The Kindness of Strangers
Michael Bouldin on gay hook-up sites: "It is quite ironic, isn’t it, that good people from the President of the United States on down make videos about bullying and hurtful language, all the while we slap each other around in the online meat markets."
or find sex?
"I'm looking for mostly str8 guys with gf / wife. Not into fem / openly gay guys at all. MUST BE TOTALLY CLEAN! I am DDF [Drug and Disease Free, ed. note] and expect to stay that way, so if you show up with a dirty cock and ask to to fuck or be fucked bareback, I'm going to ask you to leave.
– Craigslist personal ad, Men Seeking Men, New York City, spelling as in original
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
– Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
Just go ahead and admit it: you too have a profile on what we usually euphemize, tactfully, as a gay dating site. Which is just a polite, family-friendly way of describing an online service primarily useful for those people – you know the kind – that really truly need to get laid right this very instant. All in good clean fun, of course, and boys will be boys. Even for the merely casually interested, these sites open a window into the desires of gaydom, stripped down to their glossy essentials; sex tweets, I call them, photo-enhanced portraits of desire.
What they’re not, I’d warrant, is an accurate glimpse of gay men themselves. This has little to do with the wonders of Photoshop, and more with the standards we seek to impose on complete strangers or portray ourselves as meeting. Fat? Sorry, buddy, you’re out of luck. Old? Nice try, next please. Not straight-acting enough? When the entire point of the exercise is, wait for it, gay sex? Really?
They also, often enough to be noticeable, reflect a chilling complacency about sexual health, if not wanton ignorance. Take that nice little word ‘clean’. Presumably, it’s not in reference to skincare, but to STDs, HIV among them.
There are two problems with verbiage like this. One of them is that it’s blatantly offensive.
Words have unique power. The words you read, think, speak or hear shape your world like so much molded clay. Words don’t just articulate reality, they create and structure it. For you, for me, for everyone. The idea that someone with HIV isn’t clean while someone without is should give decent people pause; both in terms of the value system of the person who uses the term and of its effect on the un-clean, the dangerous, the other. Not to put too fine a point on it: this kind of language, marginalizing and cruel, is one of the stigmata that have historically preceded mankind’s periodic convulsions of barbarism, from the slaughter of Native Americans through the Holocaust to the AIDS epidemic.
The other problem is, quite simply, that dividing up people into clean and unclean , disease-free or poxed is ineffective as a tool of sexual health. It might be otherwise in an ideal world where every man speaks or even knows the truth, always and without exception; but that’s not the world we live in, is it now? If it were so, internet inches wouldn’t be a phrase that elicits reactions from amusement to dismay.
Guy1: How long is your penis?
Guy2: 7 inches...
Guy1: So that's like 8 and a half adding internet inches.
Between deception and cruelty – and it is cruel, sometimes, the way gay men treat one another, and not just as far as HIV is concerned – what is the point of all this? Why do some, many, a few of us do any of it? It is quite ironic, isn’t it, that good people from the President of the United States on down make videos about bullying and hurtful language, all the while we slap each other around in the online meat markets.
Allow me to theorize. I think it’s a synecdoche, a surface glimpse into the deeper problems gay men, poz or otherwise, have with one another and ourselves.
For one thing, gay men in the western world have never entirely come to terms with the devastating losses of the AIDS epidemic. We don’t have an institutional memory articulated as it is at, say, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust foundation in Jerusalem. Every year, the Jewish community across the globe marks Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day; in Israel, the entire nation falls silent for several minutes.
Granted, we have World AIDS Day, but what of it? Do we mark it as a community, remember those we lost, come together in grief, or are we just quietly glad that the cup has passed us by, many of us at least, and let the day fade as it may?
Just consider the raw numbers. We have lost, in North America alone, anywhere between a tenth to a third of gay men. Those are mortality rates that easily make AIDS a genocidal event, and before anyone gets complacent, one that’s certainly not over yet. Nor will it be anytime soon, if present numbers hold.
The Jews of Europe – or the Armenians, or Stalin’s kulaks, or any number of other peoples subject to decimation – weren’t held responsible for their own fate. We are, by society and often enough by our own.
Of course, there are differences between our losses and the supreme evil of the Shoah. No totalitarian state, Cuba aside, interned gay men, or sent us into gas chambers; no Arbeit macht frei for us. But it wasn’t necessary to do so, was it? All that was required, certainly here in the United States under the Reagan administration, was simple malign neglect. Ignorance and fear did the rest.
We have never come to terms with that betrayal or the fear it nurtured or created. Combine that with ongoing pervasive discrimination and our own Darwinian aesthetics, and the result can’t but be toxic.
I’m under no illusions that a single magazine piece can change this. But the next time you log on to get off, try being just a little bit kinder to strangers. Hey, it’s free, and even pretty boys like yours truly will notice.
Especially when we’re pissed off that you seem unable to distinguish inches from centimeters.