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Thursday, February 6, 2020

Dear Diary...

I take a real pleasure in reading other people's diaries. After they're dead, of course. The Diaries of Virginia Woolf are still one of my favourites.

Diaries of gay men hold a particular fascination for me, and I've been following one on Facebook called Mr Lucas.  Follow it - it's fascinating.

As the pinned post at the top of the page says :

 "Mr Lucas has been buying sex since the 1950s. An unremarkable man, he led a rather remarkable life. Born in 1926 in Romford, he lived a quiet unassuming life as a civil servant in the department of trade (I think he did something with contracts, but that’ll become clearer as we go on). But, by dint of his sexuality, he also lived a very active life in the sleazy streets of 1960s Soho. That is, when he wasn't cottaging. Or paying guardsmen for sex. Or pining for a normal life."

They are a treasure trove of a side of gay life largely gone from most Western countries, but still, I imagine, very similar to the lives of gay men in some places. Repressed. Dangerous. Lonely. Mr Lucas is Roman Catholic and definitely a Tory. No intersectionality for him.

The curator of these diaries is doing something wonderful bringing these too light. A mid-century civil servant in London, out looking for sex and companionship, but also tinged by what today we'd call his own internalised homophobia and other personal hangups.

It paints a picture of a world that is familiar if only through stories of older friends and men I met a long time ago. I'm glad the world has changed for us, but I read each new entry of his with curiosity and affection.

There are two other diaries of gay men out there that I also revisit from time to time.

The infamous "Black Diaries" of Roger Casement. Casement was one of the first people to expose the horrors of the Belgian Congo, where Africans were enslaved by the King of Belgium, to produce rubber mainly, and brutally tortured with beatings, amputations, and worse.

His reporting brought this to light for the first time, and he is rightly seen as one of the first fighters for Human Rights. He kept what became known as "White Diaries" and "Black Diaries". The white ones were filled with his official records of the torture and slavery he witnessed and was reporting on.

He was also gay, and recorded scraps of his sexual encounters in his "Black Diaries", for example, 
28 March 1910 "Deep screw and to the hilt! 18 and glorious, biggest since Lisbon July 1904"
27 May, 1910 "Met J. McG, 4/6 (that's what he paid him) Huge and Curved" 

Casement's black diaries were used against him hs treason trial. Even thought he'd been in the Foreign Office, and served as a Consul for the British Empire at one time, he supported the Irish Republican movement and was actively working for them as WW1 broke out, and he was hanged for treason in 1916.

He loved human rights, and he loved men and he loved cock. Sounds very familiar somehow.

Jeb and Dash is more similar to Mr Lucas, in that there is not so much joy, but a lot of angst and desire. Another civil servant (there's a theme here...) but in Washington DC, his diaries run from 1918 - 1945.

Jeb, the author, is deeply in love with his friend Dash, but this never comes to anything. He was extremely shy in ordinary life, and his diaries were his outlet. 

He talks of sex, he drinks too much, he hates fascists, he loves men, he loves music and the theatre, and often ends up with strangers in his bed after being out drinking all night. Again, it sounds familiar.

All of these diaries show us what it was like for gay men not that long ago. We have made incredible progress in so many ways, but it seems to me that a lot of people don't know or don't care where we came from or what it was like. 

These men all loved sex, fucking and sucking and having fun, and, I believe, wanted to love and be loved by other men, but that seemed a ridiculous idea back then, impossible. As much as some queer activists like to deride us getting marriage equality as pandering to heterosexual social norms, the opportunity, and the right to love and be loved is something these men would, I imagine, have cherished.

They are clearly identifiable gay men, but the world around them was hostile in ways we can't imagine today. It would be fascinating to go back and visit their worlds for a few days, but hell to be trapped there.

I guess I recognise myself in each of them, and that's what makes reading their stories so powerful
for me, and so moving. A few decades difference and it could have been me - or any of us.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Consenting Adult

There's an old line that straight men are afraid of gay men because they're worried we'll treat them like they treat women, and I think there's more than a grain of truth to it.

