Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Small Town Queer/Small Queer Town

Fellow blogger, FT, recently started a new blog called Small Town Queer. The blogging project aims to demystify the fact that "not all queers live in cities like San Francisco or Toronto. Some of our hometowns aren't big enough to have a scene or a gay bar." I find the idea honest, interesting and socially, politically (and queerly) very important. Queerness is not all about the big city.

Incidentally, I've recently come to the realization that I am by now a small town queer myself: a small town queer living in a rather queer small town that goes by the name of Peterborough, Ontario... It seems surreal that after two years of living here (the smallest place I've ever lived in), my life has taken radical turns for the better: I'm definitely more queer than I've ever been, I have crossed boundaries that I had established for myself (socially, politically, physically, sexually), I developed a deeper understanding of queer, racialized, and disabled embodiment, and I've pushed the experience of my intimate relationships to unchartered terrains. Framed differently, I feel I started "to transition" (in all the possible senses of the word) in this wicked little town.  

In "Friendship as a Way of Life" (1981), French philosopher Michel Foucault claims the following: "To be 'gay,' I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible marks of the homosexual, but to try to define and develop a way of life." Indeed, the reason why it's called "queerness" and not simply "homosexuality" is because it's a way of life that extends far beyond the square of a bed. Though this way of life may be known as a mainstream consumerist urban hedonistic one, being gay/queer is not just about the big cities; a queer "way of life" encompasses alternative modes of alliances, subcultural practices and non-mainstreams forms of representations, all of which can be rural.

In In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), queer/cultural/literary theorist, J. Halberstam unpacks the concept of "local homosexualities" by bringing our attention to queer narratives that unfold, and are grounded in nonmetropolitan settings. For me, this is what Peterborough has come to represent: the demystifying of the urban fantasy that homophobic violence is concentrated in rural areas. In Halberstam's words, "[s]ome queers need to leave home in order to become queer, and others need to stay close to home in order to preserve that difference." And that's what Peterborough has come to symbolize for me: a queer space puts into question the gay imaginary that demands that one comes [out] to the big city, quite literally.

Last week, I saw Rae Spoon on stage at The Spill, a small artsy cafe/bar here. I discovered Rae Spoon rather randomly last winter when a former lover took me for a night out in Toronto, the big city. It was love at first sound. Rae is a female-to-male transgender singer and song writer from Alberta who, while undergoing his transition, did not have recourse to any hormonal treatment so as to conserve his singing voice. The first time I heard Rae, I was immediately taken by the poetic narratives of being trans (and transitioning) in the Canadian prairies. Through his music, I was transported to a site of geographical and cultural relevance that I had never experienced: rural Canada. Through Rae's lyrics, I lived, however remotely, the experience of the small town queer...

What I didn't realize the first time around was that I was in my own ways a queer stuck in a small town. What I didn't realize either was that I was also a queer trying to constantly run away from this small town by spending as much time as I could in Toronto, the big gay city par excellence. However, sitting at The Spill with a few loved ones, lying my head against those red bricks, rocking my neck to Rae's music, drinking beer that I couldn't afford and that my friends had bought for me, realizing that I knew most (if not all) of the crowd who had turned up on that night, watching the happiness, soaked in golden light in everybody's sway, and above all, knowing that if anything happened to me right then, right there, there'd be a riot of people to stick up for me . . . 

. . . That's when it hit me: this small town (that doesn't even have a gay bar) is queer in many more ways than I thought it was, and this town has also come to embody the real meaning of queer relationships and queer families as that where a community and/or collective come together for days, months, years, and live together independent of blood ties or sexual attraction. In other words, this town has become my family, and on that night, blessed by the music of Rae Spoon, The Spill became a home for this family of queers, queer-identified, queer-allies and queer-friends.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Support The Blog [final round of voting]

First things first: thank you to all of those who put in a ballot for The Queer Behind the Mirror at the Canadian Blog Awards.

Great news: The blog has made it to the final round of voting in three categories: "Best GLBT Blog," "Best Culture and Literature Blog" and "Best Blog Post." If you want to keep showing your support to the blog, please click on this link if you think the blog deserves a title in any of these categories this year.

I thank all of you.

Yours queerly,


P.S: Poll closes on October 26 at noon. 

