I talk a lot about Navigating gay culture, and how that notion is important in trying to find “the right people” in gay world. What does that really mean? Simply put its exercising social intelligence in social experiences. One thing that is really unique to gay men is that we really don’t gain access to social experiences were our sexuality begins to become an element in our interactions with others until we encounter gay culture. It opens up a big can of worms that get messy because in heteronormative society we don’t grow up learning the nuances of that experience in our interactions with others. We don’t learn the nuances of sexuality in the context of social interactions growing up and only when we encounter gay culture (everything from online media to bars and prides) do we begin to have to navigate that experience. Thats why so many gay men hate each other in someways we are constantly encountering each others lack of social experience navigating relationships where sexuality is present. Not only the young, but sometimes guys of older years coming out for the first time as well. Plenty of gay men in their 40s struggle figuring out these things. Not only that but gay culture (its customs, symbols, language, social structures) is a multifaceted and fractured entity that one has to practically get culture shock from encountering growing up in a world that ultimately is not “gay culture.” There are so many things that you have to learn for the first time when you have to interact with gay culture (which i believe is a wholistic entity of many diverse things that includes everything from bars, prides, and social networking media) as you attempt to put yourself out there to meet other gay people. Many guys get so frustrated with this experience they never really want to put in the time and energy to work and learn how to navigate gay social experiences. Which its frankly sad we have to put so much effort into gaining access to these experiences, but until that changes we have to work with what we have…Here are some things that I think I have learned from spending a lot of time both intellectually and experientially exploring gay socialization.
Everyone Has More To Them Then What They Appear To Be
Drag metaphorically is helpful for this concept. A drag queen is a boy trying to put on the illusion they are a girl, they are not trying to be a girl. They are creating a character to entertain people, create and present a personality to create a social experience. In a way we all do this. When we go into our common space a personality is performed. The guy you see dancing in his underwear is putting his game face to look and feel sexy, and participate in homoeroticism. However the truth is he goes back home and goes to bed and goes to work the next day just like all of us do. Maybe he went to college and had a degree in philosophy or biology. He has things that set him apart from everyone you see in that space, a unique personality with personal interest like comic books perhaps, spirituality, art, any and all those things. But when you go to a gay bar, a pride, or even make a profile on grindr, there are certain things we preform in those context in reaction to what we see, feel, and assume about it. So when you see someone on grindr or in a bar or at a pride, you hear certain rumors about them, you begin to assume things about who they are based on your preconceptions. To make connections to people in gay world, IT IS A MUST to challenge yourself when you do this. As you begin to think things about other people in the space (I bet he’s a slut, he’s a creep, he’s trying to hook up with me, he’s probably shallow and not interesting, etc.) question it. Why do I think he’s a slut, because the way he is dressed? Even then if he’s a sexual person, why is that a bad thing if its consensual? Why do I think he’s shallow, because I find him attractive or he fits a certain mold society defines as attractive? Am I creating unnecessary barriers to connecting to people in this space?
You really do have to develop tools to question your judgements, we all have them and I find myself doing it all the time. Assuming someone is a creep and someone I shouldn’t talk to because of what other people say, because I am conditioned to think older men are creepy by the agism in our culture, because I am conditioned to think that conventional attractiveness means there is a lack of personality and intelligence. Because I have some sort of preconception that a behavior, an expression of lifestyle, or whatever means something bad, I can just like anyone can assume things about others before getting to know them personally. So even as I begin to think these things, I try to stop myself and ask, “am I creating unnecessary barriers to connecting to this person? Why do I assume these things? Where are they coming from? Have I personally experienced anything from this person that truly makes them dangerous or bad directly?” If I haven’t seen any red flags (behaving predatory and not respecting sexual boundaries, harmful behavior, directly being mean or rude to someone else) then why should I create these barriers from at least being friendly and saying hi and having a light conversation. Even then guys do all kinds of crazy things in gay space when they are putting on their “masks.” They are trying to explore themselves, experiment with who they are, and hopefully they are growing and learning as they do. So even if someone does make a few mistakes or have a few crazy stories in their background give them a chance to show their character, maybe they are growing and maturing. Give everyone a chance (unless you have legitimate reason to create boundaries) to define their own character as you get to know them yourself and challenge yourself when you create barriers to connecting to them.
