Nearly fifty years ago, in Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse suggested that homosexuals (then the current term) might someday–because of their “rebellion against the subjugation of sexuality under the order of procreation”–provide a cutting-edge social critique of vast importance. Marcuse’s prophecy may have come to pass. Or so some are claiming.
There is mounting evidence that a distinctive set of values has emerged among gay people (despite enormous variations in their lifestyles) in regard to how they view gender, sexuality, primary relationships, friendships and family. One even increasingly hears the claim that gay “differentness” isn’t just a defensible variation but a decided advance over mainstream norms, that gay subcultural perspectives could richly inform conventional life, could open up an unexplored range of human possibilities for everyone. That is, if the mainstream were listening, which it isn’t.
The mainstream’s antenna remains tuned to a limited number of frequencies: that heterosexuality is the Natural Way; that (as we move right of center) lifetime monogamous pair-bonding is the likeliest guarantee of human happiness; that the gender binary (everyone is either male or female and each gender has distinctive characteristics) is rooted in biology. Those queers who look and sound like “normal” people (or are at least able to fake it in public)–meaning, mostly, well-mannered, clean-cut white men and lipstick lesbians–are being welcomed into the mainstream in mounting numbers.
But the armed guards at the gates continue to bar admission to (as they might put it) overweight butch dykes, foul-mouthed black queers or dickless “men” and surgically created “women” delusionally convinced that they’re part of some nonexistent group called the “transgendered.” The mainstream somehow senses that the more different the outsider, the greater the threat posed to its own lofty sense of blue-ribbon superiority. Fraternizing with true exotics can prove dangerously seductive, opening up Normal People to possibilities within themselves that they prefer to keep under lock and key.
But what happens when “normal-looking” queers start asserting how different from you they actually are–and start lecturing you about how abnormal your own proclaimed normalcy is? Take, for example, the arguments that David Nimmons puts forth in his new book, The Soul Beneath the Skin. His focus is on precisely those privileged urban gay white men who, judged by outward demeanor, closely resemble stereotypical heterosexual males; they don’t look or act at all like those phantasmagoric renegades, the transgendered. Yet according to Nimmons, standard-issue gay males have birthed a strikingly different (and, he claims, superior) set of personal ethics and community institutions. These are guys, for God’s sake, who hang out in gyms and look like football players! Yet far from being your average macho Joes, their subculture is, Nimmons claims, marked by “a striking range of cultural innovations.”
What are its chief identifying features? In the past, the question has typically been answered by referencing a set of negative stereotypes that emphasize an obsession with buffed bodies, drug-driven dancing marathons, “circuit” parties of profligate sexual excess, a devotion to consumerism that excludes politics and the life of the mind, and a ruthless narcissism that denies entry to its playgrounds to all but stunning young white male bodies reeking of Ecstasy and attitude.
In The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons builds a strong countercase, favorably contrasting gay male values with those associated with heterosexual men. Urban gay life, for instance, is notable for the absence of community violence. The gay male bar scene rarely spawns shouting matches, brawls or an exchange of blows. Our dances, parades, political rallies and marches are suffused with drama but nearly devoid of ferocity.
We also have a high rate of volunteerism. According to one large-scale study, the gay cohort volunteered 61 percent more time to nonprofit organizations than did the heterosexual one–and divided its charitable contributions nearly equally between gay and nongay causes. Gay men, moreover, consistently score higher than straight men on studies that attempt to measure empathy and altruism. We perceive discrimination against others more readily than other men do, and we’re more likely to have friends across lines of color, gender, religion and politics. It’s telling that during the trial of Matthew Shepard’s murderers, nearly every leading national gay and lesbian organization publicly opposed the death penalty. Cruelly treated for generations, we practice tenderness and tolerance more than other oppressed minority groups–who tend to treat us with contempt and disdain.
Nimmons also applauds the premium that many (though certainly not all) gay men put on being emotionally expressive and sexually innovative–for the compelling way we’ve reworked the rules governing erotic exploration, friendship and coupledom. In regard to couples, he argues that the community ideal (even if only approximated in practice) is one of mutuality and egalitarianism–which again sets us apart from stereotypical straight men, some of whom spout egalitarian rhetoric but few of whom carry their fair share of domestic responsibilities.
I find much of what Nimmons has to say persuasive–indeed, a recent British study, Same Sex Intimacies, by Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan, confirms gay male distinctiveness beyond the borders of the United States. Still, I do have problems with some aspects of Nimmons’s argument. The most serious derive from his lack of clarity about whether he’s primarily defending the limited number of urban, privileged, mostly white men who make up the gym/circuit/Fire Island Pines crowd, or whether he’s mounting a broader defense of gay male culture as a whole.
