As members of consumerist societies, we are socialized into what it means to be good citizens and participate in society through our consumption. For many, this is taught in the home, yet for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals, home is often not a source of reliable information about our identities. As such, LGBTQ individuals turn to the marketplace to seek information about their sexual and gender identities. This autoethnographic account shares, through three vignettes, how coming out as a queer man is shaped by consumptive pedagogy—that is, learning through consumption. First, material goods are explored as the signifier of sexual orientation. Then, the gay bar as marketplace and the online marketplace for relationships are explored.
- coming out
In this article, I will explicate my own experiences of coming out as an experience of learning to “consume gay.” The purpose of the study is to describe, examine, write, and theorize my own experiences of coming out as a queer man as first, learning experiences, and second, consumptive experiences. In this article, I will show how coming out is an experience shaped by learning in the capitalist marketplace.
This autoethnography will tie together two veins of theory in adult education and other social science literature: first, the literature of consumption, consumerism, and capitalism in the learning experiences of adults, and second, the coming-out experience as an experience of both proclamation and sharing, and a learning and development experience for sexual minorities.
Grace and Hill (2009) write that “queer persons and citizens are still immersed in the difficult battle for mainstream presence and place” (p. 15). Grace and Hill continue with a call for work that decentralizes the predominant focus on heteronormative society, education, and development. Although individual sexual minority people, such as the author, have been coerced through controlling discourses and structures to behave in heteronormatively compliant directions, there is still a strong sense of individuality, hope, and even despair that guides the coming-out experiences of sexual minorities, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer individuals. The experience of coming out is an alienating experience and a joining experience at the same time. The person coming out is alienated from expectations and dominant discourses while joining in the “queer social,” the body of queer people. This experience of resisting the dominant discourses of heteronormativity is often dismissed and disqualified under the veil of a number of further controlling mechanisms.
Sexual minorities may find few places to learn positive messages about their identities until they have come out. Coming out opens sources of information that would otherwise be subject to heterosexist stigma, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community centers, and LGBT-centric libraries and bookstores. Furthermore, self-homophobia poses a barrier to seeking appropriate and positive information in public settings like libraries and schools. The fear of being labeled a sexual minority is a real fear in a homophobic society that can prevent people from seeking out information. Clearly, this was at work in my own reluctance to ask others about what it meant to be gay. Coming out can then be seen as an experience of learning and sharing. Gay men learn about their new identity and how gay identities and bodies fit into the cultural fabric of society. In addition, gay men coming out share this information with others through various means, whether verbally or through symbolic language, practice, and behavior.
Consumption and Consumerism
One of the less apparent ways adults are educated and miseducated is through their participation in capitalist structures and consumer markets. This learning structure is so pervasive that education is even treated as a consumer good (Usher, 2008). According to Usher (2008), “what is consumed . . . has an exchange or sign value, a meaning that signifies something about the consumer in the context of a social system that is based on a sign economy” (p. 34). Sandlin (2008) contends that market is a chief educator of adults and calls for adult educators to study the consumerist messages behind the market as an educator. We are taught everything from what it means to be a good consuming citizen to how the marketplace operates to how to relate to one another through our participation in the consumptive marketplace. This indoctrination to the marketplace begins in the United States early in life through media consumption and even toys. McLaren (2005) highlights a “Barbie” doll that even comes with toy credit cards for young people to practice shopping.
By consumption, in this context, I am referring to the ways that gay men gain goods and services through trade as well as the way that they are turned into consumed bodies (and bodies that consume) through social worlds specific to the “mainstream” gay experience. This experience is not universal, nor is it meant to refer to the experiences of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people. Gay men in the United States cannot help to avoid consumption of goods and services in the mainstream marketplace, given the power of capitalistic systems.
Autoethnography, as a social science research method, is “an autobiographical genre of writing and research that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural” (Ellis & Bochner, 2000, p. 739). As such, this autoethnographic account develops connection between an individual life experienced by the author and sociocultural theory and concepts. Autoethnography places the “self with others in social contexts” (Spry, 2001, p. 710).
Autoethnography fits this topic well as a research method focusing on the experiences, reflections, and thoughts of an individual within a particular sort of experience and linking it together with social theory and social context. Numerous autoethnographic articles have been published regarding the experiences of sexual minority individuals. The experiences of sexual minorities are often highly contextual, and because of the often-shameful views in the families of sexual minorities coming out, the experience of coming out is often experienced as an isolating experience, for families as well as the individual coming out. Isolation and shame lead to a variety of experiences that are often hidden as family secrets. Autoethnography offers opportunity to address these usually hidden experiences. Adams and Holman Jones (2008) highlight queer autoethnography as “denormalizing perversion often by re/appropriating marginal discourse” (p. 383).
