A Conversation with Garth Greenwell on Queerness and the Internet
Garth Greenwell is a novelist from Louisville, Kentucky. His debut novel What Belongs to You (2016) received universal critical acclaim—The New Republic called it “the Great Gay Novel for our times.” Garth spoke to us about porn, cruising, and why he’s ambivalent about the impact of technology on gay sexual life.
You’ve spoken before about the internet literally saving the lives of queer teenagers. I wonder if you could start by talking about that a little bit.
I belong to the last generation of gay people who came of age without the internet. I remember first being shown an AOL chatroom when I was, I don’t know, seventeen or eighteen. That was my introduction to gay life online. But the life-saving qualities of technology for queer people really became clear to me when I was living in Bulgaria.
I was teaching at a school in Sofia, the capital of the country. There’s nowhere in Bulgaria that has a vibrant or easily free gay culture—but in Sofia, there’s more of that than anywhere else. One of my students was from a tiny town called Targovishte. He and I became quite close; he was straight, but he became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights in the school community. And one day he came to talk to me because one of his friends in the little town he came from had come out to him. He asked if I could talk to him, and that was how I became aware of the role that Skype was playing in these kids’ lives.
Bulgaria is a very wired country: the internet is available everywhere. So these queer kids in these small villages could find each other online, and create these online spaces that became something like their gay bars. The internet gave them access to a different kind of discourse about queer lives and about being gay than they had in their offline lives.
I have another friend in Bulgaria who lives in a small city, and who spends a lot of her time online counseling kids. And that’s extraordinary. That’s something that would have been unimaginable to me in Kentucky in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was becoming aware of myself as a queer person. For these kids living in isolated places, the internet radically redraws their horizon of possibility by giving them access to a virtual community.
What was it like talking to that kid who was your student’s friend?
I mean, it’s very painful talking to these kids. Because he was, you know... there is this sense that it’s impossible to imagine a full life in these places. I hope that’s changing quickly in Bulgaria, as it’s changing elsewhere. But even the conversations I had with my very privileged students in Sofia were dispiriting, because there’s such a sense of impossibility about things that queer people in the West take for granted: about the possibility of having a visible life, about the possibility of coming out to your parents and your friends.
As for the kid in the village, he went to university in the West. So it’s nice to think of that story having a much happier trajectory now. When I first spoke to him he was probably fifteen, but he did find a way out. He did find a way to a place where there will be much more possibility for him to live openly.
I know you’ve also spoken about the power of discovering queer erotica online. I’d imagine that in addition to helping queer teenagers find people to talk to, the internet can also help them find their desires represented.
And not just erotica. I remember when I first arrived in Bulgaria in 2009, all of the queer and queer-friendly kids were over the moon about Glee. They loved it. They downloaded pirated episodes of it online. As long as somebody knows enough English, shows like that are available anywhere. But it wasn’t subtitled in Bulgarian, so you had to have English.
That’s something you become aware of in Bulgaria: it’s not just the geographical division that isolates people, it’s also very much the linguistic division. Queer people in places like Bulgaria who know English have access to so many more resources than people who don’t know English.
I remember one of the first conversations I had with a queer Bulgarian was actually before I was in Bulgaria. It was with a Bulgarian poet who’s living in America now named Nikolay Atanasov. And he said that one of the difficulties in getting an LGBT rights movement started in Bulgaria—which really kicked into high gear after Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007—was that they didn’t have the linguistic resources for articulating these arguments in Bulgarian. People who were doing that kind of advocacy had to have studied in Western Europe or to have access to those languages.
And so, the process of advocating for queer rights in Bulgaria is also a process of translation. It involves creating a language in Bulgaria that can do the work. Because in English, there is a language that is the product of a whole history and tradition of thinking about the expansion of rights. To try to translate it is not just a matter of word-for-word equivalence—it’s also about finding a way to bring ideas into a language that has no context for them. In countries like Bulgaria, there are very stark class divisions, and one of the largest of those divisions is linguistic.
Why can’t those kids who are downloading pirated episodes of Glee find Bulgarian subtitles for them? In East Asia, there are plenty of online communities that take pirated Americans films and subtitle them.
I don’t know. I would not be surprised if there are people in Bulgaria doing that. But remember that Bulgaria is a much smaller place. It’s a much smaller language. There are about seven million people in Bulgaria. It’s not like China.
Well, at least for the kids who spoke English, it sounds like the internet played a positive role in their lives. It gave them access to Western narratives of queerness that made them feel a little less alone.
Yeah. Although I should say that I have ambiguous and ambivalent feelings about the role of technology in sexual life, and especially in queer life, and especially in gay male sexual life.
I’ll start with the positive aspects. One of the things that’s most remarkable about the internet’s impact on sexual life is its great diminishment of solitude.
What amazes me about the sites that I love—erotic fiction sites like nifty.org, but also sites like Craigslist—is that anything you can imagine desiring, someone else desires that thing. That, to me, is pretty wonderful. I find it very moving.
Because what the internet teaches you is that for every desire, there’s an answer to that desire. That’s a remarkable thing. It can be a disturbing thing, of course, but it can also be a wondrous thing. Before the internet, whole lives could be passed with only a sense of one’s own freakishness. The internet has done more than anything else to puncture that particular type of solitude, the solitude that comes with a singular experience of stigma.
What about the negatives?
