from The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name
Boheme Press 2003
Over the last couple years, Ive been turning my sex life into a porn zine called Cruising. Ive made three issues, The Park, Bathrooms and Peep Shows. The zine is an insiders look at public sex, with a howto section, questionnaires, cartoons, an endpage for readers to send in pics of their butt, and poems and stories, both true and imaginary, of sexual encounters in public spaces. Also, there are graphic photo essays of my drag persona, Miss Cookie LaWhore, engaged in threeways under the stars, furtively pulling on dick under a washroom stall and swapping blowjobs with a boy in a cramped peep show booth. My favourite pic is the fullbody shot of Miss Cookie standing at a washrooms troughlike urinal, with her shortshorts undone, squeezing her erection.
Because I produce this kind of confessional art, an art that graphically details a sex culture many men engage in but few discuss, a lot of people think Im comfortable in my skin. They call me up and ask me to do glossy mag photo shoots to promote a new type of clothing for the penis. When I tell them that, given my attitude to my body in the very recent past, I consider myself to be the last person they should call, they think Im kidding. What most people dont understand is that I dont do this nudist and graphic sex work because its easy. I do it because exposing the nittygritty of my sexuality scares the shit out of me.
For years when I was younger, I tried hard, rather unsuccessfully, to disappear, to fit in. When I entered puberty, the sense of difference I felt from the other boys went from being a big secret buried in my thoughts to hard evidence, literally. Erections hit at the worst times whenever boys were around: playing in the grass, being tackled, in the locker room, the bathroom, standing in front of the class. I felt betrayed by my body, which quickly translated into distrust. The shame of being attracted to men and the fear of being found out made desire a trap.
Worse still, in my midteens, acne hit. I suffered with acute acne on my back for ten years because I refused to go to the doctor. I didnt want him to see me shirtless. Nobody saw me shirtless, let alone naked. If I accidentally hit an inflammation, I was in severe pain, nearly to the point of passing out, but I told no one. Compound the shame for my desire with my bloodied back, with the sense that my body was a cage, and you can see how I longed for invisibility. If you dont have a body, or if you make yourself so bland that no one notices you, people wont know a thing about you.
You might say that making a porn zine showing my naked dick in someones mouth is overcompensating. Sure, my zine makes my sex life and my physicality visible, forcing me to be more comfortable in my skin, but really, is it necessary to share that content with the world?
In Times Square Red Times Square Blue, academic and scifi writer Samuel Delaney gives a detailed report on his decades of sex in porn houses. He uses his sexual escapades to argue that the new Times Square that has been cleaned up by the city is likely to prove more harmful to the American people than the community that was booted out to make way for bigger business. He argues that relocating the porn houses and prostitutes to the underpopulated harbour district displaces an established, organic and partially selfpolicing community that leaves them less visible and more vulnerable to violence. Less visible, more vulnerable.
Thats how it works, doesnt it? A decade ago, in the midst of the AIDS crisis and its pathetic lack of funding, the queer community understood the risk involved in remaining anonymous and unheard, so much so that we used Silence=Death as our slogan.
After moving to the big city, I quickly joined the march in the malls chanting silence equals death before kissins. The discussion at the Queer Nation meetings where we planned the actions and hammered out our intentions made it clear to me that the slogan was more than just about AIDS funding. It was a way of life. We understood the danger of being invisible. If you tried to blend in, you were alone. If you made yourself visible, if you spoke up, you were united in the struggle and would survive. We would get what we needed only if we were vocal about those needs.
Delaney describes his public sex as building community with strangers, where you care for people who you dont know, where you are intimate with people who you know little or nothing about. Its an attitude that can change the world: to care for strangers. The proof of his argument, I believe, is in the details. I recognized in Delaneys candid report something of that necessity to tell it right, to do yourself justice by being open and honest about who you are and how you live your life. When we make the Unknown familiar, the fear enveloping our sexuality falls away.
Circulating a magazine with my erect dick in it was, in part, an attempt to demystify my sexual body. I wanted to expose it to purge my fear of being seen. I wanted to make my erection familiar to address our cultures fear of sex. See me. Im aroused. Big deal.