In autoethnography, the individual researcher examines his or her own experience through self-reflection and creative expression, such as narrative storytelling and prosaic discourse. This autoethnographic analysis will utilize the author’s experiences in narrative form—and share story as data and analysis of the experiences. Thematic analysis commensurate with other qualitative research methodologies will be used to analyze the data.
This autoethnographic account will focus on three vignettes exemplifying three thematic areas in which learning to be gay and coming out are guided by consumptive practices. These three areas are as follows:
the use of material goods as signifier of sexual orientation,
the gay bar as marketplace, and
the online marketplace of gay relationships.
Furthermore, each of these areas is established as a realm of social control on gay lives and relationships. The marketplace is a heavy power in the lives of gay men, especially through the coming-out experience. During the coming-out experience, a new form of information sharing is established—one in which there is a rapid increase in learning about being gay and sharing with others the truths about the individual’s sexual orientation. The information sharing is controlled through the iron cage of the marketplace. Although there is certainly agency involved in any decision to purchase or consume, the drive to consume and participate in the marketplace is socially conditioned (Sandlin & McLaren, 2010). We use the marketplace to further confirm our identity and class standing. White gay identity, as a middle-class identity, has a large drive for participation in the marketplace. As someone just coming out, the participation in the marketplace was conditioned, thus an “iron cage.”
These three vignettes were selected as they stood out in my head as experiences that taught me about what it meant to come out and be a gay man. The vignettes were written using personal reflection on my memories of coming out. Memories can fade and change over time. With this in mind, these vignettes are reflections of the actual experiences. Although the vignettes are clearly my recollections of the experiences, names of individuals in the stories have been changed to protect their identities.
The Use of Material Goods
My friend Donald had picked me up—and as usual was wearing sleek, slender clothing and fancy sunglasses. They always looked so good and right on him. He was a slender guy—and I was not exactly underweight. Donald had a car and knew where all the important gay places in Minneapolis were. He had the right clothes, the right car, and a good paying job. Donald even had a fancy case to hold his cigarettes—It was metal, had an engraved design, and snapped open and shut with precision. After Donald picked me up that day, we went to Loring Park, the site of my first gay pride festival.
I was overwhelmed at the array of items that had rainbows affixed to them in one way or another—whether in beads on earrings, necklaces, clothing, placemats, stickers, table wear, even dog collars and dog dishes. It seemed as if someone had taken a rainbow and had blown it to smithereens, splattering the colors on everything. I was also surprised by the number of people wearing items with rainbows on them. It seemed the booths went on forever—and no one could get enough rainbows.
I had just received my first official credit card in the mail. I had only the best intentions of paying back what I spent now—I figured I could spend, spend, spend, and I would somehow fall on the big money to pay it all back. I had a US$500 limit—and began to spend—I walked back to my friend Donald’s car with bags of rainbow items. I knew these were my people selling these things to me—and this was an important step in being gay. Having these things would make it so no one could ever mistake me for being straight.
One of my proudest and most useful purchases was a set of “fruit loops,” otherwise known as pride rings. This was a set of six anodized aluminum rings, showing off the metallic colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. These colors are the same used in the six-banded gay pride flag and so many other rainbow items that gay people use as symbol. They were threaded onto a silver-colored chain that looked like the chain on the “dog tags” worn by members of the military. I quickly learned that every good coming-out gay man needed a set. I wore my fruit loops all over, including work, class, out shopping, and sitting at the coffee shop.
At the time, this was one way I could scream to the world my new identity. Of course, I assumed the whole world was waiting and ready for me to come out as a gay man. I thought I could speed this process along, and get on my merry way of having a fabulous gay life. I was afraid some other gay men might not understand that I was a member of the family too, so the material symbols of gay life were meant to show this to everyone. I was newly out on the marketplace as a gay man, so I consumed gay and set myself up to be a marketable good, a fresh young gay man.
The Gay Bar
I had only heard rumors of gay bars. I knew they existed, but really had no idea what to expect—whether to expect to see sex acts or to see groups of clearly homosexual men sitting around drinking pink cocktails garnished with little paper umbrellas. I knew I wanted to see it, but was really scared. I thought maybe there was a chance someone checking the identification at the door might publish the names of all the men who entered or maybe a reporter, complete with television camera would be there exposing the gay bar, only for my parents and grandma to see on the local prime-time news.
Keith had a boyfriend, sort of. His boyfriend was an older guy, who was in his late 20s and so dreamy, I thought. Of course, I had never had a boyfriend and I was in love with the idea of having one. Keith and I were still only 19 years, and could not get into the bars during regular hours. In Minnesota at the time, the bars quit serving alcohol at 1:00 a.m. As long as they were not serving alcohol, the bars could stay open as dance clubs. One gay bar in particular, the “Bar X,” had an after-hours dance party on Friday and Saturday nights that would go until 5:00 a.m. At midnight, the lines would start forming, and would lead around the corner, hundreds of feet. All sorts of young people were in line, from those who were dressed in tight club clothes to those who were wearing very little, to those who were doing business as they waited in line, either prostitution or drug dealing, to those who were in jeans and t-shirts and looked sort of like me.
