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Archive for the ‘Gay Men & Women’ Category

A Deficit

Pete’s touch is astonishingly calming.  He gently folds down the collar of my shirt, puts the stretchy tape around my neck and then sweeps his two fingers around it before he secures it along the nape.

The white vinyl cape comes next, also secured in the back.  With a hand on each shoulder Pete smooths the surface – I can see this in the mirror and feel it when I stop to think about it.  Mostly I don’t because Pete and I are talking.  Talking about something, but nothing too, at the same time.

His fingers flex, fanning out to their fullest over the top of my head and he uses the gentlest grip to position my head so that it’s lined up opposite of his.  He moves his eyes back and forth quickly surveying the situation and then the little muscles in his fingers, which are still atop my head, motions for me to adjust the way I’m holding it.  Slightly – just slightly.

Vast bold sweeps of the electric razor move across my skull.  Front to back.  Side to side and it’s over in less than a minute or two.

From behind and with one hand, Pete pushes my head forward and then with multiple gentle motions he moves the electric razor up and down along my neck moving from behind my right ear to behind my left ear.

“Take a look and see if this is short enough,” he says while offering me a round hand-held mirror.

I run my own hands around my skull and tell him it feels fine.  “I do it by touch,” I tell him.  “I can tell how it looks by the way it feels.”

Now the electric razor begins to dart to various spots along my hairline.  Pete and I are talking, this time about the politics.  When he needs to make a point he stops the clippers, places one of his hands on my shoulder, lowers himself just so and looks me right in the eye.  But when our eyes connect it’s in the mirror in front of us and somehow his point becomes my point (or vice-versa) because even though we’ve made eye contact, we’re doing so by being side-by-side.

I wonder if it’s this very fact alone that make barber shops such intimate places.  Discussions with one’s barber can include virtually any topic, but unlike any other setting, we’re always talking to one another from the same physical perspective.  And we are simultaneously looking at each other and ourselves, eye to eye.

Men are usually jockeying for a position – namely to be correct and we typically do this via any number of physical and/or verbal maneuvers.  To make our point we will do almost anything to subjugate the other party.  In the barber shop, however, learning takes place on what must be the most level playing field that men ever encounter.

Pete moves his clippers behind my ears after gently folding each one forward.  He tilts my head from one side to the other as he works his way around, tidying up and looking for rouge hairs.  I hear the purr of the foam dispenser and within a moment I feel the warm gel being placed along the back of my neck.

Pete reaches for the straight edge, then with the most benevolent touch moves my head slightly forward again.  It’s only the sound of the straight edge that I sense.  With a damp cloth he cleans up the remains.  He tells me about his youngest daughter’s first communion while doing so.

A dash of powder and then dusting with the brush.  The white vinyl cape is released followed by the stretchy tape around my neck, which is by this time damp.   Before I get out of the chair, Pete reaches into my shirt and unfolds my collar, placing it into the correct position.
“I like your hair this way better,” he says.  “It makes you look tougher.”

As I collect my hat and glasses from the rack across the room Pete jostles towards me.  “Wait.  Don’t move,” and he reaches out to hold my arm as if he needs to steady me.  I stop and he steps a few feet into the room with the clippers to get the couple of hairs that he missed.

What Pete does isn’t necessarily unique.  What is unique, perhaps, is that the majority of Pete’s customers are gay men and gay men are not accustomed to this manner of touching.  I suspect that regardless of orientation, men in general are not accustomed to this level of intimacy with another man.

So often gay men are trapped into an environment without touch.  The casual reader may find this interesting because gay men appear to be more free with their emotions than their straight counterparts.  Underneath this freedom of emotional expression there is often a very subtle power play that’s trying to work it’s way to the surface.

“Will he like me?”  “Does he like me”?  “Do you think he’d like to go out with me?”  “Is he  more interested in me than that other guy?”  The layers of internal dialogue that take place within the context of gay men being physical with one another are almost paralyzing.

Heterosexual (straight) men use sports as a means for physical closeness with other men.  The ass-grabbing, group-hugging and locker room towel-snapping isn’t just permitted, it’s expected.  Even as spectators, straight men will embark upon a level of physical expression towards one another that ends immediately after the game.

Maybe it’s simply an American male phenomenon.  I have two Islamic friends, one from Afghanistan and another from Somalia.  My Somali friend always greets me with a caress and will walk with me arm in arm.  The same is true with my friend from Afghanistan.  There is a kindness that I feel with these two men that that I do not feel from my American friends.

As I consider all of this I’m intrigued by how touch is so lacking in our lives as American men – and as a gay man myself, I personally know this to be true.  None of it would have surfaced, these thoughts and this short essay, had it not been for the caring, gentle touch of my barber Pete.

