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Monday, May 28, 2012

Gay Marriage - Is It a Right?

I saw that there is a debate tonight in Sydney on whether or not same-sex marriage should be legalised, featuring NZ Queer Theorist Prof Annemarie Jagose amongst others. She is taking the position that it shouldn't. And on my friend and  fellow blogger Jeremy Lambert has raised the issue as well, but he's for it, wondering where the activists to push it are.

I am ambivalent on this one. But I'm amazed at how it has gone from a total non-issue for the gay world 30 years ago to the central item of gay activism in the Western world. I saw some Australian research last year saying that for young queers it was now seen as the most important issue.

I've been thinking about it this last week because someone referred to it as "a right" - and that word made me stop and think. Searching for images for this blog I saw a protestor holding up a sign reading "Marriage is a Human Right, Not a Heterosexual Privilege."

I would describe myself as a "Human Rights Hawk", I think the development of the idea of human rights is one of the most important things in human history.

But marriage as a right - really? I'm still unconvinced.

The symbolic power of the act of getting married is incredibly strong for a lot of people though. It has such deep cultural roots, it has so much meaning, even though so many of them end up in divorce.

And I can remember at the age of about 18 at a cousin's (first) wedding, at the reception afterwards, getting a bit drunk and feeling sorry that my family would never celebrate my love for another man in this way, or so I thought then. Now I suspect there is nothing they'd like more than to see me settle down with a nice man and a couple of dogs.

I have loved and been loved by various men over the years, but never felt like I wanted to marry any of them, to join my life together in that way. Maybe it's just the way I am.

I know so many friends who are in long-term relationships, some of 30 or more years, but most of them haven't gone off to get a Civil Union, and don't seem all that interested in pushing for marriage. But for some it is a real aching pain that they feel dismisses their love as second-rate when compared to married straights.

I was talking with friends this weekend, a lovely couple of men, and they have always been clear they saw no need for a Civil Union, until earlier this year when one of them got very seriously ill. Even though they had absolutely no problems with the hospital system, they realised that legally they weren't seen as next-of-kin, and this could place them in a difficult position.

That legal argument is I think the strongest one, and I suspect that the whole drive for legally recognising same-sex relationships might have grown out of the fight against AIDS, when so many times one partner who was sick or dying and had been estranged from his family suddenly found their family had legal rights in their lives and his partner did not. There were some real horror stories of families coming in after a death, sometimes on the same day, and clearing out all they thought was theirs, leaving the loved partner doubly bereft. I don't know, but maybe that's where this all came from.

But is it a right?

Conservatives who say that allowing same-sex marriage is redefining the entire concept of marriage are completely correct I think. Marriage has always been intricately bound up with ideas of property, religion and social continuity. It has largely been about knowing who was entitled to property and who wasn't. There is simply no common historical precedent for same-sex marriage anywhere that I can find - it is a huge change - but I admit that doesn't mean it shouldn't happen.

To me, the real issue is for consenting adults to be able to have their relationships recognised by law. That seems more like a right to me.  That is something I can totally support. If you love someone else so much you decide that you want to bind your lives together in a legal fashion, then fine.

But why marriage? Why only a couple? Why doesn't New Zealand, or most of the Western world, allow polygamous marriages? They have been incredibly common in human history - I have met Muslim women who are very happily living in such marriages with a couple of other wives, some Mormons still practice it - but we won't allow them that here - don't they have that right too? If marriage really is a human right, who gets to define what marriage is?

I know of guys living in long-standing, stable threesomes - why shouldn't they be able to have their relationship recognised as legally valid as well? Why can't they be married? From all I have read or seen of the push for gay marriage, the only form that activists think is acceptable is a couple.

And that points to what I see as a deeply conservative side to this argument, and old activist that I am I am not keen on that. It seems to me to speak of a desire to assimilate, to try and be the same as the straights, to follow them, rather than to consider that in fact we are different and maybe other forms of relationship should be on the table.

Ideally I guess I'd say there should be some legal mechanism that allows any consenting adults to legally tie themselves to any other or others if they wish.

I can understand the desire that some people have to celebrate their love for each other in a public way, and to be sure that their relationship has equal legal privileges, but I can't understand the desire to copy heterosexuals.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

If Looks Could Kill

by R.D. Riccoboni
The guy on the right? I just stumbled across him as I was, you know, doing some research online. And who doesn't like a big, handsome, hairy man?

