Being a Feminist Gay Male in a World of Women

Look. Introverts aren’t special. Extroverts aren’t special. Unlike what Lena Dunham or Zooey Deschanel or Jennifer Lawrence are saying, not having good social skills or people skills isn’t cute or quirky. It’s sad and taxing.

One of my good friends in a French class in Jakarta confessed that she used to hate me because she thought I was distant and aloof. No. It was because I didn’t have any friends in class and I didn’t know how to strike a conversation. I was (still am, somewhat) afraid of rejection and so I never made the first move. No one befriended me, so I concentrated on learning and getting good grades. This was back in 2002. Fast forward thirteen years later and I still don’t know how to behave.

I just came home from a public discussion where only seven out of dozens of attendees were men, and I might be the only gay man there. A few weeks ago, there was a breach of trust in the Tribal belly dance community. It involved a very well-known festival in NorCal that was organized by a bellydancer (and her husband). All these times, almost everyone thought that the husband was an ally, someone who supported the belly dance community, which, let’s face it, is predominantly women (whether cis or trans). Apparently, the husband of the organizer had a secret group on Facebook. The secret group was originally made for DJs. It started with discussions about DJ stuff, then it escalated. The husband, and another man (who is apparently a photographer and a husband of another female bellydancer), had posted photographs of belly dance performers (men and women) and making not just highly inappropriate statements, but very sexist, misogynistic, humiliating comments about them. Even posting real names of the dancers.

For some, this may not be a big deal. “They’re men being men,” or, “It’s not like they’re really acting it out.”

If it’s a stranger, I’ll probably get it. I do not condone it, I will still say that the statement “men being men” is very reductive, but I’ll probably get it.

But those remarks came from men these dancers had trusted. Those remarks came from men these dancers had hugged and kissed and confided in and had heart-to-heart conversations with.

The dance festival that was supposed to be a safe space, a haven (not just for women, although mostly for women, because again, bellydancers are predominantly women), no longer became a safe space.

And there I was, in the back of a room somewhere in Los Angeles, in a discussion about the dance festival. I listened to women share their very private experiences and fears and triggers. I witnessed these women cry openly as they confronted their fears and let everyone in the room know the hurt and anguish they felt as old wounds were reopened by the recent dance festival debacle. They held each other. The comforted each other.

Some men talked too. Straight men who have bellydancer wife/girlfriend. Straight men who made sure that they would never behave like those two sexist husbands. Some men said that they would kick the asses of those nasty, sexist men, and other men yelled yeah they would too.

But where does that leave me?

I’m a gay male. I consider myself androgynous, but by all accounts, I’m still a cisgender male. I don’t want to cut off my penis or grow breasts. I don’t want to not have sexual organs because I love sex and I love having an orgasm.

I feel weird calling myself a man because I don’t identify with that word, because there’s a sense of masculinity that’s attached to it, and I’m neither masculine nor do I want to be.

But still.

I used to feel comfortable hugging females and women, including bellydancers, but now, with this breach of trust, I feel like I need to take a step back. I always try not to wander into a female changing room. I always prefer to change in the bathroom. Some welcomed me inside their changing room and they freely changed in front of me, but it still felt weird. Part of it was probably because I was raised with different values concerning nudity.

I never feel comfortable hugging males, or even striking a conversation with men, especially straight men, because I don’t want to give the impression that I want to have sex with them. I don’t have a lot of straight male friends because of that very reason. And the reason is because I grew up learning that many straight males are afraid of gay males because they think gay males are predators and will turn them gay. It is my own personal crusade to make sure that I don’t have sex with straight males.

One of the husbands of the bellydancer who were present in the community meeting (not the sexist husbands), did say that as men, we have a lot to learn.

I know I do.

I have never experienced true grief. Both my parents are still alive. Both my siblings are still alive. I’ve experienced grief when I lost my cats, and they meant a lot to me, but without being reductive to my own experience, I’m not an empath. I can never feel what other people feel. Everything that I’ve experienced, my sex, my gender, my race, my sexuality, my upbringing, my socioeconomic background, my genes, all of these contribute to my identity and how I process thoughts and emotions and memories.

I can never know what females feel. Even if I were raped, I would never know how female rape survivors feel, because I’m not a female. I can never know what straight males feel, because although I have a penis, I’m not attracted to females.

I am unique and so is everyone around me.

