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Books Wed Jan 01 2014

What It's Like for Boys (in Chicago and Beyond)

In its mission statement, the website--and, more recently, e-book publishing company--Thought Catalog claims that "all thinking is relevant," which leads it to "a value-neutral editorial policy." What this vacuum of editorial values produces in practice is mostly insipid lists and first-person musings on such fresh subjects as the pitfalls of online dating and the plight of the American 22-year-old. But in a best-case scenario, such openness might instead result in something truly diverse--something more like the recent Thought Catalog Originals release Boys, an Anthology.

tc-store10.pngOf course, it helps that there's some actual vision at the helm here. (And proceeds from the book are being donated to the Lambda Literary Foundation, so no matter your feelings about Thought Catalog, you can plunk down your $5.99--or $11.69 for the paperback edition--in good conscience.) The collection was edited by Chicago writers-about-town Zach Stafford and Nico Lang, both of whom have long track records writing thoughtfully about LGBT issues on the personal, local, and national fronts. Broadening the cultural conception of what it is to be a young gay/queer/trans man is foremost on the book's agenda. "When we begin to ask where we are now and what our community really looks like, we must first address the way that community is represented--which is usually urban, middle- to-upper class and white," the editors write in a foreword.

Boys is a start. While many of the contributors have Chicago ties--including Huffington Post Chicago editor Joe Erbentraut and "All the Writers I Know" founder Patrick Gill, to name a couple--others chronicle crucial coming-of-age moments in locales ranging from India to Toronto. The book cares about the intersections between queer male identity and everything else that makes up a person, whether it's race, geography, or even status as a government employee.

Its 19 essays tend to be rooted in personal history, but some interesting larger themes emerge from these cross-sections of experience. Because the authors skew young, the internet is omnipresent as a force shaping the processes of coming out and connecting with partners and community. Anyone who happened to be an introverted teen in the heyday of AOL Instant Messenger will cringe along with Erbentraut's account of marathon chat sessions developing into a hopelessly vague IRL semi-relationship, or Shawn Binder's tale of accidentally outing himself on AIM and then again on MySpace.

Of course, gay men today have more sophisticated options for seeking partners online, from the shadowy alleys of Craigslist to the Grindr app, which overlays a buzzing network of sexual possibility atop your real location. As the boys of the book grow up and graduate into these realms, another major theme filters in: the racial tensions running through the gay male community. It's not surprising that the Chicagoans Lang and Stafford would build this element into their collection, given the periodic tug of war in Boystown between young GLBT people of color (and the social services that support them) and the older white men who often barely veil the racism of the rhetoric they use to fend off newcomers to "their" community. But for most of the writers who focus on race, the issue goes beyond who gets to share the gayborhood to who gets to share their own beds.

These essays are admirably honest and resistant to pat resolutions. We hear from an Indian-American plagued by their single-minded sexual focus on white men; a black man who bristles at the suggestion that he'd never date a black guy and yet has never tried to do so; a white man scared to bring home a black boyfriend to his racist family. Already made socially marginal by their sexualities, some gay men may shy away from dating people seen as even more marginal than they. There's also the presence of porn, in which, as Madison Moore puts it, "if you are black or Latino, you can be sure your race is animalized. If you are Asian, you can be sure to be feminized." And then there are the particularly unreflective sorts who extend the trope of being "born this way" to mean that all elements of one's sexual desires are equally beyond question, equally immutable.

If that seems grim, some hope arrives in Jamie Woo's piece "Ghandi School of Hookups." Unlike Moore, he makes an attempt to reeducate his sexual desires--through porn itself, actively seeking out images of hot guys of all races. (This comes after he discovers that his own Chinese ethnicity is costing him hookups on Grindr.) For Woo, it's a process of "strengthening the atrophied muscles of desire, the ones that had weakened to the easiest, the most available, the simplest of images ... I was a kid who suddenly realized that the candy shop spanned blocks."

Boys itself functions as a similar smorgasbord of stories, broadening our sense of what it means to be a young queer male today. The boys are urban and rural, cisgender and trans (porn star Buck Angel has one of the most forthrightly sexy pieces in the book), and armed with perspectives on situations such as what to do when your twin comes out before you can, or developing bulimia as a teen partly due to messages that dieting is "for girls."

The tonal range is vast, from the comic to the painfully therapeutic, and so is the variation in skill among the contributors; some writers are clearly a little newer at this than others, and they don't seem to have had the benefit of a copy editor to smooth over the sometimes distracting typos and grammatical issues. But the e-book format should serve Boys well: the essays' brevity and diversity make them ideal to dip into on the train, while providing considerably more nourishment than you'd get from browsing the website whose name is on the cover.

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