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Sexual ceiling
The queer community’s fight for same-sex marriage, combined with revived AIDS hysteria, is shortchanging GLBT youth by stifling discussion of gay sexuality

OVER THE PAST two decades, queer communities have paid more and more attention to the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. We, and they, have fought for high-school gay-straight alliances and created state-funded projects like the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program and California’s Safe Schools Coalition. More books, both fiction and nonfiction, are aimed at a gay-youth market, and teen-oriented TV shows, such as The Real World and American Candidate, feature gay participants.

In a profound way, however, the GLBT movement is seriously failing queer young people in matters of sex. Sure, Ellen and Rosie have come out, and we can all laugh at Evangelical Christians targeting SpongeBob SquarePants, but where can young gay men and lesbians learn about queer sex? Probably not from their parents or from their school’s sex-ed programs. Not from safe-sex and HIV-prevention programs that, in recent years, call attention to the dangers of sexual activity. Not from shows like The L Word and Queer As Folk, or endless Web-site advertisements for circuit parties, or porn sites that depict silly, overblown sexual fantasies and that have nothing to do with the realities of everyday human sexual interaction. The trouble here isn’t with learning how to put tab A into slot A, or what lube to use, or what two women "do together" — most people can figure that out pretty easily. Nor is it with learning what one likes sexually, which can be figured out through trial and error. Rather, it concerns how to think about yourself as a sexual person, what sex means to you, and how it is intrinsic to your identity, your life, and your relationships. How do young queer kids learn how to be gay? How do they learn how to be sexual? How do they learn to think of themselves as sexual human beings with queer sexual desires?

Young queer people today are growing up in a world that, in both gay and mainstream culture, gives them deeply mixed signals about sexuality and sexual behavior. At best this is confusing; at worst it is harmful. The two historical circumstances that made growing up gay so unique for those born in the mid ’80s and after — the fight for marriage equality and the AIDS epidemic — are also making it almost impossible to have informed, healthy, and sane discussions about sexual desire and sexual activity. That’s because in recent years the clanging of wedding bells and the insistent tattoo of bad news about HIV transmission (much of it fueled by anti-gay hysteria in the mainstream media) has completely shaped — distorted, really — how the gay and lesbian community talks about sex. Over the past five years, safe-sex education has largely shifted from promoting healthy sexuality and sexual behavior to a new tone that harks back to the "be afraid to have sex" scare tactics of the early-to-mid ’80s. Moreover, the fight for marriage equality — and the elevation of marriage as the idealized queer relationship — has moved front and center in gay politics and, to a large degree, in the imaginations of young gay people, much to their detriment.

WHILE THE conservative and religious right (and even many moderates and liberals) accuse the gay movement of injecting sex into everything, the reality is radically different — in fact, the movement has been quite consciously removing sex from everything. Television shows like Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that win awards from GLAAD present us with images of asexual gay men. Transgender politics generally avoids all issues of sexuality, concentrating instead on gender identity and expression. And, all too frequently, misinformed, hysterical AIDS reporting is taking the sex out of safe-sex. Now, in a stunning display of political engineering, the gay-rights movement has actually taken the sex out of marriage.

There is a great, doleful irony here. In almost all the community discussion of marriage equality, the word "sex" — or even the idea of "sex" — is glaringly, appallingly absent. This isn’t to suggest that we’re going "back to the 1950s" — the 1950s had a healthier attitude about sex and marriage. A quick read through the standard teen sex guides of the 1950s and ’60s — Evelyn Millis Duvall’s 1950 Facts and Love and Life for Teenagers and her 1965 Why Wait Till Marriage? (which offers "the reasons for premarital chastity, frank and specific for today’s youth," according to the cover) were huge bestsellers — are quite clear that sexual pleasure is one of the great joys of marriage and that the intimate emotional, physical, and psychological relationships fostered by marriage are unique and wonderful. But you’d never know that from the rhetoric of the marriage-equality movement. It has become so focused on securing the right to civil marriage that it promotes a sexless image of gay marriage and gay life. It’s a shrewd if hypocritical political tactic, and one that sends a dangerous, duplicitous message to gay youth.

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Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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