Friday, May 29, 2009

How Do You Choose?

One of my biggest problems in gay life is that I appear not to be shallow enough. I don't go out of my way to judge people on their appearances, kinks, or preferences. Instead I go to the core of the matter, as quickly as possible. The man with x-ray eyes.

When I spend time reading online personal ads, which I don't spend a lot of time on, one thing I note is how often men put out, in an occasionally desperate tone of voice, a long list of criteria and demands that one is expected to meet, or conform to, in order to get through.

Now, it's one thing to state preferences and desires. it's entirely different to set so many conditions on people that no-one can actually live up to them. Setting conditions creates borderlines, creates prejudices, creates the very kind of judgmentalism so many of us claim to dislike when we encounter it directed at ourselves. Yet we turn right around again and make our own judgments. That's a clear double standard: don't judge me, but I can judge you."

It's hard for me to take anybody seriously who sets so many conditions on even a first date that one must navigate a maze of ideals in order to reach the prize at the center: an actual conversation, an actual date. Eye contact seems to be optional.

I've always tried to make it clear that when I state my preferences, they're just preferences. They're not demands, they're not requirements. They're just likes, or dislikes. For example: I prefer non-smokers to smokers, but I've dated, kissed, and made love to smokers. It doesn't mean I like smoking, it does mean the person is more important than the things they do.

Another example: I really like skinny younger guys, but I've been with lots of larger, older men. Older men seem to be attracted to me, and a few younger men. I had to laugh out loud one time, years ago, when a lover said goodnight to me from the sidewalk, near dawn, as I stood naked in the doorway, wishing him a goodnight after a long evening and night of orgiastic sex; he said to me, "Good night, Adonis," and he seemed to mean it. I was pleased. But I've never thought of myself as an Adonis, and I haven't been "height/weight proportional" since my 20s.

If you keep setting so many conditions on your own loving, it's no wonder you're alone.

Love with those you can genuinely name as lovers is meant to be unconditional: without conditions. Love with conditions is usually fantasy-love, the actual person hidden behind a fantasy-filter you project onto them. If you really want a long-term relationship, then you'd better let go of the fantasies and meet the actual person. As the saying goes, "Domesticity isn't pretty."

So much gay dating is unfulfilling precisely to the extent that it is conditional. We reject everyone who doesn't measure up to some standard of perfection, then wonder why we've either spent the night alone, or had another emotionally-empty one-night stand. Even if the sex itself was good. I never want to have sex where one person ends up crying afterwards.

There are many people in the personal ads whose criteria and conditional expectations I can't live up to. What they don't seem to understand is: Nobody wants to try to. If you make the barriers too strong, too precise, you will be alone. If you put up walls that are too thick, or have no windows, you might be safe in your castle, safe from the world's chaos and unpredictable dangers, but you will most certainly be alone. I've known young men who were abused, even raped. They have problems with trust, and with letting people in—understandable problems—yet paradoxically some have no clear boundaries about what they will or won't do in bed. Some of these have the courage to cry afterwards. Mostly they don't reveal anything really important about themselves, ever. Once burned, thrice shy.

The reason I state preferences instead of conditions is precisely to leave the windows and doors open to the unexpected, pleasant surprise. I've had encounters with loving men that matched none of my preferences, and we had a wonderful time together. You have to remain open to the possibility that something unpredictably wonderful will come into your life, when you least expect it. That's why putting too many conditions and criteria in the way ultimately does more harm than good: as well as blocking out the people you know you don't want to meet, it also blocks out the wonderful men you might have met if your criteria weren't so judgmental. It's okay to make people work a little to get through to you. But you do yourself no favors by making that work so hard that no one wants to take it on. There are plenty of men who I would like to get to know, as friends if nothing else, but they put so many barriers in the way, it's too much work to try to get through to them; only to get rejected because you don't match the fine points on their lists.

Prickliness doesn't serve us well. Neither do fantasies of the perfect soulmate or lover. Romantic delusions keep us from seeing what's really there, right in front of us, that could be wonderful, and genuine, and loving, and true. The flower doesn't close itself in the sunlight, it opens. The flowers take what it is given, as it is given, even as it seeks more by rising ever higher into the light and air. The flower doesn't demand sunglasses to filter out the UV rays; it adapts.