The Art of Boundaries
So few understand the importance of boundaries, both in defining and enforcing their own, and being aware of and respecting others. This is of course a life skill in all forms of relationships in all aspects of life, but its intensified in sexual relationships (and therefore ALL the more important in gay world as a common place defined by homosexuality). Start by respecting yourself enough to know that there are certain behaviors you DO NOT have to tolerate or accept from others. Gay guys are stereotyped for being predatory sexually and its of course not universally true, its no more or less true then the fact that str8 men can be predatory sexually. So yes it does happen, but its not a universal trait to being gay. But when it does happen (and it does) you have every right to say “no” you have every right to define what you do and do not want to consent to even when its different to what someone else wants. Don’t get so permissive of people crossing your boundaries that all of a sudden you find yourself in an abusive relationship. ON THE OTHER HAND, some times you are being an asshole, and you may not even realize it. Be willing to own up to that, realize other peoples boundaries may not be the same as yours. You may be okay with something, doesn’t mean other people are, or should be even. You may be very touchy feely, comfortable going home with a trick for the night, or whatever, doesn’t mean every person you meet is or that they should just because your talking to them. Boundaries are important and they are at the root of respect in relationships, especially sexual ones.
I have HAD to learn more about the art of boundaries the more I have socialized in gay space. Defining where they are and being clear about it, communicating in respectful ways, and trying to consider other people’s perspective while also being clear and firm about mine. A guy may want things from me, doesn’t mean I have to or should feel the same way about him. Doesn’t mean I need to be an asshole to him, but it does mean I have every right to say “no.” It goes both ways as well, I have to constantly consider where another persons boundaries are, without assuming its the same as mine. If you learn the art of boundaries, not only will you be more comfortable with yourself in gay world, but you will be more confident, and others will respect you for respecting them (and if they don’t you won’t feel the need to get their validation). You are a sovereign being, you have a right to be respected as such. Your opinion matters, your perspective matters, and YOUR BOUNDARIES MATTER. If you not only realize this about yourself and do your best to treat others like they are sovereign too…then your well on your way to forming reciprocal and respectful relationships…if you don’t know how to do that, not only will your gay relationships suck (and not in the good way)…but other relationships in your life will too. In this model of relationships you won’t be best friends with everyone (after all you will have to say no and sever ties to people who don’t respect that) but the friends you will have, will be worth it and more meaningful.
Develop a Positive Relationship with Sexuality and Eroticism
We are raised in a toxically sex negative culture. There is so much rape, shame, fear, and disgust with sex, we deny a basic primal need that is healthy when expressed in a healthy manor. Not only that we are permissive of unhealthy expressions of it. The limitations we place on sex are psychologically damaging to the goal of having a healthy sex life. The limitations we don’t, are permissive of rape and crossing the ALL IMPORTANT boundaries of consent. You don’t have to conform to any particular expression of sexuality you don’t want to, to appreciate my point here. This applies to ethical sluts, polyamorous people, open relationships, monogamous couples and singles, and people that don’t have a clearly defined sexual behavior. Regardless of what you are looking for in your sexual relationships. You would be a lot happier in your homosexual socialization, if you could get to a place where consensual sexuality is celebrated instead of shamed. A place where sexual diversity is respected instead of feared and shunned. You can be monogamous and define that as your boundary of what you want and need, and still respect an ethical slut who personally does not want that, but respects that’s what you want. Also how good is any sexual relationship you have if sex itself is not enjoyed and celebrated as a good thing. Its not always openly talked about, but sexual insecurity is actually highly common amongst gay men. Either in feeling like there is something dirty and wrong in what they are doing (due to internalized homophobia), or in feeling too uncomfortable with it to just simply enjoy it and celebrate it as a good thing. If your interacting with a culture and social structure that is defined to facilitate homosexuality (and therefore homosexual relationships) then you have to feel good about sex to feel good about it and connections that arise from it. You also have to be comfortable in defining the boundaries of what is good for you personally and what is not, and respecting others that may differ.
