Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On My Disdain for Gay Men (Part One)

During my undergraduate years, I went out of my way to taunt any teacher who was openly gay. Defiantly queer at the time, I feared that having another gay man in the same space as me, I wouldn’t be special anymore. I had to hurt them.

When I lived in the dorms, I felt I had to determine how I was going to be popular among straights. That was easy. Once a meek gay man walked into the cafeteria. I was with my friends. Pointing at the queer, I said, “I know he’s gay. But this is ridiculous. He walks like he has a gerbil shoved up his ass.” Everyone laughed. I was a hit. That was how I behaved for a long time. It's still the same way I act. For example: as all gay men do, whenever I first receive a book of poems by a new gay author, I rush to look at the author photo. If he's attractive, I'll start reading, imagining if he'd love me. Or do me. If not, I'll toss it aside and read People, looking for the shirtless males.

There’s a certain amount of safety in recognizing people like yourself, and a certain amount of fear they might upstage you. Any gay man who says otherwise is a liar.

I’ve always wanted to be a critic so that I could transform my misdirected anger into something useful, maybe even artistic. Also: if your bile is right in front of you, it might cause useful shame. In other words: you might keep some of it to yourself. Having a friend is a good thing.

I’ve never had many gay friends. I don’t know why. A whole lot of possibilities haunt me on a daily basis. Am I not cool enough? Attractive enough? Sweet enough? Comfortable enough with my own body or mind? Or maybe it’s them? They really aren't as judgmental as everyone thinks they are.

In some ways, I've failed as a homosexual. I'm now a college teacher; I came out when I was in high school. I still feel as new to the scene as I did then. Whenever I read a book by a queer male, my first response is always the same: "Shit. This guy really is a fag." When a student tells me he's gay, I freak. "Go back in the closet. Homosexuality isn't all what it's cracked up to be," I want to say.

Recently one poet wrote me after I said something critical of a book. It turns out the author was a friend of his, so was the other person whose project I questioned. Even though I think was right in my assessments, I was jealous. Unlike him, I didn't have anyone to defend.

At the same time maybe that's why I am better critic of queer poetry--I am shamefully objective. Or maybe not shamefully. Maybe that's a false qualification. Perhaps a victim narrative just comes easier to me. It's what we're used to. That's why so much of our poetry reads like that.

Recently after I wrote a lukewarm, yet positive, review of a book, a prominent queer poet emailed me, saying that he would never have done such a thing. You don’t take down one of your own. He had a point. Homosexuals have enough going against them.

Maybe he is completely right.

I justified the review (and still do) in that it was a mixed. I would never write about a book that yielded unequivocal dislike. Most often I write about books that create, what I like to term, a tortured ambivalence. This is what initially drew me to this particular book: I read it twice. And I still didn’t know how I felt about it. For me, writing a review is a lot like writing a poem. In fact a review is a poem. I don’t know what I think until I force the words out. I've tried writing an essay about another book by a new, extremely popular queer poet. I feel there's something missing in it. Even wrong. But I can't quite put my finger on it. That's why I've already written more than one draft, trying to figure out what I think. The review is all about me. I can't deny it.

But sometimes there are more important things than using poems as a vehicle to figure out yourself, isn’t there? Or when we read, is that all we really end up doing anyway? Should we think of a book of poems as a feat in and of itself, and celebrate it without any reservation? Or do we need to bash it, take a bat and swing, maybe even more than once, and see if it holds up or falls apart against the pressure?


  1. You're brilliant.
    Also this: "There’s a certain amount of safety in recognizing people like yourself, and a certain amount of fear they might upstage you." is true of me also. I'm always like, "I love her, she's like me. Maybe she's better than me. I hate her."
    And I read Entertainment Weekly. So.
    I also think it's fine to negatively review other gay male poet's books. If you don't, who will? I mean, if Dana Goia did it, we'd all say he's a homophobe (which he probably is, but still).
    I look forward to your book. And future posts.

