James Bohling: James Bohling is a graduate student in the Annenberg School for Communication's school of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Southern California. He holds a Master's Degree in French from the University of California at Berkeley and is an Assistant Lecturer at USC's Department of French and Italian. He is interested in media portrayals of gays and lesbians, and the origins of all kinds of sexuality.
POMOSEXUALS is a collection of essays about individuals who feel they don't fit into one of the most immediately recognizable sexual categories, i.e., straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. The concept appealed to me (I have often felt like a male-identified straight woman trapped in a gay man's body), and I was curious to see what the authors and editors had come up with.
Just about everyone feels some degree of alienation from these prescribed notions of sexuality, and this was an occasion to print something thoughtful on the subject. On the other hand, the very title gave reason to suspect that POMOSEXUALS would contain nothing more than trendy, jargon-ridden diatribes by self-proclaimed sexual outlaws.
Like every anthology (other than the Beatles'), this one is a combination of hits and misses. To begin, Kate Bornstein's preface, while mercifully accessible, promotes the book rather than addressing any real ideas. Queen and Schimel's introduction does a lot of meandering, and very little concluding, about the plethora of labels that exist to describe everyone who doesn't identify as heterosexual. (That people who identify as heterosexuals might feel a degree of alienation from that category is an idea lamentably missing from this collection.)
But one need not despair. The book's second section, “The Politic Identity: Questioning Reputations,” contains one of the collection's best essays, 23-year-old Katherine Raymond's Confessions of a Second-Generation…Dyke? Talking about her experience as the daughter of a lesbian mother and her own attractions to both men and women (and what these attractions imply politically), Raymond crafts a mature, intelligent essay that doesn't cash in on any one theoretical stance. She also imparts humor, mostly about the current state of her own sex life, with a self-deprecating tone that had the reviewer laughing out loud more than once. Expect more good things from her.
Another of the collection's gems is Michael Ford Thomas' “A Real Girl.” He candidly discusses his desires toward straight men, citing his crushes on the boys his older sisters would date during high school. He also coherently critiques the proliferation of reductive and limiting roles in a supposedly “liberating” gay male subculture. Instead of bemoaning his lack of options, Ford comes up with an on-line persona through which to channel his cravings. Recounting these cyber-seductions leads to more interesting observations about the subtleties among different kinds of desires.
Finally, David Tuller's “Adventures of a Dacha Sex Spy” is a tender account of the author's time spent in Russia and the unconventional relationships he observed among the friends he made there. It is an unpretentious and touching story that encourages the reader, by example, to ponder the substance of arrangements so far removed from our own. The promise of the collection's subtitle, “challenging assumptions about gender and sexuality,” is realized in this sincere and thoughtful essay.
Carol Queen, one of the volume's two editors, produces one of its most entertaining and engaging pieces with “Beyond the Valley of the Fag Hags.” Tracing her affinity with gay men, Queen manages to render a history both personal and sentimental without getting maudlin. Particularly intriguing is the intersection between her identity as a lesbian and her intimate relationships with gay men. Queen's story convincingly shakes up some of the dogma surrounding the supposed chasm between lesbians and gay men, and her call for unity among all factions is both affirming and pragmatic.
A section entitled “Through a Glass Queerly: Our Boys, Ourselves,” contains essays from the collection's two best-known writers, Dorothy Allison and Pat Califia. Califia's “Identity Sedition and Pornography” is really about neither (as she admits), but she gets away with it because she's Pat Califia. She nonetheless delivers some worthwhile insights about variations of homophobia and discusses the gay male leather scene and its impact on her. Allison's essay, “Her Body, Mine, and His,” is, unsurprisingly, beautifully written. And though it certainly focuses on sexual roles, it is too poetic and void of explicit critical analysis to properly belong in this volume. But the editors have included it, I assume, because she's Dorothy Allison.