I have different threshold of tolerance, to pain, to suffering, to humiliation, to heartbreaks. I deal with my own traumas differently. I deal with my life differently. And so do other people.

What is okay to you may not be okay to another person. A female dancer may welcome me to change in her dressing room while she’s there, because she doesn’t see me as a threat, but another female dancer may object to that because she considers me a man, and I’ll be happy to leave.

I am not inconvenienced by whatever happened to the dance festival. I never felt attached to it. I don’t personally know the organizer or her husband, but I’ve read some of the vile remarks from the DJ group and they angered me. But again, I’m not one of the performers who were personally attacked in said DJ group.

But I’ve made a decision. This decision is good for now. I may change it next month or next year, since I’m constantly growing and learning and educating myself. I will make mistakes. I’m not being pessimistic. It’s just the reality.

My decision is: my being gay has nothing to do with this. I’m still a male (notice that I don’t use the gender-term “man”), but there’s a bigger, more pressing issue here. I know that I can be an ally to women, but I’d also like to acknowledge that everyone is unique. Which is why, from this day on, I will try not to generalize. I will try to remember what everyone’s preference is when it comes to fundamental things like boundaries. I’ll keep a rolodex in my brain to keep track of what you allow me to do or to say and to be respectful.

But my brain is small, and my memory can sometimes be wonky, so please bear with me if I keep making mistakes and repeating them (hopefully not too many times). And always, always, always, remind me when I’ve crossed the line. Do it gently, do it harshly, do it however you like, but remember that like you, I also have feelings.

Know that I will avoid you if I think you feel uncomfortable to be around me, or if I think you can never forgive me for what I’ve done. I will wait until you can forgive me, until we can have an awkward but warm talk, until you’re sure that you can trust me again. That’s how I salvage a relationship, by giving time and space.

But I’m not selfless.

Know also that you and I have the right to shut each other out, if it needs to come to that, and it’s fine, because we both can survive without each other.

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on choosing when to work for free

“I’m pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing. Yeah, I’m going straight to the poor house.”

I used that line every time I was on a first date, because apparently, having an MFA degree, no wait, two MFA degrees in creative writing doesn’t mean I’m creative. The men I went out with would generally respond by saying, “Oh, that’s not true,” or, “At least you’re following your dreams.”

Yes. I always dream to be poor.

Back when I was in school, though, my cohorts and I would commiserate on the writers job market. Right now, I’m used to hearing things like journalism is dead (thanks, Huffington Post), the job market sucks (it always has and always will be), and a degree in fine arts is a total waste of time (it definitely is not).

Yet here I am, scouring website after website for job ads that are related to my official training (writing) and unofficial training (photography). 90% of the ads are always non-paying internships, non-paying writing gigs, or non-paying photography gigs, all promising exposure and a possible career in the company. Six percent of the ads offer minimum wage ($9 for California). Two percent of the ads are spam. One percent of the ads offer almost reasonable compensation. Only one percent of the ads are legitimate and obviously I never hear from them after applying.

Free work! Free work for everybody (in the arts industry)!

I saw an ad on Craigslist for a photographer for a party hosted by an organization. The poster wanted experienced/student photographer, and promised a chance to network. The ad included the organization’s website, and I learned that the organization was founded by big names in the medical/pharmaceutical industries.

They earn millions and millions of dollars and they don’t want to spare some to pay the photographers? Even student photographers?

That’s how terrible it is for those in the arts industry. And I understand if the reason is because art is subjective. There are some movie directors whose work I don’t get (Apatow, Anderson, and Tarantino). There are some writers whose work I don’t get (D’Agata and David Foster Wallace… and Stephenie Meyer). There are some musicians whose work I don’t get (Marley, Dylan, Gaga). And don’t start with painters and sculpturers and poets. Poets are the worst. I’m sorry. I have many poet friends, but seriously, poets are the worst.

“Jelly Beans” by Cosimo Cavallaro. Photo by LA Weekly. I totally don’t understand why this is art.

What I don’t understand is when people think that writing (or photography or painting or singing or sculpting) is easy and therefore justifies the nonexistent or meager stipend. This is where the arts become nothing more than just a hobby industry. It’s never going to be taken seriously. It’s always going to be something on the side. No one’s life (except for the artist’s) depends on art.

I mean, have you ever heard a medical doctor or a nurse or a pilot being offered a job but there’s no payment but a guarantee of exposure, networking opportunities, and potential employment?

