How Far Have We Really Come?
Last month, on the last Saturday I was in Portland, Oregon, I went out to a gay bar downtown in the Pearl District with the older of my two younger brothers. Just shy of his 25th birthday, he told me about two years ago that he was “bisexual, but currently only interested in men,” which, within a matter of months, transitioned into just being gay. Over time, he did the long, slow coming out process, until finally this year, after attending his first Pride events, he decided to finally come out to the rest of the family, who basically responded with a feigned sigh and a “Yeah, we’ve gathered, and no, obviously we don’t care.”
Still, if his coming out went better than that of many other young gay men’s, trying to figure out living as a gay man has overall been a bit trickier. Growing up and living till recently in the exurban area between Beaverton and Hillsboro on the outskirts of the city, there was no gay culture and more than a fair bit of homophobia. He only got to really discover himself on the weekends, taking an hour-long light rail ride into the city on Saturday nights to hang out in the gay bars downtown, where, as he explained, he tried to find other young men he had common interests with, while dodging being hit on by older men chasing after a young one night stand. Pretty much like how it goes at a straight club, in other words, except that outside, when he left at night, he had to watch out for drunken groups of aggro guys out to gay bash. Being some six feet tall and about as fit as he was when he was a varsity wrestler in high school, he was better off than a good number of his counterparts. Five on one isn’t a fair fight, as happened once, but for a different guy (or facing a different, more heavily armed five) it could have turned out far worse.
The night we went out, we started at a fairly classy gay bar, all white modern upholstery and brushed stainless steel, distinctly unlike the dives that surrounded the old Gay Triangle in downtown in the Eighties and early Nineties before downtown was fully gentrified and the gay community concluded that it wasn’t interested in turning a tiny area of dismal hook-up bars into a “historic” gay district. We were waiting in line for drinks when my brother was accosted by a friend of his of whom I’d been told stories. Only 21, he too was from the far suburbs. Much more flaming, with a fondness for a bit of rouge and eyeliner, as well as brightly colored plastic jewelry, and wearing a tight, silvery-white coat with a fuzzy hooded collar, he lived with his grandmother (his parents were less understanding, or at least less forgiving) and had no job. Like my brother used to, he took the train in on the weekends, often with only a few dollars on his person, and worked his way through the night.
He was banned from several bars and clubs for constantly begging drinks–sometimes downright aggressively, according to my brother, particularly if his mark was drunk–off the same sort of older gay men who’d hit on my brother. And every time he went out, he faced a choice: Portland’s MAX light rail isn’t the New York subway, and it doesn’t run all night. In these days of budget cuts, in fact, it stops running shortly after midnight, as I discovered to my disappointment and the detriment of my bank account a few $30 cab rides later. So, this kid either heads home early, or stays out late, where he can haunt one of the few all-age, all-night dance clubs, or give in and head home with one of the older men he flirted drinks off of, which was, according to my brother, a not uncommon occurrence.
Welcome to today’s suburban hustler.
This was one of the things I found myself thinking about last night at PS 122, while watching the re-staging of the Ishmael Houston-Jones/Dennis Cooper/Chris Cochrane dance piece Them (through Saturday, Oct. 30; tickets $15/$20, which debuted nearly 25 years ago in the same space. It was one of those works you see that you are not remotely prepared for, that, going in, you have no idea how it will hit you.
What’s weird about Them is that it’s so compelling even though I, at least, didn’t find it shocking–even the infamous scene with the dead goat–so much as heartbreaking. Chock it up to how it’s aged. We’ve come a long way in 25 years, and this isn’t the sort of story we tell much anymore, in part because from today’s perspective, Them, with its stories of self-destructive sexual behavior, violence, and exploitation, seems almost to confirm the anti-gay conservative fantasy of the “dangers of the gay lifestyle.” In reality, of course, what artistic works like Them–a downright earnest piece of identity-politics performance–did was to make the point of how much society can make it suck to be gay, and provide the impetus to demand change.
The stories that Cooper–who exuded an almost preternatural serenity as he read–told were soul-crushing. This isn’t the shocking, taboo-breaking work I usually associate with the author, but rather a temperate, introspective examination of life and experience. It made sense coming from the silver-haired man reading them with his back to the risers last night; it was much harder to connect the 25-year-old text with a man who was in his early thirties when he wrote them. But I suppose that confronting the AIDS crisis in the Eighties, surrounded by death, gave him a sort of perspective I certainly lack at the same age.
The short, elegantly minimal stories he tells are of the rough process of discovering who you are in the middle of what’s basically a meat market. Cooper writes about the emptiness of sexual pursuit, of finding men to hook up with only to have to go out somewhere first, to drink until they can’t recognize themselves in order to bury their self-loathing. The story that sticks with me the most was of a hook-up with a young man. He comes over, watches TV for a while. He’s a virgin, but he has to be home by eleven-thirty; that’s the curfew his parents set. Don’t worry, Cooper has the narrator offer; it’s easy. Welcome to who you are, young man. Where’s love supposed to exist in this mess?
I think the social acceptance of homosexuality develops locally at different times and in different ways. When I graduated from high school in 1997, my class was sort of the last in which kids felt compelled to stay in the closet across the board. There was one young man who was out in my high school before 1997; he dropped out. The year after I graduated, freshmen entered who were out. That summer and the first few years of college, a number of people I knew came out, and I started to hear the stories of their early experiences: the anonymous hookups in the downtown Portland Nordstrom, the risky sexual behavior because AIDS seemed like just part of the price of being gay (their words, not mine), the lesbian who knew exactly how long her high school boyfriend took to come because she always stared at the clock during sex, waiting for it to be over (and no, it wasn’t all that long).
So it was hard watching Houston-Jones’s wrenching choreographic depiction of sexual self-destruction, the violence men do to one another serving equally as a metaphor for the violence they do to themselves. The scene with the animal carcass was devastating: the dancer, blindfolded, grappling, pawing, humping, climbing inside of a dead piece of meat, coagulated blood the color of shit smearing all over the place. And the smell: I’ve seen a lot of crazy things onstage by this point, and frankly have become blase about shocking images, but nothing makes something quite as visceral as the deceptively sweet scent of putrefaction.
But honestly, that wasn’t the hardest part to watch. It was the final scene, the six young dancers on whom Houston-Jones had set his choreography (he did take the stage early on to perform a solo, though), simply standing there, looking tired and feeling their armpits, necks, and groins, searching for swollen lymph nodes. It’s so painful to watch them go through the motions of preparing themselves for what they see as an almost inevitable outcome. Thankfully, at least in that respect, we’ve moved at least a little further on. Or so I hope.