Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Tearoom is Not a Closet

Dorian recently had a smart opinion piece on former-New-Jersey-governor James McGreevey. It got me to thinking more about the media’s coverage of McGreevey and its potential meaning for queers in the U.S.

For those just recently returning from Iraq, you might have missed the McGreevey story. On August 12, 2004, McGreevey announced that he was a “gay American” and promptly resigned as governor. It later turned out that McGreevey had put his alleged lover on the state payroll (alleged because that man claims that McGreevey sexually harassed him and that they did not have a consensual relationship).

Now, two years later, McGreevey emerges a-la Mary Cheney to peddle a tell-all autobiography. He has been interviewed by virtually every news organization or television syndicate in the U.S.., including her royal highness herself, Oprah Winfrey.

I have not read his book. Nor am I particularly interested in his personal narrative. If the stories about him having sex with some guy while his wife labored in a hospital delivering their child are true, then McGreevey showed himself to be a first-class slime ball regardless of his sexuality. No extenuating circumstances could explain that to me. Sorry.

Still, it’s not the actual McGreevey, as a real individual, who interests me. Rather, the media’s obsession about McGreevey makes me leery.

Obviously the media loves a good sex scandal. How many more blow-job jokes can possibly be written about Bill Clinton? You would think that Monica was the first person on earth to think of putting a penis in her mouth.

The McGreevey coverage, however, goes beyond just another political sex scandal. In this instance, I think the media’s obsession with McGreevey reenforces problematic assumptions about queer men.

The media wants us to think that they are presenting McGreevey’s story as a liberal, cautionary tale about the dangers of the closet. “Look how the closet totally fucked up this man, his wife, and his daughter,” the media not-so-subtly commands us, “Isn’t homophobia just terrible?” This type of moralistic message thereby justifies all of the lurid content and confessionals that McGreevey happily offers up about his late-night encounters.

I can only go with the media so far in their reasoning. Yes, homophobia and the “closet” had a profoundly destructive impact on this man, his psyche, and those around him. Yet, it was not the closet, but rather his own cowardice and selfishness that prompted him to stay in that closet even as he wrapped his tongue around the closest available penis that he could find. If he had the personal strength to override the many, many, many objections he heard about putting his totally unqualified man in a key state position, he should have had the balls to be up-front with his wife and daughter.

McGreevey’s image in the media reenforces a long-established stereotype that queer men are psychologically dysfunctional and a potential threat to straight women, if not the safety of the entire nation. Rather than allowing the possibility to think about same-sex sex as a pleasure-based good on its own, the focus on McGreevey keeps up the notion that same-sex sex is ruthless, anonymous, and self-centered. One AP article highlighted that McGreevey “discussed back-alley trysts behind a Washington, D.C. synagogue and anonymous sexual contacts with scores of men in bookstores and rest stops.” The media is more than happy to grab his lurid confessions as long as they can frame it with a message of “Shucks, alley-way sex sure is wrong.” Indeed, the media often conflates his betrayal of his wife with gay sex. These, though, are two different entities.

McGreevey’s own words still imply a divide between being “good” and enjoying same-sex sex. The disgraced governor more than once has called his past “messy, shameful, sinful." McGreevey disparaged his sexual encounters, stating, “That's not where you find love, in the back of a booth. That's where you fulfill a physical need. But that's not being godly, that's not finding love." Let me see if I get this subtext right: Sex in a bedroom with candles and soft music? Godly. Sex on a pool-table with leather chaps? Ungodly. Got it.

Same-sex sex, under this thinking, becomes less legitimate than other forms of sexual expression. The media equates same-sex sex with being “uncontrollable” and something that is “taken” by any means necessary.

McGreevey told Oprah, "I was trying to be the best little boy; I was trying to do what was right." According to his logic, the “best little boy” orally servicing an aircraft carrier’s worth of sailors could not possibly be “right,” but only sinful. I, on the other hand, beg to differ. What could be wrong with something so, so right?

Compare McGreevey’s media attention verses another quasi-celebrity who just came out of the closet. CNN”s Thomas Roberts announced his own love of the hot man flesh last week. The media, however, just wasn’t as interested in Roberts. His outing, apparently, came without stories of sex romps in dumpsters. It did, however, accompany his unemployment.

