Sunday, December 27, 2009

When's a Good Time to Have Sex?

As any of my friends could probably inform you (and they know probably too much), I have very strong opinions about the nature of sexual or “erotic” desire. What constitutes the best way of facilitating a sexual relationship differs from person to person, and my way is certainly not right for everyone (probably even averse to most people’s inclinations). Perhaps my sexual strategy won’t even be right for me, an untested virgin, at the end of the day. Needless to say, however, I certainly have my own ideas about how I would like to have sex. As one of my friends once wisely told me on the subject of consensual sex, “everything is good, but everything also has consequences.”

The activity itself and any roles played are less important for me than the person behind it and the safety of the act. The succession of stages in a relationship is key for many people—at what point is sexual activity initiated, and in what manner should it be continued? A good friend of mine and a researcher in this area once told me that relationships can evolve along a number of paradigms: sexual relationships, loving relationships, and friendships. It is possible for any of these broadly-defined stages to be a launching point for the others, and it is equally possible to be in multiple phases at the same time. People can start a relationship as friends, then become lovers, then become sexually-involved. Or they can also begin a relationship sexually, become lovers, then become friends, or friendships to sex to lovers; sex to friend to lover, or any other such combination. Furthermore, the possibilities become even more complex when we allow more than one category to be mixed together. People can get themselves into all sorts of situations.

According to my particular ideal, I would like to have sex with a man after falling in love with him, rather than falling in love while engaging in a sexual relationship. I plan to explain why I think love and sex should be intimately connected in a future, more philosophical posting, but for the sake of simple hypothetical argument let’s say that love and sex are two peas in a pod. How someone actually gets to the point of loving someone is a little trickier, and I certainly have no experience in this area. I have heard it argued (along stereotypes, of course) that men tend to value sex more highly in a relationship, and they tend to value it earlier in the progress of a relationship. Perhaps this is also true in my case, as one of my female friends, a very attractive and confident young woman, once told me that she was adamantly holding off “until the wedding ring is on the finger.” I myself have no such expectations of marital virginity or desire to wait that long. I’m also not as handsome as she is beautiful, and beautiful people can often get as much or as little sex as they want. The problem is, I fear, that less “beautiful” people are expected to have sex sooner in order to keep their partners interested, whereas more beautiful people are worth the wait and have more leverage. This may be a sad reality, but no matter who we are or what we look like, we do have the option to say, “No, I’m not doing anything until I’m absolutely ready.” It’s worth it, to live true to established beliefs unless our priorities independently change.

Alas, even my beautiful friend caved in, but notwithstanding a good year or two of a solid, loving relationship. A few months developing a relationship would probably be adequate for me, with the other person dating me exclusively for most of that time.

Long ago I extrapolated the figure of 6 months as the ‘ideal’ waiting time for sex after first meeting the person of interest. Another female friend once concurred, “six months sound just about right,” but watching others has shown me that it depends on the situation. I’m sure my body would like to have sex much sooner, and assuming a mutual romantic obsession the other person would probably want to initiate sexual relations sooner as well. Perhaps it would only be a couple of months, but that also seems rather soon. But then again, for some people it only takes a week or two, or even a night, before they find themselves falling hard for the other person and are ready to give in. Furthermore, where do we start the clock when a sexual interest evolves from a previously-established friendship?

My figure of 6 months is not a random allotment of time, as it is based on the maximum lag time between a positive HIV antibody test result and initial infection (most of the time it only takes three months or less). The assumption is, of course, that the person I am dating has not had sex with other people on the side for those six months (which is quite often a bad assumption for many people, but I certainly hope not for me). This too may seem a tad excessive, given the fact that I can protect myself from HIV through safer sex practices and insist on a couple of HIV tests. By ensuring the use of latex condoms with lubrication for virtually all sex acts and guarding fluids from approaching or coming into contact with orifices and mucus membranes (nose, mouth, eyes, urethra, anus, and any sores/cuts), I can readily avoid HIV infection. Starting out to have sex with a guy, I would definitely want any sex that could lead to an exchange of fluids protected in any case, so perhaps the full six months is not necessary. Mutual masturbation without direct genital-to-genital contact is also a reasonable option to safer, unprotected getting-to-know-each-other sex. At some point, however, I would like to feel comfortable having freer forms of sex where I wouldn’t have to worry about fluids coming into contact. This is probably where the six month rule is best applied, and I would walk hand-in-hand with my partner to be tested anonymously for HIV. I’ve also thought it a good idea to also get tested for genital herpes, an unpleasant , often asymptomatic, and incurable infection, although Herpes is relatively common, difficult to detect in its dormant phase, and sometimes expensive to test for. Furthermore, while HIV testing is a fairly standard request, Herpes testing is not, and asking a partner to do this would probably be rather insulting. Herpes testing is a good idea, but at some point, compromise may be necessary. It’s also important to keep an open mind toward partners who have similar requirements, and most of all, to communicate openly, unreservedly, and respectfully about sexual expectations and history.

STI testing further initiates the question, how much is too much compromise, and where do we draw a line between trusting and loving our romantic partners and our health? My future partner may be annoyed that I’ve asked him first to patiently wait and fall in love with me to have sex, then to get tested for STIs. Let’s say we go through all of that, and I have all the confidence in the world in him and he in me. How unprotected am I willing to be? After all, what if the seemingly impossible becomes reality: he cheats on me. It would be very difficult to know if this is happening. Getting cheated on in the gay community, with the greater prevalence of HIV, is a significant and serious affair. Furthermore, it may very well be a more likely scenario if he has lusty friends, exes, and former f-buddies hanging around; with the gay community being highly liberated in terms of sexual expression, he may yearn for his single past given the strict monogamy that I would require and maintain myself. From my perspective, I know that unfaithful husbands are the mode of HIV transmission to many a faithful and trusting wives. As my friend said (in my last posting), “there’s no room for romance when it comes to your health,” emphasizing that one must always prioritize personal well-being over romance. At the same time, in order for there to be any trust or romance at all, eventually you have to trust your partner in the bedroom, to be free and uninhibited in sharing yourself (if not, he may be more likely to cheat or look elsewhere). I’m not sure if it is possible to have it perfectly both ways. Like so much of life, it requires a careful juggling act, and perhaps some risks and concessions from time to time.

The sexual relationship that I describe is one centered on openness and love, but also one that is prudent and careful. Perhaps most of all, it involves two truly good, trustworthy, honest, patient people. This is why I think real love is needed for the best kind of sexual relationship, because it is Eros, passionate love, that most often motivates us toward the truly good. It is certainly possible to have safe, kind, and respectful aromantic sexual relationships, but love seems to make this kind of relationship much more likely and realizable. Furthermore, it is truly worthwhile to hold our ground and have the confidence to live by our own sexual philosophies in a prudent and respectful way. In my case, it will require a patient and good person who takes a truly distinct interest in me. I don’t think I’ve met him thus far, but I certainly know he’s worth the wait (and I believe I am too!).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

One Less!

Thus far in this series of articles, I have focused almost exclusively on sexual orientation as a kind of romantic identity, blissfully avoiding the 800 pound gorilla in the room: the physical act of sex. Therefore, I plan to make my next few blog entries about sex. To say that sex is not frequently on my mind would be a lie, as I often find myself pondering the idea of melting physically and spiritually into another guy. In fact, it is this very prospect of human warmth that ultimately shook me out of my comfortable asexual shell to face the hurdles the world had to throw at me as a gay man. I came out, I met guys, I was disappointed, and I press on to that holiest of grails: a loving relationship, yes, but one that will undoubtedly also have sexual contact at its core. On the journey I hoped to even make good friends.

However, there is as much frightening as there is exciting about realizing a sex life, and having sex (even once) can have serious and life-altering consequences. For heterosexual unions, one night of pleasure could ultimately lead to a child and a lifetime connection with the sexual partner, even though the two parties might not otherwise wish to spend further time together. For both heterosexuals and LGBTQetcs, all parties must overcome qualms about the style, the performance and the comfort of certain sexual acts. Furthermore, engaging in sex while not emotionally or psychologically prepared may have strikingly powerful and negative consequences on self esteem and well-being. At the same time, controlling a sexually-charged situation, once initiated, may be very difficult and can significantly complicate and harm valued social relationships. But perhaps most importantly, with one act, a slip-up, or a mistake, sex can provide us with infections and diseases that can significantly stigmatize and shorten our lives. For example, it is well known that the gay community has been particularly ravaged by HIV and Hepatitis B, and rates of infection are actually increasing among young heterosexuals and gays, who are often blithely unaware of the deaths in the 80’s and 90’s and the continuing dangers of the disease even with advances in treatment. Many gays who are aware of the dangers of HIV are misinformed, sometimes erroneously believing, for example, that unprotected oral sex does not transmit HIV. Furthermore, the promiscuity encouraged among certain groups and venues in the community may lead to a faster and more comprehensive sharing of STIs (sexually transmitted infections) than in the general population.

Fortunately, the risk of transmission for many STIs (including HIV) spread by fluids can be significantly reduced by practicing safer sex, particularly latex condoms or other devices accompanied by lubrication. However, some STIs, such as herpes (a virus), HPV (a virus), and syphilis (rarer these days, a bacteria), can be spread by touch outside of areas normally protected by condoms and other protective devices. Viruses are particularly difficult to deal with, as there is no cure, most cases are asymptomatic, and many people remain infected with the virus and may remain contagious for the rest of their lives. For these reasons, approximately 20% of Americans are infected with Herpes, and 80% of Americans are infected with HPV (this latter virus can cause genital warts and cancers). With these scary statistics, it becomes clear that sexual contact with anyone who is not a complete virgin could lead to an irreversible infection.

Fortunately, there is some hope on the HPV front, as a couple of vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix) are now available that prevent infection for some of the most dangerous and uncomfortable strains of HPV. Cervarix protects against the two strains most likely to cause cancer, particularly cervical cancer for women, anal and oral/throat cancers in women and men, and penile cancers in men. Gardasil protects against the same two strains plus prevents two strains responsible for the visible symptoms of HPV (experienced by relatively few of the 80%, but particularly unpleasant when they arise): genital warts. However, as a vaccine, it is preventative and does not work if someone has already been infected. Since virtually everyone who has had sex has been infected with some form of HPV (and probably several strains), the vaccines are most promising for people who have had little or no previous sexual contact. Therefore, the younger the recipient, generally the more effective the vaccine, given that teenagers and young adults are more likely to eventually engage in some form of sexual act.

