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 The secret group was originally made for DJs.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.

layla means night and the elephant in the room

I’m going to start this piece by telling you two stories. The first one is the famed Arabian Nights and the second one is about a group of blind men and an elephant.

Perhaps I don’t need to tell you about the first story. It’s called One Thousand and One Nights and this collection of framed stories has been delighting a wide range of audiences, from children to adults to adults looking for themed porn.

The second story deals with perception. So there’s this group of blind men. They don’t know what an elephant looks like. A zoo keeper is nice enough to place the blind men in a room with a very docile elephant. One blind man touches its ear and says, “Ooh, an elephant is vertical and flat and thin!”; another rubs its leg and says, “No! An elephant is thick and sturdy, although also vertical!”; yet another feels its trunk and says, “You’re both wrong! An elephant is squishy and a bit hairy and moves about a lot, and very, very long.”; another glides his hand over the elephant’s skin and says, “I don’t think so. An elephant is big and rough.”; another plays with its tusk and says, “I’m not sure what you guys are on about. An elephant feels pointy, and perhaps dangerous. I’m not going anywhere near it.”; and finally, the last one, the lucky fellow who gets to be close to the animal’s butt says, “Are you high? An elephant is very, very skinny, almost non existent, and it’s very slinky,” because he’s touching its tail.

An audience member viewing “Layla Means Night”, a dance/theatrical/installation arts performance presented by Rosanna Gamson may feel like one of those blind men.

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As we checked in for the show, we received a slip of paper with different colors. Then we were served wine and mimosa and food and some dancers even offered to wash our hands. Here the story began immediately. We were introduced to three characters: The insecure, misogynistic bitch king (yeah, I use “bitch” for men. You should try it. It feels emancipating), the executioner (who painfully, ever so slowly raised her cleaver and brought it down on one poor satsuma after another every minute), and the wives (played by a charming cast of the teenage dancers ODC Dance Jam) taking turns visiting the king and doing a dance routine to no music. No, no belly dancing involved. This was strictly modern dance meets hints of Sufi and Persian dances.

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A blonde Scheherzade fleeted about in an almost tattered white and light pink gown, greeting guests, while the narrator, Niloufar Talebi (who also helped with the text and translations for this show) was a vision in black and crazy-ass feathered headdress that she unfortunately took off as the night unfolds (I simply couldn’t stop staring at her face. Four words: gorgeous facial bone structure).

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Then it got real. Remember the colored paper? Yeah, I didn’t get one.

The audience was divided into three groups based on the color of paper they received. I decided to join the Red group. I began to suspect that this was an all girls group (a relief from six years of all-male Catholic high school, which I couldn’t complain about), as we were given a fan to, “Cover our faces with when we encounter members of different groups.” And so began the concealment and the play of perspective.

In a way, the concept was sort of ingenious. The three groups were divided on gender (I guess I wasn’t given a paper either because I had a press invitation (ah, perks!) or because the greeters at the door simply couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl (genderblending FTW!). Anyhoo, I was glad that I made the decision to join the girl group. After all, red is my favorite color. IMG_2846

The problem with this was that each group would get a different show, and a carefully selected one at that. Not only did each group view the show in a different order (although all groups were in the same room in the first sequence where they introduced the story and in the last sequence where we were told the moral of the story by Scheherazade) but also had different stories told to them.My all-girl red group had the opportunity to see the guy group blindfolded with orange cloth as the dancers in black (teen ODC Dance Jam, the still living wives) were telling them stories. As a member of the girl group, I could see the other dancers (in red (souls of the dead wives))  perform near the men, almost touching the men, but of course the men could only hear stories told by the living wives. They were oblivious to what was happening around them. And as a member of the girl group, all I could hear was the whispers. Whispers. Whispers. Of the stories. And this scared the glitter out of me.

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The whispers stayed throughout the show but were somehow passed on to the dead wives (red dancers), as the King blabbered to the guy group about negative space. He was obviously getting the guys to take on his side to justify the beheading of women. 

