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!"

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Finding Social Interconnectedness: My Online Experience

Living in Montréal, I often find myself wondering about the nature of humanity. I’m surrounded by so much of it, and I like to think positively about it. Yet at the same time the city often comes across as impersonal and cold. Thus, it’s rather easy to jump to the conclusion that humanity is at its very essence similarly indifferent and self-seeking.

On quiet, somewhat lonely days, I often feel this way and have to reflect on my fallacies. I have to force myself to see the truth: most of us are seeking interconnectedness; we desire to share ourselves and our experiences in some way with the world. Our longing for interconnectedness, to heal the rifts between each other and with the universe, seem to be a major driving force behind the development of both culture and spirituality. These structures help give purpose and meaning to many of our lives, and within these constructs we are able to take comfort in finding some level of social harmony. Unfortunately, there are glitches, flaws, and human dysfunction that can accompany this quest for wholeness. Once we find a social group that seems to meet our needs for interconnectedness, the group itself can serve to factionalize us with respect to others.

Within the broader, ‘impersonal’ framework of the city, the process of connecting to people when factions/cliques of all kinds and sizes exist may seem at times a difficult endeavor. Furthermore, when ignored by most people around us, it can be easy to feel unattractive and unwanted. These feelings exist and self-propagate even when there are others in the city who would most likely love to associate with us (and that is what is important to always keep in mind). From my perspective, I must realize that I myself blend into this impersonal fabric when I walk down the street, yet at the same time I certainly don’t consider myself to be indifferent to forming human relationships. So I often ask myself: is there any way we can tear down the invisible walls between us and stop coming off as so impersonal when we really are not? How do we get back to seeing each other’s humanity in a modern, urban era? How do we destroy our inhibitions, based on a lack of trust in the unfamiliar, and see each other for who we really are: people seeking interconnectedness with each other?

I tried to address this question recently by going to the internet. I decided to post a profile on a popular gay social networking site. People go to these places because they want to feel connected to others in one way or another, and they’re willing to put themselves out there and say so! I’ve tried this before in the past with a similar website, and I was rather disappointed that so many people were looking for companionship, and yet none were willing to commit to developing a real-world friendship (or any other type of relationship) for one reason or another. When online, it’s easy to engage in dehumanizing hyper-selectivity, to make certain judgments over what people write (or look like in their photo) without seeing them for the flexible, multifaceted beings that they often really are. We don’t have to look at them and see the pain or disappointment in their eyes when we reject them, lose interest, or simply refuse to acknowledge them with even the simplest response (especially when they have probably overcome a courage threshold to contact us). In behaving as such, we forget that we are communicating with real people, whose hearts possess all the potential for human compassion, love, and companionship that we consider ourselves to have. In my particular experience, the fact that so many people would insert themselves into and then, sooner or later, promptly exit my life (for no good reason on either account) was somewhat depressing, and I lost faith in the internet as an effective means for attaining social interconnectedness.

The internet site that I joined this time was different in several respects. There are more people who are members of this site from my city, and thus it provides a more diverse social base from which to make contacts. Furthermore, there are a larger number of people belonging to the site who are open to essentially many different level of social connection, not just seeking one or another. In addition, quite a few seem to content themselves with just talking rather than partaking of hyper-selectivity in expectation of something deeper. I think this is probably a good strategy for evolving a friendship (or something more) in any case: the simple act of care-free conversation with as little tension as possible. Given this setting, it seems like people are somewhat bolder about contacting each other, and apparently me as well (I have not yet had the time to look at others’ profiles, as I’ve had a hard time keeping up with the interesting conversations as they currently stand).

Upon joining the site, I expected a similar experience from the previous one: a person or two contacting me on very rare occasions, no response when I take the time and effort to contact others, and nothing happening at the end of the day (leaving a void of disappointment and embarrassment). In almost no time, I was surprised to find myself communicating on many different levels with a broad range of people who found my profile interesting. What shocked me most of all is that I got many notes from people, very good-looking guys, who were physically attracted to me and said so outright, which I would have never expected from my previous online experience. As primal as these interactions may seem, it was also highly flattering and uplifting, to realize that I do not go unnoticed when I often feel like I do in the real world. A few of these individuals seemed to be primarily looking for sex, and I communicated in these cases that I’m not seeking that kind of encounter, but I've always made light of the situation and extended a thanks and an honest compliment in return. I’ve noticed that the simple act of responding and demonstrating a level of respect, of understanding, provides a more positive experience (and attitude) for myself and the other person, no matter what they may be seeking.

Beyond those extending compliments to my appearance, there are others who were intrigued by the contents of my profile and wished to engage me on a more intellectual level. This has also been a highly rewarding and encouraging experience, to discover that there are those out there who appreciate what I think about (rather than being intimidated or bored by my academic worldview) and truly wish to converse on these points. There are others I’ve spoken to who are also quite simply looking for someone to talk to, an open ear and an open mind. Something on my profile may have intrigued them in a certain way (perhaps it is something I said, my friendly smile, or my openness to various forms of contact?), but in the end we are both there to talk and get to know each other a little better. I was somewhat surprised but pleased to discover how one person was moved by the fact that I gave serious consideration to the changes he would like to make in his professional life. I helped him reflect on ways in which he could address them in an engaging exchange, although none of my own ideas were terribly profound or original. However, it seemed like the very act of taking the time to talk with him, to care about what he was going through and think through his situation, had a powerful effect on his disposition toward me.

This new experiment of mine has yet to really play out, and perhaps I’ll find myself disappointed at the end of the day. While the internet has provide me with a forum in which social connectedness seems more readily possible, where inhibitions on social engagement are left at the portal, there are still problems with this means of communication that have not disappeared (as I discussed at the beginning of this post). All I can do is recognize this and choose not to engage in dehumanizing and unnecessary selectivity myself. I have already been uplifted by this experience, and that fact by itself has made the journey worthwhile. Furthermore, it reinforces, for me at least, the ideas I presented at the beginning of this post on the nature of humanity. We are all seeking some level of interconnectedness, hoping to share ourselves with others and meet caring people. The uninhibited openness to exchange on the website speaks to our essential human need to be connected to each other in some way, and it begs the question: how many people do we pass indifferently, sometimes on a daily basis, who could make all the difference in our lives in this respect? I think the answer is clear: sometimes a simple “hi” or “salut” to those around us (for example, someone sitting alone at a table next to us or on the same bench) could really make a world of difference, as I learned recently when a new friendship blossomed after someone said ‘hi’ to me in my laundromat. If we really are looking for interconnectedness, it’s highly possible that often a simple, unthreatening greeting, recognition of another’s existence and humanity, could sometimes be a step toward greater personal and social satisfaction for both ourselves and the people around us. This may all seem rather idealistic, but at least it’s food for thought!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sharing our Diversity

The other day I ended up talking to a stranger, a lovely young woman in Parc Jean Drapeau who asked me to take her photo. She was from the Netherlands, and after spending a couple of months here she has fallen in love with Montréal. She couldn't believe how diverse the city is, and how all of the city's groups seem to coexist in relative (quirky) harmony. I shared her sentiment; our diversity really is our joy here in Montréal. The acceptance of diversity, the openness toward it, is shockingly better than other places I've been around the world. We do sometimes have our language issues, but nothing a little multilingualism won't solve (and virtually everyone here is multilingual--and it adds to the diversity in the way we see the world).

There are so many places, even in the Western world, where 'tolerance' is the best you can get. Gay is ok, but only if it's kept reasonably quiet and conforms to the strictest of heterosexual norms. Real openness is so terribly hard to come by, and the woman I was speaking to was like me, not quite the perfect 'fit' for the place she came from. She talked a bit about the social segregation that seems to be so prevalent between different ethnic groups in her country. This surprised me, as I had never thought about the Netherlands as being anything other than a highly progressive, modern society, having spent a good deal of time there myself. Before parting, this new acquaintance did relay to me one profound little bit of wisdom: In sharing with each other our diverse perspectives, we broaden our minds and enrich ourselves and the community. It was that aspect of Montreal lifestyle, that openness toward sharing, that intrigued her so much.