Maybe it’s accepted in the barber shop simply by the mere fact that the barber himself is the one who has access to all the sharp implements.  As little boys we learned quickly what it meant when the barber said “hold still”.  The consequences seemed immense.

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Over just the past couple of months I’ve found myself back in touch with some of the kids I grew up with.  It was Minneapolis – the 70’s and the 80’s and because most of us were of Swedish decent, it was nearly impossible to find one another on Facebook.  Erickson, Peterson, Pederson, Johnson, Benson, Olson.

Two of my former neighborhood pals have married their high-school sweethearts, both of whom I also knew though the names didn’t necessarily match the faces I remembered.  Sons in the military, daughters off to college, anniversaries – milestones in their lives and I need only click to see the photos and read the captions.

Two others – guys from the neighborhood have moved away following their divorce.  One to Phoenix and the other to the U.K.  Another former childhood neighbor I discovered working in Chicago – reunited we were after nearly 20 years.

When I look at the lives of the people I once knew I find myself pondering the milestones that I see before my eyes.  Some pleasant, some not so pleasant, but milestones none the less.

This led to thought about my milestones, my rites of passage – and there seem to be far fewer.  Sure, I have photos of my vacations and of my dwellings but absent so often are photos that tie together my social past.  Absent because I had to break them or filter them because of sexual orientation.

I have no photos with my high-school sweetheart.  He didn’t know.  But we palled around constantly in our senior year.   We went to movies together, we went out to eat together.  We skipped class together – I on the back of his motorcycle as we made our way west on Lake Street.

While most of my childhood friends remained in Minnesota with their spouses, I traveled the world over thanks to my job.  While I was struggling with languages they were struggling with newborns.  When I was in New York, they were getting the kids ready for school.

Photos of me and my “friend” exist when we were together in Berlin and Frankfurt and then again when I took him to Las Vegas.  He has photos of me in a small East German village and in a lake-side dacha reserved for East German railroad workers.  But when my German boyfriend said he wanted to stay with me in the US, there was nothing either of us could do about it.

The twelve year old photos have little relevancy today – though they may have been milestone photos if the laws had been different.

For the past several years my birthdays were spent in Helsinki – an annual reunion with friends and colleagues.  Exotic as it may seem, the annual trips broke up winter’s monotony.  I don’t have photos of myself on my birthdays because I’ve been the one carrying the camera.  Social staccato.

There exists photos of me at airports, on airplanes and in subway stations – and on occasion there are stories, captions to go along with them.  But these photos don’t necessarily connect anything.  They’re just occurrences.

By no means am I bemoaning life.  I’m fortunate in many regards.  I’ve made good decisions, I’ve seen and done things time and again that most people may only do once in a life time.  Soon I’ll be moving yet again, this time to the splendid city of Chicago and I’ll be doing so worry free.  All good things indeed.

So don’t think I’m feeling jilted by the absence of any one thing or another.  It’s just that sometimes I notice the differences and that gets me thinking.

June is Gay Pride month. Do something to be proud of.

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At a weekend BBQ I bit my tongue when a guest was applauded for volunteering for an AIDS fund-raiser. It’s not that I don’t believe money should be spent to find a cure. I do. But we’ve been hosting proverbial ‘bake sales’ for decades now and we’ve seen no sizable decrease in the rate of infection.

Perhaps our time and money would be better spent building social and political institutions that support self-awareness and self-esteem. The elimination of such social factors as loneliness, isolation and shame could have a great impact on future infection rates.

For example, there are few, if any social institutions that suggest that gay men should work towards couple-hood or that support gay couples once together. Even within our own ranks we often throw in the towel when our relationships become stressed or strained.

The absence of same-sex marriage is glaringly absent as a social institution. We have no social rights to inheritance, no Social Security benefits from would-be spouses and no property rights. The social message here is “you’re on your own”.

A recent Chicago Tribune article brought tears to my eyes as an example of the toll that the absence of these social institutions have taken on one man.

After the war and after graduating from college, Engandela met Joseph in New York City and, in the 1950s, brought him home to Chicago. They set up together in an apartment on Cornelia Avenue.

Now Mr. Engandela lives alone in a home for seniors in Evanston.

Consider that, according to SAGE estimates (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Elders) almost 90% of gay retirees have no children and 80% of have no partners.

While these numbers currently represent a population that has lived through various social and political difficulties, little has changed for my generation and those who will follow. The necessary social and political institutions are still not fully in place.

It’s not an obvious correlation – HIV rates and partner-less gay retirees, but when as a whole, a population has nothing to look forward to as it ages, self-esteem and self-worth dwindle. When self-worth is relegated away accountability is also diminished and this sets the stage for risky sexual behavior.