Ugly bruises after a nurse took my blood. Thank goodness it was covered by Medi-Cal.

Ugly bruises after a nurse took my blood. Thank goodness it was covered by Medi-Cal.

The thing that most people don’t get time and again is that art is not cheap. First of all, there are the basic needs that have to be met: food, shelter, clothes, and in some cases, student loans. A lot of new people in the profession struggle to stay alive and offer something extra in the competition, even if it means undercutting the standard price.

Then there are the tools and equipment. For a writer or a journalist, this means the Internet, a laptop, electricity, books and other research sources. For a make-up artist, this means hundreds of dollars worth of face paint and high-quality brushes. For a photographer, this means expensive DSLR camera(s), expensive lenses, lighting equipment, and a computer with photo processing software. Adobe no longer sells its programs. Everything is now subscription-based with $10 a month for Photoshop and LightRoom in the Photography bundle and $20 a month for individual software such as Illustrator. I can’t even afford to Photoshop the hideous bruises on my arm.

Good writers, good photographers, good art workers of any kind invest in training. They may be talented, but they also need some sort of schooling to sharpen their skills. This training may come in workshops or certification programs or community college or two-year programs or books, but it won’t be free.

You may have read, heard, or even written this kind of complaint before, but here’s another side of the story.

Like millions of other people, especially in Los Angeles, I’m a budding photographer. I have a Nikon DSLR, lenses that are made for low-light conditions because I’m focusing more on performance and social events photography, and photography equipment. I started photographing inanimate objects like my doll and flowers. Then I moved on to animals. Then I started taking pictures of performances and people on the streets. Then I began experimenting with artificial lighting and I had no one to photograph except myself. And that was time consuming, what with setting up the lights, putting on make-up, framing, setting up the timer, posing, then running back to the camera to check if everything was in order, repeat, repeat, repeat.

I realized that I needed a model so I could focus on just being a photographer. So I asked around. I asked my classmates, I asked my dance friends, and some of them were gracious enough to lend their beauty in exchange for the photos that they can use however, whenever, and whichever way the want.

The gorgeous Christine Honer of Whittier Tribal Belly Dance. Click on the photo to see more portraits I’ve done.

Some of my friends declined for whatever reason, which was also not a big deal.

Meanwhile, I’m also teaching English writing skills to immigrants. This is a weekly volunteer job at the Adult Literacy Center at LA Central Library. I don’t get paid for it, but it feels great to share whatever knowledge I have about writing (and English) to these people and of course to hear their stories and give them a chance to write (and speak).

So, here’s the thing: if you want to do free work, it’s totally up to you, but (as a photographer or writer) you have to remember these things:

  1. Undercutting (be it offering free work or for a significantly lower amount of money than competitors) hurts the industry. That’s right. If you want to make money, you have to remember that art is an industry.
  2. Find free work that gives you something else besides money. Volunteer for a local charity group or for a local animal shelter. Take photos of people whom you trust and love. But don’t bully them into giving you work. If they decline, move on.
  3. Know who’s giving the work. Is it a reputable company or organization? Find out why they’re not paying. If you’re sure that “working” there may increase your chance of having a career, go for it. But remember that, again, you’re also hurting the industry. I once did a free work as a copy editor for a start-up online publication that folded after three months. I didn’t get new connections, and the website went offline and took my writing portfolio with it.
  4. Decline if you think it’s not worth it. Maybe the gig is way out there and gas and travel expenses are just not worth it. Maybe the hours are inhumane. Maybe you have something better to do that day. Like sleeping.

I know. You have to start somewhere. We have to start somewhere. That doesn’t mean you need to be a doormat to a company or organization or a person who obviously has the means to pay you but is too cheap to do that, right?

Choose your battles wisely, and remember, we’re in this together.

lambda literary reading

It was an absolute honor to be selected as one of the Fellowship recipients at this year’s Lambda Literary Foundations Writers Retreat. Here’s a piece about why we need gay clubs in Indonesia. 

 

new business ventures (jewelry & belly dance classes)

It never occurred to me that I’d be making jewelry AND selling it. I always make my own necklaces and wear them myself, but I think it’s time for me to start selling them. 

