Friday, October 3, 2008

DON CHARLES ON THE FOLSOM STREET FAIR, CHARITABLE WORK, AND THE PUBLIC DISTORTION OF GAY IDENTITY

The following post is a terrific, erudite essay that my good friend, Don Charles, was going to place as a comment. I asked him if I could feature it on my blog, and he kindly gave me his permission to do so, and I'm delighted he did. It is a statement that must be taken to heart by anyone who is truly concerned about the acquisition of full and equal civil rights for LGBT people.

This is his essay:

"I understand there's an argument that the Folsom Street Fair should be beyond criticism because the event raises a substantial amount of money for charity. People who make that argument need reminding that the good things you do don't cancel out the bad things you do. The bad can certainly cancel out the good, though. Here's an example: Gay circuit parties were once touted as great anti-AIDS fundraisers until somebody told the inconvenient truth that these events were orgies of illegal drug use and unprotected sex.

"It's commendable that the Folsom Street organizers have a social conscience. Where is that conscience, though, when they promote their Marquis de Sade celebration as an expression of "Gay culture"? They're marketing a lie, and one that's immeasurably harmful. All the charity funds in the world can't make up for the political damage done when Gay identity is equated in the public mind with fetish worship, humiliation and the infliction of pain. The price of stamping out AIDS infection shouldn't be the marginalization of LGBT folk and the distorting of LGBT sexuality!

"Yet that's the price we pay every time evangelists use lurid imagery from the "Gay" Folsom Street Fair to bolster their condemnations of the Gay "lifestyle". As you well know, video taken at Folsom is one of the main sources of shock material distributed by anti-Gay forces, and when I say every time they use it, I mean thousands of times a year, every day, on TV, on the radio, in Bible bookstores, and at church services. That's how many times they succeed in scandalizing Gay, Lesbian, bisexual and transgender identity among religious Americans who know little or nothing about it, and the result is devastating. I've often heard leather/fetish enthusiasts laugh and sneer about how Folsom Street film footage rattles the Right Wing. Once that footage circulates in the Bible Belt, believe me, there's nothing to laugh about, and the sneer is directed back at them!

"Those marginalizing images translate directly into renewed opposition to employment protections, marriage equality, adoption rights, open military service, ordination of Gay clergy, membership in organizations like the Boy Scouts and initiatives designed to make school attendance safe for LGBT kids. They help drive a wedge between LGBT kids and their parents. Outside the United States, they help justify the criminalization, brutalization and execution of Gay people in the Third World. Such a high degree of negative blowback can't be laughed off.

"To be sure, fundamentalists will use whatever shocking sexual imagery they can find to vilify LGBT folk, and we can't stop them from doing that; but we damn sure don't have to make it easy for them to do! You and I agree 100% on this point: The Folsom Street Fair hasn't just been contributing to AIDS charities. It's also been sending charitable contributions to our enemies in the form of ready-made anti-Gay propaganda. Which batch of contributions has had more bang for the buck? When I look at the many "marriage protection" amendments now on the law books in state after state; when I think of how the Anglicans and most other organized religious denominations have hardened in their heterosexism; and when I read about murderous mob attacks on Gay people in the Caribbean, the answer to that question is painfully obvious! Social conscience that goes just so far is as bad or worse than no social conscience at all.

"Folsom organizers and their defenders must expand their limited social conscience. They should act forcefully to counter the false impression that the Street Fair is a Gay community event. What's wrong with saying that the (dubious) appeal of sado-masochism isn't limited to any one sexual orientation? It's the truth! There's no legitimate argument against doing so. The organizers should do this ASAP, and then they can hold their annual sex bazaar, raise beaucoups of kinky charity dollars, and continue offending the sensibilities of religious Right Wingers without sharing responsibility for distorting Gay identity. However, if they persist in promoting a lie about my sexuality, there's absolutely no reason why I shouldn't view their group in the same light as I view Focus On The Family, a group that promotes the same vicious lie.

"The hysterical people who call you a clone of Peter LaBarbera do that in order to silence an uncomfortable inner dialogue. They realize that your words have merit, even if they don't agree with you, but they're too immature to express their disagreement in a rational way. Pay them no attention, and keep sharing your important message. For my part, I have a single message for both the Hedonist Left and the Religious Right: Stop scandalizing my name. Leave the definition of my sexuality alone. Keep your sleazy, lying manipulations off of it! It's mine! It doesn't belong to you."
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6 comments:

Tim said...

Thank you so much for sharing this--and many thanks to Don Charles for having the courage and insight to say it.

As it happens, I was in San Francisco last weekend to attend the wedding of my nephew and his partner. The wedding party stayed at the InterContinental, not far from Folsom Street and consequently shared many elevator rides with guests who'd come to SF for the Fair. Finally, curiosity got the better of my partner and after much persuasion, I agreed to stroll over there with him to check it out. (It seemed advisable that he not wander off on his own...)

We're Chicagoans and well-acquainted with our town's Halsted Street Market Days, a somewhat similar event--although it's more about celebrating the diversity in and surrounding its predominantly gay neighborhood than focusing on any specific lifestyle-within-the-lifestyle or fetish. (We get more than our share of leather and BDSM during IML weekend.)

By design, we arrived at the Folsom Street Fair during its final moments. The crowds had waned and most of the vendors had struck their booths. Even the little bit we caught was disheartening for all the reasons Don Charles raises.

