Response to Paul Aguirre-Livingston's "Beyond Gay" in The Grid by Chris Dupuis

After much thought, I've finally written my response to Paul Aguirre-Livingston's article Beyond Gay from The Grid's June 9th issue. It's long, but there are so many important issues raised in the original piece and the subsequent dialogue in our community I felt it was necessary.

Will Munro, Photo by John Caffery

In 2000 when Will Munro started Vaseline, Toronto was given a different take on what queer could be. The event claimed queer space outside the Church and Wellesley Village (the Ghetto as it was often called) and made practical sense since most of us lived in the cheaper neighbourhoods west of Bathurst. It was a meeting place for gays who traced their lineage through Fifth Column and Leigh Bowery, rather than Madonna and Elton John. We were free to dance to The Scorpions in our Mötley Crüe t-shirts, show off the asymmetrical haircuts we got in a friends’ kitchens, and not feel the pressure to sport steroid-aided, over-developed gym bodies. Will always fought for inclusion, supported queers from all corners of the community, and argued through his life and work that each of us had the right to construct our own queer identity. He told us we shouldn’t feel the pressure to conform or assimilate and that each of us was entitled to be the loudest, proudest, most unconventional queer we wanted to be. 

But the move away from the Village meant more than having our own space to party with a shorter commute. It was also a rejection of a place we felt like we didn’t fit in. The Village was too white, too male, too conformist, too much about money, and too straight acting. We wanted an inclusive space where we could party with our dyke and trans friends. Truth be told, many of us berated The Village. We talked about how it was slowly dying, how we had no need for it, how we were “different” than “those gays” (ergo better). I’m not saying Will or the other great people that helped out with the early days of Vaseline were using that language, nor that everyone who attended those parties thought or felt that way. But nevertheless, that dialogue was very much present.

Fast forward twelve years and the Village is still very much alive, while the west end queer scene, less oriented to specific city blocks than a state of mind, is thriving. Barely a year after Will’s death, young writer Paul Aguirre-Livingston has announced to the world (in a cover story of newly re-christened magazine The Grid no less) that he and his generation are rejecting the values and ideals of those who came before and carving their own path. They had online boyfriends at thirteen, learned feminism from The Spice Girls and Buffy, and trace their queer history through Will and Grace. He and his friends are “Beyond Gay” in that they don’t define themselves by their sexuality exclusively or really at all. But they are also “Beyond Gay” as in “I’m so beyond that”. For those of us who are not “beyond” their sexual orientation, suggesting that “gay” is something we can or should get beyond is going to be upsetting.

I should out myself here and admit I’ve been attacked for things I’ve written. I’ve been called a racist and a misogynist, lost valued friendships and had drinks thrown at me (if not on me) because I’ve put things in print that people disagreed with. As a result, I may have a little more sympathy for Aguirre-Livingston than some. I’m not going to let him off the hook, but I have a sense of how he might be feeling right now, and I’m proceeding with that in mind.

The problems I had with this article had less to do with what Aguirre-Livingston had to say, than with the choices made by his editors. I don’t see him trying to speak for the entire queer community, nor do I think he was even intending to speak for his entire generation of gay men. Obviously his editors (since they’re editors, right?) should have seen the problems with his choice of language; that his “we-ing” of “I” would imply he was speaking for his entire demographic, rather than himself and his peers. But the fact his editors were sleeping on the job is no grounds for burning him at the stake.

I completely understand young gay men’s anger about this article; feeling like their struggle for safety and acceptance has been trivialized. But as for the rest of the queer community (women, older gays, trans people, people of colour, small town queers, and everyone who is not part of the narrow demographic the writer occupies), it’s quite clear that Aguirre-Livingston is not trying to speak for or about you.

Indeed, he is speaking exclusively about himself and his friends; a group of young, Toronto-raised, well-educated gay men from privileged families with well-paying jobs. He and his friends can pass for straight, are able-bodied, reasonably attractive, and (despite the suggestively tokenistic inclusion of a single person of colour in the group photo) white.

In understand where the queer community’s rage is coming from. But the fact his piece doesn’t represent the experiences of the entire queer community is no greater misstep than if he had attempted to speak about the entire queer community (which I’d be willing to bet my Buffy box set, he knows very little about). Since Aguirre-Livingston does know about being a young gay man who is privileged on numerous levels, I see nothing wrong with him choosing to write about that.

What bit him in the ass is the second editorial problem with this piece; when a non-queer magazine publishes a piece like this, it will invariably be read as a statement for and about the entire queer community, no matter how it’s contexualized. Given the number of queers the editorial team have within spitting distance, they might have run this by one or two of them, thereby realizing the problem fairly quickly.

But this points to a larger problem in the queer community. Why would we read a statement quite definitively about a small segment of us as purporting to be for or about all of us? Why does it matter that Aguirre-Livingston doesn’t recognize the experience of anyone outside his peer group? There are plenty of other queers writing and speaking about their experience. Why is Aguirre-Livingston not entitled to speak about his?

