Balaji Ravichandran considers what it means to be gay and in love in a world that has been fundamentally changed by the arrival of online dating and smartphone apps like Grindr.
Cinema, that mirror of human life, has been somewhat hopeless when it comes to portraying love between members of the same sex. Our Eric Rohmer is yet to be visible. Worse still, most films, the predominant theme of which be, faute de mieux, gay love, easily fall into one of the following four categories: (a) coming out amidst great adversity and dying, (b) coming out amidst great adversity and surviving, (c) the ‘bi now, gay later,’ straight-to-gay wish-fulfilment fantasies, and (d) the AIDS film, which seldom deals with the subject in the sensitive manner it deserves.
The first two categories were surely worthwhile once, but further additions, especially when blatantly platitudinous, are merely boring. As for the third, I’m sure its appeal won’t diminish, since it’s apparently every gay man’s fantasy.
It seems to me that in recent years a transatlantic divide has emerged when it comes to what, for the sake of convenience, I’ll call ‘the gay cinema.’ The US & Canada have produced some great films of this kind: notably Philadelphia, Boys Don’t Cry, and Les Amours Imaginaires. And before somebody points out the omission of that famed gay shepherd film, I’m sorry, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most over-rated flicks I’ve ever seen.
Europe, though equally capable of producing irritating films, has been more adept at producing artful and thoughtful films. It was Britain, after all, which brought us Beautiful Thing, My Beautiful Launderette and Brideshead Revisited. But, in recent years, while America is prone to horrendous gay indies, with unbearable dialogue, appalling acting and sinful plots, European Cinema is showing signs that it has begun to move beyond kitsch and cliché. Weekend, an independent British film, was both a critical and commercial success. Tomboy, a French film, and Romeos, a German one, both looked – without resorting to sensationalism or violence – at life with gender misalignment. Le Temps Qui Reste is a modern, understated and highly emotional look at being gay and facing mortality (not HIV/AIDS). In the amazing Io Sono L’Amore, both the coming out, and the question of familiar acceptance, was addressed with such delicacy and grace that you wonder if it’s films like these, rather than melodramatic ones with tears and screams, that will subtly influence LGBT rights for years to come.
The most beautiful film on what it means to love someone of your own gender, released earlier this year in the UK at the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, must be Noordzee, Texas (North Sea, Texas). In one of the very first scenes, a young boy, of about five, goes up to his room, dons a tiara, wears a pearl necklace, and adores himself naked in the mirror. His mum walks in, but neither screams nor cries. “Don’t worry, Pim, mum’s not angry” she says.
As he grows into a beautiful teenager, Pim falls in love with a neighbour. Although the love is mutual, Pim’s lover, Gino, is sexually confused. But no words like ‘gay’ or ‘straight,’ no vacuous truisms about society and family deafen our ears. There is a tacit understanding on the part of Gino’s lugubrious mother, but as in life, much is left unsaid. Indeed, Pim barely speaks 500 words through the film. Pim, who patiently collects memorabilia from every important love in his life, from the tiara to a bit of shaving foam on a piece of paper, represents perhaps the tenderest and purest expression of adolescent love in gay cinema.
It may be, of course, due to the fact that the film is Belgian, and they tend to be more relaxed about these things than many other countries. The cynical side of me also wondered, were not the two men in question so beautiful, would the film would be as effective. But that is beside the point. What the film evokes, in the days of Grindr and Gaydar, online dating and an oft-celebrated divorce between sex and emotions is the issue at the heart of all endeavours associated with gay rights: the innate need, the natural desire, the human right – to fall in love.
I came to Britain, roughly six years ago, seeking a new life. In India, from where I had moved, sexual acts between two men or two women were still illegal and could carry a sentence of life imprisonment. Much as I moved here for intellectual and artistic reasons, I also moved here, I’m not ashamed to admit, to burn, with a gem-like flame, in love. If youth be not the age for love, what is? (A disclaimer at this point: this article is written from the perspective of a gay man, for gay and bisexual men. Not to discriminate against people of other sexualities. But, when it comes to writing about something so personal as love, I cannot generalise beyond what I myself know and feel.)
