MY GROWING IDEA OF WHAT “GAY” MEANS
Although both the medical/psychological definitions and the self-defined nature of who is “gay” are based on the concept of physical desire, it’s interesting to look at the various presentations of the category through media or semi-public appearance. The image of the male who desires sex with other males changes over time to adapt to public consensus about other sources of culture, particularly media including literature. But the nature of desire is not the whole person.
Bear with me while I walk through my own past. I had two younger brothers. Probably the first time I was aware of something more in terms of boys was as a child when I saw Caravaggio’s painting called “Amor Victorious” which came in a traveling exhibit to the Portland Art Museum. I had no idea that the boy was Caravaggio’s model and lover and my parents had not expected nudity, much less permission to stand staring. This was a concept with no words but intense impact, treated innocently but sensually. I’m not sure the painting could be exhibited today without cries of “pedophile.”
In the fourth grade the art teacher left the room for some reason. We were supposed to be coloring (within the lines) with crayons. A flurry broke out among the boys over the yellow crayons because, they said, “yellow is the color of homos.” They couldn’t explain, just insisted with a lot of laughter. This was before the concept of “gay” existed.
In the eighth grade I was mad for ballet. I had a girl friend with a handsome young uncle who offered to escort the two of us to a ballet performance. I had no idea that male ballet dancers were supposed to be homosexual. Looking back, the very attractive and cautious uncle was wise to take girls with him, two of them so no one would suspect a Lolita vibe.
About the same time or a little earlier my uncivilized and not-quite-clear-headed old widowed grandfather came up from Roseburg and enjoyed offending my little brothers. “What are you, a HOMO?” he demanded. And likewise, he suggested one brother’s name was BOBO, which happened to be our family word for urination. That probably shocked my brothers more. They understood peeing better than sex.
When I got to college, I took theatre classes and became part of a small group of talented men who were desirous of other men, though they didn’t know what that meant or how to reconcile it with other differences from the norm. I suppose I was a disguise. None of us understood that a famous gay writer/tattooist, John Coriolan, was working not far away from us in Chicago at Navy Pier. I had no idea that acting on the desire for men was a crime until I found out by accident that a graduate assistant had been arrested in a public bathroom.
I did not go into theatre but taught English on the Blackfeet rez before I became involved with Bob Scriver, a Western sculptor. A powerful and emotional man, he occasionally attracted gay men but always claimed he had no idea. One summer he loaned his little cabin at St. Mary to a pair of committed gays without saying anything, but he was inclined to suspect his French-Canadian brother-in-law of being a bit femme. The boy was an academic who liked to dress up.
The attraction of white women to indigenous men was obvious but rarely acted out though the more shamanic figures in the community had German wives. The attraction of indigenous men to white women took on racist overtones of violence. An explicit version of an indigenous man attracted to a white man was written by a woman, “The Fancy Dancer” by Patricia Nell Warren. Several gay female novelists have written about gay men, notably Mary Renaut.
In the ’70’s as an animal control officer I was in the gray area on both sides of criminality. There was the humorous time I went to collect a little stray poodle from a “massage parlor” and the concerned women assured me that they had washed the dog and given him a blow job. (They had dried him with a hair dryer.)
Another episode was the result of a male officer being afraid to take a call to a house full of cross-dressers who had been turned in as “cruel” out of the neighbor’s curiosity to have someone explain the clothes drying on the line. A black man in babydoll pajamas answered the door. He was quite like Geraldine, the comic invention, except for having a beard. I went in to see how the dog was (okay) and met several gentlemen in lovely lingerie. Everyone had excellent manners.
On one evening a fellow officer escorted me to sit in a parked car and watch the parking structure that served as a location for “chicken hawks” picking up boys for illegal purposes. My friend wanted to prove to me that we would recognize some of those men in circulating cars. We did. They were too important to prosecute — at least not by us. Some people thought it was funny.