I’m ambivalent about apps like Grindr. On one hand, Grindr can be a genuinely helpful tool for people: I think it makes things like the disclosure of HIV status much easier, I think it makes certain kinds of conversations much easier. I also think it’s potentially safer than offline cruising—although not necessarily.
But what disturbs me most about online cruising, and especially location-based apps like Grindr, is that it seems like a gentrification of cruising. The revolutionary thing about traditional gay cruising is that it is a space that allows for people from radically different backgrounds and classes and categories to come together outside the gaze of any kind of civic authority.
When I think about the kind of people I met cruising in Cherokee Park in Louisville, Kentucky—these were people that everything in my life was organized to keep me from meeting. I think a lot of the radical potential of queerness inheres in its tendency to scramble the usual lines of identification.
But a location-based app like Grindr is still about putting your body in a space where there are other bodies. Unlike OkCupid, where you don’t need to have any physical proximity to other people. You can just do it from your apartment.
Well, people also use Grindr in their apartments. And if you’re in a densely populated urban center, Grindr’s also only showing you people who live on your block. Which means, thanks to gentrification, you’re likely only seeing people in your own class bracket.
But my other problem with Grindr and other online cruising apps is that I think they allow us to determine too much. I subscribe to the romantic notion of Audre Lorde that the erotic is the force that can enable connections across various kinds of difference. That’s a function of the erotic to be cherished—and it’s the function of the erotic that’s given especially free rein in places like cruising bathrooms and parks.
When you’re on an app like Grindr, you can filter for a type. That drains away a lot of the possibility that desire has to surprise us—I don’t think any of us actually knows what we want to that extent. So instead of cruising offering a place for interactions between people of different races and different class backgrounds, cruising through these apps can become something that further reinforces racism and gentrification and class stratification.
And that’s something to be lamented. Even though a case can be made that apps like Grindr make cruising safer, that discourse of safety is part and parcel of the same discourse of safety that often accompanies gentrification and that is really code for the hatred of people of color and the hatred of poor people.
So I do think there are disturbing implications if apps like Grindr purely supplant older types of cruising. But what’s interesting is the way these multiple models of cruising can co-exist. If you go to a cruising place today in New York City, everyone’s cruising in real life and everyone’s also on their phone cruising. That sort of multiplicity feels very fecund and exciting, I think.
To shift a bit, do you think these new technologies are changing how people write about sex? As a novelist, do you see technology changing how sex is being represented in fiction and nonfiction?
I think so. It’s changing not only sex writing but also writing in general. I’m interested in the role that affect and especially affectlessness play in contemporary American fiction. And I do think that it’s connected to the tonelessness of internet-based communication.
Are there particular writers that embody that kind of tonelessness?
The obvious one is Tao Lin, who is very often presenting text as Gchats and things like that. But more broadly, there’s a sound of certain contemporary American fiction that I find quite compelling. It’s a very moving flatness of tone. The internet didn’t invent it. But I think the internet does amplify it.
In terms of sex writing, one of the potentially dangerous impacts of the internet on our sexual lives is the fact that most internet porn is quite bad. By which I mean I think it’s uninteresting in the way that it presents bodies as evacuated of personhood. We are in a moment when we are inundated by images of bodies—images of bodies are more easily available than they ever have been. And really unavoidable.
And yet it seems to me that as a culture we have a dearth of representations of embodiedness—by which I mean bodies with consciousness, the experience of having a body. I am disturbed by the way that internet pornography accelerates and encourages a kind of arms race of extremism, and how the tropes and symbolism and practices of S&M are taken out of the context of the richness of S&M culture. That’s the way I feel about much of the internet pornography I see, especially the straight pornography. It seems to me that there is a free rein given to misogyny and to the pleasure of making a human being an object.
As for sex writing, I hate to say that any kind of writing has any obligation to do anything. But in my own writing of sex, I feel very strongly that I want to present not just bodies but embodiedness. I want to present persons. And literature does that much better than visual images—especially visual images of the kind that inundate today’s internet. Those images are showing us bodies, not persons.
I don’t feel qualified to say how the internet has changed sex writing. But I will say that in my own work as a writer, I feel the need to respond to the kind of pornography that floods the internet. I feel a desire as a writer to explore sexuality in a different way—even if I often want to write with the same graphicness I might find in internet pornography.
Has the internet also changed what encompasses sex? Not just how people write about sex, but what sex is?
Definitely. Technologies like Skype and other video chat apps radically change what it means to be in a relationship. Especially when people live lives that are very mobile, and are often separated from one another for long periods. It’s mind-boggling to think about all the ways that these technologies have intersected with our erotic lives.
Another internet phenomenon that fascinates me is live cams: these websites where you can go and watch couples having sex in a very exhibitionist way. You can see the same couple day after day after day and get a sense of them as human beings, of the narratives of their lives. That’s really fascinating in the way that it suggests the possibility of new kinds of intimacy.
Really, our whole sense of intimacy has been utterly transformed. And that’s true even without porn, when you think about how porous our privacy has become because of social media, and how much of our private lives we share.
It’s fascinating. And it’s scary. And yeah, I guess I feel as ambivalent about it as I do about everything else. The internet has produced a multiplication of possibilities for pleasure—but also a multiplication of possibilities for the abdication of inwardness and solitude and meditativeness.
I have complex feelings. I mean, it’s the kind of thing that you can talk about forever and ever.