In my "Pride and Prejudice" post, I suggested that sexual orientation is something that we own and should be able to discuss (or not discuss) as we like. However, the wisdom of my Dutch acquaintance left me thinking: in certain cases, where we know that we are reasonably safe and have little to lose, shouldn't we as LGBT persons be more open to sharing our unique perspective of the world with other people? Couldn't we enrich others with what we have to say, making our world a more open place toward us in the process? What would happen if we really got down there in the trenches to talk about what it means: the difficulties, the paradoxes, the pains, the loneliness, the joys, and the torments of this kind of diversity? These stories are not only interesting, having something of a universal quality, but they are also quite thought-provoking and enlightening to homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.

While this sentiment makes inherent sense to me, I often find myself unusually distrustful and guarded when it comes to sharing my sexual orientation with others. I sometimes have opportunities, safe ones, to share it, and I choose not to out of my own contemplative hesitation. My trust in society, even in the most accepting of places, is lacking. In addition, after my first round of coming out, I felt like perhaps talking to heterosexuals about my sexuality was something of a taboo. After all, when people learn that you are gay, it sometimes becomes something of a fixation, the first thing some people think about you. I never much cared for being labeled like this and have come to fear it, preferring rather that people associate me with my distinct personality and interests rather than my sexuality. Furthermore, my conversations with heterosexuals about the subject have been a mixed success. Most sit through the 'coming out' talk with that familiar mixture of shock and amused interest. However, after that it can be like it never happened, and whenever I may casually bring up something having vaguely to do with my sexuality, there will often be a moment of awkwardness: blank stares, a quick change in the subject of conversation, etc.

At the same time, having been acculturated in a heterosexual world, I think nothing of hearing guys talking about their girlfriends or a romantic/sexual attraction. People are always hounding me with news about their heterosexual endeavors and interests, yet clearly the same is not reciprocated from my end. The moment of awkwardness is the reason why I don't share: "we can only push this thing so far, CT," I often tell myself. But it is precisely the awkwardness, this disconnection from the world around us, that should be the motivation for sharing more of ourselves. Only through this sharing can we (LGBTs and heterosexuals) form a mutual appreciation, an understanding, and begin to trust each other. Only then can the awkwardness begin to disappear.

To a certain extent, what I said as a younger man was true: no one is going to make this world a better place for us [LGBTQetc persons]; we're going to have to do it for ourselves. We can do this by simply keeping an open mind, not fearing the awkwardness, and openly sharing our experiences, thoughts and dreams with those around us, when circumstances are reasonable for us to do so. When we start reconnecting with the broader world around us in the process, we're likely to feel better about ourselves too! I plan engage in this experience more often, another step toward coming into my own as a gay man.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

When I went in for an interview to become a volunteer at an organization in the gay community, my interviewers made sure I was comfortable and kept the questions fairly lighthearted. That is, until it came to asking how 'out' I was. In a very serious tone, they questioned if I was out with my family. Then they asked me if I was out at work. I told them yes and no on both accounts; I was not out with everyone in my family or at work (only those who really mattered, I thought). An exchange of glances and a concerned half-frown yielded the next question: "If you were asked if you were gay by one of these people, would you say yes?" I half-lied, saying "Yes, I don't have a problem with it [my sexual identity]." I couldn't help feeling a little judged in this situation, feeling the pressure to be totally, completely, unflinchingly outed in the world.

These days, I can happily say that I've reached a level of pride and satisfaction with my sexual identity I couldn't have foreseen, even when I was in that interview. I have also never been more comfortable sharing my sexual identity with others, the process of coming out being a never-ending affair. However, the fact is that with some people I'd still probably lie and say no, and with many others I would tell them outright "yes, I'm gay." I've always held the very libertarian attitude that my sexual identity is entirely my business, mine and only mine to reveal or conceal as I wish, even if keeping it from some people requires a careful juggling act.

Aristotle is famous for having written (in the Nicomachean Ethics) that a virtue is often the moderation between two extremes (or, as he saw it, two contrasting vices). It also seems like a delicate balance is required between pride and prejudice (or the fear of prejudice), so that we can maximize the former while still minimizing the latter. I said in my post entitled "Do I really want to be Gay" that we should try to make the best of our sexual identity, to create the best possible life for ourselves within the context of our sexuality. For some of us, that may mean concessions to other identities as well, such as our family, our cultural, workplace, or religious environments, or other aspects of our identity (depending on the setting and the attitudes of the people involved).

There will always be martyrs, those proud people who are gay no matter what, no matter where. If in the wrong setting, they would throw themselves on the pyre of gay rights and pay the price for it rather than deny their identity. These admirable individuals have helped take gay rights to today's relatively progressive level by revealing to the world the inhumane, hair-raising injustices that exist in the broader society. And I think that it is for this reason that the volunteer organization was ensuring that I could, in fact, propagate this tradition and be a pioneer. From the perspective of the gay community, ensuring the 'outness' of its members is simply a survival instinct.

However, the fact remains that there is a lot of gray area in terms of who should be out, i.e.,when, where, and to whom it is appropriate to reveal one's sexual identity. Losing friends is one thing (I would sadly but quite simply discard any friend who has a problem with my homosexuality). Losing one's close family for the sake of an abstract, yet-unrealized goal (i.e., coming out for the sake of coming out) seems like a heavy price to pay when it can be put off or avoided. I'm fortunate to say that everyone in my immediate family is very accepting of the fact that I'm gay. In recent years we even go to Divers-Cité together to enjoy the music, and that's become something of a bonding experience for me. Unfortunately, the older generation of my family (people who mostly stay back at home) is highly, irrationally prejudiced against LGBTs for religious and social reasons, no matter what the context. They could simply not accept this 'mortal sin,' even though they can stomach so many other ones that involve no love. Yet they are close to me and I with them. My very coming out would not only destroy my loving relationships with them, but it would also trash the relationships between my immediate family and my extended family. This would likely lead to a loss of well-being and perhaps a stress-accelerated earlier death for all involved!

As my example illustrates, the process of coming out can have an ugly chain reaction that ripples through an entire social unit. Is all this really worth it, just so I can vent and say I'm homosexual no matter where I go? Definitely not; the disaster can be avoided by just not saying anything (the older generation in my example tend to be advocates of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in this regard). I could instead have "friends," very close friends as far as they are concerned, ones that I'm very fond of and can talk about. Eventually I expect I could even have a "roommate." As far as justifying not having romance in my life, I can be "professionally motivated" instead and talk about what's going on at work.

There are many cases where retaining social harmony in all quarters of one's life is rather more difficult. This clearly occurs when a culture or nation officially demonstrates prejudice against LGBT persons. In order for these individuals to realize their dreams in this environment, they do potentially have to risk facing grave consequences (socially, economically, etc.). In addition, I live quite far away from any of my prejudiced extended family members, and while I keep in touch with them regularly, they're not around to see everything I'm doing. It would be much harder to conceal a romantic relationship when living nearby (or with) a highly involved, prejudiced family, and at some point the stress of juggling a diverse sexual orientation might become too much and a difficult decision would have to be made. But even these cases don't always have to involve coming out; it could instead mean moving out, to starting a new career or adventure. Along similar lines, when engaging in a romantic relationship it makes sense to become more out (ex, with more co-workers, more family, and in the general public setting) so as to freely express the joy and love of the couple's companionship. With some people, it might be better to hold off on coming out until once a relationship has been established; with others, the news might provoke an even more unbearable shock than would otherwise be the case. One thing I realized during my own coming out with my immediate family: when (or if) we do decide it is the right time to share the news with those close to us (esp. family), we have to give them time to come to terms with the news. They need space to vent, to finally let go of their concerns and prejudices and to grieve the loss of their heterosexual vision of us.