Now, to be clear: It's no bad thing to know up-front what someone's boundaries and limits are: knowing one's desires, borders, edges, dislikes. It's no bad thing to be honest and clear from the outset.

It takes a level of self-knowledge and self-awareness to know your own boundaries, and likes and dislikes. What I'm talking about here is when men go looking for a body first and foremost—for appearance rather than essence—when they do that, they miss many good men of good wit and character.

While it can save time by "weeding out" the replies to your personal ad that don't interest you, having a list of criteria can also be used as a bludgeon to put people down, to reject them for essentially shallow reasons—and it can be used as defense mechanism: as walls, as barbed wire, as fortress battlements. A list of criteria can be used to try to force the world to live up to your expectations, or to pretend not to see what you don't like seeing. It can be used as a tool for denial.

I've been rejected based on someone's criteria as often as anyone else has. My response is: Too bad; you don't know what you're missing, and now you'll never experience what I have to offer. Something good might have come from it, and now neither of us will get the chance to find out.

If you are clear about your criteria, chances are eventually you will someone who matches your criteria. If your criteria are all appearance-based, ageist, sissyphobic, or similarly internally-homophobic—and don't think your readers can't tell—you eliminate any possibility of meeting and being with someone who could blow your mind. You closed that door before it could ever open.

That's a missed opportunity most men aren't even aware of, but they still can't fill that empty void in themselves. Their deepest desire may well be a fantasy about a body type.

Here, I'll give an example of why they will remain forever unfulfilled, if that's all that attracts them:

I was once at a Radical Faerie Gathering at Short Mountain, TN. There was this guy, nice enough, who was after me; he kept coming up to me, pursuing me. He was a definitely a chubby chaser; in several years of seeing him interact with men at Gatherings, he was always with a heavier, older man. (Gathering boyfriends or fuckbuddies are fairly common. Two men make a couple all during Gathering, but may never see each other elsewhere, or ever again, because Gatherings draw people from all over.) This year, he was pursuing me. I could have had a boyfriend for the whole Gathering, and as much sex as I wanted. But when I looked into his eyes, and watched his body language, I saw an emptiness in him, a deep void, that he was trying to fill. I turned him down. Later on, I saw he'd found another man to be with during Gathering, and we said hello courteously enough, but that was it. I chose not to spend my entire time trying to fill his emptiness; I had better things to do.

I'll tell you who your perfect lover, the one we all look for online and in the bars and everywhere else, who your soulmate is: Your soulmate is the person who drives you crazy, who makes you grow, and grow up. Who doesn't buy into your games, but loves you for who you are.

A person of character. The problem with having too many appearance-based criteria is that you're never likely to meet that person. It's probably impossible, because he can be camped out on your threshold for years but you'll never let him in the front door.

And that's too bad.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Reviews: Sex, Music & Poetry

An ongoing series of short reviews of interesting LGBT books from my personal library.

David Guy, The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the paradox of sex. (1999) This book covers a lot of psychological terrain, and asks many questions important to us all, LGBT or otherwise. About half of the people profiled, interviewed, or examined are queer or bi or openly affirming; including Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Kramer, and Alan Watts. Basically this book revolves around a key question: is sexuality the enemy that must be subdued before one can have a powerful spiritual practice? or is it rather a vehicle for enlightenment, as well as a powerful creative force in its own right? There are no simple or definitive answers to these questions—but there are long-enduring traditions of spirituality that accept sexuality and harnesses its power, ranging from Tantric rites through affirming literature. The author responds to the question by focusing on his own life and spiritual practice, and by examining the lives and work of people who were pioneers about affirming that sex and spirit are not-two, but one. Sex workers are discussed as well as poets and meditators; this is no cerebral, academic book. There is understanding that the reconciliation of sex and spirit will always be paradoxical, as is recognized in the examples of several Zen masters who were promiscuous rather than celibate; and in the Zen koan that gives the book its title: "Why is it that the most clear-eyed monk cannot sever the red thread of passion between his legs?" It's part of the paradox, not surprisingly, that there is a great deal of mysticism around sex: the sexual experience itself can be a mystical experience, with all that that entails. Very highly recommended.

