Why has this picture gone viral? The touching image you see here – posted a few days ago on Humans of New York (a popular Facebook page) – shows a boy weeping. As a measure of the image’s online presence Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told the teenager, “Your future is going to be amazing,” and Ellen DeGeneres gushed: “Not only will people like you, they’ll love you. I just heard of you and I love you already.” These two American cultural heavyweights stand by this boy, and so do thousands of others.
From inside the community with which this young person is choosing to identify – the gay community – comes a message from a gay adult: “I’m homosexual too, little man. My future is bright and I am loved. Most importantly, I love ME and wouldn’t change a thing about myself. The same can and will absolutely hold true for you. Sending you strength.”
This deluge of reassuring messages is not attempting to bring about sexual equality for the gay male – that is in the past, that has been achieved. What the support for this boy grants is social permission for those who are young to talk of sexual identity, desire, personal hope, and yes sadly how that hope can be missing – the boy weeps because he’s anxious about his future.
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The context for this outpouring of support is the American Supreme Court’s recent decision which states all American citizens have the right to enter the marriage covenant, including gays and lesbians; marriage is not the sole preserve of the heterosexual world. Given that this is the context, let’s see how things have changed.
In the straight world boys have yearned, sometimes with tears, for a sexual future that seems beyond them. This image of the boy who wants people to understand he is not straight – he is gay – is weeping and it is about sexual issues. He isn’t crying because he left his school lunch at home. He is upset and it is about sex.
Let’s move beyond what the image tells us, but at the same time draw on what we already know. When boys think about their sexual futures it isn’t always a future that sticks to the rules. Uppermost in their mind – where the boy is straight – might be their female teacher, someone they want to go to the next step with. But are we ready to acknowledge this is just as true for the boy whose love object is male? Yes, it could be he is pining for the boy in the desk next to him in class, but let’s base our comments on what we already know – it could just as easily be the man at the front of the class.
The sexual emancipation of the 1960s and 1970s has brought major change, but not all those who called for change got what they wanted. It is certainly true the LGBT community and the women’s movements have gained a good deal of what they fought for – increased freedoms and an equal place inside our normalised social spaces.
Two groups were less fortunate: the minor attracted lobby, and those who pushed for child sexual emancipation. A good text that discusses the changing shape of sex education for the young in America – a central part of sexual emancipation for the young – is Judith Levine’s “Harmful To Minors: The Perils Of Protecting Children From Sex” (2002). Levine argues the young have been blocked from gaining a sense of real power over their lives and I think her case is well argued.
The second group who struggled as part of that sexual emancipation was the lobby who argued sexual relations between generations also needed to be recognised and valued. Key authors who voiced a call for change include were Theo Sandfort – two books that he became well-known for were “Boys on their contacts with men: A study of sexually expressed friendships” (1987) and his earlier work, “The sexual aspect of paedophile relations: The experience of twenty-five boys, (1981). Edward Brongersma wrote his classic text – “Loving Boys: A multidisciplinary study of sexual relations between adult and minor males,” (Volumes 1 and 2, 1986 and 1990). Fritz Bernard wrote extensively on this topic; referring to one of his texts would suffice: “Paedophilia: a factual report” (1985). Because these voices have been forcibly silenced it may be good to point to a couple of more recent texts that keep alive the call to change alive: “Dares to Speak: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Boy-Love,” edited by Joseph Geraci (1997), and “Censoring Sex Research: The debate over male intergenerational relations,” edited by T.K. Hubbard, B.Verstraete and D. Tsang (2013).
It seems appropriate to pose the question how could one positively frame what the minor attracted person brings to the table? It certainly isn’t restricted to the media profile of the child abuser! Put simply the paedophile and the pederast may be less likely to judge the boy. Hopefully, his photo – and the huge support it has drawn – is all about paying attention to his experience.
This image has evoked a loud-and-clear declaration that the problem is homophobia – not ‘gayness’. For the boy who is gay the message is: “See, there are those around you who say what Ellen DeGeneres says, ‘I love you already.’” There is a complication, as will become clearer as the variations are unpacked.
Should the boy find himself exploring and beginning to understand what desire is for him – and maybe he did befriend a man, but later he adopts the lifestyle of the heterosexual male. The crucial issue is still homophobia, and the message remains: “All is well, we’re here here to say don’t be afraid, we love you.”
The modern GLBT man however may find himself experiencing a political tension that is more than a little uncomfortable. For him the boy is a gay boy – in a way, our modern life is asking the boy to be sure a lot earlier than in the past, and perhaps a lot earlier than can be the case for many.
