Lust and Loss: cruising the landscape of gay worldmaking
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
Many dedicated faggots have made the comparison between cocksucking and prayer, especially when knees are planted in the ground, eyes closed because of something too powerful to look at. But Christopher Russell's Landscape, a book of black-and-white photos of men cruising Buena Vista Park, at first appears to take this assertion one step further -- with the trees towering above and light cascading onto shirts, hands, exposed asses, it's almost as if these men have stumbled into heaven. If so, they appear unaware -- in one early photo, someone crouches forlorn in the shadows between trees; above him beckon three perfectly-crafted beams of light. Indeed, there’s an eeriness to many of these photos, as the sumptuousness of the foliage and the brashness of the sunlight render the sex acts comparably mundane: white t-shirts pulled up and white briefs pulled down like on a porn set; the spooky silhouette of a face pressed against a waiting crotch; baseball caps and dark sunglasses holding distance.
It’s when the images become fractured that they reveal depth of feeling -- faces merging with leaves and light, heads blending into trees awaiting sky, the motion of hands and arms and legs conjuring a certain type of flight. When the camera pulls back, it's the sky that's shimmering, a brightness between branches and leaves with just a tiny figure below. We see a head turned in one direction, or someone's back -- or just the back of a head -- yet the action is not where this figure is gazing but above and around,
leaves swaying in the breeze and branches shaking underneath the glow of the setting sun. It's here that we can truly appreciate the complex landscape of lust and loss, adventure and longing.
In one of Russell's images, the silhouette of someone's coat blends so neatly with a tree that it's almost like a sagging branch -- this image brings to mind a photo reproduced in Tony Duvert’s Good Sex Illustrated, a scathing 1974 critique of a five-volume "liberal" sex manual published the previous year in France. The photo, from the handbook in question, shows a park somewhat more groomed and far less picturesque than Buena Vista, nonetheless with light reflecting off trees and a man in an overcoat standing to the side of a path, his back to us -- unlike in Russell's photos, however, it's the man who appears monumental and the trees a backdrop as the child gazes up from several feet away, apparently frozen by what he sees. This photo, contained in the volume for 10-13-year-olds, is meant to illustrate the dangers of pedophiles who apparently lurk in parks. But Duvert indicts the motives of parents who claim to warn their children about such violence, declaring "What they are really trying to do isn't to protect the child but their own exclusive right to do whatever they want with him."
In Good Sex Illustrated (available now for the first time in English), Duvert skewers the emerging field of sex education as nothing but "science taking charge of the old moral order." With a savage glee, Duvert dissects three volumes of the sex manual allegedly geared towards helping young adults to discover their sexual selves, but instead intent, according to Duvert, on "libidinal dismembering" and centered around a "pro-birth obsession." Duvert is most hilarious when he compares what the handbook calls a "feeling of total fulfillment" from pregnancy to that of a teenager getting fucked in the ass: "Jean scrubbed his ass pensively: is this what they call a feeling of total fulfillment?” One of Duvert’s most brilliant lines occurs in a resulting footnote, "it goes without saying that as soon as the pleasure of having a cock inside your body stops being depreciated, the honor of having a fetus there won't be over-emphasized.” But if this is one of Duvert’s most skillful reversals, it also illuminates a gap in his analysis. After all, he's comparing a woman's alleged feelings during pregnancy to that of a man’s response to getting fucked (we hear nothing about a woman's sexual pleasure) -- while Duvert incorporates a nuanced gender critique into many of his readings, he nevertheless prioritizes male sexuality throughout the book, which ends up thwarting his overall goal of subverting the social order by encouraging the sexual freedom of all children.
David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? shares a similar aim of moving conversations about sexuality (and sexual safety) away from standards of "healthy functioning" and "rational" or "irrational" behavior. Halperin seeks to champion queer cultural traditions over the judgments of psychology and the false dichotomy between risk and safety. (In a homophobic culture, what gay sexual behavior, after all, is not risky?) In searching for a more comprehensive approach to gay male sexual splendor, Halperin revisits a vulnerable and challenging 1995 essay by Michael Warner in the Village Voice, "Unsafe: Why Gay Men Are Having Risky Sex," where Warner at one point states that "Abjection continues to be our dirty secret." If Warner talks about abjection as a sense of "dirtiness" due to societal condemnation, Halperin describes abjection as "an experiment with the limits of both destruction and survival, social isolation and social solidarity, domination and transcendence." In other words, "the more people despise you, the less you owe them, and the freer and more powerful you are." Halperin wonders, "instead of worrying about the appeal of abjection to gay men, then... what we really should be doing is trying to think concretely about... how to make it work for us."
This is a provocative idea, but unfortunately here Halperin departs from his methodical (and meticulously footnoted) analysis of safer sex strategies to endlessly circle around Michael Warner's essay and certain passages from the writing of Jean Genet, resulting in a repetitive rhetorical jumble. To be sure, Halperin provides a few illuminating examples (including the writing of pornstar Scott O'Hara and the brilliant and short-lived ‘zine Diseased Pariah News), but What Do Gay Men Want? could certainly benefit from an analysis of the wealth of queer worldmaking over the last few decades that centers around the possibilities (and perils) of an embrace of outsider status -- the work of David Wojnarowicz, Samuel Delany, Derek Jarman, Gregg Bordowitz, Justin Chin or Essex Hemphill, to name a few among innumerable possibilities. Or, perhaps, an analysis of Christopher Russell's photos, where the messiness of desire becomes landscape
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is the editor, most recently, of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity.