I've talked with and read about many poets who are gay who very much reject the notion of being called a gay poet. I, on the other hand, have always embraced the term. While I understand the idea of rejecting labels and not wanting to be pinned down, I, at the same time, find a bit of homophobia in the idea of not wanting to be called a "gay poet" if you are in fact gay and a poet.
Yes, the issue is perhaps more complicated than I'm letting on. Some find the term too limiting and that it somehow implies that your poetry is only for a gay audience and no one else. Authors, of all kinds, normally want to reach as many people as they can and being labeled "gay" might limit that audience (though for a poet can your audience really get much smaller than it already is?). Some of the fear might also come from that dreaded little shelf in Barnes and Noble or Borders. Yes, that shelf marked "gay and lesbian," which normally includes erotica, a political book or two, and a self help volume called something like Loving the Man Inside You (read this title as you want).
The label of "gay literature" has always been problematic. Bookstores seem to only label books gay if the author is not well-known or the cover looks "too sexy" for display (i.e. erotica). Gay writers like Michael Cunningham, whose books almost always include main characters who are gay, is not put into such a section. He is allowed to roam free in the mainstream literature shelves. Why? Because he is popular and his books sell well and have been made into award-winning films. This seems to make some gay writers leery about being labeled by their sexuality. Writers who hate the label aren't hiding their gayness, but are associating negative things with the term, which in turn seems to be rooted in homophobia. They have bought into the stereotypes and instead of trying to change the image of that gay shelf in the bookstore, they are going against it and avoiding said label at all costs.
Personally, I wouldn't care if my book was placed next to Dorm Boys: 5 or Loving the Man Inside You. But then again I don't have a book of my own (yet), and many of my poems probably are dirtier than some dorm room stories. Regardless, it has always been important to me to acknowledge that I'm writing from a gay perspective, which is why I fully support gay publications like Ganymede, but I also publish in mainstream poetry magazines like The New York Quarterly and The Antioch Review. I haven't found the problem yet. Of course I get rejected from some magazines probably based on the gay content of my work, but everyone gets rejected based on something and I see no point in changing what I want to write about to get published in Poetry.
Perhaps this hits on a greater issue and that is subject matter. This label bothers me less because I do write a lot about the gay experience. Some poets out there are gay but are interested in writing poetry about lighthouses (for example) and therefore want to reject the "gay" label. But should it matter? I write some very gay poems (not all of them, but most of them), but that's not to say my poems are only for a gay audience. I always find this argument strange, because as a gay person I watch, read, and listen to plenty of heterosexual based entertainment. I love many straight poets and I guess I'm willing to believe they can love me too, even with all my gayness hanging out.
Part of me knows I embrace this label because of my own past and my own struggle with my sexuality. I didn't come out until I was 20. I grew up in rural Indiana and didn't know any other gay people. I guess, in part, I'm trying to be that person out there saying you can be gay and be a poet. You can survive. If labeling my poems or my book "gay" makes it easier for some teenager to find my work than it is all worth it.
For right now I'm happy with my label and I'm happy to be in such a great anthology as Ganymede Poets, One. My poems share pages with many other great poets, who, at least in this book, have been labeled gay (don't tell mom). Help support this publication and buy yourself a copy here: Buy Ganymede.
-Stephen (the gayest poet ever)