The commitment to remaining open to the boy’s experience is laudible. The message we send to this boy who weeps is the right one: “What you feel and who you are need not cause you to fear your future.” And there are, of course, other boys who cry – boys whose photos we will never see.
Where tears are linked, say, to a liaison with the maths teacher he has fallen in love with, we would want the boy to know his feelings should not make him feel he is bad or perverted. Logically we don’t want any boy to feel he is bad because a male partner is the current focus of his desire. Sexual orientation and gender have come to matter to us a great deal, and so have tolerance and acceptance.
What is interesting about childhood today is how it is gendered. This was not always the case. In his book, “Child-loving: the erotic child and Victorian culture”, James Kincaid explains that in the past, if we look back, the modern child is not there. Kincaid argues we are wearing spectacles that colour what we see. Victorian photographs often show boys dressed in what we might label girls’ clothing; Kincaid explains that at the time childhood did not require a gender; it was not that they saw boys as feminine.
The minor attracted person – what the modern narrative calls the paedophile – is often not focused on gender either, and this is more significant the lower the age of the love object. For the pederast – the adult whose age interest is post pubescent – gender does seem more a factor, whilst sexual orientation is often not. The young person may grow older and live a sexuality of the heterosexually married man, or he may find himself living as a gay man; what the boy choses or finds to be ‘true for him’ is often an open question. This ‘open-endedness’ would be one of the defining differences between the modern ‘politically correct’ profile of the gay man and that of the minor attracted person. The gay man, where he adopts the modern LGBT politics, requires the boy remain inside the identity that has been constructed for him; the minor attracted man is less likely to do so. It is this attitude of tolerance towards the young and the unconditional nature of the friendship the adult offers that seem to be a positive feature of a minor attracted sexuality.
This boy is clearly concerned for his future. Had his photo been published during the 1960s or 70s, it would almost certainly have been linked to calls for the emancipation of the young – “Let the children speak for themselves.” Now, that clarion call has been drowned out by a very different cry – one which calls for the experience of the gay boy to be listened to and woven into a new normal, which values equally the experiences of the gay and heterosexual communities.
If he longs for a closeness with the boy in the next row in class, dare we believe all is okay? Can we be confident he won’t be treated as many have been in the recent past – his self-disclosure responded to with violence at the hands of classmates and family members? If – and this is not something we can know from the image – he has a crush on his maths teacher then maybe it will not be seen as an intergenerational relationship, but will be incorporated within the ‘gay male’ narrative. Nor will it be viewed as sexual assault; since this boy has agency, he can choose, and what he wants is precisely what society wants to listen to. As long as it isn’t what we don’t want to hear.
One could end here, with the messages of reassurance from Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, and the reassurances of the unnamed gay man: “I’m homosexual too, little man.” The boy is being listened to – a good outcome.
But let’s keep unpacking the baggage that comes with this modern day message of enlightenment lensed through the glasses of the LGBT political machine.
The American Supreme Court’s ruling, making marriage for gay men and lesbians part of the American way of life in all 50 states, seemed to grow slowly and then burst onto the political stage. In other spaces the same moves have occurred. Here in New Zealand the LGBT lobby seems to have won clear political and cultural battles. Even in Ireland – that centre of Catholic culture – this groundswell of change has happened. A piece on the Reuters Blog titled “Irish plunge stake through Catholic Church’s heart” offered the words of sociologist Tom Inglis: “The era of the Church as the moral conscience of Irish society is over.” The piece was referring to the Irish referendum of April 29 this year where gay marriage was approved by 62 percent of the population.
It gets especially interesting when you ask yourself what you think is really happening as these events unfold. Human freedom marches ever onward: the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Emancipation of Slaves, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation. A diverse audience would nod their heads at this list. More recently, a cluster of crucial but contentious issues has taken our attention. Gay marriage would be prominent among them, and so would adoption by gay couples, but it would hardly be appropriate to think of these matters as settled. In positioning the weeping youngster within a context of supportive responses from high-profile women and thousands of social media users, and tying the whole assemblage together with the encouraging voice of an unnamed gay man, the author of the New Zealand Herald article tempts me to wonder whether this clear public display of empathy for the boy signals the return of an earlier endeavour: child emancipation?
John Lloyd, the author of the Reuter’s blog piece about the Irish referendum, makes references to what goes on in some global spaces – Russia, the Middle East, and Africa, and is critical of what he sees as social prejudice and social wrong turns – the suppression of the homosexual community. Pat Morris, the first in a collection of people who comment on what Lloyd writes, reads the situation differently – “Lloyd presents the people of Russia, the Middle East, and Africa as dupes. Rather they correctly sense that the LGBT movement, along with feminism, represents the New High Church of Neoliberal global hegemony”. In my view, Morris may well have a point. No doubt there is social prejudice and violent intimidation in the lobby that seeks to crush the ‘homosexual pervert’, and yet the knight on the white horse who comes promising freedom and an end to that violence appears to have a certain hegemonic arrogance that goes unacknowledged. (In the blog piece “Cultural hegemony: What’s that?” on this site there is a more detailed discussion of what hegemony involves.)
