Monday, January 17, 2011

Showering with other men is a privilege

Recently I posted on my Facebook page my anger at the men who are opposed to showering with openly gay men in the military. This came after reading an article on entitled, "Homophobic Group Argues Gay Soldiers Should Shower Apart From Straight Soldiers". I labeled these straight men as nothing more than scared, ignorant, homophobic and threatened. I regret having such a strong and narrow mindset now however I don't know that I am completely wrong and I do recognize that I was having an overreaction

Here is a direct quote from me on my wall:

This is about patriarchy where straight men feel their sexual erotocism is central and dominant and G-d forbid women and gay men share sexual power. Straighten are frightened of losing their power.

My anger reaction comes from the mindset that people believe that gay equals sex and that all gay men want to do is hump the next guy with whom he comes in contact. I remember vividly my mother telling me in the summer before 6th grade that I would be showering with other boys for gym class. As a gay child and one moving rapidly toward puberty this was overwhelmingly exciting and titillating. Imagine if heterosexual boys were suddenly told they were going to have access to the female locker room. Quickly I realized that this was not going to work out well as erections were not so easy to control and I knew that I would have them in the locker room. All I remember thinking that summer is of being humiliated and exposed as a "fag" right there for all to see me standing at attention--literally!

So, like other gay boys who are placed in situations with other males in locker rooms, I learned to look straight ahead and think of anything other than the naked males who were around me. This was stressful and I remember being full of anxiety. However, I learned to get used to it and become desensitized to the images while I was in the shower. I admit that I would go home and masturbate the images that I had seen and fantasize that anything but just showering was going on in that locker room.

Gay boys like myself learn to be appropriate and respectful in the locker room. While it is true there are some gay males who are not respectful and gawk and sexualize other men openly in the locker room, they are the minority.

That said, I have to admit that as a gay man I do see showering and changing in the locker room as a privilege that I take seriously. I know it would make people more comfortable if I said, "No there is nothing sexual about it and it is neutral for me" but it is not.

The argument that if straight men were allowed to shower with women is not a good comparison for gay men showering with other men in the military or anywhere else because we gay men have been showering with other males our whole lives whereas straight men have not been doing so with women. Gay men develop ways to cope that straight men would not have as adults suddenly thrown in with naked women.

A former college roommate and friend of mine gave me permission to post his response to me on Facebook wall here on my blog:

All joking and intolerance of heterosexuals aside, what DO we do about people who genuinely feel uncomfortable about showering with overtly gay people who might be titilated by seeing them naked? You're attitude can't seriously be, as that article suggests, "oh, those backwards bigots! Get over it!"---can it? Just because someone is uncomfortable being naked around strangers of the opposite sex (whether literally the opposite sex, or just constructively---i.e., gays) doesn't make them bigots. Are women bigots who don't want to change in front of strange men? Seriously, we should be adults and be responsive to people's sensitivities and vulnerabilities. It's not unreasonable to be uncomfortable at the possibility, let alone likelihood, of people leering lasciviously while one showers or undresses in a communal setting. And you must admit, in the general population, there WILL be people who gawk or leer. C'mon---we're men---it's what we do, a thousand times a day. If it walks, wriggles or crawls, we're looking at it coming or going, sizing it up, giving it a score, storing it in our camel-hump memory for emergency use later if necessary. Sure, changing the DADT policy won't change the ratio of hetero to homo, but the key consideration is that DADT affords an "ignorance is bliss" benefit. I can understand why, for some people, it's uncomfortable to shower in front of people who are covertly gay and, by definition, turned-on by members of your "sexual category."
Either it's "Don't Ask Don't Tell", and "ignorance is bliss," and people just go on not knowing who might be susceptible to titilation, and keep showering together, and no one is the wiser but the gays get their red meat and the "homo-phobes" (i.e., those who are uncomfortable showering with gays), get their state of denial. Or else we have "Nobody Asked But Look At Me, I'm Telling Anyway", and gays don't get court-martialed out of the service, and get to live freely, but we have separate showers because we're sensitive about people's sexual issues and vulnerabilities. But you can't have both!---can't have your cake and eat it too. i.e., you don't get the communal showers as if no one knows and its no big deal, at the same time you get to trumpet that you're gay and harbor a sexual preference for the group you're showering with!
It just doesn't seem bigoted, prejudiced, unreasonable, or backwards to me. It's just considerate, to have separate showers in such situations. I would LOVE being able to shower with the women at the gym, and pretend like it's no big deal, I'm just there to work-out, and how dare women PRESUME I'm automatically turned-on by them just because I'm heterosexual and turned-on by women as a group. But seriously---there would, in any general population of women, be some I'm leering and gawking at! And they would be completely reasonable and within their rights to require separate showering facilities, just SUSPECTING that, given the law of averages, there would be men like me out there!
I can hear the howls of protest already, at my impudence in contesting this position, or in unknowingly using some politically-incorrect words or phrases; some of your fans, I've noticed, simply have no tolerance for disparate opinions and principles, and assume those who disagree are bigoted louts. Still, I welcome all of you "educating" me, if I'm wrong on some premise or conclusion. But I do wonder---is the "gay agenda" about being treated equally, under a fair application of The Rule of Law, and about the freedom to be yourself without repercussion and blow-back (no pun intended!)? Or is it about dispensing with the cumbersome art of persuasion, and instead FORCING an expedient change in attitudes?