The Short Journey [sonnet]

Lipstick stains on the rim of a mug;
Down to the depths, red, her long legs,
Shoed in the darkness of coffee dregs,
Plant a kiss on the brim with a shrug.

I smell you with my tongue like a drug;
A whiff smirks, in love, a breath begs
For the lock of a kiss that pegs
Your being onto mine: our tongues snug.

You remember the tip of a blade of grass
Where we found a pearl made of glass;
The sun had furled itself at dusk,
Covered our love in its husk?

On the rim of that mug, the tip of that blade
Was a (too) short journey: our love frayed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tomorrow, The Train [poetry]

Amidst crumpled leaves, the ring of a bell.
The afternoon train passes
Like voluminous thunder
To a soothing flame
A kettle
Cradles us, steady rhythm.

The rhythm-- anchored
A moment in time
Immovable-- a rock, a wooden track.
Metal wheels screech to a slower pace,
A ripple flows and disappears...
It passes.

The bell no longer rings
Hot bubbles in the distance
The imprint, alive, amidst the leaves,
The pebbles, the wooden bridge.

Tomorrow, the train will be back.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Ballot for the Blog [Nominated at the Canadian Blog Awards]

I'm very happy to announce that The Queer Behind the Mirror has been nominated for the Canadian Blog Awards 2010 in the categories "Best LGBTQ Blog" and "Best Culture & Literature Blog." Besides, this post, Blue Crystal [sunday evening] has also been nominated for the "Best Blog Post" award.

If you think this blog has been bringing you enough queerness and enough of literary and cultural interest, and if you particularly liked the piece Blue Crystal, I hereby urge you to go to the Canadian Blog Awards by clicking here, and to vote for The Queer Behind the Mirror.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank whomever nominated the blog and I thank whomever will vote on behalf of the blog too!

Monday, October 4, 2010

On Being Surprised: The Technologies of Intimacy and the Intimacies of Technology

Last week on QueerToday, Anthony L. Carter posted this article about ‘unacceptable risks’. He says: “I was 36 the first time I had sex in public. I had no idea this was an option... I truly thought people went to the park to read, the restrooms to pee and the malls to shop.” Mr. Carter went on to question the potential dangers and risks involved in cruising.

Cruising: Isn’t it actually an inherent part of queer lives, almost a rite of passage? Isn’t it the thing we all need to do to feel that we’ve arrived, that we’ve finally ‘made it queer’, in the same fashion that our families don’t consider us adolescents till they hear the acute crack in our voices, in the same way that we dare not call ourselves teenagers till the physical traces of pubic hair reveal themselves on our bodies? I’ve lived in three continents so far, and in each case, the act of cruising was seen as that liminal space where one finally gives in to one’s ‘forbidden’ desire, the moment where one finally comes, quite literally.

Speaking of the nature of cruising, Mr. Carter adds: “Nothing like a romp in the great outdoors to set your heart a thumping, your mind to shutting down and the belief that you have thumbed your nose at the man, polite society, and have truly gotten away with something dastardly. Oh yes online or in person, the concept of free, noncommittal sex (hookups if you’re 30 or less) serves a number of functions. The connection can be explosive, entertaining, instantaneous and most importantly if the person is a pain in the ass you never have to see them again (...) It’s free and always available. Nobody is at these spots not wanting to be sexual. A bit of negotiation and you’re off and running...” Above all, I am tempted to add: cruising is anonymous!

Anonymity is indeed key in the functioning of others as simple bodies, there, exposed, to be seen and to be courted in order to satisfy one’s own desire. The potential dangers stay closeted and the dirty secrets behind this anonymity may (or may not?) make the experience of cruising more attractive: Who are those men? Are they married? Do they have children? Are they compulsive rapists? Did they just get out of jail? And what about STDs?... The possible horror narratives are endless, and yet, we’ll push them at the back of our minds, ignore them and assume it’ll just be exciting sex... And then... And then let’s forget about it and pretend it never happened.

For many queers of my generation, ‘hook-ups’ as we call them have always been mediated through technology. Acquaintances younger than me have often looked at me like an old piece of junk that should belong to a gay-museum when I told them about my earliest experiences cruising in public. For many indeed, the practice of cruising in a park seems so far removed from history that it belongs to an archive that simply cannot exist. “Why would anybody do this?” is a question that often comes up. The rite of passage has changed: we live in an age where coming out with one’s desires has to be mediated through the use of technology.

