Below is the result of an online interview conducted by Charles Stephens. Charles compiled the following 8 questions to be answered by him, Heru and myself. My hope is that this can become the begining of a conversation about how our desires so often reflect our oppression and how our liberation depends on the interrogation of everything we believe.
>1. How would you describe the current state of sexual politics in the black gay communities you are a part of?
KEVIN: I want to say first that sexual-desire politics in the black gay communities that I am part of extend far beyond the bedroom. While I believe firmly that our [Black Gay Men] seemingly collective obsession with two or three archetypes of manhood is extremely problematic and counter revolutionary I want to draw a clear distinction, in this conversation, between personal-desire and sexual-desire politics. To the extent that the personal is political, it is important to discuss the ways in which we exercise our desire. When I talk about sexual-desire politics I’m talking about a collection of norms within the Black Gay Communities that create exclusion and marginalization for an entire group of men that have endured, like all Black Gay men have endured, the oppressive forces that act against us as Black men and as gay men . This, to me, is unconscionable and serves as a barrier between US, Black gay men, and true liberation. As Audre Lord suggested, I believe that, “The masters tools, will never dismantle the masters house.”
Sexual-desire politics have too much of a role in within the communities of Black Gay Men. I’ve witnessed too many times, working within Black Gay Male communities for most of my adult life, Black gay men of influence dismiss promising young Queens or promising young fat boys. While I cannot claim to know why these people were dismissed I can say that I’ve seen some chosen and some not chosen to be mentored, to be the youth board member, to be the poster child, because of where they lay on the scale of “aesthetic beauty.”
HERU: I'm not a part of any black gay communities. I don't subscribe to the concept of black gay communities. I think there are black gay spaces in which groups--affinity groups--of black men who practice some version of same-sex desire and black women who practice some version of same-sex desire inhabit, oftentimes simultaneous with groups of other black men and women who practice some version of same-sex desire. So based upon that way of framing black same-sex culture, I would answer your question for a description of the current state of sexual politics with two words: fucked up. Fucked up because too many of us have adopted a reality, an identity, a worldview that is not only not our own but also antagonistic to our cultivation and development on personal and collective levels. When I think of the word politics, the word power comes to mind. Observing the sex in porn featuring sex between black men, listening to the conversations of black men who have sex with men, reading the online profiles of black men who have sex with men, I see and hear an attempt to play with very specific, very narrow notions of power. Power is confined to the expression of hardness, aloofness, emotional unavailability and distance, and numbness. Power is also confined to dick sizes 8 and above and abdominal muscles that form a 6 or 8 pack. Power is confined to lower tones of voice, sneers, snarls, and smirks. The Black brute, originally conceived in racist movie images to justify Jim Crow segregation, has reappeared in our bedrooms, our sex parties, our porn, our parks, and our tearooms. One of the more interesting things is how we have merged the sociology of the Black brute with the epistemology, axiology, and ontology of house/ball culture. One becomes the Black brute by wearing timbs even if one is a 50 year old queen with a corporate job. One becomes the Black brute by spending several hours a day, 3-4 days a week in the gym to sculpt one's body into the laborer's body even if one is an attorney without the knowledge of how to fix a car, repair a household item, or build anything other than biceps. It becomes equally important to downplay, obscure, or completely hide one's intellectual abilities and capacities. So I return to my original two words to describe the current state of sexual politics among black men who experience same-sex desire: fucked up.
CHARLES: I want to be hopeful. I see some courageous brothas in some spaces and places challenging the body politics, resisting these sorts of homonormative sexual scripts, embracing femininity sexually and socially. My experience has been that many of us are kind of conflicted. It’s very difficult to move through the world, even in our queer communities, without defining your value and measuring yourself against the more widely circulated notions of masculine beauty. I see some of us at least struggling to put forth wider and more democratic notions of desirability, even as we do so with ambivalence. I would like to see our communities move more toward challenging these sexual scripts that many of us are handed: muscles and masculinity. It’s not to say that brothas that walk in those bodies are horrible people, or even the people that aspire to or construct their desires around that. However, I wonder if our community circulated wider notions of desirability and beauty, would there be such an urgency to attain such a narrow ideal of beauty? Would the lines be so very rigid and defined? Final thing…. any revolution against heterosexism will have to begin in our own bedrooms. The promise of queer sexuality is to question the ways our oppression and our desires collide.