A similar call for silence in favour of this new message – the modern gay is now normal and valued – was embedded in a blog piece on a site which discusses the abuse of the young – Spotlight on Abuse: the past on trial. The article discusses a review of one of the books I referred to above – “Dares to Speak: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Boy-Love”, edited by Joseph Geraci (1997). Ros Coward had written a review of this book for The Observer, 27 June 1997. In Coward’s review titled “Dares to speak says nothing useful”, the book and the articles it offered were all trashed – thrown on the community bonfires. The Spotlight website was arguing, using Coward’s voice to promote the call, that no modern voice for the gay message should allow such a book to be anywhere near them; The Gay Men’s Press was offering the title for sale and Ros Coward was arguing the book should be taken off the shelves. This is the kind of move one encounters inside the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. It is a matter of concern when academic texts are trashed because they reflect the multiple voices of our recent past.
One can jump to the recent update of the DSM IV to its new iteration – the DSM V. (This is discussed in more detail inside this blogsite’s article “Mistakes can have a very high price”.) A text had been put up in public spaces where those attracted to the young were discussed in terms of sexual orientation. The gay community cried foul – “That language belongs to us!” It is also a matter for concern when any group who offers subversive narratives, and which is eventually rewarded with social acceptance and new legislation, and which then slams the door on anyone else seeking freedom and an end to the violence inflicted on them.
A recent pair of YouTube clips offer interesting viewing. These items represent Catholic and LGBT viewpoints respectively. Two points are worth noting – first how truth-telling can have a ‘style’ and second how hegemony seeks to shape our experiences. And perhaps an addendum is in order: both groups employ both techniques.
A lobby seeking to speak inside the debate about gay marriage – catholicvote – adopted a move that was rather untypical of a Catholic media production. They put together a script in a style clearly intended to mimic techniques employed by modern groups seeking social change – including the LGBT lobby. The LGBT’s familiar truth-telling signature was faithfully maintained – the hesitant but strident voice – but the message was very different. The message was intent upon resisting social change – saying no to gay marriage. They called their clip – “Not Alone”.
In just three days an LGBT group identifying itself as soundlyawake responded with a parody of the Catholic group – “Not Alone (Alternate Version)”.
Globally, not all groups view the gay lobby positively – the conservative lobby within Catholicism would be one such group. What modern debates do is to talk less about who is right – although that claim is out there – but focus rather on a mode of delivery that is a modern signature for truth-telling; it puts a human face on the voice that speaks.
These two groups – the Catholic lobby and the LGBT movement – are no strangers to the business of putting themselves out there as truth-tellers, and both are masters in the production of hegemony. If one is interested in depthing these issues I would suggest the writings of Roland Bathes and Antonio Gramsci. This is why it seems wise to attend to our current situation of gay emancipation – with its latest iteration being gay marriage, and evidence the profile of the boy who sees himself as gay the next issue to consider – with a commitment to remaining in charge of our critical faculties. I am happy to see both the presence of the gay man and the religious follower inside my society and culture; it is a case of remaining alert to what is being said and done.
Some argue that the boy was always a character inside the homosexual narrative of love and friendships, from its earliest forms inside Western culture. The modern gay movement does not wish to reference this now, and sexual freedom has, for its proponents, been a matter of sexual freedom for consenting adults. Now, the image of the weeping boy suggests that once again the life experience of the young is being allowed to speak – a positive move indeed. But it is a ‘gay story’, a homosexual love, not available as a confirmation of how a young person may wish to draw closer to an adult male, and certainly not about how that can be celebrated.
I do believe we will see intergenerational love stories become once again an accepted part of our popular culture as it was in our past, but it will be lensed as gay love and positioned so that it cannot be construed as anything else.
What I want, and what I think we deserve, is a set of narratives that we can regard as a good fit for what we experience inside our personal lives. What is unhelpful, even dangerous, is the situation in which we know what we desire, but the language we are allowed to deploy is a poor fit, or worse an outright lie. At its core, freedom is not actually the ability to do anything you want; I argue true freedom is the sense of excitement that comes from our language being a truly inspiring match for what we experience. That is what is found in a good poem, a fine piece of literature, and yes, inside a political programme for a better tomorrow.
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