ – the assumption of heterosexuality. In a sense then, homonormativity is exemplified by, for example, gay white men who have a distaste for campness, drag, gender-bending, and other aspects of queer culture that are distinctly un-normative. Plus of course, it’s never as simple as saying that a person *is* or *is not* hetero/homonormative – people articulate multiple and complex views, and may comfortably celebrate radical queerness in some contexts whilst wishing to distance themselves or tactically ‘tone it down’ in others. What this means for how queerness is considered by the wider population is an interesting point to consider.

SuperQueers! LGBT+ in comic books

There’s been a fair bit going on recently. Transgender Day of Visibility was on 31st March, and the UK has seen the leader’s debates in the fretful warm-up to the general election. Therefore I wanted to write about something a little less serious, whilst still shedding some light on something not touched on much in mainstream outlets – LGBTQ comic book characters, which for me, shouts capes and spandex first and foremost. There’s been quite a few lists of favourite GSM (gender and sexuality minority) lists compiled by more expert comic book fans – but I’ll try and mix some slightly obscure and interesting examples with some well known classic heroes (and villains) who you might now see in a new light. So in no particular order then…

1. Mystique

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And pretty genderfluid too, but not in the way that normally means.

If (like me) your main familiarity with the X men was the film adaptations, or possibly the animated series of early ’90s morning kids TV – you’ve missed out on some seriously different character development. Amongst the most critical being the erasure of Mystique’s bisexuality. Besides originally being mother to the mutant Nightcrawler (that blue skin wasn’t coincidence) but also foster mother to Rogue (whaaat?), she was also over 80 years old by the millennium, with her shape-changing powers meaning her ageing is atypical also. As this article details, “Mystique’s character was not revealed as bisexual until The Uncanny X-Men #265, almost thirteen years after she originally debuted. This was due largely to the mandate by then Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief that there would be no GLBT characters in the Marvel Universe.” Mystique’s début was in 1978 by the way, so not exactly the pre-legal days of Batman and Superman. Progress is slow though, and slower for letters other than G and L.

2. Batwoman

Delicious irony, in that she was originally introduced as a ‘no homo!’ love interest device, because it didn’t look very hetero when Batman and Robin shared a bedroom, even in the 1950s.

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Whilst like many of the big names there have been various incarnations, parallel universes, and all-round confusing re-inventions, Batwoman was rejuvenated as a Jewish lesbian in a slightly obvious move of clunky tokenism in 2006.

3. Northstar

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Important due to being the first openly gay Marvel superhero – though again, due to the policy of the then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter preventing any openly gay characters (along with the Comic Code Authority), despite debuting in 1979, he was only allowed to be explicitly stated as gay in 1992. With the ability to travel at near light-speed (and the associated resilience and strength), Northstar also got married in Astonishing X-Men in 2012.

4. Extraño

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An early DC queer example premièring in 1988, Extraño, meaning ‘strange’ in Spanish, was painfully stereotypical, though more explicitly ‘out’ before Northstar. Referring to himself often as ‘auntie’, he was confirmed to be HIV positive – possibly from doing battle with an adversary called Hemo-Goblin, who, I kid you not, was “a vampire created by a white supremacist group to eliminate anyone who was not white by infecting them with HIV”. In their own way, the comic book industry tried to engage with important political issues new to the world in the 1980s.

 

5. Wiccan

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A powerful member of the young avengers, Wiccan predictably has powerful magical abilities. With a backdrop that involved standing up to homophobic bullying, and a romance with fellow hero Hulking, this meant the character was particularly well received.

6. Alysia Yeoh

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Although not a superhero per se, Alysia is important as the first major transgender character in a mainstream comic (in 2013), as the roommate of Batgirl. Whilst there has been a few aliens who can morph gender around, psychics inhabiting bodies of different genders, and shapeshifters, this is the first time a transgender person (of colour no less, she’s Singaporean) had been naturalised and involved realistically.

7. Loki

Another huge character in no small part because of film franchises, and also with a complex, multi-incarnate history, Loki has a history of bisexuality and gender fluidity that has been promised to be explored more.

8. Sailor Uranus

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Although more well recognised from anime than from manga (comic book style serialisation in Japan), the Sailor Moon franchise was chock full of lesbianism, with Sailor Uranus having a relationship with Sailor Neptune. This was quite obvious in the originals through their flirtations – but in typical LGBT erasure/censorship, when translated for a US audience, the characters were positioned as cousins. Due to failing to remove all of the flirting however (either through sloppiness or a wish to actually be somewhat faithful to the original), it was accidentally implied not only that they were lesbians, but incestuous lesbians. Great job, conservative America.

