(Dir. Adam Baran, 2013)
Our relationship with porn in the general culture is something like a great heterosexual open secret, fraught with guilt or shame of varying degrees, but normalized in a few distinct and crucial ways. For one, we can positively assume that there are “girly mags” under a teenage boy’s bed, or more contemporarily speaking, that there is cookie-shaped evidence of porn in his unscrubbed browser. But for the average young man, the associated shame is not so much inscribed in the substance of the porn itself—as hetero-kinky as it may be—but in the activity that necessarily goes with it. In other words, whereas the teenage boys that I grew up with openly shared their porn collections, they still quietly resisted the admission of masturbation. It’s a double bind that simultaneously fools no one and leaves everyone with the same “secret” satisfied.
For young gay men, however, porn has always presented a conflict of more complex proportions. While the aforementioned guilt and shame are inescapable from any orientation, gay youth are damned both for the subjects of our desire and for our subsequent physical response—and we bear the weight of these heightened offenses with a harshly enforced, life-staking secrecy. It would hardly be worth it at all if porn weren’t also a sort of liberatory tool: For many of us, porn was where we first indulged in and experimented with our desires, it was where we first saw physical expressions of our repressed feelings. Before the modern development of gays on TV or in the movies, porn was where we first considered the possibility that there were others out there like us, and where we quite possibly came to accept that, maybe, it wasn’t so much that we were straight boys who “liked” gay porn as it was that we were gay boys after all. Whether or not porn is a particularly healthy site for the nascent growth of our sexual identities is irrelevant; we are born into a culture of homophobia, and we use what we can to survive.
I suspect that most gay men of a certain era—specifically those who came of age before or during the dial-up modem—have a distinct memory of seeing a gay magazine for the first time, and my own memory of this was actually jogged last week after a random Facebook click-through brought me to the profile of a man I was briefly friends with in junior high school. His name was Chris, and he was one of only two kids—the other being Kevin—who really befriended me when my family first moved to Long Island in 1987.
Chris and Kevin were, if I’m being honest, not the coolest kids in school. But neither was I: By that point, I had begun shaving my head, wearing ox-blood Doc Martens, and sporting t-shirts for bands with names like Crumbsuckers or Circle Jerks. I was also the only non-white person in the school, which altogether made me a pariah of seemingly insurmountable magnitude. I have to imagine that my new friends recognized and resonated with this alienation in some way: Like me, Kevin had family problems. Also like me, he suffered from depression. (It should be mentioned here, perhaps, that the depression I speak of is clinical in nature, and not simply the result of listening to too many Smiths records: Unlike me, Kevin attempted suicide in the eighth grade. Thankfully, he survived.) Chris, on the other hand, seemed like much more of a good-natured optimist. He came from a decent enough family, he did well in school, and—perhaps most importantly in terms of teenage cachet—he had cool older siblings with access to drugs and alcohol. It didn’t make sense that he should suffer the same social exile as Kevin or me just for growing a mullet and listening to Iron Maiden, but he seemed to believe he belonged there. I was happy to have him.
One night, while we were hanging out alone in Chris’s room, Kevin and I started rooting through the magazines in his bottom drawer. It was mostly Hit Parader and Circus and Creem, the music rags of the day, so when Kevin came across an unfamiliar title, he was quick to grab it from underneath the heavy stack that buried it.
"I’ve never seen one of these before!" he said.
The name of the magazine, laid in a bold yellow type, was JOCK. It was gay porn.
Kevin, to his credit, acted with more curiosity than disgust. As he thumbed its pages, he undoubtedly considered the possibility that Chris was, in fact, gay—as did I, of course—but this increasingly possible scenario didn’t seem to upset him. He simply examined the images on each page, with the expression of someone on an anthropological expedition, while I looked on, trying to seem far less interested than I actually was.
"Seriously, though," he whispered. "I’ve never really seen gay dudes before."
I quietly agreed, viewing for the first time images of athletic men in various states of undress—some hairy, some smooth; most in their twenties, I’d say now, but at the time, seemingly so much older—engaged in softcore activities with their jock buddies that, to my relief, suggested all gay men weren’t in fact the “limp-wristed fairies” my older brother always bragged about beating up. Some of these guys, I figured, could probably beat up my brother.
Kevin and I had already thoroughly inspected the contents of the issue by the time Chris came back.
"What the fuck!" he yelled, jumping over the bed and snatching the magazine from Kevin’s hand. I let Kevin ask the questions, lest I wound up implicating myself somehow.
"Is that yours?”
"No!" Chris insisted. "My older brother put it on my pillow one night as a practical joke and I haven’t figured out how to get rid of it yet!" He added, “I’m not gay.”
"I don’t care if you are," Kevin said.
Thinking about the stack of magazines that lay above that issue of Jock—the metal tabloids with their endless parade of shirtless centerfold posters for bands like Judas Priest or Def Leppard—it’s not easy to discern what was or wasn’t gay porn for Chris. Is a distinction, in this setting, even helpful? I stared at Rob Halford in those magazines, too, and often in the same way I stared at the men in those JC Penney catalogs that my mother kept on a side table in our living room. Young gay men can make gay porn out of anything when we need to reaffirm our senses of self. Before we take those first steps outside of the closet, everything is a fantasy anyway.
