The perils of nostalgia


DG twink
GLORIOUS TWINKDOM–The author at 26, entering BC Place Stadium for the opening ceremonies of Celebration 90: Gay Games III and Cultural Festival, on August 4, 1990. (Ellen Saenger photo)


Five or six years ago, around the time I was turning fifty, I joked with some friends that if I ever wrote a memoir (apart from The Rice Queen Diaries, that is) I would call it When We Were Twinks.

Reflecting with mock wistfulness on the good old salad days, this breathless tell-all would cast a nostalgic eye on the glories of early adult gay consciousness: on the bountiful harvest of one’s sex life after a decade in the closet (oh, the long-lost ectomorphic physique, the bright-eyed earnestness, that enabled such a harvest!), on the thrill of first travel, and on those moments of career launch, political conviction and intellectual discovery—all within the empowering embrace of ‘out’ queer culture—that had seemed so shimmeringly vital, so original, at the time.

When We Were Twinks would be a deliberate indulgence of retrospective wankery, complete with finger-wagging righteousness about how much edgier art was in the Nineties, how much smarter gay men were during the plague years, and how much more connected when we all read newspapers and met in bars, cafes, and bathhouses instead of hooking up on Grindr and zoning out on our smart phones. Typically, we all do this sort of thing as we grow older: becoming our parents as we tut-tut the younger generation on how much better things were back in the day. So When We Were Twinks would have been a naughty, self-satirical romp of a thing to write.

Five years later, however, the idea doesn’t seem so funny any more. You see, some of my fellow gay white men of a certain age have been employing nostalgia not for laughs but to lash out; not to poke ironic fun at themselves but to assuage their affronted sensibilities, claim territory, and build walls. It’s all a bit too, well, Trumpian for my liking.

Taking things too far

I thought of this issue recently while reading an essay in the London Review of Books (“Can the Poor Think?”, July 4). In the wake of Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, writes Malcolm Bull, reviewing William Davies’ Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, “‘democracies are being transformed by the power of feeling,’ and ‘nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear’ appear to be taking over the world.” We’ve seen lots of this since 2016: too many people having a chip on their shoulder about things not being the way they used to be, and how it’s always somebody else’s fault. Most media coverage of this phenomenon is focussed on older or poorer voters whose scapegoat is immigrants. Those of us who belong to sexual minorities like to think we’re immune to such hysteria: as outsiders, we have been conditioned by necessity to build bridges rather than walls or fortresses. Of course, it’s not true. When it comes to reactionary fear and resentment, we can be just as bad as anyone. And not only about immigrants.

In British Columbia, the Canadian province where I live, the Vancouver Pride Society caused major controversy this summer when it banned two mainstream institutions of culture and learning from participating in the city’s annual Pride parade. The University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Public Library were penalized for deciding to host speaking events by anti-trans activists that arguably created hostile environments for trans people in public spaces the latter had assumed to be safe. Critiques of the Pride Society for overreaching its advocacy role and ignoring Charter-protected freedom of speech in its decisions—while also failing to ban certain corporate parade entries for their transphobic policies—were legitimate. However, some gay men who spoke out on the issue seemed indifferent toward the people those bans were meant to help. In vigorously defending free speech in this case, some appeared to have forgotten their own opposition to free speech when it was homophobic hatred being tossed around with impunity. For others, the concerns of trans people on whose behalf the Pride Society was acting appeared to be completely irrelevant.

One gay man I highly respect became an unwitting participant in the anti-trans backlash on Facebook when he shared his puzzlement about the UBC ban. He couldn’t offer an opinion either way, he said, because he didn’t know enough about the anti-trans speaker whose event the university had approved. What he didn’t like was being told by “the left-wing echo chamber” what his opinion ought to be. Before long, he had created an echo chamber of his own when several gay white men chimed in. “Since when are the trans community the gatekeepers?” snorted one grumpily. Another, ignoring the Pride Society’s advocacy on behalf of trans people, called its board of directors “lunatics.” Later, when the Vancouver Public Library’s parade permit was revoked for the same reason, a queer friend of mine responded: “This is madness…It’s time to drop the ‘t’” (meaning: drop ‘trans’ from the community acronym, reducing it to LGBQ). He later posted an anti-trans article from Feminist Current that spoke of trans people “supposedly” being discriminated against (an odd qualification, given well-documented numbers on violence and murder targeting trans people both in Canada and in the U.S.).

My oppression’s worse than yours

Then there’s Sky Gilbert. When we last saw the Toronto playwright, professor, actor, and drag performer/provocateur in the fall of 2018, he was causing an uproar over his response to trans writer Vivek Shraya’s memoir, I’m Afraid of Men. Gilbert’s initial comment, in a blog entry entitled “I’m Afraid of ‘Woke People’”, could have been a witty and useful takedown of orthodox political correctness. Instead, it was a plaintive cri de couer, a litany of earnest grievances about social justice warrior bullies by a gay man who had made a career of causing offense. Having stepped on the wrong side of too many exchanges with snowflake millennials, one supposes, he had clearly had enough.

In casting himself as a victim, Gilbert displayed a tone deafness about trans issues and the concerns of the artist to whom he was responding. As a result, a public reading of one of his plays at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—an organization he had founded—was cancelled. The event was replaced with a community discussion about intergenerational issues and allyship within the queer community. Instead of joining the discussion, Gilbert responded by cutting all ties with Buddies, ironically cancelling himself while bemoaning the excesses of ‘cancel culture’. Since then, he has doubled down on the narrative of his own identity censorship.

(Sky Gilbert – CBC Archives photo)

Earlier in August on Quillette, Canada’s answer to The New Republic, Gilbert unleashed a 2,878-word jeremiad reproclaiming the death of gay culture. The essay makes a few good points, but it has problems—not least the author’s clinging nostalgia for the glory days of sexual revolution. Gilbert spends half the essay rhapsodizing about the birth and growth of gay culture in the 1960s and 70s, a time when the films of John Waters and Andy Warhol screened in “legitimate” movie houses, and when “promiscuity was the glue that kept the gay community together.” When he gets to the subject of AIDS, which he credits with destroying gay culture, his essay goes off the rails.

Keep it sexual, stupid

In building a case that we’ve all become boring, desexed, heteronormative prudes as a result of the plague, Gilbert trots out a well-worn attack on U.S. playwright Larry Kramer for sounding the alarm that promiscuity was killing a generation of gay men. Kramer was right, and his alarm was widely understood in its context as a response to a public health crisis at its peak in the early 1980s. But Gilbert turns it into a kind of Rosetta Stone for anti-sex gay conservatism of the 1990s and onward, as exemplified by writers like Andrew Sullivan. In advocating same-sex marriage, Sullivan and his ilk were ruining all the fun of being gay.

“Among the fundamental premises of gay liberation,” writes Gilbert, “was that being gay meant being a sexual person.” (His emphasis) True enough, but the rest of his argument suggests that sex is all being gay has ever been about. By dismissing same-sex marriage as self-loathing hetero mimicry, for example, he ignores another fundamental premise of gay liberation: that queer people deserve equal rights to those of straights, including access to housing, employment, and, yes, partner health and dental benefits. The fact he opens his essay with a lament for the de-sexing of drag, and the “trauma” he suffered from watching a documentary about sashaying children—as First World Problems go, pretty much off the charts—says a lot about his priorities.

“As part of their new quest to convince straights (and each other) that they were “normal,” he says, continuing the post-AIDS analysis, “gay men and women also began to distance themselves from gender issues (as gender was then discussed).” This curious statement is somewhat presumptuous in implying that drag queens and dykes have a monopoly on gender discourse. There isn’t a word about trans issues or people until the essay’s final third, with this statement:

Many [gay men and lesbians] don’t even feel the necessity to “come out” anymore—in large part thanks to the modern strain of trans ideology, which asserts that, among the civilized and enlightened, the primal physical needs associated with sexual orientation and body parts are trumped by the body-agnostic vagaries of self-declared gender identity. Indeed, how can there even be anything called gay (or lesbian) culture in a world that pretends to see no difference between a lesbian and a straight male-bodied man in a dress and pearl necklace?