I've been watching the #MeToo movement arising from the  fury so many women have at the way sexual assault has been used against them, and as in the case with Anthony Rapp, we see Kevin Spacey also accused of doing this to men.

I have felt  invisible in all the commentary on this topic that I've seen reported, the assumption is simply that what applies to heterosexual women around consent applies to all. I don't think it's that simple. It doesn't resonate with my lived experience.

I want to explore that disconnect, between things that are so real for so many of my female friends and women in general, and my own experiences.

If I think of my own sex life and the encounters I've had. I estimate I'd had sex with around 1,000 men by my early 20s, and maybe 2,000 by my early 30s. I've slowed down now so I guess it's about another 500 or so now I'm  in my mid-50s.

But never once with a woman, so I don't know how that works and don't presume to speak for them.

I've had a lot of sex. A lot of gay men have. There's a  joke that giving a blowjob is like shaking hands for gay men, and it's not far wrong. Having a sexual encounter with another guy is not that big a deal, it's often just scratching the itch.A bit of fun. Something you can do in 10  minutes on your lunch break with a total stranger you'll never see again.

Was it all consensual? No. But when I look back I'd have to say just because it wasn't consensual, doesn't mean it was traumatic or wrong.

I grew up and came out at a time when fucking around a lot was seen as an excellent thing to do. It was liberating, it was fun.

I'm not saying all gay men fucked like rabbits, but a significant number of us did, and that formed its own culture with its own set of norms and rules about what was ok or not, and I think they differ from a lot of what women and mainstream commentators are saying about what they want and what they see as right and consensual. I keep listening to these conversations or statements about consent and thinking "That doesn't square up with my experience."

Consent when you're fucking is simply not always that black and white. Or not in my world anyway.

I know, some gay men have been serious victims of sexual assault and I'd never try and diminish that, but some like me have had very active sex lives and it's been very different.

I spent a lot of time in the backrooms of bars, or orgy rooms in fuck-clubs or saunas. If you walk semi-naked into a nearly pitch-black room filled with other horny men, I'd say consent is pretty well implied by that action. I dressed and acted like I was asking for it, precisely because I was. I wasn't scared I'd be raped when I walked around with my bare arse hanging out of a pair of chaps in my 20s or 30s. I was literally dressing to show I wanted sex.

Having said that, I know that while there could be huge pleasure in sinking into a mass of seething anonymous flesh where all we wanted was poles and holes, I could also extricate myself from it. I could brush men, or body parts, away if I'd had enough or just didn't feel like it. I had agency and power in it. Maybe that's the difference. Male privilege.

And yes, on a purely physical level, being treated like an object, a piece of meat, and treating other men that way, was exactly what we were after. This wasn't about love, (though I do know men who met and fell in love with their partners from these situations).

Sometimes my "No" really did mean "Yes", I wanted to be persuaded, seduced, wooed. And that sits in contrast to a lot of the responses that have come from #MeToo - where No must always mean No, and persistence from a man to a woman is creepy and scary and akin to rape.

And those times when I took someone home, or they came home with me, and early in the morning I'd feel a mouth on my cock, or a cock up my arse or him riding my cock, or I'd do those things,  no consent had been negotiated. It's not a view that seems to be acceptable in the current environment, where the message is consent must be asked for every sexual interaction. I usually didn't mind those early morning actions, and if I wasn't in the mood and he kept going, it was like having a horny dog humping my leg, irritating or funny even, but not a sexual assault.

I didn't feel violated. I didn't feel assaulted. I didn't feel like my personal autonomy was breached. But there was no "enthusiastic and explicit consent" as I've seen some people calling for as mandatory. Or is a sleepy groan consent? Or a protest?

I read another gay man recently say he continually asks the guy he's fucking if what he's doing is ok, to ensure consent. To me that sounds like such a buzzkill. I'll tell you if it's not ok, trust me.

I fear that sex is getting wrapped up in some dangerous aura again that demands policing. There's a definite element of moral panic going on among the real and tangible awfulness that has happened.

Sexual consent is dependent on culture, on social position, on gender and on sex. It is understandable that nearly all the  demands for change have come from women, and trust me, I understand how badly patriarchy treats women, but looking over my own life I keep thinking "Ummm, no... that doesn't make sense to me personally."

