A decade ago, I visited the Castro in San Francisco. Long considered one of the heartlands of the gay community in the US, I was intrigued to visit the area. Before going to the US I had acknowledged my sexuality, but had yet to accept it as reality. Something about being somewhere new meant that acceptance came while I was living in Miami. I still remember telling one of my closest friends that I’m gay at a party in one of her friend’s houses. Her reaction: “Oh, we just thought you were European.”
My over-riding feeling as I wandered through the Castro, a feeling that I can vividly recall ten years on, was that I was in a bubble. I even remember turning a corner and sensing, abruptly and definitively, that I had left the bubble.
Part of my reaction against the bubble of the Castro stems from not understanding why anyone would choose to separate themselves from the rest of society. I want to play a role in society at large, not separate myself from it. I want to be considered a person with my own identity, not pigeon-holed into a sub-community simply because of whom I sleep with.
People using the word queer evokes the same reaction. The political reason for reappropriating queer from the bigots is well established. It’s just not one that I buy. It was born from a climate of fear and oppression. Its continued, and growing, use speaks to a lack of confidence.
I don’t see the need to build an identity around my sexuality. Queer theory is about advancing a non-binary worldview. But it speaks more to the argument of non-heterosexual people as ‘alternative’ or ‘not normal’ than in arguing for a non-binary worldview. The world is non-binary, so the best way of reinforcing that is by living our lives in a way that expresses our self-identity.
More particularly, the use of queer and gay are not interchangeable to me because I don’t see my sexuality as deviant or alternative. Being gay is not queer.
Justin Torres, in a piece celebrating Derek Jarman’s life, sneers at the “new gay ideals of ‘marriage, a mortgage, and monogamy.’” He conflates Jarman’s anti-establishment credentials with him being a gay man and asks “if Jarman’s passionate vision, and the example of his life, might offer something refreshingly vivid, alternative, wild, and necessary for our queer future”. His argument boils down to ‘being gay means being alternative and wild.’
Jarman’s alternative outlook is used by Torres as a stick with which to beat the millions of gay people who want what is pejoratively referred to as a ‘heteronormative’ lifestyle. Torres bemoans a dilution of gay identity, ignoring that the gay identity he writes about is but one interpretation of gayness.
Tim Murphy, writing in Out’s January edition, asks the bizarre question of whether men who choose to have monogamous relationships are “depriving themselves of a perk of being gay”. Many gay people reject the perception that all we want in life is the next guy; that works for some, just as it works for some straight people. The historic or cultural perception of gay identity, that it is based on promiscuity, ignores the reality that heteronormative behaviour amongst gay people was not an option for generations.
Some things stay constant, but many things evolve. Torres makes the ‘traditional values’ argument for a gay identity that many gay people reject. Hankering after an identity that is rooted in saunas and cottaging and animalistic tribes is as sad as Rick Santorum hankering after an idealised 1950s America or Nigel Farage dreaming wistfully of a Britain that no longer exists. Identity changes.
Justin Torres is not alone in seeking to protect a separate gay community. But the starting point that such a community is based on being alternative or wild is entirely false. The fact that my gay peers and I love and sleep with members of the same sex is about the only thing that unites many of us. An attempt to define a gay community today is as futile as trying to identify a straight community.
And what’s wrong with wanting a stable, committed relationship with someone on whom you can depend? It may not be for everyone. Torres’s idealised ‘queer’ lifestyle, epitomised by Derek Jarman, is not for everyone. But the attitude expressed by some gay people towards those who want stability and commitment is simply unpleasant.
The desire for committed love may be an ideal, but who is Justin Torres or Tim Murphy to sneer at or criticise people who want that ideal? And who really wants their identity to be summarised in a pithy and sepia-tinted view of gay as queer? Being gay may have lost some of its cutting-edge value by becoming mainstream, but the diversity that exists amongst gay people simply reinforces that it’s not something around which to build a collective identity.