The Novels of Joseph Hansen

Michael Nava has published a thoughtful article in LARB about the author Joseph Hansen Gay Noir Pioneer

I recommend reading the Dave Brandsetter mystery novels if you can get your hands on them. They feature an openly gay detective and offer a fascinating window onto the lives of gay men and, to some extent, lesbians in the 1960s and 70s. Hansen also has a really interesting writing style.

You Call this Friendship? On relationships between gay men and heterosexual people

This week I glanced over a couple of articles in the Guardian online about relationships between heterosexual people and gay men which have been chaffing me ever since. You know that feeling you get when you read something that’s presented as all sweetness, light, and loveliness but makes you feel really uncomfortable for reasons you can’t quite pin down? I read them again this morning and think I can articulate a few of the problems.

The first, by Joanna Walters, is entitled Why Every Girl needs a Gay Best Friend

Diamonds may be forever, but it turns out that a gay boy is actually a girl’s best friend, according to a new book that is the first definitive guide to the ‘fag hag’.

That many straight women set great store by gay male friends won’t surprise fans who’ve watched Will and Grace sharing the secrets of their souls, or Sex and the City’s Carrie and her screaming-queen buddy Stanford or Madonna and Rupert Everett, on- and off-screen.

Now a new book chronicles the (mostly) ups and (occasional) downs of having a gay man as a girl’s best friend. Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys – true tales of love, lust and friendship between straight women and gay men was launched in New York last week with a rainbow of hysterical real life stories and a few predictably melodramatic tear-jerkers.

It’s not the “fag hag” thing that bothers me, beyond the fact that from a feminist perspective I wish we weren’t still making use of that term because it’s one that women often use against each other with surprising vitriol, and it’s about time we stopped and asked ourselves why we feel impelled to use abusive language towards women who befriend gay men. No, my main issue with the article, aside from the annoying self-congratulatory tone, is the implicit suggestion that gay men exist to make straight women feel better about themselves.

While her female friends are competitive when shopping and ‘secretly want your ass to look fat’, her entourage of gay men makes her feel like ‘Marie Antoinette and her court’ as they encourage her to buy extravagantly, telling her she looks divine, while ‘holding my handbags more gracefully than I do’.

De La Cruz described how, despite unrequited lust for the gay boys at her university, she valued their encouragement. ‘They told me I was attractive and pushed me out there to start dating.

Throughout the article there is a suggestion that friendships between gay men and straight women are valuable because they make straight women feel good. Now this isn’t actually representative of all such real life friendships, but the article bothers me because it takes part in a developing discourse which justifies the existence of gay people in terms of their services to straight people. The article also implies, more than once, that gay men are serviceable to straight women as partner-substitutes because straight men are useless or obnoxious. This is basically the plot of Will and Grace.

One of the book’s editors, Melissa De La Cruz, said she sought to puncture the high-camp stereotype by telling how her gay male co-editor Tom Dolby was the rock-solid shoulder who was most there for her out of all her friends when she suffered a miscarriage and she and her husband were heartbroken. ‘He was a real man,’ she said.

A “real man”, huh? As opposed to a pretend one? All men are real Melissa.

Doonan claims fag hags became obsolete because straight men are now less ‘obnoxious’ to be around.

Well that’s nice. You can throw out your gay male friends because straight men have become more bearable. Is this whole narrative really about making gya people serve heterosexuality, insofar as it’s really about how gay people help solve problems in relationships between heterosexual men and women?

Then I read another article which took the discourse to more disturbing levels, Nirpal Dhaliwal’s A Fine Bromance

My heart sank at the opening “Gays are a guy’s best friend.” But then it improved, citing good examples of equal friendships between gay and straight men and I felt more hopeful. Perhaps this one is actually going to say something useful I thought. However, when he describes his experiences of “bromance” we came back to same problem:

One was an American film director, who invited me to a festival in Turin where I hooked up with a fabulous, cabaret-singing New York drag queen. They were fun, warm and intimate experiences that thrilled my ego and made me feel gorgeous.

Because it’s very important that straight men get their egos stroked! Couldn’t straight people do more stroking of gay egos? That would be nice.

Having tested my sexuality and been sure of what it is, I have no issues with homosexuality and can throw myself into a bromance with no misplaced hopes or fears.

Ah, nice, because gay people love it when straight people test their sexuality out on us. Personally I’ve found such experiences painful and humiliating, but no matter!

