Gays and the Menís Movement

During lunch we're encouraged to sit with our small groups, to allow the kind of man-by-man emotional check-in that isn't possible in a group of 100 men. Today, three days into a week-long gathering, I'm feeling cranky about the invisibility of gay men at what billed itself as the First Multicultural Men's Conference. The main intention of the conference was to have 50 black men and 50 white men live together in cabins in the West Virginia woods for a week along with Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade, and an equivalent assortment of black teachers: playwright Joseph Walker, poet and essayist Haki Madhubuti, and West African medicine man Malidoma Some. I guess I was naive enough to believe that "multicultural" meant something more than race, that the conference would be a celebration of sexual diversity as well. Color me annoyed at the elders' silence on anything having to do with gay men. I'm also surprised at how shut down I feel about flying my queer flag. So today I've made it a point to wear my ACT UP T-shirt, which shows two young sailors smooching over the legend "Read My Lips" -- if only to identify myself to other gay brothers (I haven't spotted any yet).

The Men Who Dip Their Wings in Sorrow -- that's the name of our small group -- have staked out one of the picnic tables on the lawn, and as I'm digging into my potato salad Zach, the brother from Kenya, stares at my T-shirt. Suddenly he asks, "Are those two men kissing? Are you gay?" His abrupt tone could be blunt, hostile, or both. Jerome, a tiny sparkplug of an actor from Los Angeles, says, "You got a problem with that?" Roy mumbles something like, "Whatever you do in your private life is your business."

The group spends the rest of lunch discussing their encounters with gay people. I say a few words about the berdache tradition among Native Americans and my feeling that being gay is not a "problem" but a gift to society. But I don't talk about my lover or my best friend who died or anything about AIDS. I'm curious to hear their stories.

Jerome, who's as charmingly, actively self-centered as only an actor can be, fills us in on his career. While he was at Florida State University, his gay acting teacher got him a role in a TV movie and a job chauffeuring the star. Jerome was excited, because he admired the star. Then he found out that the star "liked" him and wanted Jerome to come to his hotel room. At the time he was upset and thought less of the star for being a faggot; he also feared getting fucked in the ass. Then he talks about living with a gay roommate whose gayness didn't bother him but whose promiscuity did.

These honest stories are valuable, revealing, and clearly homophobic. It fascinates me that Jerome, who wants to be the coolest, shows the most signs of fear. In our personal interactions, he can't quite relate to me as a hairy, masculine queer but only as a queeny man. He flirts with me outrageously, even pinching my nipple once, but he gets nervous whenever I touch him: "Just don't rub your dick against me."

In addition to our small groups, the men here have been assigned to one of three clans: the Lions, the Snakes, and the Herons. Every afternoon, the clans get together for separate activities. Today, after lunch, it's our clan's turn for dancing class with Warren, the ponytailed hipster from L.A., and Salif, a shy, French-speaking dancer from Guinea. We're supposed to make a "heron dance" to perform for the whole group on Saturday night. The teachers map one out for us, but it's pretty stupid-looking, and most guys can't remember the steps. I had been looking forward to the dancing at this gathering, but now I feel alienated. Why? Because the instructors are acting like typical straight men, out of touch with their bodies and their sexuality. Jerome and I end up partnering a lot, and every time we join hands, he gets nervous and rigid.

When the class disperses, I park myself in a corner of the dance pavilion to brood. Milton comes over and joins me. An energetic, bookish-looking Dominican, he's also a New Yorker (he drives a subway train) and, like me, a student of Siddha Yoga. "What's going on?" he asks. I tell him I feel like being anywhere else, like back home. He tries to commiserate, but everything he says makes me angrier. Finally, I confess that I'm feeling out-of-place as a gay man at this conference. He suggests we go talk to Michael Meade about it. The thought of making my bad mood a problem for the teacher fills me fear, but Milton insists.

