Gay culture is being het-washed in popular fiction by people who don’t know our history, our culture
Where to start… First a few important things that need to be said before I get into medias res. First, when I use the word gay culture, I apply it to gay men not Lesbian women, for two reasons, first, for what it’s worth (not much), men have always been taken up the majority of space in history books, and women’s plights, and their history, wasn’t cared for much by anyone. Sadly that is still the case. While I may deplore that, I can’t change facts and I can’t make assumptions on things I don’t know. There is of course a rich Lesbian culture, worth exploring and talking about. I just am not the right person to do so. That is the second point. I know that to some the word gay includes all of LGBT culture. For the sake of this article, I use gay in it’s narrowest sense: gay male culture.
We have very little knowledge about what really happened historically, what it was really like to be gay, what gay culture looked like, hundreds and thousands of years ago, for several reasons: a) the word “homosexuality” wasn’t used until the second half of the nineteenth century, and without that word, it’s difficult to know how Gays and Lesbians were described in the past. Yes, there are other words that have been used (e.g. sodomy), but all you need to do is look at how biblical scholars are divided about the true meaning of “no man shall lie with a man the way he lies with a woman” to understand that it’s not an easy task (besides the physical impossibility of it all… Different post that!) We can try to deduce, but know for sure?
We do have some evidence (as referenced in the Wikipedia article) of gays in ancient Egypt, and there are multiple references from ancient Greek visual images and what we know of a sort of gay culture, although, and this has to be mentioned, we’re not talking about life-long relationships, but introducing young men into adulthood.
As far as I know, in most cultures, to this day, society’s procreation was paramount, and men and women were bonded and got married to secure our species’ survival. Marriage was also widely used for power games. Most of what I’m saying here is from relative recent history.
Gay men, this can be assumed by deduction given that being gay is primarily a biological not a sociological function, have always been a part of humanity (sorry African leaders) in every part of the world. But, never, until recent days (20th century) have we been able to live openly. Yes, MTF trans people have been and are revered in some cultures (e.g. India and Thailand), but that is a different thing altogether. In the early history of the 20th century, Germany even came close to accept homosexuality as a fairly normal thing, only to descend into total darkness and kill tens of thousands of gay men in their concentration camps.
Imagine being gay in those days: NO chance of finding a boyfriend, NO chance of getting married to the one you love, NO chance to come out. Yet you still had the feelings, you were still gay. You still had your urges and your need to find love, somehow. So we took to parks, to bath houses, and cruising places wherever we could find them.
Yes, we fucked, we moaned and we fisted, enjoyed a golden shower, and did all kinds of things other people did in the safety and privacy of their bedrooms, or with the wife on her back on the kitchen table. We never had that privilege. We only had the outdoors, and yes, bath houses. The latter were later complemented by video stores, dark rooms in bars etc. I grew up during those days, in a post WWII society that didn’t view being gay as something acceptable.
We had symbols, we carried handkerchiefs in various colors, we wore shoes, earrings etc. to help each other identify us as “friends of Dorothy’s”, as “family members” etc. This is all but gone now.
And this is the important part: I remember my first encounters with men, in the days before the Internet, late eighties, early nineties, too shy to go to gay bars or cruising places. I met my men through classified ads in free weekly papers. And those short moments of closeness, those one-night stands, they meant the world to a twenty-year old closet case. Most of these men were not my type really, but we shared the loneliness, we shared being ostracized, we shared the need for love, the need for closeness, affection.
Most of the men I met then I would never go to bed with today, but I was deeply affected by those early days. Back then, to find someone gay was so rare, that the thought of sex (intimacy, closeness) was omnipresent, and it’s affecting me to this day. Yes, with every man I meet, to this day. It’s a fleeting thought, mind you, but nevertheless, it’s there. Then it’s gone. This is how lonely we were. We took a hug, a kiss, a gentle stroke across a cheek from anyone willing to give it to us, and like hungry little birds, we’d relish that for a long time and stretch our necks to get to it more quickly. Words like monogamy or relationship, marriage did NOT exist in that vocabulary, because it would’ve made us monks, and well, we weren’t, aren’t, for the most part (even asexual men need closeness, affirmation, love.)