Well ok, I know some guys actually don't. I don't know if it's because of the era I grew up in, but I've always loved hairy guys. Yes, even hairy backs and necks - love 'em. A hairy arse - mmmm yes please! And I'm enjoying the compliments I'm getting now I've grown my beard out more.

But gay men and our bodies - such a loaded issue for so many of us. All those hours spent in gyms, eating all those special diets, the quest for perfection - I've given up on it myself - at 50 I can settle into dignified desuetude I think.

I had some good news yesterday - went for my regular 6 monthly HIV check-up, and my CD4 count is up, and my Viral Load is still undetectable.

These things make me happy. It's hard to remember now just how sick I was in the bad old days. I am very, very lucky, and I know it and don't take it for granted. I told my Dr about a new job I'm going for and he asked me if I would be able to manage it. Not because I'm sick, but because of the one thing I really notice about HIV now - fatigue.

I just get so tired, so easily. A lot of other guys who've had it for decades say the same thing. Even if they're fit and doing all the right things, it seems after a few decades HIV takes a toll on you, or maybe it's the meds, hard to say, but it's a very common complaint for those of us living with it. 

But if that's the worst that's going to happen at the moment, I can take it. I just nap more.

I guess the other thing with my health that I notice and monitor is depression. It's incredibly widespread among HIV+ people, but not something that gets much attention. It's widespread in general I know, but seems to be extremely high in my peer-group. I have had it at times, and used a variety of techniques to deal with it. Sometimes medical, sometimes counselling, or a mixture. It's just a matter of being aware of it I guess, checking to see if I'm sliding down that slope again, cause it's not fun. 

Mental health issues in general aren't things we're good at talking about, whatever part of society we come from. But your mental and emotional health is just as important as your physical health - and having issues is nothing to be ashamed of. My mate Chris Banks does a good job exploring this stuff on his blog, the Bipolar Bear.

Strange that after all these years, fatigue and depression are the two worst side-effects of life with HIV, but both things that can be managed. It's not the physical side of sickness anymore, it these, and the stigma that goes with it. 

And stigma - shit that is nasty stuff, as that case of the 4 year-old boy in Whangarei, whose play-centre asked him to be withdrawn when they found out he had HIV. The school and most of the parents all seemed totally dumb - and maybe that's because there's not enough education out there, HIV is hardly making the news these days.

But that reaction is just fucked. Ignorant, bigotted hysteria. But you still find it, even in the gay world, where you'd think people would know better.

A while back some arsehole commented on one of my blogs that "You wouldn't stop and pick up food off the floor to eat, just like you wouldn't have sex with someone with HIV" or words to that effect. Nice. Classy. No wonder we get depressed.

I think we scare other gay men so much because we hold up a mirror to them, and they don't like what they see. But that sort of nasty ignorance is not uncommon.

On an entirely different, and much sadder note, did you notice the story on the death of Roman Skorek in Rotorua? 

He was stabbed in the chest by a guy it seems he'd been cruising in a park. Yes, cruising in parks at night is dangerous, but it's a very common practice for gays around the world. And there is something exciting about it, finding a stranger, the hook-up, the semi-public nature of it all, the air of danger.

He was caught looking at "the genital area" of the guy who killed him. His death didn't get much attention in the media. 

Why should looking at another person, with sexual intent, because you think he's hot, be a reason to die? To be murdered? 

Ask women, they get cruised all the time, straight men look them up and down, undress them with their eyes, they talk to their tits, and act like it's totally normal - it's their right. 

Yet if a gay man turns that gaze onto another man, a straight man, it's nearly always seen as a violation, a rape by the eyes almost. And a violent reaction is seen as ok. So often straight men have used the "gay panic" defence - now they can't in NZ, but they used to. That was basically a license to beat up or kill gay guys simply because we looked admiringly at a guy.

I think it's immensely sad that this man's life was ended this way, and sadder still at the lack of acknowledgement around it. 

He didn't do anything wrong. He didn't deserve this, and he didn't deserve the embarrassed silence or indifference that his death resulted in. 

It's a shame.

And it shows how far we have to go.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why Are We Still Dealing With This Shit?

Unless you've been living under a rock, you would have noticed the scandalous behaviour last week from a childcare centre in Northland, where they wanted a 4 year-old HIV+ boy, who is on meds, and has an undetectable viral load, removed from the centre until they had "a care plan" in place. Yeah, right.

You don't need a care plan for HIV+ children like this. It's also illegal in NZ to discriminate against anyone because of blood-borne infections.

