Truth and Desire:
What do gay men really want?

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

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 Someone Gay.

Cost of the workshop is $295. For more information, call Ballew at 404-874-8536 or email him, care of his web site, at jballew@bodymindsoul.org. To register or to acquire information about partial scholarships, contact Al Cotton, 404-292-1965, alc70809@aol.com.

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 topics recently:

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 want…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 participants.

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.

Part 2

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 are intimate.


Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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