Truth and Desire:
What do gay men really want?
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
Human beings," says John Ballew, an Atlanta
psychotherapist, "crave intimacy. But that doesn't mean it comes
naturally. Intimacy requires skill that is based on the ability to know
one's true desires, to speak the truth clearly and to listen with an open
mind to the spoken truth of others."
Ballew will help gay men learn better intimacy skills when he conducts
a workshop here June 11-13 called Truth and Desire: Exploring the Self
in Communication, Intimacy and Eros.. He will be joined by Don Clark,
a clinical psychologist in San Francisco and author of the groundbreaking,
original self-help book for gay people, their friends and family, Loving
Cost of the workshop is $295. For more information, call Ballew at 404-874-8536
or email him, care of his web site, at email@example.com. To register
or to acquire information about partial scholarships, contact Al Cotton,
Ballew is also a massage therapist, a long-time leader in the gay spirituality
movement and a teacher in the Body Electric, a workshop program that teaches
the integration of sex and spirit. We chatted over a broad range of gay-related
Why should anyone go to a workshop to learn to be more intimate?
The idea is that men, especially gay men, aren't encouraged to cultivate
intimacy when they are growing up. So, this is a way for some men to learn
or improve their skill. If intimacy is a dance, it's going to be more
enjoyable if you learn a few of the steps first.
You emphasize the identification of desire. What's that about?
It's a huge part of it. We have to learn to identify our heart's desires.
This is very different from fashionable desires. We live in a culture
that puts us in a trance.
Through materialism, commercialization of the body
Yes. Gay culture is particularly severe in commercializing the body.
Gay men live in a media culture predominated by certain kinds of body
types - buffed, hairless and young, to the exclusion of almost everything
else. You're supposed to have this high-energy lifestyle of going to lots
of circuit parties or having lots of fun all the time. All of this serves
to keep intimacy at a very superficial level.
Where does this begin?
That's really hard to say. What we know is that when we stop and pay
attention, most of us want something much deeper than this, but we don't
know how to go about getting it. So we keep acting addictively. It's that
old adage about never being able to get enough of what you don't really
I think, really, gay culture has always been dominated by commercialization.
If you are over the age of 35, it's almost certain that you came out in
a bar. Bars are in the business of selling alcohol and fun, keeping things
light. There's nothing wrong with that but, as the place where most of
us birthed our gay identities, bars are not places that encouraged us
to develop depth in our relationships.
I have repeatedly found that this is an incredibly volatile issue
for gay men. Any time I have in this space suggested that the way we commercialize
the queer body as an ideal icon of hairless musculature in order to defend
against deeper truth, I receive unbelievably nasty, personal letters -
which of course only prove the point I'm making. The attacks would be
funny if the same people didn't inflict so much pain on so many men.
There is so much unconsciousness about this and the way gay men wound
one another by not learning to speak from their hearts, just to lash out.
Well, yes, I'd say the obsessive armoring of the body with muscles
is a way of defending the heart. When the armor is chinked, the wearer
becomes enraged. It's understandable because of the wounding all gay men
suffer, but it's wearisome.
That's right. In our workshop, Don and I give men an opportunity to learn
to speak their truth without malice, without fear, without wounding the
other person. We define intimacy as an unarmed encounter between two vulnerable
Do gay men have a harder time being intimate than straight men?
That's very interesting. I think we tend to assume that gay men are more
intimate, open, but I'm not sure that's true. In our culture, girls tend
to learn the skills of intimacy and they are discouraged in all boys.
But when a heterosexual boy grows up, he is brought into partnership with
a woman who gives him a certain vocabulary of intimacy, some deeper sense
of it. But when two men come together, they tend to be completely at sea
with one another. This is true in friendships among all men, but in intimate
partnerships between gay men, it's a magnified problem.
And yet this is core among all men. David Tacey wrote a fascinating
book a few years ago, Remaking Men. He's heterosexual but during
his analysis with James Hillman, he began to experience homoerotic imagery.
