Monday, April 28, 2003

The men's group

AOG, London

In my search for enlightenment and clues on how to be a “happy gay man” I stumbled across a spiritual gay men’s group in central London about a year ago. I went once and then not again for many months. I found the people at the first meeting rather ghastly and not necessarily overly friendly so that explains the absence… ish. One year on they are all still there and, if anything, ghastlier than last year.

So as to start every meeting, we must say our name and then confess publicly something like our favorite gay man in history, or a secret about ourselves that no one knows (a big mistake in a group like this), or (this week’s addendum) a favorite childhood toy- extra marks if not gender appropriate. No one said Barbie dolls. I was quite surprised- but then again, this is Britain and a lack of commercial childhood toys such as I had in the US is something I have come across before.

Numerous choices went flying through my head hoping to find a favorite toy which I was comfortable enough to tell the group about, but many were just too foreign for them to understand. In fact, their choices were to be just as foreign to me as mine may have been to them. Many had Meccano, some had baking sets. Some, the hateful ones, had “no memory of toys as a child but…” blah blah blah. Should I kill myself now or later?

I was feeling like confessing that I had had a bucket and a spade- given my childhood architectural exploits- but my favorite things as a child were usually video games, toy cars, and Star Wars action figures and their spaceships- though I thought my choices to be too inelegant and I was not so much fascinated by them as I was fascinated in that I never followed the usual plotline and my action figures were more interested in bringing Empires down and constructing alliances- usually under a very beautiful princess. But I had no fascination merely the given taste of the time for all things Sci-Fi. Would I be laughed at.. ? Probably.

Ultimately, I did remember being fascinated by a friend of mine’s reversible blue and red satin cape which fastened with a safety pin and, somehow, eventually ended up being mine. When I told my choice to the group, the “invigilator” said that I must have looked very swish with it. I thought it was a nice response from him and laughed lightly and conspiratorially…but I still don’t think I like him.

In general, the sessions run like this: the day’s topic is explained and people’s views are invited to come forward. What follows, however, is more like group therapy of the tragic kind than an intellectual discussion. I shall explain how this homo-universe operates.

For every answer on the week’s opening question there is a slight self-biography as to why one has chosen one’s answer- unnecessary but nonetheless unavoidable. Some people tend to answer in one or two lines.

Others (the majority) tend to go into how they feel, and why answer ‘a’ is more suitable than answer ‘b’ whilst all the while we are guessing what either answer may be since none is offered and they keep the spotlight on them. Their feelings also come a lot into it. I wonder if it would be too much to ask that you arrive at the meetings…shall we say… sorted? The same is true for the conversation as it unfolds- or not as the case may be.

The same people tend to hog the spotlight week after week with much the same boring stories as the week before. Some members, I believe, speak as thought they were trying to exorcise their past. Others relate their lives as if they were seeking approval for their behavior and many would have one believe how it is society’s fault that they are as they are.

Probably there is some truth in that, but many are in denial or just plain ignorant and with very little self-awareness. In my eyes anyway, they lack decorum, common sense, and most importantly, criteria.

One can have one escape goat, but a whole flock of them to exorcise one’s shortcomings is just plain lazy. Week after week I have to listen to stories which are merely a repetition of the one related last week with few or no changes and all meant to illustrate how the day’s topic is relevant to their life and their feelings rather than the other way around. I wonder why we are all prisoners to our ideas and cannot disassociate our minds and thoughts from them. That is to say, although I believe X or Y, I wish I could also not believe it and challenge it. But that is another column altogether.

Some weeks there is new flesh and they add something to the stew but not much. I have thus far not intervened since what I feel and think of the day’s topic is, more often than not, different from all of them and thus gay mainstream thinking. But every time I attend, I want to talk. But I think it best to listen for a while just in case.

