3 min

Gay inbreeding

A friend complained the other day that he couldn’t go out anywhere. Everywhere he went there were either people he’d already slept with or people he didn’t want to sleep with or people he didn’t like or people who didn’t like him. There was so much anger, he said.

Well, maybe not anger, I thought, but certainly a great deal of awkwardness. Navigating the instant-intimacy world of gay life can be a thrill and a half — or not, especially if you’ve got anything less than a flawlessly fake smile.

I could certainly identify. Shortly before the New Year I walked into a party where I knew half the people and I knew they didn’t want to talk to me. Not that I’d done anything wrong, you understand. I hadn’t even met these people. It’s just that we’d seen each other around for years and somewhere along the line we decided not to talk. Who knows what motivates this kind of informal cold war — shyness, defensiveness, lack of sexual interest or maybe just Toronto’s fabled coldness — but it goes on all the time and after a point it’s too entrenched to be removed.

It’s a typical gay story, really. It’s a small world, as every second person says.

I used to like going to parties until I realized that there was a very small chance of my meeting anyone new. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to see old friends and acquaintances (even if you do have to trudge through the old “So what are you doing these days?” gambit), but if you’re hoping to meet somebody new, gay social life can be a bit of a fishbowl, the edges all too carefully etched.

It’s always been thus, I suspect. Betcha even Oscar Wilde found his little patch of “panther”-prone London a bit stifling. I mean how else could his pursuers have trapped him if they hadn’t been able to find his sex partners?

Almost a century later Rosemary Mahoney found the same sort of stifling inbreeding in early 1990s Dublin. Visiting a couple of Irish dyke bars for her book, Whoredom in Kimmage: Irish Women Coming of Age, Mahoney discovered a very small community that was anything but friendly. “I’ve been coming here for years,” says one of the women she meets, “and I don’t know a soul in the place.” Ostracized by the larger society, the women are fierce in their attachments and relentlessly self-regarding but also slightly disconnected, as though they hadn’t quite found their place. It’s a depressing account — although maybe that’s just Mahoney’s straightness speaking &mdash but leavened by a sort of bleak humour. The running joke turns out to be that almost every woman Mahoney meets is somebody’s ex-girlfriend.

If the gay world still seems a bit like that kind of inbred village, it’s not because there aren’t alternatives. These days there are many different gay worlds. From the bars to the sports leagues to the internet to the arts community, you can pretty much pick your own little gay world.

The problem lies in moving from one to the other. Once ensconced in one gay world it’s difficult to leave it for another.

People who frequent bars, for instance, often find it hard to believe that everyone doesn’t eventually make their way to Church St, but I can think of people who seldom or never go out and it’s not because of the internet or changing times. They didn’t go out 20 years ago and they don’t go out today.

Of course even if people do go out, they may go out at times and to places that make them all but invisible to people on a different schedule. The people downing a pint at 6pm on a weeknight are not (generally speaking) the same people butt-wagging their way through Fly on a Saturday night.

I recently met a cute guy at the gym and for a while I wondered if he was gay because I’d never seen him on Church St. But of course, it turned out, he did go to Church, just not my particular version of the village. Averse to the stand-and-drink routine, he only went to dance clubs like Fly and Straight.

A similar situation prevails on the net, which is simultaneously expansive and insular. I heard recently of a 27-year-old who came out and got “married,” all without ever visiting the “official” gay world. Convenient, I guess, but where’s he going to get his sense of history and community?

Whatever world you inhabit it’s hard to escape. People with money have the most options but even they can be hamstrung by conformity (one Westernized gay scene looks much like the next) and inertia.

I think that’s why I like tourists so much. They break the bubble. Not knowing local habits, they pop up in unexpected places forcing me to say, what some days I think I’ll never get to say again: “Are you from here? I’ve never seen you before.”