This is not a manifesto, it’s a personal story.
And yet, it is a manifesto, for when we become aware of our place in the grand order of things, we become revolutionary subjects. But this is still a personal story; a story of growing up gay in the East Mediterranean, and of no longer being gay. It’s a story of civil rights activism, and of going beyond rights. It’s a story of lies we tell, and lies we no longer believe.
The Fear of Fluidity
When I was entering adolescence, I became extremely anxious. For the previous couple of years of pre-adolescent life, and during the onset of sexual awareness I had crushes on what I would then call ‘opposite sex’ and for a brief period even experience some early sexual attraction towards that gender. And suddenly attraction towards the ‘same sex’ was taking over the stage. I didn’t have a word for that yet, but losing an identity so personal was devastating. I’ve been ‘attracted to opposite sex’ for what to an 11 year old seems as a “very long time”, and I suddenly lost that.
By the early 2010s, not only I had a word for it (‘gay’), but I jumped right in the new wave of gay rights activism that was just starting in this country. This new ‘gay’ identity became so dear to me. So much so, that the old anxiety was replaced by a new one. “What if I am not really gay?”; I actively tried to shelter that identity from any challenge. “All these years of suffering in order to accept it cannot have been in vain”.
At that time, not only we knew nothing about ‘bisexuality’, but more importantly, we activists were often hostile to the idea of sexuality oscillating over time, of fluidity. We accepted and reproduced the idea of ‘fixed’ sexuality, in large part because it was a defence mechanism against the “it’s just a phase” argument — at the time we didn’t realise that we were legitimising the notion we were trying to counter, and by ignoring the reality of fluid identities we were hurting our community.
Not Born This Way
It was in that attempt to defend our identity when we adopted all those “biological destiny” arguments and we were ready to cling on any scientific hypothesis that promised to link homosexuality to a gene, or to correlate it with things like the formation of fingerprints in babies — hypotheses we did not even understand but we were so keen in defending.
The whole movement was based on those axioms: you were born gay, and there was no way to change. We thought that would protect us by the people who deny us self-determination. And to be fair, to a large extend it worked. Pity is effective in our family-values-centred society. Our allies would repeat after us “Who would choose to be gay in a society like ours? We/They cannot help it so you/we shouldn’t judge.” Not that this wouldn’t backfire later.
Because of this, even when we finally started talking about bisexuality, we were completely closed to the notion that some of us weren’t always gay, or always bisexual. You are what you are for life, that was the party line.
How Dare You Choose
The idea that might someone choose to be gay was ruled out completely. We were proud to say that we cannot help but be what we were born as, and we had to be respected for that. Only because of that. We agreed with those that hated us; if weren’t expressing sorrow for our random genetic plight, then we didn’t deserve to even be pitied, let alone be respected.
We tarnished our own self-image, even if our hope was to organise a Pride Parade in the near future. We were saying that we regret being who we are but we couldn’t help it. We were unlucky and powerless, we needed help. We needed pity, that word kept coming up again and again. We praised our allies for accepting us with all our defects. We internalised this. When we demanded rights, we phrased it in that way that we would basically beg to be beneficiaries of benevolent racism.
We opened the door for people who wanted to help us stop being gay, because we ourselves were saying that we wouldn’t be gay if we had the choice.
We were saying that biological inevitability is what makes “Gay OK”, not that “whatever doesn’t harm others without their consent should be allowed”. This biological inevitability would then go on be used by people who claimed a right in harming others, because they were compelled to do so by genetic factors. We deny that association, yet we cling on the argument that enables it.
And nowadays, if some of us say that their identities are theirs to choose in their entirety or in part, they are policed. Shot down, not only by the community, but also by allies. Sign of the times, when even straight people will call you a homophobe for the way you feel about your own sexuality.