Its when we remove sex from the everyday, when we silence our sexuality, when we talk around our erotic life, that sex becomes perverted. In filmmaker Catherine Breillats feature film Romance, two grown adults did on screen what was reserved for and isolated to the porn industry: they fucked. When I saw the film, although the penetration caught my eye, that wasnt what held my attention. It wasnt the whowhatwhen and where, but the how and the why that were interesting. The way the man and woman interacted, the conversation, the manipulation, their disconnection and understanding were what kept me engaged.
Sex in the narrative. Sex as part of the story line to further the plot and to reveal and develop character. Sex as a natural part of the storytelling because its a natural part of our lives. Sex in the public realm.
My zine is an attempt to integrate my sexuality into the narrative of who I am. Queer people have been doing so as part of their personal politics for years, talking about their sexuality, expressing it publicly, putting it out there in the world, making queer sex visible to undo our collective fear.
The truth is, regardless of where you learn it, pretty much everyone is taught at a young age to fear being gay. Its the schoolyard taunt. For those of us who are gay, its not the other that were taught to fear, but ourselves. Fear of ones self. Thats got to mess anyone up. Fags should pat ourselves on the back for doing a damn good job of overcoming the social stigma of being cocksuckers and fudgepackers. Against the greater cultures conservatism, weve come out and demanded to be counted as equals, regardless of what we do behind closed doors.
Id like to argue, though, that most of us never lose that particular fear of being gay. It hides, mutates, or buries itself in gender. In our great sexually liberated movement, we may be proud to say who we have sex with, but were still ashamed to be faggy, to be femmey, to be feminine. Straightlooking/straightacting has become a mantra. Since the day we sensed we were round in a square world, weve been performing in the hopes of fitting in. Straight acting. No one says theyre gay-acting. Why? Because we are gay, and for whatever softness that conjures up, whatever sensitivity or sensibility it represents, thats who we are, naturally. Its why we can spot a fag from blocks away and why we recognize them even with wives on their arms.
I weigh 135lbs. Im over 6 feet tall. Even when Im all butched up in cargo pants and a plaid shirt, men drive by in their cars and yell faggot at me. Theres no hiding what I am. Queerness falls off my body like pearls. And I love it.
I dont want to debate whether or not there is an essential gayness out there, but theres a sensitivity to the world, an understanding of the arbitrariness, the double standard, the falseness of the common cultural myth of what it is to be a man that any fag who has come out must have grappled with at some point. Fags are men. Like it or not, the queeniest guy in the world is a still a guy, and therefore the definition of what it means to be a man has to be broad enough to encompass him.
When you look at it that way, when you consider all the different types of men out there, it becomes a lot harder to say what a man is. Were cheating ourselves out of a great gift if we bury that insight under a false identity, an act, for the sake of blending in. The gift is diversity, a valuable equaliser thats been forgotten in our struggle to find commonality.
The more I explore my girlishness, the more powerful I feel. Being femme isnt emasculating. Throw on a skirt one day, gentlemen, and see how much power you need to draw on to walk down the street. The days I dress femme challenge me not to buy into the narrow cultural definitions of what Im expected to be. Im my own type of person, which is less and less prescribed every day.
When I finally admitted to the world that I was gay, it was such a relief to be able to throw off the burden of what a straight guy was expected to be. I wasnt just seeking the freedom to do in the bedroom what I wanted and with whom. I was after the celebration of my whole self, the whole complex person I had hidden away in there. The biggest bonus for me in coming out was that it meant I could abandon the prescribed rules and rituals of being a man. If I felt like it, I could wear pink. I could be tender in public. I could cry at movies. Paint my nails. Read Paglia. I could jump for joy on the street corner. Kiss men hello. Use colourful adjectives. Be polite. Admit my fears in public. Be kind and sensitive.