The good news: for young women, the HPV vaccine Gardasil is often available and covered by health insurance plans at little or no cost. In some places it is even mandatory for young girls to receive it before attending school. Gardasil has been intentionally marketed as a “cervical cancer vaccine” rather than what it is, a vaccine to prevent a potentially-dangerous sexually transmitted infection. This strategy puts emphasis on the vaccine’s nature as prevention for a common cancer in women instead of admitting to the socially-uncomfortable fact that the young recipients probably are or will be engaging in sexual activity. The disease is particularly problematic for gay men as well, as infection (or post-infection transfer) of the virus to anal or oral tissue can also lead to cancer. However, the risk to men, especially gay men, has been played down in favour of the more common and intrinsically more heterosexual transfer between men and women, with women receiving the necessary protection to their cervixes. Men get a bad deal, as they are not encouraged to be vaccinated with the “cervical cancer vaccine” and thus are likely to be infected when having sexual contact (either heterosexual or homosexual). Men thus become carriers of the virus and may give other non-vaccinated women (or men) a potentially cancer-causing infection.

Given the fast-spreading nature of STIs and the commonality of HPV, it is inherently obvious that the eradication of the most dangerous strains of the virus will only be possible when both men and women are given access to preventative treatment. But given the necessity of marketing the vaccine in an erotophobic, heterosexist society, major testing and marketing was first applied to women. Even today it is still “the cervical cancer vaccine,” as if boys and young men should give it no heed.

As a virgin to all forms of sexual contact, already 24 years old, interested in finally doing something with my sexual/gender/romantic orientation and living within the reality of a sexually-liberated gay community, I’ve always understood the underlying importance of obtaining the vaccine. I was aware of Gardasil as an HPV vaccine for several years, since before even my official coming out, and it was always something of a comfort to know that it existed. So I did what so many gays do when looking forward to their civil rights (or in this case, basic right to preventative health care) to come to fruition: I waited patiently for the world to change. I knew that it was available for men in several European countries, and I figured that the U.S. and Canada would not be far behind. I didn’t let the lack of my access to Gardasil in any way prevent my pressing forward with building my sexual identity and engaging with people in the gay community, but as it so happened, nothing in any way romantic or sexual evolved from these encounters. I checked with Merck Canada about receiving the vaccine in the summer of 2008, and I received a rather cold response that as a man I would absolutely not be allowed to receive it without taking part in their experimental trials on men. I asked how I could do this, and they never bothered to inform me that the trials on men were ongoing and largely being performed in my own city at the Université de Montréal, which needed new subjects with my sexual background (I found this out much later).

Finally, in the summer of 2009 I decided that I had enough of waiting and was going to try to obtain the vaccine off-label, as many informed gay men have successfully done. The full immunity provided by the vaccine is not instantaneous, but it instead takes six months (and three separate vaccinations). I’m not willing to hold off on living based on my progress with Gardasil, but it would be best to get it as soon as possible so that lifestyle and health concerns do not conflict. I called the most convenient clinic to me and asked if they provided Gardasil shots to men upon request. The receptionist went off to check if it was possible, and she said ‘yes’ and we made my appointment for some time in late September (but I had to see a doctor first, apparently).

When I went to the appointment, the doctor was completely clueless to my special request and asked me “so what are you in here for?” I then launched into explaining my desire to receive Gardasil. I did not feel it necessary for me to ‘come out’ to him, to put more emphasis on my condition (although I did identify as a virgin). He first asked me if I had any allergies, as if getting ready to deliver it. Then he walked out of the room for a while and came back looking even more puzzled. Then he called someone at the CLSC public health clinic to inquire whether they have given Gardasil to men (of course, they hadn’t), and the two doctors had a large chuckle at my expense over the phone. He told me that they don’t generally give it to men, and the fact that I knew more about the vaccine and its recent recommendation by a board of the FDA for men my age seemed to make him less interested in giving it to me. After all, I’m sure it hurt his ego that I knew more about the vaccine than he did (and he clearly wasn't willing to investigate further). Then he went out of the room and said “wait a minute, let me see if the nurse will give it to you.” I was shocked by his lack of gall to make his own decision. When he came back, he essentially rejected me; apparently the nurse wasn't going to do it. He said that it was good that I wanted to protect myself, but he wouldn’t give it to me, despite admitting that it posed virtually no risk. It was his right not to prescribe it to me, although the worst part was he had given the vaccine off-label to women before (even though Gardasil has been outright rejected by the FDA for women age 27-50 but has been tested and recommended for men in my age range). I offered to sign a release so absolve them of responsibility in case I had a bad reaction, but still he shrugged my request away. I had known this could possibly happen, but I honestly thought after the receptionist’s verification that I wouldn’t have any problem receiving it off-label at the clinic.

I was upset and embarrassed, having felt like I had wasted my time and energy. Furthermore, I later caught a cold from that visit to the clinic after sitting in a room full of sick people. That same day, however, I made an appointment at another clinic, an STI clinic, which I thought might be more informed on the recently-published trial research recommending that Gardasil be given to men to prevent HPV infection. I made very sure to specify to the receptionist more details this time: I am a gay man, I would like Gardasil, do you provide Gardasil to men, are you absolutely sure? The receptionist quite confidently said “yes, we do, some doctors do to men who request it, but first you have to come in to build a profile at our clinic.” Apparently building a profile involved going in for every STI test known to man. I then spent the next couple of weeks squirming at the prospect—I was probably going to have to give blood and get swabbed and prodded in the genital area. It was a very uncomfortable thought, as I haven’t been undressed in the view of another person since I was a child.

Even though there was no chance of me actually testing positive for an STI, and I should have felt at ease, the entire prospect was still rather unnerving. I went to consult a friend from South Africa, who is in a stable, long-term relationship (and has been 6 years, I believe) with a very loving man. She said something quite stark and probably also quite wise: she said that it will be a good experience, that I should get used to doing this kind of thing, because I'll want to do it in the future. I was a little taken aback; is she assuming, according to some gay stereotype, that I will be significantly sexually active in the future? I reinforced for her that I didn't plan to be very active at all (she already knows my neo-Platonist philosophies regarding the nature of sexual activity), and she mentioned that she still gets herself tested for STIs. She said the couldn't imagine that her partner would ever cheat on her, but there's not a 100% chance of anything in life, and "there's no room for romance when it comes to your health."

I therefore resigned myself to the idea of getting unnecessarily tested for STIs. For the end result of obtaining Gardasil, it would be worth it, plus it would be another ‘experience’ or rite-of-passage as a gay man. When I went to the clinic, at which I was informed that I would have to pay $100 for the consultation and additional money for individual tests. At that point I was hopeful, as I was going to refuse to take the tests and make clear my real intentions, considering I was going to have to pay more than the $20 lab fee I was initially quoted. I made it very clear that I was not sexually active and had never been on the forms I had to fill out. It was clear from those sitting in the waiting room with me that I was rather unique relative to the usual clientele (many of whom, from the conversations I overheard, seemed to be homeless or ex-drug addicts). When I was called into the doctor’s office, looking at my chart he said to me “I don’t know why you’re here, as we’re a high-risk STI clinic, and there’s clearly no risk present.” I told him that I wanted Gardasil, and he was stern and direct but informative. He told me that it wasn’t approved for men in Canada (of course, something I already knew), and he wouldn’t give it to me, in contrast to what the receptionist said. I was dejected. I didn’t necessarily believe him, as I’m sure another doctor in that clinic probably does provide it to male patients. According to him, Canada was often behind the U.S. in terms of approving treatments, and Québec even more so (only reviewing a limited number of new submissions twice a year). However, he said that I could go to a country where it was available (several in Europe) and get a prescription there and bring it back to Canada, obtain my prescription at a pharmacy, and take it to a private vaccination clinic. We discussed my options for about 10 minutes, and he instructed the receptionist not to charge me for the consultation. I was disappointed, but at least I wasn’t out any money. I was even more bothered that evening, when I learned that my friend in Montréal, Henri, had obtained the vaccine two years previously from his doctor at the Clinique St-Denis (a place where I hadn’t tried). But identifying these scattered doctors in the battle for Gardasil is the hard part!

I had been keeping an eye on the FDA’s decisions during the fall of 2009, and I got lucky. The FDA in the U.S. officially approved Gardasil for men ages 9-26 a couple of weeks later. After what I had been through, I was elated; I finally knew what I had to do. When I went to the U.S. over my holiday break in December, I would get the vaccine. I waited a month (no big rush) and called my doctor’s office in the U.S. I got the usual reception: a hesitant voice, a “let me go check,” and one person said, “Are you sure you want Gardasil, because that’s a cervical cancer vaccine…”. I thought about giving a speech to correct the awkwardness of the situation, but I decided to passively state “and HPV more generally” as my rebuttal. Not long later they got back to me: my relatively young, open-minded doctor apparently said “yes, no problem.” Furthermore, there was no issue with him writing my prescriptions so I could get my other two shots in Canada (and that would be less expensive for me as well). I received my first vaccination a few days ago. It was expensive, as my Canadian private insurance won’t fund a vaccine that is, according to the standards of their country, not recommended for men (even though it is in the U.S.). Alas, the geopolitics of global health can be a complicated and very serious affair. I may be out $156 U.S., but at least, after waiting for this vaccine for so long, I am proud to say that I too will be “one less.” I see no reason why I, as a man, should be expected to suck up and deal with the inevitability of being infected with HPV when certain dangerous strains are clearly avoidable.

Friday, November 27, 2009

What's Smarts Got to Do with It?