In general, it's an ugly thing, this prejudice that makes living an gay life so stressful and complicated at times. Pride in our sexual identity can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be unnecessarily reckless. Blanket pride or blanket fear of prejudice (i.e., not taking any risks toward realizing one's romantic dreams) are clearly not the answers to living the best quality life for many individuals. For some, pride in one's identity may be worth the backlash. Sometimes the backlash is mild or nonexistent, which is the best type of scenario--pride without prejudice. However, for many more of us there are other identities at play, other people and settings to consider, and the solution to balancing our sexual identities with other aspects of our lives is not as clear cut. At my volunteer organization, in bonding over our coming out stories, I was actually pleasantly surprised to find out that a large number of people who worked there were not out to everyone in their lives. Several of various ages and backgrounds also chose not to be out to their parents. These individuals are no less proud to be gay, being happy and often highly motivated to work for the benefit of the LGBT community. The lesson is clear: there are many ways to work toward both our romantic desires and the betterment of the gay community in the world; we don't all have to be martyrs.

Labels, Groups, and the Handling of Diversity in the Gay Community

I think it's safe to say that the gay community is a relatively diverse place. People from all walks of life, from all races and cultures, look to it with hope for their future as LGBTHQAetc.. persons. Playing down this vibrant mix of cultures, identities, and worldviews, there are stereotypes and images of gays that are propagated into mainstream (heterosexual) society, just as there are stereotypes of every minority. Most of these prove not to be true: as gays we don't all look the same way; we don't have a distinctive facial structure or way of speaking, and we don't all dress in the same ways (furthermore, not all of us are fashionable!). As homosexuality exists in people of all backgrounds and social upbringing, a cross-section of the gay community should look the same as any random sampling of the broader society. That is to say, it should be that way, ideally, if the community could be considered an all-inclusive body. Unfortunately, the ideal and the reality have yet to truly merge.

I often ask myself: How does the LGBT community address its own internal diversity? We have all been taught that diversity is a good thing, something to be encouraged and embraced. I wholeheartedly adhere to this perspective, as I consider myself to be a relatively diverse individual. I have diverse intellectual interests, I'm bi-racial (I'm ethnically entirely European, and more often than not I pass as European in a racial context as well), and, having lived in several countries, a reasonably diverse set of cultural attitudes. But I've found that all of this diversity, a purportedly positive attribute, seems to restrict my opportunities for social cohesion rather than broaden them. I never feel content in one group or the other, in one country or another; I'm always on the fringes, always 'different.' It speaks perhaps to the difficulty of whole societies, not just the gay community, in handling diversions from the mean. On the whole, I think the quirky climate in Montreal provides one of the most open environments I've found in terms of its ability to make space for many different forms of diversity. But how does the gay community fare in this regard? Does it really have the united front we perceive it has in pride parades and community events?

Actually, that's one of the things that I have heard other gay people (of many different backgrounds) complaining about. An acquaintance of mine who's been around for a while once discussed with me how fragmented he felt the gay community was becoming. He was worried about the divisions that occur within the community, usually centered around the labels people take on (top, bottom, twink, daddy, queen, butch, femme, hypermasculine, racial preferences, weight preferences, age preferences, etc.) and the rigidness that sometimes accompanies them. These sub-identities provide smaller cliques, or social groups based on common interests, which form sometimes in contrast to the perceived mainstream gay culture. Relative to the "small town network of city gays" I wrote about last week, groups and 'labels' form relative hamlets (accentuating even further those 'small town' effects I talked about in that previous post).

I actually think that the creation of groups is a rather practically-minded evolution in the gay community, but labels can be both unpractical and destructive. All of us are likely to have certain sexual preferences, and it stands to reason that, in a community based on sexual identity, we would naturally gravitate toward those groups that represent these individual interests and cater to our idiosyncrasies in this regard. Certain 'crowds' may gravitate to some gay establishments over others, thus facilitating internal social cohesion. Furthermore, other groups form for more purely social reasons; for example, with the goal of providing a safe space for LGBT university students or a particular ethnic, national, or religious group. These are also a good idea; they afford a comfortable entry point to the gay community as well as a social setting where people have similar experiences to bond over. Furthermore, there are groups (such as volunteer organizations) that cater to all kinds of sexual identities, gender expression, and social backgrounds, and these often form the unifying melting pots of the community.

Interest groups can exist without labels, but they don't always reject them. Labels are formed to contrast, or isolate, one group at the exclusion of others, and too often social groups will show preferences to particular labels (if not through their official policy then through their general climate). For example, when a university LGBT group takes on a label (for example, in preference of a certain age range from their particular university), it often seeks to maintain social cohesion by excluding interaction with other community organizations (such as other university groups or other volunteer groups). Given such a situation, in joint social outings with other groups, individuals are forced to divide into their separate entities rather than intermingling (I have heard of this happening first hand). Certain ethno-cultural groups can also fall under the spell of labels. For example, how well would a half-Arab, half-Chinese Buddhist (with a mostly East-Asian upbringing) fit in an Arab gay social group (with members from mostly an Islamic cultural background)? Would he/she even be encouraged into it? Or what about a white (or black or otherwise non-Arab) individual who was adopted by Arab parents?

It's not surprising that many groups form around labels, as it can be very difficult to assimilate into the gay culture (which we are not usually acculturated into by our parents). Many find it comforting to be in the presence of people who have a similar acculturation in other ways (cultural, etc.). These groups, as assimilators that make us comfortable with our sexual identity and help us accept and embrace a gay lifestyle within the broader community, are actually quite a positive adaptive development. However, the problem arises when the group actually acts to stop or even reverse assimilation (and further connection) to the broader gay community, when the group acculturates inward and not outward.

With the intermingling of groups and labels, sometimes people from different races or backgrounds have difficulty identifying a good fit in the gay community, often finding themselves exoticized or judged in the same way they are in the mainstream society. There are whole books written on multiple identity management and multicultural diversity in the gay community, and I'm not going to expand much on that subject here. I like to think that the LGBT world is theoretically more accepting of diversity (in breaking the racial and cultural barriers) compared to the mainstream society, given the rich understanding of adversity (in its many forms) that transcends the gay community. However, when sexual preferences, groups, and fractionalizing labels are thrown into the mix, the true level of openness to diversity is difficult to assess at the end of the day.

In order to reverse the fractionation of the gay community, various interests must be willing to come together for a united purpose. Often gay events (pride parades, cultural festivals, political action rallies, community centres, etc.) are the perfect place for these interactions to take place, as they are formed to highlight our commonalities and embrace our internal diversity. When groups can come together and, instead of remaining huddled in their separate corners, engage in an exchange of ideas, our similarities as human beings with comparable sexual identities and goals shine through. Not only are we intellectually enriched by such experiences, our minds potentially opened to new preferences and possibilities, but we also discover new personalities, grow our social networks, and become even more likely to find compatible love interests (based on grounds beyond the labels). It is thus in embracing diversity within and among groups that the gay community appears to be most beneficial to its members.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Happiness Really is Contagious

Today, I decided to go to a gay pride parade for the first time in my life. While I've never been a fan of parades (I've tried others, and they're just not my thing), I want to have a well-rounded experience as far as my LGBT identity is concerned. So I figured that this was definitely one of those things I should do at least once in my life. Given that much of the world only has gay pride parades as the primary gay public outing, it seems to have become something of an institution. Furthermore, last year a friend of mine participated in the event (while I ignored it altogether), and according to this friend it was an exhilarating and uplifting experience. The person I'm speaking of was actually in the parade itself, and that would always be a lot more interesting than sitting on the sidelines. But even so, why not give it a shot? I wouldn't otherwise be doing anything interesting.

So I wandered down to the Village, which had taken on a distinctively festive atmosphere (it was completely pedestrianized, with the side streets blocked off). I could feel that transition, that I was once again leaving the 'real' world and entering a somewhat different one relegated almost exclusively to the LGBT community. I arrived and came upon large crowds of cheering people, many sporting rainbow flags (some had them on their wheel chairs; they were just about everywhere). I was actually rather surprised by the upbeat attitudes of the people in my surroundings. The parade itself was difficult to see from my vantage point, but one thing I could tell was that it was definitely colourful. I just stood there, feeling rather useless amongst the lively crowd, becoming increasingly uncomfortable standing in the hot summer sun. I found myself having to argue with myself to stay, convincing myself that I was there to learn something, to discover some sort of meaning. After all, there had to be meaning to find if all these people congregated for such an event. But I still couldn't understand how the people there could be so joyful. I kept thinking, aren't we just deluding ourselves, staying reality for only a few hours if that?