Michael, it turns out, has just come out of an inner-work session with the Lion clan in which a young black British musician named Derek has gone into a trance and started speaking in tongues. Spirit possession isn't exactly a staple of men's conferences, and Michael is quite freaked out. This seems like a really bad time to approach him, but Milton nudges me into taking him aside. When I tell him, "I'm having trouble being here as a gay man," the first thing Michael does is hug me and welcome me here. Then he says, "Well, you know, the brothers are very homophobic." He suggests that he and I and Milton sit down with Malidoma after dinner. Malidoma knows about the role gay men play in traditional African societies, and Michael feels that African Americans may ease out of their homophobia by accepting the spiritual role gay men play.

As soon as we make that date, I head down the hill across an open field and begin to sob bitterly. I'm touched that Michael, as a leader and an older man, takes seriously my need to feel whole and present as a gay man. But it makes me realize, too, what a hole has been ripped in my life by the absence of that loving paternal concern. My father knows I'm gay and, like much in my life, we never talk about it. He's an uneducated retired Air Force sergeant who grew up among redneck farmers. He didn't lay eyes on a black person until he was 12; he never transcended the need to hate and fear anyone who was unlike himself. In our household there were two kinds of music: the kind he listened to, which he called "hillbilly music," and the kind I listened to, which he called "nigger music," whether it was the Beatles or the Supremes. He had a venomous epithet for every ethnic minority, and somehow from a very early age I learned to identify with the targets of his bigotry. It frightened me, and it made me strong, and it sealed me off from ever knowing his love.

Trudging up a dirt road, stopping at a flimsy chicken-wire fence to watch five beautiful horses frisking in a valley below, I realize how pissed off I am at the patronizing attitude of my small group toward my assertion of gayness. Straight men often feel free to shame gay men for their sexuality, and I've made it my business not to put myself in a place where my personal power can be sapped that way. I guess I didn't expect, at this conference devoted to cultural difference, for there to be such a freeze on gay experience.

I want to learn from this men's work and take it back to the gay tribe. I also want to share my gifts. I'm not afraid of my body, the way many straight men are. I understand sexuality as a form of spiritual communion, and I know the importance of touching. (One of the men in my group got tearful reminiscing about his spiritual father who died in February, and when I reached up to brush away a tear, he flinched as if he'd been hit.) But I don't feel free to share those gifts here, nor do I feel free to talk. Why drop my armor when I'm surrounded by homophobes eager to see me as a female man, someone to condescend to? I recognize there's some hurt pride and ego involved, too. At gay gatherings I attract a lot of attention with my looks, my energy, my dancing. Here my gay vibes turn men away, as they did my father.

In helping friends who are living and dying with AIDS, I feel like I've been summoned -- by some force stronger than my career-conscious ego -- to undergo a kind of ad hoc training in spiritual healing. That's why it means so much to be here. I'm seeking the thorough self-knowledge it takes to serve as a transmitter between my gay brothers and the spirit world. Is there anything I can get from these straight men to help with my spiritual mission?

That night during "community time" -- the after-dinner session that's totally open to the floor -- the theme emerges of growing up in a racist household. Jimmy, an advocate for mental patients from Washington, regales us with tales of his mother's nostalgia for slavery. "She read antebellum novels and longed for the days when women didn't have to dress themselves," he says. "I was taught as a child that the way I could right the world would be to restore slavery." Even when recounting painful memories, Jimmy's dry, delicious storytelling drawl captures Southern attitudes so perfectly that hoots and howls of recognition fill the room.

By contrast, Chris, a sad-looking Bostonian with a ponytail, speaks with considerable anguish about his ancestors who owned slaves. "As a child I was not allowed to sit in the back seat of the car with our black maid," he recalls. "The tenant farmer on our land was never allowed to set foot in my grandmother's house."

It may sound easy to get up and decry your racist forefathers. It could sound smugly self-congratulatory: "Look how much better I am than those others, those bad white people." Or it could be "politically correct" in the worst way, a grotesque parody of self-criticism sessions in Communist China with their robotic confessions of deviations from party-line behavior. But what's coming out here is personal distress that has nowhere else to be exorcised and perhaps has not been fully acknowledged before this week.

