CAN YOU BE AN EFFECTIVE AIDS CARE PROVIDER WITHOUT BEING AWARE OF THE DIVERSITY OF QUEER SUBCULTURES?
A Mexican man I have taken care for several years asked me last week: “Do you think God loves me.”
If you take nothing else away from this hour of dialogue I hope it is a further realization that the term “gay male” does not always = white, middle class, well educated health consumer. The ID/AIDS clinic is a great vortex for many diverse gay subcultures. In fact I would say the least represented queer subculture is the white, middle class faggot. I would hope also that I’ll be able to impart to you a bit of very rich queer history and tie this all together in some sort of strange way with the current nightmare called AIDS that has been devastating the gay communities for the past twenty years.
RADICAL = To the Root.
Let’s start with a little “herstory” first from Judy Grahn. I used the word faggot above for a couple of reasons, and shock is NOT one of them! I like the word and will use it interchangeably with gay and queer. From “Another Mother Tongue” by Judy Grahn: “A tree whose wood was sacred to ancient (Gay male) sorcerers, magical kings, and wizards was the beech tree; the Latin word for beech is fagus. It was a huge and venerated fagus beech tree that Joan of Arc visited to get her voice messages and that she was accused of dancing around with the fairy people. “Faggot” as a sacred male sexual firestick, is a venerable term. The faggot as a wand for divination and sacred firemaking has apparently belonged to the province of Gay male wizards, sorcerers, and priests for thousands of years”.
Just a bit more history about the word faggot and I’ll get on with other stuff. Again from Judy Grahn: “A faggot is something that flames, a firestick. … We hung cigarettes from the corners of our mouths and talked tough. We called the cigarettes “fags” in a double pun, a joke both on our imagined dyke-toughness and on our Gay brothers. Like dike, faggot is an office: the Lesbian butch and the bulldike and the Amazon are related to female warriors and the Horned God. The faggot is related to Gay wizardry, to wands, and to the element of fire.”
“The only thing we have in common with straight people is what we do in bed”. Harry Hay
A bit of queer theory: Essentialism vs. Social Construction. Essentialists believe that queer people have always existed through out the world. Social constructionists believe that queers are an invention of modern western culture. The above quote which I attribute to Harry Hay, and I’m sure he said this late one night in my kitchen back in 1978, would be an essentialist position. A social constructionist would believe that our choice in having sex with our own kind results in tremendous social ostracism and oppression and from this comes “gay identity”. An essentialist would believe that there is a genetic pre-disposition to being gay, we are a unique people and have developed unique cultures and what we do with our genitals is only one component and not the whole enchilada. A social constructionist would not deny the existence of “gay culture” but would argue that this has evolved as a result of the oppression we experience because of what we choose to do with our genitals. This is an EXTREME simplification of the debate and I can refer you to volumes written by queers on both sides of the issue if you are interested.
So who cares where queers came from? And what might that have to do with the AIDS epidemic?
Common issues facing all queer people:
*** SOCIAL ISOLATION ***
*** GENDER ROLE NONCONFORMANCE ***
Well I do! For a variety of reasons the re-emergence of queer peoples in America, beginning in the middle of this century in particular, focused very strongly on sexual liberation and this was largely defined as people having the right to do whatever with whomever sexually as long as both were “consenting adults”. Gay liberation became indistinguishably tied to sexual liberation particularly for gay men. Our liberal supporters reinforced this re-emergence by chanting the mantra that what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes (or bathhouse!) is their business only and society has no right to barge in. Society allowed a space to be created/exist essentially not harassed, for gay men in particular, to get together, primarily in large cities, and begin to rediscover an element of identity that was primarily sexual and to run with it! As this was occurring many historians feel there was also a significant change in gay male sexual behavior: most notably the increase in anal sex and the opportunity to engage in this with many different partners in an essentially very safe space = the bathes! Two very important “spaces’ allowed gay men in the 1970’s were bars and baths. More on this later when we talk about Gabrielle Rotello’s “ Sexual Ecology”.
It is my firm belief that the overwhelming majority of queer people begin to get in touch with an “otherness” at a very early age and rarely does this have anything to do with sex at least not primarily and not initially. Quoting a brilliant analysis of this by Will Roscoe from the book “Radically Gay”: “I would venture to say that our common experience of social isolation and gender role nonconformance gives us a more solid basis of commonality, in terms of formative emotional experiences, than that shared by second generation immigrants whose social life is thoroughly American and whose cultural identity has been reduced to cuisine and a few holiday custom.”
The common threads shared by all homosexual peoples in America today that transcend all races are social isolation and some level of gender role nonconformance. I do believe however that how different races deal with these issues varies greatly especially as adult hood is reached. One major phenomenon of the past 40 years has been the migration of many white gay men in particular to large cities. Being away from biological family and the more oppressive atmospheres of rural/small communities allowed the emergence of a gay identity with many obstacles removed. Many observers of the scene have noted that gay men of color are often less likely to migrate, staying in the same communities they grew up in. This makes “coming out” much more problematic. And eventually then for many having to deal with AIDS a true hurdle!
Some stuff from Gabriel Rotello:
“Male homosexuality has changed more than heterosexuality in this century.”
“There is a basic ecological principle that the morality of an action is based on the state of the system at the time the action occurs”.
“ A sustainable gay culture will not be easy to attain. To achieve it will require a reversal or at least a modification of many of the core tenets of gay liberation as they were expressed in the years after Stonewall. People will have to accept the fact that the unlimited, unstructured pursuit of absolute sexual freedom whether it was psychologically good, bad, or indifferent was biologically disastrous for gay men. We will also have to accept that the idea that unlimited sexual freedom could continue with a simple technological fix was mistaken. The use of condoms and the use of newer, better drugs must be augmented with behavioral changes based in ecological self-knowledge. We need to accept that such changes do not happen through education alone, but can only come about when we construct a new social order that explicitly encourages these changes in the individual lives of gay men. To construct such a new social order will require discipline, faith, understanding, and study. It will require a belief in our ability to change, and a desire to survive as a healthy and positive people. And that desire will ultimately stem from our belief in ourselves, and our rejection of the homophobic myth that we are by nature shameful, diseased, and doomed”
A CALL FOR A NEW QUEER SOCIAL ORDER!
Suggestions from “Sexual Ecology for facilitating the development of a sustainable gay culture:
- Strong rewards for safe sex/immediate penalties for unsafe sex. He correctly observes that the reverse is currently true but is a bit weak here on how to change this around. He refers to the often-repeated line “my infection was the best thing that ever happened to me”. I have no problem confronting that one!!
- Respecting Relationships and Fidelity
- Alternative Spaces-Community Centers
- Integration – foster the creation of institutions that promote intergenerational interaction.
- Valuing both youth and age.
- Talking it through = process, process, process.
The following is excerpted from a new book by Christian de la Huerta entitled Coming Out Spiritually and it addresses roles that have been attributed to gay people for millennia. These roles begin to address the questions many gay liberationists have been posing for decades: Where do we come from? What are we? And where are we going? These of course are the sorts of questions raised by someone with an essentialist view of gay people/culture. De la Huerta refers to these roles broadly as “spiritual functions”:
- Catalytic transformers: A Taste for Revolution
- Outsiders Mirroring Society
- Consciousness Scouts: Going First and Taking Risks
- Sacred Clowns and eternal Youth: A Gay Young Spirit
- Keepers of Beauty; Reaching for the Sacred
- Caregivers: Taking Care of Each Other
- Mediators: The In-between People
- Shamans and Priests: Sacred Functionaries
- The Divine Androgyne: An Evolutionary Role?
- Gatekeepers: Guardians of the Gates