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I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.
I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people. She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago. And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball. When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed. Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment. It just seemed unnecessary. And, really, unnecessarily vulgar. Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?
I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives. (I’m late, anyhow.) But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment. Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics. (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…) Good; let’s think sociologically!
But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers. Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist icon? Or, is she yet another pawn of the music industry? Apparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin. Fuck. That is a really disturbing revelation.
Queer Sexual Empowerment
In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment. It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex. Right? It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right? It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?
My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment. My mind drew a blank. What would queer sexual empowerment look like? In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act. Fuck you homophobia. We exist.
For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality. Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad. I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow. So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.
But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex. I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause. First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual. It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy. The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion. These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer. That’s not empowerment.
Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered? Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences? Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor? And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?
As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered. Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals. But, not everyone wants that. Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public. I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public. I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men. Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.
I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define. For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred. Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues. To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act. But, only to an extent, it seems. We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions. Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.In a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms. A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off. The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours. Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it. We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”
Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment. Ugh.
No, as the title might suggest, this is not a post about a party I had to celebrate the seventh anniversary of coming out of the closet, embracing and publicly announcing my (now) queer sexual identity. Though it has now been seven years since I first told another soul other than my own, I want to share the experience of another, yet equally important and memorable event.
A friend of mine recently came out to his family, to which he received a less than positive reaction. Given that I knew that I would be in town, I decided to check with my parents to see if they would be interested in having dinner with him and me. It might sound a little strange, but my intention was to give him living proof that parents who may initially not react favorably to their child coming out can, with time, arrive at near-total acceptance. My parents initially said yes, but with a touch of humor that made me wonder whether they were agreeing to do so only to appease me. I did not get much more from my father, which is not unusual for him (a man of few words on emotional matters), but my mother later sent me a reassuring email, complaining that she found it unfair that LGBT children continue to have to deal with negative reactions from parents.
We met for dinner last week, everyone except for me (because I was on spring break) still in work attire. The first twenty minutes or so were a tad awkward with obligatory questions about how my friend and I know each other, where everyone works, where everyone is from. But, then the elephant in the room was finally addressed – let’s talk about coming out and parents’ reactions. I was confident that my parents would have positive things to share with my friend, but I had no idea just how honest and positive their stories would be. Both my father and mother talked about what shifted them from an initial negative reaction (why did this happen? who is at fault? what could we have done differently?) to one of acceptance. The primary force responsible for this shift was their recognition that I was successful in my career (still in college at the time) and continue to be, and that I decided to accept and admit to them my sexual identity to be happy.
What came as the biggest surprise to me, they recounted things that have happened along the way over the last seven years that reflected back my own experience with those same events. For example, my mom noted the time she and my father sat in our family room (a room we hardly use) in the dark, with her consoling my crying father (who, at that point, had only cried twice in his adult life – the other time being when my grandmother died.) She highlighted how it appeared as though they were grieving my death. This is exactly how I recall the event, so it was quite surprising and validating to hear that she experienced the event in the same way. Finally, what I became aware of through their individual journeys to accepting me as I am is that it seemed that most of the work to reaching acceptance was within themselves. For all of the battles over choice of sexual orientation, what I am doing, who I am sleeping with, what groups I belong to, and what types of things I do on the internet (like blogging), the best thing I did to help them reach acceptance was to continue to be successful in all other areas of my life and be myself – the rest of the work fell on them to wrestle internally with their moral beliefs, religious upbringing, and parental love.
In the end, my parents were quite warm with my friend and did their best to reassure him that he need not feel ashamed of his sexual orientation and that his parents may eventually come around. My mom even offered to connect with his parents, but further down the road when they have had more time to digest the news. Seven years ago, my father reacted as though I had died and my mother had to deal with her worst nightmares as a parent come true (she said she knew since I was five that I was “different” than other boys). There were regular fights and silences that shrouded some topics. Today, my father regularly sends me emails about the debates over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and same-sex marriage and my mother has looked into getting involved with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG).
From this event, I feel confident to say that, with time, families can become accepting of their LGBT family members. I should admit that I am not out to a lot of extended family, either because of their age or because we are not all that close. And, I see this as part of the reason why I do not see coming out as the end all, be all for everyone. I do not necessarily think that we should expect everyone to be publicly out, as the consequences for doing so are too great for some people. We as LGBT people are not a monolithic mass; some of us have to worry about the loss of our racial and ethnic communities, or being banished from our places of worship, or being disowned by our families. Although, in one of my ideal worlds we would not need to come out, at least not anymore than heterosexuals, another of my ideal worlds is not needing to have specific labels for people based upon their preferences, tastes, and likes. In the mean time, it is important and powerful for those who can afford to to come out given the impact contact with LGBT people has on supporting LGBT rights, but we also should be careful to avoid setting that standard for all LGBT people as our experiences and backgrounds vary.
There, for once I wrote a post that wasn’t all negative!