…are rage and sadness. I’m furious that the police in my hometown[*] are posing as men cruising for sex, only to arrest the men they pick up for “Simple Assault (sexual)”. And I’m sad for these innocent men, whose sex lives some people still find criminal, and whose lives might be ruined now just for being human.
But what are my thoughts on it? I find them untetherable from my feelings. I see the argument in front of me that gay sex is not public sex, and that the crime here, and what is being policed, involves using public space—in this instance Meridian Hill Park, a longstanding cruising spot in what’s been a swiftly gentrifying part of DC—for private acts. I see the argument, and I don’t care about it.
If you need them, I’m confident that I could find studies and stats that show gay public sex is far more criminalized than straight public sex. Maybe this is because gay men have way more sex in parks than straight people do and, you might argue, it’s more of a numbers game than targeted harassment.
But I’ll never buy it, because I know my history, and my people’s history, and as much as I’d like to think we’re past that history, we’re not. They gave us the right to marry like straight couples, if we want to be straight couples, but there’s still something essential about the sex we have that disgusts people.
Some data, in case you haven’t yet read the story. One: those arrested have said that the cops making the arrests were not in uniform, and were posing as other cruising men. (The police have neither confirmed nor denied this.) To spell that out, they haven’t come across men fucking in the park and arrested them, they have created the criminal encounter (or all but its follow-through) themselves.
Two: “the arrests were prompted by complaints from the public about ‘lewd acts’ in the park.” My feelings about this override my thoughts such that I want the names and addresses of these people so I can find them and make their lives fucking miserable.
More data: some gay men still need to stay in the closet in 2019 for a host of reasons involving careers, personal safety, family ties, etc. And though phone apps and the Internet[†] some closeted gay men need cruising spaces to have sex, as they have for as long as sex and public spaces have been in existence.
Trust me (I’ve read a lot on the subject) that gay men fucking in public are in as much hiding as the world out there allows. They’re not looking to get seen, or caught. They’re not fucking in the open. They’re not fucking in daylight, even, usually. And they’re certainly, without question, not fucking with kids and families around. Not just because kids and families are total boner-killers, but because they’re too dangerous. They’re the ones threatened—how? in what way?—enough to call the cops.
The 26 men arrested in Meridian Hill have lawyers, and none of these lawyers would talk to the Washington Blade about their cases, citing not only attorney-client privilege but the fact that many of these clients are closeted. For straight people to get caught fucking in a park becomes a story you tell your closer friends over drinks one rowdy night. For gay people, it gets you on a sex offender registry and ends your career, if not your life.
Is that true? I find it so difficult to think straight (forgive the term) about this because of how central sexual desire is to my life and the self I’ve constructed. I refuse to let the sex we gay men have get scrubbed from our identity, and the sex we have, gay sex, is more than anatomical. It’s social, it’s historical, and if you’re not gay it’s never, ever going to hurt you.
And fuck you if you ever call it assault.
These arrested men are my brothers, and this morning, back in the DC area for the first time in months, I’m furious and sad for them.
No longer Craigslist, though, which shut down its personals section last year after both parties in Congress bought the lie that consensual sex work and anonymous hookups = human trafficking and handily passed FOSTA/SESTA.↵
I didn’t know he existed (Poirot being just Belgian) until I came across Drewey Wayne Gunn’s The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film in the reference section of the Mechanics’ Institute, where I’m now spending my days writing so’s to steer clear from campus during my sabbatical (or clear enough: I pass campus every day I step outside).
Here’s something worth noting from his opening essay on the GMS, about a specific novel he marks as the first appearance of the character type:
The novel incorporates two important patterns that would become hallmarks of the gay mystery. First, Tony [the sleuth in said novel], in the process of solving the mystery of his ex-lover’s [Julian’s] suicide, begins to understand more the nature of his own sexuality. […] Second, the novel is the prototype of the gay mystery as romance. As Tony uncovers the facts about Julian’s life since the time that they were lovers, he discovers the key to unlocking his own emotions. […] Thus, from the beginning, gay mysteries have willfully violated Chandler’s belief that a “[l]ove interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a type of suspense that is antagonistic … to the detective’s struggle to solve the problem.” For the gay detective, it’s complementary.