I cannot say I disagree with my former college roommate. I also feel that my side makes sense too. Some men are overreacting while others are not and have to struggle with this and work this through. What do you think?


Ken said...

Joe, I agree with your "former classmate". Perhaps it is time for those among us, both straight and gay, to grow up and take responsibility for their actions as well as the consequences. I also agree that the homophobe, and who among us isn't tainted by that 'dis-ease', has to own up to his/our own insecurities around our sexuality. Many a straight guy has homoerotic fantasies and many of them have acted on them 'in secret'. So, we all got to get a life and deal with the issues that crop up, that face us, that present themselves to us to learn our 'lessons'.

Perry Brass said...

I loved this piece about showering with other men. The only time I had a problem with this was the year I was "incarcerated" at the U. of Georgia, 1964-65, my freshman year. It was total homophobia and malephobia. Anything that made you feel authentically happy as a young man was suspect. So showering was miserable. Later, I found that showering at Y's around the country was fun; men, like dogs, like each other's company, and being naked with them can be wonderful, whether you are gay or straight. It's all the fears around it that make it stressful. And the fears mostly come from straight men who cannot deal not only with the gay part of other men (and themselves) but the real male part that hungers for other men. This hunger is powerful, and denied.

Dave said...

Great topic for discussion, Joe, and good first posting. This discussion obviously also applies to school locker rooms, of which I too have vivid memories. Perhaps those who want privacy (gay or straight) could request it, but the norm could be group showers coupled with optional or required training on appropriate shower behavior. This training could include how to show respect for those to whom you are attracted (including keeping it to yourself) and how to acknowledge or decline such attention for those who are the objects of the attraction. I would guess that the military is developing their own protocol on this as we write. Maybe some of us should offer to be resources for such training.

Herne said...

Very interesting discussion! In the locker room of my health club (which is single-gender on a set schedule), I'd guesstimate that 98% of the men change in and out of their workout clothes, as well as undress completely to shower on the benches in full view of everyone else there. For the other 2% who, for whatever reasons, have issues with disrobing in public, there are 2 small changing stalls for them to use. I don't understand the 'need' to hide my nudity - I'm not at the health club to look for sex - but if a guy needs that privacy, fine for him.

Take that concept into the military, and perhaps you install a small number of personal changing areas and individual showers for those men or women who just need their privacy. It doesn't really matter what the reason for that 'need' is, rational or irrational, homophobic or not, let that 2% take their personal shower and the rest of the world get on with getting clean! This makes much more sense to me than having 'separate but equal' shower facilities for straights and gays.

Some people are always going to be idiots, irregardless of their sexual preference - SOMEone will act inappropriately at some time. To create 'separate but equal' shower facilities, you spend a lot of time and money creating an entire caste system for cleanliness, and when you're all done, there will still be the occasional idiot who acts inappropriately.

Just my 2 cents

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting subject that will be debated extensively in the next few years from the coffee shop to Congress. Does wearing a military uniform make one more masculine, more desirable, more worthy of love and companionship? It might be helpful for experts in gay and lesbian psychology to educate on the differences between gay men/lesbian women and straight men and women. I didn't realize how different I was from a straight man until I browsed through Louann Brizendine's 'The Male Brain' at Barnes and Noble.

The author cited studies that showed that gay male brains function more like a female and lesbian women are more like straight males. She describes that after puberty the straight male's brain notices the female body parts and most always look at any woman that passes by and is driven by a desire to mate with them if possible. I have never had that response to a female nor am I excited by most males that I see and yet I have been attracted to these straight males that don't give me a second thought.

I served as an officer on a Naval Submarine for nine years before the implementation of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and voluntarily left the service with an honorable discharge after the completion of my commitment at the beginning of President Clinton's second term. Officer and submarine training were challenging because of the close quarters involved. I found in the military that most showers were single stalls, some with curtains, some not. On the submarine, there were no group showers, all single stalls with doors. I saw more erections during my military career as straight men paraded their endowment for all to see. The hardest thing was the uncertainty of whether another guy is gay or not. I was baited by several guys that made suggestive comments or attempted to put their arms around me or kiss me. The penalties for someone accusing one of same-sex behavior included dishonorable discharge and prison time. Also included was the "homosexual" word stamped at the bottom of every page on the DD214. No evidence had to be presented for such a judgement and sentence, just the word of one against the other. Will the military provide new DD214's to previously discharged service members that remove the "homosexual" branding that has surely negatively impacted many people's ability to get a job?