Normal Equals Masculine
Of course the movement was, and still is, male-dominated. One of its top priorities is to change the image of the ‘gay man’ in the popular culture. The caricature of the ‘feminine’ fashion designer with a crush on a manly straight man he’d helplessly lust after had to be replaced. Replaced with something ‘normal’. Funny how a word that was used by the people who denied our right to exist became our demand. We wanted to be normal. And by normal we meant conventionally masculine, fit and/or posh, and always powerful socially and financially. We imported such images from Western cultures, especially the US which produces most of the media we consume.
It didn’t stop there though. Many started believing that we had to get rid of those who confirmed the stereotypes. ‘Feminine’ gay men, and at that time, that included transwomen (like bisexuality, trans* identities weren’t formed locally yet) had to “dress accordingly” or be hidden away. That’s what transwomen were told by gays and allies when they complained about being denied entry in clubs.
It was probably the first time I began feeling uncomfortable with where this was heading. In my late teens I made in point of not becoming obsessed with my gender performance, because I didn’t want to slip into that femme-hate. When ‘allies’ would congratulate me for ‘passing as straight’, or when other gay men would sight in relief and say “oh good, you are discreet” instead of “Hello, nice to meet you”, I was really becoming aware of that privilege, and I began seeing how it wasn’t the same for everyone.
In interactions with other gay men, especially those my age, the hatred for anything feminine was really pronounced. Feminine men were flat out blamed as “the reason society hates us”. I had people admit to me that “of course I would make fun of a girly boy in front of my friends, I don’t want them realising I’m gay”, while those that were out will justify their hate as “showing the society we are not all like the stereotype”. I used to not like the common idea that “homophobes are secretly gay” because it was so damn near to using ‘gay’ as a slur, but I have to admit that many gay men are indeed sexist and misogynist.
Coming Out is a Responsibility
One of the biggest moments in our lives, we were telling, is when we come out to the world and show our real self. We were urged to do it because the greater cause is visibility. And while being ‘out’ isn’t even a minority norm yet, when we come out we tend to lose our empathy for those still in the closet.
I am guilty of this. I do get annoyed by people who are still not out, and their constant struggle to maintain different identities in different settings. I am often pre-judging people in the closet, expecting them to be one of those homophobes mentioned above. I realise how problematic that is.
But was that rush for everyone of us to come out a good thing? I came out at 16 to classmates, extended family, and finally to core family. I felt like I had to do it, and even though I now realise I didn’t had to, I am not quite regretting it for that reason. It meant though that I exposed myself into a lot of dangers. Emotionally I was wrecked for the next several years. It shaped my education, grades going downhill. It brought threats of violence. It led to a military conscription period where this coming out would be a part of what made me suicidal. A closet might be your only safe space in some circumstances.
Coming out shouldn’t have been pushed this lightly on everyone. We shouldn’t have made people think they have to come out now. And we should have been there for them when they did. No one should be left alone if we truly are a community. And back when I was a teenager, things weren’t as bad. There were some other activists realising this responsibility to support the newly out people. They reached out to me, they helped.
That vanished when the ‘movement’ became an institution, a registered NGO that chases after funding, and tries to identify “what’s relevant to the average gay man in this country” to champion for. In this context, expressing solidarity to people in legal and family troubles because of their identity is a PR liability. Especially when those are minors. When I was a teenager, the movement would open those monthly group therapy meetings to every age. Now, as an institution, they want guardian approval for a minor to join. I doubt many kids will get their parents to sign that paper, and it is exactly those kids that need safe spaces.
All You Need is Marriage
First, I have to admit that not all of us there came from similar backgrounds. Among us you could find gay conservatives, gay misogynists, gay nationalists, and the most ruthless of capitalists that happened to be gay and not being accepted for being gay was the only thing preventing them from integration. But I think that still most of us had a progressive background; we were feminists, socialists and communists, we were against the military, against the borders. We had been criticising the institution of marriage for its reproduction of sexist hierarchies, for its role in wealth accumulation. We knew first-hand how marriage enabled domestic violence, we were even saying that it’s the “traditional family values” that marginalised us.