And yes I can use the #MeToo hashtag as well. I have been raped. But in the situations that I identify as rape in my life, it was the violence or threat of it that was so traumatic. A cock in my mouth or arse really didn't matter, but that accompanying violence, physical or mental, that was terrifying. That was an assault. That was a traumatic violation.

I don't in any way dismiss the experiences or reactions of so many women, and  men as well, but they are so different from my own, that's what has intrigued me in so many ways as I watch this movement grow. I don't say that my experience is true for all gay men. I know that some men do feel pressured, do feel unable to say no or take control, and end up being raped.

Gay men in the pre-AIDS era deliberately built a very sexualised culture, one that celebrated sex in ways most heterosexuals can't understand, and has been lost to some extent in contemporary gay male culture I think. We created our own set of rules as well. Perhaps that is why these new calls for such restrictive rules strike me as so strange, so old-fashioned and prudish if I try and place them in my lived experience.

We do have consent, but it's not built on clear and explicit conversations about limits, it's built on experience, on agency,on gut feelings and knowing what's ok and what's not in a certain milieu.

But going back to my opening point, I think the core difference I see arises precisely because I'm a man, with all the social power that being a man has. I don't feel fear that I'm going to get sexually assaulted if I dress in a certain way. I feel confident that if I say "No" I won't get beaten up or raped.

We set up a culture that celebrated sex, even to excess, but we developed ways of communicating what the limits were. As a man fucking with other men, we have power and agency that I guess women simply don't have.

Male privilege means that some gay men can treat each other the way some straight men treat women, and it's ok.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Death and Love

I think it was Chateaubriand who said that trying to imagine our own death is like trying to stare into the sun.We can't do it.

Death is the one human experience that we will all go through, but the one that nobody can describe. Nobody has come back from death and said "It feel like this" 'This is what happens". Some do tell us such stories, but the fact they have "come back" means they have not died, and their knowledge is as limited as ours.

In the '90s when I was expecting and expected to die from AIDS, I thought about death a lot.I'd been diagnosed in '87 or '88, I can't quite remember when now.

Nothing really happened to me after diagnosis, years of just going on as before. But then it started, I began to get sick, weak. And as I got sick,  I became angry, bitterly furious. My body that engine of pleasure, this sack of meat that is me, no longer did what I wanted.

My body had betrayed me.That's how it felt.

I spent a lot of time in Herne Bay House, a hospice and respite centre for people with HIV and AIDS. I was so weak I couldn't walk the dozen or so steps from room to the kitchen. At times I couldn't make the three or four steps needed to get to the toilet, and shat or pissed myself and the floor.I couldn't breather without an oxygen tank.

I had no energy. I couldn't even read it seemed.

And I was angry,bitter, nasty. So angry in fact, that the management took me aside and told me that my negative attitude was affecting others there, and unless I changed they might be forced to ask me to leave.

It's quite a shock to the system when you consider that an AIDS hospice might ask you to leave because you're being such an obnoxious prick.

So I deliberately changed my attitude.It took some time, and it wasn't easy, but I didn't want to die a nasty, embittered and lonely man.

I decided to focus on how to have a good death. I decided to explore what that meant, and how to prepare myself for it.

I did some serious work with a brilliant psychotherapist who specialised in death and dying issues. I took up Buddhist meditation for a number of years.I studied concepts of death and dying through a sociological lens at University. I even ended up lecturing on the topic.

My death seemed intimate. Not something I welcomed exactly, but something I had come to terms with, something I acknowledged, almost a friend, more than an acquaintance, never a lover.

And then, thanks to Western Medicine, I didn't die. Others did, they kept dying around me, from AIDS. But I didn't.

I have to say that up until recently I do not think I have ever embarked on a project as fulfilling as getting ready to die. Everything else became trivial. Death is the last great event for us all.And it has taken me a long time to accept that I will not, in the near future at least, die from AIDS. It has taken me a long time to trust I have a future.

I'm still here. And now those days and those memories are far away. That sense of wonder and calm I had about my death has gone now. I wonder if all I learnt then will come back to me when my death comes near again. Or will I have to learn it all again?

