Ungrateful Faggots

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I was asked to write an article-length response to Paul Aguirre-Livingston’s Dawn of a New Gay. This initial (and rather first draft-like) version was rejected for not focusing enough on Calgary, but there’s still some things in it that I like, and many things in it I’d still like to say that simply won’t fit in the rather different article which will run next week.

DON’T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON US
Aguirre-Livingston’s supposed Dawn of a New Gay comes off more like an empty twilight

Twenty-something self-defined “post-mo” Paul Aguirre-Livingston has found himself in the non-enviable role of persona non grata within the queer world he so clumsily attempted to summate in his recent Dawn of a New Gay cover-story for Toronto’s weekly The Grid. Profiling today’s urban homo as young men opting to cut ties to their wider queer community and dismiss the role of gay Pride – going so far as to dismiss the notion of even identifying as “gay,” and instead preferring the suggestion that we’re simply dudes who “just fuck dudes” – Aguirre-Livingston makes grandiose, sweeping claims from his privileged viewpoint nestled in the safe zones off of Toronto’s Queen West.

According to Aguirre-Livingston, “my generation has the freedom to live exactly the way we want. We have our university degrees, homes and careers. In Toronto, we’ve abandoned the Church Wellesley Village. […] We vacation with our boyfriends in fabulously rustic country homes that belong to our parents, who don’t mind us coming to stay as a couple. Hell, we even marry our boyfriends, if we choose to, on rooftops overlooking Queen West. […] We don’t torture ourselves to fit in with other gays. In fact, most of us have come to resent the stereotypes and the ideals associated with preceding gay generations. It’s not that we hate gay culture; we just don’t have that much in common with it anymore.”

Throughout the rest of Aguirre-Livingston’s sloppy treatiste, he insists that the work done by our queer foremothers and fathers has done its part, and can now be swept under the rug and overlooked. Considering this supposed “post-mo” generation as the living embodiment of what they were working towards, Aguirre-Livingston’s net stretches no further than a few streets’ radius in Canada’s biggest city. It focuses squarely on privileged bearded white boys decked out in ties and button-up shirts, a supposedly modern rejection of ‘typical’ homo fashion. (Please – I’ve been kicking the beard and tie look for close to two decades, and know full well I’m in no way original with it).

Despite finding all the action he could possibly want online and via Grindr (a GPS-driven iPhone app, showing displaying who’s in the neighbourhood, and how many metres away from you they are), Aguirre-Livingston also admits he hasn’t “held a guy’s hand in almost three years.” (One of his on-line dating profiles has been passed around the internet – his user name, an ironically fitting UNTOUCHED). He casts off the Pride parade as little more than chiseled buffoons gyrating atop gaudy floats, and proclaims, “I’m not fighting the good fight. It was never mine to fight.” He closes by suggesting we can even call his clique “faux gay, straight-acting, bitter queens,” but hey, they’re the “lucky ones.”

Were Aguirre-Livingston simply writing from the viewpoint of ‘this is my life’ vs. speaking for the rest of us, Dawn of a New Gay would in some ways be a worthy viewpoint for consideration. Despite his arrogance, we should be able to find at least some joy in knowing how free and un-obstructed this young gay man feels in his life in Canada, shouldn’t we? As it stands, the piece’s overwhelming sense of ignorant entitlement remains tragically arrogant and ill-informed, and the queer corners of the internet have erupted with commentary, seldomly pro, primarily con.

And yet, I’d feel dishonest if I didn’t admit that I can, in some ways (emphasis on only some, and very few at that) relate to where Aguirre-Livingston is coming from. While he fails by classifying his experience as one common to everyone, I can offer up my gay experience as purely mine (and those I’ve long traveled with) alone, and realize there is at least one rickety bridge between us.