Behavior is still responsible for the majority of new HIV infections. Large sums of money have been spent building an infrastructure for those seeking anonymous sex, the often still (sub)cultural norm for “socializing”. Bath houses, circuit parties, and on-line resources take in millions of dollars annually – by willing contributors.

These institutions perpetuate the very challenge that we need to overcome – social isolation fostered by a diminished sense of self-worth.

Institutions such as Stonewall Columbus and the Center on Halsted in Chicago are working diligently to create a new vision for the population and it is institutions such as these that have the ability to ultimately change our vision of ourselves. Scores of programs are available to assist virtually every segment of the gay, lesbian and trans-gender communities.

I had a chance to tour the Center on Halsted last week – a 55,000 square foot, $20+ million facility. Anchored by a Whole Foods, the facility contains a gymnasium, theater, counseling areas, a commercial kitchen and meeting spaces (and much, much more) packaged in stunning LEED certified building. In a very short time, the Center on Halsted has become a neighborhood institution that serves many different people and so many different needs.

There’s no doubt that we have to continue to fund HIV/AIDS research but more importantly we have to change beliefs and build the social institutions that support mental, physical and spiritual well-being. These institutions will have a greater impact on current and future generations than anything else I could imagine.

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On a radio program last week I heard the guest of a travel show recommend that American tourists take time where ever they may be headed, to venture an hour away from their destination.  The radio guest stated that what one will find an hour outside of any destination are people living with “other truths that are also self-evident”.

That phrase has stuck with me throughout the week precisely because it is such an ingrained American term.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, but within the context of the radio discussion, I remembered quickly that “truths” are subjective and localized to the same degree in other populations as they are within the American population.

For example, in Finland, a truth that is self-evident is that one will have access to life-long educational opportunities that are essentially free, though paid for through taxation.    Income taxes may be higher, but it provides for a richness that is not tied to ones production of personal wealth.  Instead, life-long educational opportunities enrich the nation as a whole.

In most industrialized countries a truth that is self-evident is that one’s health care needs will not require an entire family to be displaced for the sake of paying for the necessary care.  In the same industrialized countries a truth that is self-evident is that the aged are cared for by extended family, often living under the same roof.

A truth that is self-evident for citizens in many countries (and some US states) is that they can marry either a man or a woman, regardless of their own gender.  It is self-evident that their relationship is legally recognized and protected, even if the evidence is rather new to the law books.  In most major cities I know that I can hold my boyfriend’s hand and in doing so, not cause bring undue harm to either of us.  It is a truth that is becoming self-evident.

Sometimes the truths we hold to be self-evident are created by where we work and with whom we socialize.  Last week I told a story of how, when I worked for the airlines, I could travel anywhere and visit with any number of friends around the globe at a moments notice.  No-cost jet transportation was a truth I held as self-evident, as did most all of my friends.  For many years, my sense of self was defined by that.  When it ended, I had to learn new truths.

Today I met with a friend I’ve not seen since February.  On-line, yes, but face to face, it’s been four months.  We were talking about this topic.  The question he posed was how, as a culture, do we expose our own population to these other truths that are also self-evident.
“How, for example,” he stated, “would I convince my parents to travel to another part of the world to witness these truths?”  I told him that I didn’t think that one had to travel that far to learn of these other truths.

When I’m in Chicago, one truth I hold as self-evident is that I do not need to memorize transit schedules.  Because public transit runs so frequently, I only have to wait for the next bus or train to arrive.  I never have to wait “another hour”.

In Minneapolis a truth that is self-evident is that everyone has public access to water, be it lakes or rivers.  Laws require that every waterway have public access points.  Life in Minnesota revolves around lakes, even for the folks who live in downtown high-rises.  When I’m in Chicago, because I grew up in Minneapolis, I can’t imagine not having access to Lake Michigan.

These truths are not necessarily something we consider every day.  They are so true that we know them to simply be – we’re not required to think about them.  As today’s conversation continued, my friend asked this, “What local truths would we, in Columbus, hold to be self-evident?”

Are our local truths socially imposed or legally structured?   I’m curious to hear your answers to this question.

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Local Pride

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It was the summer of 1999 and I found myself in Fairbanks, Alaska for work.  Having been away from Fairbanks for a few years, I went out for a walk to see what had changed.  Off in the distance I noticed a rainbow banner spanning a downtown street.  Colorful banners and flags are not uncommon during the winter darkness, but this banner looked recent – not as if it had survived the winter.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed a telephone number, so I dialed it and received a message.  I had stumbled upon, and was minutes away from the beginning of the Fairbanks gay pride parade.