So the parade continued, and I reluctantly remained in place. Then, a float went by filled with a bunch of half naked men dancing amongst a whole truck-load of bubbles. This was hardly a new or particularly exciting sight for me, as it was a rather hot day for Montréal and most of the men at the parade had their shirts off. However, there was one man there on the float who particularly caught my eye. He was dancing more actively than the others with this massive smile on his bearded face, and he was certainly wearing the least of anyone on the float (and, at least in my opinion, he looked the best). While I may have been regarding him with a bit of lust (I am human, after all), the entire scene was just so absolutely, hilariously absurd, and there he was reveling in it all with seemingly boundless energy.

What was clear with him that wasn't as obvious regarding the rest of the crowd was that he was really, truly, undeniably, uncontrollably happy. And as I watched him, I noticed something I haven't noticed in a while. My lips were beginning to raise at the end; I was breaking out into a grin. It was this change in my facial structure that made me realize: it's been way too long since I've felt this way, like erasing my basic-state half-frown. The grin widened and suddenly, the delirious absurdity of it all finally got to me, and I broke out into a full-blown smile (perhaps even a chuckle). Considering that I felt this way, I decided that I should probably take a photo to remember the moment, so I walked up the street a ways to distance myself and snapped a couple of quick shots. The guy that had inspired me to do this noticed I was taking a photo of the float, it seemed, as he pointed directly at me and started waving, never faltering in his enthusiasm.

I decided to leave the parade after this. I had actually gotten something from the experience, both subtle and wonderful: a smile on my face. I wanted to leave the scene just like that, with that expression, feeling the way that I did. It appears that I found the meaning that the others had derived from the experience, and it did feel different than with most parades. This one seems to have inspired in me that all-too-rare feeling: happiness, and it took a surprisingly long time before that smile dissipated. The parade itself was an expression of social connectedness, of joy in adversity; it was a celebration of our diverse qualities, even allowing us to embrace our own absurdities. Best of all, it put a smile on most of our faces.

With the entire city skyline, blazing in the summer sun, set before me, I walked up along the Pont Jacques Cartier to head to the park. I saw the entire parade route stretched below me, and I stopped for a moment to look down at all of the people gathered along the streets, the floats, and the colourful flags waving triumphantly as far as the eye could see. Even from this high up I could feel the joy emanating from the from the crowds below, and I once again felt that feeling I first experienced at Divers-Cite (years ago): warmth, tenderness, and a feeling of connectedness in a shared existence.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Seeing the Light

I seem to spend an awful lot of time cogitating on the topic of homosexuality and writing long, almost Aristotelian posts on the subject of LGBT issues (and particularly my own). Suddenly, I find myself seized in the middle of the night with inspiration to share a personal, perhaps even somewhat embarrassing, anecdote, which has thrown a few of my previous posts into a new perspective. I couldn't get to sleep, tossing and turning under the covers, until I eventually ripped them off and headed out into the night to my office building so I could concentrate on writing this post. I don't really know how I feel about the experience I'm about to relate; if anything right now I feel simply nothing (i.e, empty).

Essentially, I ended up this evening at the Fierté (Pride) festival. This was certainly not my intention early in the day; in fact, I was planning to avoid the Gay Village altogether. However, I ended up walking out to Parc Jean Drapeau, which is on an island (and to get to it one has to either take the metro or walk across a bridge which starts essentially on the furthest edge of the Gay Village). I like to go to the park to sit along the St-Laurent, with what I think is the best view in town, and read listening to the clattering current. However, on my way back into town it was already evening, and after a day in the park (and the long walk there) I was seriously dehydrated. So I had to stop to get something to drink, and the closest places to do that was the Village. So I got a drink, and as I was headed home, I ended up going past the place where the pride festival stage was located. While I've clearly been to Divers/Cite in the past, I had never actually given any heed to this event, so I decided to go in and see what it was about.

After entering the site, I eventually found a place on the grass and plopped down. Unlike my confused and befuddled feelings I described (in the post "A Coming of Age..") from Divers-Cite, which left me both joyful and depressed, this time I really didn't feel much of anything about the experience. I could feel no strong connection with the crowds around me, no shock at seeing loving couples; it all seemed relatively normal. Suddenly and rather randomly I noticed a man sitting near me on the grass, perhaps my age or somewhat older, with a well-built and perfectly proportioned upper-body (outlined by a modest and unrevealing t-shirt), a handsome face, and a distinguishing baseball cap. I jolted back at first glance, thinking that he was someone that I know, as something did seem very familiar about him. It was, however, already night at that point. Initially I didn't think too much about him, but I noticed that he was sitting there alone, just like I was, and looking around, rather, looking for something, just like I have done in the past. He peaked my interest: we were both there alone, not sure of what to do with ourselves, and neither one of us seemed particularly thrilled by the entertainment. Could this be it, my big chance to make a new social connection, on what I guessed from observation to be similar attitudes?

No, I remained mute and fixed on the lame happenings on stage, and the guy eventually got up and walked off somewhere else. I didn't think much more about it, until I saw him standing very near to me later when I had moved (people eventually were standing in my view of the stage at my previous location, and I am always so restless at these kinds of things anyway). It was the second recognition where I found myself fixating on him to a certain extent. He was so amazingly handsome. He, like me, didn't look too enthused about the show, but something was keeping him there, drawing him to the crowd. This feeling, a yearning for connectedness, I could understand. However, I couldn't understand why someone so seemingly attractive could seem so alone, looking around left and right in what seemed like hope for some kind of social stimulation. Fascinating, why wasn't anyone else approaching him or talking to him?

Cue me: what should I do, if anything? Would it be possible for me to actually start a conversation with this guy, when I really have no social excuse to do so? But then again, aren't these experiences about meeting new people and building relationships? But could I really strike up a conversation based on commonalities with regard to our social situation, when I might be projecting a little of myself onto him? I had been speaking with a friend (or reading) in French all day, so my French should have been adequate, but what if even my rehearsed French failed, as my mother tongue (English) often does in these kinds of nerve-wrecking situations? Would I seem like an utter idiot? And clearly he's out of my league (physically-speaking), so wouldn't he just brush me off under the assumption that I was approaching him with romantic overtures (even though, of course, I wouldn't mean to come off that way). But isn't the expression of caring (though social means) and building caring relationships toward others at the very centre of my personal life philosophy, and wouldn't my life philosophy want me to talk to him? There are people behind me; what would other people think if they noticed that I walked up to him and started talking? Would they start judging me, as he undoubtedly would? Was this just some sort of phase or bizarre new type of crush that I'm experiencing, and if it is a crush based on physical characteristics, am I not just being as surface as I beg myself and others not to be?

As all of these thoughts were pouring through my head, I found myself gaping at the poor guy, who I think must have noticed my presence there as I popped back and forth all around that general area, trying to find a good position to stand in or sit in as people constantly moved in front of my view. My head kept screaming at me: go up there and talk to him; the worst that could happen is that he wouldn't be interested in talking (and that would be that, I probably would never see him again). And there was potential that I could make both of our evenings a little brighter if we did talk instead of standing there, awkwardly alone, watching a series of drag queens lip-sing.

One of the times that I moved, he glanced over toward where I had been standing, then he looked around and saw me in my new location, then threw away his beer cup and walked away. The guy had to have thought I was some sort of creepy stalker at that point, so I justified to myself I could not have struck up a conversation with him because I must have visibly seemed awkward in his presence. Yet that's hardly any comfort considering that if I had just walked up to him upon seeing him the second time and started a conversation, it wouldn't have seemed so bizarre. I discussed in my "Overcoming Asexualization" post that heterosexism and internalized homophobia limited interactions between me and a man that I came upon in a real-world setting. Although I hold to the premise, perhaps I was overthinking that particular example (it's happened before). Clearly in this setting the heterosexism and homophobia were negligible, yet the same end result. I was there, alone, standing next to another likely homosexual man, also alone for the entire evening, and the only natural thing would have been to talk to him. But me being an introvert (my last article), it was just too much. My mind was constantly contradicting itself, and I stood there, frozen to the ground, in utter terror at the very prospect of moving forward. Yet clearly, when it comes to two individuals in a public setting, one person has to make a concerted effort to get to know another. It was, quite frankly, my duty to do this if I really wanted to, and I did want to, but I just couldn't. Instead, I just made myself look and feel foolish. And that was sad, at least for me.

