issue 175 - September 1987
Queer fears and gay examples
Gay men are usually seen as a race apart. They are victimized and vilified,
the butts of both humour and violence. Yet if we are looking for the men who
have done the most creative thinking about masculinity we should
go to their door. Gary Dowsett begins our education.
It shouldn't be surprising to see a section on homosexuality in a magazine about masculinity. After all, gay men have their own perspective on the male condition. Nor is it surprising that this is usually a separate section. The homosexual man is still a counter-image, a marginalized alternative. One reason for this is that heterosexual men make us 'also-rans' in the male race, declaring most of us unfit for the opportunities and rewards available to them.
We gay men find participation in conventional maleness difficult and often choose to live our lives in less harassed circumstances. There is something to be said for the safety of hairdressing, teaching, nursing, telephonist work and the arts. However, it is not just in the occupations some choose that gay men find a niche. Separation from traditional masculinity has also come with the development of gay urban ghettos, which offer gay men greater chances than we once had to opt out of heterosexual male life.
These new inner-city gay communities are evidence of the dramatic changes which have happened in the lives of homosexual men in the last 18 years, partly as a result of the impact of gay liberation. There are distinctive gay male lifestyles, definable personal images, tastes and fashions, supported by specific businesses, services and venues. It depends upon which city you inhabit, but it is easy to move around Sydney, London, Toronto, New York and San Francisco and be familiar with gay bars and resorts, discos and shops.
And even if it is heavily North American in origin, there is an international gay style. Events such as the annual Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney, which attracts 50,000 spectators to the parade and 8,000 dancing men to the all-night party that follows, are outstanding celebrations of modern gay male life. They are the most visible examples of the differences which exist between heterosexual and homosexual men. And they are differences which point out possibilities for the male sex often ignored by the straight world.
Gay challenges to conventional expressions of maleness existed long before the modern gay liberation movement and its communities. Gay male life, as we are now discovering in our once-hidden histories, has always offered space for the different, the marginal, the creative. In London's 'molly houses'1 of the late 17th and early 18th century and in its literary and socialist circles 200 years later, the molly and the drag queen contradicted the idea of maleness by dressing as women. The radical crossdressing of early gay liberation teamed dresses and beards to flout conventional masculine and feminine images. Today's 'clones' - the self-mocking name adopted by jeans-wearing and moustache-bearing gay men - use extreme macho images and yet commit the worst 'crime' against conventional masculinity by loving and having sex with men. Disputing gender images and resisting restriction on sexual behaviour have been constant themes in gay life.
The earlier versions of this resistance to conventional masculinity were mounted in the face of great social disapproval and condemnation. They occurred also in times when it was much more difficult to comprehend homosexuality in oneself. The flouting and aping of traditional masculine images were as much statements of pain as of resistance. Today's gay men are at least supported in our efforts by a politics and theory of sexual liberation, a sense of pride in ourselves and a determination to fight oppression - as in the successful campaigns to decriminalize male homosexual behaviour in many Western countries. These, the sharpest points of our challenge to traditional masculinity, are deliberate, conscious and collective. But our other significant challenge lies in simpler things. It comes from living our daily lives as gay men.
Daily life is the central arena of sexual politics, something often buried unintentionally in a barrage of theorizing, Every day, each gay man is responsible for his job or career, his social life, sporting and cultural interests, and for his family life - including children (yes, gay men do have them). He has to maintain emotional attachments to lovers and commitments to longstanding networks of friends. Along with all of this comes the housework, the shopping, sewing, washing and ironing, and organizing the domestic relations of a household, be it the rural gay male commune, the suburban monogamous couple, the inner-city collective house or the bachelor flat While gay men are no keener on housework than the next man, it is true that years of being wimpish children and mother's little helpers mean that a queen's home really is his castle.