This is also the reason why there are some in the gay community who fought against our right to marry, who feared that we’d be forced into the pegged box of what marriage has come to encompass after WWII. Why this obsession with WWII. Well, marriage was always about procreation, and power deals, never about love, and never about monogamy. It was always assumed that the man in the house would get more sex than he got at home. Now that doesn’t mean there weren’t men who lived in monogamous relationships with their wives, by all means, but they were neither the norm nor the majority. Far from it.
WWII brought about a change, in the U.S., where so many young men left the country to fight the war in Europe and Asia, leaving factories screaming for workers, and they came: women. At the end of the war effort (which was as much about the industry delivering goods and weapons as it was about fighting on the front lines), these young men returned and found their jobs taken. Society and women made a deal: you go home again, be taken care of and give the jobs to the men.
In return they promise to stick to you, girl! Monogamous relationships were born, out of the need for women that men be treated the same way women always had been (because while monogamy had never been expected of men, married women were – and still are – always, with exceptions, assumed and expected to be). Hollywood was brought into the deal, and Americans were brain washed from the late forties onward with books and TV shows like Dick and Jane or Leave it to Beaver into a belief that monogamy was the norm, something to aspire to for men and women alike. Having won the war, American culture was exported around the world and boom, everyone fell into the same trap, save for the French (bless their hearts!) where president Mitterrand’s funeral saw both his wife and mistress (with kids) weep at his grave.
I have always fought for our right to get married, but I am also aware of my people’s history, our culture, and we stand to lose that. I think it’s no coincidence that marriage equality started to become a thing in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. In 1986, in a panic move, the Swedish government outlawed bath houses, in 1994 we were allowed to enter civil unions, and in 2009 we were finally allowed to get married. Denmark was the first country to recognize civil unions in 1993, less than a decade after HIV surfaced. I have a hunch that many governments figured that it would be a great thing for gays to be as monogamous as their het counterparts, and thus fight the infection. Can’t say I blame them.
The underground gay culture has survived, even though city councils may have cut down popular bushes where we’d meet or installed CCTV in public toilets where we’d fuck. Today, we don’t need to go outdoors to meet for sex. We have Grindr, Scruff, Adam4Adam, Gaydar, PlanetRomeo etc. Most of these sites (and there’s hundreds more around the world) focus mainly on quick anonymous sex. This is very different from the encounters I grew up with, where you had to wait at least two days for any answers to your classified with a phone number, or an address, and then more days before you would meet. Today, a fuck is only minutes away, and Grindr will even kindly inform you how long it takes to get there by car. Not all progress is good, and I am ambivalent to the loss of intimacy in those encounters. But it is what it is. And with Tinder, it seems there is a growing movement among young hets to catch up, no matter what the marketing says.
BUT, and this is the important thing: gay culture has and will – for the foreseeable future – be very open about sex, and with condoms and modern treatment options, having multiple partners does not constitute a risk per se, at least not as long as we are open about what we do and who we do it with.
Cheating behind someone’s back is far more risky behavior, pretending it didn’t happen even more so, and not using protection for fear of discovery in the laundry hamper can be lethal (which is why most infections today affect hets in poverty-stricken countries.) Let’s face it, hets put the label homoSEXual on us. You, the het majority, reduced us to sexual beings, so you don’t have a right to come and complain now. And we are sexual beings, too, no doubt about that, but no more or less than the rest of humanity. Sex is an important drive in humanity’s quest for survival, for procreation, and even though we may not be able to procreate naturally as two men, or two women, we still have the urge to sow our oats. That is no different. But because we have been reduced to sex for such a long time, can you blame us for identifying with it? Having made it part of our culture? Our DNA?
