I first read Homos in 2000, when I lived in Seattle. A friend was taking a class in queer theory and because I was starved for intellectual stimulation—trash romance wasn’t doing it for me and I had plowed through my stacks of Marguerite Duras and Jean Rhys—I begged for a copy of the class syllabus and consumed what I could afford to buy. Homos felt fresh in Seattle. Away from the pressures of undergrad—that anxiety-producing space, especially for a queer in a very Catholic school that insisted it had “no gay people”—and away from Pittsburgh, a space that I came to love but at that point was too closely associated with undergrad to be entirely comfortable, I was re-discovering gayness, or what Bersani terms “gay specificity.”
Although I had taken advantage of Pittsburgh’s public sexspots—the loop, the arena, shops on liberty avenue—Pittsburgh still felt too normative, not gay enough. When I moved to Seattle, I was right at the edge of the gay district and I started to understand the allure of gay enclaves. (Calling them “ghettoes” simply sounds wrong.) Safety in numbers. Easy sex (I never had to walk more than a few blocks for the next hookup). An atmosphere that could be stifling and exclusionary, but also had a lot of space for play and discovery. It was my first encounter with a male sex worker (who didn’t charge—I’d like to say I was “that good,” but the story is more complex); where I met my beloved, much-missed friend Bill, who taught me how to think about fantasy and kink by example, who demonstrated tenderness and humility, who gave me the courage to continue writing when he read my (pretty bad) early drafts; where I learned about the economies of the bathhouse in far richer ways than I could have envisioned. In Seattle, gay specificity as homo-ness made sense.
Homo-ness, in Bersani, “is an anti-identitarian identity.”
In very white gay Seattle—I think there was one other black person I saw in clubs and bathhouses, or maybe two. I remember one’s tight clothing, I remember the other’s impressive genitals—“homo-ness” made sense as a kind of pleasurable deracination. “Gayness” was shared risk and pleasure in public spaces—public parks, public bathrooms, various sex clubs. For the most part, the claims we made on each other, or, more precisely, the claims I made, had little to do with affirming something disciplinary or even conscious. Poppers were useful, as an aid to breaking down my frigidities—encounters where I labored to produce orgasms became easier. I marveled at how easy it was to “lose control” and to experience pleasure as a loss of control. Bersani’s under-theorized “self-shattering” translated, for me, into public sex on poppers.
That “translation” was important, because Homos’s primary challenge was how to imagine and materialize “gay specificity” in non-identitarian ways, how to “practice” homo-ness. And because I’ve never had the luxury, or desire, to distance theory from practice, Bersani’s book became a how-to guide, at least for a short while, a place where practice gave rise to and elaborated on something called (often wrongly) theory.
Much of what I’ve written on queer issues draws from Bersani, even as it’s rooted in Foucault and Freud. A few samples:
The attempted stability of identity is inherently a disciplinary project.
Merely looking for a gay identity predetermined the field in which it would be found, since the leisured activity of looking characterized the identity it sought to uncover.
And yet, if . . . suspicions of identity are necessary, they are not necessarily liberating.
You would never know, from [queer scholarship in the early 90s] that gay men, for all their diversity, share a strong sexual interest in other human beings anatomically identifiable as male.
deconstructing an identity will not erase the habit of desire.
Perhaps inherent in gay desire is a revolutionary inaptitude for heteroized sociality. . . . the most politically disruptive aspect of the homo-ness I will be exploring in gay desire is a redefinition of sociality so radical it may appear to require a provisional withdrawal from relationality itself. [how did we forget that “provisional”?]
I want to encourage thinking about gay specificity, I do not want to contribute to gay groupiness.
to let gays be open about their gayness, to give them equal rights, to allow them to say who they are and what they want, is to risk being recruited.
[In U.S. society] a limited sexual imagination can pass as a certificate of high morals.
Who are you when you masturbate?
I have always been fascinated—at times terrified—by the ruthlessly exclusionary nature of sexual desire.
Should a homosexual be a good citizen?
What kind of social cohesion and political expression might develop from the knowing ignorance that brings two strangers’ bodies together?
Reading over these, I discover I am mostly unoriginal. Or, rather, I discover how deeply Bersani subtends (bottoms?) my thinking.
From Nairobi, I think about the practice of “homo-ness.” Less in terms of the anti-relationality Bersani privileges, which, in Homos, is marked by the trajectory of the argument from the social to the aesthetic, a journey that I’m not sure it recovers from. Reading Bersani this time around, I find the argument callused. Charming and sensuous, with the feel of a man who works with his hands. And has done so for some time. This, I realize, is a strange way to characterize an argument by a scholar who confesses that he is a relatively prosperous white gay man.
Perhaps I betray my own tastes.
Even though a few Kenyan bloggers write about sex, albeit quite coyly, and various personal ads are explicit about sex, by and large mainstream gay discourse is remarkably prudish. Those funded by donors speak (necessarily) about rights and dignity and equality. A lot is said about promoting gay rights as an HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment strategy.
Between the abstraction of rights and the materiality of HIV/AIDS lives the unsaid, or the too-little-said, of gay sex. Reading through much of what has been written and published by Kenyan gay men, I find myself nodding along when Bersani claims, “You would never know [from these works] that gay men, for all their diversity, share a strong sexual interest in other human beings anatomically identifiable as male.” I am fascinated by Kenyan gay reticence, by the sense that gays will become acceptable the more they de-sexualize themselves, to use Bersani’s phrasing.
Yet, I must confess that my Kenyan Gay is about as good as my Kenyan Sheng, which is to say, not at all. And the fluencies I spent years cultivating in the States do not translate into this time-space, or translate awkwardly. (Having just crawled into my house from a night out in a gay-friendly club, I am compelled to re-think many of my statements. But that might be the slight hangover talking.) I am torn because I want Kenyan gay discourse to be more explicit about desire, bodies, pleasures. I worry that the necessary focus on rights and health de-sexualizes us. Even as I understand that official discourses always fail to capture bodily pleasures and experiences and their attempts to capture those experiences are disciplinary.(I understand the irony of a post asking for “more sex” that is itself asexual.)
While I am interested in seeing more explicitly sexual(ized) cultural production from Kenyan gays, I am also interested in seeing more thinking that takes sex seriously. I am especially interested in cultural production that highlights and troubles desire and pleasure.
But this is not what I set out to write.
I wanted to see what Bersani “felt” like from Nairobi. What was the force of his arguments? What felt most urgent? From Seattle, his arguments about “self-shattering” and his reading of S/M’s potential, and more specifically, the potential of masochism to help us re-think self-possession and the armor of identity felt especially crucial. Even as, then and now, I still wonder about queer calluses—those scaly, keloid-like structures that mark queer psyches. Then, as now, I was interested in what he first broached in “Is the Rectum a Grave?”: “the value of powerlessness.” The phrase haunts me and I am not sure what to do with it. I’m intrigued by Darieck Scott’s attempt to engage it.
The urgency of Homos from Nairobi must be its challenge that gay strategies for “recognition” (a word Bersani does not like, and that I take from Fanon’s engagement with Hegel) should not lose sight of sex-body-pleasure specificity. That we weigh carefully what we lose in choosing to desexualize ourselves to gain “recognition.”
I am incredibly uncomfortable with the word “gay” and never use it to describe myself. This is also a function of location. Gay became an “impossible” word many years ago. Writing from Nairobi, I *must* use it. I’m still trying to figure out that “must.”