Today, particularly after ten years in the clergy listening to people of all sorts and discovering categories of writing I hadn’t know existed, my outlook is that desire of every kind, including physiologically prompted natures and states related to sex, is inevitably shaped by experience, context, location, time, opportunity and the opinions of others. Like water, sexual desire can seep into small spaces, divert into something else, evaporate, or solidify. Some people are obsessed, some are merely pleased, and a few wonder what is being talked about.
When I taught in a small rez school in the foothills of the Rockies, students were frank about who was gay and who loved those individuals. They were protective and actively helped those who loved problematic others. It was the age to pair off, and I respected that. Attending a movie in Great Falls where there is an Air Force Base, I was aware that two handsome men with neat mustaches and AF uniforms were quietly holding hands. When I worked for the City of Portland years after that, it was clear that many of the women were lesbian but none of the male inspectors were gay. It was not problematic except that some thought I might be lesbian and when I wasn’t, they were not particularly friendly.
People who have same sex desires are not always obvious and don’t have to hide to be unseen. They are subtly all around us. Or maybe we are them.
WHEN WE THINK OF GAY MEN
This is a list of the stream of gay images that have run through US ideas in the more recent decades. I’m excluding the idea of Greek underage lovers for warriors, squires for knights, and the man/boy episode because pedophilia is too incendiary. Please understand that I’m outside, only observing and therefore missing things that those involved will know. I’m more interested in the presentation than the psychology.
Most dramatic have been the images that came out of combat veterans, many with PTSD, mostly in San Francisco where many veterans were discharged. The image became associated with motorcycles and can hint at German military. WWII was a highly mechanical military war but included many “boots on the ground”, meaning physical hardship and bodily confrontation.
Leather-wearing combat veterans wore a mix of harness, chaps, visored caps and studded gear echoing the management of powerful horses with bridles, reins, and harness, but at the same time exposing vulnerable male parts — the chest, the buttocks, and the face, though sometimes it is masked. In private, genitalia might be revealed or even accentuated. Echoing Greek/Roman gladiators, this male power style put little emphasis on weapons apart from fists and whips. Each man personally assembled a unique costume based on necessary protection to wear on a motorcycle.
There were hints of the indigenous in design, especially as fringes and metal detailing such as studs on jackets, but never feathers or beading. Many harness leather Plains Indian scabbards and belts are embellished with brass studs. Zippered leather aviator jackets were also a mark of adventure.
A second more exclusive internal group of men were sworn to secret practices approaching torture between intimates. Geoff Mains, a Phd gay scientist of ecology, composed an early understanding of the hormonal management of aggression, pain, and relief in “Urban Aboriginals.”
In a different military context, Samirai were honorable and highly trained mercenaries, something like knights. By contrast ninjas were “low” or working class peasants who did whatever they had to, including poison and deceit. These categories have been mixed in today’s stories, but the general idea has captured the martial imagination. Ninjas are portrayed as all in black, entirely covered, even with goggles or visors and helmets — very swat team, unified by uniformity and acting through direction for a power. They hide age, ethnicity, skin color, and to some degree lack of physical fitness. Possibly gender. Their white shadow in movies is the police encased in fiberglass white armor, forces of the Star Wars Empire.
Medieval armor protected and identified the individual in ritualistic combat as the unique “hero” who required a team and a massive horse, acting to ritualistically fulfill a code that honored women. Suits of armor are confining and limiting, very heavy. Compare today’s backpack soldier with pockets everywhere, possibly wearing camo uniforms to prevent being picked out by snipers. Much of what is carried or “worn” is electronic and the total can be very heavy. Sometimes there are armor plates for chest and back.
It seems that brute strength is no longer a prerequisite for military membership, because so much is electronic and done from a distance. Even a woman can fly a jet fighter plane or guide a predator drone managed by computer back in the US. Gays are now accepted in a military context because what is needed is intelligence and skill. Nevertheless, much needs to be rethought, including male tendencies to aggression and presumed tolerance of violence now that we know more about PTSD and men who assault women compatriots.