I was roughly 16 when I started to think through my desires and the possibility of carrying them through. At the time, I used to live in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Since my raging hormones were driving me crazy, I thought of parks, public toilets, beaches, malls and all those places where I used to see ‘those boys’ roaming around on Sundays after church. I would walk by, discreetly, pretending I was there by mistake, looking furtively and building potential scenarios in my head. I stayed in the borders, an observer never daring to enter the center. I was skinny, I had pimples, I had an oily skin and an awfully low self-esteem, and I was conscious of all that. And then, I found the one thing that would save me: a screen behind which I could hide.

It was a new trend at the time, but it did it for me: I felt secure and above all, I feel reassured that I did not have to expose my skinny body and my low self-esteem to public scrutiny. Online chats (for there were no dating ‘website’ accessible to me yet) for many teenagers like me were a blessing at the time. I was out to my friends, but not to my family and I lived with the constant fear of being outed to them. On the local chat-room, we would hide behind screen-names such as ‘gay15’ or ‘gayboy or ‘gayhottie’ or ‘gay-whatever-you-want’ and we would wait till somebody started chatting with us. Of course, we also lied when we had to, about our ages, about how sexually knowledgeable we were, how sexually knowledgeable we were willing to become... We lied about how tall we were, how big ‘it’ was, but we didn’t lie when we said we were looking for a long-term relationship. In our heads, being 16, the raging hormones and a potential relationship were one, as long as it involved a lot of sex.

Over the years though, the chat-rooms gave way to online dating websites. By then, we had started filling boxes: height, size, sexual preference, fetishes, looking for... And in many cases, we now had enough confidence to show ourselves, to post our best pictures and flatter our egos. However, it didn’t take me long to be appalled by the number of closeted cases I would find on dating websites. I began asking myself: is online dating a blessing or a curse? On the one hand, it opened up doors to articulate and seek satisfaction for our desires. But on the other hand, it kept us closeted; it said: stay there, don’t come out, don’t ever even call yourself gay. Just meet them, fuck and come back home to a normal life. For me, online dating was a glass closet: a place to where we could show ourselves and yet remain hidden.

Besides the closeted aspects embedded in seeking fulfillment of intimacy via the medium of technology, it is also pertinent to think through how technology actually structures and regulates our desires and relationships. We live in a society where we are used to getting what we want. We want new jeans that are blue, slightly faded in certain spots, tight at the waist but large at the calves with embroidered patches on the back pockets; what do we do? We want a chicken burger with cheese and fried mushrooms, ketchup, mustard sauce and lettuce; what do we do? In both cases, we order what we need and we get them.

This is what online dating does for us; it allows to finally specify our desires and ‘order’ the partner that we want: I want him at least 6ft tall, blond with olive skin, with dark eyes and a six-pack. I want him to be interested in sciences and comics and I want him to be able to cook and be a non-smoker. Where else could I find him and ‘order’ him other than on a dating website? From the moment we start putting ourselves in small boxes, and describing our attributes and desires in other boxes, we can order our potential partners and let ourselves be ordered too, like pizza to be delivered. Online dating solves many problems for us; it does the weeding and the selecting: I no longer have to deal with the guys who are not my type feeling me up at the bar anymore, I no longer run the danger of being cruised by men I am not primarily attracted to, I no longer have to fall onto a guy who doesn’t share my taste in music...

And yet, I ask: did online dating really solve the problem? Did we actually get rid of the ‘bad weed’? If such is the case, how come so many of us are still cruising for somebody compatible online, just like another generation used to in bars years ago? I think the solution lies in realizing that there is a clear distinction between desire and the fulfillment of desire. You know those days when you crave for a chocolate brownie and you crave it so much that you rush to a pastry shop and buy it? But then, once you eat it, you think: “Is that it?” and your taste buds remain unsatisfied?

Online dating entails the same process. We shouldn’t confuse our fantasies with the actual realization of those fantasies. There is a need to realize that the people we dream up as potential mating partners may only be so perfect and exciting only because they seem so in the ideal state that we conjure them into being. How many of us have actually woken up on Sunday mornings feeling frustrated that the perfect date didn’t turn out to be so perfect?