Perhaps I ask too much from a men’s group which charges £4.00 “donation” so as to be able to meet. I believe that, like Thumper’s mother, if one has nothing nice to say, it is best that one says nothing at all. Unfortunately for me, every time we meet I find my head filled with ideas very different from what is being offered and I am afraid to contribute- though not afraid to think differently. Afraid because I know they will ostracise my contribution for not following the herd-like nature of most gay men’s views. For example, I don’t think Madonna is my “glorious leader,” I don’t think there is such a thing as a “gay community,” and I can talk about drugs, clubbing, Madonna, East-enders and Coronation Street for only a few minutes. After that I do tend to allow my intellect to participate and ask more mundane questions such as the situation of the world economy, human rights, the low standard of living, education, politics. Heck, I will even talk about fashion on a good day. But most gay men in London have very little time for these topics. And it is these men that like to attend the men’s group.

After the discussion is over, they often go to a coffee shop across the road for a spot of socialising. I have also yet to go there and socialise. Some weeks I feel like maybe I should; that some people are worth knowing. Alas, my most faithful of companions: my shyness, decides for me and I end up going somewhere else- usually to indulge in a spot of retail therapy to get over the feelings of anger and despair at having to listen to views so different from my own but told in a very matter-of-factly way and with the weight of concurrent modern gay think behind them. How do I voice that I think they all need a slap? Probably I need one too, but at least I am willing to admit it!

Well, shyness is not alone in deciding. Common sense plays a big part too. Showing up and going over the evening’s discussion with the talking heads from the group would certainly be a challenge with no prize at the end. And I would have to be polite to them. To the weird ones, the strange ones, the political ones, the ones who think I am different, and the ones who wish I were dead. To all.

Am I being unreasonable with the group? I have to admit that thus far, no one has questioned me for attending and not saying a word. At least not to my face. I feel a little like a spy but participation in that forum is difficult. One time, one of the participants was talking about being quite open about his sexuality at work. Everyone agreed that we should not have to hide it in any circumstance, like straight people do. But he went one further. He went for a pint after work with a colleague and mentioned in passing- “I just told him like it was a normal thing”- that he had come third in a gay stripping contest. Needless to say his colleague took offence and withdrew his friendship whilst informing people at work that this guy was gay. I agree that said colleague suffers from extreme bigotry. However, I would feel uneasy telling friends, never mind work colleagues, that I had participated in a stripping contest. That I came third would be reason enough to make sure I told no one! I thought that this guy needed some decorum classes as well as a large dose of criteria. I feel for him, but compassion often turns to irreverence when bestowed upon deaf and blind recipients. Okay, so I ride a high horse… so shoot me!

I wonder if his colleague was shocked to hear that this man was gay or that, given his appearance, he had dared to enter a stripping contest at all! I think that the latter would have scared me the most. I have always had a little nagging morality which clashes most vehemently with those things we are supposed to embrace as gay men. Such as the “normality” of low mores and the belief that being gay means hedonism come what may and at everyone’s expense and that morals go no further than rhyming with “corals” and need not interfere with our lives once we grow up- or not as is often the case. Or that a gay magazine has to be plastered with naked men and sex ads every other page and expect everyone to embrace that as the one true face of gay life.

Why must all aspects of gay life be diminished to sex, carnality and hedonism? Why can't there be a gay-themed magazine which is serious? Probably because few would buy it but we should at least allow for different voices to be heard. I think it is quite sad that the mainstream gay world can only cater to one audience and with one product- and indeed claim to speak for all of us who are gay. They who claim that diversity should be embraced choose to show only one facet of gay lives and try to pass it off as all-encompassing and true.

Thus, from the outside, I am placed right alongside those whose only similarity to me is found in the sexual preference area but whose every action appearance and morals are also plastered upon my person only for sharing a common sexuality. All else is superseded to this one aspect and all other branches of the lives of gay men that do not conform to the “accepted” face of homosexuality are censored and thus, remain hidden from view. But that is not the fault of the men’s group.

What is their fault is that they behave as though men’s group really means carte blanche to talk non-stop about nonsense and pretend that it is okay to do so. I can’I expect everyone to have something interesting to say all the time. But at least make an effort. Try to be different. Dare to challenge the status quo- both the heterosexual and the homosexual. But will it happen? Not at this men’s group. But it is early days yet. Eventually I may be able to have an enjoyable evening and walk away feeling like it was worthwhile attending, not just interesting. But only time will tell.