What’s even more striking here is that Dhaliwal’s relationships with gay men have served to bolster up his heterosexuality, to make him more heterosexual because he is surer of his sexuality than other men who don’t have relationships with gay men. Then the misogyny makes its appearance:

My friendships with straight men have often deteriorated because of rivalry, and from talking to my gay pals I know that gay men are just are competitive. Bromances offer men an opportunity to discuss sex without worrying about one-upmanship.

I talk about women much more with gay men than I ever have with straight ones. And given that women speak far more openly with gay men – and that gay men actually listen to them – my gay pals provide many useful insights into the female mind.(emphasis mine)

Lovely.

And finally,

Bromances are the future for men in this country. We have a shared biology and a basic outlook, compared to which our choice of sexual partner is merely a detail.

What Dhaliwal actually seems to propose here is a fantasy future of relationships between men in which women become “merely a detail.” Heterosexual men will bond emotionally and intellectually with gay men who will stroke their egos and give them tips on how to seduce women. Welcome to the new patriarchy. Just at a time when a lot of gay men do seem to be working on misogyny in their subcultures, it’s rather alarming to see a straight man writing it into his future male utopia. But with gay men again positioned as substitutes for women (perhaps gay men could service straight men even better than women do!), this narrative also seems to be more about problems with heterosexual relationships rather than with gay people. I suspect Dhaliwal is writing polemically with the genuine intention to subvert homophobia but there seems to be a lack of self-awareness in the piece with regards to his attitude to women and also the question of what the gay men are really getting out of these friendships.

Moreover, the problem here is not the more complex realities of such friendships, the problem is the defensive discourse being created in these articles– the necessity for justification itself drawing attention to homophobia – which says “this is ok because straight people are getting something out of it.”

Any real future for constructive mutually enriching friendships between gay people and straight people must be devoid of the implication that gay people exist to please, pander to and stroke the egos of straight people, or as substitutes for unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships.

I don’t think gay men need any more incitement from heterosexual culture to find their sense of self worth in being presented as clowns, comedy side-kicks, counsellors, shoulders to cry on etc.  This kind of discourses infantalises gay men and masks the realities of their sexuality from delicate heterosexual eyes .   I’ve noticed how often gay men are referred to as “boys,” for example, because, (I guess), “boys” don’t have big scary cocks, “boys” don’t fuck.

Ignoring the role that homophobic violence plays in encouraging gay male children to grow up to be everybody’s “best friend” just in order to survive is not actually being any kind of friend to gay men.

Why is the term “fag hag” still acceptable?

Why is the term “fag hag” still acceptable?

Is it not both homophobic and misogynist?

Yet I hear it bandied around without concern by self-identified feminist women who will avoid, or express guilt about, using other terms of abuse for women, such as “bitch.”  And I’ve heard it used by liberal, lefty men and women who would never dream of referring to gay men as “fags” in any other context.

I’ve noticed that “fag hag” is often modified with a “just,” as in “She’s just a fag hag,” or “They’re just fag hags,” as if a heterosexual woman’s preference for friendships with gay men reduces her to nothing more than that preference.  No longer a complex human being, she is just a fag hag.

But what does this say about the underlying attitudes to gay men?

I’ve also noticed that when women use this term there is often a sense of real anger at these “fag hags.”

Why are we so hostile to heterosexual women who befriend gay men that we have a special term of abuse for them?

What is the root of the problem here?

If a heterosexual woman chooses to make her friendships with gay men primary in her life why is that a) a problem or b) anybody else’s business? Why do we feel we have a right to comment on these relationships at all?

According to the Urban Dictionary, the equivalent term for heterosexual men who tend to befriend lesbians is “lesbro.”  But this is not as widely used and, as far as I’m aware, and it doesn’t have the homophobic misogynistic sting of “fag hag.”

There definitely seems to be a feeling that women who befriend gay men are being stupid and the relationships are unhealthy, perhaps because they are seen as postponing their graduation into “mature” sexual relations with heterosexual men.  This is a big part of the plot of the sitcom Will and Grace. Will Grace ever “grow up” and get herself a “real” man?  Preference for gay men as companions may also imply a critique of socially constructed heterosexual masculinity – the idea that women may find the behaviours culturally associated with gay men more attractive than those associated with heterosexual men could be disturbing for a lot of reasons.

This is not to say that I don’t see any problems in the popular discourse that surrounds the idea of relationships between gay men and heterosexual women because I do, especially in the way it constructs gay men as acceptable only as long as they adopt the role of everybody’s best friend — as long as they are suitably entertaining and non-assertive.  As I’ve said before, any future for constructive mutually enriching friendships between gay people and straight people must be devoid of the implication that gay people exist to please, pander to and stroke the egos of straight people, or as substitutes for unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships.