I’ve never taught mystery fiction, knowing nothing of how they’re put together, but I can imagine using that craft text of Chandler’s (“Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story”) and in a flash alienating any gay students I’d have and overlooking an entire subgenre of the genre.
And so suddenly this is a post about representation? But also it’s a post about queering forms. So happy I stumbled across this book that showed me yet another way gay artists bestrange and bedevil the forms they work in. For more on this idea, see this great essay by playwright Jeremy O. Harris.
A followup post to the one the other day on Imposter Syndrome. Posing and pretending got me thinking about acting, and how I’m bad at acting, and how I’m afraid of it. If you ever want to get me the worst gag gift, sign me up for an improv class and make me enroll.
What’s scary about acting is being wrong or not being believed. It’s attempting the proper accent and sounding instead like I’ve got marbles in my mouth, or saying sad words in so wooden a way the audience laughs. Adorable. Oh, look! He’s trying to be somebody else but he’s really only always himself.
In other words, the scary thing about acting is other people dismissing my hubris or delusion. That too-big-for-his-britches quality. Which brings to mind the closet. In truth, I acted like a straight man for more than half my life, and the latent feeling I had during that performance was always: Am I doing this right? What if they find out?
Every time I got called a faggot, there was a critic panning my performance.
II. Lately, I’ve been thinking about acting not as a thing certain handsome people do on stage, but as a thing we all do when we leave the house. I act the part of a writer most mornings, and then I act the part of an MFA program director (me! they actually gave this job to me!) and then I act the part of a teacher, and then I go home and act the part of a loving partner. We all have roles to play, with different scripts and settings and sometimes even costumes.
But further, I’ve been thinking about acting in opposition to passing, given “active”‘s opposition to “passive”—in voice, in sex, in everywhere.
You can pass as anything. Most people’s experiences with passing is when somebody comes up to you at a store and asks you where the restrooms are, or the kosher salt. “Uh, I don’t work here,” you go. Passing involves appearing to be somebody else when you’re not even trying, when you’re just being yourself. Passing creates an audience outside of any performance.
I love passing. I have thought so much about strategic passing I even wrote about it in an essay for The Normal School (on, tellingly, impersonations). I love passing because I love boundaries and borders. Anytime a line in the sand gets drawn I want to stand right on it. I want to be the one person who gets to cross, because taking sides means giving something up. Some freedom maybe.
Passing, though, is passive. It lies low, on the DL, while other people make assumptions and suppositions. And in queer communities (urban ones, mostly) it’s Not Cool. Passing as straight, or cisgendered, implies that you’re trying to pass, because you’re ashamed of being queer.
I think about my friend Clutch, who once told me about the street harassment they get as a trans person. “It’s always guys,” they said, “and they always think I’m trying to pass, and like, doing a bad job.” Clutch embraces their trans identity. They only date trans people, etc. So it’s shitty, the experience, but also confusing—like somebody coming up to you at a store and criticizing what they think is your work uniform.
III. Another dichotomy at work here: expressing vs. impressing. When people exhort you to express yourself, there’s always this feeling of authenticity and truth. You do you, gurl. Or people who insist they write to “express themselves.” Expressing is active, and acting is expressing, even if what’s expressed is a pose, a lie.
Impressing is passive, in that I can’t act to impress you. You are the audience, the arbiter, of whether to be impressed by me. And when I look at these I see how much I love being impressed by people. When I meet new people, all I want to do is ask them dozens of questions. I like to follow a conversation, at a distance, more than I like to play my part in it.
Where am I going with all this? I’ve got some developing ideas that posing and artifice is, paradoxically, the way toward an authentic life. In three more weeks I’ll begin a 1-year break from having to perform two key roles in my life: program director and professor. I feel I’ve done a poor job keeping up the roles of writer and partner (and friend, and brother, and son) lately. Those guys need more plotlines, more time in front of the camera.
