By Denise Balkissoon
Rahim Thawer works at a sexual health clinic in Toronto doing counseling with gay and bi men. He also works at an AIDS service organization doing bathhouse counseling. On July 1, he'll be with Toronto's Ismaili queers as they march in their first ever solo Pride contingent. Here, he talks with Denise Balkissoon about fetishes, racialization, HIV and, of course, The Ass.
DB: Why do south Asians need their own HIV prevention campaigns?
RT: A lot of people think that HIV/AIDS is still a gay white man’s illness, but in Toronto the rates are growing among women, including racialized women. What ethno-specific HIV organizations try to think about is, how can we reach our very unique communities? We’re working very strategically to do outreach in our cultural and religious communities. As great as some of the more mainstream organizations are, I just don’t think they have the capacity to tap into the important cultural nuances.
So this ad is a new campaign by The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP) called “Protect Your Love.” That's me in the train scene, but initially I was hesitant to participate. I thought it might be too reserved. I didn't know what kind of messages it was sending out, whether it was trying to promote monogamy, or sell a particular version of same-sex love, etc. But, you know, it’s not. And it has some really important cultural nuances that can reach far and wide.
I think that racialized and historically marginalized people putting out their own messaging and doing outreach in their own communities is probably the most effective approach. It’s what community development really is.
DB: Do you meet very many non-white guys in your counselling practice who aren't out, or don't consider themselves "gay"? Who are they?
RT: Short answer, yes. But it's important to recognize that it's not only racialized men who aren't out and perhaps married to women or leading otherwise "straight lives." Our tendency to over-culturalize the phenomenon exposes our subtle racism and negative assumptions about these men.
Having said that, for the guys whom I have had conversations with that are non-white, they often talk about a range of things, from having fallen in love with their current (female) partners to the importance and value of having a family, to fulfilling family duty. Many speak about not having the option to "come out" at a younger age, or not ever considering same-sex attraction as a long-term relationship possibility.
Then, of course, there are some men who are out to their female partners, still enjoying each others' companionship, and not applying the term "gay" to themselves because they don't identify with all the things being "gay" can suggest about a person. I wouldn't jump too quickly to call this internalized homophobia either, although it can be in some cases.
DB: What are the challenges in doing HIV education in those situations?
RT: It's interesting being an out gay man who is visibly South Asian with a very Muslim name. I think a lot of guys from a similar background feel comfortable opening up to talk about the things they struggle with. For others I represent a symbolic threat or reminder of their guilt and conscience. For a counsellor, that isn't always bad either. The first challenge is rapport building and basic engagement.
It's important not to demonize guys who fall in this category. Yes, in some cases they are putting their partners at risk, but the closeted gay man and his wife are both trying to cope with the same sexist/heterosexist world with values and ideals everyone has internalized to varying degrees. The only option, from my queer social work perspective, is to invest in supportive relationships that encourage sexual risk reduction and provide affirmative spaces that reduce isolation.
DB: Let's talk about the special place that the ass holds in gay male culture.
RT: I think our engagement with ass ranges from checking people out while they’re clothed to fantasizing about what we’ll do when they’re not clothed. People can fetishize everything from bubble butts to hairy asses to smooth asses to trimmed to shaved to actual activities anywhere from fingering to fisting to licking to whatever, right, or just fucking. For me, the ass, it’s about taking something we thought was kind of dirty and learning how much fun it is.
DB: Where does ethnicity or race fit in?
RT: Our fetishes or things we’re attracted to or consider a turn on are racialized in many ways. We talk about our sexual roles in ways that are also racialized. We often think, stereotypically, of black guys as tops or Asians as bottoms—it’s racist to talk about entire groups as being “passive” or “aggressive”. But I think we usually just think “this is my individual thing, it turns me on.” We keep it individual instead of thinking about it in a structural way to unpack our assumptions.
When we go to challenge it, then we find ourselves in an interesting place too. Because of the way race is hierarchical, we might just turn it inside out. So then its Asian guys as tops and black guys as bottoms. We’re still functioning within something that is dichotomous, it’s heterosexist and rigid in ways. I think we could do away with all the assumptions. because there are lots of butch gay guys who would be happy to bottom and lots of femme guys who are tops. Which of course is amazing, right?
DB: It can be very hard as an individual living inside of stereotypes to figure out who you are. One of the other pieces in the Ass Issue is by Navneet Alang, about trying to figure out if he was attracted a certain woman for real, or because she was white and he couldn't believe that she might like him. This seems sort of similar—"oh, the stereotype is that Asian guys are bottoms, so I’m going to be a top." It’s not necessarily who you are either.
RT: Identity in terms of opposition is a common thread we talk about in racial issues. People of colour shouldn’t have to carry the burden of always figuring out how power impacts the relationship. And, well, while self-reflection is important, self-interrogating can also take the fun out of dating and sex.