But marriage equality became a demand, one of the main ones. Some arguments were noble. Equality before the law, required for a modern state to defend the legitimacy of its power, right? Marriage comes with benefits awarded from the state, and in a liberal democracy you cannot exclude people from claiming that because their relationship is between the same-sex. Those were the arguments at first. Us, despite our rejection of marriage, could respect the argument of isonomy. We could recognise how it will be an improvement for some people, and we respected it as a demand of our community.
But then, a tragedy. The argument of equality wasn’t enough. The conservatives among us began praising marriage, the institution. They called marriage a human right. A right. They equated marriage with love. They said that marriage equality will make the new generation of gay people feel normal for the first time, because their relationships will have state-approved role models. “You cannot exclude people from benefits on the basis of their sexuality” became “Love is love”. In our name they were saying that real love is only found in a contract between two people and the state. All materialist analyses of marriage were thrown out of the window. The gay movement revitalised the short-lived myth that marriage was about love – the Conservative Party, delighted to finally find a group that shared their family values, become our best pal. The parliamentary Left was caught off guard -they thought that by calling themselves The Progressive Party, they automatically were one. The radical left awkwardly tried to express solidarity for a demand they ideologically felt uncomfortable with – but without openly queer activists among them they couldn’t articulate an alternative.
Our advocacy for non-hierarchical relationships officially died there. We couldn’t even speak about polyamory now, because that was the homophobe argument now (“If we allow two men to marry, then why not polygamy as well”). We kept importing all those US role models of two dads and two mums and 2,5 children per family.
Some of us stayed there, in the shadows. They hope that after the conservatives get their marriage equality, this purge of the “gays who give us a bad name” will be reversed. Some of us left this movement-turned-institution. We either gave up, temporarily or forever, or tried to advocate for our liberation from the other movements we participated in. Radical groups were becoming more open to the idea of ‘identity politics’, and began to see how all oppressions are connected. But even there, the fight was never easy.
We finally had a Pride Parade at some point. The “first in the country” the organisers bragged, but that wasn’t true. It would have been of course, but they didn’t want to cooperate across the internal border of ours. “Sure people from the other side can join us, but we can’t co-organise this, can we?”
At the same time the institution released the most patronising ‘congratulatory’ statement to the activists who got the parliament “of the other side” to repeal the colonial law criminalising homosexual acts.
Then the cocktail parties with conservative politicians started. Dinner with the Church as well. And another statement, begging the Church to see, oh please see how it’s the Christian thing to do to accept us. Speaking in our name to beg the Church, accepting their cultural hegemony instead of challenging it. Rage. Any common ground perhaps left, was gone. We never believed in nations, let alone national unity.
Now, when I check public discussion groups, I see some people from this community congratulating the Conservatives… for the promises they give. They don’t even require action from them, they might as well stall the parliamentary process all they want, the empty words are enough.
We Are Normal Goddamit
That was the starter-pack argument. We were called abnormal, we replied with “no, we are normal”. Not the most effective argument there, but in context it was a valuable claim. We started defining ourselves, instead of accepting outside descriptions.
We moved to counter the “unnatural” claim then. Biology was in our side, but as with the choice argument, appeal to nature is not a great precedent to set. After all, it was really easy for homophobes to move to “even nature commits mistakes, and humans try to fix them”. But that’s not too bad, compared to what I started witnessing in the recent years.
I feel like this is a trend mostly among younger people, or perhaps people who only recently started seeing their identity more politically, to take the normalcy argument to a new direction. From “as gay, we are normal”, to “we gays should act normal”. I’ve read a lot of criticism against community traditions, certain practices, and even against the identities as well. Perhaps it’s just because they are still forming their opinions and are still influenced by the heterosexist dominant narrative, but however we analyse that, the internal behaviour policing is real and it gets more intensive.
A forever unfinished draft
written by a member of Syspirosi Atakton
in the Summer of 2015
just before the 1st Queer Street Party forged
new paths of resistance