Gays and The Gaze
While studying abroad in Paris as an American college student, I got to thinking a lot about eye contact. Mainly because I never got any.
Some days, on the street or in the metro, I would stare down every passing person, waiting for someone to return the favor. Before you start thinking I’m that creepy subway guy, just hear me out.
The female students in Paris with me had no shortage of attention. Men asking them to light a cigarette, asking for the time, complimenting their eyes. I would be standing right next to them, invisible. But when I asked those same girls how they felt about all this attention, their answer wasn’t what I was expecting. “Gross,” they’d say. “It’s like we’re objects.”
Objects? Sounds like something out of a feminist studies course. Oh wait. It is.
I guess there are a few things that I’ll never have in common with those American girls in Paris. I don’t feel objectified by the gaze of men. Instead, I feel objectified by my own gaze.
Before I went to France, the “object” of my gaze would be someone like a varsity swimmer or rugby player. You know the type. “Mr. Dorm Hunk,” the shirtless wonder, lazily pawing at his bare torso or towel-clad, stepping out of the shower
Sometimes I wished Mr. Dorm Hunk would throw on a sweatshirt instead of laying around half-naked. I was torn, however, because he was enticing. But I didn’t want to be enticed by him. Why? I guess I didn’t want to feed his ego. I didn’t want to be attracted to someone who made faggot jokes.
That’s what you get for being gay in a heteronormative world.
It also had something to do with the fact that Mr. Dorm Hunk was generally a white, muscular man. And why was it that the peak of social hierarchy (patriarchy if you prefer) should also have been the peak of my attraction?
That’s what you get for being brown in a white world.
I grew up in a Pakistani Muslim household where we prayed on Friday and fasted during Ramadan. I have many female cousins who wear the headscarf. And I identified with that desire not to see.
So I trained myself not to look at Mr. Dorm Hunk. Every time I averted my gaze, it got easier and easier until it became a habit. It was like I was putting a full-body veil on him.
Of course not looking didn’t make me less attracted to him, just like looking at women didn’t make me less gay back in high school. But it does prove my point about objectification. Some women feel like objects on display, so they wear the veil. But some men have reasons to want to veil others, because we are trying to transcend our own particular feelings of objectification as well.
Which brings me back to Paris. Maybe that was why no one was looking at me in the City of Lights? The French, they have a thing for Arab and Middle Eastern looking men. Maybe I was too hot to handle…
No. I still don’t know what it was. But the scant eye contact was tiresome and it definitely had an impact on me. When I came back, I noticed some changes in myself.
First, everyone seemed like a Peeping Tom. The attention was definitely welcome.
Second, I started looking at Mr. Dorm Hunk again. What can I say? I missed him.
Third, and this one surprised me. I started noticing more cute brown guys. I know it’s not possible for us to change our sexuality—but I think it’s possible to discover a new part of it when we find ourselves in a new context. When slowly I noticed being fond of certain “other colors” too, I became more comfortable with my own gaze.
When I hear women say they feel like objects under the gaze of men, I’m no longer surprised. How many of them have spent years deliberating over their own gaze? I’d like to think I’m not the only one with this mania. Anyone else out there? It’s ok, you can come out—I’m not looking.
First published at beyondmasculinity.org in longer form
HAMMAD AHMED is a freelance radio journalist and fiction writer who will be starting law school in the fall of 2009. He lives in Washington, DC, where there is no shortage of eye contact