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I am not going to give you a play by play, but in the style of Edmund White’s States of Desire, here are some memorable details:

  1. Whispers. Seriously. As someone who constantly eavesdrops, it’s frustrating to have pieces of information so close within your reach yet far enough so that one cannot decipher the whole information. And what’s worse, the performers recited the different information at the same time, making it even harder to hear.
  2. Colors. Obviously red, black, and white play significant part. But orange? Well, according to Gamson, orange (cloths, even the satsumas and strung almost-dried dandelions that gave the rooms and stages a distinct scent) symbolized life. The new, still living wives wore black and the orange ribbon tied around their neck, signified that they were still alive. Gamson added that the making of orange juice in the morning signified a new day. I used to drink orange juice every morning for two weeks, until I realized every time I routinely drank orange juice (or strawberry smoothie or vitamin C), I would start getting crazy painful mouth sores.
  3. Obviously the play is about hiding information. The girl group got to the banquet room very much later while the men went to the banquet room earlier (and therefore wined and dined and got to spend some minutes sitting and sharing stories and their feelings) as the new wives were being executed in front of them (the girl group was only wined and dined and got to spend some minutes sitting and sharing stories and our feelings with Niloufar Talebi and then write our stories on a tiny scrap of orange paper that hung from the ceiling).
  4. In the banquet, Niloufar, while sitting on an orange chair, told us a real story of her father asking her when she was just fourteen years old, “Would you rather be dim and happy or knowing and suffer?” to which she never gave us her reply. Something to think about. Also: I wondered if she told the same story every night.
  5. The shadow play with the story of the giantess. It’s amazing how distance and light can generate the illusion of size.
  6. The Persian musicians (Houman Pourmehdi, Pirayeh Pourafar, and vocalist Alireza Shahmohammadi), whose songs I could listen to all day.
  7. The strung butterflies and cleavers in the red voyeur room.
  8. They taught us to zaghareet, which is a high-pitched ululation sound that Middle-Eastern women make to cheer on something or someone. At one point, we were to zaghareet after each new wife was beheaded. Genius.
  9. I didn’t even mind going up and down and up and down the stairs, although seeing the Exit signs and the posters and photographs on the walls of the staircase (and signs that said “Please turn off lights or fan” or “Absolutely no street shoes in the studio”) kind of took away the illusion of being in a different world.

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In the end, though, as fascinating as the concept of the show is, I don’t understand the merit of withholding information, especially since you’re trying to do a play about gender and sexism and feminism. Yes, each member of each gender will have different interpretation of the show, but with themes as dividing as gender and sexism and feminism, why not give everyone the whole same show?

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We grew up being a boy or a girl (or both) and having sets of rules and morals and etiquette and manners shoved down our throat: what to wear, how to talk, how to behave; and our perception about members of the opposite gender is helped shaped by our society anyway, so why not just trust the audience to see everything, go home, and interpret the play according to her/his knowledge and social upbringing? 

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In an article published by InDance, Niloufar Talebi wrote, “What I grapple with working on this project is the fact that any mention of a performance inspired by the Nights conjured images of djinns and fairies and magic lamps and harem pants. And of course of the mighty “Scheherazade” reduced in Western Orientalist depictions to an enticing half-naked woman confined to entertaining a domineering man who can do as he pleases and have as man women as he wants. Which is far from the truth. She is much more than that, you will see.”

You know, this idea of “enticing half-naked woman” is starting to get on my nerves. I mean, I am a belly dancer (although I’m a dude), and Talebi’s statement sounds very reductive. There are belly dancers, just like jazz, modern, ballet dancers, just like poets and writers, who struggle every day to take the art of belly dancing to a respectable level. I mean, “half-naked”? It’s not like the costumes of the performers of “Layla Means Night” were less revealing than belly dancers.