But the rest of the book is, I'm afraid, somewhat less engaging. A case in point is the volume's first piece, Greta Cristina's “Loaded Words.” Cristina, who has disappointed readers of San Francisco's Bay Times for years with her droning, politically correct film reviews (the left-leaning equivalent of “family film guides”) lives up to her reputation here. In what is essentially an extension of Queen and Schimel's introduction, Cristina does a lot of out-loud wondering about the origins and functions of the myriad sexual labels out in the world. She covers territory that is familiar to anyone half-interested in the subject, and determines that these labels are either intensely meaningful or meaningless, but conveniently leaves the decision entirely in the hands of the reader.
John Weir's “Like a Virgin” describes his own experience as a 36-year-old gay man looking for a first straight lay. The sex scene is titillating, but the tone is too heavy-handed. It would have worked better in Honcho. D. Travers Scott's Le Freak, “C'est Chic! Le Fag, Quelle Drag!” has a promising premise: the pathogenesis of gay ghettos. I was interested to see where he went with this, but the essay quickly veers off into Scott's problems with the notion of fixed sexual identities. It's all intelligently written, but neither idea is sufficiently developed. This should have been two separate pieces.
“Don't Fence Me In: Bi-/Pan-/Omni-Sexuals” consists of two of the collection's most disparate writings. Marco Vassi's Beyond Bisexuality discusses “metasexuality” with a series of numbers and diagrams that is supposedly explained in greater detail in the author's The Metasexual Manifesto. Like most manifesto material, “Beyond Bisexuality” has the distinguishing characteristic of being comprehensible to virtually no one other than its author.
Laura Antoniou's “Antivenom for the Soul” has a few interesting moments concerning the rift between “pure” lesbians and those who have sex with men. But instead of taking these points somewhere, Antoniou is content to assume a defiant stance and corroborate it with intentionally blunt erotic samples of her own self-perceived sexual elusiveness. In “Stroking My Inner Fag,” Jill Nagle recounts a tale of partying and offbeat sex that, while competently written, offers no palpable insight into anything other than one night in the author's life.
“Gender Pending: Denying Gender Imperatives” houses the worst of what POMOSEXUALS has to offer. David Harrison doesn't waste a second in citing his relationship with Kate Bornstein in an attempt to give his essay cachet. As eager as Bornstein to market his sexual iconoclasm as a viable prerequisite to authority on all matters gender-related, Harrison gives us “The Personals” a memoir of his experiences with the personal ads as a recent female-to-male transsexual. His is a quest for understanding in which the reader is given no hints about the reasons for the author's gender modification, nor about what he's looking for. But this doesn't stop Harrison from petulantly complaining about and discounting as woefully prosaic every prospective date that doesn't respond the way he sees fit.
Another disappointing piece comes from Riki Anne Wilchins, whose “Lines in the Sand, Cries of Desire” is a foggily written, self-important letter for Joan Nestle, in whose possession it should have remained. In it, sexual organs are bantered about in a smug manner that ceased to be either radical or remotely cute about a decade ago. This is the sort of unsophisticated writing, constantly assuming an arrogant, more-subversive-than-thou stance, that earns queer theory a bad name.
In the final section, along with David Tuller's Dacha essay, is “Diaspora, Sweet Diaspora,” from co-editor Lawrence Schimel. In it, the author uses his Jewish heritage as a springboard for a somewhat unprecise discussion. He makes a too-brief parallel between the reactions of the gay and Jewish communities in times of community threat (citing AIDS as an example), and spends the rest of his time discussing his Jewishness and promoting his own opposition to essentialist notions. It is not poorly written, but its pairing with the piece by Tuller is unbalanced.
The contributors in POMOSEXUALS make a lot of good points, as well as a lot of non-points. It is neither an illuminating solution to long-standing dilemmas about sex-role categorizing, nor is it the postmodern nightmare of self-aggrandizing crypto-theory I had feared. At the very least, some of the essays were thought-provoking. And, I imagine, some of them (though not necessarily the same ones) will be similarly provocative for other readers interested in the categorizing of sexuality. For this reason only, I believe it is worth a read.
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