Sure, we have preferences, we have desires, but we seem to forget that human interactions express themselves in interesting uncanny ways. Ever remember going to the shop for looking for that particular pair of faded-blue jeans with embroidery on the back pocket, but coming out of the store with plain black denims because you unexpectedly fell for them and realized they were perfect in their own ways? Well, cruising is about that too: letting ourselves be surprised by other human beings and what they may have to offer.

Often, our dating and mating partners and our longest relationships are to be found where we least expect them, in the desires that we thought we didn’t have. There is an element of surprise in human interaction that online dating can take away if you let the medium act this way. This is not to say that online dating is to be totally ruled out, but maybe is it time to loosen those boxes a bit: make them bigger, make them more inclusive and in the process, make the squares and rectangles a bit circular too?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"It All Starts with a Tweet. The Rest Is History."

For Tyler Clementi, a former freshman at Rutgers University, the tweet symbolized both the beginning and the end.  On August 22, Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s former roommate posted the following twitter message: “Found out my roommate is gay.” On September 19, Ravi posted: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” On September 21, he added the tweet: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12.” Ravi wanted to catch Clementi unawares in his sexual encounter and video-stream the latter. This was followed by a post on Clementi’s Facebook Wall that said: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Indeed, on September 22, Tyler Clementi killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

In the month of September, after 13 year old California resident, Seth Walsh, 15 year old Indiana resident, Billy Lucas, and 15 year old Minnesota resident, Justin Aaberg, all died by hanging themselves, and 13 year old Texas resident Asher Brown shot himself dead, all because they were bullied in school for, amongst others, being gay and/or being perceived as gay, we cannot help but ask whether we can term Tyler Clementi’s case as one of cyber-bullying. This social networking saga does not stop here, for it was recently discovered that Tyler Clementi sought advice and help on the gay forum JustUsBoys. Using the nickname “cit2mo”, Clementi posted the following on September 21 at 7:22 a.m:

“so the other night i had a guy over. I had talked to my roommate that afternoon and he had said it would be fine w/him. I checked his twitter today. he tweeted that I was using the room (which is obnoxious enough), AND that he went into somebody else’s room and remotely turned on his webcam and saw me making out with a guy. given the angle of the webcam I can be confident that that was all he could have seen.

so my question is what next?

I could just be more careful next time…make sure to turn the cam away… buttt… I’m kinda pissed at him (rightfully so I think, no?)

and idk…if I could…it would be nice to get him in trouble

but idk if I have enough to get him in trouble, i mean…he never saw anything pornographic…he never recorded anything… I feel like the only thing the school might do is find me another roommate, probably with me moving out…and i’d probably just end up with somebody worse than him….I mean aside from being an asshole from time to time, he’s a pretty decent roommate…

the other thing is I that don’t wanna report him and then end up with nothing happening except him getting pissed at me….”

While other users on the forum advised him to report his roommate and to make sure that he wasn’t being spied on during his future encounters, Cit2mo replied:

“I feel like it was “look at what a fag my roommate is” –other people have commented on his profile with things like “how did you manage to go back in there?” “are you ok?”

and the fact that the people he was with saw my making out with a guy as the scandal whereas i mean come on…he was SPYING ON ME….do they see nothing wrong with this?

unsettling to say the least….

so I decided to fill out the room change request form….its not guaranteed that you get a change…and i don’t have to switch if I change my mind or work things out over the next week (they won’t start filling requests until next week)…but I figure I might as well as see what they can offer me….”

As more users advised him to the illegality of such form of voyeurism, noting the recent case of 48 year old Michael David Barrett who made peephole videos of Erin Andrews undressing, posted the videos online and was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in prison, Cit2mo responded by saying:

“oh yah, on the school website it says recording people where there is an expectation of privacy (bathroom bedroom etc) without the consent of everyone involved could….COULD…..result in being expelled

the only things is…there are too many ‘could’s ….the fact that he didn’t ACTUALLY record me (to my knowledge) and the fact that the school really prolly won’t do much of anything…. but anyway, i’ll be talking to my RA later today for sure…..

and yah, revenge never ends well for me, as much as I would love to pour pink paint all over his stuff…..that would just let him win…..”

Cit2mo ended up going to the RA (Residence Advisor) after Ravi’s tweet on September 21 and he added on the forum:

“so I wanted to have the guy over again.

I texted roomie around 7 asking for the room later tonight and he said it was fine.

when I got back to the room I instantly noticed he had turned the webcam toward my bed. And he had posted online again….saying….”anyone want a free show just video chat me tonight”…or something similar to that….

soooo after that…..