It just left me shaking my head in sorrow and anger.

The centre has now claimed that they've been slandered by the NZ AIDS Foundation, who, as far as I understand, simply tried to broker an understanding and inform them of the facts, as well as advocate for the boy involved.

It's all been horrible and messy. It must have been particularly distressing for the boy and his family, even his HIV- brothers at primary school have been affected. And I imagine it has been difficult on some level for the people running the centre too - they've come across as ignorant and bigoted - an impression I have yet to see them correct in any way.

But why the fuck are we still dealing with this kind of shit? Why are dealing with this level of ignorance?

It just shows again that HIV is different from just about any other condition you can think of.

It pushes buttons, it rings bells, it scares the shit out of people. Because they are ignorant.

For them, HIV = Death.

The simple fact that this is not the case any more is beyond them, and I'm guessing beyond most people in the country.

Hell, I've encountered similar ignorance from gay men, who you would think would be the best informed, but no, they can be just as bigoted, just as stupid as straights on this topic. In fact I'd say I encounter more discrimination from gay men than I do from the straight world.

HIV brings death and sex together in people's minds, two topics we don't deal well with at the best of times, and that's a powerful combination, and hard to fight.

I guess on some levels it's because HIV has become less of a headline issue, there is an entire generation that has grown up with little real knowledge of it. And let's face it, it's hard to get any positive representations of those of us living with HIV in the media. They love sensationalist issues like this that deal with "innocent victims" like children, but they aren't interested in those of us who make up the bulk of the numbers - gay men. When was the last time Campbell Live bothered to do anything about out issues?

In NZ HIV is still very much a gay man's disease, and the way it is seen reflects the levels of prejudice that still exist against us.

There is the paradox - on the one hand you don't want to minimise the shit that getting HIV will bring into your life, we don't want more people to get it, but on the other hand, it should be treated like any other medical issue. Ideally it should be normalised, seen as any other infection.

How do you fight ignorance, fear and stigma though?

I'd say visibility is key. We need to be able to show the general public that people who have HIV are nothing to be afraid of, that we're just people like anyone else, whether gay or straight, 4 years old or 40. We need to be seen more, and not seen as martyrs or victims, villains or heroes, but as ordinary people.

I don't think the NZAF is funded to do public education on this, though it would be good if they could find the cash to do some sort of campaign on it. That would help. There is simply no way a group like Body Positive or Positive Women can afford to do anything here, they run on the smell of an oily rag.

I know lots of poz guys who have told very few people, I know lots of poz guys who just don't want to have their lives affected by the fear and ignorance out there, and I can understand that. 

Some of us with HIV are open and out about our status, but I can tell you from personal experience that it's not always easy taking that path. But I refuse to see why I should have to hide it either. I am not ashamed of having this virus in my blood, I'm not ashamed of how I caught it, and I'm not ashamed of living with it now.

I wish I had the answer, I wish I had the money to run a nation-wide PR campaign, but I don't, so  I'm going to go on doing what I do and saying what I say. The only way to defeat ignorance is to educate people, and we have to keep on doing that.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Happy Birthday Tom !

I just found out that it was Tom of Finland's birthday yesterday - he was born on May 8th, 1920.

He wasn't the first 20th Century artist to idealise and eroticise the male body, and others were playing with the same sort of images of hyper-masculine men, but he really made it work in a way that paved the way for so many others. Maybe he was just the right guy at the right time.

It's pretty hard to find any of his work that still doesn't resonate with how at least some gay men like to perceive themselves, with how some gay men like to be.

Think of all the hours spent in gyms, those tuna and brown rice diets, all that work to get the six-pack and the big biceps, that "perfect" body, so often the one that Tom was drawing. Tight jeans, leather jackets, the massive cock and perfect bubble-butt.

Of course, no matter how hard you work it you can't do much about increasing your cock size.

But there has always been this  gay tradition of eroticising the soldier, the sailor, the outlaw, the biker - unattached men at the height of their beauty. It wasn't just Tom. Think of Genet and his pimps, sailors and criminals.

These images, in Western culture anyway, are so strong and keep on resonating. Look at this clip from Fassbinder's beautiful film (1982) of Genet's "Querelle of Brest". The same sort of images, the same ideas of beauty,  of what makes a man hot, and men who are somehow disturbing, somehow undermining what it is to be a man, even though they are so obviously and deeply masculine.