Bob talks about his father and brothers who are still racist. "What does that make me? These are my people. I'm not proud of them. I feel ashamed and sad." African-Americans have found power and strength by studying their family histories and reclaiming their roots. When white men do the same, what do they do with the horrors they find there? It seems important for men of color to hear this pain verbalized, this shame named and released.

For one thing, it's a big step out of denial. We live in a culture that denies its own racism daily. After the Rodney King verdict, the men in the White House never uttered the words "racism" or "injustice" but blamed the riots that ensued on Murphy Brown and Lyndon Johnson.

A social worker from Cleveland confesses that the conference has dredged up painful memories of his own racist behavior. In the orphanage he grew up in, he and some friends chased a black kid out of the house, built a cross on the lawn, wrapped his clothes around it, and burned them. Another social worker from the University of Pennsylvania remembers being called "nigger" by a schoolgirl at the age of 6: "My father spanked me for believing it."

Such vivid recollections inevitably summon one's own. I flash on one of the most electrifying scenes of my family life. It was Saturday morning, and my sisters and I were watching American Bandstand. My father was also in the room, and he pointed to the TV set: "Look at that white girl dancing with that nigger." One of my sisters said, "That's not a nigger." "Sure, it is," my father insisted, "nigger or Portuguese." He meant Puerto Rican, but the slip was telling -- my mother is full-blooded Portuguese. She came out of the kitchen to say, "Who are you calling a nigger?"

Somehow I avoided catching my father's blatant prejudices. But what subtler forms of racism have I inherited? Having deliberately put myself in the company of 50 black men, for the first time in my life, I catch myself thinking of "the brothers" as a monolithic group with the same values, beliefs, and backgrounds, all necessarily alien from my own. Every one-on-one encounter chips away at that preconception, turns a generic black face into an individual personality. No matter how much I've gleaned about black culture from books, films, and music, every individual I meet this week challenges me to open my heart and mind to a larger understanding of black men.

Evidence of the differences between our cultures comes from surprising corners. I overhear two black men snickering at a white guy they met in the sauna: "He didn't know anything about herbal remedies -- can you believe that?" This confuses me. Do all black men, I wonder, have grandmothers or family shamans who teach them the healing properties of herbs? Over a casual lunchtime conversation, it emerges that black men don't consider tipping mandatory; cab drivers and waiters have to earn their tips, they feel. I'm scandalized -- I would never think of not tipping. And another man points out that this men's movement talk about "separating from the mother" cuts no slack with black men. Their mothers are often their only source of support and unconditional love; to take that away without offering anything in its place is totally unacceptable. Of course, living off women is what keeps men boys.

It goes without saying that white men are not routinely hassled by cops, trailed by suspicious shopkeepers, and ignored by cab drivers. There's nothing like being around black men for a week, though, to make us appreciate what a gulf that creates in lived experience. White male privilege isn't confined to those who own banks, control empires, and manipulate governments. Even the freakiest-looking punk-rock anarchist is only a haircut and a costume change away from accessing a white male privilege black men will never know.

I snap out of my reverie when Sherman, a therapist from Oakland, starts to speak. "I'm having a problem with this workshop," he begins, "with a kind of lie that seems to be allowed here." Recalling his grandfather's disappointment because he ran "like a girl," Sherman brings up the stigma attached to effeminacy. "We've talked here about growing up with the line, 'Nigger ain't shit.' But below a nigger is a faggot. And that is the issue people have not been addressing. I would ask the people in this room to look inside yourselves and see what is soft, and what you're trying to protect, and what is secret that you're trying not to say, and say it. Because that is the only way we are ever going to get together."

This sounds like my cue. I stand to speak, my heart pounding, my mind racing. I start by talking about my father. His racism, I say, was only one of 150 reasons why I hated him, but it taught me to identify with the victims of racism. I say I had a lot of fears about this conference, but I've also encountered one I didn't expect: fear of homophobia.