My mother, a professor, leads a rather fabulous lifestyle when it comes to pleasure travel. She has the time and just enough money to do it, and she often spends months at a time gallivanting across the world. Lately, after having lost a lot of weight and transforming her wardrobe, my seemingly asexual mother has attracted the attention of several men. The fact that this occurs often leaves me back in Montreal worried to death about her! In these travel flings, she has only started romantic relationships with what our society would label as ‘uneducated’ people--an unskilled, unemployed Moroccan illegal immigrant in Italy and another uneducated Algerian in Paris. My mother being a professor, and myself holding various degrees, I’ve always held elite standards with regard to who I think deserves her romantic companionship. It should be someone educated and eloquent, or at the very least a man with a highly stimulating intellectual flare. Anything less simply will not do--he needs to be able to blow my mind before I approve. Thus, you can imagine my frustrations, the great sighs of consternation that only a child scorning a parent could do. How could both an unsuccessful and uneducated man deserve the fond attentions of my mother, who is herself rather successful and educated? Even beyond the world of first judgments (as described in the post “Overcoming Asexualization”), doesn’t she deserve better?

I suppose these assumptions, that intelligent people should be with other intelligent people, is inherent both in the academic environment in which I’ve grown up as well as in the broader North American society, which puts intelligent people on a separate pedestal from the ‘hoi polloi’ or ‘joe/jill six pack.’ From my perspective, I know I'm always drawn to people when I feel like they have something interesting to share, and I quite frankly despise conversations lacking intensity or real depth. The problem: I often mistake ‘interesting’ for ‘intellectually rigorous,’ ‘superficial’ for ‘mindlessly pointless and stupid,’ and hence I tend to do far more flexing of my brain when I’m talking to other people than is warranted for most social situations (most recently, reciting Sappho and Alkman from memory during a dinner party, to the open mouths of the other guests). Isn’t it possible to have an equally intense and non-superficial conversation with someone who is not ‘intelligent’ in the traditional sense of the word?

After recently expounding on this topic, a gay acquaintance asked me “why is intelligence important to you in a romantic relationship?” It is a fair question: I may wax poetic on the beauty of intelligence, but what does it really mean to have a relationship with an intelligent person, and it is really the standard that I should hold myself to? Furthermore, isn’t the perception of intelligence also something of a social construction? In reality, just as there will always be someone more beautiful than we are, there will always be someone more intelligent. So where do we draw the line? As a counter to my comment on the importance of intelligence, my acquaintance argued that it would be wonderful to be with a ‘simple’ person, someone who lives more fully and happily true to themselves in a state more grounded in reality. But should simple really be contrasted to intelligence? After all, I lead a relatively simple lifestyle (no real ‘baggage’ to speak of), even though the life of my mind is anything but simple. If we were to restrict our definition of simple to just the life of the mind, suggesting that we would like someone who only has the simplest and most basic of thoughts, as if a child, wouldn’t these people also in many cases be more interested in the simplest and most basic of satisfactions? Furthermore, in having to constantly face their own simpleness, wouldn’t they not become, in time, rather complex individuals, from learning from various mistakes they make when they fail to comprehend a more complex situation with their simple thoughts? In other words, when life happens to us, don't we stop being simple when gaining life's experiences? And if they continue to remain grounded and don’t learn from these mistakes, aren’t they also missing their reality more than someone who lives with his/her head in the clouds but cognizant of the complexities of life? Intelligent people may be unhappy out of a lack of contentedness in their life and the world they see around them, but aren’t ‘simple’ people also unhappy out of a lack of knowledge and understanding of things that they don’t know but ought to, which often limits their lifestyle and opportunities? Are any of us, simple people or intelligent people, really all that happy or tranquil, as my friend suggests?

Accepting that a romantic relationship with a ‘simple’ person is not necessarily any easier or more satisfying than with an intellectual person, should it really be a deciding factor in romantic relationships? Can romance and interpersonal relationships ever really be simple, even if the people are? I don’t honestly think so.

I asked my mom why she did get involved with men who were not, as I might so haughtily put it, intellectual firestorms. Discussing her last such boyfriend, she said that he was a “good man,” tender, and perhaps most importantly, he didn’t hesitate to embrace and enjoy her own intelligent thought and accept her independent nature. According to her experience, in order to be madly successful and likeable to the masses of men out there, your best bet is to be an attractive young bimbette, better yet a damsel in distress. Apparently, it’s better to be a project a man can work on, so he can share his own manly experience and know-how (or even brute strength) to the benefit of his fawning partner. I sometimes see these tendencies in myself as well, such as when I offer to rush out into the night to the rescue (with medication and food) of any of the guys I seem to be courting for friendship (or more) when they fall ill. With similar motivations, I offer my own editing services to people who need help writing or speaking in English. There are few things more rewarding than feeling needed, wanted, and useful for something other than our souls. How can men be both self-sufficient and independent (the attractive trait of masculinity in our culture) as well as damsels in distress, when it comes to homosexual relationships? And which is more important in this type of relationship, dependence or independence? These are probably the complicated questions du jour that I won’t continue to discuss here. The problem my mom has: as an intelligent, self-sufficient bastion of independence, men don’t feel like she needs them (and she doesn’t, not directly anyway), and as a result men seem to gravitate away from her toward the younger, more-dependent damsels in distress.

My attitude, however, has always been to embrace the intelligence I see in other people. I like to nurse and feed the knowledge gained from a man's mind, using my conversations with him to help drive new intellectual passions that might come about as a result of our discourse. That’s the thing I like most about dating or forming friendships with an intelligent man (or woman in the latter case)--I see what’s lacking in my own thoughts, and it leaves me seeking more in my own life. Physical Eros readily turns philosophical for me, and vice-versa, with little barrier between them. That’s what I felt with the man I described in “The First Date” experience described here in a previous entry. However, in that particular case I flexed my own intelligence a bit much. It became clear that I knew the history and geography of his home country better than him, and instead of being intrigued or engaging these points to learn more, he'd rather shut down. This is the problem with intelligent egos: they are often as sensitive as they are large. Being humbled or having their own knowledge or assumptions questioned is not something intelligent people always particularly enjoy. In such cases, intelligent men really would prefer, as my mom would argue, to pursue adoring, charming, sociable, simpler-minded partners, ones that they can eclipse in intellectual finesse as needed to establish their individual prominence. This is particularly true when it comes to manly fields of knowledge (yes, it seems certain spheres of knowledge can be viewed as gender roles by themselves). For example, rarely is a heterosexual man envious of his wife’s knowledge of sewing. It eventually became clear to me that, in my first date experience, there was little interest from my date because he felt threatened my own openly-enthusiastic curiosity. It’s also possible that he perceived my specialization as more ‘manly’ than his, which could have also been menacing for a man lacking real confidence in his own masculinity or masculine knowledge. The few times he did have the opportunity to sternly correct me, such as when I said “impulsive response” instead of “impulse response” (a jargon distinction in his discipline), I could tell he enjoyed it.

Suddenly, my own ideas about the importance of intelligence in romance were blurred. I may find intelligence attractive (my first date was quite obviously intelligent), but intelligence, just as simple-mindedness, can be transient, illusive, and perceived/judged through unreliable social constructs (such as formal education level and career experience). When we are seeking 'the good’ in another person, is that ‘good’ always intelligent, and can we really assume that intelligence is necessarily part of ‘the good?’ This is a question that my mentor Plato would have taken on with great rigour, undoubtedly defending ‘knowledge’ as ‘the good.’ However, even this great philosopher faltered on the definition of ‘knowledge’ (in the Theatetus) and its fundamental relationship to intelligence. After all, doesn’t it stand to reason that someone can be more knowledgeable than intelligent, as well as vice-versa: more intelligent than knowledgeable?

Recently, I found myself applying these questions in a less philosophical, more direct way. Pietro (discussed at the end of my last entry) lost virtually all interest not long after we had that obligatory ‘sexual philosophy’ talk, in which I found out he is a ready ‘bottom’, and he found out that I was a quite happily a virgin outside of love. Much later I found out that he had found someone else. Coming on the heels of Pietro’s rapidly-dwindling interest, I started talking to Jean-Marc, a wonderful, good man, who I have little in common with on intellectual grounds. He is a college dropout with only a completed high school education, someone I might have formerly, without further consideration, deemed as an ill-advised romantic choice. Suddenly, I found myself in my mom’s situation, which I had judged so harshly before (and since realizing this I have apologized to her!). In recognizing that I had perhaps failed to assess my mom’s position from a less theoretical, more human vantage point, I didn’t yield to my base assumptions and conclusions about his personality. After an incredibly long, intense and intimate exchange, I was actually interested and intrigued, not to mention flattered and truly appreciative of his elaborate prose to me. While I am rather attracted to his physical appearance--his beard, slightly-chubby face, and what a voice!-- I found his writing to be one of the most beautiful things about him; in it he revealed to me many lovely, subtle nuances in the French language. He was no less diligent in contacting me as I him, clearly both of us filled with a certain kind of Eros for each other. This was most obviously expressed in the way he embraced our differences just as much as our similarities. He was able to stretch my mind in new ways as well, in particular with regard to indirectly challenging my own perspectives (whether it be alternative medicine, spiritual philosophy, or transgenderism as a kind of comic relief). Another quality I find attractive in him: he is unflinchingly honest, true to himself, and modestly admits to his own weaknesses without being prompted to do so.

I also was quite surprised to learn that he is an extrovert who frequently parties (it’s sometimes his job), and yet he still retained a pronounced interest in me, despite the fact that I am his opposite in this regard. It seems like, in some deeper way, he understands and appreciates my introverted ways and ivory tower, while not partaking of these himself. There’s just something about the way he treats life, filled with real joy, and his comprehensive openness, understanding, and acceptance of the world around him. And I can’t help but be charmed by his directness, how he explicitly stated that he loves complicated, esoteric, intelligent guys, something he says he’s found in me. Imagine my surprise, a man who isn’t threatened by my complicated thoughts and my love of thinking, but rather embraces them!

What about from my perspectives on Jean-Marc regarding the importance of intelligence? Would I describe him as a cunningly intelligent individual, an academic, an intellectual? Certainly not, and I don’t think Jean-Marc would hazard or care to take on these identities. It’s true that his thoughts do not strike me as particularly profound; his conversation points are not outstandingly intelligent (nor often are mine, quite frankly), but neither are they are superficial or lacking in intense thought. In discovering this, I began to see something deeply beautiful in his soul that fills me with enthusiasm and joy. I am reacting to the goodness that I see in his person, realizing in turn that my definitions of intelligence and educational attainment really aren’t adequate considerations in the world of romance.

