Friday, May 4, 2001

Manifest Love Weekend

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #155, May 4, 2001)

“Not just to reclaim our sexuality, but to reclaim our hearts”

Recently in Lavender I wrote about an organization called Manifest Love. Its founder, David Nimmons, was in the Twin Cities in December and presented an evening seminar about the accomplishments and disappointments of queer culture and its prospects for the future.

One of the legacies of that speaking engagement was the formation of a Minnesota chapter of Manifest Love ( Several weeks ago this group held their first Manifest Love Minnesota weekend seminar at Whitewater State Park (near Rochester, Minnesota). Nimmons was again on hand as the weekend’s facilitator, along with co-facilitator Tom Dennison.

The seminar attracted a diverse group of 22 men who spent the weekend exploring their community’s past and present, and considering what they wanted the future of that community to be. The ages of the participants ranged from young to mature; some men were newly “out” while some came out before Stonewall. And none of them knew quite what to expect.

I was one of those 22 men. For me the weekend was intellectually and emotionally demanding — but also tremendously rewarding. Try as I might, the printed page will not do the weekend justice; anything I write here can only be a dim reflection of what I experienced. (If you really want to know what the weekend was like, you’ll just have to do the next one.)

The seminar started with a look at the amazing history and accomplishments of gay male culture in the last thirty years or so. As Nimmons explained, gay men have evolved a way of life marked by:

• Unprecedented male caretaking — men taking care of other men with whom they share no blood relation. (Historically women have been the caretakers both of men and of other women.)

• A high level of service and volunteerism. Gay men give 60% more volunteer time than heterosexual men, and the gay male community has innovated entirely new models of volunteer service such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City. Nimmons noted that many recent high-profile court cases involving the gay male community — Big Brothers, the Boy Scouts, military service, etc. — are about gay men actively demanding their right to volunteer and to serve.

• Extremely low rates of public violence. Today’s gay male community is arguably the least-violent group of men in the history of the planet.

• New styles of relationships with other men and with women. Nimmons refers to this as “diffuse intimacy,” as opposed to the traditional model of intimacy centered around a heterosexual couple or a nuclear family.

• New styles of pleasure, play and bliss-seeking, ranging from circuit dance parties and leatherfests to new and different ways of thinking and talking about (and having) sex.

These represent tremendous moral and ethical accomplishments; if any other group of people accomplished all this they would be hailed as heroes. But for some reason these accomplishments don’t seem to be noticed by the wider heterosexual society, or even for the most part by gay men themselves. What seems to be noticed instead are the areas where, for many gay men, their community falls short.

What does the stereotypical gay man do on a Saturday night? He goes to a gay bar. What does he experience there? Nimmons describes what too often happens: “He seeks connection and instead finds competition. He seeks affection and instead finds attitude. He seeks inclusion and belonging and instead finds exclusion, ‘A lists’ and body fascism. He wants tenderness but settles for sex. He is left hungry for intimacy, confused by sex and bereft of tenderness. He learns to distrust other gay men. He feels betrayed by his ‘community’ — the whole idea seems like a fraud.”

Nimmons continued, “If that’s what we believe, little by little that’s what we create. If we don’t celebrate the good things about our culture, they atrophy and disappear — and we become cynical.

“If we’re such a tribe of loving men, why have we given ourselves a shared culture that extinguishes the revolutionary love that called us to each other in the first place?”

But, as a sign on the wall of the cabin proclaims, we built queer culture — and we can rebuild it. In Nimmons’ words: “We created this all. No one gave it to us. We clawed it out of the rock of a homophobic society.

“Gay men’s truly radical act is not just to reclaim our sexuality, but to reclaim our hearts, with and for each other.

“Could we create a new kind of gay world where it’s cool to be loving? What would that look like?”

It was clear that if we as gay men want to see our culture change, we must be the ones to change it — no one else is going to do it for us. The rest of Saturday and all of Sunday were spent thinking about and responding to that challenge. What do we want? What would it look like? How could we get there? But the focus of our activities shifted from thinking and intellectualizing to experiencing.

We explored the ways we connect with each other by using the language of our eyes. In an exercise called “Requiem for a Bitchy Queen” we considered both the positive and negative attributes of that most infamous of gay archetypes (“She’s mean! She’s brutal! She’s nasty! She’s entertaining! She’s honest!”) as well as other archetypes such as the Knight, the Warrior, the Wizard, the Healer, the Fairy, and many more. In what was perhaps the most surprising event of the weekend, we even experienced a ten-minute-long circuit party (which profoundly altered the ideas and attitudes many of the participants held about these events).

As the weekend drew to a close on Sunday afternoon, we held a brainstorming session in which we considered actions we could take to create the kinds of changes we wanted to see. Nimmons refers to these actions as “loving disturbances,” and in the weeks and months ahead you just might hear about, witness or even participate in one. (Actually, what you’re reading right now qualifies as a loving disturbance.)

For a closing ceremony the entire group sat in a circle, and each man shared their thoughts and feelings about the weekend. Reaction was unanimously positive. I felt pleasantly, profoundly overwhelmed. And the overwhelming quality of the weekend even continued on the drive back to Minneapolis. I stopped at a gas station to refuel, and as I opened the car door I was met by the voice of singer Belinda Carlisle coming over the loudspeakers by the gas pumps. And here’s what she was singing:

In this world we’re just beginning/To understand the miracle of living
Baby I was afraid before/I’m not afraid/Anymore . . .
Oooh, baby do you know what that’s worth?
Oooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven/Love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Oooh, heaven is a place on earth

Yep — it was that kind of a weekend.

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