A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Throughout my life – with increasing cognisance as I get older – the universe has a way of taking moments and people from your past – perhaps minor characters – and putting them once more in front of you. Like a soap opera reaching into its own history to bring back a minor but unexplored character for one more dramatic episode. In doing so, it makes explicit the nexus between the past and the present, events, emotions, people; once past, now present. With that realisation, comes the realisation they may be future too. It isn’t linear.
So, a moment of joy this morning quickly passed into a moment of discombobulation. I write this blog post in a kind of mental stupor. Where to begin, to explain, to make sense of these thoughts? Perhaps with the now.
The clonk of a forceful delivery through my letterbox (not a euphemism) this morning led to the realisation that my copy has Elska Ekstra London had arrived. Elska is a magazine and describes itself in the following terms:
Elska is a project devoted to revealing our voices and our bodies through honest photography and personal stories. Through each of our beautiful issues, we take you to different cities around the world, introduce you to a dozen or so local guys, and let you get to know them and a bit about gay life in their city. Filled with positivity, sincerity, ad-free and lovingly made, Elska is an independent gay mag that you can truly be proud to own.
Set in a different city for each issue, the images of men are often clothed, sometimes nude, always beautiful. The stories are accompanied by reflective stories that tell us much about the world and contemporary gay male life. It’s a gorgeous zine that I’ve been subscribing to for some time. Last year I also subscribed to the ‘Ekstra’ zine (extras, behind the scenes) which was sent digitally but I dropped that off this year. Then they announced on Facebook that they were doing a print version of the London ‘Ekstra’ magazine this month, so – favouring the experience of print – ordered a copy. That’s what arrived this morning.
There, towards the back of the magazine was someone I immediately recognised. The younger brother of someone I went to school with. I remember him as cute and awkward. A few years back he appeared on some thread and I thought ‘oh that’s x’s brother. He’s now hot, gay, and living in London’ and that was that. It might even have been a LinkedIn connection suggestion of all things. Now, here he is, in a series of photos taken three years ago, looking still captivating but somewhat tired perhaps, grasping a penis that failed to get fully hard. The account described a rapidly arranged photo shoot, and one that was enormously awkward. The model/subject – that character from my past – is described smoking meth and in a state that I – though not the photographer – can only described as fucked up. Yet this isn’t presented as extraordinary. The photographer – Liam Campbell – notes ‘drug use in gay London is so common, it’s mundane’. So it is. Few gay men who are sexually active can have avoided being around people using drugs, although like Campbell, I still find it awkward when it comes to hard drugs.
Although I have been in and continue to occupy those sexualised and medicated spaces – those spaces in which people cast of their outward identities with their clothes, shake off the outward homonormative cloak we typically cover contemporary homosexuality in – there was something about this person and this episode that has really affected me. Perhaps it’s the fact the subject rooted himself (and his Grindr profile that led to the shoot) by calling himself after his home town. My home town. I’ve written before about the strange draw of that northern mill town. It was also home to Jeanette Winterson. It’s a town that seems to have shaped a number of queers who can’t get the place out of their system, and yet who also have fled far and wide. It’s a town that once made their own bricks – NORI bricks – and the local legend is they were meant to be IRON bricks (which makes more sense) but someone buggered up the mould and so NORI bricks they were. They’ve gone now. The town continues in a kind of death spiral, like so much of the North.
So, perhaps with that name, he never really escaped either. Yet, there is something that makes you reboot your attitudes when the person you see is both a young guy in a blazer and a guy who’s smoked too much tina and can’t get hard. Should we feel sorry for this person? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think to apply that moral judgment gets us anywhere, and it assumes a framework that’s so messed up as to be useless. No, I think, these images reminds me once more that the world is not the world we see at first glance. We must force ourselves to see the world as it is, to see each other as we truly are, stripped bare to our naked flesh and raw desires.
For legal academics, this is a constant struggle but a necessary one. The law is typically about legislating for an ideal world, predicated on norms and a desire to (re)create norms. As academics, it is easy to play along. Yet the reason I have always rejected the doctrinal tradition in my own work, and embraced socio-legal study is that it can – if we’re brave enough – help the law to deal with a truer world. That’s seldom seemed more important to me as it does this morning.