men, masculinities and gender politics

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Coming out het

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The camera flashes hurt my eyes. "I should be charging twenty bucks a picture," I thought to myself in that brief moment in which I felt at the centre of the universe. My escort for the evening encouraged me on. I posed amid tourists who had gathered on that one night when Sydney is a magnet of attention for the world. I strutted among people who said they had "just come to see what all the fuss was about", but who clearly were tingling with interest and expectation. They had come to see the greatest queer event in the world and we (from our perspective) had stolen the show.

We had planned our expedition to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for months. We had conspired together as to how we would arrive, what we would see, and especially what we would wear. John, a close gay friend of mine, would wear the blue dress; taffeta sleeves puffed to cover his hairy, bony shoulders. I would wear my dark green sequin dress; sleeveless and formless it contrasted uncomfortably with my bushy, ginger beard. I felt stunning and I belonged there.

Least resistance

I want to tell you something very personal and important for me. It has taken years for me to understand. I now believe it to be a key area for young, adult men to think about. Our teen years and early twenties is a time when we are being steered into a particular sexual identity and asked to "choose". For those readers who are older, perhaps now is a good time to consider what it was like for you to grow up a male teenager and reconsider the times and events which forced your sexual identity, rather than allowing a freedom of choice. Whether your sexual choice would have been different is not important particularly; the rigidity which remains from not being allowed to choose is what needs to be revealed.

I have been somewhat confused about my sexual identity for a long time - it's almost like it's expected these days. I thought that "heterosexual" always meant "exclusively heterosexual". I thought that love implied sex. I'd thought about men in a loving way so I thought that automatically counted me out of being heterosexual - there weren't too many sexual identities left for me to choose from. I had never felt comfortable in that machismo, heterosexual role anyway. I spoke up against sexism and was branded "gay" because of it. All things considered then, if I wasn't straight then I must be gay! As usual, there was no one around who I could ask for good information; my straight friends were as confused as me while my gay friends would have loved to see me "out and proud". At twenty five, everyone wanted me to have decided already. Excellent. Five billion people on the planet and I get lumbered with only three choices for types of relationship I can have - gay, straight or bisexual.

So I adopted a strategy of letting people wonder whether I was gay or not. It confused everybody. People would just make up their mind that I was or I wasn't and they never really bothered me about it. I seemed to have found the best of both worlds. I didn't have that undercurrent of fear which operates for many gay men, I guess because I had not fully decided to take on a gay identity. (Now that would be scary). It now felt easier for me to speak out to gay and straight men against all forms of oppression. At the same time I could get close to, and admire, my gay friends. In retrospect, there are places where I was treated really badly. At the Mardi Gras we were freaks. I'm sure I've lost at least one job interview because they thought I wasn't "man enough". My mum told me she'd disinherit me if I was gay. (It's okay mum, I know you don't want me to be hurt by other people.) In fact, I don't think people listened to me very well at all. As an activist I was less than convincing. I think that's partly oppression that all gay men suffer, and partly my ambiguity and lack of genuineness.

I think this dilemma of sexual identity is common to many in their late teens and early twenties. It is even more pronounced for those of us involved in men's politics and as male advocates of women's rights. On the one hand we love and admire gay men's joy and openness, their bravery, and their conviction to end their oppression. Gay men often symbolise men who have found a comfortable place within their maleness - something each man craves deeply from our positions of isolation - able to love and respect other men. Women, from within their conditioning, are also attracted to ambiguous sexuality in men. We can be safe confidants for them. It is one crack in the wall that is gender oppression; where it appears we can listen to each other without sex getting in the way. This, in many cases, is not the case. It is actually quite harmful to all involved. Harmful to gay men because the motive for getting close to someone should be a genuine human attraction towards them. Harmful to women because they try hard to find places that are a respite from sexism, while fulfilling a quite reasonable human need to have good and respectful contact with men. Harmful (in the long run) to me because I was liked because I was "safe". I got to hear about what bastards men are (as if I wasn't a real man). There is no one at fault here - each participant, including me, was trying to escape being hurt, while reaching out for unconditionally safe human contact.

So it may seem the path of least resistance to unconsciously adopt ambiguity as an easy way out of this dilemma. "Unconsciously adopting" is another way of saying that I could not make a clear and well-informed decision, preferably with some help to think the issues through. Unfortunately for men, it also means heading away from a deeper human commitment.

Flexi-sexual?

At the time all this was going on I wasn't feeling particularly sexual towards anyone. My life was full of friends, friendships, deep reflection and politics. Identifying as bisexual was the easiest thing. I hadn't really thought of being a flexi-sexual: able to love anybody, with the motivation not connected to biological or political sexuality. So my gay friends felt at ease that I at least had some personal identification with their oppression. Among my non-gay friends I could be a good advocate for the gay political perspective - I never felt, as many gay men do, that my life would be in danger if I spoke out.