Not only is sex itself important, but so is Eroticism. How am I defining the difference. Sex is more like action (masturbating, intercourse, oral, etc.). Eroticism is more about expression. Feeling sexy, flirting, expressing things that come out of sexuality. You also don’t have to have sex with someone to share something erotic. Ever flirted with a guy, without needing to date him, or having sex with him. Just flirting to enjoy it. People are so serious about sex that sometimes they miss out on shades of grey that are always so black and white. We are so busy trying to get a trick for the night or find mr. right we don’t take time to savor the actual process of building connections and enjoying other forms of interaction. Plus flirting and enjoying eroticism just for the celebration of it is healthy. It builds self-esteem, confidence, and is mutually beneficial for everyone engaging in it. So long as there is respect at the basis, sharing and enjoying eroticism is a great thing. Plus if you are uncomfortable flirting with other gays how are you going to make any connections that lead to relationships? We are flirty with each other ALL THE TIME, and you certainly won’t learn how to speak that common language (because in many ways it is a common language in gay culture) unless you engage it, and learn how to enjoy it and do it without taking it too seriously. Did one of your gay friends of facebook make you their #MCM (man crush monday)? That’s sweet and flattering, it doesn’t mean you have to have sex with them or date them, but it is something that can give you access to connections, something you can celebrate with other gays, and that’s definitely a good and positive thing.
Eroticism can be simply feeling sexy, sometimes in the interrelational sense but also in the sense you feel good about your self for your own sake. You can enjoy the feeling of being sexy by buying cloths that make you feel that way (or more popularly underwear). You also don’t have to make it about trying to fit mold that society defines, you can make it just about what makes you feel good for yourself. When I put effort into my hair, put on a light make up foundation to make my skin look smooth, put on cloths that make me feel good when I look in the mirror and put on an Andrew Christian jock strap. I do not simply to be visible to others, but also because I like what I see when I look in the mirror, I feel good about myself, regardless of rather it attracts a guy or not. So do it for you, and if you feel insecure about the way you look, try to consider if it is because of the beauty standards others define? Or is this the beauty standards you are holding against yourself? Be pretty for you, it radiates a more authentic and healthier confidence then being pretty for others and confidence is definitely a sexy trait.
Gay men objectify each other all the time, we define the ideal image you “should look like” based on conventional standards instead of allowing sexuality and eroticism to be organic and diverse. I have found many guys attractive of different expressions of body and gender, its not all “masculine, athletic, white, etc.” a guy that fits that mold can be attractive too, but so can everyone else, and its all ultimately a subjective thing that everyone feels differently about. Don’t buy into the notion that you have to look like a model to be sexy and hot. Seriously you’d be surprised how many younger guys like older ones, how many people like a hairy beefy body, how many like a skinny one, and all the diverse expressions of the human body, and just because some people may not personally feel attraction to you, doesn’t mean others don’t. Its because we are constantly sent this message there is only one objective hierarchy of attractiveness that people often get disenfranchised from their own sexiness. There is no hierarchy if we choose not to “buy into it” and support its commodification of an elitist image. Are Andrew Christian Models attractive? Definitely, but so are bears, and twinks, and femme boys, and all the rest. There are some guys that don’t even necessarily find AC boys attractive just because they don’t feel that way about them, not because they are or not objectively attractive, just because that’s not how they feel about them. Believe it or not sexual desire amongst gay men is a lot more diverse then people often realize.