He wobbles back and forth, though he finally does seem more interested in sticking up for the small circuit set than in burnishing the image of the general gay male community. In my view, though, the distinctive set of values that he catalogues more justly apply to the latter than the former. I’ve made dozens of trips over several decades to the Pines, for example, and can say only that Nimmons’s description of it as “a form of queer kibbutz” where “an easy male affection suffuses the air” is wildly at odds with my experience of it as a smug, fatuously snotty watering hole for the very rich or very beautiful.
I also think that Nimmons overdraws the contrasts between gay and straight men and overcredits our “stunning cultural accomplishment[s].” After all, Hugh Hefner made some contribution to the “erotic innovations” that so enthrall Nimmons. And experimental patterns in sexuality and relating date back at least to the countercultural 1960s (not to mention the nineteenth-century Oneida community, the Bloomsbury crowd or the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1920s). Nimmons also minimizes the notable shifts in attitude that characterize today’s younger generation of heterosexuals. In simplistically insisting that “the icy winds of sexual repression…have swept across the [heterosexual] American landscape,” Nimmons fails to understand how broadly attitudes about sex and gender have shifted, especially in urban areas, as traditional notions of what constitutes a “family” or a “viable” relationship come under increasing scrutiny.
Nimmons is better at delineating gay male distinctiveness than accounting for it. He establishes the fact of gay male peaceableness, for example–and does so with style and verve–but he’s of little help in explaining it, other than to remark in passing that “gay men might be biologically a gentler species of male.” But it seems to me far more likely that our nonviolent behavior originates in our historical experience. Having been subjected for generations to gay-bashing and police brutality, we’ve learned, out of prudence and fear, not to let our anger show in public. Tellingly, it does show in private: The rate of domestic violence among both gay men and lesbians ranks right up there with heterosexual violence. (The latest of many studies to confirm that is No More Secrets, by Janice Ristock.) We’re not devoid of rage; we’re unwittingly passive-aggressive, taking out the aggressive side in the comparative safety of our homes–or on ourselves, through the abuse of alcohol and drugs.
But Nimmons, prone to inspirational excess (as when he writes about “the centrality of bliss and play in our lives”–sure, try telling that to the legions of poor gay people), is impatient with introspection. He sneeringly refers, at one point, to “the reigning queer academic chatter–uh, sorry, discourse,” showing no awareness of how much queer (and feminist) theory has contributed to the “new culture” whose virtues he trumpets.
Besides, he has ideological allegiances of his own, though he reveals them off-handedly. Phrases like “hard-wired,” “essential components” and “innate tendency” are sprinkled throughout Soul, tipping Nimmons’s deterministic hand. They’re sprinkled, not boldly embraced, and Nimmons frequently inserts a tepid disclaimer to protect his flank: “There is much to argue with in any strict sociobiological view,” he says at one point, but never tells us how much. He even drops in a little spiritualist fairy dust now and then, as when suggesting that those involved in the party circuit are, in their pursuit of “rapture” and “bliss,” direct descendants of “ancient shamans.”
No, we have to look elsewhere for deeper insight into the origins and significance of the gay male version of masculinity. I have two offbeat candidates in mind: Talmudic studies and relational psychoanalysis. The towering figure in Talmudic studies these days is Daniel Boyarin of the University of California, Berkeley. His 1997 book Unheroic Conduct is a work of immense importance, all at once astonishingly erudite, witty, playful and boldly speculative. As its reputation spreads, it’s beginning to roil the waters far beyond Talmudic studies.
Boyarin’s basic thesis–though this summary won’t do justice to its supple byways–is that traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture produced, in opposition to the Roman model of the powerful, aggressive, violent warrior, a cultural ideal of masculinity that valorized gentleness, nurturance, emotional warmth, nonviolence, inwardness and studiousness. These characteristics were associated with sexual desirability, not sexlessness–in contrast to the somewhat comparably pacific early Christian model of maleness associated with the desexualized St. Francis. This doesn’t mean, Boyarin emphasizes, that orthodox Ashkenazic culture was sympathetic to women (who were excluded from power) or to homoeroticism (though male sexual attraction to other males does not seem to have been considered abnormal).
By the nineteenth century, the now stereotypical figure of the “feminized” Jewish man had become, in the minds of many Jews, a roadblock to assimilation; a successful effort (joined by Freud and Theodor Herzl, among others) was made to discredit the once-privileged model of a gentler, more nurturant masculinity as either the pathological product of the Diaspora or a figment of the anti-Semitic imagination.