John Gill, Queer Noises: Male and female homosexuality in Twentieth Century music. (1995) One of the first of its kind, and still one of the better ones, this book looks at a wide range of composers, performers, and musicians, all queer, all famous. The book is easy and fun reading without being fluffy; Gill can be very opinionated, and ask hard questions. Some of the names covered here in the book's 18 chapters: Benjamin Britten, John Cage, Boy George, Pet Shop Boys, Gary Burton, Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn. Some of the chapters are studies of the impact of queer people on specific musical genres—but Gill also examines the gay cultural response to performers who were inspired by gay subcultures, or inspired them in return, by emphasizing sexual ambiguity or metrosexuality: David Bowie, Madonna, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Janis Joplin, etc. There is also extensive reporting on pop music's connection to civil rights organizing, LGBT activism, and queer political responses to social problems; the book actually grew out of political activism, which accounts for some of its tone at times. Nonetheless, there's lots of meat in this book, even as the writing style is breezy and quick. It's the sort of book LGBTs into all kinds of music will greatly enjoy, and probably learn something they'd never known about before.

David Rees, Words and Music. (1993) David Rees was an influential critic, gay author, and reviewer in Britain until his death just as this book was published. What we have here are almost two dozen longer review-essays, most never published prior to this book, covering both music and literature. Sometimes Rees is a bit harsh in his opinions, but in many ways I think his critical assessments are right on target. (He explains just why Edmund White is overrated as a gay fiction writer; an assessment I've always shared, but could never articulate why exactly, before Rees explained the problem.) What I like about Rees is his ability to separate the artist's reputation from the quality of each individual work: where a writer succeeds, Rees can show why, and where a composer may have in fact done something completely original, you find out why; simultaneously, weak spots, weak books, bad compositions, are not ignored but called what they are. Fans of certain writers and composers will no doubt feel some ire if one of their idols is chastened in one these 20 essays; but you'll also be introduced to assessments of the artists in question from a gay perspective, which was completely new when Rees was writing, and is still a fresh viewpoint.

Gary Schmidgall, Walt Whitman: A gay life. (1997) The first and still singular study to look at Whitman's life and poetry from an explicitly gay perspective, explaining the powerful connections between Whitman's life as a lover of men and his legacy as a landmark, paradigm-changing poet. There are four major sections in the book, roughly chronologically showing Whitman's growth as an artist and person. But there is also a personal essay from the author that tells of the impact of Whitman on the author's life; and a section devoted to exploring the similarities and differences between Whitman and Oscar Wilde, who Schmidgall has also written about. This is a very long book, citing its material rigorously if not tediously. It draws extensively from Whitman's correspondence, private journals, and poetry; there's no doubt material in here you've never heard of before. Schmidgall's argument is compelling, and well-supported by the documents: that Whitman was a very sexual man, ardently pursuing his love affairs which in turn fueled his creative energy: ecstasy pursued and achieved in worlds both personal and literary. I won't say that this is the easiest book you'll ever read about Whitman, but once you get into it, it's a real page-turner, very engrossing. Highly recommended.

Book Reviews: Rural Living

The first in an ongoing series of short reviews of interesting LGBT books from my personal library. I'll be posting more of these as time permits.

It seems to me a lot of misinformation still exists among the LGBT urban ghettoes about life beyond city life. I’ll spare you the occasions, true as they were, I’ve been wilderness camping with gay groups miles from electricity, when someone complained about the lack of access to their blowdryer, refrigeration, or reading lamps; I’ll spare you the details, but I do have to wonder what they were thinking before agreeing to come along on such a trip.

