by Daniel W.K. Lee
Another version of this essay was published in the September 23, 2010 issue of MetroWeekly under the title “Don’t Ask, Just Tell.” Below is the complete version.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the gay community’s commitment to New Left principles (that was the soil from which the Gay Liberation movement emerged) would splinter as gays became more mainstream—or perhaps more specifically—became visible in mass media and a coveted consumer market. As a whole, we gays have come to take our politics for granted: by and large, no longer are we street protesters and meeting organizers; instead, we do our activism through consumerism (buy this to support this and that cause), or use the Internet as a gay rights echo chamber (tweet one’s way to the “activist” moniker). Moreover, the gay political battlefield has never looked more strange than it does now with not just the usual Left forces and the Log Cabin Republicans, but also those stranger-than-strange gay teapartiers and über-Conservatives like those at GOProud, who openly embraced the racial scapegoating, classism, patriarchy, war-mongering, (basically all the things gay liberationists set out to end), and their pundits (Ann Coulter for one). But gay Conservatives aren’t the only ones who have internalized and then externalized the racism, misogyny, and militarism antithetical to our movement’s New Left roots; the “gay mainstream” has done so too in two very different ways.
First, it might be surprising to some, or many, to see our fight against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—which once repealed, would give LGB (no “T” here because nowhere do we talk about transgender people in the military in discussions regarding DADT) the ability to serve in the military openly has the same-sex-lovin’ homos and bisexuals that they are—would probably not have been of much interest in our political forefathers of the late Sixties and early Seventies. To them, DADT would have been a short-sighted battle for a right that supports militarism. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that letting LGB’s openly serve will transform the military as a site of contempt for the feminine in men and the masculine in women. Serving openly won’t transform gender in the military anymore than out gays and lesbians have revolutionized in Western civil society; that is to say, gender deviation is still gender deviation, and not a socially acceptable expression of one’s place on the gender continuum. On the contrary, traditional gender norms are further legitimized with our rubber stamp in our current battle for our right to kill with fatigues on. Which leads to another reason why repeal of DADT isn’t as progressive as we’d like to think: anti-war, peace-loving progressive impulses must somehow be reconciled with the liberty to participate in the military-industrial complex and war machine and the occupation of foreign lands, military abuses and war crimes, and the billions of dollars funneled into “defense” at the expense of building a better American society.
Second, and perhaps more insidious, is how gays, specifically gay men, have unapologetically become sexual racists, gender purists, and enforcers of a gay male body culture (that is on par with the oppressive beauty myth that women have had to deal with for decades) as manifested in the phrase, “No fats, No femmes, No Asians.” We gay men have seen it, or used it (or a variation of it) in endless personal profiles, but nonetheless, the disqualifying mantra is the un-critical acceptance of racial, gender, and body-biases often “naturalized” or rationalized with the subsequent phrase, “Just a preference.”
But it isn’t “just a preference,” because why one is attracted to what one is attracted to wasn’t written into his DNA, nor has he lived in a social vacuum since the day of his birth. We come to our desires because of a profound socialization process. People are taught to value one thing over another throughout our early lives. When parents say things like, “Boys don’t cry,” “Good is in the light, and evil in the dark,” or when you are habitually exposed to certain kinds of bodies deemed attractive, the messages a person receives from those cues are internalized. How our brain negotiates those messages is part of the process of forming our “preferences.” A “preference” for “straight-acting” men is not like Athena bursting out of Zeus’s brain: it emerges in part because of how you evaluated femininity – its meanings, its associations and how one has eroticized and associated body-types and behaviors with masculinity or “straight-acting-ness.” Likewise, racial preferences aren’t in-born. They are formed and entangled with associations about gender, body-type, and behaviors that have been racialized and evaluated.
I once challenged a guy who told me he wasn’t into Asian men. I asked him why was that? He said was more into beefier men. I said, there are many beefy Asian and especially Pacific Islander men. He said he liked hairy men. Certainly a bit more difficult to find, but there are hairier Asian men out there who are also beefy. So why make a blanket disqualifying statement like “I’m not attracted to Asian men” based on racialized assumptions on Asian male bodies when more accurately, his preference is toward hairy and beefy men. To say, “No Asians” would foreclose the possibility of finding a hairy, beefy, Asian man that one could really find attractive. The absolute refusal to deconstruct those racial biases and to declare “No Asians,” “No Blacks,” or whomever is sexual racism, and so many gays looking for love or a hook up aren’t even embarrassed about it.
Gaysian men ourselves are not impervious to the self-contempt that would allow us also write, “No Asians. I’m not sticky*” on our profiles. I have heard so many gay Asian men express total mortification to the idea of dating or having sex with another Asian man, and also declare their almost exclusive desire for white men is “just a preference.” Again, it isn’t and it’s to our own detriment to not question why one has dismissed entire racial groups from romantic and sexual possibilities. We gaysians cannot bemoan our exclusion from the territories of “hot gayness” if we practice the same kinds of sexual-racial exclusions.
Our sexuality and our sexual desires are not static. Someone who claims to only be into “butch” men could very well find himself unbearably attracted to a more effeminate man. Perhaps not as feasible, but not impossible. And that’s the point: it isn’t impossible, so why go shutting out the possibilities with inane, broad stroke disqualifiers?
Above all though, this is a call to re-align our politics and our personal lives. It is hypocritical to say one is totally against racial or gender discrimination meanwhile your Manhunt profile says, “Be a man. If I wanted to be with a woman, I’d be with a real woman” or “No Black men. Just a preference.” But if you’re an unabashed racist, a femininity-hater, or a body fascist, then be my guest and declare all your prohibitions. Just don’t be shocked if you’re called out for being an asshole.
*“sticky” refers to the term “sticky rice,” which is when two queer Asian men get together.
(Above, Gay Power graffiti in Washington Square Park, 1970. Photo credit: Ellen Shumsky)