I always wondered what ever happened to Chris. Our little group fell apart after Kevin’s suicide attempt, and we all moved on in our own ways. But now I know for sure: Chris is a successful 40-year-old gay man living in San Francisco—ostensibly well-adjusted, for as much as Facebook status updates can serve as a reliable indicator of such things, and recently married, even. (Kevin, also according to Facebook, wound up joining the military and starting a family. He looks happy, too.) In the almost 30 years since we last spoke, all I ever wanted for Chris is all I ever hoped for myself—that we’d both find lives outside of the glossy paper fantasies, that we’d both find love beyond the baseball costumes in a magazine called Jock. You could argue that we’d have gotten to where we are now without those dirty pictures, but I’m not entirely sure you’d be right.
The advice here, courtesy of Ira Glass, is worth a good two minutes of nodding in self-recognition, and it arrives on my desk at a time when I probably need it most.
Sometimes, I feel as if I live inside of the gap that Glass talks about here—the knowing difference between what I can do and what I actually want to do—and this has been a specter over almost every creative project I’ve ever taken on. The only difference between the false starts and the finished products has been a stubborn willfulness that makes me crazy enough to jump.
If you can shoot Martin, you can shoot all of us. And there’s nothing in your record to indicate you won’t, or anything that would prevent you from doing it. That will be the beginning of the end, if you do, and that knowledge will be all that will hold your hand. Because one no longer believes, you see—I don’t any longer believe, and not many black people in this country can afford to believe—any longer a word you say. I don’t believe in the morality of this people at all. I don’t believe you do the right thing because you think it’s the right thing. I think you may be forced to do it because it will be the expedient thing.
James Baldwin speaks to Esquire shortly after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in his own inimitable way, breaks it down.
The publicity campaign for Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the latest album from Against Me!, has only begun and the last minute retractions and sensitivity edits are already underway! As it turns out, if we still can’t expect some people to wrap their heads around why phrases like “the gay lifestyle” are problematic, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath when it comes to their approach to transgender rock stars.
To be fair, a substantial number of contemporary music critics probably don’t know (or don’t think they know) a trans person, so their notion of what is or isn’t appropriate is largely guesswork. For these writers, then, there will be two major problems to contend with: First, they are going to need to critically evaluate a record whose subject matter is confusing and foreign to them. They will mediate Laura Jane Grace’s lyrics through their own assumptions about gender and sexuality, and more disconcertingly, through misconceptions they may have about trans people or the process of transitioning itself. The danger being, of course, that we’re about to be inundated with album reviews that more accurately reveal the gender anxieties of predominantly straight white cisgender men than they do any of Grace’s concerns.
The other problem these writers will grapple with is how to talk about Grace herself, and really, this shouldn’t be as hard: She’s a real person. She’s an artist. She is not available (nor is she making herself available) for objectification. The parameters and decorum with which we talk about any human being still apply.
This issue was put to the test over the weekend, when NPR posted an Against Me! album stream and writer Stephen Thompson was handily excoriated in the comments for writing that singer Laura Jane Grace “came out as preoperative transgender.” (This line has since been edited.) So where did he go wrong? For one, this particular phrasing puts an undue emphasis on “operative” status, as if gender identity depends on it. It doesn’t. But also, adjectives like these linguistically demonstrate our cultural obsession with trans bodies and presume that we have a right to know the personal physical details of these bodies in ways that we would never demand to know of anyone else. In her brilliant reprimand of Katie Couric, also over this weekend, Laverne Cox expands on this exact point:
The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.
A little bit of writerly advice, then: Surgery of any kind is personal, and an expression of entitlement to such detail is invasive at best. It’s as irrelevant to your critical work as asking whether or not Oasis are circumcised.
There are considerations and conventions that non-trans people need to learn. This is not negotiable. We need to know that language can be hostile to trans people, that language can prescribe and enforce the dominant heteronormative discourse, and that we—as cosigners on the social contract that is language—have every right to modify the way we speak about gender and transitioning in order to demarginalize those individuals whose realities are not served by their own tongue.
There is no shortage of trans etiquette work on the Internet, and this piece is not meant to replace that. I also don’t mean to speak on behalf of trans people, whose own voices are too often muted or ignored. If anything, consider this as more of a gentle proviso: Should you decide to write about Laura Jane Grace or any other trans person this year (or forever), you are hereby charged with a responsibility to keep from undermining their lives.
One of the next-big-thing Britpop bands of the ’90s, enough time has elapsed now for Embrace to have added more than one rise-and-fall-and-rise narrative to their CV. For their first new song in eight years, they’re on an uptick: It wouldn’t be Embrace, of course, if it weren’t suitable for a stadium. But while the signifiers for a go-let-it-out anthem are all there, an unfamiliar sense of restraint suggests the lights won’t go up when it’s over. Having well run the course of stadium-sized optimism, “Refugees” is a record that makes you feel like something is finally wrong. It’s my first favorite song of 2014.
If a writer or journalist is capable of having a “breakthrough hit record,” this Rage Against the Machine cover story from 1996 was mine. It was a bit of a coup at the time—I managed to get Zack de la Rocha to do an interview with me despite a harshly enforced press blackout—and I think it still holds up well. This is, in an ideal world, how I’d still like to do longform journalism: in a variety of settings, over an extended period of time, and with a subject that’s willing to just let it happen as it will. I feel like that’s gotten harder to do since pieces like these were published, but I also feel like writers have gotten less demanding of their subjects—perhaps forgetting that the critic is an artist, too.
At any rate, today is Zack’s 44th birthday, and that got me thinking about all this.