The Queer Take: Divorced from death and disease, re-imagining desire without shame, and celebrating it
As a noun and a verb with the profilferation of pornography in our lives, sex doesn’t sit well on the scale, it isn’t so simple. We might have to extract the shame from the sensual, the sexual to truly be able to celebrate it.
With sex, we’ve copped out in the giving-it-a-proper-definition department, we’ve gone with the mysterious move of making it seem undefinable.
As a noun and a verb with the profilferation of pornography in our lives, sex doesn’t sit well on the scale, it isn’t so simple.
We might have to extract the shame from the sensual, the sexual to truly be able to celebrate it.
We need to begin to divorce desire from death, from disease to make it something that isn’t the risking of lives alone, but of limbs, and of limberness.
The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
I remember watching Jeffrey, an American gay rom-com from the 90s, curled up under a bundle of blankets at my friend N’s place near the railway tracks. The passing trains pleasantly punctuated all of our movie sessions in that house. Until then, in most LGBTQ+ focussed films, it was necessary for the gay character to die from being HIV positive. Along the way, they had to have epiphanies that well...helped answer the existential questions that might have been niggling most of us about our own self-identities. Of course, I’m generously reading into their intentions, at times, they were just shocking, dull as watching paint dry, great tools of discipline, educational, entertaining and even functioned as community awareness building exercises.
But anyways, back to Jeffrey – there’s this amazing blink-and-you-miss-it scene in the film where Patrick Stewart is a quiz-master in a dream sequence. I can’t remember much else of this comic sketch in the film except for one of the contestants. A sinewy, sleek, shiny black man who kind of looks like the femme-version of Grace Jones, who when asked to introduce himself kind of unfurls his hands like a Las Vegas showgirl while declaring his name and adds, ‘and I am bisexual!’ I remember laughing out loud, uncontrollably for some time then. In these politically sensitive times, I get that it isn’t kosher to laugh at these kinds of punch lines. But it is the slippage between the fiction and the truth of that statement that still elicits laughter though. Since then, I’ve met femme men attracted to butch women, and so many other permutations of gender and sexuality that the fact that Jeffrey poked fun at our preconcieved notions of this person was, and is, still funny.
This isn’t the point of Jeffrey – though enough critics have also asked: what really was the point of this film? It set out to deal with the crisis that for a long time (and even now), for gay, bisexual and queer men, desire and death have been linked forever. The protagonist – Jeffrey – decides to go off sex. He wasn’t afraid of dying but he didn’t want to fall in love with someone who might die of the dreaded disease. His sets out on many misadventures, falls in love with a hunky, handsome HIV positive man, works hard to avoid him, meets the character played by Patrick Stewart, who is wise, well-groomed and a man in love with a chorus-boy with HIV, decides to fall in love, so on and so forth. Well, it isn’t some radical re-telling of the standard rom-com narrative but it does manage to give us its own take on love, loss and the risk involved in choosing to love someone.
I haven’t seen too many gay rom-coms since, I think we’ve swapped trash for texture in our tastes. We’ve also learned to couch all our sexual need and desire under the tarp of love and relationships. I’m not arguing that hook-up culture isn’t still alive and throbbing among gay, bisexual and queer men, I’m also not saying that gay men aren’t collapsing into cute couples everywhere, I’m proposing that making a choice that doesn’t subscribe to either school, or wanting to switch between the two isn’t always easy, or possible. I’m also thinking out loud that sex isn’t simple for us. It is the thing that marks us out from other people, it is the source of our shame, but also the point of our pleasures, our pains. And in our present narrative, it doesn’t just surge with possibility of play, but also perishing. I hear that there’s a rise, a return to unsafe sex practices among gay, bisexual and queer men. And I can understand the draw to this way of seeking sex, it can feel like the ultimate middle finger to the medico-socio-religious narrative surrounding sexuality, surrounding sex. Of course, we’d deservedly die from the thing that makes us sinners in the very first place. Divine justice or something thereabouts.
Just like with love, with sex too, we’ve copped out in the giving-it-a-proper-definition department, we’ve gone with the mysterious move of making it seem undefinable. I’m presently reading bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions and through 13 tight chapters, she breaks down the noun and the verb ‘love’ to give us something else that we might use to name the inexplicable. One of the definitions she uses as a springboard in an early chapter is from the psychiatrist M Scott Peck’s self-help book The Road Less Travelled, first published in 1978. He defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. Explaining further, he continues: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love”.
On the other hand, we’ve equated the excavation of sex as a concept – as a noun and a verb with the proliferation of pornography in our lives, it doesn’t sit well on the scale, it isn’t so simple. We might have to extract the shame from the sensual, the sexual to truly be able to celebrate it. In Jeffrey, the lesson might be that we overcome the fear of others dying around us, in bell hooks’ treatise, she begins by telling us that on her kitchen wall hang four snapshots of graffiti art with a declaration painted in bright colours: ‘The search for love continues in the face of great odds’. I find myself taking the long way to say, we do the same thing for sex, and we should stop shaming, or being ashamed of it. And perhaps, we need to begin to divorce desire from death, from disease to make it something that isn’t the risking of lives alone, but of limbs, and of limberness.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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