In the mid-1990s there was a wave of books published about rural LGBT living. Shockingly, nothing like these had ever appeared before. Some of these books were the first on the topic, and have yet to be supplanted or surpassed. In fact, it seems to me that most of the city queers I know have forgotten all about it, all over again. So I now believe it’s time to clear that air, once again. I know I’m beating a dead horse, and yet it seems to me that it’s time for another wave of understanding to develop between urban and rural peoples, in general, and between LGBT groups in general. So, here’s a sampling of books that are still required reading, in my opinion, about rural LGBT life.

Michael Riordan, Out Our Way: Gay and lesbian life in the country. (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996) This book is mostly oral history transcribed from interviews, conducted mostly in person. The treasure to be mined in this book is the incredible insight and wisdom of ordinary people you wouldn't look at twice at the county general store; proving once again that life itself is the greatest teacher of wisdom. One thing a lot of couples talk about is their mutual dependence upon each other, in the face of otherwise sometimes severe isolation. There is much discussion of the pros and cons of public displays of affection. There are many voices here, with many different experiences and viewpoints. The people interviewed here run the gamut from young to elderly, First Nations to Anglo, individuals to couple to communities, country socials to rodeos, and more. This is a Canadian book about Canadian LGBT people, and tremendously insightful reading. If you ever felt like moving to Yellowknife, read this.

Karen Lee Osborne and William J. Spurlin, editors, Reclaiming the Heartland: Lesbian and gay voices from the Midwest. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) If you believe that, just because you're LGBT you need to pack your bags and move to one of the big cities on the coasts, think again. This book of poetry, fiction, essays, memoirs, and interviews, is all about living the USA's heartland. This isn't purely a rural LGBT book, as there are Chicago and Milwaukee writers in here, among others. But as we all know, all of us who live out here, we have more in common with folks in Chicago than we do with folks in New York City, much of the time. The editors of this book are a little self-conscious about their book being a "corrective" to the usual rhetoric that gay culture only exists in NYC or San Francisco or LA, but the strength of the book is that it does represent real Midwestern values presented by real queers living in the real Midwest. I can affirm that when I lived in San Francisco, there really IS a uniquely Midwestern viewpoint about life. So, for me, the real joy of this book is in the poetry and fiction, which show rather than tell the reader what that Midwestern viewpoint is all about. There are about 60 individual contributors here, so you also get a wide range of viewpoints on several different issues, for example, being accepted by one's small-town parents, growing up in small towns, finding love out here, and more.

Will Fellows, Farm Boys: Lives of gay men from the rural Midwest. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996) If you only ever have time to read one book on growing up gay in rural areas, read this one. It is one of the best books on the topic that I've ever read, and re-read. The book is divided into three sections, by decade—this is mostly a book of oral history, interviews, and memoir (some of it creative writing), and is mostly about coming-of-age as gay in the farmlands. There are stories in here of grinding poverty; a lot of death and sadness and loneliness; but also revelation, discovery and joy. More than one man talks about living presently in the city, often for economic reasons, but wanting to move back to the farmlands and live rurally. The interviews are with adult men who grew up gay and rural, on the farm; which accounts for some of the book’s occasional tone bittersweet nostalgia; but there is also much wisdom learned at a young age. Many men speak with pleasure and pride of their accomplishments in farm and home activities, set within the context of a conservative social climate, rigid gender roles, etc. “Farm Boys” is revelatory, essential reading. It breaks the silence that has often fallen on gay rural life. Very highly recommended.