In closing, there’s really no easy answer to the question of intelligence. How it plays out in the complicated and often difficult interplay of minds as a relationship evolves depends strongly on the people engaging each other. Calculating intelligence is certainly nice to have in a partner, when possible, just as I’m sure it is quite pleasant to be in love with a beautiful body. But neither situations are always advantageous at the end of the day. It seems more important to have a warm person who truly appreciates you and who you truly appreciate in return, embracing each other’s humanity, lovingkindness, and companionship above all else. Suddenly, one thing the gay acquaintance I mentioned earlier told me rings true: “After being celibate for 34 years, when I came to Montreal I wanted to understand my love for men, despite being met by deception and frustration as I tried to do so. Love doesn’t make any sense, but I have learned that what a man says doesn’t matter as much as who he is as a person.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Shopping Around

This entry is a little longer and more difficult to maneuver than most articles here, but in my opinion it lacks little in the richness of its content compared to other posts. First, I describe a budding friendship, one that is somewhat romantically-charged, and the wonderful person behind it. In the second part, I describe a phenomenon that seems to exist in the gay community (and undoubtedly also pervades the heterosexual world) that I take some level of offence to: shopping around. How is it possible to reconcile the formerly-mentioned, positive experience, with the latter, which can be an utterly impersonal, disappointing, and dehumanizing undergoing?

The other day, I had what could probably be considered my first real date. By that, I mean that it was the first time when I’ve been out with a guy where, despite our use of the euphemism ‘meeting’, it could hardly be considered anything other than what it was: a date. We met in a similar way as I met the young man who had rejected me several weeks previously. Before moving on to this describe my first ‘real’ date experience, I feel I should explain a little about how my previous encounter (described in my article “The First Date”) actually resolved itself.

In my prior posting, I discussed the process of a growing interest followed by a silent rejection. The person who rejected me and I ended up confronting each other again several weeks after our date at a professional venue. At that time, he learned about my appointment to a high-level service position, and that appeared to disconcert him. In fact, my very presence at the meeting seemed to be something of an unexpected surprised, one which apparently required that he put forth an ungraceful effort in marking his territory. Having been rejected by him was evidently not enough to make me feel like he wasn’t worth my time, attention, and contemplation, but his highly public reaction toward me in the meeting knocked me right back to my senses. I responded to his concerns about me in an even-tempered, political way. By the end of the meeting, he seemed to have warmed up to me; suddenly, I was pertinent and relevant to him. On the other hand, his confrontational style left me immune to his newfound, slightly-fawning overtures. I had finally come to peace with being rejected by him, having met the cut-throat, insecure, and arrogant personality hidden underneath intellectually relatable façade. What I now saw in him wasn’t the least bit attractive. Instead of incessantly questioning myself and looking back on the date, thinking “why? what was it about me?”, my new attitude was, “I’m not sure what he was looking for, but I’m just glad I wasn’t it.” I’d still work with him, but anything more than the most superficial of acquaintanceships would be a serious waste of my spare time. I figure that I was lucky; most of us don’t have the comfort of such an easy and acceptable resolution to these situations. Nothing probably illustrates the complicated gray-area more than the story I’m about to recount.

The new man that I met was in many ways refreshingly more mature, intimate, and open, lacking all of the antics and chest-pounding of my previous experience. He is 10 years older than me, which is just about where I draw the cut-off line as far as thinking about getting romantically involved (not out of appearances, but for simple, realistic, practical considerations regarding our respective stations in life). However, my first date and previous experiences trying to befriend younger folk (aka, people my own age) taught me that I would be happier with someone several years older than me, someone who was closer to my own attitudes and concerns and less brazen in trying to prove their own self-worth. Furthermore, someone careful and considerate, someone with less to prove and burned out on playing games. My attitude has generally been: the older, the better, up to a point. My ‘first date’ was intelligent and a few years older than me, and yet his youthful, out-of-touch arrogance was still enough to turn me off.

Thus, it was a relief, in fact, to be approached by a kind and gentle man, a thoughtful, intelligent, generous, strong individual, one who put much more effort into getting to know me than had the first date cited above. He approached me first with a simple “salut,” and I responded in a brief, interested message in which I commented on the positive points I saw in his profile and shared a short anecdote. Suddenly, I got a much longer response back, one full of pathos that demonstrated an interest in developing a real personal connection. I wrote back in a very long and comprehensive e-mail, and he took the time and effort not to just write back, but to write an even longer e-mail (considering the length of my posts, you can imagine that that would be quite the endeavor!). We had very early on established that, at least romantically, we were seeking similar things and had found many of those things in each other. At one point in our endearing and deep personal exchange, he asked me in an open-minded fashion if I had yet had a “chum” in my life. I had already told him I was relatively inexperienced in this area, and I was really hesitant in saying any more (that is, that I wasn’t experienced at all). Usually the romantic/sexual history talk is always the beginning of the end of anyone’s interest in me, probably because these people realize it’s going to take some serious, long-term effort to get into my pants (plus, I am unchartered territory). However, after brazenly admitting the truth and dumping a bit of my life story in the process (as if justifying the matter), I was touched when he responded demonstrating the utmost understanding of my situation and continued to proceed forward with our communication in a yet-even-longer e-mail. Astoundingly, he also couldn’t imagine sexual relations outside of an already loving and committed relationship.

It also turned out that he was starting a degree in a new field, the same degree (and same field) that I had already myself completed, so that was also the source of a lot of discussion. At that point, it seemed like I was dedicating a lot of my spare time in the evenings to talking with him, and by the end of the week we had had a couple of two-hour-long phone conversations and were MSN’ing each other (he turned on his webcam a couple of times as well to show me some things in his home, as well as his charming face with glasses on). Through our engaging interactions, I learned that he has an ebullient, jovial sense of humour, a keen intelligence and passion for learning, and our daily contact kept our budding relationship current and relevant. I didn’t realize that having another person like this in my life could require so much time and work! But I certainly don’t regret a single minute of it. Before long we were reciprocating slightly-endearing expressions like “mon cher CT.” Our conversations were a hodge-podge of French and English (and, oddly, I was speaking mostly French while he was speaking English). On days we didn’t call each other, we certainly MSN’ed each other enough, and I would often wish him goodnight before I went to bed (he’s even more of a night-owl than I am).

We set aside time to meet over the weekend, after one intense week of ‘courtship’ since that first ‘salut.’ We were planning to meet on Saturday evening, but he called me and asked if we could meet on Sunday afternoon (but he didn’t want to fix up an official time and place until Sunday, the day itself). Well, Sunday afternoon virtually came and went without any word from him (which I found a bit bothersome), although eventually he called in the later afternoon and asked if we could meet in the early evening. Early evening soon turned to 8pm, with me sitting in my downtown office catching up on work for quite some time, awaiting his arrival. Clearly he isn’t the most organized person in the world, especially in terms of time management, and perhaps I was also making myself too available.

However, once he arrived, we clicked almost immediately. Robert wanted something to eat, and although I had had a snack a couple of hours previously, I decided to have a light dinner with him. As it turns out, he really likes Subway, and I just happened to know a Subway nearby and had some good coupons in my wallet. While coupons may not be sexy, I’m glad I was armed with them; they ended up saving him money! When we were ordering, he jumped ahead of me in line and insisted on paying for my meal. I was flabbergasted and insisted on buying my own meal, but he just stood there with a huge grin on his face and shook his head at my protestations, and so I ceded in a gracious manner. Just as charmingly, he insisted on filling my drink and carrying my meal to the table, directing me to go ahead and sit down. I’m pretty sure I had an embarrassed, although undoubtedly rather large, smile on my face at that point. I honestly couldn’t believe that someone had actually paid for my meal. We had a great talk; it was clear that we had a lot in common and just as many diverse perspectives to share. After finishing our meal, he insisted on going to a nearby Tim Hortons to grab a coffee, also buying for me, upon further protestations on my part, a hot chocolate, before heading to my office. For some reason, he really preferred to go to my office rather than continue to talk in a public setting, which I didn’t quite understand (because I’m always trying to escape my office for a more open, public setting), but I was happy to oblige. We spent the rest of the evening in my workplace and were there until very late, and at the end of the evening I loaned him some books that would help him in his future studies.

We spent a couple of hours there, bonding over our respective fields and the intersections between them; we were never at a loss for things to say and laugh about (and I must admit that he provided most of the laughs). He asked me to teach him some things and showed interest in what I had to share, and he in turn demonstrated for me a little about what he knew after years of experience in his particular career. While this ‘date’ might have sounded boring for most people, it was fun for us. The very fact that we could find joy in what much of the world would find a drudge seemed to add to the meaning of our new relationship/friendship that we were building together. It was also turning out to be a distinctly slow and respectful relationship; no kissing or real touching to speak of, but whenever our legs or arms would brush up against each other, there certainly wasn’t any repulsion from either one of us. We ended the evening late, outside of his car, with a handshake. At the end of the date, I had concluded that he was a perfect match for me in many ways, that I certainly wouldn’t mind if our newfound friendship and interest in each other grew into something more. He is idiosyncratic in some respects; for example, his interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and his sense of time was much more flexible and ill-defined than most northern Europeans I know. He is also intelligently passionate, intensely curious and interested in self-improvement through learning, and conversant on a wide variety of subjects.

