Camera Lucida

Posted: September 15, 2010 in Identity, Letters From An Alien, Masculinities, Writing
Tags: , , ,

I am currently reading  Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida , his collection of photographs and essays that examines the personal impact and semiotics of photography. It was inspired by a photograph of Barthes’ mother as a child, which affected him deeply, looking at it after she died. It is Barthes’ final and most personal work, in which he places himself very firmly in the centre of the frame. The book has led me to think about how we tell our own stories, and why it is so important, particularly in relation to sexual identity.

I have read many personal accounts from women about  sexual identity, and I have written my own. But I think there is still a lot more to learn about how men perceive themselves and others, particularly those they have sex with.  I am not for example convinced our  ‘modern homosexual’ exists as universally as we may think.  Telling personal stories and conducting personal research, I believe, is one important way we can uncover the complexities of how sexuality and identity functions, and is also a way of breaking down (hetero) normative structures and assumptions.

So, I have been searching for a long time, for writing about men’s sexual identities, where the authors, like Barthes in Camera Lucida,  also place themselves in the centre of the frame. Suddenly, almost spookily, I have found a few amazing examples almost all at once. Like a group of rent boys standing in the main square, huddled over cigarettes, that could be mistaken for lads out on the town, they were there all along.  I just didn’t see the signs.

In Suck My Nation , S A Lambevski, a researcher based in Australia, goes back to  Macedonia in the late 1990s. There he conducts an insightful and moving ‘queer ethnography’ of men’s (homo)sexual identities and how they intersect with ethnicity and class, in a place of great upheaval and (gendered) conflict. His research is triggered by a painful memory of returning home, and visiting a ‘marginal, dark place’ on the edge of town, the centre for ‘gay’ cruising, where Macedonian and Albanian men would brush shoulders uncomfortably and cast instant damning judgement on each other, based on the badges of identity they wear on their skin, their clothes, their demeanours.  Canal Street it is not. (Though I’d like to read an ethnography of Canal Street!)

Queer Ethnography does not have to be academic. American writer  Steven Zeeland has been putting himself in the centre of the frame for years, in his writings about the sexual habits and identities of military men.  I can’t wait to read his work in full, in which he combines interviews with soldiers, sailors and marines (many of whom he has had sex with and known intimately), with observations and other research. Zeeland says that ‘sexual identity is a joke’. I am inclined to agree with him, but, as his work seems to show (from the little I have read so far), it is a joke that needs unpacking, because of how deeply it permeates how we define who we are, based on who we have sex with and how we have sex.

Queer ethnography can also be historical, reminding us that the ‘pre-modern’ versions of homosexuality did not just suddenly transform overnight into the modern gay man we see strutting down The Mission in his Moschinos. Change is messy and boundaries between eras are blurred. Justin Spring in a new book, tells the incredible story of Samuel Steward , the ‘secret historian’ and 20th century  ‘sexual renegade’ who lived a creative life full of homosexual adventures, before the modern ‘gay’ had come into being.  ‘He paid the price for being himself’ Spring said, ‘but at least he got to be himself’.

But here I am going to come back up to date, and  feature another homo-ethnographic piece I have just discovered, taken from a longer post called The Business Of Sex about an American man working mainly as a Pimp  in Europe in the 21st century. The author,  Homo Superior hasn’t blogged for a while now, which is regrettable. This is ‘queer ethnography’ at its most visceral, its most honest.  I think that in Camera Lucida, Barthes is saying that for us to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world, the writer, like the beautiful young man in the photo at the top of the page,  needs to stare straight into the lens. Homo Superior and all these queer ethnographers, certainly do just that.

I Wanna Hold Your…

I woke up this morning with Jirka next to me holding my hand; well, actually he had one finger hooked around one of mine and as we both drifted in and out of sleep, he alternately massaged my neck or laid his hand on my side or my leg. As the light got brighter coming in through the open windows he turned toward me, curled his body inward tilting his head toward mine; so I turned toward him and we laid there hands lightly clasped until he got up and made coffee 20 minutes later. He never said a word nor opened his eyes. We both acted embarrassed and were quiet until after the first cup.


I’ve had my dick in his ass, both with and without a condom, in his mouth, and his in mine; we’ve made out for a half hour or more (at least we used to), in public and at home; we’ve danced drunkenly to slow Czech dance music in U Rudolfa and Chameleon, held hands chatting and drinking Gambrinus in Club Stella while the gay boys all around talked about us, I’m sure thinking he was bought and paid for; and yet that tentative expression of intimacy this morning blushed my cheeks and subdued his usual early morning chatter.

