New Outmost columnist, James McDonald wants to get to grips with what it actually means to be gay in the modern world.
What does it mean to be a gay man today? In some places, it means being able to serve openly and proudly in the military. In others, it means a life lived underground. In some places, it means facing arrest, deportation, life in prison or even death. In others, it means serving as ambassadors, or as senators. In some places it means being able to get married. In others, it means a life so challenging, so painful, that it is preferable to end it.
No two gay people have the same life experiences – just as no two straight people do – and there is huge variation between countries and cultures. I’m going to use this space to focus on what it means to be gay today in Western society. It is what I know, it is what we in Ireland know, but it is really what it seems?
We use the term ‘gay community’ as if it denotes one coherent group. Its face is normally white, defined and clean-cut. It’s typically elegantly dressed, or wearing little more than a speedo and glitter. The image that society has of us is incredibly specific, yet a quick glance into any gay bar, or around any Pride parade shows just how multifarious we are – and those are only the gays that choose to place themselves in all/mostly-gay environments.
Talk of a ‘gay community’ inhibits understanding of the diversity, which we should rightly celebrate. Given the present political situation, where we are fighting to assert our dignity and claim our civil rights the world over, it is unsurprising that we often give our sexual orientation a place of prime importance when defining ourselves. But what does such a label mean? Ostensibly, homosexuality means being attracted to the same sex. In other words, we identify ourselves based on the object of our attraction, on the sex of the people we love.
Yet as individuals we are so much more than our sexuality. We can be sporty or nerdy or artsy, we can be tall or short, skinny or heavy, black or Asian or white or a bit of everything. We can be passionate about diplomacy, or literature, or mathematics. Our sexuality is something that links us, but it need not define us. A telling testament to our diversity is the overtly sexual discourse that has dominated for so long. The one thing that we necessarily have in common is our attraction to other men and so gay media has, strategically, focused on such superficiality.
Is there something more to being gay, however? Do we have shared beliefs, shared history, shared interests? We certainly are united in our history of oppression, and in our belief that we are equals – that all people share a common humanity and deserve to be treated as such. Perhaps these twin aspects are what allow for a sense of community to exist amongst a group of people so diverse. We have been told that we are different, we assert that we are different, and yet isn’t that something that should go without saying? All people are different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t understand each other, that we can’t support each other.
In this recurring column, I’m going to explore what it means to be gay in the modern world. In Western society, we have reached a level of security that allows us to look to other aspects of who we are – more than just our sexual passions. No longer haunted by legal repercussions for our lifestyle, more and more voices are being raised advancing various interpretations of gay identity and culture, and that makes this a really exciting time.
I hope to look at the ways in which mainstream media portrays us and the ways in which we choose to project our own image. I plan on discussing aspects of gay life that are rather taboo, hushed over, as well as those that are very visible. My aim is to spark discussion and debate, to disentangle the threads of gay identity from the monolithic homogeneity that it seems to be and pay tribute to the incalculable diversity that characterises us. Only when we truly understand and appreciate each component will we become a proper community.
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