Saturday, August 8, 2009

Some thoughts on Queer Lineages

This is not the follow up post to the same-sex marriage one but it is sort of related. I've been thinking for some time about queer lineages. For many years now I've had a friend who is much older than me. For a long time now I've referred to him as my faerie godmother. I was about 22 when I first met him and only newly out. As I said he was much older, 25 years older, in his 40s then - he's now in his early 80s. The last few years have been quite difficult ones for him healthwise and so he and I and another friend of his my age have been having a bit of a hard time of it. Us two young uns have been his main social and often physical support for the last 6 years or so now. He's now in a retirement home but that only happened earlier this year. I won't go into the details of the health and other issues here but there were several times we almost lost him and there was a period of time when I'd be quite uncertain if I'd find him alive or dead. And there was one day, well if I hadn't turned up he probably wouldn't be with us anymore.

Anyway, back when I'd just finished the PhD, I was visiting him and talking about the plans, well hopes really, that I had and some of the issues I wanted to write about and so forth. Giddy with success I was then and brimming with optimism. But he looked at me and and said "You know I often feel like I made you." We kind of laughed about it because we are really so very different. It's not as if I'm a chip off the old block or anything like that. And we never had a My Fair Lady/Pygmalion type of thing going either. But I learnt a lot from him, from his wealth of experience. He'd lived and worked overseas for many years, a lot of it working on the passenger liners in the 50s and 60s and so had travelled most of the world. He is a rich reservoir of gay history and has been interviewed and had much of his life recorded in recent years so that such experience is not forever lost. But the documenting of that history will never replace the experience of knowing him, and he could be a difficult person to know because he didn't tolerate fools gladly. He is an atheist and an iconoclast and can tell some most outrageous stories of gay life and gay sex from years ago. And somehow we bonded. It's not that long ago that he told me that he'd been madly in love with me for many years after we met. I was flabbergasted. I had major body issues back then and didn't think much of myself despite the bravado I could put on as an out young gay man. Plus I thought I knew the type of guys he liked and I certainly wouldn't have counted myself as fitting that. But we can all surprise ourselves in that regard.

And, yes, he did make me but as I said not in a Pygmalion way and not just through sharing his experience and knowledge. He also helped me through some very rough times. When I think back on it I'm amazed at the way I turned so naturally to him when I had was in a mess or a crisis. And he willingly helped me and supported me. So I was happy that I could help him over these last few years. Well, happy is not the right word. I would have preferred that he didn't need that help and I would have preferred for him not to have been in the state he was.

I say all this because I've been reading a book of my flatmate's on the current Pope's theology. It's a fairly uncritical account and I've been trying to get through a chapter on current Roman Catholic sexual theology as represented by the teachings of the present Pope and his predecessor. The two do represent a bit of revolution in the Roman way of sex but the dominant hallmark of their position is a heterosexual essentialism. Marriage is an icon of God and all sex must be open to transmission of life - hence heterosexual marriage and vaginal sex without contraception are taken as the norm, nay, an icon of God. And it reminds me of a paper presented at a conference I was at many years ago. Ironically the paper was presented by a Catholic priest involved with the AIDS Council. I say ironic because it examined the links between homophobia and the fear of death, death denial. And lets face it, Western society is pretty death denying. And what's more, the one sure thing about homosexual sex, homosexual lovemaking is that there is no way that it can ever be reproductive. Marriage is all about progeny as well as property and patriarchy. The great drive for progeny is the investment in continuity and immortality, socially and individually. Homosexual, homophilic men and women challenge that reproductive imperative and challenge the death denial by embracing what society sees as sterile relationships.

Over the last few years, with my elderly I've become aware as to how he and I stand outside the lineage system. I'm not kin. Whenever there was a drama needing paramedics or such, it became clear that I was not kin and therefore this strange person kindly helping out. Sometimes I'd receive real expressions of surprise about my being there and helping him. I, of course, felt as close, if not closer than any next of kin, none of whom I've met.

But, of course, there is a lineage, a different sort of lineage, one based on love and affection. There's nothing biological or genetic about it, it's not even sexual, so we don't get included in any same sex marriage aura if it was to eventuate, or civil unions for that matter. And I wonder about the queer lineages of love, friendship and desire (and lets face it these regularly overlap) the lineages that don't get recognised because they're not, in societal terms, seeking to cheat death. In times gone past you'd often see the older queens and dykes with entourages of younger ones. They would be bound by friendship, which might often turn sexual, at least for a time, but often would not. Like my elderly friend, the older would support and advise the younger ones, be a role model. That person might in their youth have been part of similar entourages.