9. Xavin

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Whilst we’ve already looked at Alysia as a sensitive and important example of transgender in comics, Xavin is something else. Quite literally, being a non-human known as a skrull who don’t experience gender in the same way. Xavin assumes male, female, and skrull forms. The character raised interesting interpretations of gender as for Xavin, this could be changed as easily and with no more personal significance than an outfit choice.

BONUS: The Young Protectors

Click to read the comic in full, for free!

Now this is something special. With an interesting, diverse cast of characters and a compelling plot, this young-superhero based comic has a gay-driven storyline, without reading like any kind of seedy knock-off. There’s a great balance between character development and action, and I only find it a shame there isn’t a more extensive serialisation to get one’s teeth into. And I’m not alone either. The creator’s Patreon backing is pretty huge. Well deserved, given the entire story is free to access.

Racism in the World of Gay Apps – An Interview with Dang Nguyen

Dang is the creator of racistsofgrindr.tumblr.com – a site which allows submissions of screenshots of racially problematic encounters on the now infamous app, or similar. He offered me some of his time to talk about this issue.

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Click to enlarge. Montage credit: Dang Nguyen.

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Ben: Hi Dang, so tell me, where and how have you experienced racism in LGBTQ contexts?

Dang: Oh, well, it’s definitely most prevalent online and in hookup culture. I can’t speak for other orientations, but among MSM (men who have sex with men) you see it in people’s profiles as if it’s no big thing – “no Asians” or “no Indians” – or else in the way they see race first and a person second, whether or not they’re trying to be complimentary.

Ben: Do you think it’s more obvious as a digital phenomenon?

Dang: Definitely. It’s a cliché, but I do think it’s easier for people to be douchebags from behind a computer monitor. It gives us a sense of distance and helps us dehumanise the people we’re talking to, so we say and do shit we would never dream of doing in real life. So while a lot of people – I hope – would never verbalise their racism in the flesh, they feel perfectly comfortable doing it online because they can be reasonably confident they won’t get bottled for it.

Ben: What do you think of the defence ‘but it’s just a preference’, that can be used?

Dang: I think that the people who use it haven’t really examined its implications. Of course we all have our preferences, we’re all turned on by different things, but those things are informed by assumptions about those qualities to which we’re attracted. Some people like well-groomed men because of the assumption that they’re classy and genteel, while others like rugged men because of the assumption that they’re strong and masculine. I like well-read men who slow-dance because of the assumption that they’re intelligent and romantic. The same applies to race-pursuing, or dismissing someone based on their ethnicity. To do so is basically making an assumption about it, and in the case of Asian men, it’s assumed we’re effeminate and submissive. It’s even seen in those who are trying to turn it into a compliment. I’ve seen men describe Asians as being “smooth” and “cute” and “polite” – all terms denoting delicacy, infantilism and effeminacy.

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Dang: It’s also fucking stupid in that Asians literally come in every shape, size and colour, from dark Sri Lankans to the most moon-pale Korean, from a big-bellied paterfamilias in Mongolia to a lithe nymph in Vietnam. So it’s not an aversion to the way we look, it’s an aversion to Asianness and all the assumptions that go with it.

Ben: Do you think that most people who fetishise Asian men sexually have a broadly similar conflation of what it means to ‘be’ Asian in mind?

Dang: Oh, definitely! If they specify that they prefer Asian men, ask them why. What is it they like about Asian men? Nine times out of ten they’ll reply with some shit about how Asian boys – and it is almost always “boys”, never men – are smooth, or polite, or friendly, or humble, or some other absurd trope that continues the grand tradition of inscrutable, submissive, sexless Orientals who are never a threat to white masculinity.

Ben: So it’s tied up in a power dynamic, then.

Dang: Partly, although I don’t think it’s a conscious domination thing. I mean, I don’t think white men are sitting at home thinking up new ways to retake Hong Kong and conquer the Celestial Empire for its tea and porcelain, but there’s definitely a reason why so many relationships between Asian men and white men have a not insignificant age disparity, as well as the fact that the language white men tend to use about Asian men has pretty heavy connotations of, well, effeminacy (I keep using that word!) which in turn has connotations of weakness. So yes, I do think there’s a power dynamic there.

Ben: How about responses these guys give to rejection, or being called out?

Dang: In both instances, I’ve found that white men tend to dismiss the people who reject or call them out. They can afford to – whiteness is normalised and reinforced everywhere as being not just the standard or the norm, but the ideal, while Asian men occupy a spot near the bottom of the totem pole of desirability. So if one Asian out of five calls out or rejects their racist bullshit, they can just block him and move on to the next Asian, because a lot of Asian men aren’t as picky. They feel like they can’t be.

Ben: Is it just blocking, or does it ever result in abuse? i’m imagining the potential for guys to be affronted, as if by giving their attention they’ve offered a compliment, positioning you as ‘ungrateful’, for instance. I’m imagining a parallel with when men who compliment women will say things like ‘yeah well you’re ugly anyway’ after a rejection.

Dang: It can. I mean, rejection always hurts, no matter how much of a pig-ignorant punk ass douchewaffle you are. Mostly I just get blocked because I tend to be pretty belligerent, but I’ve had a few men deliver parting blows at my bitchiness. One even called me “a yellow”. He used the particle and everything, it was so retro.

Ben: You say the totem pole – do you conceive of a fairly clear hierarchy then? who is situated where? Can you say a bit more about the idea that Asian men feel they can’t afford to be picky? where does that come from? Especially given how it implicitly positions rejecting racially problematic overtures as a ‘pickiness’!

Dang: There’s a very clear racialised hierarchy of gay attractiveness. White men are at the peak, of course. Beneath them are Latino men. Beneath them in turn are Middle Eastern and Black men, with Asians and Indians at the bottom. There are other hierarchies of attractiveness – body type, clique or “tribe”, scene or fetish – but I’m not sure I’d be qualified to pronounce on those.The fact is that white men are wanted by everyone, including each other. Those who will express interest in Asian men are in high demand but comparatively low supply. Asian men, however, are rarely wanted by anyone. Low demand and comparatively high supply. So when one of the sought-after white men is willing to fuck an Asian man, Asian men jockey for attention. It’s no secret that Asian men – just like men of every other colour – often prefer white men over other Asian men. So an Asian man who is willing to write off a potential white sexual partner is seen as picky, because he’s turning down a chance to have sex with one of the coveted Caucasians.

Ben: What do you think positions Latino men above Black and Middle Eastern men? or indeed those groups above Asian and Indian men?

Dang: The cynic in me wants to say that the racial totem pole is formatted according to proximity to white aesthetic values, but again, I think it’s based on certain assumptions about race. We have the Latin lover stereotype, in which both Hispanic men and women are stereotyped as being promiscuous and passionate. Middle Eastern men have the benefit of being more likely to appeal to Eurocentric aesthetic tastes while retaining a sense of exoticism and Otherness (both in a way that can be fetishised and rejected) while black male sexuality has a long and horrifying history of being stereotyped as threatening, but also wild and exciting. Asian and Indian men both suffer from being seen as intellectual, polite and dispassionate – whitefaced geisha and smiling grocery store owners and short but wealthy businessmen and computer technicians.

Ben: What do you say to people who would argue ‘if you don’t like it, don’t use the app!’ or ‘you can just ignore those people!’?

Dang: I think that I shouldn’t have to make room for the shitty behaviour of others. I shouldn’t have to avoid spaces I want to inhabit for fear of being casually dehumanised. Besides, if I just grin and bear it, I’m basically normalising it as an acceptable status quo.

Ben: Do you think there’s any room for men of colour to use racial profiling to their advantage? Playing up to a fantasy in order to procure sex with someone they like the look of, for instance.

Dang: Oh, definitely. If they’re willing to stomach it, they could have frequent and satisfying sex by playing the role set out for them. Many do. I did for a long time, because I was convinced I wouldn’t get a man any other way. There’s something in Sartre about that, isn’t there? Protect yourself from being objectified by pre-objectifying yourself. Make yourself an obscene object and people lose all their power to hurt you.

Ben: Finally, if you had to give any advice to queer men of colour who struggle with self-image due to racist standards of attractiveness, what would it be?

Dang: Don’t take it lying down. Don’t accept things the way they are. Shout, rant, get angry, spit venom, throw a molotov. Try to make it so that no one else ever has to feel the same way you did.

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Dang Nguyen is a knot of serpents masquerading as a boy. His divinity has spent twenty-two years in its current mortal vessel, which resides in the principality of Melbourne, Australia. His hobbies include embroidery, literary analysis and the pursuit of ageless immortality.

Queer Biography – Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

Chances are, you haven’t heard of this guy. He’s a bit of a historical badass though, and I shall explain why.

Badass except for the comb-over, perhaps. 