Each gay man struggles in his own way to be a self-sufficient being. After all, we were brought up male and should experience the same dilemmas as straight men in balancing the private and the public aspects of modem life. The struggles of heterosexual men in managing careers and family life seem foreign to gay men because, except in the case of the wealthy, gay men 'do' for themselves without much fuss, very much like women always have. Looking after oneself is simply part of life.
A further challenge to heterosexual men lies in a gay man's relations with other men - because in this one can see the potential of all men to love and care for each other. The straight world often overlooks the fact that gay men actually love one another, in all meanings of that word. We love another man, his body, his passions and desires. We love another man's loving of ourselves, our bodies, passions and desires. That love is more than sex. It is the creation and maintenance of relationships of significance. This is no easy feat for anyone, but it is made more difficult for homosexuals because we lack the social support offered to heterosexual relationships by the law, the institution of marriage, by tradition, tax benefits and overt cultural validation. Our successes and failures here are object lessons in the relationship between social structure and personal life.
In addition, sex between gay men is remarkably egalitarian: the giving and receiving of pleasure is expected. As a result gay men have a lot to say to straights about existing male capacities for genitally and non-genitally focussed sex. We know more about male sexual pleasure from inside and out than anyone else. We have a great deal of experience with the notion and practice of promiscuity and reject the idea that meaningful relationships can only occur in lifelong monogamous contracts. We can say a lot about serial monogamy, multiple relationships, jealousy and possessiveness, and celibacy. The idea that sex should be a private act between two people is constantly subverted by gay men.2 It is these pioneering experiences of sexual relations, which continue to challenge conventional ideologies about sex and to confound most of the moralists, theologians and medico-social theorists from the Biblical patriarch Abraham to Foucault.
What's more, it is not secret knowledge. We are very open about our sexual and emotional lives. There are shelves and shelves of books by gay men about sensuality and sexual liberation in theory and practice available for all to read. There are films, plays, art, novels, newspapers and magazines. And there is also a substantial body of theoretical work produced by gay men about sexism and its effects on males, and about heterosexism - the domination of the sexual domain by heterosexual practices and ideologies. It is interesting to note how many people with so much to say about masculinity have never read very much by homosexuals. I've read The Limits of Masculinity; have you read States of Desire?3
The issues raised by homosexuals are still frequently excluded from serious social thought And meanwhile our daily living is accomplished in a context of social disapproval, often expressed as rejection, as cruel repression and discrimination, and too often as murder. In any society the oppression of homosexual men - along with the oppression of women - is yet another marker of the extent to which men hate themselves and fear their own humanness. Gay liberation coined the term 'homophobia' to represent the irrational fear of homosexuality exhibited in our societies. Its manifestations are found in laws which prohibit same-sex lovemaking, in the ready vilification of a person's homosexuality regardless of his or her contribution to society. It is found in the endless fascination of the British press with the genital wanderings of its MPs. It is found in the 'Kill a queer for Christ' mentality of US Christian fundamentalists, and in discrimination against homosexual priests in parts of the Anglican Church in Australia. It is found in the butchering of gay men in the streets of Sydney, Amsterdam, Toronto, New York, Tehran and Madrid, in the mental institutions of Russia, and in the prisons of Chile and South Africa
The effect of living in a hostile society, of negotiating daily life without social support, of being a self-sufficient but marginalized human, can be devastating. Gay lives can be difficult to live with respect and honesty - the struggle by gay koories4 in Australia to live between two cultures is but one example. Emotions and behaviour can become distorted when gay men believe that the cruelty inflicted upon us must somehow be warranted. Every victim faces the crippling effects of self-blame. Gay liberation called it 'internalized oppression'. It's just one more difficulty to add to those already mentioned.
The extent of the terror which homosexuality inspires in the hearts and minds of many heterosexual men must raise serious questions for any society about its raising of male children. We must question the mothering and fathering boys receive. We must challenge the way in which we deliberately shape boys' sexual energies, and how we present them systematically with misinformation about themselves, sex and love.