>2. Why do you think it's important for us to challenge the sexual apartheid, to use your phrase Kevin, in our communities?
KEVIN: It is in our best interest as oppressed people to go to great pains to ensure that our communities, our community institutions and our community co-inhabitants relate to people as people, with the humanity of those with whom we share the world as our first concern. The sexual apartheid of Black gay community is a system that creates exclusion from humanity for individuals who occupy marginalized bodies and present marginalized genders. This conversation goes beyond who one dates and who one fucks. The sexual apartheid of black gay men extends to who we choose to be friends with, who we let into our lives, who we hire for the job, who we chose to mentor, who we chose as our mentor, who we as a community advocate for, who we select as our leaders etc. The sexual apartheid (no fats, no fems culture) alienates and places on the margins of marginalization many HUMANS who are real people with much to offer. Not just sexually, but holistically.
Our survival depends on one another. Our community has been stripped almost bare by AIDS. Many of our most talented have fallen. “When my brother fell I picked up his weapons.” We cannot afford to throw anything away in this struggle for life and liberation in which we find ourselves engaged. When I see talent ignored and men of great experience, skill, education, passion and ability relegated to the role of back ground singer, peanut gallery participant, or fan club president for the “pretty” I am disgusted. We do not have the resources to require our leaders to have the six pack of LL Cool Jay, the masculine appeal of Tupac Shakur, and the face of Nelly. It may very well be the brother with the six-pack of Cedric the entertainer, the masculine appeal of Patty Labelle, and the face of Ru-Paul who lead us forward the choice that we have is very simply to, “Live free, or die.”
HERU: You might want to define the phrase sexual apartheid using Kevin's previous comments as a reference. Having said that I will say that I think it is important for me as a social justice worker to challenge any form of apartheid. Therefore, sexual apartheid is one of the forms of apartheid or (internalized) oppression that I feel called to examine, discuss, critique, and work to dismantle. I work for social justice and against oppression (internalized and imposed) so that I can experience freedom and so that I can have better relationships with the people I love. For me, oppression in any form prevents any of us and all of us from fully being who we are, fully loving, fully engaging with each other. So I believe that there is a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving that I have not yet experienced with anyone because those ways exist on the other side of the wall of oppression. I want to get to that other side. I want to get to that place where I live and love in the absence of oppression (internalized and imposed). I can't even begin to imagine what the sex is like on that other side but I want to feel it.
CHARLES: I think we need to have a serious community-wide “come to Jesus” meeting about the messages we receive from the hetero world, and how they play out in our world. Many of us feel alienated, isolated, alone. Many of us are suffering. I talk to brothas constantly that have these feelings. They are suffering. They think because they don’t fit into this mold, they will be single forever, or unworthy. We can’t blame everything on the big straight boogy man, especially when we perpetuate the messages that wound us. If we are serious about community building the overriding message shouldn’t be no fats and no fems, but to invoke the thrilling words of Joseph Beam “we are worth wanting each other.”
>3. Why do you think the blog revolt ended up being so huge?
KEVIN: Many of us have been touched by this phenomenon. There are those of us who have been marginalized by this situation and there are those who have been privileged by it. Wherever we are in this conversation we all have a huge stake in how it turns out.
What I witnessed during our Blog conversation was a group of men who had much invested in lifting the secrecy away of from this phenomenon and unveiling the human faces of those who are hurt by “no fats, no fems,” and those who had everything invested in maintaining the secrecy. Just like white people often react with rationalization and justification to avoid acknowledging there privilege, I believe that many of the brothers who participated in the conversation that we had were acting to defend there privilege.
