Save Me From What I Want
I am on fire and no one
can stop me from burning
Most of us grow up in a culture that tells us, from our earliest waking moments, what kinds of bodies are desirable: the countless stories of romance, the ads that demarcate what happiness looks like, the movies that show us what beauty is supposed to look like, the TV shows that do not know how to imagine more than one kind of desirable body. They all tell us the same thing: you are not desirable or worthy of love until you look like this. We ingest these messages without even knowing – we imagine they reveal truths about ourselves, our lives, what happiness means and should look like.
Gay men’s sexual desire, from what my experience has taught me, is almost entirely dictated by the scopic field. Visual discourses train our eyes, false images dictate our vision, a whole industry of professionals teaches us how to gaze at another body. We learn to desire only that which we can see; we learn that desire itself can only make sense through the visual field. Gay men’s magazines and ads and films and books are filled with iterations of what the desirable body looks like. This body is white, “masculine,” able, preferably blonde and blue eyed, thin but not too thin, muscled but not too muscled, perhaps slightly hairy but not too hairy. This is the body of Adonis – sculpted from marble and frozen in time, a genetic specimen that rarely exists outside crumbling statues and the congealed mass of media images none of us can get away from.
I have been taught to consume marble
and made to believe it is flesh
Most of us understand the impossibility of maintaining such a body or finding a lover who has attained and can maintain such an impossible ideal. But it is possible to know something and behave as if we don’t know it. It is possible to understand the falseness of this image and still chase after it. The majority of gay male culture worships at the altar of this Adonis; the majority of our stories and images and ideas of desire circulate around this body. We practice this disavowal every time we log onto Grindr, every time we need Sean Cody™ to get us off, every time we are around other gay men and fawn over this and only this body.
I open Grindr
browse profiles like
a catalogue of consumption
hit ‘reload’ like these are not
human beings but
objects for me to consume
objects that exist
solely for my pleasure.
My eye is trained well:
fade out the others
on the sculpted torsos,
the chiseled abs,
the perfected Adonis look-alikes.
It is a struggle to
re-train my eyes
to expand my vision
to see what I have been conditioned
not to see.
It occurs to me, perhaps
every other gay man browses
in a similar fashion,
that his eye must cordon off
and render invisible
bodies he does not desire.
That my body, most likely,
has also been faded out,
made invisible, rendered non-existent.
This is not to say there aren’t countless gay men who desire other kinds of bodies. But the public narratives that have omnipresent power over us -- the ones that lonely young gay boys are most influenced by -- articulate desire as uniform, moving only towards the white, cis, thin, “masculine,” muscular, able body. It is nearly impossible to counter the hegemonic power of these narratives. Even while there are alternative forms of media and storytelling celebrating other kinds of bodies, these stories and images are so sparse as to barely make a dent in our imaginations when our lives are mediated by a dominant culture that has billions of dollars at its disposal to teach us how and who to desire.
The majority of gay men that I have known vent their frustration at the toxic and superficial nature of mainstream gay culture but rarely consider the circuits of their own desire. We understand the falseness of these narratives but yearn so deeply for some kind of kinship that we will often do unimaginable things to our bodies and to other gay men simply in order to fit in.
Detroit. A hot summer night in June. I am at a party filled with queers and friends. The beautiful boy who spoke to me earlier in the day and then added me on Facebook finds me out in the crowd. I am polite and friendly, diplomatic. But I cannot stay here too long, with this boy who clearly desires me. I cannot stay because staying means not having the opportunity to chase after other boys, the boys he does not look like, the boys I have been taught my entire life to desire. I find a polite way to excuse myself. It is not until much later, when it is far too late, that I realize I have done to him exactly what every other boy did to me that night. I have told him that his desire is unworthy because he refused to package it the right way. I have told him he is unworthy because he looks unworthy. I have told him this because this is what I have been told every day of my life.
The circular tautology is nauseating. My body is unworthy. Your body is unworthy. Our bodies are unworthy.
After close to a decade of trying to beat my body into submission, to make it fit into the only box that this world gave me, I learn about the discourse of “body positivity.” It saves my life. I start to believe that simply learning to love my fat, hairy, femme, brown body will be enough. That if I love my body then others will too. I stop dieting. I stop going to the gym and working out for 2 hours on an empty stomach. I stop trying to look thinner in every pic I post or destroying it if I don’t. I come out of hiding. I am still too scared and ashamed of my body to show it to the world, but I post a profile picture of my actual face for the first time in 2 years. I start listening to my body, pay attention to the way it speaks outside language, listen carefully to the things it has been trying to tell me. I start to heal.
I am told I am beautiful by people I respect and admire. I am told I am perfect in my abundance, that I am beautiful not despite of but because of my flesh. These messages sink in beneath the surface of my skin, make me start to believe that I am beautiful. It does not occur to me yet that being told you are beautiful by someone you have no sexual interest in cannot counter the messages of unworthiness given to you by those whose skin you yearn to touch. I start attempting to date again. I am told over and over again, in so many spoken and unspoken ways, that my self-love and my brilliance and my kindness do not make me worthy of desire. Venturing onto dating sites feels like engaging in repetitive acts of self-harm. The line or a version thereof – “no asians, no fatties, no femmes” – appears, suddenly and without warning, on nearly every other profile. Embodying all three “no’s” makes it difficult to know which aspects of myself I am supposed to hate more.
I think about what it means to desire
gay men so boringly masculine they make
their homophobic dad’s eyes twinkle
I think about what could possibly be
about a masculinity that crumbles
at the slightest brush
I think about what it means to
in a world that still cannot stop
I move in “radical” circles. My community is composed of queers, genderfuckers, self-proclaimed weirdos. And yet I can count on one hand the number of men who have shown interest in even speaking with me. I come to realize that desirability is not just about fucking, that it also informs who you want to hang around, who you want to be friends with, who you want to share space with, who you want to build and create community with. Because my body is not desired, means, most of the time, that my presence is also not desired. I see no desire on the faces of “radical activist” men to interact with me, to get to know me, to want to know me. Even in these spaces I am greeted with perfunctory exchanges and a kind of impolite politeness.
I think about how easy it is to tell someone they are beautiful when you have no interest in being intimate with their bodies.
I am wary. I am tired. I yearn to be gazed upon and desired in the way I desire these bodies but these bodies look nothing like me, and have never looked or wanted to look at me with this kind of yearning. Like a hypocrite, I have silently cursed and yelled for too long at the superficiality of other men’s desires but I don’t yet know how to get past this superficiality myself. I do not know where to begin, or how to cut off this circuit. I cannot figure out where the precise incision must be made.
My desire is a loop
that circles around me
I am its centre
absent and invisible.
I write this because I am on fire and no one can stop me from burning.