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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Saving the iGays

"For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed."
 - PSALM 139: 13-16


I have been fussing at my better half for the past week that we do not have exciting New Years' plans.  We will be ringing it in at his brother's house, on the couch with Ryan Seacrest while our nephew shows off his Christmas loot.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  We are generally not "partiers" these days, and New Years in a bar (or -- as my friend Tony called it -- "amateur night") is frequently overpriced and generally populated by people who are trying too hard to convince themselves and those around them they're having an amazing time.

However, my observation from astride a bigger elephant in a smaller room, which is that -- for a certain wedge of the gay male culture pie -- every Saturday night is New Years' Eve. I get weekly email invites from every DJ and promoter I ever met, trying to convince me that their venue is the place to be.  There are people whose job it is to go around and photograph people at these weekly parties and post them online and in Time Out and free bar magazines like Next.  You are of course supposed to be sought out to pose for these photographs (what my friend John, who records/performs club music as Jipsta, calls "giving red carpet") and there are men who scan these pictures eagerly over brunch the next day to see if they or their friends made the cut.

Wentworth Miller - Michael Scotfield
Wentworth Miller gives red carpet
I was never more than at the fringes of this world. You only have to look at the images that it produces to know that there is a pecking order, and that you need to look a certain way to be taken seriously.  I learned the truth at seventeen: You can gym up, wear the "right" clothes of the moment, and raise your stature a little bit, but if your physical dimensions and the shape and placement of your facial features are not within a few millimeters of the airbrushed "ideals" set by the likes of Wentworth Miller, there is an inner circle of fabulosity that will forever remain out of reach. In the event that you mistakenly cross the class boundaries, this world is populated with enough young men who fancy themselves as an extra from Mean Girls, who will helpfully direct you back to your rightful place. Further, the mandatory retirement age is distressingly young, although I know men who have resorted to Botox, hormone therapy and other means to stay "in the game" a bit longer. 

This is, of course, not new: the Village Voice personals in the 1980s could be pretty specific. In his 1983 novel I've A Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore, author Ethan Mordden creates a character named Harvey Jonas, whose raucous public persona is -- he reveals -- a mask behind which he hides a deep loneliness, brought about by a keen understanding of the looks hierarchy.
"Everybody talks about power, but everyone wants beauty.  It's sad, because you can acquire power, but you can't acquire beauty. Do you know why everybody wants beauty?  Because beauty is the only thing in the world that isn't a lie."
What is new, and somewhat disturbing, is the way that technology has impacted the gay male social scene, and it is enough to make me glad to be out of the dating game.  Traditional matchmaking strategies, and -- to a certain extent -- even the bar scene have been largely supplanted by smart phone applications which enable men to -- by means of GPS -- locate potential mates in their immediate proximity, with only a photo and a handful of characteristics and preferences to differentiate themselves.

“We are an un-community. We have become a consumer product. We are the iGays. We have lost our souls. And we don’t even know it.”
What was once at least a perfunctory opportunity to get acquainted has now been reduced to a quick scan of acronyms and statistics.   One quickly learns you need to be "VGL" (very good looking) and "Masc." (figure it out) and be able to prove it to even get a reply to your hello. Exacting standards of age, ethnicity, body dimensions, quantity and placement of body hair all help weed out undesirables.  Intimacy becomes a transaction from which you can be excluded simply for not filling out the paperwork properly.

We do like convenience, however, and the popularity of these applications is evident by their prominence in media and culture.  A recent meningitis scare in New York was cited to be largely spread by contact with others met via smart phone "hookup".  They have also played a factor in the decline in the number and quality of places for gay men to meet in person and actually socialize.  And what men are still going out do so with phones in hand, in case Mr.-Right-Now isn't in this bar, but the one next door.

Not everybody is happy about it. An Australian man who blogs anonymously writes:
"I came out in 1993, in Sydney, to a gay scene that was vibrant, colourful, out and proud. Here I sit not twenty years later, and the community has been decimated by the Internet. Completely, utterly decimated. As a whole, gays everywhere have become a sick group of animals who have completely lost their ability to interact on any authentic level, who have fearfully squashed themselves into simplified categories of drop-down boxes, and who banish entire groups of their own kind based purely on unwanted physical characteristics that do not fit the Gay-For-Pay Porn Model Image. We demand equal rights, but treat each other like sub-human animals, and worship the Straight Man as God-King."
For those of us mere mortals who don't get chased through the mall by modeling school reps, the odds are not good. Any endearing personal characteristics one might have -- a charming laugh, graceful conversation skills, a subtle or biting wit -- never get the chance to be experienced because the unseen panel of judges has already dismissed you on a technicality like the "wrong" eye color or the five extra pounds that came from binge-watching Orange is the New Black the same week that Starbucks brought back the pumpkin spice latte.  And even if you do actually get to meet in person, don't count on a second date.  "NSA" (no strings attached) is generally the intent.

The psychological effects on an already fragile population are not surprising. Our blogger laments:
"I have never felt more ugly, unworthy, and disgusting as I feel now. I have become so acutely self-conscious and lacking in esteem that if I actually venture out (despite this having become a pointless expedition of being ignored and judged, and watching small groups of gay males ignoring other small groups of gay males), I’m too uncomfortable to even dance anymore. I have no joy left in my life, because I have lost hope that I will ever share my life with another person."
He is, as it happens, an atheist.  From his biography, I suspect that any suggestion that he is loveable and beautiful in the eyes of God will be met with a dismissive eyeroll emoticon, and a chiding about invisible-man-in-the-sky fantasies to which we're already accustomed.  Which is a shame, because he is part of a population that desperately needs to hear they are in fact worthy of love.  Our tradition is full of flawed, neurotic men with questionable style and grooming habits who somehow managed to find companionship, fight injustice... even save nations.  Surely we have room for a few more! Our congregations can and should be communities where LGBT men (and women, although this looks-above-all nihilism appears to be a principally male trait) of all descriptions can be reassured of their worth in a world that frequently tells them otherwise, and where the opportunity is there for healthy, mutually-sustaining relationships of substance to form.

The church saved me in this way.  It was through seeing LGBT people, few of them actual supermodels, being uplifted by their parishes at a time when few others in society were doing so, that I knew it was possible that I was home, and I subsequently met my partner through the church. Ten years in, our extended "family" has seen us through joy and loss, and I was recently privileged to stand up for the wedding of another couple who have become dear friends. 

For the most part I have left the party world behind, and that is okay. Yes, I may have groused about not going out on New Years' Eve, but I love what my life has become, and I want that same feeling of belonging for my brothers out there in the dark, staring at their phones.

Seacrest out.