As he worked with it, he became aware that it was a metaphorical expression
of his need to become more erotic in the "loving" sense of the
word with other men. Then, when he began telling his men's groups about
this experience, he was repeatedly told to shut up. He concluded that
homophobia, the fear of being mistaken for gay in this case, is at the
core of all men's inhibitions to be more intimate with one another.
I suspect that's true. And it just goes to show you the incredible odds
gay men suffer when they try to express their heart's desire.
Now, I know part of your workshop includes touch between the participants.
Last week we talked about the way gay men live in a culture in which the
body is profoundly commercialized, so that there is a kind of collective
boytoy ideal expressed in the media. It's almost as if, on the one hand,
gay men want to do nothing but touch one another but on the other can't
bear the intimacy of touch, particularly if they don't embody the ideal.
Which is it?
It's both! This is at the heart of my work, learning what a miracle our
bodies are - all bodies! We have to get beyond the idea of the conventionally
attractive if we are going to be more intimately involved. I find that
most gay men live in terrible fear of being found unattractive, being
rejected on that basis. The more attractive one person is, the more anxiety
it creates in the other person. So, it's always both things. We want to
be attractive, but we don't want to be less attractive. If you can clear
this anxiety and return to the miracle of the body as the primary means
with which we communicate, there is so much liberation.
Doesn't gay life have a very effective way of precipitating that change?
I'm talking about the onset of middle age. Don't most aging men give up
the media-inspired fantasy?
Well, no, not necessarily. There are unpleasant alternatives - obsessive
hair dyeing, bitterness, ageism, all the things that can make living to
old age appear very unpleasant to younger gay men. I think there is terrible
ageism among many younger gay men but, on the other hand, older gay men
have absolutely no claim on the sexual desires of a 20-year-old. The problem
for me is not the natural kinds of differences that would occur between
generations even in the best circumstances. The problem is that older
gay men very often cannot find one another attractive. So, part of my
work is to help restore perspective.
I wonder how much surviving the worst years of the AIDS epidemic influences
older gay men's feelings about the body.
I think it has been central. HIV made talking about the difficulty of
growing older rude. People would say, 'Well at least you're around complaining
about turning 45. Many people didn't get to do that.' So we didn't even
talk about it much. Many of us just presumed AIDS would get us eventually
and we didn't even engage in imagining what it would be like to be 65
or 70 and gay. And before AIDS, of course, nearly everyone was invisible
because the gay movement had just begun. So we truly do not have many
out, older gay role models. We have no developed tradition that demonstrates
how an older gay man's life can be attractive. I know this is true because
when I have conducted workshops where happy older gay men are present,
all of the younger men are invariably in awe. It is such a gift when younger
gay men are given a glimpse of a positive, happy future. Young gay men
spend so much of their resources just trying to establish a place in a
world that is still hostile, just getting anchored, just trying to look
good. It's still such a shock to imagine life as not being a disaster.
A happy older age. Imagine that!
And the forces against that are just enormous. One notices that even
though HIV remains a life threatening illness, its reduced death rate
among gay men isn't imaged in terms of a meaningful life. It's expressed
in terms of a pretty life. Men in HIV drug ads are muscled bikers and
mountain climbers. The message is that if you reclaim some measure of
health, you reclaim beauty. Even ads for drug and alcohol addiction treatment
feature chiseled men despairing on cell phones.
Yes, gay culture literally medicalizes aging and appearance that deviates
from the ideal. It is amazing how much we participate in this ourselves,
though. I return to the idea that most of us just don't know our heart's
desires, which, I assure you, are deeper than taking a ride on the back
of a motorcycle with a hunk who has snatched himself from death.
And in my own work, with people of all sexual orientations, I find
the recovery of meaning and desire, of purpose and enchantment, really
is through the body, its disowned felt experience - just as the denial
of meaning is expressed in the commercialization of the body.
I totally agree. I think one way of expressing what we are attempting
in this workshop is the return of gay men's bodies to themselves, at least
to the extent that people feel like they have a choice about how they
Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing
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