A Non-Self-Loathing, Very Self-Loving Gaysian

I feel at peace with myself and enjoy my life a lot nowadays, which struck me as a bit odd the other day. Part of that odd feeling I think stems from themes I have noticed crop up consistently in fiction about gay men’s lives: persistent self-loathing and engaging in unhealthy relationships. Some popular titles that include these themes include Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, and Memorial by Bryan Washington. The queer protagonists of these novels possess deep insecurities, date men who mistreat them, and lack self-awareness about their intrapersonal and interpersonal patterns.

I am not suggesting that these stories are unimportant or that artists should only portray happy, healthy queer men in their work. Gay men – especially gay men with additional marginalized identities related to race, fatness, femininity, and more – go through a lot of oppression and it’s important to capture that oppression and its effects. I acknowledge the power and compassion of honoring people’s pain without trying to force them into healing or more positive emotional states right away. Especially in light of the AIDS crisis in the United States and how the government’s mishandling of that situation killed many queer artists and queer people in general, I feel grateful for the presence of queer art and how that art exists in a heteronormative world.

At the same time, I feel annoyed when these stories about queer pain receive the most publicity or popularity compared to art that promotes queer joy and healing. While I recognize the importance of honoring queer pain, I often also notice that some people glorify the suffering in novels like Call Me by Your Name and Real Life. I have read reviews and reactions to these books that describe the characters’ pain and their relationships as beautiful, as testaments to the power of love, and other laudatory phrases. I find this praise problematic especially because these novels feature explicitly unhealthy relational behaviors that I hope we can all strive to avoid perpetuating in our own lived relationships. While we can avoid forcing characters to seek healing if they do not feel ready for it, I also hope we can acknowledge that misery in and of itself is not redemptive or worthy of veneration. In fact, limiting queer characters to their suffering without any possibility of self-growth or self-love strikes me as just as, if not more flattening and oppressive than only calling for queer characters’ happiness.

Not a book, but a movie I’d definitely recommend that portrays queer Black pain without glorifying it is Moonlight! Such a powerful film.

When I think about how much I love myself, I suspect my loads of self-love stem in large part from my female and feminist role models. For example, as a kid I really identified with Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender and how she worked through the trauma she experienced in her childhood and while strengthening her waterbending skill, all while still maintaining her warmth and nurturance. I also vibed a lot with Raven from Teen Titans, who had a traumatizing relationship with one of her parents and over time developed a more healthful relationship with her emotions with the help of her friends. Of course, as anyone who reads this blog knows I try to follow in the footsteps of Caroline Knapp, a writer who advocated for thinking deeply about oneself, going to therapy, and loving yourself regardless of external factors like your body’s size or if men find you attractive or dateable. While these girls and women experienced a lot of pain in their lives, they also sought out opportunities for self-growth, as well as healthy relationships with themselves and others.

I guess I write this post to alleviate my own slight guilt for feeling happy and fulfilled on the day to day now as a queer Asian American man. While I want to grow in certain areas and will always have more work to do to contribute to social justice, I also want to honor how things in my life are pretty good right now. I love myself and treat myself with self-compassion, I feel connected with close and healthy friendships, and I recognize a male romantic partner may or may not ever emerge in my life and I’m gonna thrive regardless. I don’t need some super intense angst-provoking relationship for my life to feel compelling, nor do I have to experience consistent or even somewhat consistent self-loathing to feel secure in my Gaysian identity. I’m reading books on my couch, listening to BlackPink and Twice while typing away on my laptop, and looking forward to visiting my close friends in-person in mid-May. I’m doing well, really.

How do you feel about pain and suffering portrayed in fiction, especially if you also identify as a member of a marginalized community? General reactions or responses to this post? In terms of queer M/M books I’d recommend that are more hopeful I’d advocate for Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, Gives Light by Rose Christo, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (this last title includes a lot of queer pain and queer hope without excessively glorifying either, in my opinion), to name a few. Until next post!

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Personal

6 responses to “A Non-Self-Loathing, Very Self-Loving Gaysian

  1. I wonder if this is a facet of a) activism and b) good old-fashioned fiction creation? You need conflict to make a good novel, I mean, how many happy straight marriages are there in books? And I imagine as I keep reading about how we need to see Black joy as well as Black pain, there might be something similar going on in other marginalised communities, where it’s seen as important to see the pain and witness and acknowledge it.

    A happy male couple I can think of is Simon and Axel in Iris Murdoch’s “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”. They are the most solid couple among many in the book, written decades ago!

    • Yes this is true re: conflict to make a good novel, especially in the western literary tradition. I don’t think conflict itself is a bad thing so much as whether there’s growth and healing and complexity beyond just having conflict and self-loathing. I’m glad people who are active in the book community such as ourselves are thinking deeply about these topics. And thank you for the recommendation, I’ve added it to my tbr!

  2. Kartavya Ratate

    I am gald to know that at present you feel fulfilled and happy with yourself. I feel so happy for you. Take care, Thomas. 🙂

  3. priya

    I totally get what you mean with people calling queer pain and unhealthy queer relationships “beautiful”. It’s kind of depressing to see non-queer people assuming queer lives are full of pain, which is true to some extent, but definitely not descriptive of the whole queer experience. A Real Life and A Little Life (based on the many, many reviews I’ve read) are really well written books imo and I’m glad the authors wrote about the negative aspects of being queer, but it’s sad that this is the queer rep that’s mainstream. Also reminds me of Honeybee by Craig Silvey, which about a trans girl (12-14 years old iirc) who’s suicidal and self-harming and is very mentally ill for most of the book. Talking about Honeybee in particular, I really don’t understand how a cis, much older man can decide to write a book about a trans girl -and in such a overwhelming negative way.

    Anyway, thanks for the mlm book recs! It’s great to see how much you love a book you read 7 years ago! I think Such a Lonely Lovely Road for the most part portrayed a realistic gay relationship as well. And yes I will write a review for it eventually ahahah

    Hope you’re doing well and please consider donating to some Indian mutual aid funds for COVID relief!!

    • Yes I agree Priya! I will say I appreciated A Little Life because I feel like it depicted queer pain and queer joy and challenged heteronormative nuclear structures, though I understand if people feel like it’s not for them or if Hanya Yanagihara went too full throttle on the queer pain part (though I’d disagree). Thank you for naming what you’ve named about Honeybee and I appreciate your conscientiousness about who’s writing marginalized group’s narratives. Omg I’m so excited for your review of Such a Lonely Lovely Road! And yes, I did donate to some Indian mutual aid funds and retweeted some links. Hope you are doing as well as possible.

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