"The new normal": it’s an insidious little phrase that we’re seeing more of when it comes to discussion about gay men’s behaviour. On the surface, it’s quite innocuous. Just this week Bond theme singer Sam Smith used the phrase in an interview with the NME, referring to an acceptance speech at the Grammys in February in which he thanked "the man who this record is about." It was "an impactful thing to do: to treat being gay as the new normal," he said. Exposing one’s sexuality to millions on TV certainly takes courage. It’s a powerful act with the potential to inspire and change the lives of scores of young men struggling with their sexuality. But there’s something about those two words – "new normal" - that has never sat well with me: an implied respectability which has the potential to exclude those men who do not fit in with whatever "normal" – that most arbitrary judgment – may be. What, after all, is "normal?" and who defines it? Is it gay people or mainstream society – a society largely dominated by heterosexual power structures that have victimised gay people throughout history?
Gay marriage – which has now swept the world – has always been something that I’ve welcomed. It comes down to equality. All groups of people should be afforded the same rights and protection by the law. Anything else is a hierarchy of discrimination. Yet there’s a certain conservatism that has crept up around gay marriage which alarms me: a "one size fits all mentality"; an expectation that coupledom – and the logical progression of marriage – is what all gay men should aspire to. There are a number of things I find problematic about this. Foremost is the fact that marriage is a patriarchal structure. The original aims of the gay liberation movement were to overturn this and to create new ways for everyone – gays and straights – to have relationships. Now it seems we’re increasingly being encouraged to ape the way straights do things. Where does that leave people who want to have many different partners, those in polyamorous relationships, those who simply enjoy no-strings sex – and lots of it?
Two years ago I crossed swords with a writer who represented everything I detest about the "new normal" of gay marriage. In a staggeringly puritanical – and, I would argue, self-loathing column – he appealed for the closure of all saunas, calling them "thorns in our side that mark our community as different for the wrong reasons." It was, he said, time to embrace "the new normal” and shun "clandestine" sexual behaviour. The assimilationist agenda that this writer was advocating had no room for gay men who were not interested in coupling up and were quite happily enjoying regular hook-ups with anonymous partners. It was an attempt to shame them into conforming and buying into the multi-million dollar industry that has sprung up around gay marriage – an industry that says less "let’s treat sexuality as fluid and complex" and more "let’s pigeon hole and market you."
Let me be frank here: gay men have always had lots of sex. It’s part of who we are – not who we are as "gay" men but as "men". The moment we are made to feel ashamed of our sexual behaviour is when the problems start – and those within the "gay community" (a baggy term at best) who criticise and strive to banish the world of online hook-ups, cruising grounds and saunas are, I would argue, little better than the religious zealots who claim that gay men are degenerate and disordered. The idea that sex outside of the "new normal" relationship is somehow "meaningless" and should be a thing of the past, loses sight of the multi-layered, infuriating and joyful nature of desire. I’ve written consistently about this, writing about what I know and what other gay men have spoken to me about: hot sex, bad sex, mediocre sex, sex while on drugs and booze, sex when you’re lonely, sex as escapism, and sex just for sex’s sake – just because you need it – because it’s one of the healthiest, most wonderful things that human beings are programmed to do.
Our sexual needs are not uniform and neither are the places in which we choose to play them out. But we all crave the same thing: connection – fresh ways to feel more alive, wanted, sane. Yes, at times this quest for connection can lead to disconnection but so can a more traditional relationship; moreover, the disproportionate emphasis that is now being placed on long-term partnerships loses sight of the reality: men do form relationships through hook-ups, cruising, saunas - perhaps unconventional relationships by the heterosexual standards gay culture is increasingly trying to follow but, I would suggest, more vital, authentic bonds, as a result. Be open to possibilities. Date. Hook-up. Cruise. Take each encounter for what it brings. Embrace the unexpected; be bold enough to find your own ways of interacting with other men.
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