Au Courant - September, 1990

A recent phone call got me into a discussion about last year's gay pride parade in Philadelphia, and pride events in general. I happily began expounding my Pride Day Theory, which runs somewhat thus: No matter how closeted you are, or how uninvolved you are in the gay community as a rule, you should show up to Pride Day events. You don't have to march, you don't have to wear drag, you can even hide behind dark glasses if you're scared someone will identify you. But just being there adds another number to the head count, and as we all know, the problem has always been just to get the society at large to realize how many of us there are. The more people attend gay pride functions, the better it is for our cause - so just by showing up, you can help your community!

Well, my friend flustered me by going off on a tangent - his theory (supported by his recently-read copy of After the Ball) was that more people would come to gay pride functions if the parades didn't feature groups that offend people. The biggest case in point was groups like NAMBLA, but he also referred to S&M groups and even Dykes on Bikes. "Eric, don't you think we'd be accepted more if we didn't invite offensive groups like that? I mean, do you really want those boy-lovers leading off the parade?" Well, no, but that's not the point.

First of all, let me make clear that you can put me on the conservative end of the gay spectrum when it comes to off-the- wall behavior. Other than my basic orientation in the "wrong" direction, there's nothing unusual about my likes and dislikes in regard to sexual behavior. Admittedly, I have my specific preferences in regard to romantic partners, as does everyone I've ever met. But you don't find me jello-wrestling or shrimping or shaving any part of my body except my face. But before the jello-wrestlers get all upset, let me say that I don't find any of that unpleasant or sick or repulsive - they're just not activities I have any desire to do.

But I must say it took me a hell of a long time to come to terms with S&M. Back when I thought S&M was just sickies whipping each other, I found it silly and irrelevant. I heard my lovers speak of the fine line between pleasure and pain, but nothing registered. Pain has nothing to do with my particular sexual desires - either giving or receiving - and as far as I'm concerned, that fine line is a brick wall. But as I grew older and, if not wiser, at least more experienced, I added to my circle of friends men who were active in the S&M scene, or who at least dabbled in it. When the subject came up, I asked a lot of questions and gained a fuller comprehension of the particulars of the scene - the power relationships, the punishment and reward and the fantasy roles. Rather than enlighten me and add to my understanding, this new information freaked me out and I actively disdained S&M activities. I lightened up a bit when I realized that S&M sex is consensual - both partners want it, each embraces his particular role and all limits and repertoire is decided before the actual scene. So what perhaps was the REAL fear - finding myself unwittingly in an S&M scene - dissipated when I realized that most S&M enthusiasts don't force a scene on anyone (unless of course, that is the signal that the person is sending out - and I guess that's all part of the language of the initial meeting). Yes, there are assholes out there who will suddenly pull domination games on you in bed without previous agreement, but they're not the norm. EVERY scene has its abusers, and you can't condemn a lifestyle because of someone not playing by the rules.

Another intellectual discussion was the catalyst for finally coming to terms with S&M. The friend I was talking with felt the same way as I did (leery of the whole thing), but listening to him voice my viewpoint put things in perspective. When John said "You know, I having nothing against them, but I don't understand it and I don't want to see it, and I don't want them doing it around me!", it sounded real familiar. And I said, "You know, John, you sound just like a straight person talking about homosexuality, instead of a gay person talking about S&M!". The exact same feelings, the exact same words. And I realized that my attitudes towards a scene that I had no interest in and had no effect on me were about as valid as a straight person's disdain of homosexuality.

It really comes down to this - gay liberation is not about the freedom for men to sleep with men and women to sleep with women. It is about Personal Freedom, period. Personal Freedom implies the freedom for a person to do ANYTHING with a consensual partner, be it normal boring sex, or jello-wrestling or bondage or anything. Or not have sex at all. If we fight for personal freedom, we can't limit it to what we personally are interested in.

"But does that mean we give the people the freedom to rob, or murder other people? Isn't depriving them of those rights curtailing their personal freedom?" Well, obviously the line has to be drawn. Notice the word "consensual" I've used. We are a society and society is basically people establishing rules so we don't kill each other. Personal freedom means the freedom to do anything as long as it affects no one else, or if it affects others, with their full consent. In other words, I can jello- wrestle with my partner only if he is willing. If he says no, I don't have the right to force him. This carries over to S&M - if Mr. S wants to tie up Mr. M and whip him, and Mr. M wants Mr. S to tie him up and be whipped, what's wrong with letting them do it? It affects no one else, and both parties are agreeable. However, if Mr. S wants to tie me up, well, I would say no and then try to persuade him to join me in something more to both our tastes. The consensuality is the important thing.

Having come to terms with S&M, I still have problems with NAMBLA and their reason for existing. The problem with the consensuality theory here is we usually think of "consenting adults". The North American Man/Boy Love Association maintains that the underage partners in their relationship are consenting. But legally, being children, they are not responsible for them- selves and are considered to be not ready to handle a sexual relationship. Probably the point could be made that some children are able to handle a sexual relationship and some cannot. I see this as similar to alcohol and its regulation - while some children could handle alcohol and some could not, it is best to limit the sale of alcohol to people who are legally responsible for themselves. The same argument could stand for sexual relationships.

However, keeping the status quo on sex with underaged partners does not help out the NAMBLA members. They obviously have as strong a sexual drive as anyone else, and nowhere legal to vent it. I see them as being in the same situation as the whole gay community before Stonewall. As much as society would like them to change their sexual drive to something more "appropriate", I'm sure that's just as impossible as changing from gay to straight. So what are they supposed to do? I unfortunately do not have an answer to this, but since I am not a trained psychiatrist and have never done research on this subject, I will have to take the views I have heard as correct and view a sexual relationship as unhealthy for a child.

But to answer my friend's question about Gay Pride Day Parades, yes, leather groups and Radical Faeries and, yes, even NAMBLA have just as much right to march in a parade as Dignity and the Spruce Street Singers. Now if someone actively would like to prevent any of these groups from fulfilling their goals, he has the option to lobby against their legal efforts. But no one has a right to prevent the group from existing, or from displaying their pride in a parade that celebrates it.

I remember coming out and thinking "Gay Pride? Why would anyone be proud of being gay?" But I soon realized that the pride is not in your orientation, but in living YOUR life YOUR way despite society's attitudes. That is truly what Pride Day is about, and the groups that some people find offensive are just as proud of accepting and living their lifestyle as I am of mine. If people are offended, perhaps they should re-examine their attitudes, and (more importantly) worry about their own lives and not fret about lifestyles that don't touch theirs in any way. And let's face it - enough people out there are offended by ANY demonstration of our gay pride that partitioning our community would be a self-destructive waste of time. Remember what we're fighting for - our own personal freedom.

Copyright Eric Peterson, 1990