Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Claiming the Words to Describe Ourselves

On our last night in Finland, my husband Göran and I went on a romantic date. Glen stayed with my mom and dad at their hotel, while Göran and I roamed the streets of Helsinki looking for a nice restaurant. We finally decided on Zetor, with its hearty portions of traditional Finnish fare and over-the-top rural Finnish themed decor. (They use tractors for furniture, stuffed cows and reindeer for decorations, they play tacky Finnicized versions of American and Eastern European pop music, and serve the food in sauna buckets with wooden utensils. Even the restrooms are designed to look like outhouses. Whether you appreciate the off-kilter humor or not, the food is fantastic!)

After dinner we set off in an unfamiliar direction, exploring a section of the city we hadn't seen yet. We found a particularly quaint side street with a variety of small shops and cafes. Young people were still out on the streets, or sitting at tables drinking beer. As we reached the end of the street, we heard the thump and grind rhythm of a popular Madonna hit. The music emanated from a club sporting an over-sized rainbow flag. A buff, shirtless Finn wearing tight khakis was taking down the outdoor chairs and tables, while a beefy-looking bouncer collected a 5-Euro cover charge and stamped the hands of entering patrons. We realized we had found a Finnish gay bar.

We hesitated for a moment. I was trying to decide if I really wanted to go into a bar, and Göran was trying to decide if he was ready to interact socially in a language definitely not his own. Ultimately, our curiosity overruled our caution and we forked over the ten Euros, got each of our hands stamped with a purple flower, and meandered in.

The experience of walking into a Finnish gay bar -- or at least this Finnish gay bar -- seemed culturally analogous to walking into a Finnish Mormon Church. (My parents and I did attend the local LDS ward in Joensuu, Finland together!) The language and the inhabitants were Finnish, but you felt like you had discovered an outpost of American civilization, with all the norms and points of orientation identical to what you find in the American counterpart.

Perhaps a more Zetor-like Finnish gay bar would have folks sitting on wooden benches, trading fishing stories and slugging back vodka, and would be equipped with a sauna. And maybe it would feel less... superficial? Here, the same designer drinks were served to the same cast of characters occupying the same decor. Here, you found the same cliques and the same social politics. There were the plaid and leather and lipstick lesbians. There were the gesticulating gay boys in tight blue jeans and ethereal, fay shirts. There was the tight-lipped muscle shirt crowd, wearing an expression that said Don't Even Think of Talking to Me Unless You're as Attractive as I Am. There were the bears. (In this bar, four burly looking guys were actually wearing little teddy-bear hats with ears. It was adorable.) There was the usual peppering of drag queens and overweight, straight women friends of gay men (popularly referred to in the American parlance as "fag hags"). And then there were the misfits and outcasts. The solitary, young, slightly homely, slightly awkward guy who danced with no rhythm and who hadn't figured out yet that no one hot was going to approach him. There were the old, flabby desperate-looking men on the prowl for someone less old, less flabby, and less desperate-looking than them.

Almost everybody (except me and Göran) was getting inebriated to varying degrees. A sign at the entrance announced that tonight was the "Madonna Juhla" (Madonna Party). We had missed the "Foam Party" earlier in the week. (Darn.) Around the dance floor, you could observe the odd, familiar dance/mating rituals whose end goal was to get laid tonight. But that obviously wasn't the only form of social interaction. In the antipodes of the bar, you found other, more sensible folks gathered in groups of four to six, chatting, joking, having fun. And then there were the folks like me and Göran -- the handful of same-sex couples who had arrived so they could enjoy each other's company on a date surrounded by an explicitly gay ambiance.

There was a bold sign in the window of the bar that posed the question: "Sinäkin olet homo?" ("You're gay?") followed by the declaration, "No, me olemme myöskin" ("Well, we are too.") I found that sign comforting. That, I thought, was exactly why places like this needed to exist -- whatever their flaws and foibles. But as I read the smaller print further down in the poster, I discovered that it was nothing more than an advertisement for a cell-phone plan. Using "gay pride" to sell stuff. Sigh.