Contrast this military-like confirmation of male power through homomasculinity with the louche, luxurious, self-indulgent, wealth-based heterosexual indolence of Hugh Heffner who makes women into rabbits and never bothers to get dressed. Desiring bunnies is all that separates the style from clichéd depictions of corrupt gay aristocrats. But the bunnies are supposed to prove heterosexuality.
Jeffrey Epstein and Trump take this line of thought to criminal extremes. It is aggrandizement of one-sex mirror masculinity, neither same sex nor heterosexual, nor based on natural desire. It is often paid or voyeuristic, predicated on the weakness of others who can be controlled. It is at heart a form of self-on-self masturbation, involuted desire.
This is highly merchandized in both the male desiring male and monomale forms. Hefner has been a gold mine for those selling what was then “hi-fi” and red silk robes. This trope has become re-psychologized through the concept of narcissism, the boy who admires himself. The gay category per se greatly expands the merchandizing world, as did the empowerment of women and Blacks. Indigenous people used to show specialness works if the culture has fantasies about “Indians”. Most recently extreme embellishment with paint and costume, demonstrated at pow-wows, has been a male entitlement but the desire and exertion are specific to males, like birds courting with plumage.
Positive and high culture images of the “high end” homosexuals have always persisted. The gentleman and the poet, the dancer and naturalist, the friend of women and protector of the vulnerable have always been chosen male roles, regardless of intimacy choice. Thus, marriage and child-raising can be performed by gays without being labeled.
This list is probably incomplete but is an argument that desire does not define the whole person who is much more than fertility and capable of infinite other forms of performance. I once had a brief correspondence with a Navajo scholar who explained that in the historic context of his People there were NINE unique gender roles.
In the past I’ve suggested that categories of every social kind are seen as binary but are actually something more like a continuum with one end being “low” and the other being “high.” Choosing to address the whole category in terms of one section means that some people are harshly condemned (“bestiality”) and other people are admired (Oscar Wilde, Lawrence of Arabia). Wealthy and powerful people are passed over, excused, and plainly learn to treat taboos as adding value, a sign of privilege.
A fascinating case, though not necessarily related to sexual desire, is the class distinction between Samurai and Ninjas, which I have just begun to learn about. The distinction is based partly on the high loyalty and principles of the Samurai versus the struggle to survive by any means for the Ninja. The identification of Ninjas as the defiant, the penniless, desperate Third World people, overlooks the antisocial and sometimes criminal means these categories use to survive. This is complicated when the Samuai is acting out of justice and protection of the vulnerable. Obviously, the Samurai can be honorably gay, but what about the Ninja?
The Japanese film, “Farewell, My Concubine,” is about a love triangle of traditional actors in revolutionary times, and treats desire for the same sex as complex and sophisticated. “Warparty,” a contemporary Western, includes a ruffled gay man as a dubious associate of the main villain. The much earlier filming of A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s novel, “The Big Sky” did not dare use a gay character and redefined him as “simple.”
The criminality of sex is both a weapon and an incentive and the lines of definition are tangled. Right now sexual assault by prisoners on others is a plot element used all the time, though presumably the people at the writers’ table who think up the tales have little experience. When some claim that experience but later turn out to have exaggerated or lied, they are scorned and stigmatized, thought to have turned their suffering into money, something like doing sexwork. People do not think this through and few are tempted to explain it, because explanations often turn into convictions about stigma.
In summary, sexual desire and its various permutations are plastic and often hidden. The tension between individuals and community can be either a matter of inclusion and persecution. Experience is our main way of figuring it out. Impressions change over time and in different circumstances, but sexual desire is not necessarily the definition of an identity, particularly over time.
We need to figure out all this stuff in order make our democracy work, to relieve it from the burden of blackmail and extortion at the highest government levels, and to keep our voters sane. There are a lot of alternatives out there, many experiments with the past, with organization, with new names and forms. This bit of reflection is only one small single-person window.