The fallowing is the original blog entry I made on my previous blog site that explains what this blog project is about, my initial thoughts and reflections that lead to this, and my background in academic research that lead to this. I will post the other entries I made in my previous blog on here for the purposes of having all my writing relevant to this project in one space:
Gay Culture: Looking for Queer Spaces
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on some of the research I have done on the Gay Men’s Movement in Contemporary Paganism. For me this was a life changing experience, a growing up experience and something that exposed me to a lot of things that was both personally enriching as a gay pagan man myself, and something that gave me deeper access to gay culture. What do I mean when I say that, what is gay culture? In my third semester of college in my intercultural communication class there was an assignment to research ads that represent cultural groups…being the rebel gay revolutionist I was, I sought out any ads or commercial campaigns that targeted gay men (there are plenty). When I brought that back to class to share the instructor said “There is only one problem I have with that, how can you have a culture based on sexual orientation…” This instructor isn’t what I would call a homophobe, as I got to know her over time she did indeed say very positive things about LGBT populations when the subject came up…but as a heterosexual women whe only had lite exposure to LGBTs I respectfully disagree with her. She tried to prove her point by saying “you don’t see a straight culture do you” that is right…you don’t society is heteronormative and hence forth heterosexuality is in its very fabric, heterosexual people do not have to construct an identity that differs from the very fabric of societal experiences we have growing up.
Having that sexual attraction to men while people say things to you during puberty about being sexually attracted to the opposite sex and you simply don’t relate usually the response is “well you’ll figure it out soon enough.” Actually I never did, I thought I was romantically attracted to women because it was expected of me and said things like “I go for personality looks don’t matter that much,” I thought all the crude and vulgar sexual conversations other male peers had about women were gross. Yet I always had sexual feelings about men on the cover of “men’s health” and thought shirtless guys with raw masculine magnetism stirred a feeling in me as I was going through puberty. That never connected in my head as meaning I was gay until girls my age actually started showing interest in me and it become abundantly clear to me the romantic idea of having a partner was something I wanted, but when they started getting sexually assertive in wanting to get close even in innocent ways like a snuggling and kissing I felt no desire to return the gesture, it was like a mallet hitting a cold iron, it made no resonate vibration on impact. In my pre-teens I recall an awkward conversation with some girls that talked about pre-marital sex, I (thinking myself the romantic gentlemen) said sex isn’t why I would want to be with someone. They looked at me like I was crazy and said “even after getting married” and I responded “I would find some way to make babies without getting to gross.” In my naïve mind I thought that was what life was going to be, and should be with a girl. Needless to say after coming out and meeting a few boys of compatible interest I did go through having sexual experiences and excitement over being physically close to someone. Societies main stream culture has no place for us in rites of passage, in constructing our identity, in finding ways to connect to others who have shared the same experience and are sexually/romantically compatible. Even if the heterosexual people in our lives do not directly abuse us for being who we are the assumption that we are like them or at least should look like them is there. We have to go to our own isolated space of like identified people to empower our selves, to find the opportunity to connect to other boys that like boys, to began having sexual encounters and going through our own rites of passage in learning about sexual and romantic relationships, and simply finding comrodery with people that know what it’s like having a marginalized identity that makes you different and causes you to face discrimination of all kinds. Where does that happen? It happens in gay culture, the media, bars, movements, centers, and symbols that give us the common space to connect.
The Barriers to Accessing a Sense of Community
The things in Gay Culture are difficult to get access to, there are so many barriers one has to cross and stages of development and even “cultural reprogramming” to actually get to a place where you have social access to a wide range of other gay people. The coming out experience isn’t just realizing and announcing your identity publically, it also involves (I think) coming out to the gay community. One thing that makes my generation of gay boys different from the previous is we are coming out to our families and other open minded straight people before we come out to our own kind. Hence all kinds of problems arise out of that process of constructing one’s identity based on how heteronormative idealism either accepts or rejects it. In such a process the gay boy trying to openly construct his sense of self to his heterosexual peers in a way that keeps a positive social grace where he is still accepted he will internalize subtle forms of homophobia and even erotiphobia. He is acceptable to straight people when he acts cute and flamboutant or is a log cabin republican selling the message we look and act just like straight people but with a guy instead of a girl. The actual gay culture that has evolved out of a history of bringing us together and empowering us to find solidarity with each other is nowhere in that coming out process for most of us. Any aspect of it that might be in that process usually comes with a homophobic slur of it being put down as “too gay” or “promiscuous” or even “predatory and dangerous because of drug abuse and HIV/AIDS.” As such as we come out we construct a gay identity that says “I am not like other gay people, I am gay just because I like boys, otherwise I am just like straight people.” Yet as someone that said that myself for many years and have met many gay boys that say that, it is internalized homophobia instilled by heteronormative idealism in our society by straight people who couldn’t understand the gay experience if they tried. Most guys that buy into this belief system end up rather lonely and isolated from the very thing that can give them access to others like themselves.