Theres nothing stopping straight men from any of those things, except a cultural myth that men are one thing and women another. We like to think that males and females vary in their body makeup, but we ignore the transgendered and the intersexed who defy the categories of the binary system. The saying holds, people are people. Regardless of our reductive gender labels, we all share the human experience. So fags should use well the freedom to be who they are, which includes being feminine, so that, like everything else fashionable that eventually makes it into the culture of masculinity, that too will be embraced.
Queers are the gender educators of this world. Havent we learned the hard way what it is to grow up different, to see the world of black and white in colours? We know the cultural stereotypes and their limitations, the contradiction, the arbitrary nature of a defined manhood. We didnt fit in when we were children, so why try now? The goal, as I see it, is to continue to not fit until there are so many of us that the gendered walls fall, making room for everyone.
By Mary Frances Hill
Who: Michael V. Smith
What: Novelist, author of Cumberland, just released from
Cormorant Press; drag performer, in the persona of Cookie LaWhore.
Roots: Born and raised in Cornwall, Ontario, studied at York
University, then UBC’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative
writing. Cumberland, Smith’s first novel, tells the story
of two men and two women whose lives meld together in an Ontario
town economically devastated after the effects of NAFTA closes down
its mills. Performs in a series of videos called Femme; currently
working on a series of interconnected short stories.
Get the hell outta Dodge: Smith’s background has helped
fuel the backdrop for Cumberland. “I am the major black sheep
of my family. I was the first person in my extended family to go
to university. My dad’s a millworker, my brother-in-law, my
stepdad, my sister and my mom worked in a mill. When I left Cornwall,
60 per cent of the adult population was on some form of social assistance.
The economics of that town were devastated by free trade. Writing
(and traveling) was less isolating than a life of servitude, than
staying in Cornwall would have been. I had friends but I didn’t
fit in very well. I was a fey little fag and everyone knew it.”
You kiddin? I’d kill for those thighs: “In being
a drag queen, who gets up on stage and performs and calls attention
to their body, they recognize putting yourself up there….I’m
the last person who should be getting naked in front of anybody,
because I wasn’t raised in an environment like that, I wasn’t
comfortable doing it. I didn’t go to the doctor for 15 years
because I didn’t want him to see me with my clothes off…I
was neurotic, impossible. But in being a performer, you go where
the dark places are. You go where it scares you. And that’s
Wile E. Coyote: “I stare a lot. I don’t think
I’m staring, I think I’m just observing. But my friends
tell me, ‘Michael, you’re staring.’ ‘I’m
not staring. I’m watching.’ Then they say, ‘well,
you have to blink. But that’s all a product of survival. In
the background I grew up in, there was a lot of physical aggression,
in a small town school. The older I got the easier it was to avoid
because I was more clever. The more you know where your safe spots
are. Survival instincts made me a writer.”
Up with people: “I came out to only a few friends,
but the people who took it the worst were gay and hiding it themselves.
I didn’t write about being a fag, but the novel is about being
lonely and isolated. What I learned about coming out, is that when
you extend yourself, when you make yourself vulnerable, people appreciate
it for the most part. I learned that my isolation is half a product
of my own doing. In being more socially generous, I created community.”
Thanks, Dad. I think: “My dad was better than I thought
he would be in accepting my coming out…He said he wasn’t
too surprised, and that he understood because he loved his best
friend and it was a different kind of love. That sounds progressive.
But if I mention something gay-related he stops the conversation.
He probably won’t read this book and he won’t want to
read this book. Anytime I write anything, his first question is,
‘is it gay?’”
My other self: “I’m a really shy person, so I
use drag to compensate for that. Cookie LaWhore is all the best
social bits of me, heightened. There’s a great deal of permissibility
in drag—it allows you to say things that you wouldn’t
normally say. People have a sense of irony and camp that they don’t
have when you’re not dressed up. I look really good in a dress.
I’m just not curvaceous. But you can just stuff. There’s
Victor, Victoria: “I’m interested in breaking
down barriers between genders and sexes. But I think the novel in
subtle ways ‘queers’ the straight community. My lead
character is a 50-year-old millworker who identifies as straight,
lives a straight life and has sex with other men. I think gender
and sexuality is a lot more fluid than how we are taught to perceive
it. The boundaries are changing.”