In a small park at the corner of 8th and Cushman a handful of folks began gathering, then soon thereafter, a few more.  Then came a few more in convertibles and pick-up trucks.  A van filled with Christians showed up.  They weren’t confrontational, but they were conversational (I’d imagine everyone in Fairbanks knows one another).

Once a sizable group had formed, perhaps 15 or 20 people of which I was one, we headed north along Cushman – a couple pick up trucks loaded with a few drag queens and a boom box.  The rest of us walked.

At the time, downtown Fairbanks was comprised of the local TV station, one or two tourist traps and several dive bars.  Local drunks emerged from doorways in reaction to the commotion – because twenty people on a Fairbanks street has a noticeable audible presence, especially when combined with boom box blaring disco music.

From my mobile phone I called my boyfriend in Orlando.  “You will NEVER guess what I’m doing.” I said when he answered the phone.  Following the parade, the group reformed at Alaskaland Park (now known as Pioneer Park) for a cook out.  I was chatting with a woman who had traveled to Fairbanks for this event.
“Can you believe the turn out!” she said.  “It is so exciting to be around this many people,” she continued.

I think about that day whenever I encounter a pride-day celebration, because it took far more bravery for those few folks in Fairbanks to march through the city than it does for the hundreds that do so each year in Columbus.

Central Ohio is dotted with plenty of small,well populated towns where one will also find homosexual residents:  Newark, Granville, Lancaster, Circleville, Chillicothe, London, Marysville and Marion.  Imagine if, next weekend, the gay residents of these towns took to the streets simply for the sake of demonstrating their presence.   Nothing fancy – they could do it as simply as the folks in Fairbanks did.

When the local news broadcasts images of Columbus’  Pride Day celebration to the general population it’s easy for the viewing area to think that “that only happens in Columbus” (or Cleveland or Cincinnati).  There is a far greater connection made when rural residents understand that the gay population of Central Ohio is not just those who attend an afternoon-long parade in some large city but are actually their neighbors who live down the street.

There was a time, and perhaps it’s still now, when there was safety in numbers –  when a large turnout was considered a good thing.  There’s always talk about how many people attend a gay pride event – even when its spoken by a woman from rural Alaska.  Maybe it’s time to hear the same words spoken by the folks of rural Ohio.

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On April 19th Carrie Prejean, the California contestant in the Miss USA pageant, found herself in an awkward situation when she was asked about same-sex marriage by celebrity gossip columnist Perez Hilton.  Like a deer in the headlights, the ill-prepared Carrie Prejean stumbled with incoherent statements that mirrored the conservative views of her family, her ministers and supposedly Jesus Christ himself.  Many believe her answer led to her loss of the tiara.

Suddenly, however, Carrie Prejean has become the new-found spokesmodel for divisiveness, prejudice,hatred and intolerance.  I doubt however, that she’d ever considered a career in this as a student at the San Diego Christian College but she appears to have taken the reins and is leading the team down the streets of todays segregated media outlets.

Less than a month after stepping into her own words while wearing pretty high-heels, she has hired a Christian public relations firm and recently announced that she would star in a $1.5 million ad campaign funded by the National Organization for Marriage, a group which hopes to continue to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

What I find remarkably sad about this entire debacle is that Carrie Prejean is making a social splash, profiting actually, from the business of discrimination.  She is not the only person in California to vote in favor of Proposition 8 but the others are not earning paychecks because of it.  Even more troubling is that there are “Christian” companies that claim to be acting in the name of Jesus while making profits from the business of intolerance.

History is repeating itself because a little more than thirty-years ago Anita Bryant stepped onto the stage espousing similar remarks filled with hatred and intolerance.  Anita herself was pageant queen.  She rose to fame as a singer and later as the spokes person for the Florida Citrus Commission.  It was when Anita Bryant chose to make the move into the politics of hatred that her career imploded.

Sadly Carrie Prejean doesn’t even have a career yet but the fame-seeking runner up appears to be building one on the very precepts that brought down her Sister of the
Tiara.  Anything that Carrie Prejean chooses to do with her life will now be mired in this controversy.

She may sign a $1.5 million ad campaign today, but how likely is it that audiences will flock to see her on the silver screen five years from now?  The paid-for breast augmentation by the Miss California USA organization may not be enough to salvage the career aspirations of Carrie Prejean – who is studying to be a teacher in Special Education.

Recently Carrie Prejean said she was praying for Perez Hilton.  And in 1977, the Anita Bryant camp said the same thing to the protesters, who at a news conference in Des Moines, gave her a pie in the face.  A pie in the face is a rare act, even today, but the proverbial pie in the face for Carrie Prejean has already been launched.

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