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    January 08, 2007

    A new kind of 'values' debate

    Posted by: Chris

    Ericrofes Eric Rofes would be proud. I only met him once, but we corresponded from time to time after I read his fantastic book, "Reviving the Tribe." I identified with how Rofes saw the need for gay men to look below the surface for meaning in our lives. The first step for many of us was to free ourselves from the shackles of self-loathing and judgmentalism, but what value system would take their place?

    Not that Rofes was the first or the only gay male voice to recognize the need for us to attain greater spiritual depth, but he was fairly unique in his ability to explore that need without trashing "gay life" the way so many "mainstream" gay men are wont to do.

    I call them the "happen to be gay" men. They trash "the bars" as if they were uniformly meat markets, "the scene" as if it were all drugs, endless clubbing and unsafe sex, "the activism" as if supporting gay rights means screaming at ACT UP protests, and "the attitude" by which they generally mean that men more attractive than them don't return their interest.

    Eric knew better. He knew that finding spiritual depth didn't require trashing the bars, the scene, activism or attitude. It meant finding common ground on which gay men can connect at a level other than superficial. It was a huge loss to "the movement" when Rofes passed away of an apparent heart attack last summer at the age of 51.

    But now it seems a new round of folks is giving it a try, if a story from today's San Francisco Chronicle is any indication.  The article focuses on three gay men — Ryan Norbauer, 25, founder of Lovetastic.com; Doug Sebesta, 50, co-founder of the San Francisco Gay Men's Community Initiative; and Christopher Lee Nutter, 36, author of "The Way Out," a self-help book:

    They and others across the country are engaging gay men in conversations about their goals and values — both personal and collective — and challenging the sense of who gay men are and what makes their community. This introspection is happening as gay men are able to move away from the AIDS crisis, which had demanded their full attention for two decades, and now have the time and energy to look inward, these leaders say.

    Unfortunately, of the three, only Sebasta seems able to engage in the type of search envisioned by Rofes, a fellow San Franciscan, without denigrating those of us who don't "happen to be gay" but actually are. The Chronicle reports:

    Norbauer, who lives in Massachusetts, said his experience seeking a lover led him to Web sites and personal ads that were more about sex than personality. "That's not what being gay is about," he said. "Being gay is about loving men, and love is not the most pervasive thing on those publications or Web sites."

    Unsatisfied, he created his own dating Web site, Lovetastic.com, where he requires that men be fully clothed in their posted pictures. The site is more MySpace than Manhunt, an Internet hookup site.

    Actually, being gay is about loving men and having sex with them. What Rofes understood is that you don't have to trash the sex to celebrate the love. He founded PerfectUnion.net to fight for marriage rights, as well as Sex Panic!, the short-lived but influential group that fought the sex-negative safe-sex efforts of the late '90s.

    Ryannorbauer If you take a look at Norbauer's Lovetastic, the first thing you notice is that almost half the "happen to be gay" men looking for "love not sex" on the site are too closeted to include any photo at all.  As for the others, well, it's clear why they seek a safe space to remain clothed. What's more, their profiles are no more or less depthful that what you'd find on, say, Gay.com, the afore-mentioned MySpace, Google's Orkut or Friendster, or (gasp!) even BigMuscle, BigMuscleBears and Gaydar, for that matter. 

    The profile questionaire promises you won't be judged by your "stats," but it hastens to judge you by your "taste": "Taste is not only a part and index of morality," it announces, "it is the only morality." So much for spirituality — what's your favorite movie?! I had expected more of a personality questionnaire, like the kind used on eHarmony (which refuses on religious grounds to match up same-sex couples).

    Instead, Lovetastic profiles are full of dismissiveness of the non-statistcal variety: "I have more important things to do with my time than go to the gym" is a typical refrain.  Well I guess I haven't, and after using urban gyms in three major U.S. cities, I can tell you that without exception, the gay men there are a cross-section: from braniacs, type-A achievers and type-B creative types, to true athletes, muscleheads and retail queens.

    Gay men in Washington, D.C., love to trash my gym (Results-Dupont) as a bastion of Muscle Marys with attitude, but among its members are Andrew Sullivan, HRC prez Joe Solmonese, Barney Frank and countless politicos, foundation heads, authors and the like. But my point is a bigger one: is counting resume inches truly more depthful than measuring "nether regions," as Lovetastic calls them?

    Chrisnutter Christopher Lee Nutter, another of those featured in Chronicle story, makes the Lovetastic profiles look downright tolerant. Nutter's own story is one of lurching from extreme depression in the closet, to "a state of bliss" as a "reborn" gay male, to "high as a kite" as a bartender at a New York City gay bar, posing nude for a photo book, to "spending weeks getting control" of himself if a guy didn't return his phone call.