Place Value on Platonic Quality Friendships
If you’re only participating in a community for partner selection (romantic or sexual) thats going to limit greatly the connections you make. If you are one of those guys that chase endlessly for mr. right or the next trick but always have negative things to say about gay culture and other gay people…could it be because you lack friendships? Could that reason you lack said friendships be because you never allow yourself to experience that in common gay space? If the only impression you have of gay culture is your exes (which is not always, but certainly often a negative connection) and/or guys you have sex with but never see or hear from again…were is the sense of community in that? Without friendships, quality friendships, a sense of community that is positive would most certainly decay. You also can’t network well without friends, its hard to meet new people and make connections to others in a bar, or at prides, if you don’t have positive association to people in that space. If the only people in that space you have association to is an exe and last night’s trick who pretends like you don’t exist….now wonder you don’t feel good about it.
But most importantly, value good friends, friends of quality. Don’t try to be friends with someone just because they are popular, or attractive, or whatever, but are total and complete jerks. What kind of connections do you make if your friends aren’t ethical, or respectful. If your spending your time in a clique or a social circle that is cut throat, back stabbing, and a live gay version of “mean girls” then that would be exhausting and not really leave good taste in your mouth about the gay community. The gay community is no different then any other community, it has bad apples, but it has cool people too. Move in the right circles, associate with people that respect you and that you can respect. This doesn’t mean you have to be elitist or cliquey, just know your boundaries, know that you don’t have to put up with behaviors that are harmful or disrespectful. People do make mistakes and they aren’t going to be perfect, but there is a threshold where it becomes behavior that is harmful and you must define that boundary. For your happiness and sense of well being surround yourself with friends that create positive connections and leave you feeling good after hanging out. Not ones that create unnecessary stress and hardship in your life.
Be Yourself, But Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone and Grow as a Person
Before I encountered “Gay Culture” I would of never thought of Drag as entertaining or remotely interesting. I didn’t know what stonewall was, or who Harvey Milk was. I didn’t appreciate pop star divas or pop culture of any sort. I didn’t like the idea of bars of any kind gay or straight. I went all through college never once going to a party, I kept my nose in my books and went to work in my free time. I was mostly interested in spiritual things like meditation, yoga, paganism, metaphysical/New Age kind of things. I was also geeky, into video games, pokemon, and similar media. I am still very much into all these things, but I had to challenge myself to grow some in order to make connections to other gay people and build a sense of community. Connections are build by establishing commonalities, that typically happens best through culture. So gay culture has become an entity of pop media, traditions like drag, symbols like the rainbow flag and the pink triangle, history, social spaces, languages and identities, and annual events (like prides). We can try to separate ourselves from these things in an attempt to preserve a perceived feeling of individuality, or we can learn how to utilize it like a tool to meet people and build common ground with them.
Gay culture will change you in some ways when you interact with it, and learn to appreciate aspects of it. It won’t change the essential being you are, you are and should always continue to be an individual. But it will challenge you to grow as a person as you learn about other people in our common space, and learn about our history, things in pop culture that are popular in our world like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Taylor Swift performed by drag queens on Saturday night at the local gay bar. What was once a pop star filled with useless sensationalism and seemingly mindless fandom, becomes stories and emotions that gay men identify with. I never saw a group of homosexual men more excited then when I saw one of our local drag queens perform “shake it off” by Taylor Swift. Why? because that song represents something about our common experience both in our common space with each other, and with homophobic haters we deal with. “Hey, hey, hey while you been getting down and out about all the dirty lies and the cheaters of the world, you could of been getting down to this…sick…beat…haters, gonna hate, hate, hate, players, gonna, play, play, play…but I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake…shake it off, shake it off…” Gays have a great time with each other when they learn to celebrate each other and leave the bad blood they have with exes and the trauma from homophobic oppression behind. Is miss Swift’s song applicable to a lot of people who aren’t gay? No shit, it definitely is, but its applicable to us in unique ways that we can create common ground with. So if you don’t like pop culture, think about it this way. If you find SOMETHING in it that you can appreciate (even if the rest of Taylor Swift you might not care about) it gives you something to connect to other people with. That man with a wig in a dress singing a pop star diva song did something beautiful, they brought gays together to a common space and essentially sent them an empowering message of self-esteem and letting go of things that hurt. Given all gay men share similar wounds because of homophobia and the barriers we face in our own socialization, that song was something we could collectively unite on through the similar things we all struggle to “shake off.” Now the spiritual, geeky me, that would prefer aligning my chakras and playing Zelda, Taylor Swift might seem uninteresting…but the common experience her song was able to create, was meaningful to me as someone that wants to see a more connected world (which is meaningful).