I know my experience is not a template for others.I only speak for myself.

Now I have found a project even more fulfilling than working towards a good death, and that is love.

To love, to be loved, to hold and to be held, to know and be known.

And in that I know I'm lucky.

If understanding death is like trying to stare into the sun, the loving and being loved is like being wrapped in its warmth, something we can enjoy, can experience, can share our knowledge of and understand. Where death once made my life meaningful, now love does.

I will die, as we all will, but now I live and love. To love well is now the most fulfilling project I can imagine, and to lose that love more terrifying than the idea of death to me.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Trouble With Express...

There has been a fair bit of anger and upset in certain LGBTTI+ circles this week, after express writer Sarah Murphy published a report on long-time community stalwart Paul Heard's racist comments after he and his partner were gay-bashed on K rd as they were finishing a night out.

I've known Paul for many years, he's a friend and someone I know as a good and decent man. But as soon as I saw those comments I knew he was in trouble.

Paul's comments were racist and offensive, nobody has ever said they weren't. But he had just been gay-bashed, for the third time in recent years, on K Rd, a space that we do tend to view as our own. Getting gay-bashed is traumatic, to put it mildly, and unlikely to elicit a calm and reasoned response.

Yet the event had happened nearly two months ago, and had been reported on the now closed very soon after it happened.

Just why Sarah Murphy decided to dig up the story and present it again at this time is strange. The tone of her reporting was subtly nasty. If she is really concerned about racism in the LGBTTI+ world there are many other stories worth following up. This was not in any way framed as a piece on racism in our world. Nor was it a piece on whether or not K Rd really is "ours". Nor a piece on the prevalence of queer-bashing. It was a petty piece of back-stabbing of one man.

And that's why it got such a rapid and sharp reaction from so many people. It was gratuitous, vindictive and spiteful, that's certainly how it seemed to me.

And it's caused a few others to offer their take on it all, including a very measured response from noted gay media commentator Andrew Whiteside with this analysis.

Sam Brooks writing on The Spinoff seems all in favour of Murphy's approach. I'm assuming they're friends by the tone, but I could be wrong. It's good when your mates stand up for you.

But he does note that "An executive decision regarding the angle and balance of the piece was made that followed the ethos of my new workplace.” That's the elephant in the room really.

He doesn't make any effort to go on to explore what that ethos is in any way. Let's unpack that a little.

Certainly in my experience and opinion, watching express over the last years degrade into a gay version of New Idea at best, or sometimes something closer to The Sun, largely filled with stories yanked from overseas sites like Pink News or The Advocate, some fluffy filler around New Zealand, it has become something that is of no relevance or value to my life or that of any people I know. 

And that's a shame, as it used to function as a very good community paper, under previous ownership. And yes, I used to write the occasional story for it, under both its original and later management.

Look at that sentence above about "an executive decision... the ethos of my new workplace". It's interesting. It deserves our attention, as it seems to indicate that someone other than Murphy shaped the final tone of the story, which possibly explains the nasty, vindictive tone that sits there.

To be fair, express has a reputation for using its writers' names this way. There have certainly been accounts of it happening  before, and a lot of people around town this week were assuming that had happened again in this instance.

But any journalist with a shred of  integrity who puts their name to a piece of copy has to be prepared to stand behind it, with no excuses or caveats. So Murphy offering this little "out' for herself here is not really satisfactory.

Perhaps that explains why real journalists don't seem to stay there very long.

The outrage that swelled around this report was not around Paul's comments being reported or his losing his position at the NZAF. That was old news. 

It was around the nasty, spiteful way the whole story was written up, the core topics trivialised, with a level of innuendo that reads more like it comes from The Sun or the Daily Mail than a publication that claims to represent our various communities.

express revealed itself again that behind its "community" facade it is a toxic mess, irrelevant, and out of touch.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Telling our Stories

I ran into an old friend a few weekends ago. We were both at the wonderful Fāgogo exhibition at the St Paul Street Gallery.

Pati Solomona Tyrell, the artist, has created something truly intriguing, evocative and beautiful. It's nearly over now, but if you can, go see it.It is worth your time.

