I was reading an article in the New York Times this afternoon about the 25th annual NewFest (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festival) in New York City this weekend. The article’s author, Stephen Holden, had this to say about it:
The face of gay liberation in 2013 is a sanitized image of polite, smiling gay and lesbian couples parading hand in hand and exchanging chaste kisses at city halls in states where gay marriage has been legalized.
But if there’s a theme to the 25th annual NewFest … it is that gay liberation is fundamentally about sex.
At first, I inwardly cringed at these sentences, and then immediately did a mental self-check for any signs of lingering, internalized homophobia. There may be some of that left over from my Protestant days, but the main thought was one of dread. I thought:
Oh shit, now some conservative Christian bigot will get up and point to this as “conclusive” proof that gay and lesbian relationships are just about promiscuity and sex…
Then I stopped myself. Turn on the television or go to any movie these days, and you’ll see some hot, hunky guy getting it on with some voluptuous, burgeoning girl. There’s no talk of fidelity, or marriage, or children. They want to fuck. Like the animals they are.
The prudish Christians who object to sensuality in film and media today do so under the notion that humans are these exalted, divine beings who should rise above their physical needs and desires to something purer. (Never mind that this is a tenet of Gnosticism.)
Biology, however, tells a different story.
Taxonomically, we are animals. Primates, technically. But we share the same primal desire to mate and reproduce as any other life form on this planet. In fact, the only thing that seems to set us aside from our closest relatives on Earth is (1) our ability to use tools with a frightening efficacy, and (2) the awareness of our physical instincts and desires, and the ability to choose to not be dominated by them. This doesn’t make us better than other beings. Just different.
When humans experience romantic attraction, we desire to express that attractive (i.e., love) via physical means. Our genes have programmed us to respond with our genitals at the moment of sexual arousal. This is completely natural. It’s only because of the teachings of the church that we’ve come to think of this as dirty or sinful. Our ancient ancestors would have considered such a view bizarre, and unhealthy.
So why shouldn’t we have a film festival that celebrates sexual attraction between two men, or two women? Well, because it’s icky, many people (who shall remain Brian Brown) might say.
It’s true that we’ve sanitized the gay liberation movement in order to appeal to our heterosexual neighbors who would otherwise support marriage equality and LGBT rights, but find the actual reality of two men or two women expressing physical love (let alone — gasp — being sexual) towards each other (in the same way that heterosexuals express physical love) off-putting.
In doing that, however, we’ve conveniently allowed them to put away the reality that we are sexual beings, just like heterosexual couples. Yes, when we’re horny, we want to fuck. We also want to just hold each other and bask in the oxytocin-induced glow of mammalian physical intimacy. Because that’s how we’re wired.
So does that mean that we should ignore the fact that in the early days of gay liberation there was a lot of indulging in kink and promiscuity? Only if we ignore the fact of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s; of key parties, wife-swapping, and “free love.” Like a dam bursting, we threw off the moral bonds that had kept us in a perpetual state of sexual tension for centuries. However, the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards the center, as it usually does.
As Holden writes in his Times article, the early days of the gay movement “were gripped by a kind of erotic delirium in which men pursued a hypermasculine ideal and promiscuity was rampant.” We were creating new boundaries, new norms, and new paradigms to make sense of the sexual chaos that had been unleashed. Now, as we’re seeing increasing acceptance of LGBT people in mainstream American society, and coming closer to full equality, that iconoclastic boundary-pushing is being replaced by a more mature desire for emotional belonging and intimacy.
One of the final boundaries we have to overcome in achieving full acceptance for LGBT people is the depiction of physical intimacy in media — where nobody bats an eye when two men kiss (or bloody just hold hands) in a movie (and it isn’t a joke), or where there can be a sex scene on TV between two women and they aren’t trying to get male attention.
It created a stir in the 1950s when Lucy and Ricky were shown sharing a bed on I Love Lucy. We’ve been pushing those limits ever since; to moving from some whitewashed notion of a “moral ideal” to depicting reality as it is lived by actual, living-and-breathing human beings. Because it’s ridiculous that we same-sex couples have to keep pretending that we aren’t sleeping together or having sex; that our expression of physical love for each other never moves beyond meaningful eye contact, holding hands, or a quick peck on the lips.
That’s not real life.
Reality is that we do have hot, sweaty, messy sex. We also make dinner together. Go on trips. Have fights. Tolerate in-laws. Argue about money. And if any of that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what all human couples do. And as soon as everyone else gets on board with accepting that, we’ll be that much closer to having a more sane country.
And a saner world.