The corner of 3rd Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, where the Bar X was located, always smelled like urine. Now, with those people waiting in line, it smelled like cigarettes and drunks. There with Keith and his boyfriend, I could feel my stomach bunching up. I had my cash ready for the door. Entry cost US$5—and from what Keith told me, they would yell at you if you did not have exact change or have your money out and ready. Listening to the conversations around me was like listening to an only slightly recognizable dialect. I could hear the words, but they made little sense to me. Guys were calling each other sister, mom, and girlfriend. They were referring to each other as family, although I doubted they were related to each other. In my fear, I held my 5-dollar bill even harder.
I noticed women who seemed far taller than most women I had ever seen. I had only heard that men dressed as women in public—and decided that these “women” had to be drag queens. Some had rather elaborate costumes, with really big hair. Other drag queens were wearing low-cut, tight, short dresses.
There was more hubbub. I seemed to lose myself in my noticing. I realized that I probably had big eyes and my mouth was hanging open. People were headed out of the Gay 90s and other bars onto the streets. It was 12:55, and the bars were no longer serving alcohol. Groups, pairs, and singles were heading out of the bar. Most notably was some of the drag queens were leaving the bar—They seemed to have furs, fancy clothes, and outrageous makeup. I thought the older men and women leaving the bar were so fortunate to be over 21 and able to get into the bars. I wanted to be like them, able to drink and have fun!
Finally, the side door came open, and there was some yelling that I was unable to make out. The line snaked its way into the building. I could hear the thump-thump of the music as we got closer to the door. Finally, I peeked my way into the door, following those in front of us. I could see steel grating between the indoor corridor and the outdoor corridor. It reminded me of some sort of dog kennel. I got up to the door, where I could see a guy at the window and some sort of huge security guard. I heard him yell to some in front of us, “Five dollars, don’t keep the line waiting!” I could smell smoke and noticed that the inside of the bar was very dark. The lighting I could make out seemed to be covered by the blue haze of all the cigarette smoke.
The music was like none I had ever heard before. I focused on handing my money to the guy in the window, who marked my hand with a marker, and then we were inside. It was so loud and packed. There was little room to move. Lots of men had their shirts off—Even in the coolness of the Minnesota spring, it was so hot inside. The men with their shirts off were sweating all over and bopping up and down. Keith’s boyfriend was yelling to a guy there, and I could hear the other guy talking about chickens. For me, this did not make sense. I knew they were talking about me as a chicken. Later, I discovered that this meant I was “fresh meat,” young and inexperienced in the gay scene. Here, at the Gay 90s, I learned that I was an object for consumption and that I had the power to consume others, through the flesh being shown on the dance floor. As one of the places where gay men can truly be themselves in public, gay bars maintain a unique monopoly on the consumptive lives of gay men.
The Online Marketplace of Gay Relationships
When I started university in fall 1995, the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. I had learned how to use it in a writing class and immediately used the web to find out more about the gay world. There was a very rudimentary chat website I used to chat with other guys. I was amazed that there were other guys my age who were also gay. I would sit in the computer lab, in the back row of the lab so no one else could see me, chatting for hours until the lab closed each night at midnight.
I also learned how to use a program called Internet Relay Chat. The advantage to this program was that it was possible to find channels that were specific to interests and geography. I used the room #gayminnesota frequently, where I began to meet other gay men in the Minnesota area. What I quickly learned is that I had “stats.” The standard question I would receive in a private message from another user is “stats?” By observing others, I found out that I rattled off a series of information, which included my age, weight, hair color, eye color, size and characteristics of various body parts, and information about sexual behavior and preferences. Having to reduce my personal characteristics to a set of numbers and letter seemed very dehumanizing. Without even seeing my face or meeting me, others would decide whether I met their standards.
I used the stats given by others to decide whether to meet them. We did not have all the online pictures at that time to see what the others looked like. To meet the guys, we might speak to each other on the telephone, and then describe what we looked like or what we would be wearing, and then would meet somewhere in public, such as a restaurant or coffee shop. I recall the nervousness of trying to figure out who I would be meeting—and accidently greeting the wrong guy—someone who was not there to meet me. Sometimes, a guy would lie about his stats, clearly being older or younger than his stats indicated. There always seemed to be awkwardness. We would try to figure out whether we wanted to hook up and go home with one another. I always tried to be polite, even if I was not attracted to the guy nor had any intention of ever contacting him again. The parting words were always something like, “Well, I’ll talk to you later” although I doubt either of us had any intention of doing that.