While my introversion is the primary factor behind my difficulty connecting to others, even extroverts can find themselves at a loss for courage in charged situations like these. I once asked one of my acquaintances, who is gay and also an extrovert, how he mustered the strength to talk to people in an anonymous public setting. He grabbed the beer he had at his hand and said "liquid courage." I was disappointed in his answer, because I suspected an extrovert to have a better solution to that age-old problem of breaking the ice. When I talk to new people I like to have my full faculties available to me, even if that means my inhibitions come with them. Another extrovert once told me that he makes most of his friends online. I began to ask myself; why have people in the city become so anxious about meeting and talk to each other in random public situations? In my small hometown, people who didn't know each other did that kind of thing all the time.

Upon reflection, my experience is not altogether uncommon among either heterosexuals or LGBT persons who find themselves in my position; in fact, in today's modern cityscape it is probably rather archetypal. Most of us probably don't write about it, and it seems best to try not to think too much about these uncomfortable, missed opportunities. I did learn one important thing from this experience, however, that may make me more social in the future. It seems like it might be necessary, for people like me, to become a 'temporary extrovert.' When confronted with these situations, which are themselves all too rare and fleeting, they cannot be overthought like I tend to do for everything. The whole process of meeting new people, and dare I also say, courtship, may never truly make sense to the brain. There is one exercise that I think might be useful (which I describe here in the second person): take a moment of zen, clear the brain, and with all your mental energy tell yourself to put one step in front of the other, then take the next step, and then the next one, until you find yourself standing right next to that guy. Then, there is no turning back, and you have to face your fate, be it good or bad. At least then you will know the outcome and not be left with questions and doubts swirling in your head about what might have been possible, if you had just taken that leap of faith in yourself.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Introverts, Extroverts, and being Gay

In my first article on "Overcoming Asexualization," I suggested that we go through an automatic cascade of judgments when we see (or sense) other people, from identifying their identity, establishing their gender, judging physical traits, and assessing various aspects of their personalities. Each stage of judgment closely influences the following ones. I've discussed several of these preconceptions in terms of my own personal experiences with my homosexuality and the LGBT world. However, I've neglected to address the fourth stage of judgment, which I've more or less promoted as the best indicator for truly assessing someone's potential as a mate. I'm talking about the aspects of ourselves that pierce deeper than the skin: personality. Such a multifaceted topic is hard to take on; where to begin?

When I was in high school, we took a personality test in our health class. I had never really done anything like this before, so I wasn't sure what we were even assessing. The questions were generally lame, and I was beginning to wonder if it was some kind of a joke. Would I climb a tree if people around me were urging me to do it? No, certainly not! Then we went through all of our answers and tallied up our scores. We weren't told what they meant until after we had our number. It turned out to be a test of extroverts vs. introverts. The teacher described that most people had a personality that was some combination of extraversion (a highly social personality) and introversion (a quiet, inward-seeking personality). People started reading off their numbers, and I was shocked by how many extroverts there were in the room. Most people were either strongly extroverted or middle-of-the road. I remember thinking, "all you people would climb up that damn tree?" I was the only person who was a true, 100% full-blooded introvert according to the test (no one else was even close to that). I changed my answers to keep the teacher from holding me up as the shining example of introversion to the class. So, in the end, yes, I mounted that tree.

That day did provide, however, a revelation for me. I realized that there was a name for the quiet, socially restrained aspect of my personality. I've always been able to entertain myself with my own thoughts and research, but I also have a sincerely social side and love to talk to new people at public gatherings. That is, once I've managed to break the ice with someone (or rather, someone's done it for me--before that moment happens I often feel nervous and like a social failure). While I might claim to be an introvert, I've never been a fan of absolutism; the suggestion that anyone is entirely one thing or the other is absurd. But I did start noticing that there do seem to be people who are "more extroverted" and "more introverted," and they do have differentiable personality characteristics.

As an introvert, it is often difficult to meet people and make good friends, so it seems like the unending pursuit of friendship has defined the story of my social life. In my (sometimes desperate) quest for amity, I often found myself gravitating toward the "more extroverted" types. They were easy. I could start a conversation with them, and suddenly I would feel like I was at the centre of their world. However, just as soon as someone else they knew would walk into the room (or I would leave), our seemingly unbreakable connection would vanish just as quickly. I personally prefer to conjure deeper, more intimate friendships. Furthermore, often finding myself lost in a group setting, I do much better to focus on the individuals I enjoy spending time with in a one-on-one fashion, which always seems better when engaging them on a more intellectual and personal level.

These modes of interaction appear to be inadequate for the 'more extroverted' people I have courted for friendship, and it seems like a lot of my invitations to extroverts have been simply snubbed or brushed off. Me being a bit quirky and not 100% "normal" is also probably a turn-off for some of the extroverted types as well, as I've noticed they often like to project a particular image of themselves to attract others. Despite all friendly overtures toward these persons-of-interest, I was never invited to their parties or over to their houses. And while extroverts often do have close personal friends, I find that there are often too many people in competition for the same extrovert's affections for me to be a valid candidate for close friendship. Among the competitors are probably more people like me, individuals seeking that easy, fresh, intimate connection with someone. At some point in the course of all this pursing of extroverts, I stepped back and realized that I was doing just what I didn't want other people to do: ignoring the introverts!

So I decided to try a bit harder with the introverts around me, so far with mixed success. Considering that I am reserved, but I'm not timid, shy, or otherwise mute in the presence of others, I figured that I had an advantage if I could just be social enough. However, I discovered that, while the introvert might provide the best chances for a deeper, more meaningful friendship, it's also substantially harder to break through to them (harder than I know I am personally to get through to). It's especially difficult if they're already satisfied with the friendships and relationships they have in their life, and if correspondingly they're not looking for an expansion of their personal social network. Even though I've lived in Montreal for several years now, it's still a struggle breaking into this pre-existing social fabric. In the end, reaching that point of finding good friends seemed to be a nearly insurmountable task in my attempts with introverts and extroverts, and my overtures have been outright rejected by some. It seems like my most rewarding friendship was with one (heterosexual man) who is an in-between type; social, but not too much so, and not lacking room in his life for new, close friendships. It's time with him that constitutes my primary social life in Montreal, as he invites me over to his house and to social gatherings. In the end, in a very introverted fashion, I have only a couple of good friends in the city where I live.

At some point, I began to question how my personality affects the way I carry out my sexual orientation. Perfectly beautiful, introverted heterosexuals have to face the same realizations sooner or later. It's clear that the "more introverted," such as myself, are at a general disadvantage when it comes to building a social life.

Furthermore, I argued in my article entitled "A Small Town Network of City Gays," that the gay community is highly geared to providing LGBT persons with a manageably-sized forum of people, through which they can make contacts, find new friends, and develop love interests. This community seems thus to be naturally geared toward extraversion. Those who are extroverted and enter the gay community are much more likely to find a social network, ready-made and willing to revolve around them, which is just what many of them are looking for there. Introverts, however, are quite another story. In operating best outside of the group-setting, they may find it difficult to really find an 'in' in the gay community. Furthermore, once there, many may find it, as I have, more difficult not to be trampled in the never-ending stampede toward the extroverts. This makes logical sense, as the extroverts are inarguably the most potentially profitable social contacts one could have when building a rapport with others in the gay community and eventually finding someone to love. Introverts, who often take time to 'warm up' to new social situations, have fewer contacts, and may find it virtually impossible to break the ice by themselves, may be more readily dismissed in such an environment. As a result, in order to generate more interest from others, introverts in the gay community may have to rely unduly on their physical attractiveness (third level of judgment) to entice people to get to know them better.

