Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Boys Behaving Dangerously

When I was visiting my family in Charlottesville this past week I walked past a shop and saw a used book with an intriguing title: The Dangerous Book for Boys. Since I have a 10-year old nephew I’m trying to corrupt I of course had to have a look. It was a lot of the sort of thing you would have found in boy scout manuals thirty years ago, like how to kill and eat a rabbit, how to build a treehouse, how to build a simple battery, etc., but also with stories of adventure and famous battles. I bought it for him, and let him know at the same time that there’s lots of “dangerous” knowledge out there, and any time he had a question about something of that nature, he should ask me.

On Friday I flew back and immediately set out on a camping trip in the wilds outside Guerneville that was organized by the video artiste extraordinaire iii, a jaunt in the woods that made me think about how much every guy, gay or straight, craves a little adventure and dangerous behavior every now and then. We clambered on rocks and scraped our shins, dove into shallow pools, rode in the backs of pick-ups speeding along dirt trails, and ran around the woods at night under the influence of things that inspired a variety of visions. If we’d gotten bitten by a snake or broken a leg we would certainly have found ourselves in dire straits, but then it was the very process of courting risk that makes campouts, Burning Man, and underground parties so attractive in the first place.

I thought about this quite a bit during my DJ set, which featured some fairly aggro techno from folks like Andre Crom, Sweet n Candy, L.exx Aural and others played in gorgeous outdoor space looking out onto a riverside beach and soaring volcanic, earthquake-folded cliffs. One of our company started spinning a fire staff, and even purposely set the cuff of his board shorts on fire for a moment. I thought about all the rhetoric I’ve heard lately about how contemporary gay men are pale, emasculated versions of what they were in the 1970s, when we were a countercultural force to be reckoned with, and how the only way to recapture our true queer identity was through the turning back of the clock to an earlier era. I thought about this as I listened to the whoops and whistles from around the bonfire, watched guys entwined together on blankets, as the host came up to me and told me how wonderful the music was, and I thought, yeah, now that’s a complete load of horseshit.

It seems that our community, at least the part of it that claims to be “alternative,” has seized upon and is perpetuating an ideology, one that claims that things like gay marriage and gays in the military have ruined us, that worrying about things like inheritance rights for our partners have made us bourgeois and risk-adverse, and that sees the only path to redemption through a reclamation, which amounts to a fetishization, of the disco-era gay aesthetic, from its music to its porn to its fashion. And yet, what’s so radical about nostalgia? How does the constant reiteration of the past inspire anyone to anything new?

In my opinion, those twenty guys on the beach did more to advance an idea of radical gay identity, one that takes chances and engages with danger, than any retro-70s party has ever done. The fact that such things as gay marriage, or gays in the military, have become major components of gay civil rights had absolutely no effect on their desires for sex, danger, or self-realization, nor did the fact that many of them have their own partners, jobs, and complicated lives outside of that space. Rather than falling back to the stereotypes of the past, they created their own cultural moment, and their own relationship to it; that is the definition of cultural innovators, and anybody who tells you that the best time to have been a gay man, the time when we had the best culture, the best music, the best aesthetic, was over thirty years ago, is simply revealing themselves to be lacking in imagination. They are the conservative ones, the ones who are unwilling to take risks or court danger, the ones who depend on their predecessors for having made all the aesthetic choices for them. Well, I ask you, who would you rather spend your time with, those who will consistently tell you how pathetic we are in comparison with the past, or those who ask you to join them for some dangerous, truly radical fun?


Anonymous said...

how 'bout something in the middle?

Lord Kook said...

@ Anon :: the middle of what?

SeanF said...

Each generation excels at what it does well, better than any other generation. That means that if you judge other generations by the particular attributes of your own, you will always end up on top. Kind of convenient, actually!

I think the current gay generation is more frivolous than the previous. And more integrated. Not everything about your life has to be "gay" for you to be gay nowadays. Although perhaps less revolutionary and exotic, that is completely appropriate if our goal is acceptance and integration. Besides, I'm not a gay composer, I am a composer. So I'd hate my art to be reduced to whom I like to shag.

Nice article, well expressed.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

I agree with your critique of '70s nostalgia -- indeed, like any nostalgia, it's self-obsessed and directionless. But anti-assimilationist queer politics actually have nothing to do with '70s nostalgia. Instead an anti-assimilationist politic is about creating culture on our own terms (something you certainly seem to invoke) *and* challenging the hypocrisies of gay establishment politics that argue that getting the state to sanction your carnal coupling or having the right to kill people abroad and get away with it are the most important issues to be addressed. An anti-assimilationist queer politic instead argues that fighting for basic needs like housing, healthcare, food, the right to stay in this (or any) country, sexual splendor and gender self-determination are a better starting point unless we're just looking for cultural erasure.

Love --

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Well, here's the thing; anti-assimilationist rhetoric is at least being used by some as a justification for 70s nostalgia. I think it's easy enough to find examples of this, but one of the most egregious in recent memory was an article about the re-opening of Chaps II that appeared in an issue of Gloss about a month and a half ago. The message there was pretty plain; if you wanted to count yourself among the anti-assimilationist crowd, you should put on some leather and go party like it's 1978 all over again. I think we would both agree that this is patently ridiculous, but I think that this is an idea that many people have latched onto in an extremely dogmatic way, and I think it really threatens our ability to create culture on our own, contemporary terms.

As for those larger issues of gay marriage and military service, I've struggled with them. My view has always been that real freedom means being able to do whatever you feel is necessary for your own happiness and security, and even if that means doing something that I personally wouldn't do, like getting married or enlisting, then you should still be able to do it. I suspect that I'm too much of a pragmatist to situate myself squarely in the anti-assimilationist camp, since, as much as I would like to see the State wither away, I've also seen queers have to deal with the practical reality of, for example, living in areas dominated by Christian fundamentalists. As much as I would like to see the structures of society change in such a way that things like inheritance rights, or the right to make health-related decisions for someone you are in a committed relationship with, no longer matter, I've also seen how the present-day situation can have real, heartbreaking consequences for people. In the face of those things, I don't know how I can advocate anything besides working toward the institution of legal rights that enable everyone to live the life that they want to lead.