Friday, July 30, 2010

We're not the only ones with a stake in this fight

One would not expect going through the Catholic school system in Texas to be a pleasant experience for a queer kid. The truth is, though, I have few complaints. Homophobia (a not fully accurate word to describe the phenomena) motivated by religious conviction tended toward a staid intellectual condemnation that had an aura of civility to it. For all the reputation Texas has, its bigger cities where I lived don't differ too much in mores from other metropolitan areas around the country. My parents were nothing but supportive. And of course, there's little to pity a queer living in a college campus in Santa Fe for.

All of which is to say that I consider myself pretty fortunate, and my experience is probably not entirely representative. No one's experience will be the same, and a trans man in New York is going to have a considerably different experience than a lesbian in Zimbabwe.

Still, I can't believe I'm alone when I say that the time homophobia had the most impact on my life was not when, halfway through my sophomore year in high school, I was outed before I had chosen to do so, nor was it in the years prior to that when I had realized my orientation and remained closeted to all but my parents. It was before I had even known of my interest in men, when coasting along on the preferences of my peers seemed a decent substitute for forming my own. It was before, in short, anyone else could have known that I was bi, for even I was in the dark about it.

No, I felt most anxious around my desires, my appearance, my behaviors, when I was still expected to- and expected myself to- fit into the straitjacket of American masculinity. It's difficult to overstate the level of gender policing that goes on during those years. Every mannerism, food consumed, TV show watched, piece of clothing worn, tone of voice utilized was put through the wringer of gender politics, the slightest misstep indicating deadly femininity or gayness- really the same thing in men. It was suffocating. Surely it was at its worst when I was attempting to fit into it, around the time right after puberty, but one need only watch a Bud Light commercial to know it's far from limited to the middle school set.

What a relief it was, when I started fucking men! I had consummated my failure as an American man, and that set me free. I didn't have to follow their rules anymore, and I was free to do as I liked. Curiously, scrutiny around my gendered behavior dropped off a lot once I was forced out of the closet. While biological accounts making gay men into a third sex are problematic for obvious reasons, it's almost rung true for me on a sociological level- expectations about behavior and the social roles you get slotted into are much different for a gay man than they are for a straight man. And in my experience, the latter is much more restrictive than the former.

I'm much happier now than I ever was back then. The right to marry, the knowledge that I won't be assaulted for my sexual acts, the approval of the rest of society- I would and did trade it all for the ability to carve out a social space where I could breathe freely, unencumbered by the constant surveillance for gender appropriate behavior.

I'm sure some of you question the validity of describing that gender policing as homophobia. While it is not that in the strictest sense of the word, homophobia does not exist in a space separate from the rest of the culture. It's part of the tapestry of the apostolic succession of true manhood, a history of browbeating those of us born with a Y chromosome into stultifying standards of behavior. Homophobia needs strict standards of masculinity like fire needs air. Get rid of the one, and the other disappears.

Though the expectations of masculinity probably fit more awkwardly on me than they do on most, I can't be the only one who was or is chafing under its restraints. Nor can I believe that gays or even those identifying as genderqueer or trans are the only ones who feel constrained by this policing. Straight and gay men both have a stake in the fight against homophobia, because ultimately the forces that nourish homophobia contribute to the system that prevents all men from being able to live their lives as they choose.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Letter to Radiolab

If you guys haven't checked out the Radiolab podcast yet, I strongly urge you to do so. It's the most consistently excellent pop-intellectual show around, and there are few ways to spend an hour that are as entertaining and enlightening as listening to one of their podcasts. Still, their coverage of sexual minorities, when the subject comes around, leaves much to be desired. Hence this letter:

Dear Radiolab,

I'm a big fan of the show. While I discovered it only a month or so ago, your insightful commentary and interesting stories have made Radiolab a regular part of my podcasting diet. That makes your persistent sex-negativity and mistreatment of sexual minorities all the more distressing.

The latest incident was, of course, in your "Oops" episode, in which it was clearly implied that the villainous doctor's cruel psychological experiments were related to his sadomasochistic behavior in the bedroom. I'm sure you have an image of kinky people in your head- depraved, evil people whose scruples would never prevent them from engaging in clearly immoral behavior. I'm equally certain that your image would not survive a meeting with these supposed monsters, such as you might have at your local Conversio Virium meetings, a BDSM discussion and meeting group at Columbia University.

If you are not inclined to take such a step (and I cannot blame you, given the standard portrayals of kinky people), listen to the experts. The research efforts of psychologists in this field have been clear: kinky people are no more dangerous than anyone else. For example, a study done by the University of New South Wales found correlation between kinky sexual desires and psychological distress and impairment, and in fact found men into such things scored slightly better than the general populace. "Our findings support the idea that bondage and discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM) is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority," Associate Professor Juliet Richters and her colleagues wrote in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. To the extent that stigma against kinky people persists in the psychological establishment, it is largely a result of widespread ignorance of such findings.

Your reporting on this subject has not only been erroneous; it's also harmful. According to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, 30% of regular practitioners of kinky sex report facing discrimination, with 24% losing a job and 3% losing a child over their private sexual activities. As a member of the media, you have a social responsibility to report with care, a responsibility you have thus far abdicated in strengthening the stigma our society's marginalized face.

A public apology is in my opinion warranted. In the absence of such, I hope that you will have a care when discussing sexual minorities in the future.

James Vonder Haar