What's thrown all these issues into even sharper relief for me lately is a friendship I have with someone a lot younger than me. We've been friends for a few years now; last year circumstances were such we didn't see much of each other. Not so this year and we've seen quite a bit of each other. One of the very strong features of this friendship has been the exchange of ideas between us which is also why I've been reflecting a lot more on the queer dimensions of pedagogical eros (or the pedagogical dimensions of queer love). And pedagogy has it's own lineages, non-biological lineages of the intellect. But with my friend I experienced for the first time the strange sensation of what I might term, rather clunkily, heirship. It's hard for me to get my head around clearly, to find the words to explain., because it's still a very new experience for me. Our interaction is not unidirectional, it's not me passing on to him the passive receptor. It's also not as if I have anything material to bequeath him (except for lots of books I suppose) but then I don't intend to exit this mortal coil for a while yet. But would I stand by him and support him and foster and encourage him? Yes. Am I prepared to pass on whatever I might have by way of experience and wisdom (not that I count myself all that wise)? Yes. Do I want him to challenge and question me and take whatever he can glean from me and run with it developing his own ideas and turn it into something new (do I sound a bit like old Plato here?)? Yes. And, I should add, this is not a sexual friendship and isn't going to be.

So I look at my elderly friend and wonder, is this something like what he what he felt for me, discounting for a moment the attraction he felt for me (and I've also had to deal with issues of my own desires all stirred up by the emotions fired up in me over the last few months). Is that why he fell for someone who I'm still convinced was so not his type? A confusion of desires perhaps? Was our relationship lifegiving? From the essentialist biological genetic perspective obviously not. But in any fully human way, most definitely yes. And for my younger friend I hope I can be as lifegiving and as generous and as loving as my elderly friend was with me. By so doing I will be honouring my elderly friend too. And thus are lineages built.


  1. Michael, I wonder if you ever realised what a rock/inspiration/model you were for me? :-)

    Sometimes, I think our greatest kindnesses are imperceptable to ourselves.


  2. Joseph, I probably didn't but I've always cherished our friendship. BTW was it me that got you into astrology?

    Mind you, now that I come to think of it,I remember, oh years ago now, late 90s, telling Colin both how touched and oddly puzzled I was by the way people in the Rona Rm seemed to look up to me. I mean I didn't hold any position then and my Queer Radio days were over (and with QR I discovered that I had a little fan base out there, which gave me a very disturbing sense of responsibility). And somehow when I recall that moment telling Colin I get a flash of your face amongst the people in the room

    And yes on kindness.

  3. Yes on astrology, and coincidently in a lagal studies class I ran, I used the phrase "The snake didn't lie" albeit in relation to consumer law.

    At the time, as a newly out young man, fresh faced from my catholic school upbringing you stood outside the commercialness of gay identity, and your stories of die-ins and ad hoc house parties connected me to a sense of history, purpose and ultimately community.

    And you did it all by just being you.

    I know I could never be a guiding light for you, the way you were for me, so I've contented myself with being a light of sorts for a younger generation of queers.

    Love you long time Michael


  4. Ah, Joseph but you *have* been a guiding light for me in very many ways, likewise, just by being you.

  5. I had a relationship with an older dyke very like this - not a sexual relationship (although I was madly in love with her for a while). She 'adopted' me in my first job, where she was my boss. She held lots of 70s women's movement history and I really felt she was handing on the baton when we talked about her experiences - although I felt greatly disadvantaged in what I could contribute, starting my political activism in the complacent 90s. She died a few years ago, of ovarian cancer, in her early fifties.

    I would be curious to know how common these mentoring relationships are.

  6. Hi Mikhela, I'm very sorry about the loss of your friend. She sounds like a quite amazing woman. Thanks for sharing that

    Re mentoring relationships all we can go on is anecdotal reports. I suspect they have been quite common. Many of them might well have been erotic/romantic relationships as much as anything else. But most of this stuff has pretty much gone under the radar as far as mainstream society is concerned.