Roberts’ sexuality did not apparently create the massive trauma that McGreevey’s did. He lived a pretty okay gay life. He had several relationships and seems, at least marginally well adjusted. That, apparently, is not the discussion of same-sex sexuality that captures media attention.

The media is also not interested in images of gay men who have been out for decades. Where’s the story in that?

Of course, the media doesn't just end with all that tearoom sex. McGreevey’s redemption, the media claims, came in the form of his newly found devotion to god and a (supposedly) monogamous relationship with an Australian-born financier. The media's version of McGreevey's narrative denigrates anonymous sexual encounters, but valorizes monogamous relationships. In so doing, it presumes that there can only be one appropriate form of sexual expression and that it has to be as close to traditional heterosexual, monogamous, marriage as possible.

The media has also seized on McGreevey’s use of religious language and imagery. Using an evangelical style conversion-type narrative, McGreevey explains “"What I didn't understand was that being gay, as with everything else, is a grace from God, and that by accepting that grace and by accepting that reality, by embracing that truth, I could authentically be who I was.” It seems to me that not too long ago exchanging the public payroll for ass-rides was authentically you.

McGreevey’s dominance in the media continues to place boundaries on sexual expression. Though it makes some nods to the problems of “being in the closet,” it also serves as a warning about veering too far away from a particular model of sexual expression.

Don’t misunderstand GayProf. I am not saying that all gay men need to be out having lots of tearoom sex to be sexually free nor am I condemning monogamous queer relationships as knock-offs of hetero relationships. Indeed, I have just as little patience for gay men who toss up a smoke screen of queer theory to disparage queers who opt for monogamous relationships (and I often find that these same folk have a pretty flaccid grip on queer theory). Assuming that what works for you should also be what works for everybody is dangerous. It only reenforces the status quo regardless of how revolutionary you think that your personal sexual habits are.

What I am saying is that there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about either tearoom sex or monogamous sex. Somebody is not a better human or more clever for engaging in either (or neither). Likewise, lying to a person who loves and trusts you so that you can have tearoom sex is not the same as enjoying tearoom sex.

I suggest that any attempts to restrict the erotic expression of consenting adults affects the ways that we all relate to our bodies and our sexuality. We must be willing to embrace the transgression of traditional boundaries if we are committed to obtaining a new level of sexual freedom for all. Moreover, we have to be willing to interrogate and explore all the representations of queer sexuality as they appear everywhere. Just because McGreevey happens to be a queer man does not mean that we can’t be critical of the ways that he has been used by the media.


r said...

I saw some of that Oprah show. I'm usually never home that early, but I was the other day.

He was skeevy. Gay, straight or bi... simply skeevy.

Oprah seemed rather disgusted with him too. Well, disgusted in a we're-going-to-get-great-ratings kind of way.

Anonymous said...

It's important for someone, particularly McGreevey himself, to say "Were I not a 'happily married heterosexual man' I would not have been elected to such a position," and then go somewhere from there. Or even "If I had been allowed to partake of same-sex marriage legally," etc.

But those issues are being glossed in apparent favor of where he actually had his extra-marital gay sex, (and subsequent redemption) and for this McGreevey is just as guilty as the media.

He had the opportunity to be of benefit to a worthy cause, and instead opted to try and make an icon of himself for entirely selfish reasons.

Another prize-worthy essay, Gayprof.

Margaret said...

I agree with jpdc: this is a wonderful essay, and really should be an op-ed somewhere. Because you're fabulous.

Also, I've been meaning to point this out for awhile, but your sidebar information about who you're stalking and what you're listening to tells me that we have pretty much identical taste in men and in music.

Which may be a bit scary for you. Or for me. But I am just saying.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. I also agree with jpdc's point: McGreevey's closetedness had everything to do with political ambition, which makes his behavior toward his wife even more disgusting.

vuboq said...

Hey, GayProf, pardon my ignorance, but can you explain the difference between queer and gay?

Thanks. *smooch*

Anonymous said...

I'm just waiting for the movie.

GayProf said...

V.O.B.O.Q: To be honest, I tend to be pretty sloppy using the terms “queer” and “gay.” Don’t tell my Queer Theory posse.