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Another thing: this show is billed as an “immersive dance theater work”, and I have to tell you, despite the climbing up and down and signs (which are all just logistics), it was quite immersive. The scent of the satsumas and the flowers, the banquet (a much deserved break for some of us, which also justified the ticket price), the sheer curtains, the theatrics. One couldn’t help but ask: did these theatrics actually help elevate the experience or merely become props on which those involved in the production relied (heavily or otherwise)? Because to be honest, there were moments when the dancers, who had quite uniformed body type, were not in sync when I supposed they were supposed to be synced, but I got so distracted by the dark lighting and the curtains.

Apart from the music, the only thing that’s remotely Persian (dance-wise, excluding the musicians and Talebi’s poems) is the performance in the Red Voyeur Box, which was eerie and fabulous.

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I sat down with ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke who was kind enough to spare her minutes as Rosanna Gamson excused herself to prepare for the second show (“Layla Means Night” ran twice an evening, 7 PM and 9 PM) and I told her about my happy mixed-up with the girl group (I was so not going to join a group with that much testosterone). Then I asked her if someone had $150 to spend, would he or she be able to join each group and get the experience as a whole? The answer is no. I mean, you could ask to join the group of your gender or a mixed group, but not the group of a different gender.

So, if you are really, really curious, and you have that much money, this is my advice: dress in drag.

***

Rosanna Gamson / World Wide presents Layla Means Night at 7 PM and 9 PM, October 30 to November 3 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $35 – 50. Click here for more information.

Photos by Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta. For more photos, go to the Flickr Album.

poetry in motion

These are some sample images from my Postcards from Bali collection.

Arja (cross-dresser) doing Bondres (Balinese comedy)

Arja (cross-dresser) doing Bondres (Balinese comedy)

Kebyar Duduk

Kebyar Duduk

Baris Dance

Baris Dance

Fisherman Dance

Fisherman Dance

Legong Trance Dance

Legong Trance Dance. Yes, they closed their eyes half of their performance without tripping nor bumping into one another. 

"Nyamar" ("Masquerade") Dance

“Nyamar” (“Masquerade”) Dance

Barong

Barong

In other news, my submission of “Arja” made it to Toemailer’s WordPress Blog.

zenne dancer: but is it really belly dance?

I am somehow adverse to gay movies. I don’t watch Queer as Folk, I don’t watch Dante’s Cove (haha, softcore porn, anyone?), I don’t watch Milk, I don’t watch Happy Together, heck, I don’t even watch Brokeback Mountain nor Naked Boys Singing nor Cloud Atlas (although technically it’s not a gay movie) and Boys Don’t Cry bored me to tears. I also don’t watch Glee or Sex in the City and I think Will & Grace is not funny. That being said, I love The Hours and Kinky Boots. And To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. And Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And RuPaul’s Starrbooty. 

Zenne DancerWhat can I say, I’ve always loved showbiz. And speaking of which, as a small-time belly dancer, this particular Turkish / German movie intrigued me, and ever since news of it came out last year (or in 2011?) I’d been searching for it. A few days ago I finally found it and well, here’s the review.

Zenne is based on a true story of honor killing of one Ahmet Yildiz on a summer night of 2008. The suspect is his own father who cannot accept his son’s homosexuality, and Yildiz’s father is still at large.

Aside from bad acting from Giovanni Arvaneh (who played Daniel Bert the German photographer), everyone else is stellar in this movie. And I love Demir Demirkan’s version of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne no. 1.

I’ve never been to Turkey. A few years ago, when Mom and I planned on going there, two bombs went off in Istanbul. So we visited Italy and Greece instead. Then the uprising happened (and is still happening), so good for them for being fed up with the government but I really, really want to go, so bad for me because the situation is probably unpredictable as of right now.

My point is, I don’t know what Turkey is like, but Zenne is set in Istanbul and many parts are presented in the movie. There are some chic parts of the city and there are some poorer parts. This diversity is also evident in the way different families view homosexuality. The family of Can (the dancer, played by Kerem Can) loves him to death, even the guy who’s having a relationship with Can’s aunt. Well, Can’s brother (played by the oh so sexy Tolga Tekin) is a bully, but that’s probably because he’s burnt out from the war. We’ll discuss this later. Meanwhile, Ahmet’s (played brilliantly by Erkan Avci) parents are portrayed as being unable to accept their gay son while Ahmet’s sister (also played brilliantly by Esme Madra) loves Ahmet.