Growing up in Forest Lawn – where the go-to term of male-to-male rejection is easily “faggot” – I only first felt comfortable with living a purely out life when I did what many of those in my age group did, and left for greener (as in, gayer) pastures. My path took me from Edinburgh to New York, between Paris and the UK’s seaside gay capitol Brighton. There, I worked in a two level gay club called Envy (our biggest competition was Revenge, right around the corner) as the coat-check. As I was always reading behind the desk, I was soon referred to as “The Student,” in photographs in the local gay magazines (of which Brighton has a surprising amount, all printed on glossy paper). Customers started bringing me their old books, and at the end of each night I’d walk home along Brighton Beach as the highest-tipped member of staff. Perhaps a visit by the coat-check was the one space in the club where the patrons weren’t being sized up or judged, the one spot of relief in that strobe-lit meat market. Or perhaps my role as the first ‘hello’ and the last drunken ‘good-bye’ at the end of the night propelled the pocket-change into my jar (the fit bartenders in their underwear didn’t really have anywhere to put it).

Yet, like Aguirre-Livingston, that particular gay world was not one I was particularly interested in engaging in any further than as a job, particularly after my first Pride in Brighton which played out as an exercise in debauchery seemingly disinterested in the word Pride itself. I went to Brighton searching for some form of Queer Utopia, and didn’t find it. But this is where our similarities in how we each choose to engage with GLBT culture stop. What truly changed and molded me at the time was a movement centered on a series of parties and clubs primarily in London, referred to as Gay Shame. Despite the name, for me this was a major cause for celebration.

We weren’t ashamed of ourselves or our history in the least, and in fact looked to celebrate the people we were and those who had come before us. We wore T-shirts silkscreened with portraits of Christopher Isherwood, Quentin Crisp, and Harvey Milk. Books like Matt Bernstein Sycamore’s That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation were passed around and dog-eared. Gay Shame was simply a rejection of what we saw as Pride events rapidly transitioning towards corporate-sponsorship and targeted marketing. Assimilation into mainstream straight culture – what is often referred to as appearing ‘normal’ – wasn’t of interest. Rather than fitting into anyone’s mold of acceptability under some multi-national corporation banner, we wanted instead to be accepted for exactly who we were, and continue the good work that had come before us. In forgetting our history, we knew we’d be doomed to repeat it.

The brightest light of inspiration, however, came from Aguirre-Livingston’s hometown of Toronto. With a scene based around the enterprising work of Will Munro and his revolutionary club Vazeline, and the band The Hidden Cameras, it looked – at least from my vantage point across the pond – as though we weren’t alone. My mother, of all people, sent me the Cameras’ first album The Smell of Our Own, still a life-turning piece of work to my ears. Even up until his death from cancer last year, I’d wanted to write Will Munro a letter, thanking him for creating a world that I was able to witness first-hand when visiting his city.

What was going on in Toronto seemed (at least for this visitor), above all else, inclusive and welcoming. The normal-bodied go-go dancers wore balaclavas, and the clubs were stuffed with boys, girls, and those posing as either. It was fun and non-judgmental, and you can still feel that presence in present-day Toronto venues like The Beaver and The Henhouse. Aguirre-Livingston walks freely down those streets because of people like Munro and the Cameras.

When asked for his thoughts, lead Camera Joel Gibb (now splitting his time between Toronto and the queer utopia of Berlin), is succinct. “It’s an opinion piece charading as reporting,” he says. “A fantasy piece. Those guys who maintain that their sexuality doesn’t define them and that it only comprises a small percentage of who they are – it’s internalized homophobia.”

My current Calgary housemate Mathew-John Chyzyk is the same age as Aguirre-Livingston (I’m presently 32 – not exactly who he’s talking about), and Dawn of a New Gay has been a point of household discussion since its publication on June 9th. When we first met, he prefaced a comment with, “It’s different for gay men of my generation than of yours, Mark,” so who better to ask for feedback?

“He’s putting out his own hate as the voice of his generation, and in turn my generation,” he says. “I may not agree or get along with all gay men, but at least I play nice. I’ll continue my fight to represent the community in a positive light, support worthy causes, hold my boyfriend’s hand, make community connections, and dance my face off at gay dance parties.” At least in Mathew, it’s comforting to see how far off-base Aguirre-Livingston is in attempting to speak for all gay men of his generation.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting that my queer experience thus far is how one’s queer life should be lived, and I know that my interpretations and self-set boundaries of what it means to be a gay man living in Calgary (or Edinburgh, or Berlin, or Paris) won’t be the same as others who live in the same places. I too am middle-class and white, and I come from a decidedly non-religious family – within the GLBT world, I know there’s far more difficult scenarios to deal with than mine. I know there’s still work to be done – I live much of the year in Calgary, and it’s still the only city I’ve been to in the world in which I’ve been called “faggot,” as recently as this spring on my bicycle in Ogden. Surely, Calgary is not yet entirely like Queen West (and I’d doubt that other bits of Toronto are either).