I am also very aware of an attempt to intellectualize and academize the conversation, to this end. The rhetoric of those who challenged the idea of sexual-desire privilege and marginalization amounted, in the end, to circumlocution and circumnavigation. To put it plainly they talked in circles around the issue of privilege which made the conversation that much more laborious.
HERU: What blog revolt? LOL. Revolt implies that there was a state within which several of us challenged the status quo, the established order. I don't think that was the case. There is no governing order in the blogsphere. I don't believe in a blogsphere hegemony either. I believe that many more people read my blog and the blogs I enjoy than I realize or know. I also believe that there are some blogs out there that are a waste of the skin cells that get discarded when the authors of those blogs using their fingers to type out the content on them. The fact that many more people read and respond to those blogs than I feel the quality of their content warrants is just one of those things in life that I have had to just accept as a not surprising but a bit disappointing...like the re-election of George W. Bush to the US presidency in 2004. I'm also not sure how "huge" it was. How many languages was it translated into? Does the US Library of Congress have a copy? In how many works has it been cited? Hopefully it was huger (more huge...I don't know which is the appropriate term) than the egos involved. I can speak to why I think it got heated. It got heated because one individual wanted to enter the discussion with very little to say of substance or originality and very much to offer in terms of ego, arrogance, and effect. It, however, would not have been so bad if I had not treated that person with disrespect and dismissal, however well deserved. Prior to the entrance of that individual, I felt the participating group was really getting into something in the face of our differences in the discussion. I think we still salvaged some parts of an important discussion despite the intrusion.
CHARLES: Because it was time. Painful but necessary lines were drawn.
4. Do you have any final thoughts about your experience being a part of it? What did you learn? How do you think the discussion landed with other folk listening in?
KEVIN: What I learned is something I’ve known for a long time: Academics are often separated from there common sense by there obsession with rhetoric and data.
HERU: I was really disgusted by the back alley commentary made by people who knew one or more of the parties yet decided to not comment publicly. I got wind of the existence of some of these DL-commentators and considered their silence to be intellectual and social weakness. To me it's one thing for someone to decided they are not going to participate in the discussion by not commenting OR reading the discussion. It's another thing altogether for someone to read and discuss the content of the discussion and not make their intellectual and social contribution or give-back by posting their own opinions. In my opinion, blogs represent social sometimes intellectual communities and in these communities we should be engaged
in mutuality, sharing ideas not just taking.
CHARLES: Perhaps revolt wasn’t the right word. I will say that I was disappointed that some of the brothas listening in were so utterly antagonistic. Or so willing to trivialize it all. It’s stunning when your alleged comrade’s come at you with scorn. But disagreement can be constructive, I’m not sure if it was this time. Leaving the experience though, I am hopeful. There are brothas that have started to question this whole gay clone machine, praise Jesus.
5. How have you found yourself challenging masculinism and body fascism in your own sexual journey?
KEVIN: This is a big one. While I am fat and fem myself much of my sexual life has been spent replicating my own marginalization, within my own desires and desire politics. It was my acquaintance with Transgender, Genderqueer, and Gender fuck culture that first brought me into contact with “pansexuality.” Pansexuality is the belief that sexual desire need not rely on gender. In other words a penis on a woman does not make her any less of a woman and a vagina on a man does not make him any less a man. Pansexuality is a sexual expression that embraces all genders as desirous. I am not claiming to be pansexual. I’m mentioning this because it is in the pansexual workshops, and at the transgender conferences that I came into contact with thinkers, activist, and sex partners that challenged me to interrogate my desire. To ask myself the critical questions of where my desire comes from. When I began to understand that my desire comes from somewhere that I couldn’t have just arbitrarily decided that “bad boys” are sexy when 90% of women and gay men share my desire I also began to realize that Some one has been telling us all this time how to shape our desires, what desires are acceptable and who we should seek to be desired by.