Since our initial encounter, we have seen each other three other times within about a week and a half, always with him coming into the city from his home in an outer suburb. Suddenly, my office became the centrepoint of our interaction. However, it seemed like our conversations, although just as numerous as before, were becoming increasingly less personal and more intellectual. That first meal was the only meal I’ve actually had with him; the next few times he came directly to my office, once following a call to my office mate in which he claimed to have an “emergency” (we established later that in English the word ‘emergency’ and an urgent or time-sensitive matter/request are applied to different situations :) ). This second time he came into the city, after having loaned him the photocopies that I had made from a book long ago, we went to the library together and looked at books related to my field (his new field). Another time he came in to describe his thoughts on relativity, out of pure passion for teaching the subject (I couldn’t help but smile at his intensity), and the third and most recent visit we also spent quite a bit of time talking in my office and some time together in the library. On each of these subsequent visits he gave me rides in his jeep (which was a lot of fun!), once just a joy ride around the block, once back to my apartment, and once to the other side of downtown (where we just happened to both be heading). Each time we ended our evening together in the usual handshake and smile. He seems to have become a good friend, and together we’ve developed a rather tender amity, but this friendship is also a new and fast-evolving one (which always leaves room for concern and doubt). We kept, and do keep, in contact on a nearly daily basis, often through brief e-mails (my side) or MSN messages (he’s usually seemingly distracted by talking to other people at the same time). After each time we see each other, I always make sure to let him know that I appreciated our time together and his effort to come see me (which I do, very much), and he often seems touched by these overtures. Despite feeling something like his intellectual sounding-board, I also realize that this is the way men in our culture bond and forge meaningful relationships with each other--by sharing information, elucidating on their passions, and discussing what they know. However, I found the lack of a continuing personal exchange a little worrisome, even though the last time I saw him I ended the evening feeling warmer for him than I had ever felt before.

In fact, I had been worried about this experience with Robert from the start, particularly how I might eventually find myself hurt by it if I let my feelings evolve freely. Thus, despite my poetic waxing above, I’ve never let my guard down. Robert was, in a rather outright manner, seeking a romantic, long-term relationship online. His openness and frankness about his goal was refreshing, not daunting. However, when people launch such a mission, it’s relatively easy to for them to get carried away by a kind of serial-dating mentality, to always be in search of something new, that initial excitement and anticipation (and often the pursuit of a greater and greater rush of ‘chemistry’), while never following through on anyone at the end of the day. Quite frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to shop around in this way; one person to concentrate on at any given time is enough for my tastes!

During our initial phone conversations, I could hear people MSN’ing him in the background, that horrible bleeping sounding always going off. While I’m sure Robert has more friends than I do, I’ve learned over the course of this experience that frantic MSN’ing is a symptom of the type of communication that the website initially engenders. It didn’t seem like there was a spare moment when he wasn’t communicating with one of his new potential mates. While I found it annoying that this was going on while I was on the phone with him, I pretended like it wasn’t happening. One has to accept these things. While I never asked him outright about the matter, something tells me he wouldn’t have batted an eye in admitting it. During our second time together, he actually got a text message from a caller who’s name he didn’t know that said “What are you doing, my handsome man?” He showed it to me with a sense of pride, admitting he didn’t know the person behind the number (and apparently he never even figured out who sent it, or so he said later). The third time he had clearly come into town to have a date with a “friend,” whose description matched to a T one of his new online contacts that he had been publicly communicating with (and who was unabashedly seeking a boyfriend).

In addition to having numerous new men lined up, with whom I felt unwillingly engaged in a Darwinian-style competition, to make matters even more complicated he has unresolved feelings toward another man. He had agreed to allow his friend, recently divorced from his wife (with adult children) after coming out of the closet, to move in with him. He had had an “adventure” of some sort with this roommate a while back, and apparently, as a result, Robert felt that his roommate had a crush on him. I would have had to been entirely oblivious not to have noted the possessive nature of their relationship; they were in contact with each other a couple of times (at least) every time he came to see me (usually the roommate calling with some distracting drama to report to hasten Robert back home, which was never very successful). I know enough people who’ve had roommates to know that that’s not typical roommate behaviour (to be always in touch every hour of the day). When Robert reported that his roommate had an “eye” for him, I asked if him if he would like to develop a romantic relationship with him, and he responded “I don’t know.” Talk about a buzz-kill for a first date, even if it was admirably honest. As an outsider, I know that there’s no way to compete with a live-in source of sexual tension. I did learn the last time we got together that he was moving out, well away from his roommate and closer into the city. Also, the fact that he was seeking romance outside of his home when he and his roommate/friend (and probably past sexual partner) had lived together for a while, suggests a desire on his part to move on, and perhaps that would be finally confirmed upon Robert’s moving out. But the whole situation and Robert’s lack of resolution is, to say the least, highly disconcerting from the perspective of someone who might consider being romantically involved with him.

So while I feel like Robert has taken a real interest in me (in what way I cannot really be sure), it feels more at this point like a friendship than anything else, one that closely accommodates his intellectual interests. I am actually quite happy to have a new friend and leave it at that; I always have a lot of room in my heart for the relatively few friends I do have. And while I might eventually entertain the idea of developing something romantic with Robert, because friendships can often provide their own surprises with time, it would take some time and serious discussion before I would trust that he would see a relationship with me as a priority over dating other men. He would need to thoroughly convince me that I’m not just another guy he has lined up as some sort of backup plan.

To give him credit, in his own way I think Robert may be respecting me, my feelings, and my philosophies by not leading me on, by keeping physical and personal intimacy at bay, while he explores the fun side of single life. It is also possible that Robert will make his way through many guys and find that I’m the only one left at his side at the end of the day. However, from a romantic perspective (if I should even be thinking along those lines), I don’t particularly appreciate having to wait for that day to come, nor do I think I should be expected to. As far as potential romances are concerned, I am willing to compromise with, listen to, and encourage a man’s interests, give him a comfortable degree of independence and space, embrace his idiosyncrasies, and unflinchingly accommodate his flaws (to a point, obviously). However, I am not willing to invest a lot in a dating relationship when I am, for the other person, one of many. While Robert may be open to exploring himself with many different people at the same time, polyamory and serial dating are not my games.

Out of respect for the other person, and in order to best get to know him, I focus on one guy at a time. If I date a man and wish to develop a relationship with him, and he with me, I expect ours to be the only relationship with romantic connotations that both of us are involved in at that time. Some might think this is overly demanding in today’s poly-sexual, poly-romantic, crash-dating culture (which seems to express itself, like many contemporary phenomena, as a new extreme in the gay community). Many would argue that, in order to efficiently obtain what we ourselves want or need out of human relationships, we have to have several people on-call for us until we weed through them all and figure out who we want. On the opposite side of this spectrum, I think it’s selfish to develop incipient relationships with many different people, however efficient and personally advantageous it is to do so. In engaging in this behaviour, we lose sight of those we touch along the way, and how we touch them. We forget that these people also look to us with hope for a meaningful bond, and the more people we balance in this difficult juggling act, the more that get hurt when we grab that one pin we want and let the rest fall to the ground. One might counter, “yes, but it’s a vast wasteland out there, and we often have to go through as many people as possible before meeting that person who is really appropriate for us.” I would respond by suggesting that the ‘wasteland’ also has some good, the ‘good’ being what most of us are seeking in the end, and as much as possible we need to cultivate that ‘good’ in ourselves. I believe one way we do that is by being passionate and considerate and treating everyone we come across with the same human interest and tenderness we would like ourselves to receive. Along this line of thought, when we engage with people in the dating world, we should make a concerted effort to understand them, to concentrate on them more exclusively, to see their beautiful qualities as much as their human failings (and we all have them), and after doing so make a decision about how to proceed with that relationship. No matter what the choice, however, the individual of concern and their feelings should be addressed with the utmost respect and dignity. While the practicalities of dating suggest that such an attitude may seem backward and rather inefficient, by thus cultivating ‘the good’ in ourselves, those that we come across are likely to think more highly of us, and, more importantly (and partly as a consequence of others’ attitudes toward us), we’re likely to think more favorably of ourselves.

In closing, I remember being personally quite shocked once when reading an online article (a long time ago) about how to ask someone you’ve been dating for a while that you want to see that person exclusively. Why would people even assume that someone they go out on a date with is also dating other people? So naïve, I know; apparently it’s quite common. However, I would argue that this kind of uninhibited and self-centered approach toward dating is more of a hindrance to obtaining what many of us do want in the end, the development of real, deep, exclusive relationships, than it is personally liberating.

Having officially relegated Robert as a friend, I’ve decided I’m not waiting for him to figure out if he wants anything more from me. A friendship suits me fine, as it seems to suit him. I gave him a few weeks of exclusive attention, and given the nature of our interactions during that time (and particularly lately), I think that’s fair. I myself have moved on to considering a new contact, one from the website who I had not responded to until I had accepted Robert’s lack of resolution (until then, out of respect for Robert I hadn’t even checked the website, despite his frequent and continuing reliance on it for entertainment). My new contact, Pietro, is a thoughtful Italian man a couple of years younger than Robert, also very caring, filled with a zeal for life, and appropriately mature in mindset. We’ve already had many engaging exchanges online (frequent and engrossing MSN conversations again, and through e-mails). It’s way too early to comment on how our online friendship will evolve, if it evolves at all. I have the feeling he’s also shopping around, and I may very well already be on his backup list (he also has stopped contacting me with his previous rigour). Out of necessity, I’m willing to adapt to how the world works in this way. However, Pietro being an exclusive interest for me in this regard (and at this time), I hope that I’m abiding by my own moral standards. Adhering to such a seemingly rigid code of honour probably means a more discouraging outcome for me compared to most people when it comes to dating. But I recognize that it's not all about me, and from my own perspective I will at least have a personal sense of dignity to accompany my disappointment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Memories of a Beautiful Soul

It is with penetrating sadness that I write this entry. Vincent, a colleague and friendly acquaintance of mine, one whom I greatly admired, passed away recently from his struggle with cancer. I was shocked to hear the news; I had known he was sick, but not to the extent or severity that he apparently was. I can only send him my fondest thoughts and reflect on how he touched my life, often in the subtlest of ways. It is regrettably on occasions such as these where we realize just how much these people, who blend into the background of our everyday lives, mean to us at the end of the day. One would be hard-pressed to find another man so calm, logical, practical, casually professional, and intelligently straight-forward. Furthermore, while I’ve never been one to look to role models, I can say that Vincent was probably as close to a role model as one could get with respect to my sexual identity. He was gay, and married, and it was through observing his life from my discreet perspective that I began to think more broadly about my own sexual identity and its place in my workplace.