If an extrovert takes a distinct interest in an introvert and builds a relationship with that person, it can be a very fruitful experience for both individuals; they may even find that their contrasting qualities complement each other well. However, being more socially focused on a few individuals, introverts may be more readily crushed when one of these relationships (either friendship or romance) fails, and may thus find themselves back at square one in the gay community. I worry that this greater escalation of commitment on the part of introverts (those who are seeking something more) may make these individuals more vulnerable to some of the ugliness that can exist in human interactions and relationships.

In the heterosexual community (i.e., the world), people are coming from all directions on any given day; all of them are assumed, by heterosexist norms, to be heterosexual unless otherwise indicated. In this expansive and diverse world, there is more opportunity for heterosexual introverts to meet new people who share their romantic desires. Unlike LGBT persons, heterosexual introverts also do not fall into and out of their sexual-social fabric with the gain or loss of one contact. But the gay community, which is highly limited in space, time, and members, and is geared strongly, competitively toward networking, seems, at least to me, to leave the introvert on the sidelines more often than not. This observation is certainly not true for all people, but it does provide food for thought.

My concluding question: is there any hope for the heavily introverted individual in the gay community? I'm sure there are some wonderful success stories, which I'd be delighted to hear, as I'm definitely not one of them. I think there is some hope, however, if the extrovert-seekers (like I formerly was) would stand back and look at the types of personalities (introvert vs. extrovert and other dimensions of personality; there are many, many others) that they have been favouring. In doing so, I would hope that they question what they are looking for, and what it might be like to seek human relationships with people having similar interests but different personality types. I think if we engage in this thought experiment, and put our curiosity to practice, we might enjoy what we discover. If I may be so bold to say so, on the behalf of gay introverts seeking to grow their social networks, we are ready and willing!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Do I want to be Gay?

Do I really want to be gay? If I did have a say in the matter, would I really choose to be gay? I'm often plagued with this question, and I've never come across a good answer for it. It is easy for those of us who find real meaning in our sexual identities, usually in the form of a relationship and an expanded network of gay friends, to say, bursting with pride, that we do really want to be gay. Yet at the same time, these individuals often vehemently defend the idea that homosexuality is NOT a choice, i.e., not something that we could choose for ourselves. What does that say about how we feel about our identity, that we would never choose to be gay, that it sneaked up on us, an undeniable 'natural instinct,' from outside of our own free will? Why do we victimize ourselves by using biology to defend the circumstances of our 'situation'? Within this context, it is clear that even for people who purportedly possess gay pride, the deeper question remains: do we really want to be gay?

I must admit that the answer is probably more often than not an uneasy 'no' for me. It's not that I don't like certain aspects of being gay (explained below), but it does make life a lot more complicated. Furthermore, I've never really fit into the gay community, and I often find myself in disagreement with the popular movements in queer culture. Understandably, those gays who have meaningful relationships evolving from their homosexuality are more likely to think positively about their sexual identity. But it equally stands to reason that for someone like me, who has gained very little from the experience (except personal hardships), the whole prospect of enjoying being gay remains a bit dubious.

It's also hard not to imagine what our lives would be like if we were on the other side. In my case, I've often experienced close relationships with various women (although obviously never a romantic one). Some of these women showed a certain level of interest, and had I returned the sentiment, the friendship may have readily evolved into something more (by contrast, never has a man shown any real interest in me). In fact, even though I grew up as 'one of the boys,' I also always had close female friendships as a child, and as I aged I often felt like I could emotionally relate to women better than men. At many times, it seemed like women provided more fulfilling friendships. On the same note, I think it is very possible, both in terms of opportunity and personality, that a relationship with a woman would actually be more satisfying for me than one with a man. Sometimes I feel a special connection or commonality with a female friend, and in these situations I often think that, had I been heterosexual, I would have really liked to date her. It's around that point I often felt so frustrated: Why did I have to be this way? Why did I have to be gay?

The strange thing is, and this is a wonderful thing, heterosexuals sometimes ask themselves the same question. I was sitting inside a patisserie/café once, drinking my hot chocolate and reading a book, when I heard a most intriguing conversation being carried out by a large group of people gathered around a nearby table. One of the men in the group, who was heterosexual but single, told his companions (both men and women) that he sometimes wonders what it would be like if he were gay, and if he might get more action if he were gay. He started asking himself this question after a gay man hit on him at a party. No one in the group seemed to have an answer, but they talked about it in a very open-minded fashion for a while. What amazed me most of all was the question itself, that in this country and in today's environment, heterosexuals feel open to question their own sexual identity and wonder what it's like on the other side.

So, do I really want to be gay? In my case the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no, and it often depends on the day. Some days I feel good about it, about how quirky, freaky, and wonderfully unique it all is. On bad days, and during times of the year I feel more depressed (like winter), I often think 'quelle galère!', what an awful drag the whole thing is! Depending on my mood, being gay can be a personal excuse to celebrate my eccentric diversity or bemoan my misfortunes and loneliness. And then there are plenty of occasions that the answer to my fundamental question seems to be both yes and no simultaneously.

The only time I was ever really sure of myself on this issue was when I first came out to myself, the moment when I first realized (in college) that I had a diverse sexual orientation. His name was Brent: I sat next to him in one of my classes and interacted with him occasionally, and suddenly I found myself having something of crush on him. I had been sexually attracted to men before that moment, but this was the first time in my life that both my physical and emotional attractions were moving at the same wavelength. I couldn't avoid it; I had to face what was in front of me: I liked a guy. It was such a wonderful feeling, like a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. All the uncertainty about this issue from ages past now seemed to vanish into thin air. I called it "the revelation," as I suddenly understood what I was, and it was such an exhilarating relief. Honestly, I did have some passing feelings toward women (during my late teenage years) after meeting Brent, and the prospect that I might, after all, be heterosexual honestly disappointed me. There was something inherently comforting about 'the revelation'; I liked the new, quirky me, the me where suddenly my world made sense and I could let hopes and dreams for the future form around my new identity. I could now see myself loving and being loved by a man. Thus, in the spirit of this experience, I was really, truly happy to know and feel that I was gay. I would still be very much disappointed if I were to wake up tomorrow to find myself heterosexual, especially after the personal hardships I overcame to get to this point. For most of us, it may not be our choice to be homosexual, but it is our choice to make the best of it.

One thing that I do think can give us a real sense of pride about being gay is that our sexual identity, and the formation of it, forces us to think about these things. In experiencing sexual diversity and the difficulties that come with it, we simply have no choice but to become deep, introspective beings. The LGBT individual must always question himself or herself in the face of adversity, and in doing so he or she can never abandon that epic quest prescribed by Socrates (in works by Plato) to 'know thyself.' We probably won't succeed on this mission (few people do), but at the end of the day, as Socrates also suggests in Plato's Apologia, it is "the unexamined life [that] is not worth living." And if anything, our diversity, by constantly informing us of our lives, gives us that existence which is truly worthwhile.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Small Town Network of City Gays

When forced to self-acculturate into an unfamiliar environment (ex., the gay community), I've noticed that various epiphanies inevitably come to light. For example, I often used to think that gay bars and other establishments were places designed for people (formerly strangers) to meet each other for dating purposes. I imagined a gay bar setting very similar to 'straight bars' and those stereotyped scenes of heterosexuals courting, propagated on virtually every sitcom: a woman walks into a bar, a man starts talking to her, perhaps orders her a drink. If the stars are aligned, sparks fly, phone numbers get exchanged, dating begins, and romance follows. It wasn't hard for me to imagine a similar thing happening in a gay bar or other outlet of the gay community. After all, the whole reason for going to these establishments is to meet people who have a similar sexual identity. The prospect of sharing this peculiarity with someone is charged enough as it is, and to be inserted into a social network designed specifically to facilitate such interactions is even more intense.

Perhaps these encounters do happen in gay institutions, in addition to liaisons of a more plainly sexual nature. But upon closer observation, what surprised me most about these places is the large number of couples that frequent them. In fact, I would even go so far to say that in many cases these establishments are mostly occupied with people already in a loving relationship.