L-R: Can (the dancer), Ahmet, and Daniel (the photographer).

L-R: Can (the dancer), Ahmet, and Daniel (the photographer).

Can’s father died in the war, and well, his brother has post-war stress. Can’s mother and aunt don’t want him to go to war so he has to stay indoors during day time to avoid ID checks.

Daniel the photographer meets Can at a gay club where Can dances. Daniel wants to photograph Can in costume. Ahmet is present when Daniel meets Can for the second time and then for the third time, and well, love blooms. Daniel, being German (developed country that recognizes homosexual rights) fear for Ahmet’s life and wants to take Ahmet with him to Bavaria. However, both Can and Ahmet have to go to the military post first to claim their homosexuality so they don’t have to be enlisted.

Can and Ahmet, so chic!

Can and Ahmet, so chic!

So how exactly does one claim one’s homosexuality and escape conscription? Easy! Just bring evidence (photos) of being fucked by another guy. Ahmet and Daniel go off to get busy while Can finds someone else. Can waxes Ahmet’s hairy back and dresses him up and puts makeup on him as they go to the military post and tells Ahmet to tell the examiners that he’s also a zenne (dancer). Their plan works, Can and Ahmet don’t have to enlist. 

However, Ahmet left his sex photos in his car, and the private detective paid by Ahmet’s father to stalk him discovers the photos and gives them to Ahmet’s father as proof of Ahmet’s homosexuality. Ahmet says goodbye to Can, then goes to Daniel to leave for Bavaria. Ahmet never arrives. He’s shot to death on the pavement.

Isn’t it scarily amazing how one can escape from one type of death and yet the thing that enables such escape leads one to another type of death?

The thing that really gets me is how Daniel (again, he’s from Germany, a developed nation) forces Ahmet to just tell his parents that he’s gay, repeatedly asking what can possibly go wrong, they are his parents and they love him and will accept him. Oh, Lord. Talk about ignorance. This is why I think people from countries with advanced laws concerning human rights live in glass bubble. I envy them, while at the same time I’m sorry for their ignorance.

Daniel with Ahmet.

Daniel with Ahmet.

At one time, after he’s done photography children in a poor district, Daniel says to Ahmet, “You should’ve seen those children. They’re smiling and laughing. There’s hope in their eyes.”

To which Ahmet replies, “No, they’re smiling and laughing because you give them chocolate.”

That’s right. You don’t know how it is to be stuck in a third-world country where gays are prosecuted and women have minimal rights. You come here for your project, to win prizes and money and then you go home and the people you’ve met become nothing but distant memories and you pray for them for a short while (if you still pray), and then you go on with your life.

At least Daniel wants to bring Ahmet back to Bavaria and give him a better life.

I don't think belly dancers wear this kind of costume. Well, probably some dancers at Tribal Fest do.

I don’t think belly dancers wear this kind of costume. Well, probably some dancers at Total Fuckery Tribal Fest do.

Finally, one thing that bothers me is that this story hinges on the appeal of male belly dancer. I don’t know. I’ve been a belly dance student since 2008 and I don’t think Can does belly dance. When Daniel meets Can for the first time, he says he’s interested in male belly dancer and that he wants to photograph Can in costume. So I assume that’s what people think belly dancing is?

I know, I know, who am I to say what belly dancing is or isn’t? Well, I have a belly dance blog, and I usually review belly dance movies there and there’s a reason I’m not posting my review of Zenne Dancer on my belly dance blog.

Oh and by the way, as usual: here’s a sexy image.

Cihan (Tolga Tekin) showing Ahmet what they do in the military. Mmmhmm. Sign me up!

Cihan (Tolga Tekin) showing Ahmet what they do in the military. Mmmhmm. Sign me up for the next war!