For Aguirre-Livingston, clearly ignorance is bliss, but I can’t help feeling that it’s got to be a rather empty form of it. The history of queer culture is one worthy of attention and familiarity. Besides the struggles and the tragedies, there’s a beautiful world community that he’s missing out on. Still, rather than discard his club card as so many others seem frothing at the mouth to do (reference, for just one example, the internet’s Ungrateful Faggot meme targeted directly at him), I’m more prone to hope he’ll wake up and take a deeper look at the community which has built the safety nets he so clearly enjoys.

Created to commemorate the lives and actions of Canada’s gay (and gay-friendly) community of activists and tireless workers, the Vancouver-based Q Hall of Fame has inducted Canadians like Mark Tewksbury, Janine Fuller, and Pierre Eliot Trudeau for their work in advancing the rights of GLBT people in Canada. Still a brand new initiative, the Q Hall of Fame gives hope that those who have fought for the lives we presently enjoy here – in our incredibly lucky and free First World developed nation of a country – will not be forgotten. Their simple slogan, however, puts it best: Pride starts with knowledge.

==========

Casting the net wider to friends across North America (and, at the suggestion of FFWD, even some straights), some further reactions:

Matthew Fox, author, Toronto/Berlin, 30s: “[It’s] an irresponsible stance to take for a journalist, especially since there are huge numbers of 20-somethings that flock to the Village on a regular basis. But really, someone writes an article, book or manifesto of this kind every seven or 10 years as a new generation comes out of the closet. […] He’s just trying to legitimize the homo subculture to which he belongs, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I just don’t find his arguments interesting or compelling or new – and I move in the same circles he does.”

Erin Woodward, gay-friendly manager of Purr, Calgary, 30s: “I’ve recently been going on rants about what I see as non-productive feminism: women who are so busy complaining about every perceived slight they see to be gender inequality that they fail to see the equality around them – a woman who only sees herself as a Woman as opposed to a Person. The more you marginalize yourself as a minority, the more society as a whole will view you as someone to be marginalized.”

Gordon Sombrowski, author, Calgary/Fernie, 50s: “It’s clear that the writer has not followed the discourse in this country about the affect of assimilation and normalization of homosexuals in society. This dialogue now revolves around ideas that talk about the intersection of ‘queer’ and ‘gay,’ for example. There are homosexuals or gay people who no longer consider themselves to be queer, and there are straight people who consider themselves to be queer. While these are to some degree tricks of labeling and semantics they are indicative that there is a segment of society which does not either wish to be normalized or feel that it has been assimilated.”

Kevin Allen (spouse of Gordon Sombrowski), arts administrator, Calgary/Fernie, 40s: “He sounds kind of sad and lonely.”

Jessica Dollard, Fairy Tales, Calgary, 20s: “When it comes to Pride marches, that’s sacred shit. I feel that due to the lack of equality that many queers face in the world, you need to be at the Pride march. You go to show respect for the work that’s been done to gain the rights we currently enjoy. You go to stand up for those in other parts of the world that so need a Pride march but can’t go because they’ll be killed. Hey navel-gazing A-Gay Twink: you’re damn lucky. Good for you. Now show some compassion for your fellow beings.”

Dallas Barnes, Pride Calgary, Calgary, 20s: “Regardless of where you feel comfortable, be it Church Street or at a hockey game, the fact of the matter is you are an equal part of the queer community. If things are perfect in the author’s life then congratulations – let us know how we can attain this perfection. My world and the world of most people in the queer community is not perfect. To state publicly that we do not need to fight for our rights and to maintain a safe space for all queers is dangerous. It tells the world that we are ok with being substandard. It tells the youth that it does not get better. And for his information, Calgary does not have a Village. We barely have an address. Things are not that easy even in your own country.”