When I read most of the books out there, you’d think that monogamy is the natural norm, that most gay couples are monogamous. I wouldn’t know if that actually is the case, and given my experience and knowledge, I seriously doubt it (as much as I doubt that most het relationships are monogamous. You just don’t talk about it.) Let’s put it this way: many, most even, of my brethren may have bought into this monogamy BS, may have swallowed the propaganda, they may promise to their loved one that he’s the only one, whereas most research will show that in real life, most men will have cheated on their partner two years into a relationship. Now which is better? Honesty and keeping a relationship open or deceit and cheat? I’ve chosen the former.
Now I know that a lot of women cringe at such words, and I know that a lot of men do the same. I was once a firm believer of monogamy, having bought society’s siren calls for a monogamous relationship. But, when I realized that my partner at the time had cheated on me, within a week, with the same guy I’d been cheating on him, I had to finally accept that I had been lying to myself the whole time. Are there monogamous relationships? Of course. I never said there weren’t. But gay culture is different, radically different than het culture, and for us, while monogamy may be a goal, a dream (Hollywood can be VERY persuasive), it’s not reality. I just think that given our history, it’s easier for us to talk about it than it is for most hets.
In 1993, I met a Russian professor, Igor Kon, a sexologist from the Russian Academy of Sciences. I was interviewing him for the LGBT public radio show in Gothenburg. We talked about promiscuity and monogamy and he was the man who told me about his research showing that men, on average, only were monogamous for about two years. After that, Igor said, they “all” cheat, whether they admit it or not (his words, not mine).
As a gay man, he also admitted that for gay men,that time period was even shorter (maybe because most of the relationships we were in back then didn’t involve living together.) I disagreed vehemently with him back then. I had only met my partner a few months earlier, and I was madly in love with him. We had both cheated on each other by late 1994. I learned my lesson then and haven’t been in a monogamous relationship since, and I never would. Instead, I base my marriage on honesty, open communication and trust.
We all dream, we all dream about the Happily Ever After in our lives, and it seems that the post-WWII dream of a monogamous relationship lives on, and is transferred to gay couples as well. But for most of us, it’s not a reality, and many gay dating apps have statuses for “married” or “open relationship”. It’s no big deal. But it saddens me that I (almost) never read about it in books. It saddens me that I never see that reflected in literature. I’m not even expecting it in the movies, where we’re still just getting to the point of having relationships. Besides, sex is rarely discussed on TV or the silver screen anyway.
I realize of course that most people will wrinkle their noses when they hear of cruising places and outdoor casual sex, but when you understand our recent history, you also understand just how important those breathing holes have been, and still are to all those closeted men out there. Let’s not forget that most of the world is still not very open about being gay. But to force a round peg into a square hole doesn’t make the peg square. And while many het authors of gay fiction may continue to deny us our history, mock us for choices we made for our sanity and our survival, personally, I and many other gay men are proud of our accomplishments, we are proud that we once were able to see beyond physicality, beyond the shallow superficiality of someone’s looks to find moments of intimacy and closeness. Sadly we have all but lost that capability, being as superficial as the stars of today’s reality shows.
I wish that we would all be able to live our lives the way we want to. As a gay man, I am lucky in that I was forced to deconstruct and rebuild my life the way I saw fit after my coming out. Hets don’t have that privilege, and very few consciously make decisions about their life’s path, marriage and kids is just sort of expected. I have absolutely no qualms with people making a conscious decision about how to live their lives, but I do have a problem with people blindly buying propaganda, following the stream like dead fish, and I have an ever bigger problem with people trying to influence others on how to live their lives, to shove said propaganda down other people’s throats. Being gay is a very unique experience, growing up, coming out and living such a life. And even if we can choose a lifestyle that mimics the heterosexual dream life with house, dog and SUV, we should never forget our history, our culture, and what makes us unique. That would be to deny the struggle of countless forebearers and heroes that have come before us.
What is your take? Agree? Disagree?
Have a great week!