During my research I saw this issue time and time again. I even met a few guys who assertively disapproved of the research I was doing because it was too segregationist. Yet when I talked to them about their experiences in gay culture and isolated gay spaces they talked about how uncomfortable they felt, how they felt like they didn’t belong there and were a fish out of water (or that hadn’t even had a culture experience at all). I take a leap to flag that internalized homophobia and internalized heteronormative beliefs that would suggest the only comfortable and safe space is where straight people are dominantly around you and men are not likely to have or show sexual interest in you that will be reciprocated, when all of a sudden homosexuality is normalized it’s uncomfortable, even though try as you might run, it’s who you are. Many of these men were single and had very few relationships to speak of, though they dreamed of the proverbial mr. right. I was that gay boy myself, even when I ran and founded AB Tech’s first student organized LGBT club “Bridging the Gap” and was doing LGBT organizing several of the people that knew me in that time would recall how I would say how I didn’t feel like other gay people, how bars made me uncomfortable, how I even avoided a few sexual opportunities to date guys that did show interest in me, and the statement I made constantly about being just like all the straight people. Not many gay/bi boys showed up to our groups, a few came in and out, but our regulars were mostly trans students and lesbians and allies. I loved them all dearly and got close to them, we went out to eat, did projects together and created many happy memories. But so few fellow cisgendered gay boys were in my life and I constantly complained about it.
After having a life changing experience at the Gay Pagan Men’s gathering Between the Worlds at Wisteria campground, it was my first isolated, full blown, 100% gay men’s culture experience. That week was full of discomfort in more ways than one. Not only was I struggling with my spirituality going through a bit of a nihilist phase because of the reductionist research methods and theory I was being taught as a Religious Studies Major focusing in Pagan Studies in college (that’s learning how to study religion through reducing supernatural or personal experiences to natural scientific empirical explanations for the non-academics in the crowd), but I was also coming face to face with my discomfort around other gay men and being in a space were my sexuality was normalized and it was all around me out in the open and talked about as though it was normal. It was profound; I had a very emotional week then. I was not only trying to deconstruct my nihilism and trying to find some existential way out of it (because I really didn’t want to be a nihilist, even though my existential search for truth lead me to that place and no one could give me satisfactory justification to believe the contrary), but I was deconstructing my own internalized homophobia, the barriers that kept me from making connections to other gay men, and my discomfort with homosexuality itself. Between the Worlds had a very sex positive atmosphere, it was clothing optional, some men were hooking up (not blatantly out in the open, but it was obvious that people were seeking out sexual experiences and pursuing them in privet), and sexual innuendo was a socializing norm. I often had to be by myself to emotionally process everything and went through a existential overload, and had several emotional break downs…but they were the emotional break downs my soul desperately needed to decompress, to turn off all the intellectual thought processes and turn on my emotions so they would simply process themselves through to be resolved. The experience I had at Between the Worlds was so deeply moving that I ended up making it the subject of my senior capstone research.
Cynicism Leading to Phenomenology: A Study of Raw and Personal Gay Experiences
As any humanities academic would know, studying something you personally have interest in and are attached to can be quite difficult because you have to attempt to be as objective as possible. But I found that my research ended up going more towards a reflexive thinking process of deconstructing my own bias and internalized homophobia and a study of the phenomenology (the individual conscious experience) of the “raw gay experience.” This to an extent also became a rebellion against the reductionist practices of my department, while all the psych and social theory gave me the tools I needed to undergo this research, I refused to reduce the study of gay men and their spiritual experiences in Paganism to neuroscience and mind quirks from behavioral condition brought on by society and family. There was a true raw experience in it, meeting people who had been sexually abused and working through that, meeting people who had extremely emotionally abusive families that made their life story very harsh (due to their gay identity), among others and the spirituality that brought these men together to heal and find solidarity and empowerment together.