[Full disclosure: Ari teaches with me in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. He signed my copy of this book.]
“Mostly a name feels like the crappy overhang I huddle under / while rain skims the front of me.”
This is how one poem late in Ari’s debut collection starts, and I loved it because it’s so unlike how I feel. My name I did the good work to grow into, and any changes I made to it—going from David to Dave around 1992—I did because it felt faster, easier.
But such is the luck of being assigned at birth the gender I feel inside. From the position of the trans body Ari maps so movingly in this book, names mean more, and come packaged with more. “I admit it keeps me visible,” the above poem continues, “the agreement to call this that.”
I’m not a strong reader of poetry. It charges a part of my brain I don’t often exercise, a darker part perhaps that makes me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to the darker corners of Ari’s poems. “The Feeling” starts with a red cloud that comes annually up the Aegean—Ari’s people are Greek—and “covers the buildings, the cars, / in a fine red film of dust from elsewhere.” But soon the poem shifts to the moon, and then to the incarcerated, and throughout the field of war on which nations play.
It’s an unstable place, and this is a book that felt drawn to, or driven to understand, unstable places:
I can say moon and tree and fox and river,
or me and you, or love and stutter,
but I can mean corporation I can mean police.
I can mean surveillance,
or that the moon is a prison, it is daytime,
and in daytime no one sees the moon.
The poem reads like an essay with images that arrest me, which is basically everything I ask a poem to be. “This is not our poem,” it ends. “The poem has been privatized. Its flag will be a red feeling.”
I also loved “Hog”, late in the book, which is a kind of bestial/motorcycle/leather fantasy that reminded me of Samuel R. Delany’s novel Hogg. Ari’s landscape here is blurred, or maybe tilled up is the better metaphor: “What’s a hog / but gleam of handlebars, leather, that roar speeding by. / The scared parts dressed up tough, saying / ah come on let’s go chop up the wind.”
“Narrative” might be the closest the book gets to a clear portrait of the young trans body before coming out, and it’s so good I want to just quote all of it, but instead I’ll point you to its initial publication in Verse Daily and quote this part I love the most. It’s one of my favorite images I’ve read all year:
In Illinois I tried to build a kind of Midwestern
girlhood that failed and failed
into the shape of a flute
I played only high notes on.
What else? Oh, what a joy it was to read this part from “Handshake”! I felt heard, understood. I felt like I could find the friends I need if only I could open up about the honest parts of myself I feel it would be better to keep inside, lest I scare off potential friends:
I know I'd prefer to misbehave
continuously. Any squirrel gets what I mean—anarchic revelry,
refusing to ever be still, such keenness.
They own no tree so they all own all of them.
I'd like to flick my tail too whenever I want as if to say WHAT.
But at any moment I'm wherever someone puts me—
then change my mind. I'll pick a side
when I need to
…or black guys or latino guys or whatever you claim not to be interested in sexually. This letter isn’t going to scold you. I think that you’re wrong, that you are in fact racist, but I also think I know why you believe you’re not.
I think the racism everyone accuses you of you see as something different. You see it as being ignorant to your own desires. And I want to write about that.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to know yourself and then to be okay with it. The first time we gays reckon with this process is in the closet; it takes a lot of time and pain and then courage to take ownership of what you’re attracted to and to refuse to be ashamed of it any more.
In fact, we queers are stronger than straights in this regard: every out queer person has done far more sorting of their sexuality than any straight person has had to. You trust yourself, is what I’m saying, to know very intimately what turns you on and what doesn’t. You should trust yourself. You’ve earned that trust.
Now here comes somebody taking you to task for being clear about all this in your app profiles.
I get it. Some guy you want to hook up with is trying to tell you that this element of your sorting—I like men but not Asian men—is racist. Which then sheds light on the flimsiness of the hard work you spent all those agonizing years on. No no no I’m not racist I just know what I’m attracted to.