As often happens in mass gay gatherings, it appeared that many came to the Fair thinking it was a can-you-top-this contest. Person after person (male and female) clearly had chosen his/her get-up--or lack thereof--for its shock value. Yet the overall effect was rather odd. Instead of standing out, they all sort of blended together in a group portrait of desperadoes preening for attention. No doubt there are those who find neediness sexy, but its erotic appeal was entirely lost on my partner and me.

Part of that was because we were highly sensitized to the gay image it portrayed to the outside world. To Don's point, it most certainly played into the homophobia of right-wing Christians with its flagrant pandering to S&M and "dark side" role play. But I also wince to think how it looked to more tolerant, even gay-affirmative, people: freakish, childish, and self-indulgent all come to mind.

When I said this, my partner--who's less apt to draw conclusions--said, "You don't think this stuff goes on in straight life? Of course it does. They just don't publicize it." Then he paused. "OK. I get your point." But Charles raises a bigger point, I think. The reason why straight society doesn't put its kink out on the street is because its community at large would never tolerate being stereotyped in that fashion. Somewhere in our struggle for tolerance we got our wires crossed and think that we're required to tolerate--no, make that endorse--fetishes, habits, and preferences that distort our reflection in negative ways. And this leads to a much more critical problem, as over time, we've begun to perceive ourselves in keeping with the dark mirror that sensationalist media and reactionaries present to the world.

Casual acceptance of events like IML and Folsom, which perpetrate negative stereotypes to mainstream society, amounts to advocacy of certain mindsets and behaviors outside the "gay norm." (I know I'm edging ever closer to sounding prudish here, but I'll risk it anyway.) The more pervasively these images become identified with gay life, the more accessible the practices they espouse become also. Most certainly, those who are psychologically drawn to fetishes and ritualized sex have every right to explore and fulfill their desires. Yet what troubles me most are our young people, many of whom naively participate in dangerous, potentially damaging sex scenarios because they're encouraged to believe they're more common and harmless than they really are. In the past decade, I've met dozens of twenty-something kids who've successfully come out of the closet only to impulsively wander into the dungeon, under the impression that that's a common facet of gay life. And if they do come out of that scene eventually, their concept and expectations of sexuality are often permanently skewed toward fantasy, impersonal/anonymous interaction, group sex, promiscuity, etc. So I think the impact of events like IML and Folsom--and the "community" organizations and merchants who avidly support them--reaches even farther than fueling the fires of homophobia. Quite possibly, it's steadily steering how each new generation defines its sexuality away from emotional and social stability toward rampant experimentation and insatiability. In other words, we may be getting closer to becoming the kinds of people our enemies slanderously accuse us of being.

One last thing (and I apologize for going on so long; obviously the essay touched a sore nerve...). I openly admit to being repulsed by the BDSM and leather scenes, though not because I find their style and preferences offensive. They have every right to live and do as they please. What offends me is the inherent contradiction that's emphasized when they profess to represent our community.

By their very nature, BDSM and leather scenes promote exclusion and inequality. Their clubs enforce dress codes. Their media reinforce images of domination, subservience, humiliation, and degradation. Their adherents most definitely are welcome members of our community--and many of them have been ferocious champions of our struggle. Yet they do all of us a great disservice by advocating widespread, public tolerance of their personal fetishes. How can we as a people possibly demand equality and respect in society and yet ignore the patently unequal and demeaning culture openly displayed in our own front yard?

Thanks again for the post--and once again, I apologize for running on so long. I've just discovered your blog and I'm anxious to dig into it (hopefully with more self-restraint!). Also, I invite you to take a glance at my blog, a daily devotional for GLBT Christians called Straight-Friendly.

Peace,
Tim
www.straight-friendly.blogspot.com

Jerry Maneker said...

Thanks so much for this comment, Tim. I'm very grateful for the time you took to write it and the depth of thought it represents.

You, as does Don Charles, hit the nail on the head, not only regarding the counterproductive false stereotypes perpetrated by such public exhibitions, but you also correctly hit on what such exhibitions will likely do to future generations of LGBT youth.

Also, you have an excellent blog, and I added it to my Links list. My very best wishes, Jerry.

Tim said...

Jerry, thanks for your patience with the above. I also linked your blog to mine and listed it in today's post while passing on an "award" mine received to 5 others. Stay in touch, and by all means, feel free to chime in on Straight-Friendly, if you're so inclined. Peace, Tim

Jerry Maneker said...

Thanks so much, Tim. And, by all means, the feeling is mutual. Best wishes, Jerry.

DON CHARLES aka "STUFFED ANIMAL" said...

Jerry,

I can't believe it. Someone who actually understands what we're trying to convey? Someone who doesn't try to link us with the "ex-Gay" movement? Someone who knows what inconvenient truth is? Someone who knows what respect is, and how best to achieve it? A Gay man who doesn't want to own "queerness"? Praise the Lord!

Jerry Maneker said...

I agree, Don Charles! Tim shows himself to be an intact man, unlike those who revel in using pejorative labels with which to identify themselves and others, with the rationalization (that has absolutely no basis in fact) that they are "reclaiming" and/or "neutralizing" those hateful words; words that must never be reclaimed or neutralized! Emotional health and civil rights have as their precursors a sense of dignity and self-worth that demands full and equal civil rights, and the use of those pejorative, hateful, words signifies very much the opposite!