Darrell Yates Rist, Heartlands: A gay man's odyssey across America. (New York: Dutton/penguin, 1992) This is a "road trip" book, a travel book, a post-Kerouac book, a book in the footsteps of William Least Heat Moon's "Blue Highways." I have a special bookshelf in my library for books on nomadics: road trip books, travel memoirs, books very much like this one. (Nomadics is my own word, inspired partly by Bruce Chatwin's excellent book "The Songlines," which was a seminal book on the topic.) This book, though, is a journey through sexual desire and identity. It's a road trip book that looks to find the gay quarters of each sector of the continental USA. So we meet a Mississippi drag queen, we visit the Denver Gay Rodeo, we meet a roughneck on the Alaska pipeline. Ordinary men leading ordinary lives, in small towns, in big cities, in rural areas, dealing with everything from mild discrimination to outright bigotry, but also luminous moments of comradeship and neighborliness. Some of the most memorable conversations reported in this book are in small-town roadside bars and diners. One of the themes that comes to the surface several times is how, despite our many commonalities around being gay, around AIDS, and so forth, we are still incredibly diverse, even divided, about so many other aspects of life. You meet in this book leftist activists and conservative rednecks, and more—people who share being gay in common, but about many other things completely disagree, be it politics, race, religion, or attitude. You come away from this book with a sense of the incredible diversity and differences among gay men, which is why it's so hard to get all gay men to form a unified political front to create social change. Rist concludes that one reason much of the activism seems to happen in the coastal big cities is because you can get together enough men of like attitude to agree on any form of action and ideology: you get a critical mass of interested bodies who will join in. It may not possible to ever create a unified, monolithic "gay culture" that agrees on what to do about gay rights; and Rist concludes that it might not be possible but it also might not be necessary. Just by living our diverse lines, wherever we are, we make ripples of change that spread outward—that's what he comes away with after all his time on the road, and it's a good message. Rist is a New York City writer, but he wears it lightly; he misses a few things about rural gay men, but he isn't judgmental. So, this is a big sprawling diverse unending inconclusive chaotic adventurous disturbing illuminating empowering book—rather a lot like life itself.

Capitols and Bars

The nearest gay bar to me is an hour’s drive away, in the state capitol. In my small town there’s a bar that’s gay-friendly, and I hear it’s all-gay every so often. But I’m not big on bars.

When I was in my thirties, I lived in your typical cow-town-on-hormones, Madison, WI. It has a big state University with a heavy emphasis on agriculture, and is also the state capitol. Madison thinks it’s more progressive and hip than it actually is: scratch the surface, and underneath you find many layers of old-time agrarian attitudes.

While I lived there, I played bass guitar and Chapman Stick in several jazz, blues, rock, and avant-garde post-punk bands. I had my fill of bars then. Some gigs were in venues ranging from upper-crust jazz clubs just off Capitol Square, while others were in dark and smoky bars on the edges of town, or out in the country. A few times we drove down to Chicago to play.

A couple of things you learn from playing gigs in bars: It’s no fun being around drunks when you’re not. It’s not much fun being around smokers when you’re not, either.

I don’t mind if folks do, it’s just not much fun when you’re not part of their group. There are lots of ways we sit on the sideline. We’re sidelined in so many ways, all our lives, when we’re LGBT. When I play music, I need to stay clear-headed, so I don’t drink; and then there’s the long drive home after the gig, often pretty late at night.

After one of those jazz/blues gigs, my clothes often reeked of smoke stink for four days, give or take. I’d launder everything but the smell would still take days to fade. Then I’d go out the next weekend and play, and my clothes would reek all over again. Some friends thought I smoked myself, although I never have. Some of the jazz clubs in Madison were at that time already smoke-free, a trend that grew over time to include most venues in Wisconsin. But not many small-town bars, even just outside town. The further out you go, the more likely you are to find Life in the 1950s, or even Life in the 1930s.

In anthropology they had an idea called “the doctrine of marginal survival.” Basically, the idea was that cultural elements ripple out from the artistic and governmental centers of any civilization: the capitol city is where change and development are turning over fastest, where fashions thrive, where trends are born. The trends move outwards in waves from the center. So if you’re trying to study what a culture was like in its more agrarian, tribal, or ancient past, go to the hinterlands and look in the small towns farthest away from the center of things. There you will discover that things haven’t changed much at all, yet.

Out here there is a change going on that may give the lie to that idea, rich and provocative as it is. Even small towns, borderline villages, and hamlets far from anywhere, are now getting access to the World Wide Web. The fabulous Internet. Cyberspace with its cyberpunks and data cowboys. We connect now in ways my parents never imagined. And our children have never been un-connected. I can say truthfully that I was born as part of the last generation to not own personal computers as students. Even some members of the older generation have internet access now. I know a farmer west of town who is online every day, in between chores. I know a few people out West who I talk to regularly, over the virtual back fence, as though we were actual neighbors. Cyberspace collapses geography, making us less isolated, more likely to find people who share our ideas and interests.