But this is an aspect of the way we think about relations between gay men and heterosexual people in general.

And critiquing a discourse is not the same as denigrating real-life relationships which involve real individuals and are no doubt as complex as all other relationships.

Reading – Two Books on the History of Sexuality

Andrew Elfenbein, Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

This is my book of the month.  It puts forward an exciting argument, is very well researched and gets extra points for being readable.  I’m reading it because I’m interested in tracing the different narratives which have gone into the making of modern homosexual identity as a category of knowledge.  According to Elfenbein, genius is one of those narratives and he sets out to explore the origins of this association:

‘The cult surrounding genius has created an analogy between the situation of the alienated, marginalized artist who rebels against social norms by shattering conventional gender categories and that of the homosexual man or woman in a homophobic world’ (7).

The first chapter looks at the way male geniuses became associated with excessive “feminine” characteristics (sensibility, imagination, passion) in the eighteenth century, an association which placed them in uncomfortably close representational relation to the contemporary construction of the sodomite: ‘There was always the lurking suspicion that the sublime excessiveness of genius might lead to less conventional sexual possibilities’ (32).  The second chapter is about the very queer eighteenth-century ‘genius,’ William Beckford, and the third is about William Cowper, an eighteenth-century poet who despite (or perhaps because of) his apparent queerness became popular as a model for domestic life in the Victorian period.  Elfenbein doesn’t leave female geniuses out of the picture and the next two chapters are on Anne Damer and Anne Bannerman, but I haven’t got to them yet.

Randolph Trumbach, ‘The Heterosexual Male in Eighteenth-Century London and his Queer Interactions,’ in Katherine O’ Donnell and Michael O’ Rourke (eds) Love, Sex, Intimacy and Friendship Between Men, 1550 – 1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

This is a radically anti-essentialist account of sexual history.  Trumbach seems to have no truck with any notion of inherent sexual orientation – however that might have been conceived in the past – and puts across a view of sexual desire as entirely socially determined.  He argues that until 1700 in most of Europe (but especially the Mediterranean) it was perfectly normal for men to have sexual relations with both men and women.  According to Trumbach, sexual relations were not determined by gender, but rather by hierarchies of age and were structured in terms of active and passive roles.  It was acceptable for an adult man to have consensual sexual relations with an adolescent boy until the boy became an adult and took on an active role himself.  A small minority of men took on passive roles throughout their lives and they were held in profound contempt often working as male prostitutes.  This is all interesting, but the essay inadvertently draws attention to the way trans history has been appropriated and rendered invisible by lesbian and gay history, a trend which is very problematic in that it creates an impression that trans identities and subjectivities suddenly appeared in the twentieth century and have no real history before medical technologies became available.  Trumbach mentions male-bodied people who, in the early modern period, dressed constantly as women, took women’s names and in some cases even constructed artificial vaginas.  He appropriates this evidence to his argument about the development of sexuality, but what he’s talking about here sounds much closer to what we now consider transgendered identity to me.  Part of the essay also goes too far for me in terms of the kind of material it appropriates to the history of homosexuality.  Trumbach describes a case in which an adult male raped a boy of twelve.  The man behaved in a way very similar to what we associate with modern paedophiles, luring the boy to his rooms, abusing him, giving him money and trying to persuade him keep it a secret.  As far as I’m concerned this is a form of behaviour now known as paedophilia and needs to be considered as part of a different history.  Still, I found the essay stimulating.

I also carried on with my Bray and Haggerty from last week and re-read a chapter from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.

Three Books on the History of Sexuality

Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (Gay Men’s Press, 1982).

This is a very influential social constructionist account and I’m currently re-reading the whole thing. Bray argued that homosexuality as a category of identity could not exist in the Renaissance because it wouldn’t have made any sense in the early modern period and ‘identity without a consciousness in time is impossible’ (11).

A typical quote:

‘To talk of an individual in this period as being or not being ‘a homosexual’ is an anachronism and ruinously misleading.  The temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted as part of the common lot, be it never so abhorred’ (16 – 17).

It still holds up as a fascinating read.

Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century (London: Cassell, 1994)

Sinfield is a hardline social constructionist when it comes to homosexuality and very readable and persuasive with it.  In this book he argues that effeminacy was not strongly linked to homosexuality until the trials of Oscar Wilde when the popular stereotype

He gives a summary of the social constructionist argument:

‘sexualities (heterosexual and homosexual) are not essential, but constructed within an array of prevailing social possibilities […] Sexual identity depends not on a deep-set self-hood (though it may feel otherwise), but on one’s particular situation within the framework of understanding that makes certain, diverse, possibilities available; which makes some ideas plausible and other not.  This is the ideological network that we use to explain our worlds. Ideology makes sense for us – of us – because it is already proceeding when we arrive in the world; we come to consciousness in its terms […] The constructionist argument is generally indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, who argues that the big shift in homosexual identity occurs when the person who engages in same-sex activity gets perceived as a personality type. So far from repressing sex, Foucault brilliantly observes, the Victorians went on about it all the time; it became a principal mode of social regulation. In the process of this discursive proliferation, the ‘homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology … The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’’ […] Hence the answer to the question that seems suddenly to have hit the agenda: ‘Was Shakespeare gay?’ He couldn’t have been, because lesbian and gay identities are modern developments: the early-modern organization of sex and gender boundaries, simply, was different from ours.  However, by the same token, he couldn’t have been straight either, so present-day heterosexism has no stronger claim upon him than homosexuality’ (11 – 13).

Charming as Sinfield is, as a writer, I’m not convinced that effeminacy was a de-coupled from ideas about sex between men (until Oscar) as he wants to prove in this book.  I’m enjoying reading about it though.

George Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (1999)

I like reading Haggerty. He has a rambling style and is an interesting close reader. This book looks at masculinity as a contested concept in the eighteenth century and argues that a certain sexual sensibility emerges in this period (1 and 2).  A lot of people talk about sodomy but Haggerty wants to bring ‘love’ back into the picture:

‘The “love” that cannot be expressed – “dare not speak its name” – because that is what is really threatening. Two men having sex threatens no one. Two men in love: that begins to threaten the very foundations of heterosexist culture’ (20).

I think he’s a bit of a romantic too.

You call this friendship? Positioning Gay Men in relation to Heterosexuality

This week I glanced over a couple of articles in the Guardian online about relationships between heterosexual people and gay men which have been chaffing me ever since. You know that feeling when you read something that’s presented as all sweetness, light, and loveliness but makes you feel really uncomfortable for reasons you can’t quite pin down? I read them again this morning and think I can articulate a few of the problems.

The first, by Joanna Walters, is entitled Why Every Girl needs a Gay Best Friend

Diamonds may be forever, but it turns out that a gay boy is actually a girl’s best friend, according to a new book that is the first definitive guide to the ‘fag hag’.

That many straight women set great store by gay male friends won’t surprise fans who’ve watched Will and Grace sharing the secrets of their souls, or Sex and the City’s Carrie and her screaming-queen buddy Stanford or Madonna and Rupert Everett, on- and off-screen.

Now a new book chronicles the (mostly) ups and (occasional) downs of having a gay man as a girl’s best friend. Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys – true tales of love, lust and friendship between straight women and gay men was launched in New York last week with a rainbow of hysterical real life stories and a few predictably melodramatic tear-jerkers.

It’s not the “fag hag” thing that bothers me, beyond the fact that from a feminist perspective I wish we weren’t still making use of that term because it’s one that women often use against each other with surprising vitriol, and it’s about time we stopped and asked ourselves why we feel impelled to use abusive language towards women who befriend gay men. No, my main issue with the article, aside from the self-congratulatory tone, is the implicit suggestion that gay men exist to make straight women feel better about themselves.

While her female friends are competitive when shopping and ‘secretly want your ass to look fat’, her entourage of gay men makes her feel like ‘Marie Antoinette and her court’ as they encourage her to buy extravagantly, telling her she looks divine, while ‘holding my handbags more gracefully than I do’.

De La Cruz described how, despite unrequited lust for the gay boys at her university, she valued their encouragement. ‘They told me I was attractive and pushed me out there to start dating.

Throughout the article there is a suggestion that friendships between gay men and straight women are valuable because they make straight women feel good. Now this isn’t actually representative of real life friendships and we know that straight women and lesbians have provided a lot of support to gay men over the years, especially during the AIDs crisis. The book itself probably acknowledges this, but the article bothers me because it takes part in a developing discourse which justifies the existence of gay people in terms of their services to straight people. The article also implies more than once that gay men are serviceable to straight women as partner substitutes because straight men are useless or obnoxious. This is basically the plot of Will and Grace.