  2. Damn. I read this tonight so now I have nothing to look forward to in the morning.
    Still--I think this is the problem with calling oneself a gay poet. If you commit to the team, then you're expected to bat for them 100% But to read a poem with the attention required to argue with it is more respect than most poems get in the world anyway. That you're actually reading the book and not just checking it off as gay, therefore, good, means to me that you're offering the poet, even if you don't love the poems wholeheartedly, more than the gay poet seal of approval.

  3. I was hoping this post was an April fool's joke, but I guess not. I suppose I'm very lucky because I have zero, zilch, nada angst over my sexuality. It's in my DNA, it's second nature. There is a lot of superficiality in gay men, which I think is a coping mechanism for larger issues. If the work is good, I don't care if the poet looks like Jabba the Hut; just give me good writing.

  4. I once had an interaction with a semi-famous gay male poet who asked what books I'd been reading lately. I'd recently picked up a great book by another gay male poet, a very sexual book, with vivid descriptions of sexual experiences with men, and I went on and on about how much I loved it. This semi-famous gay male poet says, "Oh, right ... well, that poet is hideous in real life. He's so unattractive he could only *wish* those things had happened to him." He didn't say dick about the book. Are you telling me this happens all the time?

  5. I've been wondering about the entire realm of criticizing art. My Mom considered herself an artist - I don't question that, I don't know why I say it like that - whatever. After her death, I was angry at art? I mean, I kept trying to figure out what is the point of it. It seemed inefficient... like something better could be done with someone's time... I don't know, building aqueducts for people in Africa? Whatever. But through this time I kept writing. And now, four years after her death, I'm currently thinking that - at least when I write - it's about trying to connect with someone else in the most intimate way possible... beyond words, bodies; though I don't know what that thing is. And when I've posted a "Note" on Facebook and someone critiques it (they say nice stuff but they shouldn't because after I read it, I'm horrified by the Hallmark crap that is in me), my first reaction is wanting to pull up the drawbridge and go back into my fortress. I don't want anyone to say anything I write is "good". I guess I am looking for a connection, or not. Simply "I connect with this" or "I do not connect with this"; either feel like an appropriate response. But a value judgment, somehow especially when someone says something I write is good - makes me want to cry because they are still standing apart from me, pointing at my soul instead of merging with it.

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  7. I was with Stephanie R. when that interaction happened. I was immediately turned off. Does the superficiality of the gay culture I am surrounded by translate into the appreciation and interpretation of literature? Should I just stop the whole writing thing right now and spare myself the grief? Maybe I just haven't crossed paths with anyone with the same attitude like Collin Kelly yet.

  8. Collin and Daniel,

    I love Collin's blog and respect his outspoken nature. I don't believe, though, that he or any homosexual for that matter is not troubled by their sexuality and its role in the larger queer community. I'm pro-superficiality, posing. It turns me on that some gay men are so willingly insensitve. What better way to be in this weird world of ours?

  9. That's a bit presumptive of you, Steve. I hate to bust your bubble, my sexuality hasn't bothered me since I was 15 or 16, and even then it was just concern about my friends/family reaction. When I came out, those worries were dispelled, and I've been content with my sexuality ever since. The only "trouble" I have now is concern over the Christian right-wing crazies trying to strip away the human and civil rights of the GLBT community.

  10. For example: as all gay men do, whenever I first receive a book of poems by a new gay author, I rush to look at the author photo.
    I would have already checked the author's picture via Google Images before buying the book. Why buy the book if the author is masturbation material? JOKING! In all serious, I don't rush to the book for the photo. I rush to the table of contents to see how the author titles poem. Then I read the poems with titles that smacked me. AND, then I check out the photo.

    When it comes to review-- gay/bi/trans/hetero... I can't care about your sexual orientation. I don't care about your ethnicity. I only care about how you use words on the page. If a bad review is earned, it is earned. If a mixed review is earned, it is earned. If a good review is earned, it is earned. I would never want someone to cut me slack. The poetry business is a little like the mob-- at some point you are likely to be somebody's punching bag. Don't join the rodeo if you can't handle a few bulls.

    Well, this has been two cents by Dustin. Over and out. :-)