As far as my workplace sexual identity management, I had always been “passing,” or probably more aptly, strictly “asexual” in speech and demeanor. Other people talk quite openly about their heterosexuality, about their partners, love lives, sexual preferences and romantic adventures, but I always remained neutral with a rather ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ mentality. I work in a global community of few, a career path where a worldwide network of contacts is necessary to be fruitful and successful. It is a relatively congenial group overall; however, these individuals come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Furthermore, like the people I describe in my post “Small Town Blues”, these colleagues are rarely confronted directly with, or prompted to think critically about, sexual identity and similar forms of ‘unconventional’ social behaviour. Furthermore, as an individual projected onto the world stage in this manner, being out on the job in one country necessarily means accepting being out in my profession in all countries and settings (as word travels quickly, and my colleagues in Montreal will be lifetime contacts spread across the world), which may explicitly affect recommendations and limit job opportunities. Even for people who think they are entirely free of homophobia, heterosexism is still likely to be a factor, and subconscious, irrational human biases will often be justified through cloaked arguments that do seem professionally relevant (when, in fact, they are only afterthoughts after concerns of a prejudicial nature had been considered). Despite these difficulties, I’ve accepted that I may decide to be more out at work at some point, either in the case where I find myself in a stable relationship or on a particularly stable career path (or some combination thereof), but currently it doesn’t make much sense for my particular situation.

Vincent worked as an administrator; he essentially oversaw the operations of the whole ship. He did not have to worry about cooperating on the world stage as I did; he was more the man behind the scenes, making sure everything ran smoothly for the rest of us, and he was superbly efficient and good at his job. His name was the signer on my contract, and he often sent friendly e-mails to remind me of important engagements. He would sometimes take extended breaks to have friendly conversations with me, and we often chatted about his vacations in the Caribbean and his work on his new home (which he always recounted with such drive and enthusiasm).

When Vincent and I had our first extensive, amicable conversation, I noted that he had a photo of himself with a man about his own age, turned toward him (and not outward toward us) sitting on his desk. It was then that I realized that he was probably not heterosexual, although I didn’t want to assume anything. Perhaps, after all, it was him and his brother on a family vacation--but they looked a little too happy to be in each other’s company for that to be the case. It was comforting, the very possibility that, in my straight-as-an-arrow workplace, someone with a moderating temperament was there who could understand and proudly defend my perspectives and interests when I felt at an utter loss to do so. Coming from a land where workplace protections against the discrimination of LGBT persons are limited or non-existent (and prejudices are a very real, career-determining factors to consider), I was happy to see for myself that I no longer lived in such a place. He was a reasonably reserved and quiet person, somewhat like me, and quite rationally, as befits the semi-casual but professional demeanor of a workplace environment, did not discuss the details of his life story with me. He would talk unabashedly about it, however, if asked directly (which I came to learn later).

My knowledge of his sexual identity was confirmed a year or so later when we got an announcement that Vincent was marrying his partner of several years, Jean. Normally, I wouldn’t give much of a damn if I learned that someone in my workplace was getting married, but this was obviously special for me. While I had met a gay married couple through my volunteer work in the community, this was the first time I ever witnessed a gay engagement and wedding actually unfold, and my instincts were to be as discreetly encouraging as I could be. His right to marry his partner in Canada had been much shorter-lived than his actual relationship with Jean, which spanned the decade. Personally fascinated, I had a couple of conversations with him about his wedding; he was getting married in the traditional sense, in a lovely downtown church, as part of a reasonably small ceremony of family and friends. The way he talked about Jean, the way his eyes lit up, the smile that spread across his face, I could just tell he was still, after these many years, madly in love underneath the calm and matter-of-fact façade.

I gladly, proudly gave money to the communal wedding gift we were giving him and signed the card, almost with a sense of defiance. It was my way I could be a part of, or at least contribute to, that seemingly rarest of joyful outcomes of a diverse sexual identity: a gay wedding. But the most pleasant moment of all was when the workplace had a party for him to celebrate his wedding. I went up to the party expecting a smaller function (based on who I had seen signed the card--I had no idea what kinds of prejudices might be at play at that point). So you can thus imagine my surprise when I saw that the entire workplace showed up! No one seemed to miss it; people were flowing out the door to congratulate him, to toast his crowning achievement in love. In any case, I’d like to think that people were there for more than the free food and wine. It was then that I realized that my work environment was not the strictly harsh, heterosexist world that I had perceived it as, but rather that it could be a sensitive place where homosexual love is celebrated with all the fanfare and acceptance of any heterosexual union. I would never have realized this had Vincent not had the courage to be himself, and through his example I saw how beautiful my own life could be, if I were ever to be so lucky as to follow in his footsteps.

After the wedding we seemed to interact on increasingly amicable terms, often in passing (especially when he was out for a smoke). My last extensive conversation with him was only a month an a half ago in our workplace common room. He looked tired, although I suspected that weight loss was contributing to his appearance. I gleefully discussed the projects that I was working on; even though he was not an expert, he seemed intently interested in understanding my work. Then I asked him about his home remodeling, which he had been engaging in with his husband ever since they got married (they moved to a new home to celebrate their new life together). He told me how supportive his family had been toward him and Jean in working on the home, including providing vital practical advice, which was encouraging to hear. There was so much longing and hope for the future in his voice as he continued to talk about building his home with Jean. I had no idea of the personal struggle he was undergoing at that time to simply stay alive. We talked about that for over an hour, and he was just about to start talking more about his husband Jean when he got wisked out of the common room by a phone call. That was the last time I saw him. In Zola-like realism, our conversations terminated there forever with an uncomfortable lack of resolution, like so much of life and death. When I learned that he was gravely ill, I bought a ‘thinking of you’ card for him (although I didn’t know where I should send it, so I delayed). Only a few days later, I received the very sad news that he had passed away.

So it is with both sadness and gladness that I write in this post about Vincent. Here I characterize my experiences with him just within context of the theme of this blog, when in reality the subtle, human joys of our discourse was of an entirely asexual nature. He never knew that I was gay, nor did I ever try hint to give myself away, and I certainly didn’t think about his sexual orientation on a regular basis or its meaning to me. He was, for me, simply Vincent. But his example gave me hope for the future, and even a newfound level of confidence in my sexual orientation. If I ever asked myself, “Is a homosexual lifestyle a hopeless and worthless endeavor?” I had no choice but to logically conclude, “No, simply look at Vincent and the richness of the love in his life.” “Would the world be over if I was outed at work?” “No, look at how Vincent’s life turned out, and Vincent’s there, he would provide the voice of reason and sensibility that would be needed if I felt overwhelmed by harsh reactions against that aspect of my identity.” Perhaps Vincent didn’t want to be my beacon of hope, my source of comfort, my shield of courage (and respectfully I never put that weight on his shoulders), but that’s what he apparently was to me. In this context, the healing and strength he afforded me was a gift I never had the opportunity to return. May peace and love always be with him, and to echo Socrates' dying breath (Plato, Phaedo), I also now “owe a cock to Asclepius,” thanks to Vincent.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The First Date

I’ve never really been on a real date, one that you hear about in those storybook fables we like to tell ourselves. I didn’t realize that I had been on any date at all in my life, until recently when I had what could probably be considered my first official date and realized that I had two others like this one previously.

In the past, I had descended into something of a social rut and decided to search for more friends online. During this experience, I met two (gay) men who (in the end) I suspect wanted something different than I wanted out of the relationship we developed together. In both cases, we attempted to establish this friendship with one real-world meeting. In these types of interactions, I always remained true to my idiosyncratic self and never lied about my intentions. I never put on a façade to make myself seem more attractive, as I knew it could only come back to bite me at the end of the day (that is, when it turned out I was not the person I was projecting myself to be). My photo was always honest and recent in my profile, my description accurately reflected my personality and tastes. My way of communication had to have been striking compared to the superficiality I understand often pervades such interactions, and this tactic weeded out all except the most committed and worthwhile individuals (at least that's what I believed).

Each time, I dedicated myself to getting to know my new online friends in a deep and meaningful way, often in an intimate sharing of thoughts, feelings, and experiences that cost us both many hours (both on the phone and through e-mails). Then we would meet. When the first person met me, we spent several hours in each other’s company, having fun at concerts and hopping from festival to festival. It seemed like even the fates could not drag us apart in our newfound amity. We agreed to get together again, but he apparently lost interest after meeting me (I never figured out why). Having thought for sure I’d found a true friend, I was disappointed when his e-mails dwindled to a couple of sentences and then stopped coming altogether. I wouldn’t have believed this eventuality would come to light just a few weeks earlier. But within a couple of weeks, I met someone new. This second person and I had great conversations, but we couldn’t relate intellectually (and he had some seriously un-intelligent things he preferred to discuss). At the same time, he seemed like a truly good person, someone who would make a good friend. He knew the city and its people, being an avid volunteer, and he clearly had a deeply-felt compassion for many of his friends and family members. This encounter went as the previous one; it seemed like he had no interest in doing much other than talking about himself, and the dulling in his eyes when I put a word in edgewise should have been an indication of a lack of real interest on his part. It seemed like a bad date. But I didn’t want this necessarily to be a date—I wanted friends! Friends don’t have to have all things in common or make the same lifestyle choices. I continued to e-mail this non-friend on rare occasions, little mises a` jour, as another friend likes to call them; most he never responded to, and eventually I lost all pretext to contact him and gave up. What I didn’t seem to realize is that, even though I was looking for friends and said so explicitly, in reality I was probably going on dates. And each time, it appears, I got rejected. I thought it was unnecessarily harsh and cruel; why couldn’t we be friends? I always maintained an open attitude in this respect, but neither of my online companions seemed to share the sentiment. Apparently I was a waste of time to be written off, let that human connection that we shared be damned.

In both cases, there would have been serious difficulties to overcome if we had wanted a romantic relationship together. Perhaps we wouldn’t have had adequate ‘chemistry,’ although physical attractiveness didn’t matter, at least from my end. Nor do I particularly look to ‘chemistry’, such as it ever really truly exists, as a good indicator of anything (nor do I trust anyone who emphasizes its importance). At the end of the day, I do personally, strictly adhere to what I preached in my post “Overcoming Asexualization.” But beyond the superficiality of appearances, one of these 'dates' was significantly more juvenile than I was, and he clearly preferred the life of the party (that was evident by his squeals and screeches at the concerts we went to). The other one was significantly older than me and seemed way too sexually motivated and too explicit in his discussions of his own sex life. I felt like I was doing my volunteer work while I listened to him, and at one point I visibly flinched with embarrassment (we were in a crowded restaurant, after all, while he was bellowing out all of this). In the real dating world, you probably know a date’s not going well when you have to convince yourself to be more non- judgemental.