My Journey into Cultural Assimilation
After I finished my research and graduated, I decided it was time to start making more strides to actually get involved in gay culture more. To challenge that voice that said other gay people weren’t like me, and to challenge my discomfort in gay isolated spaces. Between the worlds was one thing, after all there was a “no means no” etiquette to give room for a respect for sexual boundaries, and the men there had other things that motivated them then just a desire for sexual encounters (ie spiritual healing, providing a safe space for people to have those spiritual experiences, etc.). But getting involved in a more secular gay world meant there were no rules in place, everyone that showed up would have different values and reasons for being there and some would be respectful…others wouldn’t. Before when I researched secular aspects of gay culture is was primarily the digital media we all use, grindr, adam4adam, and all the rest. Which is a fairly new aspect of gay culture and a world all its own with some of its own issues. But as I have met other guys more in person and started actually building a decent social circle of gay people around me, I have more questions to ask, more things that I want to reflect on. Beyond the social stigma that comes with grindr being a “hook up app” I really haven’t experienced it being “only a hook up app” for many guys it’s their first exposure and the first step they feel comfortable with (after all it feels less intimidating then a bar, if you don’t like how someone is talking to you, you just click block and they are gone, you have more control regulating who you let in and who you can block out). I certainly met a lot of people who were rude, who couldn’t have a convo beyond “hey…hey…hey…looking?” and people who couldn’t appreciate more platonic reasons for being there (ie only being there to hook up or romantically date, no grey in between).
But I did make connections to a few interesting people that were worth hanging out with, mostly because they could speak a familiar language that made them feel comfortable and safe to actually meet outside the digital realm of torsos and anonymous nature scenes and discriminatory “no fats, no fems” norms. The more I met people that were interesting the more comfortable I got with meeting more people who I learned how to single out in the sea of homonormative first impressions. Those guys ended up becoming a social circle, with both positive and negative things. But now that gay boys are actually embodied people in my life and I have gotten my foot in the door through gaining access both through socializing and learning how to speak a language and appreciate the things that give us access to each other through creating a sense of social appreciation and solidarity, I see the raw phenomenological gay experience even more intensely, now with a better awareness of more aspects of gay culture from more interpersonal experiences to draw on. Beyond the raw experiences of the issues we face, I began to experience something at greater depth that I only barely glimpsed previously: gay comrodery. Indeed not only can we gather for sexual opportunities, healing/empowerment, but for a sense of celebrating who we are and laughing about things we experience in our own isolated queer-verse.
This all became their own secular spiritual experience for me that deepened what happened at Between the Worlds and during my research. My cynicism became useful for something, I spoke with a certain passion and warrior queer spirit that spoke to a lot of guys I was getting to know, which gave me access to more and more people who deep down were searching for meaning in their own gay phenomenological experience. The more guys I met the more human the issues became, and the more embodied all the lessons I learned from research became. The essential spiritual issues queer spirituality explores amongst gay men, ended up becoming applicable in a secular context. I got bitten with Rainbow Pride fever and started spending lots of time and energy in my free time to expand and build a sense of gay community around me. Slowly getting more and more integrated into the fabric of the gay counter-culture, something that continues now and I find there is only that much more layers to unravel and I’ve only yet to hit the surface of it. Part of my awareness of our own internal issues helped me avoid a few pit falls and my cynicism helped me establish boundaries with some people when needed, but all and all there has been a really positive unfoldment for me in this process. Learning to appreciate the positive aspects of “sex positive”, seeing how applicable both feminist and queer theory is to a living experience as it unfolds, becoming more confident in myself in learning how to draw boundaries and learning what the difference is between being oneself and respecting the things that make others different in their own right, building human relationships with other people that have raw living experiences and being a good friend and support system as we explore our relationships and evolve in our maturing life experiences together.
These of course are all things you can experience rather gay or not, but gay men get challenged to face these things in very specific ways as they try to connect to each other and get exposed to gay culture and struggle to find the balance of “being yourself” and being apart of a community of others and having the interpersonal experiences evolved with all that. Meeting guys who are new and awkwardly trying to figure out the norms and how to connect to others (we’ve all been there, I know my assimilation process has been filled with intensely socially awkward moments, and I still sometimes will have them, but I’ve gotten more confident in the process and the social growing pains have become less intense), having a social circle that keeps up with each other as you see fellow guys go through ups and downs in relationships and figuring out how they work (sometimes even guys that you once dated and are now friends with). Meeting guys with radically different backgrounds and stories from being porn stars and sex workers, to professionals, to spiritualists, to activists and academics, to all the rest, we somehow are put in the same space and learning how to appreciate and get smooth access to that space is a very maturing and beautiful experience.