When I first realized this, I thought it was a little odd. I always assumed that people went to gay bars and other institutions to meet potential mates. Once that was accomplished, I assumed that the happy couple would retreat into their own little world (like heterosexuals retreat into their various worlds, the world of restaurants, etc.). I further assumed that henceforth they were only interested in maintaining an activist role in the gay community (volunteer work, political activism, AIDS relief, financial support for gay-friendly places and activities, etc.). Some do retreat, but this is certainly not the case with a good number of gays; they continue to go to gay institutions and events with their partners.

In the discussion presented in my third article, upon going to the Divers/Cite festival I realized the utility of having a safe place to go as a couple. Gay institutions provide public environments that LGBT persons can enter and be completely comfortable in their own skin. But gays are relatively bold in this fairly open-minded city, and in the interactions between couples I noticed no more or less restraint at Divers/Cite compared to gays I see showing public affection in the city everyday. Compounded by this fact, there are more establishments catering to gay clientele in this city than in most (if not all) cities of its size. And so in this context, the whole concept of gay establishments frequented mostly by gay couples, people in a romantic relationship that had not retreated into their own worlds, was still somewhat perplexing.

The answer to my question was, however, sitting right in front of me. The gay community is just that, a community. Furthermore, the term "village" to describe the gay world in any given city appears to be a particularly apt one, as the gay community is, in reality, a small town anywhere one goes. We are a tiny minority, and for a gay person with one sexual preference (i.e., not bisexual), even in the most ideal circumstances only about 4% of the general population (for men) is likely to share the same orientation. Even in an open city like Montreal (or country like Canada), a good number of those are not 'out' or otherwise connected to the gay community. Furthermore, that percentage is further reduced by station in life (age-related concerns) and individual/social preferences, such that we are working with a very small population that might even potentially reciprocate our romantic desires. The size of this community may be only a few hundred or a few thousand in any given megalopolis. As a consequence, the whole city is not at our feet; we are, in fact, confronted with a small town of people, where reputation and continuous, friendly interactions are vital.

I certainly understand small town living, having spent most of my life in various small towns. Unlike in the broader city, where it's easy to ignore people or blow them off altogether without any backlash, in small towns one has to maintain something of a friendly, put-together demeanor at all times. If not, people will take note and start talking; reputations will begin to be corrupted, and social opportunities may be further limited. In a small town, we can never rule out the prospect of running into someone, even those we might not want to associate with, over and over again. And we have to care somewhat about what they think about us, because we may need them or people they know at some point. The same rules apply in close-knit city neighborhoods as well, but to a much lesser extent, as it is easier to emerge from and disappear into the cityscape.

The gay community has many of these rural characteristics; its city limits are often defined explicitly by the pride flags that fly outside LGBT establishments. The community provides more ample opportunities for forming friendships; like in small towns, you are more readily forced to get acquainted with the people around you. And as with any small town, social networks substantially overlap. For example, I was often surprised, and perhaps a little scared, how gay people I met rather randomly would talk about people I knew myself from my volunteer work (it being an anonymous organization, I never brought up these people's names nor acknowledged knowing them). I think it's also rather funny how LGBT persons, once inserted into the gay community (such as in a bar or at an event such as Divers/Cite), will also continuously scan the people nearby, looking to encounter someone they know, and they often find them. Looking around the interior of a restaurant or any other place for people you recognize is another classic small town behaviour. In a small town,it's not uncommon to see people staring into each other's car or reading license plates.

There are several advantages to this everyone-knows-everyone attitude, including those that would be appealing for a gay couple. In the addition to the added comfort of being around like-minded people, they are also likely to find themselves surrounded by friends and ample opportunities to grow their social network without the awkwardness of being alone. The couple can enter a gay establishment, one that they are familiar with, and it is likely that one of the members of the couple will see someone they know. If they spend time with that person, they may be introduced to other gay individuals in their social network. Then from those people, each of which is likely to know other gays, there is even more opportunity to expand the social network and to find new niches or new, closer friends to do things with. Eventually the likeable extrovert will have built up an extensive social network, a web of friendships, acquainceships, and allegiances, within the gay community, and these social connections require work to be maintained. Thus, it only makes sense to remain involved in the gay community, even while engaged in a monogamous romantic relationship. In addition, like it or hate it, when a relationship fails these networks often provide vital emotional support as well as a ready-made pool of potential future mates. After all, it is in the familiarity and comfort of operating within one's own social network (friends and friends of friends) that provides the most likely setting for finding romance, much more readily realizable than meeting and falling in love with a stranger in a bar.

I often use the words 'bar' and 'establishment' to define the locus of such interactions, but gay groups and similar activities without any defined setting can be used the same way. In addition, the modern gay individual with a repertoire in 'the community' can use social networking sites, like facebook, to essentially stalk their friend's pages for mutual acquaintances or new interests. Through these types of interactions, they can become familiar with other gay men and build on their own social web. I don't know how many times I saw this going on at my volunteer job in the gay community: when nothing was going on, while I was perusing Le Monde I would often glance over to see the other (male) volunteers (of all ages) frantically scanning their friends' facebook pages, usually dominated by a photo of yet another well-proportioned, naked torso.

Like I mentioned previously, there are both advantages and disadvantages to living in a small town. In a community of few, we have to continuously fall back on the same people to meet our many needs, which can be limiting. In addition, gossip and blows to the reputation can be much more damaging than in the broader 'real world.' In the city, heterosexuals can choose to enter virtually any forum and leave it behind with few lasting consequences, potentially with a mate on their arm (as the opportunities to meet people and potential mates are as seemingly boundless as the world itself). For LGBT persons, engaging with 'the community' is a more necessarily serious affair, as it is strongly limited both by geography and by its members, neither of which are boundless.

The Gender Question

In my discussion of "overcoming asexualization," I suggested an order in which we asses and value a person in our physical presence, often without knowing who they are. It often starts by recognizing the humanity of other people, followed by their gender; then we notice physical characteristics, then other characteristics (such as personality, manner of speech, etc.). Such assessments, or judgments, are nearly instantaneous and often autonomic; we rely on them to maintain a sense of security in our surroundings. Furthermore, it is clear that each level of judgment strongly informs the stages that follow.

In my previous discussion I addressed the first and third judgments (humanity and physical appearance), advocating recognition of the former over relying too heavily on the latter. However, I breezed over the question of our secondary judgments--gender, which is equally convoluted. One might wonder why I didn't use 'sex' in place of gender. I feel gender is the more appropriate term, as it is through the lens of gender, a social construction, that we can come to understand and identify another's sex. It begs the question: what is more important to us, our sex (which may or may not be physically obvious) or our gender, within the framework of satisfying a sexual orientation?

It seems like the LGBT community is one of the better places to test these questions, as it is in this world that gender expression is more tolerantly varied. Unfortunately, I don't have any of the answers nor any particularly profound observations in this context. From my own experience, I can resolutely say that I am not attracted to cross dressers of the male-to-female variety. These individuals may be male, but because they essentially de-emphasize or hide their secondary sex characteristics and take on the material props of the female gender, my instincts seem to be simply turned off. While my attraction toward men is a distinctly sexual attraction, i.e., to the male body (to the male sex) in its mature form, the range of what I am attracted to is clearly limited by my perception of the male body, i.e., within the context of gender. Men having what my culture would identify as 'female' characteristics I might easily find myself less physically attracted to. As a result, I probably could not rule out the possibility that I would be attracted to a female-to-male cross dresser, provided that I not know that she is a cross dresser and that she has all the features characteristic of a male gender (including the appearance of a male body and face). It is not simply a question of gender, however, because if someone possesses all the props of the male gender, but visible beneath are the physical traits of the opposite sex, my sexual instincts would again seem to be turned off.