My liberation walk began with seeing myself as sexy. It went from there to acknowledging the sexiness in everyone that I meet. What I’ve learned is that I can be attracted to many kinds of people and many kinds of bodies. What I’ve learned is that big men can fulfill my fantasies just as much as muscle queens. I learned that some of the best sex I’ve had has been with people that my instinctive desire would never have allowed me to consider. What I’ve learned is that fem boys make some of the best tops. That old men are some of the most energetic lovers, and that two fat people can do something together other than “make grease.”
What I’ve begun to consider, at your urging Charles, is whether I can experience pleasure in the absence of any desire. Ultimately the answer is yes. I am continuing to grow more mature as a sexual being.
Why is any of this important? Because I believe that our desires are connected to our oppression. The someone that has been telling us how to be sexually attracted is the same someone who has been telling us how to regard women, black people, queers. I’ve learned that the collective desire that we experience is the result of a media that has endeavored for a long time to tell stories about black people, women, other people of color, and poor people that are simply not true. The way that this collective desire manifests itself correlates with the stories that we have been told by the media and larger society. The men we are attracted to look a certain way talk a certain way dress a certain way etc. What’s more important though is that the men who we are sexually repulsed by look a certain way, act a certain way, dress a certain way etc. And all of us are repulsed by the same people. The Black men that are valuable are those who can lift 100 pounds, how far does this divert from the philosophies of our masters? The gay men who are valuable are those who act straight. When I look up and find myself in agreement with my master, as an oppressed person, this is my cue to change.
HERU: Masculinism? Is that a word? I just live. I am conscious in my practice of various Africanisms so I do certain things that my challenge masculinism without being deliberate in that challenge. For example, I wear sarongs and lapas at home and in Afrocentric community. I feel more comfortable wearing them than wearing pants. Some might see this as a challenge to masculinism because men in this society are not conditioned to wear sarongs or lapas. In terms of body fascism, I don't think I do much to challenge it. Though I have a belly/gut I have dated men and women who liked my belly/gut. I don't hang out in spaces in which my belly/gut would be problematic for others or challenging to their aesthetic. Nor do I wear by Black Panther regalia in redneck communities or tongue kiss men at Fruit of Islam meetings.
CHARLES: Hmmmmm…..I have found not hating myself or my body and eroticizing a range of other bodies as being the best I can do….for now. And finally, questioning everything.
6. I know you both, Kevin and Heru, have challenged mainstream HIV prevention and been critical of groups and forces that have been critical of barebacking. Could you clarify your thoughts about barebacking and gay men....why we do it, why it's such a hot button issue now, and what does sexual health work look like for these communities?
KEVIN: Sex without condoms is hotter. For decades we have been telling this lie, that we can have sex with condoms that is just as hot as sex without condoms. We have been telling this lie, as HIV prevention people, that sex without fluids, sterile sex can be just as fulfilling as sweaty, greasy, slimy, cum bucket sex. It’s a lie!
What we know for sure however is that sex with condoms significantly reduces one’s risk for acquiring or transmitting the HIV virus. We all know this. Black gay men have heard, more than anybody, the messages that have been yelled at us for the last two decades. But what is also true is that many Black gay men do not want to use condoms. Even in light of these scientific truths there are brothers, and others, out there that would take the risk for a chance to fuck. What we are missing is that this is not new. What is new is that Black gay men are revolting against the stigma that The HIV Prevention Industrial Complex has erected around condomless sex. A peek at the prevalence of HIV and AIDS among Black gay men should tell us that the desire to bareback is not new in our communities. As an HIV Prevention community we have failed. We’ve failed because we failed to seek input from the communities that we served. When we heard that brothers were having sex without condoms we shamed them. We created a climate in which those most at risk for HIV infection would never talk openly too those who are best placed to help them remain negative. We have created a climate in which black gay men lie about there sexual behavior to those who could help them plan there sex lives in a way that created the highest level of safety that the actions they are wiling to take can create. So what “barebackers” know from HIV prevention pros is that “they’re crazy,” or “have a death wish,” and not that using lots of lube can reduce your risk, that pulling out does reduce your risk, that just sucking it with no condom is safer than getting fucked with no condom, that most HIV positive men, when asked, will answer honestly about there HIV status, that 70% of new infections are attributed to HIV positive individuals that don’t know they are HIV positive, that getting tested and treated for other STDs significantly reduces your risk of becoming infected when exposed to HIV. So many of them are dead because we told them what we thought of them and not what we know of their risk factors. So many of them are dead because so few HIV prevention workers have educated themselves about the biological realities surrounding HIV transmission.