I don’t know whether we’ve reached some turning point or what. He’s told me more than once that he considers me his family now that he’s estranged from his freeloading brother — his other brother’s in jail and he has no other family, according to him. He’s Romany so I never know when he’s telling stories. Regardless, we share expenses and distribute money when the other one needs it. I accompany him to Pinocchio’s (perhaps the best known hustler bar in Prague) because he says he feels more confident when I’m there. To people observing our developing friendship, not just to me, it appears that we are committed to one another.

On the other hand, he has a girlfriend now and it has curtailed our sex play. I’ve enjoyed up to now the very easy-going way he approaches sex. When he wants a blow job he just states: “Riki, please, go oral!” When he’s feeling like getting fucked him he asks: “Go sex?” and then giggles. I just have to say: “Jiři, I’m horny” and his response is usually to grin and head for the shower for a douche. The straightforward nature of our sex seems to be just another reinforcement of the friendship, as well as a very convenient way of relieving tension and getting affection, but it’s not at the top of his needs hierarchy. That is, he likes it but can live without it, especially now with consistent pussy in the picture. I don’t blame him. When your job is to have sex with strange men it has to have some effect on your other sexual relationships. For me, however… I’ve been telling myself for the last several months it was purely physical (he fulfills about 90% of the qualities in a lover I find attractive); however, that little hand-holding interlude this morning made me realize I’m in love with him.

I should have known already by the surprising jealousy that arose in me the other day at Rudolfa when a preening blond Czech boy at another table caught his eye. “Ty vole, Riki, looking this boy I have big penis,” and here he put his palm on his crotch and moved it up 20 cm. “Stoh percent I am bee-sexual.”

“I know that already, Jirka.”

And sure enough when I reached over to check out his bulge he had a hard-on. He then borrowed 5 crowns to go stand by the boy at the jukebox and chat him up; but not before readjusting his package. I wasn’t livid but it irrationally made me sad. I knew then exactly what his type was: younger feminine gay boys, transvestites and transsexuals, all of whom he’s said on numerous occasions he’s wanted to fuck; and I am anything but that type. I guess I should be grateful though because with me he’s an exclusive bottom.

A couple weeks back he asked me if he thought that the sex biznis could make him gay. I said no, that I knew plenty of hetero rent boys that didn’t enjoy the sex per se and for whom it was just business. I named a couple of guys he knew.

“Ano, ano,” he nodded his head. “But I like the sex.”

“Yes, I know,” I replied.

“Občas,” he quickly added, meaning sometimes.

“Well, I’m gay and sometimes I don’t like it either. Depends on the boy.”

“Pravda (Truth),” he concluded.

So I know what I mean when I say I love him and when I hold his hand or kiss him good night or gasp in worship when I’m sucking on his soft brown foreskin; but, what does he mean and what was he trying to tell me today?

h/t Matt Lodder

  1. Rick Powell says:

    Thanks for posting this excerpt. I had never thought about what I did as ethnography before. Perhaps because I experienced the imperative to document as just another survival strategy.

    Just a correction though: Although I got paid for sex three times in Prague — for all three a punter paid me and a boy to have sex so he could watch — I wasn’t a rent boy. I was a pimp.

  2. Oh thanks for the clarification! I have changed it in the text.

    I think a lot of people experience the ‘imperative to document’ as a ‘survival strategy’ – it just manifests itself in different ways. I am grateful to anyone who tells their personal stories. Thank-you!

  3. I finished my dissertation on My Own Private Idaho in 1997, it is like I have just picked up where I left off. what the fuck was I doing in between? OH yes. I remember. Feminism. And she was a crap shag.

  4. Mark says:

    I really should visit one of those countries where they still have ‘crowns’, jukeboxes and the rent boys that go with them. Just for research purposes, of course.

    Welcome back, QRG. Feminism’s loss is queer ethnography’s gain.

  5. You should, Mark. But we will expect a full ethnographic report on your return.

  6. Rick Powell says:

    I’m sure my buddy Pavel would be happy to be a research assistant for the price of a night out drinking Czech beer. 🙂 Still cheap compared to the rest of Europe. The beer, I mean.

  7. This is not International Grindr boys!! Or if it is I will have to make it official and take an introduction fee. In fact, that’s not such a bad idea.

  8. I have changed my mind about having read lots on women’s sexual identities. I don’t think that is quite accurate. I have read a lot about representation of women’s sexualities. I do read a lot, especially online, about sexuality from the p.o.v of women in kink, especially ‘submissive’ women. I think women do excavate their sexual identities more than men. But maybe not quite in the ‘queer ethnographic’ way I would like them to do. I would also like there to be some crossover. we are always so transfixed by the people we have sex with, we forget to think about the other characters in the story. Though those characters tend to be hard to reach by the very nature of the ‘ethnography’… all those wives and girlfriends, that would be the last people the researcher and his subject would want to talk to! Must. Be. Discrete.

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