A new way of looking at heterosexuality
Acceptance of the LGBTQ community has become so widespread, the phrase “LGBTQ” is uttered by politicians, celebrities and newscasters alike. In fact, many politicians, celebrities and newscasters themselves have come out as either LGBT or Q. Hooray for the gays! Everybody wins, right? Depends on whom you ask.
An unintended consequence of gay liberation.
After the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots credited with igniting the gay rights movement, gays came out in droves and became part of the American conscious. Before long, men were forced to choose sides and identify themselves. Outwardly, men became either gay or straight, as in, self-identified, as in, branded, as in, branding one’s self to others.
The result: the men who branded themselves as gay banded together, moved into the same neighborhoods in large cities and fought for gay rights. The right to be gay—to openly self-identify—which became tantamount to openly participating in gay pride parades, openly visiting gay bars, openly kissing in public, all the way up to openly getting married. Everybody wins, right?
Sure, if everyone’s sexuality fit into nice and neat niches and categories, like, straight or gay. But life (and human nature) is not so easy.
So gays may have carved out a niche for themselves in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean every other male on the planet is a steadfast, tried-and-true heterosexual—who hasn’t tried or doesn’t enjoy (or want to enjoy) sexual relations with another man. It also doesn’t mean all hetero men are closeted homos.
Sexuality is more complicated than simply choosing sides.
Nowhere is this nuance better illustrated than in the premise for the book “Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men” by Jane Ward, an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Riverside. It’s a book I haven’t read, mind you, but a side of humanity to which I have borne witness. (I discovered the book through this Forbes Magazine article.)
When I was a horny young man with no sexual outlet, I found myself immersed in the world of men who have sex with men, or MSM, a category of behavior created by the CDC to better track the spread of HIV/AIDS. The term was created because asking many a man, “are you gay?” renders the answer, “no,” as in “no, I’m not an openly branded gay man living an openly gay life in an openly gay world.”
But when many of those same men are asked, “do you have sex with me?”, the answer is affirmative and something the CDC can work with in tracking and preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
This is because of the existence of an parallel world within our world in which men of all shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds have sex with other men. In public bathrooms. In public parks. In adult bookstores. In bathhouses. In back alleys.
Like squirrels, wherever there’s a nut to be had, there’s a man or two. That’s what I learned as a young adult. And often in that parallel world: the man having sex with another man is not a “gay man” living a “gay life.” He’s married to women, he’s a father, a man with girlfriends, and so on.
The late and longtime gay rights advocate Harry Hay once regaled me with tales of the multitudes of men cruising through Los Angeles’ Griffith Park as far back as the 1930s—too many to be accounted for by demographics for “bachelors,” and New York’s Grand Central Station possessed a similar legendary lure for men in search of a nut for decades upon decades (perhaps still).
Not gay. Not cruising for sex. But still doing dudes.
Alas, maybe there should be yet another category for men’s behavior because many men are neither gay identified or having sex with other men in these sex zones, yet they still seem to get their jollies being sexual with other males.
“Not Gay thrusts deep into a world where straight guy-on-guy action is not a myth but a reality,” says the blurb on her publisher’s website. “There’s fraternity and military hazing rituals, where new recruits are made to grab each other’s penises and stick fingers up their fellow members’ anuses; online personal ads, where straight men seek other straight men to masturbate with; and, last but not least, the long and clandestine history of straight men frequenting public restrooms for sexual encounters with other men.”
Not exactly openly-gay or sexually liberated. In fact, Ward argues, this behavior reaffirms rather than challenges the men’s gender and racial identity:
“By understanding their same-sex sexual practice as meaningless, accidental, or even necessary, straight white men can perform homosexual contact in heterosexual ways.”
Her theories go a long way in explaining the many sexually-charged, high school football hazing scandals uncovered in recent memory—the rituals being a prime example of how sexuality, when given a chance to flourish, can be quite fluid.
But how fluid can sexuality be, if one has to choose sides? Or if one option is defined as straight—a word synonymous in meaning with correctness—and the other option is defined as “not straight,” or “their team,” one you may or may not fully embrace, one still stigmatized and stereotyped?
The fluidity gets stymied, bottle up, twisted. “These sex acts are not slippages into a queer way of being or expressions of a desired but unarticulated gay identity,” notes Ward. Instead, they reveal the fluidity and complexity that characterizes all human sexual desire.”
Which brings us back to the cost society is still paying for phobia of any kind regarding men having sex with men.
The price of this non-gay, same-sex sex: the impressionable young high school or college student sexually violated during hazing rituals; the unknowing wife whose husband brings home a disease; men still feeling ashamed about having sex with men; internalized homophobia.
Ward’s book focuses on straight white men, but I would argue: it’s not just white men playing this detrimental game. It’s men in positions of power. For instance, the straight man in prison is in a position of power in relation to the gay man, regardless of race, so the straight inmate is the one who gets to make up the twisted sex rituals, while the subordinate participants, even if involuntarily.
Call it straight privilege. In many circumstances, a straight man can get his nut with another man while the world is no wiser as he continues to participate in society as a hetero-identified individual.
But at what price?