Queer gained currency in the nineties as an alternative term to the gay/straight binary. Linked directly to queer theory and more radical organizations, like Queer Nation, the term intended to encompass a wider range of sexual practices and attitudes. It sought to show that almost all sexual practice was determined (in part) by social constructions.

Using the term Queer was intended to avoid easy definition or categorization. In other words, queer could include both a man who slept only with men as well as a man who mostly slept with women, but occasionally slept with men as well (or even a man who never slept with anybody, ever (queer indeed). Not really seeing him as “gay” or “straight” or “bi,” queer still captured the notion that his sexuality disrupted established assumptions about “normalcy.” It also became a means to refer to historical moments before the nineteenth-century when sexual identities like “homosexual” and “heterosexual” had not yet been created.

Queer, because of its remake, has often been associated with a particular political viewpoint that seeks to undermine the sexual status quo. However, it has also become mainstream in many ways. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, for instance, would not exactly be in line with what most Queer Theorists imagined (queer, in that case, just being another word for “gay men.”)

For this reason, Teresa de Lauretis, one of the “founders” of Queer Theory, has argued that the term “queer” no longer holds a revolutionary potential and new terms need to be created.

I am not sure that I have done particularly well explaining it – I tried to make a good stab at it, though.

Michael said...

Reminds me of how the media make such a big deal over Rock Hudson coming out. I'm like Armisted Maupin don't make a hero out of a death bed confession

jeremy said...

Back the bus up--penises can go in mouths?

See ya tomorrow!!

GayProf said...

Jeremy: Back the bus up--penises can go in mouths?

Well, it really depends on the penis -- and maybe the mouth as well.

ChristopherM said...

Gayprof, notice how we're also supposed to welcome McGreevy with open arms as a hero for his so-called honesty? I'm sorry, I've done some sleazy things in my life, but cheating on a spouse who is hospitalized at the time makes me seem like a virtual saint.

Kyle said...

I also have a particular distaste for the closeted public figure who suddenly outs himself in the form of a book tour or the cover of People. McGreevey is a slight variation on this theme, but his book tour, as well as his rather sad attempt to moralize his closethood and liberation seem to me as contrived to benefit from the media's (and by extension, the American public) freak-show fascination with back-alley sex as his heterosexual front was contrived to get him elected. In that regard he (and Tab Hunter and Lance Bass and on and on) are culpable for perpetuating the media's wrong-headed standards for handling gay issues.

And have you seen any of McGreevey's prose? YUCK.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Though this seems yet ANOTHER reason not to have a TV, thanks for bring this issue to disscussion. What irritates me, ala Oprah, is the way this story runs down the rails of existing stereotypes, and existing stereotype language, bounded by God and morality instead of consent, good v bad choice or any other viewpoint, particularly as the only thing the God, morality and gay stereotypes seem to encourage is that it is far better to be a straight hypocrite than a gay guy who likes sex.

Why having sex in an alley (Which surely must include some straight sex as well) is sinfull, dirty, messy, etc while lying for years to someone who agreed to share their life with you, deception to others combined with financial misdoings and simply being a class one ass, is less so. This isn't about being out or not being out, but about America's third century of sex obsession. Beat your kids, lie and steal but if you fear the lord, don't choose the life of the scarlett letter (though in this case we have the gay taboo thrown in as well because we know that gay sex MUST by nature be even more dabauched and (insert overexcited hyperbole here) than just adulterous sex).

Adam said...

I think this post goes nicely with your post some time ago relating to villians and homosexuality. Nobody cared about CNN anchor man being gay because he looks like superman and has a pretty normal life. McGreevey on the other hand has a sexy sinister story to tell.

Frank said...

You pretty much said what I feel about the whole McGreevy situation, GayProf, except much more coherently. I DO feel sorry that McGreevy felt he had to be in the closet and that he had to lie, to himself and others, about who he really was, but so much of his behavior is just skeevy, and his political record so ridden with scandal and corruption quite apart from his "gay American"-ness, I can't really muster that much sympathy.

tornwordo said...

Wow, I'm so out of the loop. I think your observations are spot on. But to be fair, I think the fact that tearoom sex (or other public sex) is often illegal plays a part in the media attention as well.

Anonymous said...

Too many words on this one. The media is obsessed with the story because it's lurid, and we spend far too much time jerking off to the lurid details.