Many women use us as an example to their wayward mates of what is possible (though not perfect) in masculinity. It must annoy many straight men to be told that the object of their scorn and derision for many years has more to say about the possibilities of being male than they have. Some heterosexual men are listening to us. I often read in 'men's liberation' magazines articles about the need to get closer to gay men and to confess to past episodes of 'poofter bashing'. In academic circles, some men, trying to come to grips with feminism personally and professionally, consider our contribution worthy. The boundaries of the concept of patriarchy itself are blurred by male homosexuality: it becomes too simplistic to see sexism just as the expression of male power over women.
It is not all plain sailing for gay men. The struggle we are now facing with the spread of the AIDS virus is daunting. When gay communities raise money, undertake research, implement education programs and care for people with AIDS, we do so in the absence of adequate public services and in the face of unhelpful, ignorant condemnation. Without doubt, Australia's relatively successful response to the epidemic so far could not have occurred without the dedication, strength, skill and determination of our gay communities. There are lessons about sharing and caring here for everyone.
The experiences of gay men are worth considering when thinking about the process of restructuring masculinity, and of achieving the liberation of men and women from relations which are hurtful and damaging. Our offering lies in the progress we have made so far. It comes from our history, our theory, our contribution to societies everywhere. Most of all it comes from the examples of our daily lives. Many of us believe we have some ideas about the way ahead and we are avidly pursuing them. You are all warmly invited to come with us.
Gary Dowsett is currently researchlng 'Social Aspects of the Prevention of AIDS' at Macquarie University in Sydney. He is co-author of Making the Difference - Schools, Families and Social Division.
1 Male brothels discussed in Bray A, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 1982.
2 Rechy J., Sexual Outlaw, 1977.
3 Tolson A., The Limits of Masculinity, 1977. White E., States of Desire, 1980.
4 The name for themselves preferred by Aboriginal Australians in New South Wales.
There are an estimated 8,000 travestis (transvestite prostitutes) in Brazil's main cities. Most start out as working-class homosexuals, discriminated against in the job stakes. Their working day starts at dusk, plying the streets and night-clubs and perhaps - if they're young and pretty enough - holding down a spot in the cabaret.
Why the transvestite tradition arose in Brazil is not clear, except that behind the official 'machismo' the country has its own long and specific homosexual traditions. Until recently for instance, when the Anglo-Saxon model of homosexual couples was adopted by the middle and upper classes, the Brazilian understanding was that only the passive partner in a gay relationship was homosexual.
The sexual tastes to which the transvestites cater defy conventional categorization. Contrary to expectation, the travesti is usually asked to play the active role of penetration. Yet the more Brazil's cities get used to the travestis, the more they are seen as yet another sexual option: something exotic and perverse. Even AIDS does not seem to have diminished the demand for their services and for the transvestites, the disease is just one more danger that awaits in dark city streets.
The lucky ones might come home to an all-transvestite hostel like the one in 'Brenda Lee' runs in São Paulo, offering bed and full board for five dollars a day. Brenda Lee is the pseudonym of a transvestite in his mid-thirties now retired from streetwalking. He is one of the few who have made it. From a poor family of 18 brothers and sisters in the interior of the north-eastern estates of Pernambuco, he now owns a hairdressers, a car mechanics business and the hostel - a large, old house in São Paulo's bohemian district of Bixiga.
By 9.00pm most of Brenda Lee's 45 meninas (literally, 'little girls') are dressed up and at work. In the hostel living room, a transvestite in jeans with the build of an all-in wrestler and a two-day stubble is doing the hostel accounts. The only indication of a feminine dimension to his identity is his long bleached hair. 'Here in Brazil you haven't a chance if you are gay,' says Brenda Lee. 'I worked as a shop assistant. I never got promoted, always got passed over. I had to spend my salary on work clothes I didn't like. In the end they sacked me without paying holidays. So I thought why go on when there are transvestites earning on the street, free to wear the clothes they want?
