dimanche 27 janvier 2008

It's the Major Histocompatibility Complex, stupid!

What determines if we like or dislike the smell of a potential mate, as well as how we like French kissing her / him - intimacy pillars? Both are linked to the Major Histocompatibility Complex, part of the genetic makeup of the immune system which help distinguish self from foreign. We usually like the MHC from our mates to differ from ours, providing less risk of miscarriage and better immune protection against infection to our offspring. Although these preferences are the result of natural selection, they seem to hold true for gay lovers... The original observation was made over a decade ago by Claus Wedekind, a researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Reference to his work is made in the special issue of Time magazine on The Science of Love ("Humans do a lot of odd things, but the way we fall in love may be the hardest to explain. Scientists are looking for answers - and finding them.") It's a pity that the only picture of gays among thirteen pictures of celebrities in love is one of Elton John and David Funish! Fortunately a few pages later a very personal article addresses the topic of gay relationships. Are they Different? questions the title. John Cloud, one of the Time's star journalist, narrates how he and his partner separated in 2006, after living together for 7 1/2 years. After an initial period of "intense exercise and weight loss; fugue states punctuated by light psychotherapy, heavy drinking and moderate drug use; Italian classes; and marathon cooking" he "started reading the academic research on relationships, which is abundant and, surprisingly, often rigorous." He continues: "I wondered whether Michael and I could have done more to save our union. What impact had our homosexuality had on the longevity, arc and dissolution of our relationship? Had we given up on each other because we were men or because we were gay? Or neither? Friends offered clichés: Some people just aren't meant for each other. But our straight friends usually stayed married. Why not us?" Read the article if you are curious and want to get some interesting answers to these questions. Gay end relationships sooner than heterosexuals. They argue less belligerently that straight pairs. But are worse at making up after fights. Cloud has his own theory: "It's less important for their sex lives. Probably because they don't have women to restrain their evolutionarily male sexual appetites, gay men are more likely that straight and lesbian couples to agree to nonmonogamy, which decreases the stakes for not repairing. And according to a big study from Norway published in the The Journal of Sex Research in 2006, gay men also consume more porn that everyone else, making them more 'partner independent'."

Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head: The Secret World of Sexual Fantasy (Brett Kahr, Perseus Books, 2008) is an example of non rigorous so-called academic research. Just don't buy this book. Don't read it. It is a waste of time. Why did I buy it? The reference to Alfred Kinsey in the back cover, the fact that the book is claimed to be based on the survey of a very large sample representative of the British and US population, and the quick reading of the great questionaire which is included as an appendix. I expected that I would really learn something. Kahr, a British psychologist and Freudian analyst, provides almost no hard data. Yes, most of the people surveyed have sexual fantasies, the content of which varies greatly: from 'vanilla' plain stories of making love to one's own partner, to much more hardcore ones. But most of the book is filled with transcripts of the fantasies he collected, followed by tentative interpretations which draw on the most traditional psychoanalysis, i.e. on air. If you are interested in reading fantasies, read Sade.

In a recent national survey in the US, conducted by
Harris Interactive on 2,455 adults aged 18 and over, in conjunction with Witeck-Combs, a communication and PR firm specializing in the GLBT community, 6% (158) of the polled population self identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.


dimanche 20 janvier 2008

Cruising and Bobby Fischer

In a world where attitudes have dramatically changed since the AIDS epidemic appeared in the early 80s, but where HIV contamination among young gays as well as other 'sexually transmitted infections' ("New Bacteria Strain Is Striking Gay Men", The New York Times, January 15th 2008) are on the rise, it is moving to watch Cruising, the 1980 controversial film with Al Pacino.
The movie photography and soundtrack have been beautifully remastered in the new DVD released in September 2007. No additional footage is included but "some visual transitions which were not in the original film were added," says William Friedkin the director, "and the scenes in the leather bar are much more vivid than they were made to appear in the original theatrical release." The DVD also includes several interviews which provide interesting viewpoints and an historical perspective.
Besides being a murder mystery,
Cruising is a fascinating film. It shows a very realistic image of what was part of the gay life in New York City in the 70s and 80s, after Stonewall and before AIDS. Shooting took place in real leather gay bars of the West Village, with regular patrons, asked to do whatever they usually did... Many years later, William Friedkin says: "There is no other film that I ever saw that is like that. Whether you like it or hate it, it's very unconventional and it's original, it does not owe itself to anything. It's an unsettling experience. I wanted to portray the idea that the murders were unsolved, a metaphor for so much that happens in our life, the mystery of fate. When you look at someone, do you really know who they are?" "Do you know who I am?" seems to ask Al Pacino in the last sequence of the movie, as he looks at the camera, after his ordeal as an undercover cop investigating the serial murders in the leather S&M gay community.