Here’s the problem: “Asian” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The only thing “Asian” means in a context of bodies is “from a certain racial background”—and even that is up for debate. An Asian body can’t be more or less attractive than a white body, it can only be more Asian.
Or, more accurately, less white.
So this is, I’m afraid, a sorting of your attractions that is informed by racism. And it makes you a racist. It’s okay. We’re all racist. You’re not the first person to look at somebody whose skin color is different from yours and erroneously bring in a whole bunch of stereotypes and associations. The best thing you can do is own up to this—accept it, the way you did your sexuality—and do the work to treat people better.
Here’s a quick story. I used to be A Guy Who Wasn’t Racist, I Just Wasn’t Into Asians. When I clicked on the “Asian” porn category in the websites I’d visit, I wouldn’t want to watch any of the videos through to the end. I wasn’t very attracted to thin men with little to no body hair, and when I thought of Asian men, this is what I saw in my mind.
Then, I was lucky to get to move to San Francisco, where men from all over the continent of Asia are everywhere, and I thought, “Oh, it’s not that I’m not into Asians, I’ve just been racist.” Some I wasn’t attracted to, but many I was. The same with all the white people I’d been living around in Alabama.
I know you know yourself, and that you’ve worked hard to understand what attracts you. But this categorical exclusion you’ve made is built on the lie that there’s one physical way to be Asian. Or Chinese, or Korean, if you want to get into it. Variation in human bodies is as wide as your imagination, and saying no to a whole group of them shows your imagination to be very small.
So just decide to stop. I know you can’t choose who you’re attracted to, but you chose to be gay. You chose to take on that identity. Choose to be the guy open to someday finding the Asian—or black or latino or redhead or whatever—guy of his dreams.
Nick is a dear friend. Fellow Nebraska alum (though later), fellow Sewanee alum (we were suitemates). You’re not going to get an objective review here of a collection that is gorgeous in its compassion, and in the compassion it made me feel for its characters.
Maybe it’s not compassion I want to write about, because the OAD has it as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,” and that’s not what I felt reading these stories. But I don’t want to write about empathy because I’m bored of talking about empathy in fiction.
Let’s try this: Nick’s writing made me feel feelings toward made-up people I have a very hard time feeling in my waking day-to-day life.
I’ll start with his final story, and I think his best: “The Last of His Kind”. It’s about a family in Mississippi, a somewhat bare-bones family of son, dad, and grandmother. The inciting event is a woodpecker hammering away at the house at early hours, which bird turns out to be the last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (hence the title). Family lore has it they’re under the spell of a Choctaw curse, and it’s the task of the son, Henry, task to try to rid them of it.
The story comes at the end of the book’s second section, which is a story cycle centered on the life of the dad, Forney, and much of its wonderfulness comes from Nick’s skillful way of tapping into the histories of these characters we’ve been dipping into over the past 100 pages. Many of the passages felt buoyed by the culmination of lives I’d seen so much of.
The wonderfulness also comes from the wide range Nick allows himself in the POV, dipping even into the woodpecker at times. Here’s a moment, for instance, I loved:
She turns the record over, and George Jones’s duet with Tammy Wynette, called “Golden Ring,” fills up the house. MeMaw sings over the Wynette parts, her voice and achy. She imagines the little bird inside her being nudged awake. She sings and sings, her throat opening. She pictures the bird clawing up her rib cage one curved bone at a time, then, seeing light, flitting out of her mouth hole and soaring away. Oh, to be a bird! To shed this wrinkly skin and become all feather and claw. Nearly reptilian.
The boy, becoming braver, swigs the beer. Some of it fizzes down his chin, and MeMaw roars with delight. He wipes his face and comes in close, his face inches from hers, his eyes large and brown.
“I thought birds fly south for the winter. Why don’t it fly south?”
MeMaw takes the boy’s face in her hands and kisses it. “Because, baby, we are the South.”
I loved “mouth hole”, but mostly I loved the simple grace here, and how much love emanates from the scene. It’s one of Nick’s gifts. He’s got a heart bigger than anyone’s, and a vocab more colorful than a Cezanne.