The passionate love I have instinctively sought has yet to materialise. There are several personal reasons, such as studying at a demanding university and maintaining a career in addition. But these are facile orthodoxies. Upon reflection, and this is what Noordzee forced me to confront anew, thereby compelling me to pen this piece: I realised that the nature of love itself, especially perhaps for gay men, is radically transforming, which I’m not sure is at all for the better.
Until, say, eight or nine years ago, the traditional way for gay men to meet each other was in dedicated bars and clubs. Of course, cruising for sex was always widespread among gay men, and I have nothing to say on that matter, nor judge it. But, people fell in love, which was one of the motivations in the fight for equality. After all, gay men and women weren’t fighting just for the right to have sex – they could just as easily already do that in the privacy of their bedrooms.
Then online dating came in and at first, it seemed like a boon. Gay people, especially in the more oppressive societies, could communicate with ease and without fear of being pilloried for it. But, as acceptance improved in Western countries, this purpose seemed to wither, and people used it more and more to find fleeting sexual partners. The surest example of this is (or was) the extremely popular website Gaydar, or in America, Craigslist. Open these websites today, and flip through the odd profile, and one is immediately disabused of any illusions as to their proclaimed innocuousness.
Now, with the arrival of Grindr, which pinpoints through your smartphone where the nearest gay man is, Gaydar and its cousins, including Facebook, seem tame as a lamb. At least on Gaydar, your subjective self had a few thousand words, categorised and stereotyped as they are, to express your essence. In Grindr, you at most have twenty words. The rest are categories, check-lists: age, height, weight, sexual status, and most importantly, ethnicity. In my experience – and this has been confirmed by many others - almost all online dating platforms are routinely full of racists, and, ironically, blatant homophobes, with little moderation input from the developers. The most common sentences on the profiles are: “No Asians”; “Not into Indians, Blacks, Asians, or Africans”; “No camps, femmes, trannies”; and “No-one under 30.” The profile pictures commonly show torsos only (seldom authentic) and the first picture that comes one’s way is a picture of the user’s private parts. The number of men in their late forties and fifties, attempting to take advantage of a teenager, is seriously disturbing.
In the space of online and app-based dating, the space for love has been correspondingly hard to find. Even in bars and clubs, ever frequented by straight women for “fun” men’s faces are increasingly preoccupied with the screens in their hands, their faces yellow with the glow of Grindr. People don’t look into each other’s eyes, hoping, yearning for that spark of contact, that longing for communication and for the intimacy of touch. There are, as Rohmer would bemoan, no surprises, no mysteries – the essential ingredients for affection to blossom.
More worryingly, for the young men and women coming out today and exploring their sexuality, a world of hypersexuality filled with predatory individuals is surely not the best way to help them see sexual partnerships as a means to connect with other individuals? Besides, how prepared are we to suggest – or admit – that the only means to proceed with one’s sexuality is to divorce it from feelings altogether?
Lest I be misconstrued as an old fogey or a Luddite, I can, I admit, see the positive and networking aspects of these technologies, especially in the less tolerant places. It does provide an opportunity for us to reach out. Equally, I recognise the problem gay men and women face today. When we wish to begin talking to someone who, for various reasons, we find attractive, the possibility that they are straight could lead, at best, to a simple rejection and at worst, to physical assault. Also, far be it from me to draw moral contours around human sexuality. The less we moralise around it and leave consensual adults to their own healthy devices, the better.
Yet, as someone who, with no interest in Grindr or DismayDar, whose idea of music is more of Scriabin than of Lady Gaga, as someone who is interested more in love than sex for its own sake, the lack of platforms to meet and find other gay friends, and hopefully, a boyfriend, is a cause for melancholy. I fear that love, such as one finds in Nordzee, can no longer establish itself, for it has no space to breathe and be nurtured. Which is why I cannot help but ask – even plead – if love be the ultimate reason we fight for gay rights, that we may burn, slowly, fully, and with sweet labour, in its pure flame, then, as a community, and as a society, that we find a way (if possible), to give human relationships their due sense of space and time.
Balaji Ravichandran is a writer, and a student at Oxford. He blogs regularly at Huffington Post.