Boyarin wants to reclaim the earlier tradition. He believes, and I’d agree, that restoring the once-revered model would greatly help to destabilize binary notions of gender, would emancipate men and women from roles that currently constrict their human possibilities. The critical recovery of the past would, in Boyarin’s words, make for the redemption of the future. The implications of Boyarin’s work are breathtaking. By reclaiming a radically different–and socially constructed–model of masculinity, he wreaks havoc with simplistic biological determinism and offers us a previously unsighted path toward social change.
As a champion of the gentle, inward male, Boyarin has to confront the macho muscularity of the circuit culture, and he does so in a typically nuanced way. Himself an openly gay man, Boyarin has no trouble appreciating, on one level, the beauty of the gym-built gay male body. But unlike Nimmons, who uncomplicatedly exalts it, Boyarin warns that the emphasis on powerful muscularity reinforces “the dimorphism of the gendered body and thus participates… in the general cultural standard of masculinity rather than resisting it.” In contributing to the notion that only one kind of male body is desirable, the gym stud-bunny is helping to reinforce the valorization of “topness” over receptivity that already dominates our culture, sexual and otherwise.
The macho-looking gay male is also serving another negative function. The gym-built body, imitative of stereotypical maleness, all but announces that “No Sissy Lives Here,” thereby encouraging gay men (including the stud-bunnies themselves) to bury and deny the gender-discordant traits that made so many of us feel painfully different in childhood–to repudiate, in other words, “woman-identified” aspects of the self. (“Gender-discordant” is a necessary but troublesome term, implying as it does that we know what a gender-concordant model looks like and that it exists cross-culturally and is superior. The fine essays in Matthew Rottnek’s Sissies and Tomboys further explore these issues.)
I suspect that if we really do care about breaking down the gender binary, the place to look for inspiration is not Gold’s Gym but the increasingly visible transgender movement, offering as it does a radical remodeling of traditional “masculinity” and “femininity.” Transgendered people and gender-discordant gay men are notably absent from Nimmons’s book. So, too, is any discussion of lesbian culture (“Lesbians and gay men inhabit radically different worlds,” is Nimmons’s weak justification). Not accidentally, those who are transgendered, gender-discordant or lesbian are also rarely seen, if not actually barred from, the circuit party network. Yet all three belong at the heart of any comprehensive discussion of a “new” gay culture.
The extent of gender discordance among gay men hasn’t been a front-burner topic since the early 1970s, when radical gay liberationists championed an androgynous ideal. It’s time to stop avoiding the topic. Boyarin has provided us with a historical context for dealing with it, and the psychiatrist Richard Isay (among others) has offered us some provocative contemporary data.
In a 1999 paper in the journal Psychiatry, Isay insists that all of the several hundred gay men he’s treated over the past thirty years exhibited gender-discordant traits in childhood. (Such traits, it should be pointed out, are not confined to children who later develop a same-gender erotic preference: Some fifteen years ago, Richard Green, in his much-contested book The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality, found that roughly a third of the gender-discordant male children he studied became, as adults, heterosexual in orientation.)
If one accepts–as I do, but Isay does not–the queer theory argument that “male” and “female” gender roles are not to any significant degree intrinsic–that is, biologically determined–but are primarily, and perhaps even exclusively, the products of learning and repetitive performance, then “gender discordance” becomes something of a non sequitur: Where all boys are capable of (perhaps even, in the earliest years, inclined toward) a female-identified–which may be the same as saying transgendered–self-image and presentation, then no particular gender configuration can legitimately be seen as “deviant.” Boyarin’s Ashkenazic Jews–men whose avoidance of what we call “rough and tumble” play would, by contemporary standards, be branded as “sissy”–were in their own culture esteemed as ideal representatives of maleness.
That model of manliness has nothing in common with the currently fashionable incantation–itself harking back to Jungian twaddle about “anima” and “animus”–that men “need to get in touch with their feminine side.” No, it’s about the need to reinvent for everyone, male and female, more fluid, expansive self-definitions; it’s about moving beyond gender conformity, beyond gender itself, to molding individually satisfying selfhoods.
Isay’s concern is with current suffering, not with a futuristic path that might circumvent it. “Gender-discordant” boys, taunted at school and berated at home (especially by their fathers), internalize the view that something is “wrong with them,” that they’re “not OK.” And most of them, from an early age, struggle to divest themselves of the disapproved behavior–of all traces of effeminacy. The psychic cost, as Isay points out, is high. In repudiating aspects of the self that could be read as feminine, the male (straight or gay) does deep injury to his affective life, including the loss of emotional expressiveness and resilience, possible separation trauma from the forcibly disavowed yet still adored mother, and the need to avoid relationships that might evoke any resurgence of “feminine” traits.