It appears in my case, then, that gender is as much if not more important than sex in terms of my gut physical reactions to other people. Within any given sex, there is a broad distribution of possible body types and physical characteristics, and the male and female standard distributions in most physical traits overlap. Whenever the characteristics of one's own sex are emphasized by a person (for men, this might entail deciding to grow a beard), this choice seems to be at its heart an expression of gender (it makes the recognition of sex in our culture very easy). In this example, it is through gender, then, where we can identify what it more 'masculine', and thus, in my case, more appealing or attractive.

But gender itself is a highly complicated construct, and using it as our primary lens with respect to our sexual orientation can be limiting. Because gender is a culturally-defined concept and varies widely around the world, being attracted to a particular gender greatly limits the pool of potential mates. For example, certain tribal cultures in sub-Saharan Africa emphasize a type of body decoration and dress that Western culture may perceive as particularly feminine. As a gay man with an attraction to what my culture defines as masculine, I would not be 'sexually oriented' toward these men. In my case, the whole concept of a strict 'sexual' orientation is thrown into doubt, and perhaps "gender preference" would even be the better term to use. I am deeply, fundamentally attracted to the male sex, probably on some biological level, but only when it is perceptibly 'masculine.'

However, the concept of sexual orientation is also quite multidimensional, sometimes dynamic, and varies from person to person. For example, while I may be more oriented toward both the male sex and the male gender, there are other men who are attracted more to the gender but not the sex (ex., a woman with masculine characteristics), or the sex and not the gender (ex., male sex and female gender/characteristics), or some combination and/or range of these preferences. In this complex framework, the lines between heterosexuality and homosexuality are even confusing at times.

While this discussion is hardly a comprehensive perspective of the gender issue, one conclusion that can probably be made from these observations, however, is that we have to give a point to the social constructivists. Gender, which is socially constructed, appears to play an important, and for some even a predominant, role in the development of a 'sexual' orientation, and it can also blur the lines between straight and gay. There are undoubtedly other biological factors at work, which are fed back into our social development and help define who we are and what we are attracted to. And because these various factors and preferences are so intermingled, fortunately we will never truly, completely understand why LGBT persons are the way they are. All that's really important is that we sit back, relax, and enjoy being such wonderful, interesting, and diverse beings.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Le Couple Masculin--Why Such a Powerful Image?

While I have been out for a few years now and evolved to become reasonably comfortable with my sexual identity, I still have not engaged another person in a romantic relationship. Even going on dates and kissing are foreign concepts to me, with the thought of even doing these things mostly relegated to my secret fantasies. I sometimes escape to this relaxing part of my imagination, especially during stressful times. In real life, there must be something comforting about being part of a couple, having that someone to fixate and dote on (and return the favour), a shoulder to lean on during rough or simply lonely times. Having never experienced it, it all sounds very wonderful, fantastic, and remote, remaining a figment of my imagination in the largely heterosexual world that swirls around me.

It is thus rather startling, perhaps even somewhat frustrating, when one of these exotic phenomena--a gay couple--emerges before my eyes when I'm walking down the street. I suddenly find it hard to concentrate; if I'm speaking to someone I often have to recollect my thoughts in mid-sentence. My eyes scan back and forth to make sure what I'm seeing is actually real, that two people of the same sex are expressing their love publicly. While I would expect heterosexuals to react this way to a gay couple, by staring or otherwise making note of the anomaly in front of them, you would think that I would be less impacted by such a sight (being a member of the LGBT community myself). Yet, in reality, it seems that I'm even more moved as a gay man than I would ever be if I were straight. Suddenly it comes home--these things that I thought were kept safely in my imagination are quite real, or rather, quite realizable, at least for some people.

Living in Montreal, a relatively diverse and open-minded city that is highly advanced in terms of queer rights and possesses a sizeable LGBT community, I see these relationships flash before my eyes relatively frequently in an everyday setting. And yet, each one of them is hard to forget: a man gently thumb-petting his partner's back while sitting on a bench in Parc LaFontaine, two men giving each other a peck on the lips outside of the Centre Eaton, two women holding their hands on their way to see the fireworks festival. I could go on and on, despite the fact that these images, relative to many of the grand things I've seen in my life, are rather mundane and hardly worth the brainspace that they occupy.

One could postulate on the reasons why these couples should be so striking for someone like me, and there are probably several. It could be that I, as someone who resides more prominently in the heterosexual world, have a heterosexist view toward coupledom and am therefore shocked to see anything contrary to my expectations. I could be reacting thence to the boldness of their gesture in a heterosexist environment. At the same time, part of me may be reacting because deep down inside I would like to have a similar type of relationship, and thus my curiosity peaks when I'm in the presence of a gay couple. I will never forget my delight at meeting my first gay married couple, as if it suddenly dawned on me that my almost mythical imaginings could come true, that gay couples could have everything heterosexual ones have, and more! Yet none of these explanations really cut it as far as explaining my gut reaction when I see an LG couple walking down the street.

Suddenly, one day it dawned on me: I was reacting differently to gay couples compared to lesbian couples, and it wasn't just because I more personally relate to male lovers. With a female couple walking down the street, I mellow almost immediately. There's something pleasant, even comforting, about seeing two women in embrace--as any Vigée-LeBrun painting can attest. It's also not altogether uncommon to see heterosexual women (close friends, relatives, etc.) holding hands or displaying a mutual physical affection. While women are treated unequally and also faced with more disadvantages in our society compared to men, it also seems that women are given a greater degree of freedom with regard to emotional expression. Men, on the other hand, are often encouraged to value independence, self-sufficiency, competitiveness (thus the existence of a male-dominated sports culture), and emotional stoicism (thus why crying has been a stigma for men for so long). These characteristics aren't necessarily helpful when confronted with a romantic relationship, where co-dependence and emotional connections are emphasized, and women are often expected to break through and mellow these male values, to "complement" the male with their more soft, emotional, 'feminine' side. In other words, women are believed to provide the necessary contrast to male values (and vice versa) needed for the heterosexual couple to become a well-balanced and functioning unit. While this point of view is hardly universal nor is it a trustworthy model for social harmony, it is often held up by societal expectations.

Thus, perhaps the most striking thing about the male couple is the breakdown of these conventions. Two men that show affection and intimacy in public appear to be violating their prescribed gender roles as independent bastions of self-sufficiency competing with each other for honour and resources. Because they are willing to be intimate (and hence non-competitive, even co-dependent) with each other, gay men are often thought, and inaccurately so, to be more feminine. However, most gay men have been acculturated in the heterosexual world, and as such are in reality as 'masculine' as the rest of society. A man's gender roles may, in some cases, lead to additional stress on romantic relationships with other men. In other words, it is perhaps more difficult to maintain a close, intimate bond while remaining competitive, independent, stoic "islands." This is especially true once the thrill and mutual entanglement of the initial romantic fire begins to dwindle (usually within a few years), and the couple is forced to make a real commitment to forming a working relationship as separate egos being to reform.

As an example, an acquaintance of mine who was (and remains) in a committed relationship once told me that he felt like an anomaly in the gay community. He said that, in his friendships with many gay men, he's noticed that when they are single they tend to desire to be in a relationship; paradoxically, when they're in a relationship, they whine in yearning for their single days. A part of this desire to be single again seems related to a longing to reclaim a certain level of their former freewheeling, 'masculine' independence. When both people in the relationship are acculturated to feel this way, it may take extra effort to maintain it. This adds yet more complexity on top of the already multifaceted, highly complicated, and sometimes stigmatizing nature of LGBT existence.

While inescapable gender roles may seem to be working against le couple masculin, gay couples do have one powerful defence on their side: the ability to understand each other's gender-related roles and motivations. In male-male relationships, there is no Venus-Mars contrast that is often cited for heterosexual couples, and men have the potential to understand each other's desires, concerns, and sexual functionings in a deep and comprehensive way. In the spirit of this bond, this close intimacy, possible between two men, it also becomes necessary to introspectively step back and be honest with ourselves. We can do this by identifying, acknowledging, respecting, and even rewarding each other's desires for independence and similar 'masculine' norms within the context of a relationship. It is through these concessions that we can begin to erode away at our own conventional philosophies and become more comfortable in our male coupling, so that the gay male relationship becomes less striking to us and more distinctly, naturally beautiful.