This gentleman is often considered to be the world’s first gay activist. We’re talking about activism that happened over 100 years before the Stonewall Riots, many decades before the word ‘gay’ came to have any connection with same sex attraction… and before the word ‘homosexual’ was coined.

Karl Ulrichs was born in 1825 in Hanover, what is now North-West Germany. Like many queer men, records show that Ulrichs engaged with ‘female’ toys, clothes, and had more girls as friends as a child. He graduated in law and theology when he was 21 from  Göttingen University. He then studied history in Berlin before becoming a legal advisor in 1848. He resigned in 1854 to avoid being dismissed or disciplined for his homosexuality – which was known about – and although not illegal at this time in Hanover, it was a problem because he was a civil servant.

Ulrichs was so self-aware, that despite the lack of words existing to describe his same-sex attractions, despite a total social invisibility beyond disapproval and punishment, he actually created new words to use to describe himself, and identities we now recognise today.

The word Ulrichs coined was ein Urning, which was adapted from German into English to be Uranian. This was in 1862, when he came out to his family and friends – and seven years before Homosexual was used in a published work, by Karl-Maria Kertbeny (a lot of pretty cool people by the name of Karl at this time, it seems). Ulrichs considered uranians like himself to be members of a ‘third sex’, people who had a ‘female soul trapped inside a male body’ – because Ulrichs made the assumption that love and attraction towards men was a somehow female quality. This conflation between what the ‘gender of your soul’ was and the nature of a person’s sexual attractions means that by today’s standards, discussion about people who would now be termed gay and discussion about people who would now be termed trans are rather difficult to disentangle, as neither groups of people had been really defined by anyone. This was the start!

‘Sodomite’, the only descriptor that really existed before this time, specifically only described men who committed the act of sodomy, so said nothing about any (shared) sense of identity. What’s more, Ulrichs, Kertbeny and a very small number of others were the first to put forward that same-sex attraction wasn’t ‘wickedness’, and was something people were born with. This idea connected sexuality with biology, unfortunately leading to consideration in medical terms – and the conception of homosexuality as a mental illness. One can be confident that Ulrichs would’ve been unlikely to conceive of himself or his fellow urnings as ‘sick’, but this was the homophobic social development that occurred as popular consensus shifted from a spiritual understanding to a ‘scientific’ one.

Furthermore, Ulrichs was brave enough to come out publicly – in front of the German Association of Jurists – in *1867*. This was only four years before Paragraph 175 was introduced in 1871 – the German legal provision that criminalised homosexual activity right up until 1994. Paragraph 175 came about throughout the new German Empire (German unification occuring in January 1871) because homosexuality was already criminalised in old Prussia. Ulrichs fought bravely to avoid the instigation of this paragraph, using arguments that homosexuality was an innate quality with a biological basis, which flew in the face of contemporary thought. He was also rational enough to modify his position over time as his thinking on sexuality developed. In 1870, Ulrichs published Araxes: a Call to Free the Nature of the Urning from Penal Law – an essay that stated:

The Urning, too, is a person. He, too, therefore, has inalienable rights. His sexual orientation is a right established by nature. Legislators have no right to veto nature; no right to persecute nature in the course of its work; no right to torture living creatures who are subject to those drives nature gave them.

The Urning is also a citizen. He, too, has civil rights; and according to these rights, the state has certain duties to fulfill as well. The state does not have the right to act on whimsy or for the sheer love of persecution. The state is not authorized, as in the past, to treat Urnings as outside the pale of the law.

Demonstrating the powerful tone he was capable of striking. Throughout his life Ulrichs wrote prolifically, though found limited support. Generally funding and publishing his writings himself, he found his work banned throughout Saxony and Prussia pre-German unification. In 1879 he relocated to Italy, where he died in 1895. The spirit of this man is captured beautifully by this quotation:

Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the spectre which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.

 

Camp in Culture – One man’s fabulous is another man’s poison

This article appeared in the Cambridge University Student’s Union (CUSU) LGBT magazine, No Definition, Easter 2012 edition. Enjoy!

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If there’s a single trait that causes the biggest divergence in opinion in gay circles, it’s arguably campery. Whilst it may not be obvious in generally none-too-extrovert Cambridge communities, historically there has been an overwhelming amount of hyper-masculine expressionism and performance associated with gay scenes and bodies. These ideas have been captured (and exaggerated to an eyebrow-raising degree) by the artist Tom of Finland, whose drawings encapsulate bodybuilder physiques, Village People attire, and absolutely no subtlety whatsoever.

Masculinity is enhanced if you can take an eye out on either of your nipples.