    Then he bought a book by the Dalai Lama and after two years of "isolation tank" soul-searching, had a conversion experience walking down the street when he became "suddenly awash in… extreme clarity and awareness." Would you buy a used self-help book from this man? As one reader, reacting to an excerpt of Nutter's book on Advocate.com, put it:

    I recognize that we're now in the Age of Oprah and that anyone who lacks the sensitivity of Dr. Phil is considered a neanderthal, but one gets the impression that Mr. Nutter has taken things to a new level. By recycling every touchy-feely, new agey self-help adage that's ever been written, he's created a book whose insights sound astonishingly trite.

    Dougsebesta Then there's Doug Sebasta, the 50-year-old San Franciscan who helped launch a group aimed at making life in that city more meaningful, and more fun:

    Sebesta said that as the community emerges from the AIDS epidemic, some gay men in San Francisco have found broken pieces of what used to be. But many have told him it is difficult to meet other gay men outside of sexual encounters or to connect on an emotional or friendship level.

    "Over and above, people were saying they really have this longing for a sense of community (and) that they feel everything is fractured, that everybody is paranoid, and nobody is having fun," he said.

    His group takes an unusual approach to healing the "fractured," clique-ish nature of gay male life in the big city: creating separate community groups specifically for blacks, Latinos, Asians, young men under 25 and older men over 50. The counter-intuitive idea, according to the group's website is that, "most people believed that before we could begin building something unified, each respective group of gay men had to deal with their own 'stuff.'"

    I don't quite get that logic, but maybe as a white gay guy between 25 and 50, I'm not supposed to. And to their credit, their umbrella group ForEveryMan is by far the most active, so they put their organizing where their mouth is. Of course, not everyone is a "joiner," but here's hoping that groups like Sebasta's might contribute to a bigger dialogue about how gay men can live more meaningful — and fun — lives.



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    1. Kevin on Jan 8, 2007 6:54:17 PM:

      Lots of questions, no answers yet. But all the right questions. Keep this thread going, Chris.

    1. Ryan Norbauer on Jan 10, 2007 10:44:07 AM:

      Hi Chris,

      I enjoyed your critical commentary regarding Lovetastic, but I think you've missed something essential in what we're trying to do. You seem to imply that our site somehow positions itself against sex. To the contrary, we want to help gay men find better sex through deeper romantic connections. In my experience, the best love-making comes when you have a deep spiritual connection with your partner, based on something more than simply an appreciation of his body (although that's obviously an important component of a good relationship too.)

      Our site attempts, however imperfectly, to encourage members to actually have to write a little bit about themselves--to show, in some small way, who they are and what they care about, whether it's movies or books or a long articulation of their most soul-searching philosophy of life. Some approach this challenge very seriously, others approach it quite superficially, as you've noted. But the hope is that giving guys this opportunity will nudge them toward the expectation for a deeper connection than they would otherwise seek. The idea is to get a better sense of psychological, emotional, and spiritual compatibility, based on actual information, rather than innuendo (or some pseudo-scientific personality parlor game like at eHarmony). Because in the end, those things are going to be as important to a sexually-fullfilling relationship as a list of your fetishes.

      We're not into condemnation, we're into alternatives. Lovetastic is an alternative space with a slightly different aesthetic for guys who are interested an environment that doesn't pigeon-hole them into "top" or "bottom" or how nice their abs are. Those things are all fine and well. Our humble assertion is merely that other things count too, and we wanted to make a site where people can feel more comfortable sharing those things than, for example, I ever felt on sites like Gay.com.

      I share your discomfort with the term "values," which was the choice of the Chronicle article's author, not mine. Lovetastic isn't about promulgating some system of values: it's about providing an aesthetic and philosophical alternative to most of the other self-proclaimed gay dating sites.

      We're always working to improve the ways in which we walk our talk, and there are always going to be people who post profiles that diverge from our community philosophy. We're bumbling through this as best we can, trying to figure out how to build a better, more fulfulling dating site for gay men. We're not always going to get it right at first (we just launched a few months ago), but I believe there's value in simply trying.

      Toward that end, voices like yours are as valuable as those of our most passionate evanglists, so you have my thanks.


    1. jimbo on Jan 17, 2007 12:40:43 AM:

      I think there are values, attitudes and beliefs we have from our upbringing and background, and new values we can choose to adopt or discard upon coming out into this new community. It needs to be looked at like a transition from one culture to another. Not all of the old ones should be kept, but not all of the new ones are good for you either. But more often than necessary, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

      I use the analogy of a buffet. There's the buffet over there that we used to eat from, and a new fantastic buffet table filled with a variety of foods - some of them sugary and rich, but won't agree with you in the morning. But some of the new dishes are good for you too.

      But it's still a buffet, and nobody's forced to eat everything at the new table. But the ones who think they have to eat only at the new buffet table are the ones who end up unhappy.

      It took me a while to discover that I enjoyed some of the things I used to do before I came out, and that not everything in the gay community needed to be embraced. I'd hope to think that's where balance and happiness is found for gay men.

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