I had hoped it might be fun to see what a Finnish gay bar was like, but we both left feeling irritated and sullen. Göran had wanted to dance, but I had pooped out early, largely because I couldn't seem to get past my anxieties about once being that solitary, awkward, slightly homely guy with no rhythm. I had so wanted a Finnish gay bar to be different. I wanted to find out that in a foreign country it was possible to be gay in a different way than being gay in America. Instead I left with the disquieting feeling that Stonewall's legacy had been co-opted by American capitalism, packaged, mass-produced, and mass-marketed to the world literally as a kind of booze-infused tonic. And so even on the edges of Siberia and Lapland, was that really the only mode of gayness you could find? Was the only authentically Finnish alternative The Closet?

I particularly despised that word in the window: "Homo." How could I use that word to describe myself with pride? It wasn't even a Finnish word. I wanted Finnish gay men and lesbians to have a word that resonated with their unique language and culture, that told their Finnish family and friends what it meant to be different, to love differently and yet the same, in an idiom that could facilitate openness and understanding. But all they had was this bastardized foreign, Greco-Latin medical term, coined by some Hungarian doctor in the nineteenth century.

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the problem of words, of language, is at the heart of the gay dilemma everywhere, not just in Finland but in America too. And finding -- or creating -- the right words a key to our salvation -- both figuratively and literally.

I considered how even in America, that supposed bastion of gay pride, we wrestle with words. The "gay" community perhaps more than any other community. Are we gay? Are we queer? Are we homosexual? Are we same-sex attracted? Are we lesbian? How do we fit bi and transgender into the mix? I realized that one of the first things any person who is "same-sex attracted" must wrestle with is finding the right word to describe themselves to family and friends. How many coming out stories have we heard where one of the first observations was "I had heard the word 'gay' or 'homosexual,' but I just couldn't apply it to myself."

A central problem has always been to wrest words from a culture that despises and denigrates us, and stake our own claims to those words, attach new meanings to those words. That's what gay pride is all about. Standing up and saying, "OK, this is who I am. I am gay. I am queer. I am a fag. I am a homo. That's what you call me. And you think that is a bad thing, but I am not bad. I am good, and my love is good. So call me what you want. I am what I am, and I have a right to love and a right to happiness. And I will fight for them." It takes courage to claim our own space, stand on our own ground, to make words our own and in the process transform the meanings of words into something that is workable for us and that connects to the people we are trying to connect with: our family, our friends, our co-workers, our churches.

I think in some sense I had come to this Finnish gay bar wanting an easy way forward. I had hoped that in Finland I wouldn't have to work as hard as I've had to work in America to create safe spaces and meaningful language. But I should have known from studying the Finnish language that language is always difficult. We always wrestle to transform rules of grammar and vocabularies into something that works for us. So I just have to give up on the idea that this will ever be easy. But I may hold on to the hope that it will be rewarding.

I still want Finns to find their own way to be gay. Maybe they will. Maybe they already have, and I just haven't found it yet. But even if the only way to be gay in Finland right now is to buy rainbow-colored cellphone plans and get drunk at Madonna Parties, I have to trust that eventually they will find their own way forward. Maybe they'll do what I did one day: wake up from the previous night's hangover and realize that there's more to life than this. But if we want to find it, we have to get out there and work for it.


JonJon said...

Man, I've missed your posts. That's the difficult part, taking words and identities and experiences and making them our own. Redefining them instead of letting them define us. I think that's something not just the Finns need to do.

J G-W said...

JonJon - It's super nice to be missed!

Yes, I think that's what I took away from this, thinking it through. This isn't a Finnish problem or an American problem. Though I wonder if in countries and cultures where gay people are just beginning to come out (and are looking to the American gay rights movement as an example), there isn't a temptation to import American solutions.

I think the American gay rights movement has been heavily influenced by sexual liberation ideology. Thus, "foam parties."