I ran to the nearest RA and set this thing in motion…..

we’ll see what happens……

I haven’t even seen my roommate since sunday when i was asking for the room the first time…and him doing it again just set me off….so talking to him just didn’t seem like an option….

meanwhile I turned off and unplugged his computer, went crazy looking for other hidden cams….and then had a great time.”

Tyler Clementi was an 18 year old freshman, a devoted musician and an accomplished violinist. He graduated from high school with honors and scholarships allowing him to join Rutgers University this Fall. Barely a few weeks into the academic year, his life has turned into this tragic technological story. The surreptitious broadcast of Clementi’s videos online begs many questions: on the one hand this is a clear case of persecution on the grounds of one’s homosexuality while on the other hand, it raises questions as to the nature of privacy and social networking. Ironically enough, this happened on the same day the Rutgers University began a two-year campus-wide project to teach the importance of civility to the students, with special attention given to the use and abuse of new technology.

From a legal standpoint the case is clear: The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office said Tyler Clementi’s former roommate, Dharun Ravi, and  Molly Wei who acted as an accomplice in the case have each been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy for using “the camera to view and transmit a live image” of Clementi. The most serious charges carry a maximum sentence of five years. Besides, Ravi was charged with two additional counts of invasion of privacy for trying a similar live feed on the Internet on September 21, the day before the suicide. Collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a fourth-degree crime. Transmitting them is a third-degree crime with a maximum prison term of five years.

While the legal standpoint is clear, the ethical aspects of this case need to be unfolded, over and over again. We live in an age of social networking, where for the younger generations, social network and technological devices are taken for granted.; and yet, maybe it’s high time to speak of the responsibilities that come along with the use of contemporary communicative technology. We seem to be able to put our lives out there, so that they be recorded, without thinking of the potential consequences that may ensue. In the case of Ravi’s tweet for example, the same technology that allowed him to invade Clementi’s privacy (and arguably, offer himself and others a good time), proved him to be guilty. Indeed, Ravi may have deleted the tweets from his Twitter account, but nothing deleted on the Internet ever actually disappears. Every single picture and video posted and every single word written can be traced back through tracking sites and caches. Deletion over the Internet is thus a futile act.

Once we decide to put ourselves out in the cyber-world, we need to be constantly aware of the dangers, risks and responsibilities that come with (over)sharing. The digital trails that we decide to leave online can haunt us in many ways for decades to follow; above all, what we decide to leave as a digital trace can harm others too. Tyler Clementi himself was surprised that a video of him making out with another man, impeding on his privacy and outing him in public was just subject to gossip in the residence while the breach onto his personal life did not raise a single frown: “... the fact that the people he was with saw my making out with a guy as the scandal whereas i mean come on…he was SPYING ON ME….do they see nothing wrong with this?” While he further asks: “oh yah, on the school website it says recording people where there is an expectation of privacy (bathroom bedroom etc) without the consent of everyone involved could….COULD…..result in being expelled... the only things is…there are too many ‘could’s”-- we do wonder why the resident advisor did not move him from that room immediately.

However, the point here is that we all should be responsible for what we share online. While Wei and Ravi are certainly both intelligent youngsters, who have made to one of the most competitive universities in the USA, the fact remains that they probably did not consider all the risks involved in their act. These acts of entertainment can be a violation of another person’s dignity and over-sharing can be an act of cruelty.

We need to educate ourselves, and educate others. While we should be aware of Trojan Horses for example (which can be used to turn a computer on and off from another computer), we should also be aware that it is illegal to stream videos of people online. Similarly, it’s time to realize that witnessing such acts while not acting upon them make us accomplices too. Though legally speaking, we may not be criminalized for ‘watching’, ethically speaking we are still responsible for not acting upon an offense and denouncing it.

None of us are safe, and it is only up to each of us to make online social networking and digital sharing productive, efficient and not dangerous. As the world keeps moving further and faster into technological communications, our rights and responsibilities as citizens need to move from the purely social to how society now structures itself, i.e. through the medium of technology. While many of us are now talking of cyber-bullying and cyber gay-bashing, it may be high time to remember Clementi’s story and death as one that started with a tweet but that should not be relegated to the realm of a history to be forgotten, but rather, of a history to be remembered.