So it’s with great honor that I give you Sarasvati Jewelry & Adornments.

sarasvati

I’m also teaching American Tribal Style® belly dance level 1 classes on Saturdays at 2-3 pm (starting August 16) and Thursdays at 6-7 pm (starting August 21) at Live Arts Los Angeles

Please refer to this flier for more information, or click here to download the PDF flier.LALAYuskaATSFlier-01

 

gay men and body image

Matthew Dempsey, you talking about gay body image is just like people with no cancer telling people with cancer to deal with it and you know damn well why: because you’re not mainstream ugly and you can pretty much have and do anyone you want.

Let’s start with the list:

Thick hair: Check.
Good teeth: Check.
Good skin: Check.
Good body: Check. (Everyone can tell that you have sculpted arms under that shirt).

And believe me, when your mouth is open like that and you still look good, you don’t have the fucking right to say anything about body image.

Don’t you get it? You’re like the 1%.

I don’t know how ugly you think you are. Or how much of a struggle you have to go through every fucking day, every fucking time you take a look at your own reflection in the fucking mirror. Or how much you hate yourself for looking like you are, how much you want to kill yourself for looking like you are, how terrified you are of outside the world, how much you think everyone who looks at you funny judges you and laughs at you.

You don’t have the fucking right.

You are not one of us. You are not one of the ugly people. And now I know why people who never have to deal with cancer can’t say, “It’s going to be all right,” to people who have cancer.

Do you want to know what ugly is?

Ugly is that person with genetically bad, genetically yellow teeth, a huge scar along the leg, pockmarked skin, large pores, weird hairline, sucky nail bed, paunchy belly, bat ears, flat butt, eczema spots, and a small dick.

Ugly is that person who turns the lights off not only when he’s having sex with someone else, which is quite rare and often doesn’t end well, but also when he’s jerking off. Alone.

Ugly is that person who depends so much on the darkness and the sparse and playful lights of gay clubs that he curses when it’s last call and the lights go on. And of course, he’s still alone.

Ugly is that person who makes Jonah Hill look like James Dean.

So don’t tell me to suck it up. Don’t tell me to accept the fact that I’m ugly, because hearing that from guys like you make it even worse. I mean, come on. I’ll bet that you don’t ever want to fuck me, not even with a sack of cloth over my head.

Oh, that’s right. I’m not ugly. I’m just not your type. Or maybe we’re both bottoms. Regardless, my niche market is still smaller than my Asian dick.

Look. I don’t know why you’re doing this. Maybe it’s for the money. Maybe it’s good for business. For exposure. Or you’re fulfilling your HuffPo video quota. Whatever the reason is, find something else to talk about. I mean, if Gwyneth Paltrow can do it, so can you, because right now, you’re the bully who tells the smaller kids that they shouldn’t be afraid.

You’re the mean girl, Matthew, and I’m taking my business to Lizzie Velásquez, someone I can actually relate to.

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a little hello

I dreamed about you.

I don’t quite remember what it was. I just remembered you, in bed, in your grey brown shorts, in your olive green shirt, you wore a hat, a cap, the cap I knew so well.

You looked at me and your smile just said everything you’d wanted to say, everything you’d been trying to say, all those years, all those years.

I dreamed about you.

Months after months after months without even a little hello, a little acknowledgement of existence, but I know you’re still there, still alive, still surviving.

I don’t blame you. How can I. I was the one who left. I was the villain. The poison. The bitch. I took everything away from you. Everything everything everything.

Delete me. Eliminate me. Annihilate me. I don’t blame you. I won’t blame you.

You’re a better person than I am.

You’ll always be a better person than I will ever be.

The sun kissed my skin when I woke up and for a moment I wondered why I was so happy.

Canggu Beach, Bali

in my hands

We sift through a collection
Of photographs
A lifetime of emotions

I know some of those
In the photos
Different hairs, furs
Different glasses, claws
Smiles, eyes

I can never decipher what they’ve
Journeyed through
Desertion, death, divorce
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps

Then there’s this one
You as a baby
Lines as eyes
Did the camera flash?
Were you just trying to
Protect yourself?

It’s placed inside a note
Announcing your arrival
Written in decorative
Embossed soft aqua
Hidden inside a yellowed
Bone-dry envelope

“Here,” you give them to me
The envelope
The note
The photo
And I realize

I’m holding a life
A beginning of a life
In my hands
In my hands

I’m holding a person
A beginning of a person
In my hands
In my hands

I’m holding an ocean of tears
But the clouds
Pregnant with fears and possibilities
Are upon me
Upon us

I’m holding a journey
A beginning of a journey
In my hands
In my hands

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