I identify myself as a gay warrior, a Queer National, and a Radical Faerie. I've been to a number of men's gatherings, I say, and regret to say I've encountered more homophobia at this gathering than any other -- more unchallenged fag jokes, more fear of touching. "I'm not afraid of physical violence," I say, "because I'm a strong motherfucker and I'm not afraid to fight." (I figure that line is butch enough to win this crowd, and indeed they cheer. It also happens to be true.) But I don't feel free to share emotions, to let down my armor. I say I came to the conference as a sort of emissary: the gay tribe could learn from straight men about summoning Zeus energy and the power to act in the world, and gay men have a lot to teach about men loving men. I bring up the issue of touching, how little of it there's been at this gathering. I say I'm disappointed that in my small group one guy seemed very nervous about physical contact after learning I'm gay. Finally, I share my perception that this is the biggest taboo in the men's work, acknowledging that men love other men, and that we shouldn't be afraid of that.

I get a standing ovation, as anyone does who moves the room. Michael Meade follows up with a confession of his own. "Before the first men's event I ever went to, which Robert [Bly] invited me to, probably the biggest fear I had was that some of the men would turn out to be gay. I didn't know anything about gay men, except that in my neighborhood you beat the shit out of them. I went, and there were 75 men there, and 40 of them were gay. I thought they were going to beat the shit out of me!" He goes on to say that in most cultures gay people have a place of honor because they see into other worlds. "One of the problems with American culture, which excludes anyone who's different, is that that diminishes the spirituality of the culture."

Immediately after Michael speaks, the drumming master Carlton gets up and says "I have a problem." He proceeds to delivers the most virulently homophobic diatribe I've ever heard in a room with gay people present. He says that gay men are "vampires," that he doesn't want his kids to be taught by gay teachers, and when he sees gay men kissing, he wants to punch them in the mouth. He takes issue with Michael about the spiritual role of gay people, saying that in his experience most African cultures do not accept gay men. "I know in the white community, you have the gay movement, and they want to come out of the closet and be accepted just like everybody else. But in the black community, they say, 'Homey don't play that shit.'"

"Can I say something?" Joseph Walker mentions that he went into the theater in college because he knew there were a lot of gay guys around, which meant more women for him. "When I made that move, it meant a kind of ostracism within my own neighborhood. I've often thought I might have been a dancer. But one of my buddies said, 'Joe, if you go into dance, just forget about me speaking to you on campus.' And that was a severe oppression that changed the direction of my life." He mentions a director at Howard University who came on to him and then persecuted him when he didn't respond; on the other hand, he recalls that, although they were friends, he could never get as close to James Baldwin as he wanted, because Baldwin held himself aloof.

Then, reaching into his historical knowledge, Walker points out that the Spartan army was based on the notion of lovers teamed up to protect each other's backs. And during the era of Shaka, Zulu society wanted to dissuade men from becoming involved with women, fearing that that would make them less reckless in battle. So two veteran warriors would have a young apprentice whose job was to carry equipment and to provide them with sexual gratification. "We're talking," Walker emphasizes, "about two of the most formidable armies in the world."

In terms of this conference, he says, "I have witnessed more affection, and participated in more affection, than I ever thought was possible between men. I think homophobia exists, and it is unfortunate. But I think there have been inroads made here greater than I personally have ever seen before."

"Okay, it's 10:30," says Robert Bly. "I think we'll end the evening with a comment by Malidoma." Bly's main role here has been to watch the clock and keep things rolling. I've also noticed elsewhere that when gay topics or AIDS comes up, he tends to change the subject quickly.

In his village, Malidoma says, there are strong taboos against kissing in public. "Yet you will find more men holding hands, walking, and dancing together with other men than with women. You come to my village, you will never know whose girlfriend is whose or whose wife is who. But you'll very quickly know which men are friends because you see them touching."