One thing that gay culture really changed in me, was becoming more and more aware of my own snob and aspects of myself that created unnecessary social barriers to people. I am an introvert so my boundaries and need to be isolated from other people is important…but that doesn’t mean its helpful for me to limit the connections I can make to people when I do have the energy to go out and socialize. Meeting drag queens, guys that had an intense fandom over pop divas, and people in a “party space” that I ultimately felt out of place in at first, challenged me to either try to bridge the gap between our differences or isolate myself because of them. I’ve been out for about 8 or 9 years now and I can say that meeting people that love Taylor Swift, crossdress and preform her songs, and party hard at the local bar with a go-go boy dancing on the bar has done more for me spiritually then I ever thought it could. As someone that thought pop culture was too shallow to carry any meaning, and the aesthetic materialism of drag seeming to be like a live reality show without substance, I began to find meaning in it. How it brought people together. I was learning to find some meaningful way to appreciate how it could open up doors and make connections to people. It surprised me at how cool these people really where. People that served as a mirror to look back at myself and learn new things about me I never could have otherwise. How Beyonce could send an empowering message about something (especially to gay people) if you looked at it in a certain way, instead of getting caught in a shallow assessment of her as a pop queen. I hated dancing, still kind of do at times, but when a cute guy you’re crushing on invites you to dance with him do you really want to place a barrier and say “no” and miss a chance to create a common experience when so few options to do that exist for gay people? Have you ever even tried to put on a dress as a boy, and break the rules of the gender binary conditioning we grow up with. You might find you like it more then you thought you would and realize how truly not a big deal it is. Wearing a dress and putting on a wig really doesn’t make you less of a boy, you’d be surprised how masculine a drag queen can look when the make up is washed off. Even if she is a fem boy though, why does it matter? What makes you so uncomfortable with effeminacy in men? If you really were comfortable in your masculinity as a gay man, another guy with effeminate behavior would not reflect any discomfort on to you.
What gay culture also did that was vital in my growth and self-actualization as a person, was making me more comfortable with my self. As an introvert, as someone that grew up very severely bullied in my school years, as someone that was different in the sense of having dyslexia and struggled with hundreds of things that always set me apart, including being gay. Gay culture forced me to come out of my shell, and navigate the taboo of my sexuality, to get comfortable with it. To get comfortable being myself while also making connections and building relationships with people that are different. Rather they were polyamorous or into kink/leather, rather they were boys that liked to put on a dress and act fierce, or whatever. Meeting those people and challenging myself to connect to them rather then place barriers between us, I feel has made me a more confident, well-rounded, and comfortable in my own skin person. I mean I still have an ego, and have made plenty of mistakes in this process (I am confidant I am not done making mistakes either) but thats what being relational with people is about. You muttle through learning the art of give and take, boundaries, and look in a mirror back at your self. You can learn plenty about yourself in solitude, but there are somethings that you can only learn by challenging yourself to be around others and building connections to them. Gay culture does require this of us, to actually physically show up, and be apart of a community.
So did Gay culture change me? Yes, but in the sense that it made me more myself, through the diversity of relationships I have developed and the people I have met. But I had to make the choice to want to change, not change myself so other people would like me. But change myself to actually value a community, and to learn how to connect to the people in it. To learn how to create connections instead of barriers. To be a stronger and more confident person through the art of boundaries and developing a more positive relationship with my sexuality and eroticism. I am still very much an individual, but I have changed in positive and good ways because I choose to put myself out there and find relationships with other gay people. Who became friends, lovers, boyfriends, and even a few enemies that helped me grow in ways avoiding that experience never could. So that, in a nut shell, has been my experience and lessons learned from navigating gay culture.