On a more sad tone, Bobby Fischer died on Thursday in Iceland at 64. Once again he made the front page of the major newspapers worldwide. In
Le Monde: La mort de Bobby Fischer, génie paranoïaque des échecs. In the Financial Times: Bobby Fischer, chess genius and estranged American, dies in isolation, with a picture of the former World Champion in 2005, after his return to Iceland, with long white beard and hair. Coincidentally the FT also featured in the same issue an interview with Anand, the current Chess World Champion. But the best coverage was in the New York Times: Bobby Fischer, Troubled Genius of Chess, Is Dead, with a beautiful picture of Fischer in 1971, in front of a chessboard, followed by a full page of his biography and an interesting appraisal by Edward Rothstein, a music critic, currently the cultural critic-at-large for the NYT: "Bobby Fischer's instability was linked in some ways to the nature of chess." Not only was Fischer one of the best chess player ever, but he also has a very significant influence on the game, demanding more prize money for World Championships, suggesting a new time control which is now widely used, among other things.
It reminds me of the foreword of
Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, the book Fischer published in 1966, when he was 22 years old. He wrote something that I find very touching: "Chess games are being played everywhere - on benches and tables in the park, at Chess clubs, YMCA's, hich schools, colleges, army posts, prisons. Even by mail. You shouldn't have any trouble in getting a game. l certainly hope that my book will help everyone to enjoy this wonderful game."


dimanche 13 janvier 2008

Cape Cod

I have been willing to go to Cape Cod for sometime now. Instead I opened Jon Loomis' first novel, High Season (St Martin's Press, 2007). Loomis is a poet. It's fairly visible: he knows how to write. He published two volumes of poetry, before embarking in what might become a series of mystery novels. High Season is presented as "A Frank Coffin Mystery". The book came out last fall.
Frank Coffin is a former Baltimore homicide detective who had to quit because of a nervous breakdown. He returns to Provincetown, MA, where he grew up, to become a regular cop, mainly issuing parking tickets and investigating bicycle thefts. Then a famous vacationing TV evangelist is found dead, cross-dressed, on a beach. It is the starting point of an investigation which will transform Coffin.
Although it is well written, at times very funny (as when a young straight cop dressed in drag-queen goes out in order to get information...), the novel ends up being boring. Coffin, a straight man in his forties, is a frightened man, difficult to identify with. He lacks some depth. In fact, as Loomis, through Coffin's shrink, writes, "everybody's got three lives. A public life, which is how you present yourself to the world; a private life, which is what your family knows about you; and a secret life - the stuff only
you know about you." "Do you have a secret life?" asks Lola, Coffin's great lesbian police partner. "I'd be a lot more interesting if I did", admits Coffin. He is right...
Most of the other characters in the novel are grotesque losers, specially the gay characters...
At least I thought we would learn something about transvestites or cross-dressers: "Drag queens he could understand, sort of; there was something tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing, all that glitter and flash, a kind of burlesque-on/homage-to the whole idea of glamour in all its blowzy, tittering goofiness. The straight cross-dressers were harder to figure out - the just plain transvestite everyone in town called tall ships. The tall ships tended to be large men who strode up and down Commercial Street in plus-sized tweed skirts, support hose, and pumpkin-colored lipstick; craggy-faced and lonely-looking men with dispirited wigs and five o'clock shadows poking through pancake makeup. Sometimes they had their wives, even their kids in tow. They reminded Coffin of his Aunt Connie after she'd been through several rounds of chemotherapy."
The whole story takes place in Provincetown, and the city, on the verge of losing its soul, is one of the main characters. One night Coffin pays a visit to his old friend Kotowski who lives in the last property on Commercial Street's west end, "a hulking, dilapidated thing, perched precariously above the beach." They have been seeing each other every week for the past ten years, "ostensibly for a game of chess, which neither of them played very well or liked very much." When Coffin gets out of his old car, "the moon was rising nacreous and fat above the harbor; a bright path of reflected moonlight wrinkled from the beach to the bay's black horizon." The moon is often present in the many night scenes of the novel and is always described in a very personal way. Kotowski asks Coffin, while they play, "Ever been to Nantucket?" And continues: "
Nantucket was abominable. Stepford meets the Disney version of Moby-Dick. The whole island is perfect and clean and cute. Nobody lives there but rich, glossy white people - self-congratulating lawyers and their lubricious trophy wives, completely zombified on antidepressants. Nothing but suntanned morons wearing Rolex watches, as far as the eye can see. Even the dogs look smug. There is no Nantucket anymore. It's all been torn down and replaced with gigantic McMansions. You can't buy a sandwich there for less than twelve bucks. That's Provincetown in a year or two. Except the lawyers and the trophy wives will all be queer." Kotowski is not gay, as he points out, he is "homosexual. To be gay is to be frivolously happy, which I am most definitively not."
Jon Loomis was twice a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He lives with his wife and son in west-central Wisconsin.
I definitively want to go to Cape Cod. The next "Frank Coffin Mystery" might be a good travel companion...