The works by themselves are beautiful pieces of art, If this exhibition were in a dealer gallery there would be red stickers by them all. And in a wider context, the entire exhibition tells a story.

To put it simply, going by what I've read, Fāgogo is a form of story telling in Samoan culture that builds and holds community heritage and history. Stories told "in a shared context, with an expectation to share the story." He brings this alive in the biggest piece, projected on a wall with a running narrative.

The work is intimately tied into the Fafswag scene that is getting more attention, as we see different queer Pasifika voices make themselves heard.

It's that "expectation to share the story" that resonated with me. Pass the knowledge on.

But getting back to my friend, we hadn't seen each other in ages. We both talked of how we miss Urge as a venue, as a social space, somewhere to go and catch up with others. Nothing has replaced it for gay men. It's not the venue itself that we miss so much as the opportunity it gave to connect.

That opportunity to connect also gave us a chance to meet, to plan, and to share our stories. And that's harder to do now.

One standard way of defining a community is to look for shared understandings of religion or the spiritual world, shared understandings of what is sacred or profane, shared language, shared rules around food, shared dress codes, shared concepts of family and social order, and shared sense of mythical and actual history. Shared stories.Shared narratives.

These shared narratives help create community.

We in the LGBTTI+ world don't have many of these characteristics, and that's part of the weakness that lies with us as communities. We're thin communities, without many of those traits above to bind us.  We often come from such very different backgrounds that we don't have a lot in common, apart from being queer. And being queer in itself is not much of a basis to build lasting community.

But we do have our stories, our narratives, and they can bind us together to some degree.

We need to do more to tell our stories and to pass them down to future generations. We need to keep the knowledge alive - not to say that things will always be this way, but to let younger people coming up know that things were once this way, and that our past to some extent explains their present, and their present will to some extent explain others' futures.

If we forget where we came from how can we know where we're going or value where we are now?

So it is was great to see this video from the UK, of a 78 year old gay man talking to a 13 year old gay boy about how things have changed.

I would love to see more of this sort of thing happening here, and perhaps it's something that Pride can explore, telling our stories as part of the Festival.

Fāgogo is an inspiring model to look to. We don't have the cultural practices or community spaces to share our stories and pass them on this way,  but it would be great if we could find some way to do something like this.

But in the meantime, go see this exhibition if you're in Auckland. It's beautiful. It's art. And it's another thread in our stories.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Losing Our Voice

Clunky, quirky,  and not exactly easy on the eye, but I'm going to miss it.

Long-time editor Jay Bennie announced  that he and his business partner Neil Gibb have decided it's time to retire, which looks like it means the end of Gaynz, the only site of genuine journalism and news that focussed on NZ's LGBTTI+ world.

And as a disclaimer, it's only fair to note that I've been published there many times, as well as in Express when Jay owned and ran that so well.

The website was definitely past its best-by date. It would seem to go against every cliche there is about what wonderful flair for design gay men are supposed to have. And Jay was generous in the way he covered so many smaller events and gave free publicity to many smaller community groups and efforts.

And most importantly, underneath the plain front was real journalism, not just empty puffery for advertisers.

Jay is a trained journalist, and he hired trained journalists over the years to edit the site, and this is what set it apart from any other NZ  news sites or publications that aimed to cater for our communities. in 2011 the site was even nominated for a Qantas Media Award (now the Canon Media Awards).

I used to blog for the site, and had opinion pieces published at times. But I'm not a journalist and have never claimed to be.

Journalists bring a particular set of tools and standards to their work, or they should do. They investigate without fear or favour, looking for the facts and reporting on them.

And Jay did that over the years, whether he pissed off people from the community or not he wasn't afraid to follow a story all the way. Sometimes he pissed me off with how he did it, but he was honest and always acted with integrity, even when some people from our world expected him to cast a less critical eye over aspects of it.

What are we left with?

Eikon, the latest entry in the market, is a well-designed site but it is hardly a credible news source for New Zealand. It seems to mainly gather articles off the net and republish them, and do occasional op-ed pieces. It does that very well, but there is no actual investigative journalism or real reporting as far as I can see.

