Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rites of Passage

Martin and I are in Corpus Christi during the big Spring Break. We are not here for that reason, however. We are here to visit Martin’s Dad. Actually his dad doesn’t live in Corpus Christi. He lives in a little town called Orange Grove. It is a town that lives for Friday Night Football. Go Bulldogs. The team colors are orange and white. There is no gay bar. We choose to stay in Corpus or San Antonio when we visit. It just feels safer.

Witnessing this Spring Break has me thinking about Rites of Passage.

Back in college days I never did a spring break trip. I was working my way through school. The symphony did not take a spring break, plus I could always pick up extra shifts at my other job at the old Ann Arbor Inn.

In other words, all I know about spring break is what I have learned from the movies. And that is that Spring Break is the chance for slightly post-pubescent boys to try and get laid, but will probably just get drunk and arrested.

My research of the last few days seems to confirm that for once Hollywood got it right. I watched an amazing interaction:

  • (drunk) boy meets (drunk) girl
  • The parties seem very interested in each other
  • Drunken friend of boy pulls him aside for more shots. He goes willingly
  • By the time shots are consumed girl has disappeared into the crowd.

In spite of all protests to the contrary, the drinking seems more important than getting laid.

Martin did take Spring Break trips…with fifteen of his closest friends. He reported the other day after some hot vacation sex that it was the first time he had gotten laid on Spring Break. Apparently way-back-when he would stay in one hotel room with all of those fifteen friends, so there was never the requisite privacy. Besides, what he really wanted to do was find a MAN…but those fifteen close friends were not yet aware of Martin’s proclivity for same-sex activity.

In fact, there would be occasional warnings about going down to the beach late at night, since that was where men were cruising. Martin was trying to figure out how he could lose those fifteen friends and get down to the beach late at night.

I do not recall anyone I know going on gay spring breaks in the late 70s. There was very little organized gay activity at the college level. And where would a bunch of gay boys go. Instead, most gay boys were doing what Martin did…pretended to be straight and went with all of his straight buddies on a mission to get (heterosexually) laid and sloppy drunk.

Gay men and women of my generation did not generally have socially recognized way of learning about sex and relationships. We did not go to school dances with our boyfriends, and have a nervous first kiss. Our boyfriend’s dad did not take us aside and tell us that if we did anything to harm his son he would have our neck.

Our fathers’ did not tell us about the birds and the birds…or would it be the bees and the bees. In fact, most of us did not have boyfriends. At most we had buddies that we would tentatively “fool around with”…with the understanding that what we were doing was completely wrong.

We did not have our first loves at 14, 15 or 16. We may have had crushes but they were unrequited either emotionally or sexually. We did not give them out class rings or letter jackets. We did not agonize over what boy might ask us to the senior prom.

When we did get laid for the first time it was probably NOT something we bragged about or excitedly shared with our brother or best friend. We did not go on Spring Break to get laid.

And, of course most of us still have not had the straight rite of passage called marriage.

There were good and bad things about that state of affairs. When you had no rules you got to make up your own. And given the poor track record of heterosexual relationships, re-invention is not necessarily a bad thing. I know there are folks that believe the only difference between gay people and straight people is the gender of our sexual partners. I subscribe to the belief that we are different than straight people (regardless of the nature vs. nurture debate).

However, I can’t help but think that some of us (and I include myself here) would be much less fucked up if we had had some societal guideposts.

I am amazed by the socialization of many gay youth today. I’m not a Pollyanna. Gay kids still have at best a hard time and at worst a dangerous time growing up. However, in more and more places they have gay dances and proms. There are social clubs and networks for them. I am still floored every time I hear a high school kid refer to his boyfriend or her girlfriend.

Rites of Passage for gay people of my generation (I am 51) differed somewhat from person to person, largely because we did not have society giving us any direction. Many people passages might look like this:

  • Realization that we are attracted to the same sex. This often occurred astonishingly early. I remember starting to understand this about myself as early as five years of age.
  • Our first sex. It was nearly always exciting, and then shameful. And in spite of the shame, the yearning to do it again. Our first kiss often was at some point after our first sex.
  • Our first gay bar. Amazing how important this is. Straight people just don’t have the same attachment to their first bar. They might remember (fondly or otherwise) the first time they got drunk…but stepping into a room ful of people like yourself is an astonishing moment for gay folks.
  • Our first date. Yup…so often our first real date is long after sexual experience.
  • Coming Out. Because of all of those negative messages from our families, friends, and peers we did not come out until we REALLY knew we had to do this, after our first sex, first gay bar, first date, and maybe even our first lover.
  • Deaths of friends and lovers. Yes, my generation was the plague generation. And it was a rite of passage that both scarred us and created a generation of activists.

Notice that marriage is not a part of this list. None of us really expected to get married in our lifetime.

I’m sure the youngest queer generation has a very different set of rites of passage. I know many kids who figure out they are gay, come out to their parents, get boyfriends and go on dates, engage in heavy petting, but abstain from sex until later.

I know others who do not have the parental and societal support to come out so early, whose rites look a bit more like mine.

I am curious about the current state of gay rites of passage. And I am even more curious about the future. Are our rites becoming more aligned with straight America? Will gay marriage, if it ever arrives on a national level, create a parallel track for young gays and straights.

And most important, are gay kids going to somewhere in Florida thinking they will get laid, only to get shitfaced drunk and arrested? Or unlike their straight counterparts are they actually getting laid?

Postscript: I use the terms gay and queer to refer to all men and women of the gay community in this article. I do not address transgender and bisexual people. I firmly believe that their struggle is our struggle. However, their Rites of Passage are very different from ours. I invite others to make that examination.