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Monday, May 18, 2015

On the Relief of Being Surrounded by Straight Men


The gay community is perhaps one of the most discriminatory communities anyone can ever think of. It discriminates based on age, class, occupation, physical appearance, lifestyle, education, skin colour, HIV status, STD status, number of lovers one had, and the list goes on. As a matter of fact,  the gay community is nothing more than an unfortunate amalgamation of a hundred or more of sub-communities and cliques. Each fiercely guarding the mark of their distinction and each secretly and openly demonizing the other. The muscle marys denouncing the queens, the queens denouncing the "straight-acting" types, the bears hating on the twinks and so on. After spending years navigating those many cliques and factions, I think one loses the ability to withstand the amount of disapproval and resentment that one faces and encounters and it becomes such an ordeal trying to carefully traverse this peculiar geography of hate and discrimination. It might also be the fact, for all intents and purposes, the gay community is also terribly ageist. My turning 30 might also have contributed to me being easily marginalized and "out of the social loop". But also my turning 30 made me realize how uninterested I am in the politics of age and desirability. I never competed in that category of the "young, hot thing". At worst, I was the plain, bitchy queen, at best, an intellectual queen. That last bit, only gets better with age. So that was a done deal for me already. Yet as my own social circle got older I realized, I was fast losing touch or even interest in the previous modes and ways of socialization that I was part of in my twenties. They held little appeal and the community seemed more than happy to reciprocate this disinterestedness. Good riddance they say.
But that is not entirely true. It would be sheer mendacity to claim that my lack of interest or the community's is strictly related to age and age alone. There is a more sinister side to the story. There is the primacy of the "perfect body", the ideal body. The body that is subjected to a regimen of physical exercise, the body that possesses a particular muscle mass, the body that is clothed in certain ways, the body that manifests certain notions of health, discipline, fashion, wealth and social performativity - and that I never cared to possess. Never really cared to subscribe to the universal "gym-toned" body. I found that policing of what a body should like, is profoundly disturbing. Truth of the matter is, there are many people (many, that is another mendacity. A few, to be more realistic) who are in their thirties, and still "have going on for them". But they, through their bodies, display this approved image, display of physicality and idealized image. And for that they are allowed to co-exist with their "younger counterparts".
Egypt has a class system that rivals the cast system in India. People religiously observe the demarcation lines of class and would never commit the transgression of adopting the manners, appearances or even "bodies" of the lower classes. Unless ironically or fetishistically. The ever-present assumption that members of the lower classes are more authentic beings, and therefore members of more affluent classes pick and choose certain mannerisms, refashion them, exaggerate certain aspects of them, and then consume them as lifestyle products - the music of Mahraganat as a good example.
The gay community is even more rigid about those class lines, and the social performance of class takes even a more pernicious and extreme form. In that sense, one would not be caught dead wearing the wrong fashion item, the wrong apparel, or mimicking the wrong mannerisms without the right amount of irony or cynicism - comically - as something of a grotesque and not a direction expression of their socialization experience. Policing the body among the more affluent classes is more strictly observed, in ways that are more reminiscent of fascist dictatorships. Many many times, people gave themselves the right to comment on my clothing choices, or worse on my body. On how should I cultivate a "better looking" body, how do I make my body "more attractive". My body as a site of social engineering. It always left me a bit unsettled and deeply offended. How can anyone give themselves the right to think that they can tell me what to do with my body? How can they give themselves the right to recite its imperfection and suggest the ways of remedying them? How can they assume that my average body is not perfectly content being what it is?
Thus, happened my declining social presence in the gay community, in the most subtle of ways. Since many in my age group, and my social class, opted to leave the country, my larger connections slowly atrophied and my own lack of interest in pursuing new ones effectively ensured my slow exclusion from the more vibrant social circles.
And I found myself introduced into other social circles, "straight social circles" - *Wagnerian drum roll"
Yes, I found myself slowly being integrated into the realm of straight men. But don't let the title of the post fool you. My intention is not idealize the social universe of straight men as a haven of acceptance and brotherly love (pun intended). It is not. On the contrary, it social mechanisms of control and conformity are more brutal and idiotic than anyone can imagine. Nevertheless, there is an immediate sense of relief that one gets to be in a place where such a diverse amount of bodies, of all shapes and sizes, existing in the same physical space. Whether we like or not, there is a democratic sense in accepting the diversity of the human body and its many forms among straight men, that is almost at the opposite end of what the gay community does. There was of course still a certain observance of class and all the manifestations of it, but masculinity adds another crucial dimension to that equation: the equating of masculinity and the performance of masculinity with the authentic lower class. There is a celebration of the vulgarity associated with something common and base, the roughness, the spirit of endurance, the lack of bourgeois refinement, all are fetishized as part of a masculine performance. Of course, a phenomenon that is infinitely nauseating to any self-respecting queen. But that very fetish itself allows for a certain acceptance of other classes, that very same classes that are fetishized. Some kind of token presence that reaffirms these notions of what truly masculinity is and what it does and how it looks like.
More poignant though, is the absence of the body is  primary object of desire. The body is so central to the gay community's modes and patterns of socialization because it is a supreme object of desire. One aspect of possessing it, is controlling the ways in which it is fashioned, in which it is seen and how it is displayed. In the world of straight men, the body is a contested site, but rather one for asserting dominance or control (that might have perverse homoerotic undertones) but never appraised for its desirability for the other. And by other, I mean other men. One could argue of course that the perceived notion of desirability to women is inevitably shaped, in the end, by what men think is desirable rather than what women think is desirable. Yet that deflection of a gaze of a direct object of desire, allows for a space where a lot can be negotiated. Straight men can be pressured in maintaining a certain form of idealised body or physicality, but it is never addressed as "so you are more attractive to other men". That primacy of desire, is not entirely absent, but transmuted into other forms - that, for a queen, are less oppressive.
In the many times I socialized with these straight men, not once did anyone comment on my body: that it is average, or lacking or dressed in the wrong fashion. I was challenged many times, in the most subtle of ways and in the most confrontational of ways - always in a sense of "who has a bigger one". Men's everlasting insecurity about what defines their dominance or position in a hierarchy. That can be irritating, as it reduces every conversation to a cock fight, literally. But in between fights and moments of power display, I was relieved from having to answer why my body is not more attractive or why do I dress so plain.