All this changed when I met a particular woman, fell deeply in love and eventually married her (that's the short version). My Mardi Gras friend chose a colourful shirt to wear to the wedding (I had been concerned briefly that he might wear a frock). From his perspective I have been a fantastic friend and ally. We've talked, listened and argued through many difficult political differences. We care about each other and I have begun to think that I would fight for his life. He is a good supporter of my marriage and my choices.

I now don't think of myself as bisexual. Yet I can understand why gay activists get angry at men who identify as heterosexual but who have slept with men, and who then enforce homophobic laws or incite anti-gay attitudes. But I don't think it does gay people any favours to pretend you are gay, to glorify them, or parody them, or to keep the boundary sufficiently blurred so as to invite confusion. Somewhere you need to make a conscious choice about who you are, what you believe and whether you will fight for that belief. That choice is partly about who you love and sleep with, but it's about being proud about that decision.

I see gay men and lesbians trying to build communities in which it is safe for them. To do that successfully they need people to be honest. I hear them say that they need heterosexual men who will stand up proud as heterosexuals and say that they are completely supportive of gay liberation and no less a man because of it. They don't need people to wear the homosexual uniform in order to be their allies. They don't need to be told what is "right" or "wrong" for them or what they need most. They are human beings. They need the space to decide for themselves what events are for gays and lesbians only, and what events are for allies of gay liberation as well. They need to take back power. They need us to listen to them for a while. We also need to listen. It is always worth my while to listen.

Under-standing

If you stand up as a non-gay man, you are going to get stuff thrown at you. The gay and lesbian community is not one big homogenous entity which has one consistent political viewpoint. But they have suffered, in general, a common relegation from their place as complete men and women, fully included in society in all respects. They have something to be pissed off about. You being proud of them is like an open invitation to confusion. Ask them to play with your kids. On the other side of the confusion is liberation. Keep going.

On a deeply human level all of us need people who love us as individuals, not because of our politics, our "glorious" struggles, or the closeness between men that gay men have fought for and died for. We all deserve that unconditional love. Gay men and lesbians really need people who will support them in the fight for their lives. The AIDS epidemic, rights to parenting, ending street bashings and homophobia, and eliminating sexism are all issues which can be thought about and acted upon by gays and non-gays together with equal effort - even if with different emphases.

Sometimes it looks cooler to be gay. It's kind of chic for heterosexuals to be marshals at Mardi Gras, to dress up gay, to wear red ribbons as if they were a Country Road icon, and to pass as queer at gay nightspots. But the majority of us still go home at night to our safe heterosexual coupledom. At the end of the night we are not gay-identified. We are not the ones who lose our jobs through discrimination, aren't allowed to get married, can't adopt children or be called families. We don't live with the memories of the souls who perished alongside the Jews in the German camps. Are you doing it to be cool, or do you really care? Will you really be there for them when it counts, proudly heterosexual and fully male?

Not narrow

For heterosexual men to take up the motto "straight but not narrow" is a fine thing. Test the limits of what you are comfortable with - a motto is not something to hide behind. It says that we can be proud as heterosexual men and be the best, most active allies to women's and gay liberation. It also means that as heterosexuals we can have our lives exactly how we want them. We don't need to pretend about who we are or be scared about what people will think. We can have it all and we can desire that for others too. We can even have any sexuality we want. This is the type of alliance I think women, gay men and lesbians want from us.

I think it is fundamentally okay to be heterosexual - which doesn't exclude the possibility that you could sleep with a man. So that's what I'm going to say from now on - I'm proud to be a heterosexual and no one can limit me on what I wear, who I see or what I think. This is a far more honest place for me to come from, even though I know I'll take a lot of shit for it from all sides. It is a resiting of the term "straight". I'll have to tell the homophobic hecklers that, "No, I am a heterosexual supporter of the gay community, and that doesn't make me gay. And what makes you think the word 'gay' is derogatory?" I'll be a model of behaviour to show gay men that it is completely possible that straight men can understand gay oppression and that we actually will join the fight to end it.

For me those green sequin Mardi Gras days were a great time of sorting it all out. I thought it was the only way available to me to learn about people I cared about very much. Actually, it was a clumsy way to learn about myself. My friends stood by me all the time, even if they disagreed or were confused. I now know you just need to be persistent and authentically human to get to know and love gay men.

The dress sits in my cupboard awaiting the annual men's festival workshop when I get other men to dress up as a way in which they too, under loving guidance, can understand gay oppression and how heterosexual men can make the greatest friends of gay liberation.

So if your friends think you're gay because you make bold decisions about your lifestyle and you advocate for women, gays and lesbians, then you'd better correct their label. "I'm a proud ally of gays, lesbians and all women. They've taught me a lot about myself, and I can learn all of those lessons while being straight. How 'bout you, honey?"

Reprinted with permission from the magazine XY: men, sex, politics. PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA © Copyright 1995