'Sometimes it's Carnival that gives a transvestite the chance to dress up - he's always wanted to and at Carnival he loses his timidity. In my adolescence, I always wanted to be the passive partner. I thought that one day my Prince Charming would come and when I realized he wouldn't - well, I hit the streets. I sometimes think, if fate had been different, if I had been able to live as a homosexual, life would have been better.
In the 1960s and 1970s, transvestites were frequently beaten up and tortured by the police. They devised a peculiar form of defence; if arrested they would slash their arms and legs, reckoning that the police would then leave them alone. These days police persecution is more sporadic. Some police will demand money to leave them in peace. Last year a group of men whom Brenda Lee says were off-duty police attacked several transvestites with machine guns.
'Our clients are the most varied types - you get men who bring their 12 year old sons to try out a travesti', men who want to change clothes with us, couples who want a travesti to make up a threesome, sometimes even women. In the majority of cases they want to be the active one, to penetrate. It's funny, most transvestites want to play the role of men - to survive you adapt. Some end up liking it.
What makes a client seek out a transvestite, rather than a male prostitute?
'I think they grow to admire our sculptural bodies, bodies that seem as if they come from another planet, curvaceous and feminine like a woman, but performing the role of a man.'
A minority of transvestites have sex-change operations. Although illegal, it is not hard to find a plastic surgeon to perform the operation for around 5,000 dollars. Brenda Lee once considered having the operation, but then changed his mind. He has silicone breast implants that cost 1,000 dollars; lipo-suction, from 200 dollars upwards, is used to suck out curves. A few years ago a number of São Paulo transvestites dies after injecting themselves with industrial silicone.
More than 100 of the meninas who have stayed at the hostel have gone abroad - to Italy, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain. 'If a girl is well organized, she can do a thousand times better in Europe , but if she is young and vain, she can get her head turned. I worked in Paris some years ago. I liked working for a superior clientele - it made it much nicer somehow.'
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
Editor: You are completely uncompromising. Are you deliberately setting out to shock and, if so, isn't this tactic likely to be counter-productive?
Dowsett: One's estimate of the 'challenge' issued by gay male sex to society's sexual practices depends on where one stands. Some may find the idea of gay sex, even if monogamous and 'non-deviant', disgusting; others may find it confusing or, at least, arresting. But if gay men are to present clearly our critique of heterosexist society we must expose our sexual practices to view. This is bound to be subversive, because it is precisely for these practices we are vilified and oppressed. As such, ours are brave attempts to state other 'truths' about human sexuality. The more we hide, the less useful our example is for others. It is the diluted version of gay sex that is counter-productive.
Editor: You claim that the macho image of 'clones' is a subversion of conventional masculinity. But isn't this a cop-out? - women may find other gay men sympathetic but macho style smacks of violence whoever uses it.
Dowsett: 'Clones' are not dissimilar to any other gay images or styles. They are representations of gay life designed as part of gay culture. Gay macho has meaning for gay men only. Whatever it might look like to others, it actually has nothing to do with them. If women read a threat of violence into the sight of the gay guy working in the menswear department who wears tight jeans, a leather vest, a crew cut and moustache, and who is also known as Doris to his friends, they are simply mistaken.
Editor: Aren't you deceiving readers by pretending that all gays have reached the same level of political sophistication as yourself? Surely most gays are more interested in a quiet life than in challenging patriarchal society?
Dowsett: Not all gay men are involved in challenging patriarchal society as a conscious act. Gay communities are diverse and many gay men live outside the expanding urban ghettos I wrote of. Not all are committed to the task of constructing a gay masculinity as a new form of living. There is a distinct generation of gay men - the tertiary-educated, anti-Vietnam War generation - who are the backbone of the radical politics and theoretical advances made by gay men. However, it would be difficult for any gay man not to notice the impact of 18 years of gay liberation on his daily life. Maybe the quiet life deserves a second look.
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