The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
A few days ago, I found myself backing out from a conversation that was about to turn argumentative on the ‘bois locker room’ controversy with a gay, straight-passing male friend. I’d hit a dead end with him and I felt like neither of us had left enough room for the other to budge from their position. I think it is because we had made the common mistake of assuming that we were allies in this discourse since we were both from the LGBTQIA+ community. That was the first wrong move. In the end, he turned, trimmed and truncated my position into a single line: all of our fantasies should be polite, prudent and policed. And I agreed. I said, “Sure, if that’s what you think I was saying”. In truth: I would never have used those exact words but I can see how another could have arrived there using my arguments.
Those words stewed in my head. I agreed to give him the benefit of the doubt but would’ve liked to have added a qualifier. I’d have said: Yes, we must acknowledge our privileges, powers and persons around us in all of our thoughts and actions. And if that means people’s fantasies must be polite, prudent and policed, so be it. I’ll make peace with it.
(You can’t know the tremendous, trembling trepidation it takes for this queer, femme, Black, non-practising but identifiably Christian, naturalised Indian citizen, poet-performer, freelance writer to be okay with using the words ‘polite’, ‘prudent’ and ‘police’ in a stance. But, hold my hand through this one, pretty please?)
And allow me to actually lay down the groundwork to how I have made peace with these problematic words in my stance. Very early in my childhood, I knew that I wasn’t like other boys around me even though, to borrow the words of the great drag queen poet Tatianna,
I had “the same parts” as them. I knew I couldn’t enter their groups. I knew that I had to push down something to even attempt at fitting in. (Nevermind that it has always failed me.) The straight boys had a certain ease around their friendships and I’ve always felt outside of it.
I was too hyper aware of my difference to let down my guard — this was way before I even arrived at the concept of sexuality or the words that I eventually chose to describe myself. While every interaction was tense, there were rare moments that I managed to break through. One of those times was playing sports. While I’ll admit that I was shoved into every school sports squad because of my Negroid heritage and the assumptions around it, I excelled in them because I actually loved being there. It wasn’t just the physicality of these games but also that in those times I was “one of the boys”. I felt seen but the second the final whistle blew, I was back to being on the outs. I was euphoric to be counted and miserable when I was left out. My teen years were constantly yo-yoing between these two realities.
I found a parallel in their collective rejection when I overheard snatches of their comments about girls on the other sports team while changing out colours into uniform after these matches. While I had found consolation, conversation and camaraderie with girls around and had learned that they were whip-smart, funny, wicked, annoying, aggravating — sugar and spice, and some things that weren’t nice — the ways that they were spoken about by these boys was completely opposite to my experiences of them. Their words seemed to reduce women to their physical attributes, their gestures, the quality of their voice but didn’t make room for their fullness. In even articulating this defense of girls, then and now, I have realised that I was speaking for myself too. I was saying: I’m so much more than their predefined roles, restrictions and requirements of me, and so were the girls they were posturing around in those ‘locker room’ exchanges.
I’m not surprised by the age of the boys involved in this recent ‘bois locker room’ call-out.
I had learned to be afraid of straight men in school itself. Some straight men have come to be best friends and even my lovers (you see even I can make these kinds of exceptionalist statements) but I’m still afraid that they might turn coat. It isn’t because as individuals they aren’t complex, complicated and conscious of others around them, it is together that they’ve always been trouble. I’m not surprised by the content or the tone either, I’ve heard it before.
In my twenties, I thought I’d escaped these feelings of dejection, having searched and found community in my late teens but it wasn’t to be so. I think I was rather surprised that this “locker room” attitude had also found footing in the LGBTQIA+ community. I saw the same boys from school in the straight-passing gay male person; I saw the ways that they stripped me of any grandeur to just gesture, garb and gait. I wasn’t more because I couldn’t be less.
I found that in the queer community, it manifested itself in an even bolder manner (as do so many other human peaks and pitfalls). We see it in the call for respectability and passing among our own. And within our community, the holders of the power to dictate our thoughts and actions are the straight-passing gay males. I’m not saying that there aren’t gay men who genuinely don’t have sass, swish or shimmy in them. I’m saying that not having these “impurities” allows these gay men to hold sway over the entire community and dictate: who is worthy of sex and relationships or even friendships and happiness. Just like the straight men in their “locker room” decide what makes women worthy of their attention, or even worthy of the world.
The common defense of this straight male culture has been that it is a “safe space” for men to be themselves, to say the politically incorrect thing, to let it all hang out. It is their safety valve. In reality, if one reads through the messages on similar forums like the recent ‘bois locker room’ one could go as far as to say: these aren’t safe spaces at all. In these rooms constructed by the straight male and the straight-passing gay male, penetration is privileged as the only sex act. You are seen only if you can be screwed. There isn’t an acknowledgement that sex is slippery to hold, it isn’t just the act — it is also the tension. One isn’t allowed to notice other possibilities and potential of a person in the formation of these groups. The price of admission into these various locker rooms has always been an ability and willingness to dehumanise the other. And any deviation from the norm has meant that he’d be shamed first, then shut out of the locker room, and added onto the list of things that can be bashed.
I’d like to imagine that before all of us — the female, the femmes, the fats, the fabulous cultural minorities — are completely killed off, something will give. In my thirties, I have even come to understand that these straight passing gay men wear this sheepskin to fit into the crowd, to make their own locker rooms. But I don’t think they realise you might talk like them, walk like them but you will never be them. It is still on the bodies and backs of the femmes, the trans and the lesbians that major moves are made. So, till there is better parenting — where children can completely be themselves irrespective of gender and public pressure — where bad behaviour is not just shamed but rehabilitated, until then, all the policies in the world won’t budge a thing.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
Updated Date: May 25, 2020 10:13:23 IST