3 min

It’s not just about us

Gay liberation was supposed to set everyone free

Last month, in a letter to the editor published in Xtra Vancouver, Nanaimo resident Christa Keeler engagingly explained why she, a straight woman, has found companionship and a true home among us, in our communities.

It set me to thinking about an experience I had on a summer evening a few years back. I was stopped on Toronto’s Church Street by a group of apparently straight women seeking directions to Woody’s, the best-known gay bar on the street. It’s common enough for straight women, usually in the company of gay men, to frequent gay places. But this was the first time I’d encountered them heading en masse to a gay club without any gay man to serve as their admission ticket.

A few days later I learned that Woody’s was enjoying a small boom in such customers that summer. The reason? Woody’s was the bar in which much of the US version of the hugely popular British television series Queer as Folk had been shot. And straight women loomed large in the fan base of the series. Woody’s was their Mecca.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn some years on that straight women are also an important demographic for OUTtv, the gay cable television channel. And, more intriguingly, that something like a quarter of the gay male porn videos rented in the US market are rented by women.

What’s going on?

Here’s a colourful summary of what cultural studies academics think about this, according to Cintra Wilson. It’s taken from her “W4M4M?”, a piece about the writers and readers of slash and male-on-male romances that was published on Out magazine’s website in 2010:

“Since women are not equal to men in society, a straight romance narrative — the usual machinations that bring a brutish alpha male and a wasp-waisted young female beauty to the point of bodice-ripping penetration — can’t deliver the same heady emotional frisson as a ‘bromance’ which slashers and M/M authors alike view as a courtship of equals, which culminates in the emotional jackpot of a true love based on loyalty, trust, caring, and mutual respect.”

It’s a little overwrought, but you get the idea: straight women look at gay men and see the possibility of relationships built on equality rather than confined by marriage, a stultifying institution designed to accommodate just one and a half people.

Many of the founders of gay liberation conceived of it as a movement that would benefit everyone, not just gays and lesbians, but heterosexuals as well. That many female heterosexuals are interested in things gay confirms that original intuition.

As we mark Xtra Vancouver’s 500th issue, we can confidently claim that in the four decades — two generations! — since that first gay and lesbian demonstration on Parliament Hill and in Robson Square, much has changed for the better. But the initial impulse to transform the world for everyone’s benefit, to summon into existence a new civilization founded on universal justice, has been strained through the sieve of the state, and what’s left is a watery stew of legalities.

In place of a movement for universal sexual freedom, we have a gay rights movement that’s easily misunderstood or portrayed as a selfish rabble armed with torches and pitchforks (in the form of human rights laws) rudely intruding on everyone else’s peace and quiet.

The achievement of legislated rights is certainly something. But it’s not nearly enough.

That new, liberated civilization once envisioned remains a picture on a jigsaw puzzle, its pieces still scattered on the table.

Perhaps the day will come when the puzzle is solved and the pieces fitted together to show the picture that we want to see. If so, then the unique pieces that we will have put down on the table will not be a banal collection of human rights achievements. They will be our discoveries, born of our necessities: that friendship is more reliable than love, that sex and love can be honourably separated, that relationships can flourish outside the cage of marriage and that love between equals is not an impossible dream, but an everyday reality.