I'm always finding interesting stuff a couple years after it's posted . . .
Why Are We Afraid To Talk About Gay Porn?
After I was invited by a student group at Corning Community College to give a talk on sex and culture, my presentation was canceled when the school’s president found out that I do porn. This is exactly why we need to have more candid conversations about sex, porn and American culture.
posted on Mar. 20, 2013, at 6:11 p.m.
Corning, New York. Find it on the map: it hovers just above the Pennsylvania border, a long ways away from the two closest places you’ve heard of, Syracuse and Rochester. Like the small town I grew up in, it’s all alone.
Two months ago, I was approached by a curious and thoughtful group of students from Corning Community College. The students, including members of the school’s LGBT organization, invited me to speak at the school as part of their upcoming sex-positive community event, Sex Week. Other events during Sex Week include a Q&A about sex toys, and a discussion about pleasure and communication by members of Planned Parenthood and the Rape Crisis center.
In small towns like Corning, the loneliness that LGBT people can feel — for lack of community, peers, and resources — can sometimes be transformed into determination. When people from small towns feel like the discussions they want to have are absent, they work to create them. Their town and school, the students told me, needed more open discussions about sex, about LGBT issues, so they were going to make it happen.
I agreed to be a part of it, and administrators signed my speaker’s contract shortly thereafter.
Last week, I was informed by Corning Community College Vice President and Dean of Student Development, Don Heins, that the school’s president, Katherine Douglas, had singled out my talk and decided to cancel it, against student wishes. They agreed to honor the contract (which they’d signed off on and which contained a cancellation fee), but they were worried that the talk would be “controversial.” I wasn’t scheduled to speak about porn, but to talk more broadly on sex and culture. The reason I was banned was because she’d changed her mind after discovering that I was not, as she’d thought, an educator who used to be in porn, but rather a university instructor before I started appearing in adult films.
I was told she stated, emphatically and more than once, that pornography cannot and should not be linked to LGBT rights.
When I communicated with frustrated students, I told them that I’d consider coming anyway and that I could work on finding another venue if they were interested. Then I was informed that administrators contacted a local hotel and local businesses to make sure I wouldn’t be coming to town, that a student was pulled aside and told not to give direct comments to the press, that the president wanted to schedule her own talk to tell students about why she canceled my appearance, and that if I were to appear in the town of Corning, students were not to attend my lecture.
In an miniature echo of pornography’s place in culture, where millions of people watch and want pornography but are told not to want it, not to watch it, the students and community — particularly the LGBT community, which was singled out in the president’s reasoning — were told not to want or hear a discussion that they’d asked for. The school had undone the work and determination of the LGBT community. What could be left but loneliness? I started to hear from and receive emails about students — in the LGBT community and otherwise — expressing their frustrations, and saying they felt threatened and intimidated by the administration.
So — are porn and LGBT rights connected?
It is precisely the small towns and conservative or isolated areas of our world that expose how intertwined they are.
Where I grew up, just outside of Allentown, PA, I watched, right through my adolescence into adulthood and early college years, while straight people paired off and experienced sex. They were able to engage with a basic aspect of human life that seemed unavailable and distant to me. Unlike today, there was no discussion about gay marriage, nor were there many gay characters on TV. But even if there had been, neither would have rounded out my experience as a man with homosexual feelings because so many of those feelings were — unsurprisingly for a young man — sexual. Gay sex was a lonely venture. It wasn’t easy to find, and was only mentioned in slurs and the butt of jokes. “Cocksucker” and “butt fucker” were insults; stand-ins for “faggot.”
Whether I bought it from the adult video store or, later, downloaded it, gay porn helped me encounter positive images of gay men enjoying the act of sex. Gay porn was a window into gay sexuality that was free of shame and guilt, and revealed a different world where sex wasn’t a lonely prospect, confined to the shadows or just my imagination.
This same concern is amplified in places where homosexuality is criminalized or even punishable by death.
As a porn performer of Arab descent, I’ve received hundreds of emails from men in Middle Eastern countries expressing gratitude and relief for my having portrayed gay sex in a positive light on camera. When a gay man lives somewhere where his identity is threatened, it’s clear how sex - including pornography - and sexuality are intertwined. His sexual imagination, which is criminalized, matches the sexual images of gay pornography (which are also criminalized). Since acting out his imagination through sex would be to risk his life, the access to the images is safer. The images, created by gay men wherever it’s legal to create them, provide empowerment and diminish alienation.
As a young gay man, porn stars became heroes of mine, joining authors, punk rock musicians, and leftist political thinkers, because they lived as I wanted to. Without them, I would have only had a partial picture of my life - a thinking and creative one, perhaps - but one that ignored my sexual thoughts and imagination which were constantly activated and in motion.
To deny the importance of images of gay sex while pretending to affirm gay rights, as Katherine Douglas does, is a luxury, and it’s dangerous one. It’s the equivalent of cheering on a powerless gay neighbor in a 1990s sitcom, or to say, “I don’t care what anyone does in the privacy of his own home, but don’t bring it out into public.” In other words, it’s not an effort to understand gay men as whole human beings but to merely establish sexless caricatures of them to feel comfortable about.
Evidence for the link between gay rights and gay porn can be found in the broader acceptance of pornography in gay culture. Many gay porn stars lend their support to LGBT charities and causes. And when gay sex was heavily legislated against, gay porn stars by definition broke the law to express sexual freedom and defend their sexuality.
That said, I must also express here that I don’t expect allies to understand gay pornography, its link to LGBT movement, or my involvement with it automatically, or as quickly as some gay men do. When Don Heins called me and stated that Katherine Douglass canceled the talk because she had concerns about the controversial subject on campus, I told him that I understood those concerns. They are serious and real concerns - if they weren’t, I’d have no need to give talks, after all. I have similar and additional concerns in my own life: How will having done porn intersect with my other interests? How can I pursue porn and speak openly about sex without making other people feel alienated? What have I noticed about the porn industry that I find supportive of or a hinderance to freedom — particularly for LGBT communities?
As of the writing of this article, I’m scheduled to speak at the Southeast Steuben Library in Corning on March 21st, at an event not endorsed by or related to the school. If that venue is somehow blocked, I’ll speak in someone’s house. Because the question here isn’t whether or not we have concerns, but whether or not we have the courage to address them.
Porn, a form that has been with us for thousands of years and which deeply intertwines with all cultures, deserves deep and serious thinking, not off-the-cuff dismissal and a silencing of public discussion.
This is especially true when it comes to how porn relates to gay men’s lives. To be an ally to gay men, and by extension the LGBT movement, doesn’t only mean being comfortable with gay men’s sexual orientation, it also means being comfortable with their orientation to sex. This is why, when someone claims to be an ally of gay men, pornography exposes – just as surely as it exposes naked bodies — where they really stand.