Friday, November 29, 2002

Book Review: “The Soul Beneath the Skin” by David Nimmons

(Commentary by Bill Schlichting published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #196, November 29, 2002)

Gay Life: Maybe It Really Isn’t (Or Needn’t Be) What One Thinks It Is

By Bill Schlichting

Saturday night rolls around, and many gay men find themselves in gay bars, wanting connection, but dealing only with competition; in baths, seeking solace, but finding only sex; in clubs, seeking affection, but getting only attitude—or standing outside them all, wishing for inclusion, yet feeling excluded. For David Nimmons, this is a phenomenon that should not, and need not, be. And he is doing something about it. Nimmons has written a book, The Soul Beneath the Skin, that describes changes in the gay community that have occurred in the past thirty or so years, almost without notice, and how these changes can apply to and affect the lives of individual gay men.

The Soul Beneath the Skin has two parts. In the first eight of ten chapters, Nimmons looks beyond the shared, common, and, according to him, unwittingly adopted view of gay life, and presents a radically different interpretation of gay men and their habits. Nimmons argues that the prevailing view of gay life, held by gays as well as straights, obscures deeper and more important truths; he asserts that all of us, gay as well as straight, are not seeing “the soul beneath the skin.”

For Nimmons, the conventional caricature of gay life as one-dimensional, body-obsessed, shallow, sexually profligate, powered by consumerism, with cultural values of competition, isolation, narcissism, and hedonism, and practices that discourage true intimacy is profoundly incomplete, inaccurate, and grossly misleading. He asserts that a careful reading of the facts supports a far different conclusion. Nimmons then details how gay men are crafting powerful changes around bliss and ecstasy, gender roles and sexuality, intimacy, friendship and communalism. He finds that this cultural experimentation has been little recognized, either by gay men themselves or society as a whole. He asserts that much empirical evidence suggests that self-identified gay men are engaged in a striking range of cultural innovations and social practices that present a picture far different from the prevailing one.

Nimmons describes and discusses these cultural innovations and social practices. He finds that levels of public violence in gay venues are vastly lower than those in non-gay ones; that gay men volunteer more often, demonstrating higher levels of altruism and service quite distinct from other men; that patterns of intimacy and interpersonal connectedness of gay men are taking new forms; that gay men are redefining gender relations in powerful and novel ways; that gay men have distinctive patterns of caretaking in sexual and communal realms; that gay men are enacting new definitions of public and private, family and friends, and transforming relations of pleasure, community, and authority; and that gay men are pioneering a wide range of untried intimate relationships, with new forms, rituals and language.

In doing this, Nimmons cites a growing body of evidence from public health and epidemiological studies, sociological and psychological inquiry, marketing and public opinion surveys, anthropological texts, and ethnographic studies, as well as personal stories. This evidence, according to Nimmons, powerfully contradicts the generally-accepted version of gay males’ lives. Due to its volume, the discussion becomes, at times, almost drudging. But keep reading, if you can—it will in the end be worth the effort.

In the last two chapters of The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons addresses how these radical cultural innovations and social practices occurring in the community of gay men as a whole affect and apply to the lives of individual gay men. Nimmons acknowledges that the actual collective patterns and practices of the gay community may be, and in many cases are, so detached from individual lives and experiences that an individual may see no gay world he knows in the culture and society described in the first part of the book. Nimmons admits that too often individual gay men “participate in a set of public practices that, if anything, work to extinguish those very values of love, care, compassion, and kindness” that they value and, as a result, are “left hungry for intimacy.”

The paradox is, if the gay community really is such a caring community, why have gay men built a public culture that smothers the very ideals they value and seek?

Nimmons responds as follows: He notes that gay men have already rewritten the rules in enormous and sweeping ways. He writes: “Nobody handed us the queer lives we enjoy. We hewed them from the hard rock of a homophobic world.” He suggests that now is the time for a new kind of work. He writes: “(G)ay men’s truly radical act is no longer simply to claim our sexuality, but to reclaim our hearts within it.” The challenge now is to dismantle one set of givens, all the more potent because gay men themselves have created them, and replace them with another. He writes: “As gay men built our culture, we can reshape it.”

Nimmons asserts that “(w)e can shift the discourses around beauty and body; channel new archetypes, create new language, and adopt new habits and rituals.” “We can remind ourselves, in word and deed, of some truths we have long known, but often forgotten.” All the truth-telling is just preparation for work in the real world. The next step is to subvert cynicism and manifest love.

This brings Nimmons to Manifest Love, a project founded by Nimmons that “exists to help gay men find new ways to be with and for each other.” It invites a variety of gay men “to create a new kind of world together, one that better reflects (their) best values and aspirations.” It seeks to foster “a more critical understanding of (recent) cultural innovations . . . and to find concrete ways to manifest sustaining values of (gay) communities.”

A key focus of Manifest Love is “creating individual and collective acts to help (gay men) reflect, experience, and practice values of care and nurture in new ways.” These “loving disturbances” are “innovations and experiments in applied affection;” they are “concrete real-world experiments devised to nudge the patterns and practices of gay lives into more affirming and humane directions.” (Readers of Lavender were introduced to Nimmons and Manifest Love in the March 23, 2001, and May 4, 2001, issues of the magazine.)

The Soul Beneath the Skin is both a clearing away of myths and misinformation about the gay community, and a call to act to bring these transformations to the lives of individual gay men. This book describes a part of a heritage of gay men of which many may not be aware; it provides a basis and foundation, and encouragement, for those who find public gay life other than what they would like, and would like to change it; it shows that the lives of self-identified gay men are not what they often are assumed to be, and that public gay life need not be what it often feels like and appears to be.

Copyright © 2002 by William H. Schlichting

No comments:

Post a Comment