At times, I would be adventurous and at the pleading of the other guy, I would meet right at his home, apartment, or dorm room. These were clearly meetings with the intent of sexual activity. It seemed that in all of this online matching-up that I was trying to be a highly salable item and would work to sell myself to the guy. My own self-worth was tied to me being viewed as desirable by other men.
My Experiences With Consumption
Part of coming out as a gay man, for me, was learning to consume, in a gay way. Many of my coming-out experiences were learning to properly position myself as both a consumer and an object to be consumed in the marketplace. In this case, the marketplace is largely a middle-class, White male-dominated marketplace. This marketplace is the same one that sells advocacy through powerful groups such as Human Rights Campaign and encourages gay men to live lives centered on the gay community at gay bars. This gay marketplace is also apparent at pride events that were, at one time, organized as a show of countercultural solidarity, protest, and support but now have become giant marketplaces, where the largest advertisers are alcohol companies, home finance companies, gay travel companies, and tobacco companies. Alongside these advertisements for alcohol, tobacco, and bars are the so-called solutions to alcohol and tobacco addiction. In one way, we are told to consume, but then when these ways of consumption become problematic, we are sold the solutions to our own overconsumption.
Implications for Practice
This study further demonstrates Sandlin’s (2008) contention regarding the marketplace as a chief educator in the lives of American adults. It exposes the coming-out experiences, which are only partially exposed to heteronormative publics as experiences still controlled largely by heteronormative structures in the marketplace. This study also brings together consumerism as a study area in adult education with queer issues in adult education, both of which, according to chief theorists, remain underdeveloped. Finally, the study shows the power of autoethnographic research in exposing truths about marginalized groups in adult education, making the unusual more mainstream.
Adult educators who work with socially marginalized groups must be aware of the power of the marketplace in the production of modern gay (and further, LGBTQ) identities. The marketplace is a powerful educator of adults, especially those seeking information about their minority sexuality. The marketplace can serve to reinforce the heteronormativity rampant in society.
St. Clair (2004) discusses the idea of aspirational myth in terms of learner identities and the shape of the curriculum, which was led by educators and administrators. The educators view the process of identity development as a cocreated concept, although this is far from the power positions at play, that those who plan the curriculum actually hold the power in this situation. Those being “educated” believe they are fulfilling their instructor’s wishes, whereas the instructors feel a bit powerless in shaping the students into “good workers,” as this is one of the “products” of the educational system at work. Similarly, young people coming out may feel they are fulfilling the expectations of the educational system, here consumerist practice, in becoming “good gays” through consumptive habits, learning the proper order and tastes for consuming, and allowing themselves to be neutral bodies and accept themselves as objects to be consumed and as consumers of objects. Certainly, the marketplace shaped my identity and the identity of other White middle-class gay men. Capitalism and the marketplace are supposed to create an egalitarian market of identity, but identity shaped by the marketplace reifies “gay” identity, keeping gay men appropriate consumers rather than individuals shaping an identity through self-expression. This leaves those who participate in mainstream “gay” culture (which is not very inclusive) easily marked within the social milieu and more palatable to those who might otherwise reject queer identities. For, if gays are easily identified, they can easily be segregated and avoided by those who wish to avoid them. It also makes gay men easier to distinguish so that differential treatment (e.g., discrimination) can be appropriately played out. In our best intentions, we may want to believe this participation in the marketplace assists gay men in shaping their identities and meeting others, which it might do for some, but it further keeps gay men marked so that they may be othered. Gay men who participate in the marketplace as consumers and those who are consumed may feel the pull to being a good gay citizen by taking part in the hegemonic marketplace.
Adult educators and others who work with adults should know the pull of the marketplace in developing identities, especially those identities in which there are no available information sources, such as family and friends. As individuals come out and develop their identities as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, there are sometimes few information sources that provide positive support besides the marketplace, which is not necessarily a positive experience for all, turning them into a particular kind of consumer and a particular body to be consumed.
Understanding the pull of the marketplace could lead adult educators to direct those who are just coming out to information sources that are more positive and have less economic and political turmoil than the marketplace of gay identities. This may lead to understanding the power of the marketplace in shaping “good gay” identities, that is, the identities amplified by participation in the market and shaping resistance to these forces. Furthermore, the message to those just coming out can be that it is ok not to participate in this marketplace or to choose how to participate in the marketplace based on a variety of information sources.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.
- © The Author(s) 2012
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Matthew Eichler is an assistant professor in the Occupational Education Program at Texas State University-San Marcos. His research interests include learning and identity development around LGBTQ and disability issues in corrections, higher and adult education, and religious settings. He also has interests in vocational development, distance education, sustainability, and complexity theory.