This is a good opportunity to reexamine what inclusiveness means to our community. While I’m obviously in favour of creating more inclusive spaces and events and being more thoughtful in our language and choices, the idea that every space or event should be for everyone, or that every piece of writing should speak for all of us is insulting to the diversity of queers. While I believe in queer solidarity, I don’t subscribe to the idea of a single “queer community”. Rather, I see a multiplicity of communities that occasionally overlap and intersect. We are not a monolithic group who all think and feel the same way. The only thing we all have in common is the fact that we are different.

On a personal level, I found some of the responses considerably more upsetting than the article. In the multitude of comments on the original piece, the follow-up statement, the responses from other media and writers, and postings on social media sites, people have taken rather personal stabs at the writer; insulting everything from his looks to his intellect, saying things like they wish he’d get gay-bashed so he knew what it felt like. They’ve called for a boycott of the magazine, a toilet papering of their offices, and organizers of Stonewall stated on Facebook they were going wheat-paste posters for their event over The Grid’s distribution boxes.

I don’t know if any of these things have actually happened, but the sentiment behind them is still troubling; that our version of queer is better and truer than Aguirre-Livingston’s. While my personal definition of queer is likely much closer to that of the good people proposing these actions, that doesn’t mean it’s the “right” definition. None of us has a unique ownership of the word queer. None of us has lived the one true queer experience. While I’m sure he would have been angered by the article just like the rest of us, one of the things I took away from Will’s life and work, it’s that each of us has the right to define queer for ourselves. If that version of queer is an apolitical, straight-acting, money-hungry type, who traces their history through Internet porn and a TV show with a straight actor playing a straight-acting gay man, that’s their choice. It’s not my choice, but that doesn’t make it invalid.

Many have been attacking not just what Aguirre-Livingston’s wrote, but the validity of his experience. Perhaps because of my status as a gay white man from an economically privileged family (albeit of a different generation) I can better identify with the things he is saying than others. I haven’t come to all the same conclusions he has, but I’ve certainly asked a lot of the same questions. As much as I embrace the ideals of individualism of my gay generation, I’ve still wondered at times about “the right way to be gay”. As much as my queer politic tells me I should be the proudest most effeminate gay man I want to be, in my loneliest moments a tiny voice inside me has wondered whether being more masculine would make it easier to find a boyfriend. While I don’t consider myself to be complacent about HIV, I meet young gay men who are all the time.

Over the weekend I was talking with a very intelligent friend whom I greatly respect (who also happens to be a gay white man), and one of the things that so angered him was Aguirre-Livingston’s unawareness of his privilege. I don’t want to make excuses for him, but one of the aspects of privilege is that it can be very difficult to realized you have it until it’s pointed out to you, largely I think because privilege is primarily made up of experiences that you don’t have to go through.

In my early thirties, I still feel like I am learning exactly what my privilege means. I always try to be thoughtful in my choices and language, but at the same time it’s constantly being revealed to me in new ways. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point and with the way Aguirre-Livingston describes his community it makes total sense he would have very little awareness of his own privilege. If you’re a gay man who passes for straight, of course you don’t fear for your safety when you’re walking down the street. If you never hang out with women, trans people, people of colour, or effeminate gay men, how could you possibly know anything about their experiences? If you have no connection to the gays who came before you, why would you know anything about their struggle?

The one aspect of the article I haven’t heard much dialogue about is the one I personally found the most upsetting. In his final paragraph Aguirre-Livingston states: 

“I suffer from online dating fatigue already and haven’t held a guy’s hand in almost three years. I have all the sex I want, in my own apartment or his, but none of it means anything.”
If he’s a voice for even part of his generation, I find this truly sad. I was always a bit envious of the generation of gay men who came after me because they had access to queer community growing up through the Internet in a way I never did. But if the result has meant they have plenty of meaningless sex without any romance or true intimacy maybe they aren’t the lucky ones after all. No wonder Aguirre-Livingston is “beyond gay” when the very things that make us gay (sex and intimacy with other men) are completely missing from his life. Rather than berating him for his ignorance of his privilege and queer history, we should welcome him into our queer community. Maybe he’ll learn a few things about himself and the rest of us.  And maybe he’ll emerge at the end a very different kind of queer.


Anonymous said...

very insightful - I was quite confused by that article. I'm a straight woman born in the early 70's who dwells in the gay community quite often due to my involvement in show biz and art. What really resonates for me is how this current change is mirroring what has been happenning in the women's movement. That old saying, if you are not aware of history, you are bound to repeat it. In fact, I was guilty of that attitude as a young woman before my mother straightenned me out!

Jonathan Seinen said...

Thanks, Chris. You highlight what was my initial reaction to the piece - I found it extremely sad. If according to his article, 'we' (meaning 'I') have everything we want as gay men free from persecution, etc, and what we get is meaningless sex and no hand-holding for years, then I'm not that interested.
I also appreciate how you identify your own complexity and contradictions in these issues and ideas, something I missed in Aguirre-Livingston's article. Freedom means responsibility for your actions, and to live in pursuit of the truth.