Of course, some gay guys find this image oppressive, putting up an image they can't relate to, can never be, and one they associate with the bullies and bad-times they suffered, the teasing for not being "man" enough. But I know a lot of guys who went through school as skinny sissies and now have bodies that Tom would have loved. They find it empowering to transform themselves. Me, I'm too lazy...

This kind of super-butch man has always been slightly problematic  in the gay world. Is this kind of image actually part of the closeted world? Is it conservative? Or is it liberating? Is it sexist? Or is it anarchic? Does it show gay men who are uncomfortable with themselves and overcompensate for the fact that the straight world still sees them as queers, as queens, as less than real men?

Or does it offer a powerful alternative to older stereotypes where gay men are weak, unhappy and bitchy?

It can be used any way, but I think it's mainly disruptive - images of cops, bikers, soldiers, sailors, rugby-players, thrown into blind abandoned orgasmic ecstasy by contact with each other, not with women, is pretty subversive of what the rest of the world thinks it is to be a man I'd say.

The idea that someone who appears so butch, so masculine and tough, and yet wants cock, not cunt, turns ordinary ideas of being a man upside down.

It's the big pecs, not the big breasts, that we want to cuddle up to.

It's masculine, it's butch, but straight men often find the blurred lines deeply disturbing. And some straight men jump the fence at times, they get pulled into it...

But the romantic, erotic wanderer, and the sailor used to be the perfect example, is a strong image. He is hot. He is sexy. And he promises some sort of sweetly broken heart, after you have your wonderful hour/night/weekend affair while his ship in his port - and then he's gone.

And even now that so many gay men just want to settle down into conservative suburban obscurity the image doesn't go away. It's found in porn, in advertising (which is often just porn with more clothes), the image lingers, and it does that because it's so powerful, because it's so damn sexy.

Because on one level at least, being gay is about feelings of lust for other men, and Tom and other artists gave us images of ourselves as strong and sexy - men as hot sweaty, masculine objects of desire. And I like that!

And one last example, New York based queer rockers KINGSHIP have this beautiful song and video "Wandering Sailor" that plays on these themes. Enjoy. And Happy Birthday Tom, and thanks.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


A few weeks ago a friend I'd dropped out of touch with found me via facebook, and she said how good I was looking compared to 10 years ago, and that in fact she was surprised I was still alive.

And 10 years ago I sure as hell didn't think I'd still be here today. But I'm glad I am.

One of the things about those days was the AIDS quilt.

Last week the NZ AIDS Memorial Quilt was handed over to Te Papa, which is probably the best place for it now. I didn't go to the ceremony. I felt a little guilty about that. But I've always had an ambivalent relationship with the quilt I guess.

I asked myself whether or not I wanted to be remembered with one or not a few times, assuming I'd died of course. I used to go out and speak about living with AIDS in schools with it at times.

Some of the panels still make me cry, when I see the names of guys who were my friends decades ago, who died before I came back to NZ. But it also seems caught up in that era of death and suffering that now seems so distant.

It's hard to recall just how black and hopeless things were in the old days of AIDS. On the one hand you want to say "Never forget" on the other, I know that like any graveyard, in time nearly all of those named on the quilt will pass into oblivion. That pain and anguish, the tears and suffering, and the heroism and love, will all be forgotten in a few more decades.

It really did feel like living in a war-zone.

It was a time of amazing struggles, self-sacrifice, pain, anguish and love. It turned people's lives upside down, and there was a time when going to one or more AIDS funerals a month wasn't unusual at all.

For me anyway, death seemed everywhere, and my own death seemed to be right there in front of me.

I consciously decided to try and have a good death, and I have to say that preparing to die has been the most meaningful project I've ever undertaken - nothing else has seemed so gripping as focusing on how to exit well. So I spent about 3 years of my life focussing on my death, preparing for it, not willing to die in the way I'd seen others - I wanted "a good death" whatever that is.

But I didn't die, in fact, I am in better health now than I have been in years, as is the case with so many HIV+ people.

So I guess I feel a reluctance to return to that era of sorrow and death. That's what I didn't go to the quilt ceremony, and that's why I won't be going to the Candlelight Memorial either. I feel as though my life was soaked in death and pain and sorrow over those years, it was woven into the fabric of my being.

I can understand now why so many soldiers who come back from war don't want to talk about it all. It was traumatic, it was painful, it was a shocking thing to live through.

I do remember, I won't forget, but I have this sense that I have done enough mourning.

Now I want to stand in the sunlight and laugh.