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Martin Foreman

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Shivananda Khan is a Real Man

Bangkok, Thailand, September 2004: There we were, more than a hundred gay* men from across the world at the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok in July. It was the middle of the afternoon and we were commenting on a statement of principles for HIV interventions for men who have sex with men. Many of us knew each other from years of such conferences and
working together and the atmosphere was relaxed. In the chair, mediating between the floor and the panel who had drafted the statement, was Shivananda Khan, once London-based and (think Shakti) the doyen of HIV activism in South Asia. Shiv is one of nature's aristocrats; in a previous life he was surely a princess, both decorative and functional, the power behind the throne as her maharajah dallied in the harem.

At some point - don't ask me how we got there; it seemed logical at the time - Shiv asked rhetorically, "are there any real men in this room"? I stuck up my hand and looked round. Only one other hand was raised. Perhaps a few others were too shy to assert themselves in public, but the point had been made: most of those in the room, who shaved regularly or let their beards grow, whose chests were flat or muscular and who were endowed with male rather than female genitalia, because they were gay, they did not consider themselves "real men".

Shivananda, of course, had kept his hands firmly by his side. Shiv is tall and handsome and of decidedly masculine appearance, with no more feminine traits than several of my heterosexual friends. When I had earlier accused him of being a "real man", he had mock-frowned and said "hush! You'll ruin my reputation." As discussion moved back to the statement of principles, I pondered the implications of this impromptu vote. If the majority was right, then I was at best confused, or at worst lying. Because I was gay I couldn't be a "real man", or if I insisted on being a "real man" I couldn't be "gay".

I remembered a conversation last year at a ceremony in Bangkok when an elderly senator was given an award for services to the gay community. "Is he gay?" I asked Nick, a local activist. "Of course not," said Nick, "he has children". From a Western perspective, that did not answer my question, but for Thais it was perfectly acceptable. Men who are known to have sex with women - as proven by the offspring - are "real men", even if they have sex with men. Which means that men who only have sex with men are not real men.

The same point was made by Aditya Bondyopadhyay, another Indian activist, responding to a column where I criticised the phrase "males who have sex with males". (read here) Aditya argued that in South Asia "males" was preferable to "men" because "feminised males who adopt many indigenous identities [kothi, dhurrani, murat, zennana, Aqwa Hijra, Kathoy, Bacqla, Waria, Faffafini, et al], do not consider themselves as 'Men'. They just possess the physical body of a 'male' individual. Their self definition, more often than not, is that they are 'women' or 'women like'."

Of course underlying this discussion is different understanding of the word "man". In South Asia, Thailand and many other cultures, manhood is determined by not by appearance, but by behaviour, particularly sexual behaviour. Those who are penetrated defer to those who penetrate; real men penetrate and everyone else is a woman, or woman-like. They may look like men, but they are not real men.

In anglophone societies - and, I suspect, in any culture where men who have sex with men do not define themselves by who penetrates whom - most gay men consider themselves "real men". They insist on complete legal and social equality with other men and many sculpt their bodies to be decidedly masculine in appearance and wear clothing that emphasises their maleness. Indeed, given that so much of men's fashion in the west originates in gay men and is copied by other men, it is arguable that it is gay men who are the real men and other men who are continually trying - and often failing - to imitate them.

We could stop at this point and accept that the meaning of the phrase "real men" differs in different parts of world, just as "thong" has different meanings for Brits and Australians, and "fanny" has different meanings for Brits and North Americans. It sometimes leads to confusion, but there is no harm done.

Except there is an inherent bias in the term "real". "Real" implies authentic, correct, good, valuable. A "real man" is a man who has all the qualities of men. A "real man" is something to admire, to aspire to. If I deny that I am a "real man" I am automatically denigrating myself. You are real; I am fake. You have qualities which I lack. You are admirable, I am shameful. You are valued by society; I have no value. I may be intelligent, physically and emotionally strong, brave, virtuous, kind, while you are a coward, inconsiderate, violent and dishonest, but because you penetrate me, you are superior to me because you are a "real man".

Furthermore, men who deny that they are real men and who call themselves effeminate, feminine, women or woman-like, reinforce not only their own secondary status in society, but that of women. If I am inferior to "real men" because I am womanly, then all women are inferior.

Ultimately, therefore, no matter how vociferously I argue for the rights of men who have sex with men in society, as long as I deny being a real man and as long as I accept this division between "real" and other men, I implicitly recognise my secondary status in society. I want to be tolerated, not accepted as an equal. I accept that where a man puts his penis is more important than whether he is honest or capable.

I'm exaggerating, but not much. I'm fully aware of the years of work that activists around the world have put into improving the lives of men who have sex with men - activists who have put their own comfort and health and sometimes even lives on the line, while I have pontificated from the comfort of a London house or Bangkok apartment. Nonetheless, I believe that activists who accept the terminology of "real men" and who therefore accept that men who penetrate are of greater value than those who are penetrated, they are reinforcing rather than combating the stigmatisation of both effeminate men and of women.

There are two ways of overcoming this. One is to extend the definition of "real" to include all men. You are a man of masculine gestures, a man who is the penetrating partner in sex; I am a man whose mannerisms are effeminate and exaggerated and I prefer to be the penetrated partner in sex.  But we should both be of equal value in this society; if you are real, then so am I; if your identity is real, then so is mine; if you have society's full respect, then, dammit, I insist on equal respect too. In short, if you are a real man, then so am I.

However, to insist that all men are "real" in this way is to shift the meaning of "man" from behaviour to physical appearance, in other words towards a more anglophone use of the term, as discussed earlier, which may not be appropriate in many cultures. An alternative approach is to abolish use of the word real in these circumstances. You are a man - or a male - who prefers to penetrate; I am a man - or a male - who prefers to be penetrated; they are men - or males - who take pleasure in both activities. We are of equal value and words such as real are at best meaningless and at worst demeaning and stigmatising.

So what it is going to be? That all men - and women - are real and worthy of respect, or that "real" is an irrelevant word that should never be uttered. Personally, I choose the former option. Which means that as far as I am concerned  - irrespective of their behaviour between the sheets or on the streets - like me, Shivananda Khan and every other beard-shaving, testosterone-producing, penis-endowed man across the world always have been and always will be real men.

* I know, I know... Not every man who has sex with men identifies as gay, but whatever individual men call themselves in whatever language they speak and wherever they live, in this column I'm using gay as shorthand for "I am a man who enjoys sex with men and I am happy to tell the world - or at least my hundred closest friends- that I do".

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