One of the book’s editors, Melissa De La Cruz, said she sought to puncture the high-camp stereotype by telling how her gay male co-editor Tom Dolby was the rock-solid shoulder who was most there for her out of all her friends when she suffered a miscarriage and she and her husband were heartbroken. ‘He was a real man,’ she said.

A real man, huh? As opposed to a pretend one? All men are real Melissa.

Doonan claims fag hags became obsolete because straight men are now less ‘obnoxious’ to be around.

Well that’s nice. You can throw out your gay male friends because straight men have become more bearable. Is this whole narrative really about heterosexuality, insofar as it’s really about problems in relationships between heterosexual men and women?

Then I read another article which took the discourse to more disturbing levels, Nirpal Dhaliwal’s A Fine Bromance

My heart sank at the opening “Gays are a guy’s best friend.” But then it improved, citing good examples of equal friendships between gay and straight men and I felt more hopeful. Perhaps this one is actually going to say something useful I thought. However, when he describes his experiences of “bromance” we came back to same problem:

One was an American film director, who invited me to a festival in Turin where I hooked up with a fabulous, cabaret-singing New York drag queen. They were fun, warm and intimate experiences that thrilled my ego and made me feel gorgeous.

Because it’s very important that straight men get their egos stroked. Couldn’t straight people do more stroking of gay egos?

Having tested my sexuality and been sure of what it is, I have no issues with homosexuality and can throw myself into a bromance with no misplaced hopes or fears.

Ah, nice, because gay people love it when straight people test their sexuality out on us. Personally I’ve found such experiences painful and humiliating, but no matter!

What’s even more striking here is that Dhaliwal’s relationships with gay men have served to bolster up his heterosexuality, to make him more heterosexual because he is surer of his sexuality than other men who don’t have relationships with gay men. Then misogyny makes its appearance:

My friendships with straight men have often deteriorated because of rivalry, and from talking to my gay pals I know that gay men are just are competitive. Bromances offer men an opportunity to discuss sex without worrying about one-upmanship.

I talk about women much more with gay men than I ever have with straight ones. And given that women speak far more openly with gay men – and that gay men actually listen to them – my gay pals provide many useful insights into the female mind.(emphasis mine)

Lovely.

And finally,

Bromances are the future for men in this country. We have a shared biology and a basic outlook, compared to which our choice of sexual partner is merely a detail.

What Dhaliwal actually seems to propose here is a fantasy future of relationships between men in which women become "merely a detail." Heterosexual men will bond emotionally and intellectually with gay men who will stroke their egos and give them tips on how to seduce women. Welcome to the new patriarchy. Just at a time when a lot of gay men do seem to be working on misogyny in their subculture, it’s rather alarming to see a straight man writing it into his future male utopia. But with gay men again positioned as substitutes for women, this narrative also seems to be more about problems with heterosexual relationships rather than with gay people. I suspect Dhaliwal is writing polemically with the genuine intention to subvert homophobia but there seems to be a lack of self-awareness in the piece with regards to his attitude to women and also the question of what gay men are really getting out of these friendships.

Any real future for constructive mutually enriching friendships between gay people and straight people must be devoid of the implication that gay people exist to please, pander to and stroke the egos of straight people, or as substitutes for unsatisfactory heterosexual relationships.

Moreover, the problem here is not the more complex realities of such friendships, the problem is the defensive discourse being created in these articles– the necessity for justification itself drawing attention to homophobia – which says “this is ok because straight people are getting something out of it.”

I work with a lot of gay men and, in my opinion, if there’s one thing they don’t need it’s any more incitement from heterosexual culture to find their sense of self worth in being presented as clowns, comedy side-kicks, counsellors, shoulders to cry on etc. And if we could get extra government funding for a project for gay men, I can tell you right now that we would spend it on assertiveness classes for young gay men. Many of the gay men I know have an understandably strong desire to please, having grown up under the constant threat of verbal and physical violence and family rejection. My boss had his arm broken by his male peers at school, so little wonder he turned to female friends. In the office, we talk quite openly about the various ways in which gay men are infantilised and rewarded for presenting themselves as non-threatening and for masking the realities of their sexuality from view. They are often referred to as “boys,” for example, because, we suspect, “boys” don’t have big scary cocks; "boys" don’t fuck.

Ignoring the role homophobia plays in encouraging gay male children to grow up to be everybody’s best friend/entertainer while taking their rage out in unhealthy ways is not actually being any kind of friend to gay men.