There are men out there with perfectly alright self esteems, who know how HIV is transmitted and who have made a quite conscious decision to have sex without condoms. As someone who has been involved in HIV prevention for as long as I have been I know that it is not my job to judge but to help these brothers reduce there risk, within there own parameters.
I was disappointed by the actions of those who marched with picket signs outside of the sex party for no other reason than that I thought it was short sighted, thoughtless, reactionary and silly. A much better strategy would have been to embrace the brother who throws the parties and create opportunities to educate the brothers who attend the parties. But what those organizations that picketed that party let the brothers on the inside know is that those organizations are not places where there CHOICE will be honored or where they will find support for preventing the acquisition of HIV.
HERU: Whoa. I devoted two years of intense study and research to answer these questions. The knowledge I have gained will the subject of several journal articles and a book or two that should be coming out in the next couple of years so stay tuned and I'll give you the bibliographic information on them.
CHARLES: My own thoughts about barebacking have been informed by the community organizer/scholar Eric Rofes and echoed by the blogger geekslut and the novelist/essayist Edmond White. For me the question we should ask ourselves is how can we promote and support sexual pluralism in our communities, but at the same time encourage support and care for each other. That is to say maybe there are models of barebacking we can create that are rooted in trust, in communication, and in mutual respect and care for each other. I completely get how anonymous “don’t ask, don’t tell” barebacking can be appealing, though maybe we can find ways to expand the possibilities where we can be our brothas lovers/tricks/fuck buddies and keepers. Also, I think we are a diverse community that attaches diverse meanings to our sexual practices. We have to find ways to meet those communities where they are, encourage self-care and not shaming their particular brand of pleasur.
>7. Why do you think it's difficult for man folk in our communities to think critically about how we construct our desires, and the meaning we attach to what we desire. More so I have found that when we challenge each other, there is a lot of
anger and resentment that builds. What has your experience been in such situations?
KEVIN: I agree. Challenges to desire are met with anger. I think this is probably because it takes a lot of work to even interrogate our desires, let alone expand them.
I also think that homophobia has made sure that our desires are challenged from the day that they come into being. Most gay men have worked very hard to get to the point where we can accept our desires, and find affirming for our desires. For most of us that are "Out" there is an activist spirit attached to expressing our desires. So, it’s not always easy to distinguish between a condemnation of our desires and a call to explore how our desires are varnished with the residue of the very oppression against which we shape our desires.
HERU: I think that most people are not critical thinkers. In fact, I believe that too many people are fool ass ignorant. So anytime that you apply pressure to their cognitive systems and processes they are gonna get a bit anxious if not downright pissed. The educational system in this country has really fucked up people's heads. It's a damn shame how many dumb ass motherfuckers are running around here thinking that they can think or know what that means.
CHARLES: I think to challenge the more dominant notions of desirability is still extremely radical for gay men. Because so many of us are wounded by masculinity, and try to work through that by identifying with it and desiring it, to challenge that desire is to pour salt in the wound. Rather than question the source of the pain and go internal, they would rather go externally. Further, anytime you challenge a myth that someone holds dearly, it’s like pulling the rug from up under them. Their concept of reality gets shaken, and to stabilize they have to cling to the myth. It’s kind of like when you tell poor people there is no American dream.
>8. Final thoughts.
HERU: No final thoughts because my thoughts are not finalized. I'm still learning, growing, and developing.
CHARLES: As queer men I believe that it’s all right and even expected that we eroticize big dicks, big muscles, and masculinity. At the same time I think it would be very beneficial if we widened our scope of what’s desirable. Finally, I would encourage all of us to rethink what we are told what’s desirable, and how we measure our own value with regard to those messages.