dimanche 6 janvier 2008

What Do Gay Men Want?

According to the more recent statistics from New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the number of new HIV infections in men under 30 who have sex with men continues to increase sharply, confirming the trend of the past five years. AIDS experts cited by the New York Times say that "the significant factors feeding the trend appear to be higher rates of drug use among younger men, which can fuel dangerous sex practices, optimism among them that AIDS can be readily treated, and a growing stigma about HIV among gays that keeps some men from revealing that they are infected."
Which brings me to
What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk and Subjectivity (The University of Michigan Press, 2007) published last year by David Halperin, one of the leading figures of queer studies in the US. The book is mainly structured as a detailed commentary of an article published in January 1995 in The Village Voice by Michael Warner, a prominent queer theorist: "Unsafe: Why Gay Men Are Having Risky Sex?" Recent epidemiologic studies had revealed a breakdown in safer-sex practice among younger gay men in New York City.
Halperin's stated objective in his essay is to find a new approach to address the topic of gay sexual subjectivity ("what gay men want") without recourse to psychology, or "to depersonalize risky sex by depsychologizing it", in order to "look beyond such pop-psychological clichés as 'survivor guilt' or 'internalized homophobia' in order to locate in gay men's social world, rather than in our psyches, the springs for what might appear to be incomprehensible or self-destructive behavior." Some of the 'springs' identified by Warner are: "deep identification with positive men, ambivalence about survival and the rejection of normal life." Which leads to what is, according to Halperin, the central thesis of Warner's article: "The real problem with standard HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, it turns out, is that they do not confront the mysterious depths in the gay male subject where the impulse to have risky sex originates. Attempts to build HIV/AID prevention on appeals to self-esteem miss their target because they are directed at the decent, law-abiding, healthy gay individual who has no need to be persuaded, and would never dream of having risky sex anyway, while they have no ability to restrain the antisocial monster inside him, the force that can drive this otherwise well-behaved person to violate his consciously espoused beliefs and values. Only a model of gay male subjectivity that allows for sources of motivation in the subject other than the ego can accommodate the unpalatable truth. And what is that truth, according to Michael Warner? 'Abjection continues to be our dirty secret' (...) Abjection, then, is what we need to talk about, when we talk about what it means to have someone's dick up our butts or to have someone come in our mouths. We need to admit our pleasure in being the lowest of the low, in being bad, in being outlaws, in betraying both our own values and those of the people around us. And we need to do so non-judgementally, without having to berate ourselves for a weak ego, for a lack of self-esteem, or for some other king of distinctively
psychological failure."
From there Halperin takes us onto a journey among French authors in order to support his queer interpretation of abjection: Jouhandeau (
De l'abjection), Genet (Miracle de la rose, Journal d'un voleur), Sartre (Saint Genet), Guibert (A l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauvé la vie).
All this is intellectually amusing but not very rational, and does not really help us answer the question of what we want. How is it possible to address gay subjectivity outside of psychology?