Friday, 18 May 2012

What’s Wrong with The Velvet Rage

            I look around me and it seems that gay has gone away. I tried to create my own ungay movement a couple of years ago but it didn’t seem to stick. I guess I’m just too old and will always be gay.
            All around me herds of young gay men are looking frighteningly natty. They sport charming spectacles, perfectly tailored suits, bow ties, and well-kept beards. They are often to be found holding hands with their adopted children, running in Cancer marathons, or buying expensive appliances for the condo.
This is not the ‘gay’ I grew up with.  What happened?
            A young friend of mine recently gave me a copy of The Velvet Rage. Now everything is clear. This self-help book by Alan Downs Ph.D. was published in 2006 and apparently all the young fags are reading it. Many seem to be changing their lives because of it.
            I had mixed feelings about The Velvet Rage. But mostly, I hated it. On the one hand, it was nice to see a book that actually attempts to deal with homophobia and gay self-hatred. The Velvet Rage focuses quite extensively on the notion that gay men are damaged by the homophobia directed against them, and attempts to help gay men love themselves, and reach a much vaunted ‘third stage’ of self-acceptance.
            Yes it would be fabulous if we could each arrive at a place where we could love ourselves. But many of the methods this book recommends for achieving that are resolutely homophobic.
            When I teach queer theory in my classes I talk about the three most important ideas that queers bring to straight culture, which are:
a)    gender play
b)   alternative relationships
c)    camp
Gender play means the notion that men can be feminine and women can be masculine. Alternative relationships mean all the different types of bonding that are possible for loving people to engage in that are alternatives to marriage: promiscuity, polyamorousness, ménages, open relationships, the single life,  etc.. Camp is the self-defensive brittle wit that so many queers bring to their lives and ultimately to their art, which has produced masterpieces from artists like Oscar Wilde, John Waters, Gertrude Stein and many others.
            The Velvet Rage pretty well ignores male effeminacy, except to trash it. Downs buys into an age old psychiatric cliché (is he really a Ph.D.?), one I presumed went out of fashion when homosexuality was removed from the DSM back in 1973: the idea that gay men were ignored by the fathers and overindulged by their mothers.  He says we “ingratiate ourselves to our mothers, and distance ourselves from our fathers.” This is simply bullshit. There are, I’m sure millions of gay men who were closer to their fathers than their mothers – and such associations have nothing to do with homosexuality. He criticizes “the stereotype of the bitchy bitter queen…. ‘Don’t mess with me sister, cause I’ll bite back and I’ll bite back hard.’” He recommends that gay men not “act on every emotion that you feel” and warns us “others are put off by perfection.”  But most significantly, Downs does not celebrate effeminacy, and seems to see it as something to be overcome. I certainly don’t think all gay males are effeminate (or that all lesbians are masculine) but I do think that this happy gender confusion many of us embrace is something we can offer the straights. Something that will help them become more human, and humane.
            Downs also exhibits a complete lack of sympathy with (or understanding about) gay liberation. In one short paragraph he trashes The Mattachine Society and Harry Hay by dismissing the radical fairies and queer nation: “There are even some gay men, such as those involved in queer nation or the radial fairies, that suggest that gay men are not meant to be in committed relationships.” First of all, Downs gets it wrong. What I think (along with many of the original gay liberationists) is that monogamy is not for the majority of people period – gay, straight, male, female, whatever, and that we should all open ourselves up to the possibility of relationship alternatives. For Downs, only monogamy exists. This precipitates a horrible shame cycle for the many who try and fit themselves into a system that does not work for them, and never will.
            It’s all very sad really. The book seems to be working from the outside in. It’s as if the author did a poll of all the characteristics that straight people find most appalling about the gay male stereotype -- promiscuity, excessive drug use, effeminacy, crankiness, and a designer-fag mentality -- and decided to root them out of our culture.
            I really couldn’t care less if straights think we are all temperamental, gender-bending sluts. Queers with those qualities are the ones who shouted down the cops at Stonewall in 1969. They are the best we have to offer, not the worst. And, trust me, we won’t learning anything about homophobia or self-hatred by hating them, or the aspects of them that we find in ourselves.