And Express, well that was initially set up by Jay and used to be a real newspaper, now it's really not much more than a gay Womens' Weekly or New Idea at best.

It's hard to imagine either one of these putting in Official Information Act requests while researching for for stories, or asking questions of a Minister. They do what they do ok, but they don't have a journalist's perspective.

And of course, this being New Zealand, it's not like there is a huge amount of relevant community news to report on every day anyway.

Part of all this is a reflection of how difficult  traditional real journalism is finding survival in today's world. The internet has been great for journalism and also pretty detrimental. The old business model doesn't work so well - but Gaynz never really worked on that model. They were not dependent on advertising to function and I guess that helped them function more as real journalists.

With all its faults, it was a real news outlet. We'll be less well-informed without it, and our communities will lose an important voice.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

We Hunger to be Seen

Why are we so invisible?

I don't know if you saw, but there was a news report out this week saying a pair of bodies that had been trapped in the lava at Pompeii, and identified for many years as "The Maidens" is in fact two male bodies.

This has led to all sorts of speculation that in fact they were two lovers, two men taking comfort in each other's arms at this terrible time. The UK magazine Attitude got so carried away that it claimed that they were.

And it's a beautiful and poignant way of thinking about them.Two men, in love, as this terrible catastrophe destroys their world and comes to take their lives, finding some comfort, some refuge in each other, in death as in life.

But it's highly unlikely to be true. There is in fact no way of knowing anything about them except they are two bodies whose forms were preserved in lava.

Yet so many of us really, really wanted to believe they were lovers.

And that's because we so rarely see any evidence of our love, our relationships, or our lives, represented in the world around us.

We rarely see images of two women or men being simply and easily affectionate in public in say a TV show or a movie. We rarely see any representation of gender-diverse or trans people in a positive and everyday setting in the world around us.

I remember how as a teenager I would desperately try and decode every film and song for any possible reference to same sex love, trying to find any hint that there were others out there like me. At 14 I was sure that Lou Reed's "I'm waiting for my man" was about a man waiting for his boyfriend - until my oldest brother explained he waiting for his dealer.

I looked for anything, any possible sign, any possible image or set of words that could be interpreted to show I was not the only freak out in the world. I looked for images that talked of men with men showing love, happiness, and acceptance. And I barely found any.

And when we look around the world now, even though our legal situation is light-years better than when I was growing up, we are still largely invisible.

And we also know that we risk very real danger by making ourselves known, by being seen.

Earlier this month in the Netherlands a couple was viciously assaulted for holding hands in public. It was terrible - but it provoked a wonderful response of all sorts of other men deciding to publicly walk round holding hands - police, MPs, ordinary people on the way to work. A great response. But still utterly terrible it happened to them.

And it could happen to us here.

And that's where we're in a bit of a bind - if we are too unsure of our safety to go around showing who we are, by holding hands, by kissing, or whatever, then we won't become visible and normalised to the rest of the population.  I'd be very wary of holding my partner's hand outside a few areas of town, and even then only in daylight.

But we don't deserve to live this way. We should absolutely feel safe and comfortable exercising our rights to be ourselves in public. But unless someone goes first and starts  taking that risk, it's not really going to change.

That's why I really love the ANZ "Hold Tight" campaign . They made two parts to it, one is the nice glossy TV ad, and that's cool,  and the other one, here above, is where they interview actual ANZ staff, queer and straight, about the subject. Because it's real personal stories I find this to be more moving.

Advertising is one of the most obvious and pervasive ways of talking about the world around us. Ads are everywhere - but'we're not in very many of them. I think  the more we're represented in advertising, the better.

There has been a growing, but small number of efforts like ANZ's above. The more of them that are out there, the more we will be included, the more we will truly be part of the world, and the safer we will be.

Even in my 50s I still hunger to see images of my world around me, and I so rarely get to. To create a world where we are safe to show our love in public, I really think ads like this play a vital part.

Let's hope that one day our stories and images will be included as automatically as the rest of society. Let's hope that our youth will grow up seeing themselves reflected in the world around them. Because it matters.