Marvel and DC are both racing to grab headlines as the original Green Lantern turns out to be gay in the new 52 and Northstar is getting married over in Marvel continuity. It’s wonderful that mainstream comics are having gay characters. I liked the male couple in Young Avengers and the genderqueer couple in Runaways, but it’s quite telling that with them, it’s between a gay human who is a figment of the imagination of his insane absent mother and a shapeshifting alien in YA and in Runaways, it’s between an alien who is really a rainbow and an alien who shapeshifts to look like a woman, but by default chooses to be a man. Yes, it’s gay and it’s cute, but…

I can’t help but think that the newfound prominence of gay characters in Marvel is a bit like that painfully-awkward blaxpoloitation phase that we had in the eighties. Hm, no, if that were the case, then the gay characters would be uncomfortable stereotypes. You know, like a boy-wizard who misses his mummy or a rainbow princess. Oh. Hang on.

I suppose it’s an advantage that characters could suddenly find out that they’re attracted to people of the same sex or have been hiding it all along, so it’s not as unlikely as the gender or race shifts some characters have gone through. No-one said “They’ve made Nick Fury black!” they said “Samuel L Jackson is Nick Fury!” But then, when the new Ultimate Spider-man was mixed race, suddenly “Spidey is black!” was the headline.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to have gay characters in comics continuity, but there’s a bit of whitewashing going on when I don’t think I’ve seen any of the gay characters being promiscuous or rejecting heteronormative sexuality wholesale. The overwhelming singledom or monogamy of the gay characters we see in mainstream comics is well-intentioned, because I assume it’s there to shout out “Same-sex love is normal!” But it misses the kind of key point that maybe by apeing normality, we’re losing some of the wonderful intellectual freedoms that the characters could share with the majority, not having had the expectation of a normal love life.

In The Lengths, I’ve based the characters on myself, escorts who I interviewed and people I know. Monogamy is a choice and an ideology that not everyone finds right for them, rather than a default option that’s never been questioned. Similarly, love and sex are treated as distinct realms, and they don’t always overlap. Hence the asexual love between Peter and Tony, or James telling Eddie that if he wants to wank men off in the shower at the gym, that’s fine by him. It’s probably something that doesn’t need explaining, but in the world of The Lengths, marriage doesn’t come up as a thought for Eddie or any of the other characters during his story.

Personally, when it comes to the gay marriage debate, I’m all for it being an option, but not an assumption. I think that in the debate about whether marriage is sacred, we lose a little bit of the discussion about whether it comes with a value judgement being cast on people who choose to get fisted by strangers in some railway-arch club because that’s what’s right for them, sexually, whether or not they have one or more steady partners.

One of the best things about gay lives coming out of the shadows has been that it proves there are options and possibilities that mightn’t have seemed available. To everyone. We didn’t have dogging until everyone cottoned on to cruising. Grindr has been a fascinating phenomenon for everyone, not just men after sex (or banter, more likely) with other men.

I’m not saying that gay culture is ahead of straight or bi, at all. Just that some things that are more prevalent in each provide the awareness of options for everyone. From heteronomativity, we’re reminded of how secure and powerful pair bonds can be. The bi community is interwoven with awareness of polyamory as an option. Stereotypical gay male sexuality emphasises opportunity and adventure. It should be obvious that as long as you’re not harming anyone (including yourself), then there’s no reason why you can’t do any of these things.

I can’t remember if Marvel’s gay characters have ever been to the local equivalent of The Hoist, getting fucked by a queue of strangers while in a sling, their senses alight with G. Sure, there’s risks associated with it of infection or overdose if things don’t go the way you hope, but is that any more foolish than marrying the first person you sleep with and never using condoms because you’re assuming monogamy and letting risk be symbolic of love or trust? Of sharing your finances or your home and hoping that you’ll both grow as people in compatible ways in a way that could leave you broke if you ever broke up? It’s all about investment of risk. Whether you set yourself up for heartbreak or HIV it’s a question of how you want to manage risks and how you choose to live, and you can survive the consequences of both if the worst happens.

I’m aware that it’s a skewed sample, but most men who I know who’d describe themselves as gay have had non-standard relationship setups. Whether that’s being single and playing the field, having more than one regular partner, having an open relationship or whatever it is. Like pair-bonding, these setups don’t always last, but that doesn’t make them less valid or moral.

Sure, in The Lengths, I’m telling a story that’s darkly gritty and focuses on the failings of one man to be honest about how he expresses his sexuality and his need to feel powerful, validated and secure. He finds these in one boyfriend, sex work clients and deceit. For Eddie, there’s a tension between his behaviour and his ideals. He’s hiding from failure as an artist by taking solace in physical and monetary interest in his body. He’s hiding from thinking through talking about his desires with his boyfriend and smothering that with drugs and self-annihilation. Obviously, his setup isn’t working and can’t last. That’s the story in The Lengths. It’s rang true for readers, even if they haven’t gone to the extremes Eddie goes.

I’m not saying one story’s right and another less valid, but let’s really try to question whether we’re properly embracing diversity if it’s couched in an assumption that people who aren’t “normal” are acceptable if they behave in the ways we’re used to. That’s not open-minded. It’s tolerant, at best. At worst, it’s hiding oppression behind a mask where the eyes are just painted on, but don’t let you see.

 

The Lengths is available here.

“You’ll be desperate to know what Eddie does next.” – Bizarre Magazine