Whilst one obviously can’t say that such images are a reflection of our gay-to-day experiences (though who hasn’t seen more than a couple tank-top clad body worshippers at the local watering hole…), the more general idea of visible femininity being undesirable in gay men is all over the place. Whether people are declaring themselves ‘straight-acting’ or ‘only interested in men who are men’, I doubt I’m the only person to have heard the occasional queen declare how they cannot *stand* queens.

So I’ve been talking about masculinity and femininity, and whilst it has become pretty common for femininity expressed by men to be referred to as ‘camp’, this is very much a cultural shift the word has experienced. As with any essay, Wikipedia is our friend when it comes to historical backdrop. Originating from the French slang ‘se camper’ meaning ‘to pose in an exaggerated fashion’, campness is the creation of appeal and humour through an overstated ridiculousness. Think ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. For an early example, think the fruit hats of Carmen Miranda from the 1940s. Camp is the kissing cousin of kitsch, but with reference to performance (naïve or deliberate) rather than objects. It’s certainly true that ‘camp’ was also used to refer to ‘gay behaviour’ – particularly in the pre-stonewall era when effeminate behaviour and sexuality were even more conflated than they are now.

The very old social stereotypes concerning gay men behaving more ‘like women’ certainly played a part in the hyper-masculine cultural backlash of the 1970s and 80s. In the days when the argument ‘we’re no different from you’ was a popular part of the rhetoric in the important struggle for rights and recognition, some saw it as damaging to the ‘gay cause’ to present anything other than homonormativity (where typical heterosexual gender norms are assimilated into LGBTQ cultures) to the rest of the world.

This may go some of the way to explain why some gay men may have a discomfort with ‘camp’ – worrying that people potentially associate what may be seen as a screaming, extroverted, kitsch performance with your identity may be very disheartening. Likewise others may just not care for the style, just as others don’t care for rap battles or musicals. But what about when the word ‘camp’ is used more to describe feminine tendencies or behaviour in men (as it so often is), without alluding to the absurd performance oriented nature that was originally intended? Without drowning in the gender politics of Judith Butler, one wouldn’t call man-bags, fake tan, foundation, and an adoration of pop divas a ‘performance’ in the traditional sense. Indeed, it may be quite sweeping and unfair to consider such behaviour ‘affected’ or ‘fake’ as some LGBTers levy as a criticism.

These sorts of behaviours are all things that 1. don’t receive special notice or consideration when done by women, and 2. result in assumptions being made about the sexuality of men who do engage with any such behaviours. Often this isn’t even questioned, with the rather poor justification of ‘but it’s true!’ – whilst masculinity in girls is also policed it generally doesn’t experience the same level of distain. In the fantastic book ‘Whipping Girl’ by Julia Serano, Serano points out (tongue in cheek) that femininity is in fact a weapon, when she points out how far the average straight man will hold a handbag away from his body if given it to hold for a minute.

Nowadays, it’s a huge thing for someone to be accused of being a misogynist. People will leap to deny this label as quickly as they will deny being homophobic or racist, even when engaging with obviously unacceptable behaviour or language. Whilst it would be shockingly naïve to make any claim that repression due to being female wasn’t still very much prevalent, judgement against femininity is arguably aired more casually.

Masculinity and femininity are often treated (simplistically, and erroneously) as oppositional, and such ‘men are from Mars women are from Venus’ attitudes are linked in large part to gender stereotyping. Whilst masculinity is ‘honest’, femininity is ‘affected’. Masculinity – strong, femininity – weak. Masculinity stoic, femininity – emotional, the list goes on. When considered in these terms, masculine behaviour by women makes more ‘social sense’ than feminine behaviour from men, due to patriarchal structures that reward such behaviour (in the ‘right’ contexts such a work – this is clearly a book’s worth of discussion all on its own). Campness has an undeniable tie to femininity both due to the historical judgement of gay men and from the indulgence and gendered challenges presented by drag performance. Whilst not really admitted, the evidence is plain to see that exhibition of femininity commands less respect and demands less social capital and power, generally speaking. Mainstream social acceptance of male femininity has only really been in terms of when done clearly for fun in a false way – such as music hall of the war era, or pantomime dames. Femininity from men presents a social challenge, even with no political intention.

What has been loved about camp could fill a book as easily as the reasons for its problematisation. The escapism, the ownership of one’s gender presentation and behaviour, some might even experience a fondness based in tradition or community kinship. Whether loved or loathed, there’s a lot ‘to’ camp, which makes it fabulous in an entirely different way.

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