Kevin Persaud, creative, Calgary, 30s: “I believe that every time I answer the ‘are you gay?’ question truthfully, I make one more step forward for the GLBT community. […] Fighting and sacrificing of lives has and will happen still, but I am glad I don’t have to do it for myself, here. It doesn’t mean I can’t support others who need to fight for the basics and still smile for young Torontonians who don’t.”

Jason Cawood, artist, Regina, 30s: “Being gay in 2011 is still ‘a thing’ to a lot of people, it can still do a number on your self-esteem, and no, not even the power of Will & Grace can change that. […] My lack of interest in mainstream gay culture – the bars, the dance music, the fashion, etc. – doesn’t constitute a rejection of it. I’m simply not that interested in any mainstream culture, straight or gay, and I’m under no delusions that this makes me a more advanced person. It’s simply a matter of taste. Unlike Aguirre-Livingston, I have no desire to frame myself as a role model for the New Gay Male, and I can identify the arrogance in over-determining one’s own preferences as a broad social phenomena.”

Trent Marinelli, vintage store owner, Chicago, 20s: “The real problem I had was that a major publication in the biggest city in Canada would give a soapbox to a narcissistic, small minded snob and parade his very unoriginal idea around as a revolutionary viewpoint in the gay community. […] It parallels the whole movement that Keith Herring was a part of in the 80s to keep the stereotypical, masculinity-obsessed gays out of the artsy gay parties / neighbourhood. It’s not a new fight, it just has some new faces.”

Lee Allard, social worker, Calgary, 30s: “He doesn’t even know what post-modern really implies! He’s also racist and classist – even though he would probably try to defend that – which indicates his lack of analysis and understanding of wider social issues.”

Matthew Jimmy, Calgary, 20s: “I don’t agree with degrading ’stereotypes’. If someone chooses to act the way they want to no one has any right to pick them apart. Our individuality makes us a diverse community. […] I would never want to consider myself a Post-Mo – gay is just fine.”

Matthew Lowe, editorial assistant at Butt Magazine, Amsterdam / Calgary, 20s: “Perhaps Aguirre-Livingston has chosen to ignore the 1970s clone culture – Tom of Finland or Quaintance, anyone? – that forms the basis for his current lustings. If one naively distills homosexuality to its carnal roots – the desire to have sex with men – this ideal becomes completely asinine. You’re still having sex with men, so no matter how straight-acting the two of you are, you’re as gay as they come.”

Mason Hastie, queer-friendly creative, Calgary, 30s: “This kid is pretty much speaking from a point of entitlement, because white middle-class gay males have very similar opportunities to the same straight kid. But that’s pretty much it. If you make any of those words more complicated – black, lesbian, transgender, for example – you still have a notable amount of stigma, hate and discomfort. These – along with the out gay man at his law firm – are the people that the Pride is still for.”

Hanna Kassa, host of That’s So Gay! on CJSW, Calgary, 30s: “We’ve got it pretty good, but being out and proud is about being present and counted. […] His apathy is immature and I’m thinking he might grow out of it. Maybe he’ll also grow a pair and actually meet someone beyond his computer screen and stop resenting the hot guys at the bar.”

Travis Eby, architect, New York City, 20s: “He never acknowledges that the struggle isn’t over for some. Certainly no-one will begrudge anyone enjoying the freedoms born of previous generations’ struggles, but it’s sad and naïve to assume that the battle is won. There’s still a lot of liberating to do. And when you’ve been given privileges in this world – and do nothing to use your position of privilege to raise up others who haven’t been so lucky – then you’re no better than the fake-tanned, hair-gelled gym bunnies you complain about. All you are is a bourgeois, apathetic consumer – with a beard.”

Everett Holden, Shanti Project, San Francisco, 30s: “Some of us have the great privilege of enjoying the freedoms the ghosts of our ancestors have made possible for us. Lucky is the man who embraces his privileges and is grateful to those who have made it possible to be GAY. Lucky are those who use their privilege to help others who don’t have the freedom to be who they are. Lucky is the man that knows and acknowledges those who gave their lives to create a community we call gay.”

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