That all happened a long time ago. But more recently, in my new experiment (see “Finding Social Interconnectedness”), I started conversing with a new set of people, with whom I invested greater confidence than I had those from my past. In that previous article, I mentioned that someone wanted to engage me on a more intellectual level, and it is this person I am currently writing about. He is the only one who stood out from the others, the one person who I related to closely. We were literally exactly at the same station in life (and place in our respective careers), with a similar orientation to Montreal (having come here from elsewhere). As it turned out, he is passionate about the place I lived much of my life, and I am passionate about his hometown and culture. Which stars were aligned; what are the chances of finding someone like that? Furthermore, I had once worked extensively on learning his primary language (neither English nor French), and my improvement through my discussions with him provided me with a real opportunity for interpersonal growth through his friendship (or more?). It seemed like the possibilities for conversation, for an intimate exchange of ideas, were endless, and this man was clearly brilliant and had no less to say than I did on the subjects we discussed in our e-mails. I figured that his intelligence and introspective nature would translate into his being a more reflective and sensitive person in real life. Neither one of us would likely be considered one of the great beauties of the world, but I honestly found him rather attractive (and he had approached me online after seeing my photo, so I assumed he didn’t find me abhorrent either—or perhaps the picture was just too good compared to my reality).

I had never related to another gay man like I related to him. He was even around my age, but he also had, like me, a similarly more mature, contemplative, and reserved demeanor than most people our age (I often have difficulty relating to people my own age as a consequence of their relative lack of maturity). My conversations with him inspired something deep within me, something real and tangible but altogether nameless, something that transcended any physical attraction I may have felt. One thing I can confidently say is that I felt Plato’s philosophical Eros at my side more than ever.

We conversed online for about two weeks, also spending many hours in our apparent courtship (whether for friendship or romance, I honestly didn’t care—friendship would have been more than fine if he hadn’t desired anything deeper). We set a day to meet, both of us enthusiastically looking forward to it. He had proposed the meeting, and I set the time and place, following up with a phone call to confirm on the day of. We had a nice conversation, and I did prepare myself, making sure I was as well-groomed while remaining as appropriately casual as I felt I could be. From my perspective, the entire evening was a surprisingly smooth and gaffe-less affair, civilized even. I bounded up, right on time, to our meeting point with a huge, typically North American smile plastered across my face. He seemed a little more reserved (or nervous) than our previous conversations would have suggested, and I was undoubtedly a little more verbose than usual. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised that he was more introverted than I previously thought, yet another part of his beautiful character I felt like I could relate to. And when we got to the cafe, instead of having something light he decided to have a full meal, which I thought was a great sign that he wanted to stick around to continue our engaging conversation. In all, we were together for three hours, a first meeting that was not too long and not too short. There were many occasions in which we could have left earlier, but both he and I chose to stay to be with each other as the evening wore on and people came and went. Our discussions were intense; it seemed like we were solely focused on each other. I only saw him, and he only looked at me. It was like the world around us disappeared, with only our serveuse invading it. It was at its very heart an intellectual as well as a social exchange. We came to all sorts of interesting conclusions about the nature of our respective societies and the one we now live in, from a sharing of our different but compatible perspectives. He seemed to lead the conversation as much as I did, a sign of equity. I noticed as the evening wore on (in which there was no alcohol consumption involved), he really opened up to laughter; his facial expressions were more mellowed, and still, we were totally focused on each other. I was glad to see that he became as comfortable in my presence as I was in his. Refreshingly, being myself seemed like all I had to be.

We kept the tone of the discussion serious but fairly light-hearted and amicable; neither he nor I expressed any poignantly romantic interest (also one of those first-date essentials: treat it like you would treat making any friend, to keep it from being too charged or otherwise scary). At the end of the evening, I made sure to relate to him that it had been “a real pleasure” to spend that time with him, that “the time just flew by.” Then we talked outside of the restaurant, and it seemed like we were delaying our inevitable parting (he started discussing one of the details of his everyday life), and our goodbye about ten minutes later involved at least three languages. I had also extended a new invitation: that I would be happy to walk with him if he ever wanted a companion on his rather long commute home from his workplace, not far from mine. With our departure, I walked confidently home, chest held high in the chilled night air without feeling any of its coldness. While I was still not sure if I could call it a date, I had never felt so hopeful about one of these meetings, nor in my wildest dreams from a few weeks ago would I have thought I would meet someone I felt so compatible with on so many levels. So in my own mind, I resolved to call it a ‘date’ (a quote ‘date’) instead of using the more explicit, direct reference: date. I had had what I thought was the perfect first ‘date’ I could ever ask for, and that out of it I had made, at the very least, a new friend. A whole new adventure lay ahead, it seemed.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an entry in this blog if my story didn’t have, like virtually all of life, a pinch of both optimism and tragedy (and clearly the optimism has already been expressed). My invitation went unanswered, and further, I received no word from him in the week following our meeting. Of course I thought about him, of course I wondered about how I should proceed, but I figured that I should at least give it the week. This seems in keeping with the seemingly perfect and well-researched logical sequence of events; some cool-off time was inevitably necessary. I wrote it off to both of our respective busyness. But I’ve never been very good at lying to myself, so I gradually became more and more worried and knew that eventually some course of action was necessary.

Finally, when that dreaded day, Friday, came along, I consulted with a close (not to mention very wise and beautiful) friend over lunch about what I should do. She could practically read my mind when she saw the flustered look on my face after asking me what I wanted to talk to her about. I relayed the details of my experience with the same optimism that I had myself perceived as it was happening, but it was clear something was off. As concern, even a touch of sadness, entered her eyes, it began to dawn on me how dire the situation actually was. He had never hesitated in contacting me mid-week with long e-mails in the past, and suddenly his entire presence had vanished. Then I tried to start reading various cues from my evening with him, and she made it plain to me that in her experience men are hardly that subtle, and what I perceived as having meaning was probably purely instinctual or simply default behaviour. I then discussed writing that dreadful e-mail I intended to write later that day reestablishing our contact, one that would solidly affirm my interest in continuing the friendship. Left to my own devices, my e-mail might have very well been like our previous ones: a long dialogue continuing where our discussion left off and likely involving a greater level of reaching out on my behalf. On the verge of cringing at the very thought, she provided me with what I knew deep down was the most appropriate response: a SHORT e-mail asking him how he was, how his week’s been going, a positive comment on how my week was, and then a closing statement wishing him a good weekend (without saying whether I had or didn’t have plans). It all seemed very formulaic, but in refusing to respond to my previous open-ended invitation, he had made it necessarily so. Seeing myself now back on that old familiar path of rejection I had come to know from previous experiences, it also dawned on me at that moment that I, in fact, had not been on a ‘date’ but on a date (and hence why this had become so awkward and complicated—which he had implicitly made it). Furthermore, it was also then that I realized (independently, without my friend’s knowing) that this was not my first date as I had thought, but rather my third, and that I had been outright and heartlessly rejected all three times after a first date for no established reason.

I wrote the e-mail, half in his language and half in mine, with an upbeat but more personal style all my own that still reflected my friend’s formula. I received no acknowledgement or response, as I rather pessimistically expected. And it was then that I felt a pain that I had not felt when the other contacts didn’t work out. The previous times I had been disappointed, even gravely so, but this time I was personally rather hurt, sad, even depressed. The feeling was not a tearful one, but it certainly had its capacity to choke me up inside. I lost some confidence in the way I perceived my reality; my first date, or rather my third, was not perfect but was apparently a rather bad one, in contrast to everything I thought and felt. The pain of my third rejection was just too strong; clearly I’m not cut out for this, clearly I take people too seriously and start feeling too quickly to survive in the dating world (or even, apparently, in the courtship of friendship). Perhaps I should just give up altogether, but try as I might to abandon my romantic/sexual identity in a grand gesture such as this, it will never go away. My friend coached me, she said, “you’re going to get hurt in dating, but at the end of the day you have to force yourself to see this as a positive experience, and you can’t just decide to give up; you need to get back out there if you don’t hear back from this guy in a week.”

I’ve decided that dating may very well be like getting wisdom teeth (or chicken pox). In my case, I got my wisdom teeth (chicken pox) painlessly in adolescence (as a child). But getting them later in life can be much more painful than at a younger age, and the older you are the more uncomfortable and potentially painful the experience. Being 24 years old and going on my first date, and then getting rejected, when most people my age have been doing it for 10-12 years, may make all the difference for me in terms of how I perceive the date. In other words, starting to date (and learning to deal with inevitable rejection) may simply be a more painful experience for me now than it would have otherwise been earlier in my life. At the end of the day, however, I’d rather it be this way, that I have an experience all my own, than blithely and superficially conducting my life in imitation of those who have been dating for longer. At least by having such raw feelings, I can sense and come to understand my own humanity.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Those Little Town Blues

I live in one of the best places in the world to be gay, and yet it seems like feelings of hopelessness are never far away. In today’s modern, Western world, relatively few people stay in one place forever, myself included. Economic circumstances can easily sweep us away to another town or even another country. The transitory nature of our lives in any one place makes it hard to settle and really commit to its culture. Sometimes, we leave to escape a setting and its cultural/economic/political dysfunctions to something better. By contrast, other times we find ourselves forced to leave somewhere better to return to where we came from (or a different place that is in some way worse). These concerns are often starkly real for LGBT persons, for whom a move to another town/city can be a cultural shock and can have a profound effect on quality of life. In my particular case, I left a (relatively) more intolerant setting and came to one in Montreal that was shockingly open. Having come out here and with my sexual identity now to enforce, I sometimes fear returning to an environment like that where I came from, a very real possibility that haunts me. For me, such a circumstance would represent a regression, perhaps not on professional grounds but surely from a cultural, social, and personal perspective.