So maybe we rural LGBTs are not cut off from each other anymore. The gay bar remains an hour’s drive away from me, but now there are online LGBT connections for community, gathering together in affinity, and meeting for social activities. Of course, also for sex hook-ups, making friends, making “friends with benefits,” etc. The point is, we’re not as isolated as we used to be. Nobody is.

It’s still no fun being around drunks when I’m not. And going to the gay bar an hour’s drive away isn’t very satisfying: who wants to get drunk before having to drive home? It’s not just the safety issue, it’s the stupidity issue. So I remain an outsider to those venues, wondering why so many LGBTs think they’re supposed to be so much fun, just as I was an outsider when was a musician playing gigs in them.

Out Here

For those of us LGBTs who live away from the mainstream gay culture(s), which is usually urban-centric and often somewhat myopic, it can be a struggle to have to keep answering the question, “Why the *bleep* do you live out there?!” Translation: Why do you not desire with all your might to live amongst the LGBT ghettos of the big cities, where the hippest, latest, fashion-driven swirls of cultural creativity happen on the cutting edge?

Well, no.

The cutting edge can be a two-edged blade that cuts the hand that wields it.

For me, the faster pace of urban life is overrated. Sure, it gives you a rush, a thrill, even the delicious thrill of fear, of drama. But I need time to stop, slow down, sit and stare into space and cogitate. I prefer the slower pace of small-town or rural life, where cycles of time remain connected to the turn of the seasons through the year. I’ve lived in big cities, in small towns, in foreign lands, and many other elsewheres, only to discover that I seem to be happiest living in a small rural town.

The price of living on the cutting edge, in the urban swirl of rapid change, is that it can be superficial, if no one ever takes time to sit down and contemplate their lives. There’s a risk of becoming completely disconnected from the earth, from everything that made us who we are. We flit between zones of attraction without making a home in any of them. Of course, some flee that earthly connection because all it ever brought them was pain, and so the urban social whirl may seem for a time to be a balm.

The peer pressure to live only “among one’s own people” can be tribal conformism at its most shallow. If every gay ghetto were consciously aware of the power they create by banding together in common purpose, it would be different—but such awareness is sporadic, ephemeral. We may be too diverse to permanently unify and organize.

The urban LGBT ghetto’s misconception is that there’s no culture at all, Out Here. As though we had no television, no radio worth listening to, no internet, no libraries, no books to read. As if our lives were lives of deprivation and loss, lacking all that makes a culture “gay.” As if there were no movies, no music, no opportunities to gather socially. As though we were cut off from all that matters, with no avenues of connection.

Perhaps our networks Out Here are indeed a little more cobwebby, ventilated by gaps and voids in the social fabric. But they can be as strong as spidersilk, which is strong indeed relative to its size. We may not have as many social contacts as can be found in the urban centers, or as many opportunities to make new social networks, but those we do make are durable and deep.

Are rural people inherently more conservative than urban folk? Are rural gays typically more conservative, too? Maybe. But I’ve met more than a few anarchists Out Here. What conservatism Out Here might be is a rooted connection to the earth’s time-cycles, which deepens a person, makes you grow up in ways unique to rural life. A kind of quiet refusal to be swayed by the faster winds of change.

Cultural change happens everywhere, just not at the same rate. I was cheered by hearing that the Iowa Supreme Court has declared that the state’s gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. If corn-fed Iowa gets it, how far behind can the rest of the country be? Of course, there will still be turbulence and battles: it takes awhile for the dinosaur to realize it’s already dead.

So a stereotype still exists as a mythic narrative: If you’re LGBT, you must move to one of the gay ghettos in one of the big cities, to be with “your own people.” Those of us who live in small towns, rural areas, and further down those unpaved two-lane roads, know it isn’t so. We’re all still out here, and here many of us stay.

Or return. I’m one of the latter. Or, more accurately, a semi-nomadic settler who escaped from big city life to end up, almost by accident but with few regrets, Out Here.