You learn how to face some of your own preconceptions, you may not be a sex worker, but when you meet them and see they have values friendships and ups and downs like everyone else it makes you a better person to realize how human they are and how many preconceptions you may hold could very well be false. You see the people that all live different lives but have to come to the same space for the same reason. Yet all the internal issues make you become more of a man…a gay man. You do get exposed to lots of things that challenge you to fend for yourself and be more street smart. Not all gay guys are in the queer space for noble reasons, but to get access to the good ones you have to be exposed to people that might purposefully expose you to HIV if given the chance, slip you a date rape drug disguised as a gesture of buying you a drink, that might have self destructive habits that are socially destructive, or take advantage of you if given the opportunity…yet being exposed to that living reality that people do that, teaches you have to be more grounded and confident and established in yourself. To go into the gay scene and find the people that are worth your time and could very well enrich your life and learn how to put up boundaries with people that wouldn’t be healthy to spend your free time with. To also be challenged to rearrange your preconceptions about what makes a “good person.” With how many different people come into the gay space, you have people that are both out and not out, people with double lives, the space tends to be very sex-positive, people of different socio-economic income and race tend to be there, people with different bodies, people of different religious or non-religious belief tend to be there. Any preconceptions you may have about any of these things come up especially if you meet and activist or academic.
Queer Spirit: Finding Meaning in the Gay Experience
After having a conversation with a friend of mine with a similar background education and awareness of queer theory and feminist issues who also does burlesque. We talked about how being a gay man can in its own way BE A SECULAR SPIRITUAL experience, if you talk to a gay man who is reflexive enough about their journey in becoming themselves, the issues they encounter, and the relationships they have over time…there are a lot of things about it that bring about a spiritual experience. Questioning the norms that create a need for the Gay counter-culture, questioning the norms we create ourselves within our own culture, going through the process of constructing relationships and friendships alike without against homophobia both external and internal, against the heteronormative fabric of society, and struggling to get access to other people who are like you and trying to find authenticity with all the pressure of all these dynamics around you. It’s a true journey of human relationships, of self-actualization, of attempting to find meaning amongst it all, what can be a very spiritual experience in some way if you learn how to be reflexive enough through the process and grow and learn as you go.
A Potential New Independent Project
All these reflections are making me want to expand my project, maybe attempt to write a book, a paper, a blog series about all these things and make it more about the spiritual experience of what it is to be gay, even if in a secular non-religious sense. How can we make meaning as gay men, how can we make meaning of our own space and the things we rely on to come together, rather we are drag queens, go-go boys, porn stars, sex workers, professionals, closeted public figures that live double lives, youths that get kicked out of their homes, and all the rest. Sure there are plenty of issues, but I refuse to give in to the notion that our community is “bad” I would much rather focus on the things that bring us together and bring a positive experience for us while reflecting on the issues for the sake of self improvement. Cynicism isn’t a bad thing I have found, it’s toxic patterns of behavior that tear apart social bonds and solidarity (instead of improving it) that are problematic. So now that I am a graduate and independent from the structure laid out for me by institutionalized academia, I think I might attempt to take on a new project. One that isn’t necessarily about reductionism or tearing the bonds of gay solidarity apart for the sake of analysis, rather on reflecting on the gay experience and the collective meaning we can draw from it. Finding ways to see the strength drag queens have, it takes a strong man to be women after all. Reflecting on relationships both casual lovers and lifelong patterns and even non-monogamous and non-traditional forms of commitment. The positive in aspects of being sex-positive. The rites of passage we all face like, coming out (and all the various stages that comes in), exploring relationships and learning how to get access to them. Dealing with common insecurities that come up in that process. The generational divide between gay youths and their elders…ways people are bridging the gap. The joys of exploring that innate queer flame and being effeminate and all other colors of the rainbow that encompass our community.
More information on what I think I might try and turn this into later and how I plan to organize it will come later. Would love to hear feedback from my readers, especially if you are interested and have suggestions.