The primary image of gay people among the Dagara, Malidoma says, is the gatekeeper, the spiritual person who knows how to link two worlds together, such as the elders who initiated him. He didn't know they were gay until he came to the West, because what they're called -- da-po, or man-woman -- doesn't say anything about sexual preference.

"These people use energy as a force to take care of all the spiritual and physical disturbances that affect the people in the village. Without them, I doubt that society would be able to hold itself together. I wanted to throw that in so you know that somewhere else in the world, the gay person is not put aside as something negative."

Before the leaders can close the session, a guy from Washington leaps up to interrupt.

"When my heart is beating a thousand miles an hour, I know I need to speak," he says. "If anybody has a reason to be labeled homophobic, I do. As a small, helpless child, I was taken into a form of slavery. I don't like to use the term sexually abused -- I was assaulted. I was imprisoned. My dignity was taken away, and I was emasculated. In my home I learned sex was bad, and all touch was sex. I didn't see a lot of touching or holding. The first man that held me anally raped me. I had a lot of rage and anger and grief about that. If anyone should have a problem with men kissing men, it ought to be me, because sometimes that brings back these memories that are fucking horrible to me. But that was yesterday. I'm a powerful man now. I have the power to say yes when I mean yes and no when I mean no, and I invite safe touch, and I hope we all do that."

Finally, we stand and put our hands on each other's shoulders, breathing in together and exhaling an "Ommmm." The sweat and adrenalin, the fear and the tenderness of the last couple of hours circulate through the room like a current, a buzz running through the chain of bodies, one male body. It feels like this session kicked a lot of things loose and raised topics that will reverberate for the rest of the week. I get a gratifying number of comments not just supporting me but seriously engaging the issues of homophobia, sexuality, and touching. When I speak to Hillman, he points out that the best thing about my speaking was Carlton's response -- that it drew out the poison and got it in the open. Walter, an intense black entrepreneur from Washington, gives me his interpretation of Carlton's remarks: black men react so violently to unwanted homosexual advances because it reminds them unpleasantly of how they objectify women.

Still, it sickens me that Carlton can't hear himself spouting the same kind of vicious talk that stereotypes all black men as rapists, muggers, and welfare cheats. I'm dismayed at being forced to realize that men of color are just as susceptible to patriarchal thinking as white men. Mostly, I'm sick and tired of the way straight men patronize gay men and shame us for our sexuality and deny our gifts. I'm sick of hearing these men's movement guys wistfully long for beauty, expressions of grief, male display as a substitute for combat, initiation. Those are among the teachings gay men have kept alive since ancient times. Unless and until they overcome their fear of being associated with gay men, straight men are never going to receive those gifts. After all, it's not that gay men are unwilling to give them.

As that great sage Joan Blondell says to James Cagney in some 1940s B-movie, "I'm hard to get. You have to ask."

The funniest thing is that almost everybody in my small group comes up to me worriedly to inquire whether I was talking about him. Then Jerome breezes up and hugs me saying, "I know you weren't talking about me...."

A couple of guys invite me to join them at the sauna to continue the conversation. The place is packed to the rafters. Once we get the sauna going good and hot, the one Native American at the gathering -- a soulful, taciturn, middle-aged man named Dave -- brings out his pipe, fills it, invokes the four directions, and passes around the pipe. When he first received the pipe, he says, he dedicated it to unity, which the elders considered unusual; people generally dedicate a pipe to something active, like change. After the pipe has made its rounds, Dave sends an eagle feather around the circle, and each of us voices a prayer while holding it. It's no big deal. There's no special hush or excessive reverence. But here we are, 18 naked men -- black, white, Jewish, gay, Native American, Asian, Indian -- sharing a sacred ceremony late at night in a cedar sauna on the edge of a man-made lake under the crisp stars of West Virginia.

Is this just a utopian fantasy we're enacting, a blip on the radar, a moment out of time before we return to the catastrophic misery men have made of the world? Are we the proof of a change that has already occurred? Are we the blueprint for a once and future dream that all men can be brothers?

The Sun, 1992

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