So there’s been a flood of photos on Twitter and Fb from the UK LGBTQ Fiction Meet dinner and an awful lot of them seem to include, well, naked dudes. I have several things I want to say on this subject but they all basically boil down to the title of this post.
First off, let’s be clear that I have no problem with nudity, strippers, pornography or any other form of self-expression. I’m a grown up and I’m fully capable of editing my interactions with the world to include things I like and exclude things that bother me. The issue isn’t so much naked dudes as the identification of naked dudes with LGBTQ fiction. I’m fine with sexual titillation in its place, but I don’t think that place should be at a convention supposedly celebrating a category of fiction defined by the identities of its protagonists rather than the explicitness of its sexual content. If I was at a BDSM convention or an erotic romance convention or, hell, even a hen night I would have no problem with seeing entirely or mostly naked dudes wandering around. But I wouldn’t expect to see any at, say, the launch of a cookbook or a cast party for a production of Wicked or, for that matter, at RWA or RT.
As always, this is going to get onto shaky ground because I’m going to draw analogies here with gender issues. But basically this is exactly the same problem you get with booth babes at videogaming events and with Page 3. (Brief note for American readers, who may not be aware of this, there is a convention in UK tabloid newspapers, especially The Sun, of having topless models on the third page. There’s a relatively strong campaign to abolish this practice). At its core, the issue is this: when you associate your product, service or event with the strongly sexualised image of a person or group of people you send the clear message that your product, service or event is for those who find that person or group of people sexually attractive and not for anybody else. In fact, it’s not even that because it’s not like Page 3 girls are there to appeal to lesbians. So you’re really sending the message that your product, service or event is for the demographic most conventionally and uncritically assumed to be attracted to the person or group of people in question, while even excluding other demographics who may coincidentally find that person or group of people attractive.
Now there are times when “this is product, service, or event is for those who find this person or group of people sexually attractive” is exactly the message you want to send. If, for example, you’re advertising porn or a dating service. Or even, more callously, products, services and events with a heavily gendered market. For example, the presumed market for video games is white, heterosexual cisgendered men between the ages of 18 and 35. And if your only goal is to sell video games to that specific market then flagging your products as being for them and not for anyone else is probably good business, even if it is alienating and offensive to a lot of people who don’t fall into the magic demographic.
Being told, even indirectly, that something is not for you is upsetting. It’s even more upsetting when that thing is something that should be for everybody. The strongest complaint people have about Page 3 is that pictures of topless women really don’t belong in anything calling itself a newspaper. And probably the only thing worse than being implicitly excluded from something that should be universal is being implicitly excluded from something that is explicitly about you. And, obviously, one can generalise that gay men are probably into naked dudes just as much as straight women are (although, again, I don’t know that many queer women who feel welcomed into gaming by the presence of booth babes) but even this highlights a huge number of really problematic associations that I find profoundly troubling.
So troubling that the only way I have to handle them is with a numbered list.
Association Number 1
LGBTQ means gay men. If you’re trying to create an environment that welcomes people across the spectrum of sexuality and gender-identity, how on earth can you think it’s appropriate to privilege the sexualities of the most represented LGBTQ identity and the group of heterosexual people with whom their preferences overlap? It is as unacceptable to use a naked man to stand for the sexualities of all queer people as it is to use a heterosexual white dude to stand for all of humanity. And, yes, I know we’ve doing that for centuries but could we maybe please kinda stop?
Association Number 2
LGBTQ identity is overtly sexual. Somewhere along the line, that nebulous and ill-defined entity we call mainstream culture got the idea that the defining feature of an LGBTQ lifestyle was being all about sex all the time. Never mind that many would argue that asexuality is a legitimate LGBTQ identity. Or that LGBTQ people have struggled for years, and continue to struggle, for their relationships to be recognised as being as valid, as nuanced, as varied and as complex as heterosexual relationships. And, obviously, it’s complicated because people whose sexualities have been historically repressed can be quite militant about expressing those sexualities but there is a world of difference between individual LGBTQ people choosing to behave in overtly sexual ways and hiring a bunch of naked waiters in order to make your book event seem gayer.
Association Number 3
LGBTQ fiction is erotic romance. Again, I’d point out that even romance events don’t normally include naked dudes but I could just about accept naked waiters at a literary convention if that convention really was about erotic fiction. I’d be happy to accept all male naked waiters if that convention really was about erotic m/m fiction. But unlike Ronseal Quick Drying Wood Stain that’s not what it says on the tin. There is no way you can possibly argue that a genderqueer SFF writer or a lesbian YA author are in any way represented by a bunch of naked men. And I don’t mind if people want to have conventions in which people who like to look at naked dudes and read books about naked dudes want to get together to talk about naked dudes while naked dudes serve them drinks. That’s absolutely fine. But then please don’t call it an LGBTQ Fiction Meet. Because it’s, well, not one.
Association Number 4
Gay men are the sort of people you’d like to see naked. Again, I don’t want to speak for people that I’m not, but I suspect part of the reason that I’ve never heard a lesbian come out in favour of booth babes is that when you try to sell your product, service or event using highly sexualised images you’re not just telling people who aren’t attracted to those images that they’re unwelcome, you’re also telling people who might see themselves reflected in those images that those images represent the standard to which they are held. Even if you fancy women, being told that, in this environment, women are expected to have a 32 inch waist, a DD cup and visible underboob is off-putting. Even if you fancy men, being told that, in this environment, men are expected to be tall, well-built and constantly flashing their taut, fruit-of-your-choice-like arses is also kind of off-putting.
Association Number 5
Gay men are for sex. And, obviously, it’s really difficult to talk about the objectification of men because of literally millennia of social and cultural context and this gets into really deep intersectionality issues but it is not okay to a treat a group of people as disposable sex candy. Or to assume that a group of people treats each other as disposable sex candy. At the risk of over-generalising, pretty much all social justice issues come back to the simple fact that it is terrifyingly easy to forget that other people are real. There is nothing wrong with liking to look at hot, naked dudes, but there is something deeply wrong with making hot and naked your default portrayal of any group of human beings. Because it can and does lead to treating that group of human beings like they can be expected to get hot and naked on demand.
I sort of feel I should have a conclusion for this but I’ve pretty much said everything I have to say, some of it twice. Yet again, I’m not anti-sex, I’m not anti-nudity, I’m not anti-fun. But I’m quite anti the idea that “naked waiters” and “LGBTQ fiction” are two great tastes that go great together.