In the early 90's the aviator "Tailhook" scandal resulted in extensive sexual harassment training. The Navy implemented the stop light warning system for sailors to warn others when their conversation or behavior had crossed into questionable territory "yellow light" or offensive "red light". Maybe gay and lesbians will add a "purple" light to the scale.

Each person has a right to their privacy and freedom from harassment of any kind. Straight men should say "red light or yellow light" if they are uncomfortable. Separate shower stalls with curtains are not hard to do, most are in place already. Should gay men behave in a way that causes straight men to be uncomfortable? NO. Should a gay soldier, sailor or airman have to hear derogatory jokes or be physically threatened by a straight male that doesn't want to be around them? NO, that's a definite "Purple light".

To the straight guys that think every gay man wants to see them in the shower: "please, give it a rest and turn out the light".

Bruce said...

I haven't read the other comments, but I do want to share my thoughts. Your ex-roommate's concerns are not unreasonable, but I think HE, not you, is overreacting.

First of all, we're talking about the military. There are some practical consequences that follow from his argument.

The percentage of men who are exclusively gay is probably around 5 (five) percent (more or less), and is probably even lower in the military. Furthermore, most of these gay men will probably choose to be discreet about their sexual orientation, as you were in high school gym (and I have heard that communal showering after high school gym classes is becoming a thing of the past - you're supposed to do it at home). I am not saying that gay men in the military should be discreet, but even with the repeal of DADT, I can't imagine everyone is suddenly going to be openly gay. Next, among the men who are openly gay in the military, I guess a small minority may "gawk" and "leer" at their comrades in the shower. I should point out, however, that "gawking" and "leering" is not uncommon among nude straight men who often want to see how their "equipment" compares to that of other guys. I mean, c'mon, straight men are not that discreet among themselves.

So, given the above, the chance of encountering a guy in the showers in the military who is going to gawk at you has got to be extremely low. Maybe one out of 300 men will be openly gay and will gawk in the shower. What does your roommate propose as a remedy? Having separate shower facilities for gay men? And who is going to use these facilities? Not the majority of gay men who choose to be discreet. So, maybe 1 percent of men in the military?
And if there are separate showers for gay men, there of course have to be separate shower facilities for lesbians. So your ex-roommate is proposing having FOUR separate shower facilities for military personnel, just because a few straight men may be "uncomfortable" with the rare man who looks at them in the "wrong" way? Aren't men in the military supposed to be tough and not afraid of dying in battle? So how come a little "discomfort" in the shower is suddenly so threatening that the military has to segregate gay men from straight men? Does your ex think that gay men gawking will lead to gay men "attacking" straight men?

I'm sorry, I think your ex-roommate IS homophobic, however he wishes to dress it up. And I think that your take, Dr. Kort, on the topic is spot on.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I never knew this topic could be so complex but now I see it can be. I mean, really, there are so many versions of sexuality. Who is more gay then straight? Or more straight then gay? And all those in betweens and extremes....I feel the New Yorker coming up in me saying "Forget about it!" and I've never been to New York!

But I do have to say, I struggled in the locker room BIG time. For years I could not step into one. Heck, I joined band so I could get out of gym showers, not just the acrobatics I couldn't perform. But now I've worked through it and am far better. I moved through total fear, to elation, to "I'm over it".

So, in the back of my mind, I've always wondered if we should be separated. But now in reading this, I see how ridiculous that is. You are right Joe. Most of us work through the shower routine with straight guys.

What this brings up for me as I type is that I think we discredit ourselves along with society when we still don't see ourselves as men. We are gay and we are men. So I think you are right Joe--its not the same as men and women showering together. Straight men don't have boobs or vaginas. We share the same make up and organs as guys. We are use to it. We are men.

I think we actually NEED to shower with straight men and learn not to sexualize and use some self control.

Plus I don't want to see what the hand stamp would be for the gay or bi showers :-)

Anonymous said...

I agree in part with your former classmate too, Joe. I don't think his rationale is homophobic, either. I was brought up, as were most of us of a certain age, to believe that being "queer" was wrong and that I couldn't ever be queer; that I'd grow up, marry and have a family, etc. Well, I did do those things, but then I came to the realization that I'm gay. It took a long time for me to consider the possibility and then to accept the reality, but it's clear as a bell now.

If I had the opportunity to share a shower stall with other men right now, I'd treat it as I did when in school...we all have to shower, and I won't be intimidated (as in junior high) by the guys with bigger dongs than I have. I also won't stare, because I know they might be uncomfortable, and I don't want to put someone in that situation.

Fantasizing about someone is one thing, but being forward in such a setting is something else that I couldn't bring myself to.

You're so right, Joe; those who knew at an early age that they are gay, who were required to shower with all the other boys, had to erect their fences early on. The rest of us simply went about our business of not checking the other guys out because it wasn't the right thing to do anyway.

Would I look now? Of course. Would I proposition someone without knowing if he was also gay? No way.