Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Meth, morality and the limits of (the gay) community

The gay community--and especially the gay male community--is in the midst of a profoundly adolescent moment. Like an adolescent who has protested against his parents' rules until he is finally free of them, we find that being free of some of society's rules doesn't or shouldn't mean that we don't impose some rules on ourselves. In fact, what we are seeing in the twin crises of meth addiction and barebacking in the gay community is the necessity of rules or normativity or morality or whatever you want to call it, in any mature community.

What we are seeing--and I am going to focus on the responses and counter-responses to the widespread use and abuse (I'm not sure that there's any difference in this case) of methamphetamine among gay men--is a community that has largely been defined in terms of throwing off other conceptions of morality trying to set some rules for acceptable behavior. This, of course, sets up a tension.

The way this tension plays out is evident in the responses those who use meth--or defend its use, since these may not be identical groups--make to those members of the community who point out the ways that meth is destroying individual lives, activities like parties and dancing and the community at large. The standard response from the meth-defender is to claim that his opponent is being moralistic, is taking the same part as those who say homosexuality itself is immoral, that it's simply a matter of choosing the way in which one wants to live one's life, etc.
This is instructive, I think. I should note, for clarity, that I am no friend of meth; I've watched people I care about throw their lives away, seroconvert and slowly (and quickly) die because of its effects, and I've watched parties that I once enjoyed because of their spirit of camaraderie and love turn into aggressive hunts for aggressive meth-fueled unsafe sex. But, I am stung by the accusation that this opposition of mine is necessarily moralistic or of a kind with statements by the American Family Association or Pat Robertson about the morality of homosexuality.
I am stung because this accusation relies on a deep confusion; one between moralism imposed from outside and the adoption of a morality within a community. The gay community, of course, is largely defined in terms of its opposition to the moral pronouncements--at least some of them--of the larger society. Society as a whole has generally thought that sex belonged within marriages or at least between people of opposite sex. Gays (and lesbians) have defined a community in which this rule is profoundly rejected. This is throwing off the moralism of the larger community--and is parallel to an adolescent rejecting the beliefs of his parent.
But, the fact that the community has at its center a rejection of a particular conception of morality is not a justification for thinking that no other conception of morality should take its place within the community. Just as an adolescent who has rejected his parents' belief structure still must replace it with some other set of organizing principles around which to structure his life, the community must decide what rules we are willing or need to apply within our own community.
This process of defining and deciding on rules differs from the moralistic approach of those outside the community, because it relies on debate and discussion and the experiences of those within the community. It differs most strongly in that it is borne from a sense of concern for those within the community--Robertson doesn't care about the gay community in any sense, while my worries about the effects of barebacking and meth-addiction are motivated by just such a community concern (as well as the concern that if we cannot regulate ourselves, we open ourselves to ever more moralistic attack). In this sense it is not moralistic, even if it is moral in some sense.
Rejecting the morality of the wider community as a community is not tantamount to releasing ourselves from all moral consideration. Communities are always and everywhere defined by rules of acceptable and unacceptable behavior--even when these rules are in flux or under debate (consider debates about the value of marriage vs. differently structured relationships in our community). We all, to some degree, realize that within our community there are specific rules. For instance, we don't accept relationships between adults and children, we don't accept non-consensual relationships. In both of these cases, we are concerned about harm, precisely what drives considerations about meth and barebacking.
Rejecting traditional morality is not equivalent to an acceptance of absolutely anything goes. If, as some would say, we really must refrain from any moral considerations in the gay community, lest we be just like those who would condemn us, then there can be no gay community; instead there is just a collection of people with (some of) the same sexual proclivities.
If that is the case, then I think that a great opportunity will have been lost. For one thing the gay and lesbian community has to offer is a different set of ways of organizing a community and caring for its members.