Content Warning: Sex, Strong Language, AIDS, Dating Applications
[Author’s note: This article has been written in the context of cisgender gay men. While some of the arguments presented therein may be applicable to the overall queer community, the article deals with issues in the context of cis gay men.]
Since time immemorial, major crises or upheavals have given birth to new sociocultural movements which have changed the course of history. The modern gay rights movement is also believed have started as a result of relationships formed during World War II – once the war ended, the relationships continued and people chose to settle in cities rather than go back to their roots. This establishment of a distinct community, as well as rights organizations and advocacies, started after the War.
The trajectory of the gay rights movement changed significantly after the Stonewall uprising in June 1969. It is considered a watershed moment for gay liberation in the United States which is commemorated through pride marches every year in June. The AIDS epidemic led to a significant change in attitudes within the American gay community. It led to an awakening that “gay pride and liberation were about more than the right to have sex with whomever they chose.” (author John-Manuel Andriote, in an interview to the University of Chicago)
Which brings me to the crisis which has been rattling the world for the last three months, and whose aftermath is going to change society forever. Emergency measures put in place to fight the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic are of a scale and intensity not seen in three generations. Humans are wired for social interactions and intimacy (both asexual and sexual), and the current environment which mandates self-quarantine, shelter-in-place or social distancing is in no way conducive to such behaviour.
Can we be cautiously optimistic that this unprecedented and once-in-a-lifetime crisis will change the gay narrative, particularly in India?
The one-track gay mindset of “top or bottom? pics? do you have a place? looking for?” and an unending obsession with sex has to undergo a significant change if we want to create an identity for our community and give it the respect it deserves.
We are living in an age of instant gratification – individuals are tempted to forego future benefits in order to obtain an immediate benefit which is, in many cases, less rewarding. The question we need to ask is: are we, members of the gay community, living by this and only this principle? Social media and dating apps have fueled a hookup culture which has reached dangerous proportions. The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a temporary break in hookups, but what will happen when life returns to normal?
Pitfalls of the hookup culture have been summed up articulately in an article in Time magazine: “But instead of advancing the gay agenda of inclusion, I found the apps to perpetuate what people scorn about LGBT: promiscuity, impersonal behaviour, and sexually motivated conversations. This is not the fault of the LGBT community, but these depersonalized conversations are what lead to depersonalized relationships. When an introduction to gay culture is through a sex-based app, it perpetuates the sex-based stereotype.”
The conversational dynamics of sex-based apps inhibit the formation of long-lasting and meaningful relationships. Users mechanically ask the same set of mundane questions to users who ‘match’ their initial screening criteria. A team of Hong Kong-based researchers who undertook a study on gay dating apps found that “initial chats between users often revolve around a set of brusque, formulaic, and task-oriented questions. Some participants were so fed up with this standard line of questioning that they used the copy and paste function to send stock answers in reply.”
Study participants observed that while this kind of mechanical exchange facilitated efficient handling of multiple conversations, it lacked the depth that was necessary to develop meaningful relationships.
There is a danger of this obsession with sex spilling over from dating apps into discussions on community platforms, forums and even daily conversations. A sex-centric mindset has the effect of clouding even real-life conversations and serious discussions.
As a writer, I regularly publish articles and stories on various sites, including Gaysi. When I read some of the comments in response to my writing, it often leaves me stunned. Here are two comments in response to two separate articles I published recently:
- I authored a five-part story a few months ago. One reader made an obnoxious observation after reading the first part: “Must be a really ugly gay guy cause we all know how gay people will fuck anything with a hole.”
- Another harmless post about short films to watch during quarantine invited the following comment from another reader (not sure he read the article though): “Koi mera lund chusslo yr.”
This behavioural shift has also been encapsulated very well in an article published in The Authentic Gay: “But creating separate rules for online vs. real life gives a weird visa that allows for casual racism, sexual harassment, and bullying. And it begs the question whether the social shorthand we’ve adopted for apps is bleeding into the real world. And given everything we deal with as queer people, do we need more bullshit in our lives?”
The virtual world has allowed us to create personas and avatars which are very different from who we really are as individuals. Over time, the line between our online and offline identities starts blurring with the result that our online behaviours, attitudes and conversational styles start percolating into the offline world. The two examples quoted above are sufficient proof that this is indeed the case. Individuals become immune to the absence of emotion, lack of social grace and the art of meaningful interactions.
I often feel like asking members of the gay community – are we so desperate for sex that we are willing to sacrifice our self-worth? At least in India, my experience tells me that most, if not all, gay dating apps are infiltrated by a large population of straight men looking for sexual gratification. Sample the following phrases which pepper online conversations:
- Gaand dega? Thook laga kar gaand chodta hu
- Back ki photo bhejna. Lund ki photo do.
- Dick size? Stamina hai na?
- Wife ya behen hai?
- Chut nahi to gaand hi sahi
- Suck karta hai kya? Sucking pasand hai?
- Muh me lete ho kya?
- Kya kya pasand hai sex me?
- Bottom ho na. Tumhara bilkul khada nahi hota?
- Lete ho ya dete ho?
- Mujhe boobs pasand hai.
I am not sure about others, but if I have to suffer this level of humiliation every single day, my self-worth will take a severe beating. And it has, on many occasions. Quite often I am forced to ask myself: are we our own biggest enemies?
Will the world’s biggest crisis in a century bring about a seismic shift in the ‘top or bottom’ mindset of gay men? Will this be the inflexion point which heralds a new gay rights movement in India?
For many of us, gay rights are mistakenly thought of as attending gay pride parades, dolling up for gay parties, and following the select openly gay Indian celebrities on social media. Many younger folks will not even know why pride month is celebrated! When we talk about gay films, invariably two names come up: Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name. As if no other gay film was ever made in the world. Despite the abundance of content, our thinking and choices continue to be painfully restricted. And this reflects in the way we express our sexuality – hookup, block; next hookup, block; and so on.
A large part of the problem lies in the absence of celebrity role models who are openly gay. India’s socio-economic fabric still disdains homosexuality, even after the reading down of section 377 in 2018. The fear of hostile reactions and loss of popularity forces many to refrain from revealing their identities. There are noteworthy exceptions, of course – these are individuals who have stepped out of their comfort zones and given a voice and direction to the gay cause. Some are authoring books, others are directing web series and short films, while yet others are representing India in gay pageants internationally.
I recently watched Nakshatra Bagwe talking about ‘Successful Future in Gay Life’ in one of his episodes. I started watching half-heartedly but after a few minutes, he had my attention. His practical advice to younger gay men (‘newbies’), is exactly what is needed to change the current sex-centric mindset. His insistence on financial security, a sense of community (friendship and support system) and self-love (responsibility to yourself) will hopefully resonate well with many gay men. We definitely need more celebrity role models like him.
And finally, we need to expand our horizons. I have touched upon it above in the context of gay films. Even Nakshatra talks about it in the same episode: he advises people not to be the frog in the well. I am not sure how many people will actually read this article, because, like hookups, consumption of online content is also for instant gratification. Within a minute of a new article being posted on Instagram, there are 100+ likes. How many people actually read the entire article, story or poem is another matter altogether!
Stay at home, be safe and continue abiding by social distancing norms! There is still a long way to go before we can consider ourselves completely safe.
[All images for the infographics have been sourced from Pixabay]