Before he became the award-winning star of more than 100 adult films and scenes, gay porn performer Conner Habib was a Literature professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he received the Distinguished Teaching Award, the school's highest teaching honor. In addition to acting and academics, Conner is an accomplished author, having published essays in The Advocate, on Salon.com and on Andrew Sullivan's The Dish. He also films a weekly "Ask the Sexpert" video for NewNowNext.
Earlier this month, while searching for information about the recent suicide of gay porn star Arpad Miklos, I came across an essay written by Conner titled "Why Do Gay Adult Film Stars Kill Themselves?" on AfterElton.com. I'd expected an insider's perspective on the gay porn industry, including theories about why Arpad chose to take his own life, but was met with a more thoughtful approach to the subject, an approach that posed serious questions about society's views on sex.
Because the range of his work is so broad, I reached out to Conner with questions about how what he's doing is making an impact on the LGBT community, which he answered earlier this week via email.
CL: What are you up to these days?
CH: Writing, writing, writing. I'm working on three different books, one of which is scheduled for publication from Disinformation Books in early 2014. I'm also setting up lectures around the country, trying to get a play I wrote produced, staring in pastry shop windows with crazy eyes, staring out of coffee shop windows with tired but happy eyes, reading fiction when I can, filming an episode of my web show for Logo TV every week, thinking about Los Angeles and how much I love it even though as a San Franciscan I'm supposed to hate it, drinking decaf coffee and still getting a buzz and, in between all of that, watching little clips of porn and tweeting and texting. I never have a quiet moment unless I plan one, which I try to do each day by meditating.
CL: How is what you're doing making a difference in the LGBT community?
CH: By asking questions, mostly. As the LGBT community becomes more and more accepted, I'm trying to show that there are new boundaries for us to push on. Wider acceptance of LGBT people is a bit like when you get a driver's license. You're able to drive, sure, but now you can die in a car crash. You've graduated into a new type of danger. For us, I think that danger is believing that all our victories and important battles have to do with marriage and acceptance when really there's so much more to think about. For instance, how do we come to terms with a president who supports gay rights, but also supports flying robots that kill innocent people overseas? How do we support the right to marry without forgetting that marriage is just one way of having a relationship? And how do we value intimacy when we interact with other gays in a global way via social profiles and apps? As gay becomes "normal," what can we learn and retain from what it was like to not be considered normal? The idea is to never stop fighting and to expose how all issues are interrelated, and to realize that LGBT people can bring a special voice to them.
CL: What LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
CH: I don't really think in those terms. I'm passionate about a lot of issues, but the foundation of all of them is trying to be compassionate towards others and creating more freedom for everyone, which I try to do by pointing out how deeply individual everyone is.
Sex is the most individualized thing I can think of. A simple example of this is if your friend points out someone he thinks is hot and you just don't see it, there's a sort of unbridgeable distance between the two of you. Or if someone says she's into a certain sexual act and it repulses you in one way or another. You can choose to go with your first instinct and reject what brings that person happiness because you can't connect to it, or you can enter into a place of compassion and observe your own judgments. In other words, you can turn outward and refuse that other person's individuality or you can turn inward and inquire into your own thoughts. Why am I reacting this way? What might I do to see things the way my friend or partner does? If I can't understand, how can I be kind anyway?
Those are all really simple examples, but they point to a deeper truth that we're all very individualized. What it takes to feel true compassion for someone isn't blind empathy or a new-agey "we are all one" attitude, but understanding that total difference, that the other person is a separate individual, and then loving him or her anyway.
I think sex is constantly revealing differences between us, which means it's constantly giving us the opportunity to choose to be compassionate and understanding. That's what working with sex in a public way and thinking about it a lot has taught me. I try to apply that principle in everything I do, to be compassionate even though my first instinct might be to reject or strike out at someone who I don't understand. I fuck it up all the time, of course, but it's something to work on everyday even if I don't achieve it.
CL: Can you name one person whose contribution to the LGBT community has inspired you the most?
CH: Amber Hollibaugh was very important for me. She was a poor sex worker who eventually became an author and a lecturer. She's amazing. She said, "Wherever you have a secret, that is where you are vulnerable." That turned my life around. I realized that if I was open about everything, my deepest thoughts, sexual desires, et cetera, I'd be strong. I started to understand that keeping things in instead of being open and honest can poison your interactions with others and distort your behavior.
I also really love Susan Sontag. Her work taught me to work towards being fearless, to pursue everything I love and to not worry about what I "should" do and to take art and life seriously. It's funny, because she led a very secretive life she isn't generally embraced as an LGBT icon, but her work, if not her habits, have really inspired me.
CL: If you had to recommend one book, movie or song with an LGBT bent, what would your recommendation be?
CH: Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life was a big and important book for me. It made me realize that I didn't have to aspire to get married and live the same life everyone else did. I think it's still important, even though it came out quite a while ago.
I also want to give a shout-out to a gay movie classic, Beautiful Thing. It's funny and silly and innocent, but also very knowing and wise. It felt very much to me like in my teenage years, falling head over heels for all the cute boys I felt like I couldn't say a word to. It shows how overwhelming love can be when you're a kid. You could be in the midst of some other truly profound stuff, your world could be going apeshit, but all you can focus on is how cute the boy next door is. There's so much there about class, race and gender. The film deals with all of them seriously, but it doesn't wallow in any of them. It just lets them be part of the even bigger picture of love. Plus, the Mama Cass soundtrack is excellent.