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Monday 08 November 2010

Being gay today: the journey

Posted in: Community
By Jacqui Stanford - 15th August 2010

Douglas Jenkin
Ben Barratt-Boyes
In something of a quest to gain a better understanding of the worlds of gay men, writer (and blatant lesbian) Jacqui Stanford sat down with Douglas Jenkin and Ben Barratt-Boyes from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation for a chat over coffee and crackers, about their knowledge and observations about the journeys to acceptance and sexual culture of men who have sex with men.

Part one in the two part series is 'the journey' and whether it's any different now it's apparently 'cool to be gay'.

They are very different gay men with very different life stories, but both Ben Barratt-Boyes and Douglas Jenkin agree that the journey commonly called 'coming out' and the behaviours which come with it are the same as they have been for decades, even generations.

Barratt-Boyes, who is the NZAF's National Partnerships Coordinator, says the self-acceptance process was the same in Jenkin's generation as it was for him - and he predicts it will remain the same for those coming out in the future.

He says just because being gay is perceived as a lot more acceptable now, it doesn't mean individuals are accepting of themselves. "You hear a lot more about schools, lesbian relationships are really common and everyone's kind of cool to be gay. It doesn't mean that the individual isn't dealing with their own battle with accepting themselves, it's really about accepting yourself."

"The key thing is that you can't actually be happy until you accept yourself. And that's if you're gay, straight or even in a religion. I think there's a misconception that when you come out you're finally at peace with the world. But that's not the truth."

Barratt-Boyes says from what he sees among young guys coming out now, it's about a struggle to figure out where they fit in. He says gay people are actually lucky that they have the chance to embark on that journey. "Once you come out you're forced to deal with those issues and you become a better person for it."

Camp vs Straight Acting

Will and Jack from Will & Grace
Jenkin, the NZAF's National Campaigns Coordinator and a former journalist, uses the term 'nelly' to describe 'camp' men, saying they often have the hardest time. "For people who are never going to be lumberjacks, they've never had a chance to be in the closet. And therefore they have to deal with a lot more than other people." He says at the moment we seem to be going through an 'anti-sissy' phase.

Barratt-Boyes agrees camper guys have a hard time, but says those whose sexuality is not so apparent have a difficult time too, but in a different way. "Because when your hand's not forced, you often take longer to deal with that. Whereas the ones that are 'sissies' or the camp ones, their outing might be sort of short, sharp and fairly brief. But they get over it pretty quick and they're allowed to move on."

He says those who keep their head above water come out of high school and flourish, whereas for closeted guys who nobody guesses is gay it can be messier, as they have to deal with the expectation to have girlfriends and other such social pressure. "I don't think it's any easier, it's just a very, very different journey."

Jenkin says society is generally only accepting of things which mirror it. "And so the more conventional you seem to be the more acceptable you'll be."

He says public sex will never be acceptable, in general, to a mainstream community and cites the Hero Parade and the feeling that as it got cleaner and cleaner over the years and attracted more advertising "it had absolutely nothing to do with gay culture. And so therefore it lost its confrontational or its political edge."

Cool To Be Gay

Portia De Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres
The 'cool to be gay' phenomenon worries Jenkin. "Depending in your politics, the people who are our spokespeople now are very conservative." He cites Ellen DeGeneres, who he feels imitates a male-female couple in her relationship with wife Portia De Rossi and has 'a shrieking girl show'.

"Most of those people who are accepted, who are in the mainstream media, are very conservative. So they're not radicals. It's heteronormative. That's why they're accepted. But that's not necessarily the way people want to be."

Jenkin believes it's all part of the American 'rights' agenda, which is very different to the original radical 'gay liberation' agenda. "When I was young and naive I really thought it was the beginning of something dramatic in history, along with feminists and the other movements, and it was actually sort of like a little blip. It was really the end and not the beginning."

"When I walk down the street I see women wearing ludicrous spine-destroying heels to make their legs look longer and I wonder are we just going around in a circle?"

He cites what he calls the 'historically irrelevant' push for marriage and the right for openly-gay people to be in the army and kill others, as things people never would have fought for, until the radical agenda was replaced with a rights agenda.

However Jenkin can take it with a grain of salt, saying it's great that people now feel free to have same-sex relationships, which do not break laws.

He laughs that you can't fight for people's rights for 25 years, and then tell them what to do with them, "which of course you feel tempted to do, but you keep your mouth shut – as much as you can!"

Growing older and 'the scene'

The pair point out the often very different paths gay and straight men take as they grow older, with straight men often having wives and children to take into account.

Barratt-Boyes says this can mean there is no accountability for gay men. "The reality is my life today doesn't need to change as responsibility goes. In 20 years time, it's exactly the same. So my routine can remain the same."

He says it's very different for his brother and his wife, who have a child to think about and have to make sure what they do benefits their child.

"There are sacrifices and reality checks. They can't go out every Friday night and take E on Saturday and climb into bed on Sunday afternoon and get up in the morning and do what they have to do during the week. But we can, if we so choose. That can often be too much for some people I think. That's too easy, too much candy."

Jenkin says on the other hand many older gay men see 'the scene' as being very shallow and mostly for the young. "For people who want to dance forever. There's an element of perpetual adolescence about it, which as you get older becomes slightly silly."

There are times where those two worlds can collide - and the lifestyles of bisexual men, or men who identify as straight and hook up with guys, will be part of the saucy sequel to this piece – which will look at the sexual culture of men who have sex with men.

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Jacqui Stanford - 15th August 2010