Thursday, September 24, 2009

Loving the Gay Poet Inside You (or the One You Wish Was Inside You)

About a week ago I got my copy of Ganymede Poets, One. It is a new anthology that collects the 38 gay male poets who appeared in the first six issues of Ganymede (a gay men's journal out of New York City). I'm included in the anthology (and in issue six out in January) and am honored to be so, but having this book and reading through it got me thinking about the label "gay poet." This is an issue I've been thinking about and addressing pretty much since I came out.

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) 

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Happy Anniversary to the You of All My Love Poems

Two years ago Dustin and I spent this upcoming weekend in Atlanta celebrating our then four year anniversary. While in Atlanta we went out to a gay bar, had a few drinks, and the man standing beside us started talking with us. He asked where we were from (at the time we lived in Tallahassee) and we told him that we were in Atlanta celebrating our anniversary. The next question was of course "how long?" Dustin said, "four years." The man looked confused, held up his four fingers, and said "four months?" "No," we said, "four years." He was shocked, as many people we meet are (especially in bars). 

I wonder what that man would think now. Today is September 17th and six years ago a young boy of just 18, Dustin, agreed to be a boyfriend to a 20-year-old version of me. Yes, it has been six years. Not six months. Not six days. Not six minutes. 

I know the longevity of our relationship does surprise many. Party because of our ages. We are young and at different times this has bothered me. Did I miss out on something? But you can't choose when you fall in love and I found it at 20 and don't regret it for a minute. Party people are shocked because they believe gay people are somehow incapable of long term relationships. You will find this in both straight and gay people. They have bought into the stereotypes. And finally people are shocked/surprised because it seems these days few relationships of any kind hold up. In many ways I enjoy the reaction we get when people find out it has been six years, but at the same time I don't really want to place myself as a role model for all gay relationships, because there is no one model for how a relationship should work.  

Dustin and I aren't prefect. Our relationship hasn't been perfect. Why? Well, because relationships are work, which is why many fail at them. We often don't want to admit that relationships take effort on all parts. In many ways we are still a very immature society when it comes to love. We think it should all fall into place (or at least fall into place after a few funny or awkward situations) and we think that anytime something happens we have to throw our hands in the air and give up (believe me I have done my fair share of hand throwing, but never giving up). 

Now, I'm not saying my relationship with Dustin is like a job, but I'm saying we have made huge efforts to keep our relationship alive and moving forward. We have changed so much in the last six years that at times I'm not sure I would recognize the silly boys who first met in my dorm room in September of 2003. We have grown, we have reshaped our relationship, and we've become men together.

One day (I'm not sure which) we both woke up to the fact that we love each other more than anything, but that our relationship was our own and it didn't have to match the picture we both had in our heads (a picture that was very heterosexual based). From there we forged our own definitions. We found what worked for us. In many ways this is the beauty of being gay. I'm already breaking the mold, the tradition, so why does my relationship have to pretend it is something it is not. I have no set model to follow.

The secret to a good relationship is easy: you have to make it your own. Dustin is not only my partner and my lover, but his is truly my very best friend. To be honest I grow tired of people and I've never been someone that can be with the same person all the time. I like my alone time and space, but Dustin is that one person that I never tire of and that I want to be with all the time. He knows me inside and out (he should after six years, right?) and I know him. 

With each year our relationship alters. Part of me longs for those first weeks of it, when everything was new, but then part of me revels in the maturity and fun we are having right now in our sixth year, but the biggest part of me can't wait for what is yet to come, because I trust it will be challenging, amazing, and worthy of my love.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I Don't Wanna Be a Cowboy

I just returned from four days in Houston, Texas. Why? That's a good question. I spent the Labor Day weekend visiting my parents, two sisters, brother-in-law, and niece who have all relocated to Houston in the last four years, which is odd in many ways as we were all raised in Indiana. Both my sisters have lived in Houston for a bit now, but my parents more recently relocated there after spending their entire lives in the same area of Indiana. I have to say I'm very proud of them for making such a big change. They seem happy and have a very nice home, which I got to see for the first time this trip. It was a good visit. I hadn't seen most of them in well over a year, but it was also a different kind of visit. 

Partly it was different because it was the first time I visited Houston with all of them living there. Seeing them for these four days was a reminder of the ever shifting landscape of family relationships and situations. While we all get along and enjoy each other, this time I felt, even more so than before, that I'm moving in my own direction. 

Dustin and I have a very different kind of life from my Texas family, especially since we moved to Orlando over a year ago and this trip made me realize how much I love my life with Dustin. Are things perfect? No. Most of you have seen my rants about my job, but many things are good. Dustin and I have a very different outlook on life than many others do. We want to move around. We like to try new things. We have both become vegetarian. We are atheists (my family is not). We have defined our relationship in terms that many find very difficult to understand. We enjoy the gay community and being a part of it and sometimes when you step outside of that (like going to Houston, TX) you realize how different the gay community can be from the rest of society. 

The gay movement talks a lot about how we are the same as straight people and I understand the point of this and in many ways of course they are right. We are human. We have feelings. We have desires. We should have equal rights, but that doesn't mean we are the same or that we should be the same. I'm always leery of the idea that to be equal you must prove your sameness. Why? My outlook on life is greatly shaped by the fact that I am gay and all of the cultural issues and experiences that come with that and what most straight people can't understand is I wouldn't change it for anything. I love being gay.  

In the past year I've spent every weekend in a gay club or going to a gay event or being with gay friends and I've loved every minute of it (well almost). This has always been what I've wanted and I finally have it. I've found a place I fit and I like the feeling that comes from being in those environments. 

As Dustin and I boarded I plane home last night we recalled how we didn't see one gay person in Houston the whole time we were there, which is odd, because I have pretty damn good gaydar, but the point is there. Florida and Texas may not be that far apart but they are worlds apart. 

While I'm happy for my family, because they seem very pleased with their lives there, I know I can never fully be a part of it. Every time I visit Texas I know I can't live there. It just never feels right to me. Maybe it's all the signs posted on businesses reminding you to leave your gun in the car, maybe it's the Texas flag that's everywhere, even flying above the America flag (they are the only state that can do this), or maybe it's just this sense that I'm not welcome. Whatever it is, it stuck with me this time more than any other time. 

I love my family and seeing them was great. My niece Lily is an amazing kid and I had a great time playing with her all weekend, but part me always knows I'm separate somehow. The son from a distance, the brother from a distance, the uncle from a distance. My life is set on a different path and I'll visit that Texan world from time to time but I don't wanna be a cowboy (maybe sleep with a cowboy, but that's another story).