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Monday, October 19, 2009

Life, Literature and Politics

I read a lot. So I go to bookshops a lot, and love spending time and money in them. If you're ever stuck on what to give me for a present, book-vouchers are perfect. But I have to admit that it took me a while to figure out that Unity Books here in Auckland had moved their gay literature section to another part of the store. On reflection, this surprised me: not that they'd moved it, but that it took me so long to notice.

Time was I couldn't wait to get my hands on any books that dealt with gay life. Fiction, poetry, biography, research, theory, whatever, they just seemed so important and so necessary to me. When I first enrolled at University, one of the first things I did was find out where all the gay books were kept in the library. I used to have that catalogue number memorised. The first time I went up there I remember looking at the books, pulling a few off the shelves, and looking down the aisle to see a guy with his cock hanging out, using the gay section as a cruising area. Now there is shelf after shelf of work on gay/lesbian/queer stuff and I barely bother to give it a glance, and I haven't noticed any hot undergrads hanging out cruising there either.

The old OUT! office in High St (very near to where Unity is now in fact) was my first source of gay literature. I still have some of the books I got there. Felice Picano's poetry "The Deformity Lover" and a few others. I wish I'd kept hold of my copy of the first edition of "The Joy of Gay Sex" though. That office was a strange place. They had porn under the counter, and serious literature on the stands. I bought works put out by the Gay Sunshine Press from SF, which I still treasure, because I do treasure books.

At one time, anything written to do with being gay was seemed esential to me. I read, and by reading heard of other books I should read. By reading I learnt whatit was to be a gay man. "Giovanni's Room" made me cry. "Dancer From the Dance" made me want to live in New York, dance, fuck and take lots of drugs. "Faggots" made me re-evaluate that, temporarily. I loved Rita-Mae Brown's work, and others from that era. Books helped me learn about how gay men lived in other places, gave me models for what to expect, how to dress, how to behave, what drugs did, styles of sex, all of that. They gave me an education, when one was hard to find locally, and showed me that I belonged to a much bigger more exciting world than 1979 Auckland.

Now there are hundreds of books, by many different authors available. And yet I feel little compunction to follow the latest trends in gay fiction or poetry. It just doesn't seem to matter to me any longer. Yet once it was central to me discovering who I was and how to negotiate the world. Perhaps internet dating sites fill that function now? I can't help thinking that they can't do it quite as well, but technology is always socially transformative.

I suspect that here we can see the effects of the normalisation of queerness. As we have won our rights to live as couples in the suburbs, adopt babies or bring them into the world with surrogates, or adopt unwanted puppies instead, and generally join the hegemonic world of day-to-day dullness that straights inhabit and so many of us now seem to crave, I suspect our literature (if it is indeed "ours" any more) has become less interesting, less challenging. We've moved from being a group of people demanding social change based on strong political analyses to suburban conformists shaping arguments on the premise that "Hey, I pay taxes too". We're in the system, not trying to change it.

Our communities have suffered as well. Once HIV/AIDS was a central part of who we were, at least for gay men anyhow, but today interest in this has nearly disappeared too. The communities that fought for better treatment of those of us living with HIV have largely dissipated. Instead of HIV and the welfare of HIV+ men and the care of us all being the central unifying issue for gay men, it has become of marginal interest for most, even when they become infected. A bored "Whatever, take the pills" seems to be the response to HIV today in the gay world, here in NZ at least.

So we've made spectacular gains in some areas. We can have our relaitonships officially recognised. We can't lose a job for being gay. We can fuck legally just like straights, at 16. We can take our pills, and manage our HIV pretty well for most of us.

But what unites us? What holds us together as a group now? And do I care? Maybe not so much, which is why I didn't notice they'd moved the gay books. And I'm not sure whether this is a good thing or not.