But we all have the right to decide what we really value, and how we define ourselves in relation to those values. So it's good for gay people everywhere to decide whether we're satisfied with the prepackaged, commercialized answers to the question, "What does it mean to be gay?"

Beck said...

So much of what you describe in this post about the "gay culture" be it in America or Finland, seems foreign and strange and "nothing to do with me", yet somehow if I'm gay (or at least bi) then there is the underlining feeling that I should stake some claim into the expression of being "gay", buying into the commercialized pre-packaged deal.

And yet, in my world, I can't... either because I'm afraid to, or because I don't want to, or maybe a little bit of both.

Thus, the dilemma of how to "fit in" and what words to use to describe what "it" is that I'm feeling as I'm attracted to men.

I think I would be comfortable enough to overcome my fears and insecurities of entering a gay bar if someone like you were there holding me through the process of trying to understand this "package" that comes with being gay, but I don't see it happening otherwise. Does that make me homophobic? How does one that is just as attracted to men as others are, "claim the words to describe oneself"?

J G-W said...

Beck - I think you've hit the nail right on the head. I think I went between the extremes of being totally alienated from the gay subculture, to totally embracing it, to now feeling like I can see value in some of the ways that institutions like gay bars have both helped the gay community but also hold it back in some significant ways. But I guess that is true of all institutions.

If you ever wanted to go on an anthropological tour of gay bars, I would love to be your guide!

Beck said...

I actually think that sounds like it would be a fun learning experience.

(I can't believe I just wrote that...)

MoHoHawaii said...

I like the analogy between gay bars and LDS wards. Both are portable American experiences. Both are filled with a recognizable cast of stereotypes, including, among others, the socially awkward and the sexually hopeless. Both are in serious need of a musical makeover.

Since reading your post I've been musing over why it's okay to say mean but true things about the social dynamics of a gay bar but absolutely not okay to say these same things about an LDS ward. Where's your equally trenchant description of the trolls and hags of Mormondom? I know we might disagree on this point, but I fail to see an ounce of superiority in the LDS ward as a social institution over a gay bar. Both can be lifelines in the right circumstances. Both can reinforce various kinds of social pathology. Both, it seems to me, deserve a measure of respect.

P.S. Welcome back. Can't wait to read more about your trip.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - Well, yes.

At the LDS Ward we went to in Finland, there was a sister who approached my dad. She was absolutely insistent that she needed his help with something. The something she needed help with was... She wanted my dad to call George Soros, to ask if he would consider underwriting a Miss America Pageant to be held in Rouvaniemi, Finland, hosted by Santa Claus. My dad tried to dissuade her, but she insisted until my dad, gentle soul that he is, obliged her by calling George Soros and leaving a message with his secretary.

Yes, every institution has its "characters."

I plan to post a few pictures and tell another story or two in the next couple days...

J G-W said...

MHH - by the way, I did comment that "places like this needed to exist -- whatever their flaws and foibles."

I have been thinking about posting later about my experience in the Finnish LDS ward we attended. It was a bit sad, because there was once a thriving membership there -- enough that they got their own ward house. But it has now dwindled to a branch, partly because the Church has cut its missionary force in Finland to about half of what it was 40 years ago. I suspect the leadership in Salt Lake made a strategic decision that the Church wasn't growing fast enough in Finland, so they sent the missionaries to other, faster growing regions. That's my guess... And if I'm right, I suppose I understand the logic, but it's made it difficult for the Finnish Saints. Maybe membership would have declined anyway because of disconnects between American LDS and Finnish culture. Maybe overly centralized approaches in the past have made it difficult for Finns to claim LDS faith as their own, rather than as a Utah American import... I don't know...

But, needless to say, I won't disagree with you that the whole question of finding authentic ways to express oneself and find answers to pressing problems cuts both ways -- be it in matters of faith or in matters of sexual orientation. I hope for that as much for Finnish LDS as I do for the Finnish GLBT community.