..and then this:

Many of the adolescents who declare a trans identity will find out later that they are just gay men or lesbian women, though by that point much time will be wasted, and their truly transformative years will be gone…

…and, finally, this:

The slow death of gay culture…is not a new phenomenon, but rather just the end point in a cultural process that has turned the reality of gay men and women into an abstraction promoted by a gender studies workshop.

“Trans ideology” is a favourite dog whistle of alt right fascists and the anti-trans activists who spoke at UBC and the VPL. It’s code for opposition to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) programs in schools and other trans-positive legislation. Gilbert’s use of it here seems a pretty good indication—as if his break with Buddies in Bad Times wasn’t enough of a clue—that he has little, if any, interest in allyship with trans people. All the rest of it—the blather about “body-agnostic vagaries” and “abstraction,” the notion that gender studies have muted gay and lesbian sexuality, the reduction of trans issues to prioritizing pronouns, etc.—is nothing but reactionary codswallop.

Transgender identity was formally depathologized in 2013. That’s when “gender identity disorder” was dropped as a category from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This followed growing consensus in medical science that a certain small percentage of the population are, in fact, transgender. Why is the American Psychiatric Association six years ahead of a once edgy queer playwright/drag queen who’s supposed to be au courant on all things gender? I mean, I don’t want to sound like the “preachy LGBT activist elite” here, Sky, but, you know, get with the fucking program.

Fearing the woman inside?

What Sky Gilbert and like-minded gay men seem to be lamenting is a lost world of binaries where there were clear lines between us (the liberated) and them (the conventional), a world in which gay men took the microphone, so to speak, and made our voices louder and prouder. Born on the margins, the gay liberation movement—including the premise to “set love free,” as the Pink Triangle Press mission statement euphemized sex—became mainstream. Before we knew it, gay white men in particular were gaining new privilege in terms of voice and visibility that remained unattainable to other minorities. Privilege enjoyed, as much as anyone, by Sky Gilbert.

Perhaps some of us have gotten a little too cozy with that privilege, a little too possessive or territorial of the public space we’ve won to allow room for different voices. For from the moment those voices assert themselves, we lose our shit. We oppose decisions made in trans people’s defense, quote “experts” who discredit trans identity, accuse trans activists of dominating the queer political landscape and, in general, seem to wish that trans folk would just, you know, go away and stop spoiling ‘our’ party. In behaving this way, gay men who should know better are revealing their trampled sense of entitlement around public space and discourse too long assumed to have been our own exclusive domain.

In 2019, it seems to me, an openness to otherness—that is, a healthy curiosity toward people different from ourselves—should be the minimum requirement for meeting a peculiar challenge of post-colonial, twenty-first century life: the challenge to be both a middle-class, gay white male of a certain age and interesting. So too is the ability to hear the phrase “check your privilege” as an opportunity rather than as a judgement. The most important requirement, though, is the hard work of venturing out from our little enclaves and deliberately encountering people of different gender identities: listening to their stories, learning from their experiences, and—hopefully with humility and grace—altering our own points of view accordingly.

For me, part of this process involves imagining myself as a trans woman: immersing myself in the mind and heart—if not the plumbing—of her daily existence. It’s impossible, I know, but it’s worth a try if only to empathize with a gender experience I do not understand. There’s a lot to learn from trans women about the daily work of keeping the body together, the challenges of living in mainstream society, the constant fear for one’s personal safety, and of course the unfathomable sense of one’s own penis as having been an unwanted appendage. (Unlike the drag queen, who can lose the wig, smear off the cosmetics, and “man up” his clothing for work and elsewhere, the trans woman unsettles us because she’s in it for the long haul.)

For some gay men, transphobia remains a subtle, misogynistic form of internalized homophobia: fear of the feminine male, of “the woman inside,” of the possibility that gender is more fluid than we’ve been led our whole lives to believe and that we each might have womanly potential. For such gay men, the ultimate rejection of manhood—yes, superior, all-powerful manhood!—is horrifyingly loathsome. Beyond the pale. So we forget. We forget about ideals like solidarity. We forget concepts like parallel oppression. We forget how hurtful it was to be called “faggot” by a black man after doing our part to support civil rights. And in this forgetting, we turn our backs on the trans woman who reminds us of a possible self we would never want to see in a mirror.

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