Such speculations should, at a minimum, make us ponder precisely what is “transformative” (as Nimmons and others claim) about the gym/circuit culture. Is it expanding our range of expressive options–or narrowing them? I think we should be wary, too, of the paeans to “erotic adventuring” that fill The Soul Beneath the Skin (and much of gay male discourse). I used to write such paeans myself, so feel free to chalk up my current uncertainty to the onset of old age and the loss of vital fluids.
We need to keep in mind that there’s enormous variation in how gay men conduct their sexual lives. Even before AIDS, only about 20 percent of the gay male population pursued erotic exploration in any sustained way–about the same percentage as those who chose celibacy. Still, even among long-term gay male couples, roughly three-quarters of them define “fidelity” in terms of emotional commitment rather than sexual faithfulness–a much higher percentage than is found among either lesbian or heterosexual couples.
Nimmons considers this rescripting of monogamy in primary relationships a “creative” phenomenon. Certainly there’s plenty of evidence to support the view that monogamy is comparatively rare among animal species. In their recent book The Myth of Monogamy, the husband and wife team of David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton offer a barrage of information to the effect that monogamy is “not natural” and certainly “not easy.” But Barash and Lipton also argue that there is no better alternative, “that open, unstructured, and nonrestrictive sexual relationships” do not make people happier.
Nimmons is certain they do, and it’s a view widely shared among his crowd of urban gay men. They could be right, but the argument needs to be mounted, not merely affirmed. When Nimmons claims that gay men have built “the most complex, flourishing, nuanced sexual culture the planet has known,” it can only mean he’s never heard of the Kama Sutra.
And although it may be true that gay people talk “a whole lot dirtier with spouses and lovers” than straight people do, I wouldn’t be too quick to equate that with either “a stunning cultural accomplishment” or a revolution–no, not even if we include such additional innovations as “fuck buddies,” “orgy rooms,” “glory holes” and “lube guns.” Personally, I’d rather reserve the word “revolution” for that halcyon day when we manage to eradicate racism, poverty and the subjugation of women.
To be sure, the pursuit of bodily pleasure is, given our puritanical traditions, decidedly a force for good. But too self-congratulatory a focus on glutes and orgasms often seems yoked to an undernourished political sense that comes across, ultimately, as a form of provincialism light-years removed from any concern with the survival issues that dominate and defeat most of the planet’s inhabitants–including most of its gay people.
Celebrating what is special and innovative in urban gay male life is a needed antidote to generations of negative stereotyping. But simply affirming our cultural achievements won’t cut it. We need to weigh them against theories and evidence that don’t simply reflect our community’s self-referential values. A concrete example of what I have in mind would be to incorporate into our debates about, say, primary relationships the writings of Stephen Mitchell, one of the founders of relational psychoanalysis and among the very first to challenge the once-standard view of homosexuality as pathology. Mitchell’s new, posthumously published book, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, is not aimed at a gay audience, but the questions it raises assuredly apply.
The book throws unsettling light on the dynamics of longstanding relationships, unsettling because Mitchell turns some cherished formulas on their heads–like the view, shared by many gays and straights alike, that erotic excitement and domesticity cannot coexist for long. The usual explanation for their incompatibility is some version of “familiarity breeds boredom.” But in Mitchell’s view, turning off to our primary partner is essentially a function of risk management. We separate sex and love because otherwise the stakes would be too high–too likely to heighten dependency and vulnerability, too threatening to our (illusory) sense of being in control of our lives.
And, Mitchell points out, this is more true for men than women. The macho masculinity we privilege in our culture, Mitchell argues, is “easily destabilized by dependency longings.” Most men cannot risk monogamy. And we give them an easy way out: Our cultural script tells men that for them (unlike women), sexuality is rapacious and indiscriminate; that the male libido demands adventure.
Mitchell reports that when his patients “complain of dead and lifeless marriages, it is often possible to show them how precious the deadness is to them, how carefully maintained and insisted upon.” Long-term partners “collapse their expectations of each other,” he writes, “in collusively arranged, choreographed routine.”
We then relocate our sexual desire away from our primary partner, telling ourselves that he or she has become too familiar to ignite desire–whereas in fact we’re fleeing the threat of deeper knowledge of the other and deeper exposure of ourselves. We refuse to acknowledge that our partner, far from having become wholly known or from being securely centered, is a mysterious multiplicity of selves. But armed with our denial of the other’s (and our own) potential, we rush off to our one-night stands, threesomes and orgies. Nimmons relabels erotic adventuring “diffuse intimacy” (the “diffuse” part, anyway, is unassailable), and urges us to applaud it. Yet in light of Mitchell’s sensitive distinctions, the applause seems too sweeping, too psychologically naïve.
I’m deeply committed to ending the era of gay apologetics. But we need to be on guard against the temptation to replace it with an era of extravagant self-congratulation.