When I speak of culture shock, I’m not really talking about the circumstances of gay life outside of the Western world but rather within it. It’s easy to conclude that the Occident has made advances in gay rights and has reached a commendable level of acceptance with regard to LGBT lifestyles and concerns. Yet we are hardly a homogeneous entity, and within the Western world are strong contrasts, including differences in local/regional attitudes toward LGBT issues. In my particular case, I lived most of my life in a small town (under 20,000 people) in a ‘tolerant’ region. I was always traveling, seeing new cities and experiencing the delights the broader world had to offer. But at the end of the day most of my social development occurred in the small town where I lived. As such, my own attitudes toward my homosexuality were defined by the outlook of those around me. With no other out gay men or women to be found, homosexuality was always an idea, a rare and invisible anomaly (or aberration?), and never a concrete reality. Men dated women, women dated men, that’s what was natural and expected. Anything else was “narcissism” or “confusion,” and we just didn’t talk about it. And when we did, it wasn’t uncommon for something like gay marriage to be openly opposed on traditional conservative arguments, including by my own immediate family before I came out.

Heterosexual single life in a small town can be hard enough. My particular hometown, which attracted people from many parts of the world, was quite aptly called “the place where single people go to die” (this sentiment is more likely to be true for the middle-aged-and-older, single women who live there). I didn’t move to this environment but rather grew up in it. As a young man, statistically speaking, the chances of coming into a positive gay development should have been easier. In particular, a certain (small) proportion of guys in my school should have been undergoing the same experiences I was. Apparently there was a gay-identifying boy (I learned about this in talking to my friends after my coming out many years later) who was openly out in my school, but no one ever acknowledged it, talked about it, or embraced it. I didn’t run in the same circles as he did, and no one ever discussed sexual orientation, either his or anyone else’s. Straight was just simply ‘understood.’ That’s not to say that the attitudes of my classmates were intolerant, as most of my friends from high school were and are very open and supportive of LGBT rights. I think there was simply a lack of awareness and comprehensive understanding of what it meant to be gay, as it was never staring us in the face. Furthermore, I think there was a very real tension over questioning norms in sexual orientation for fear of being considered sexually ‘deviant.’

For those of us who did not know that there were other queers in our school, it seemed simply like a lonely, isolating, self-destructive, hopeless endeavor to identify as gay. For me, this translated to failing to deal with my own homosexuality. I felt it in my attractions, and it confronted me without inhibition in my dreams (which I often tried to actively reverse and forget). I found a way of compartmentalizing it, and I came probably about as close as anyone could to just turning off my romantic orientation altogether. I went years without having any real crushes or any passionate feelings toward another person; it seemed like I found a way to push my longings and desires to the sidelines while I focused on other things. I was never one to worry much about the social conformity that is considered such a force for so many high school students, but there were some places I wasn’t even willing to go, and confronting my sexual identity was definitely one of them. I would have rather pretended to be something I wasn't than face what I was and be alone. I would have rather given up on romance and sex to have friendship rather than face a life without either.

It may be difficult to be a young gay person in this environment: to never have really seen other people being openly gay, to not know that it is really possible to live a fulfilling life as a gay man. ‘Gay is good’ is an even more difficult concept to grasp when heterosexuals often only see it, understand it, and talk about it as a lifestyle of hardship, pain, discrimination, promiscuity, and often disease. Given this atmosphere, the small town environment, even when it is tolerant (i.e. nominally-accepting) can be a lonely, hopeless setting for an LGBT person. Furthermore, in such a place, the general population is less likely to come into contact with open homosexuality, to be forced to think about it critically and understand it from a position of love. Given their lack of comprehension, intolerance and uninformed, conservative beliefs seem much more likely to be accepted (on a per-capita basis). Furthermore, an open intolerance toward homosexuality may be enforced or implied in the internal cultures of many religious establishments, which are often essential loci to small town social life.

Unfortunately, even though I was homosexual or bisexual, I was also an ignorant person toward LGBT persons when living in my town. My internal biases sometimes came to an ugly head, especially when I was confronted with open homosexuality for the first time in my life. When I was a teenager, I spent a day of vacation in a popular gay resort town. I was personally, secretly quite fascinated by what I saw: men embracing each other, holding hands, kissing each other, hanging out (sometimes nude) on the beach together. It was all so beautiful and exciting, and I couldn’t get enough of what I was seeing. Yet, of course, I would never have admitted that to myself or to others, and my failure to understand the gay lifestyle was more or less validated by my family when I talked to them about it. Upon returning to my hometown, I made a homophobic comment to some of my (female) friends in describing what I had seen. Had these been male friends, given the culture I was familiar with the sentiment might have well been reciprocated. However, shockingly, one of my friends asked me in a semi-sarcastic manner “CT, are you a bigot?.” I was stunned, and it was just what I needed to open my eyes : bigot, me? I’m a man of the world, multiracial, enthusiastic about cultural diversity, how could I be a bigot? How is not understanding and not particularly liking homosexuality bigoted? The friends that I was talking to, however, neither seemed surprised by my comment nor particularly abhorred by it. It was bigoted, but it just didn’t matter.

One good thing I can say, however, is that I did find the courage to come to terms with my sexual orientation while living in a small town. Like so many others who come into their own after finishing high school, I also went to university in my hometown and learned to accept my diversity there, although it did not come to me easily. So many find acceptance when they can make a clean break and confront their sexual identity away from their home environment, but such was not my experience (I lived, actually quite happily, at home). The meaning that my small town had for me transformed when I left high school; it had evolved to become the focal point of my intellectual broadening on many levels. Yet, at the same time, the same social structures were still there. I knew many people in the community, and many people knew me, and being gay would have been a big deal for all involved (it’s just so rare, so isolating, again, so potentially aberrant). I was rather shocked when I learned from a friend in college (after I had graduated) that my university was considered to be a very open institution with respect to LGBT rights, and that some people actually went there because of it. I certainly never got a feel of real openness when I was on campus or in the larger community. It was in part true, there was an LGBT group that I didn’t know anything about while I went to school there. It was pushed to the sidelines (after all, it wasn’t a strictly intellectually-motivated group), never mentioned or talked about, barely visible (and part of that was, quite frankly, their fault). The only time I noticed their presence on campus was my last semester there, when they wrote messages across campus about how most of the people in their group were frightened to go to their classes because of their sexual identity, which seemed sadly pathetic. With all the emphasis on social justice, diversity, and civic mindedness, only once did I hear the topic of homosexuality discussed publicly while I was in university. In my anthropology class, a debate on the gay marriage issue was started by the professor, who was hoping to inspire some critical thought. All he got were several students (from many different cultural/racial backgrounds) voicing their opinions about how unnatural homosexuality is, and how gay marriage should be avoided at all costs as a consequence. I was both angry and mortified by what I heard, but I dared not speak out. To be openly unbigoted is enough to out oneself in such a setting, and that was something I was not yet willing to face: a public outing, with social aftershocks through the community, my only home at that point.

My last semester in university, I finally found the courage to embrace my homosexuality for the first time and dare to dream of a future with romance in it. It was refreshing and exhilarating; suddenly, I felt like a new person undergoing a spiritual renaissance, full of potential to love. In terms of my sexual identity, I wasn’t any less alone than I had ever been living in that small town. I knew no gay people, and no gay people knew me. It was what it was. But for some reason, I just stopped caring about that; I shifted states from passing as heterosexual to more implicitly out. No one could really read me, which was just how I wanted it. After all, in a rural region the degrees of separation between people are small if not nonexistent. I had family members to protect (see “Pride and Prejudice”), and sometimes family 100s of kms away would occasionally run into people from my hometown who knew me from there. Eventually, from my small town, I finally made the leap to the city. I moved to Montreal for lifestyle reasons (with no particular knowledge or interest of its openness or extensive gay community); the last thing I thought it would do is revolutionize the way I feel about my sexual identity. I was dazed when I arrived and realized that I didn’t have to be alone (in this respect) anymore (see “A Coming of Age…”).

Living in the city, it’s easy to be unaware of the concerns of a small town LGBT person. With gays being a part of everyday life for many people, the city seems to make more accommodations than the small town to our diversity. It's an open place, and life can be reasonably good. As gay people living in the city, we don’t have to be alone or feel alone; there’s always new and very plausible opportunities for love and friendship in the gay community we’ve created for ourselves here. We can often be who we want to be with, be out with our partner and show our affection in public. Most importantly of all, we are more likely to be surrounded by people who are familiar with our experiences and who can potentially understand us better. There are risks in the city like there are risks everywhere, but small town-like social ostracism is less of a worry, as we can blend into and disappear into the broader city fabric as needed. But my experiences struggling to come out as a gay man in a small town have, in fact, made me appreciate my city life all the more. The loneliness, that sense of despair and utter isolation, still haunts me to this day.

So I’d like to appeal for a little consideration for the plight of the small town LGBT person trying to forge loving relationships in a difficult environment. I imagine the sense of loneliness becomes even more severe as an adult, as a good number of rural, young LGBT persons are likely to flee to the cities if they can (decreasing the already inherently scant and closeted sexual diversity of rural regions). I’ve learned recently that the internet has made a rural gay lifestyle more readily plausible and could potentially help lessen the gay-drain to the cities, but the internet can only go so far (people need to see and hear, feel, and be present with each other). Thus, rural LGBT persons will often find themselves going on vacations of a “sexual tourism” nature, during which making connections and socializing (rather than sightseeing) become a desperately serious affair that requires aggressive action. These vacations, because they are necessarily time-limited, will restrict both the pool of contacts who would take interest in them and the type of relationships they can form. Provided that meaningful contacts have been made, or loving relationships established, frequent long-distance trips are likely required to maintain them. Quite frankly, many people working in rural areas (who are often paid less than urbanites) may simply not be able to afford to keep up this kind of lifestyle. Yet at the same time, options in their region, in the form of out LGBT persons of an appropriate age and disposition, may be literally impossible to come by. It’s also important to consider that many of the ‘small town’ issues I discuss here may be very real experiences for people living in cities and small towns alike in less tolerant societies than the one in which I live. There’s no easy solution, and even though I plan to live in Montreal for quite a while, I still have that small town voice in my head telling me that this is an amazing opportunity: "I need to get my act together, get serious, be gay, it’s now or never!"